Top 5 Toronto restaurants for a perfect Valentine’s Day celebration
Photography by Darina Granik, Violet MacLeod and courtesy of each restaurant
It’s almost here – Valentine’s Day is on Tuesday! If you happen to be celebrating anytime in the next couple of days (a weekend date night, perhaps?), and you also happen to be in Toronto – we have some strong recommendations on where to go.
After extensive research and reviewing process, our editors selected 5 of the best restaurants in the city. The list includes both completely new venues and those that are Toronto staples. Let’s take a step inside each one!
Baro — a full Latin experience in one spot
Step inside Baro and you’ll forget that you just came from King West, a busy party street of Toronto. The lobby greets you with an atmosphere reminiscent of a retro hotel somewhere in Latin America, with its vintage design details and plants.
This newly opened restaurant features an extensive Latin American menu. Head Chef Steve Gonzalez takes his Colombian heritage and interprets it within the international Canadian taste scene: not only is the menu a mix of Mexican guacamole and ceviche for appetizers and Argentinian alfajores for dessert, but it also has ingredients like wakame, edamame and truffles. Most items are also sourced locally as much as possible.
For appetizers, we were recommended to try Empanadas, inspired by Gonzalez’s family recipe. We also ordered Ceviche Mixto with scallops, calamari, octopus, sweet potato, wakame and squid ink.
For the main course, we opted for Arroz con Pollo, which was a pretty safe choice and was great: you can’t mess with a chicken on avocado rice. The second dish was Ropa Nueva — a braised beef with yuca gratin and rapini — which absolutely exceeded all expectations. It was so tender, that it pretty much just melted in our mouths. It was juicy, and paired with oregano, garlic and chili flavours.
Cocktails also did not disappoint. Baro’s signature cocktail is Baro Sour, which contains tropical fruit flavours, Pisco and bitters. It tasted quite mild and sweet, but had 1.5 oz of alcohol in it. Five Flower is a perfect cocktail for ladies, who have high alcohol-tolerance but still go for sweet “girly” drinks. It contained 1.5 oz of alcohol and had charming floral petals floating as a garnish. Then there was the Man-Latin, which was a very strong cocktail: Baro’s interpretation of Manhattan but with a Latin twist. And, finally, The YYZ was another strong option that had 2.5 oz of alcohol: a good choice to finish off your night at Baro.
In terms of its structure, Baro is a four-floor venue. The top floor is going to be a patio this summer; the third floor is reserved for special events; the second floor is the Raw Bar (a pre-party spot with Baro’s signature cocktails and small dishes); and the main floor is where you will find the core part of the restaurant.
Moreover, there is a super secret, password-protected night club, called Escobar. As Steve, Assistant General Manager, told us: “It doesn’t exist, unless you know about it!” We won’t divulge details. But we will say that for Valentine’s Day, it will turn into The Aphrodisiac Lounge, which will serve oysters, chocolate-dip dishes and champagne.
In addition to the delicious cuisine and great cocktails, Baro provides lots of opportunities for photo-ops. There is a gorgeous Frida Kahlo mural on the second floor and another portrait of her on the main floor. In general, the design of the restaurant is very detail-oriented — from matching tiles on the tables and the bar, to the graphic design of the menu. An open kitchen and a main room give Baro an escapist feel, similar to the movies set in the Caribbean in the 1950s.
This is definitely a hot spot in the city.
485 King Street West
The Chase Fish and Oyster — a seafood haven
The Chase Fish and Oyster is a beloved seafood restaurant of business professionals in the Financial District (on weekdays) and families and couples (on weekends). The venue has a subtle and sophisticated nautical decor. It also has a very relaxed atmosphere for special occasions and family gatherings. In fact, Tyler Shedden, Culinary Director of the Chase Hospitality Group, told us that the concept of the restaurant focuses on creating a menu that can be easily shared. While we had our tasting, we could see this all come to life: there were two large families celebrating their fathers’ birthdays and three couples on romantic dates.
The staff at The Chase Fish and Oyster were very knowledgeable and attentive, and we decided to try the specialties of the restaurant based on their recommendations.
For appetizer, we were served Haidacore Tuna “Nachos” — which were delicious with a perfectly balanced amount of crispy nachos and tuna — and a Clam Chowder, which was a mix between a New England and Bermuda style. We were recommended to add 5-6 drops of Gosling Rum to bring out the flavours. The chowder was very mild but flavourful with seafood and pieces of bacon.
For the main course, we had The Clam Bake, which is the restaurant’s Sunday “Daily Catch”. Shedden told us that if he had to eat only one item from the menu for the rest of his life, it would be The Clam Bake. “It has so many different ingredients [potatoes, corn, shrimp, scallops, mussels, lobster] that I would never get bored of it!” he said. This menu option is also very representative of Canada, as it constitutes of seafood sourced from all over the country: clams (Prince Edward Island), mussels (British Columbia), shrimps (Quebec), crab legs (Fogo Island, Newfoundland) and a half-lobster (Nova Scotia). All of this is served in a Kreole/New Orleans-style shrimp broth, which is very flavourful with a variety of spices, paprika and garlic.
For our last course, we had the Key Lime Pie with toasted coconut. Even though I’m generally not a lime or lemon dessert fan, this was an absolutely delicious option.
The Chase Fish and Oyster is a great, fun, and very beautiful spot to celebrate Valentine’s Day. This year, they will be preparing a prix-fixe menu of three courses for $65 a head, which will offer signature seafood dishes, and a choice of desserts and appetizers (this will include Clam Chowder, which we, once again, strongly recommend!).
11 Temperance Street
Jules Bistro — hello, France
On a brisk Thursday evening, my husband and I headed to Jules Bistro’s new location on Queen Street. We were overwhelmed by a busy week and both had more work to do that evening, so needless to say: we were stressed. When we arrived, co-owner David Piltz greeted us from behind the bar with two glasses of sparkling wine, while co-owner and Chef Eric Strippoli sat at the stone bar, speaking French and sharing his plate of duck prosciutto.
The bistro was cozy, lively and French – very French. From the black chalkboard wall, to the sexually suggestive decorative books and the more explicitly sexual ‘70s French porn (that exclusively plays after 10 p.m. on a TV over the bar), there was no question we’d escaped to a spot more European than most.
From the moment we walked through the door, we felt totally transported: it was like being in an old friend’s kitchen, where the wine was plentiful and the hosts were jovial. Our tense mindset started to disappear as Piltz poured heavy glasses of red wine and Chef Strippoli, like any good host, traveled around the restaurant. He would be sitting at the bar top chatting, then go behind the bar to help out, and then suddenly appear in the kitchen. As I looked around, other guests seemed to be enjoying their food too and chatting with staff. In one corner, Piltz’s wife was hosting friends; at another table, we spotted a group of chatty men, who Strippoli joined later; and, at the bar, three young locals were enjoying white wine and cocktails, while sharing stories about their day at work.
After a glass or two of wine, we took a tour of the entire restaurant, including a walk in the freezer and future outdoor dining space. Returning to the bar top, we turned our attention to the menu. Piltz assured us that each ingredient, except for the ketchup, is homemade. The cured meats, sauces and dressings are each prepared in-house. Following owners’ recommendation, we tried the Prix-Fixe for Two (at $45.95 per person). We started with Soupe à l’oignon, which is something my husband eats at every restaurant, and it exceeded his expectations, blowing away his rolodex of comparisons. Next, the Côte de boeuf. This 24oz rib-eye with frites, mixed greens, ratatouille, spiced mayonnaise and the markedly French half-ketchup-half-mayonnaise sauce was large, very large. The portion was enough to ensure no awkward moments of carefully sharing a dish equally; because it would be impossible to be underfed even if you only ate a 1/4 of the dish. Lastly, we opted for the Chocolate crêpe, which had the perfect and delicious balance of chocolate and fresh-whipped cream.
To end the night, we chatted with chef’s friends who sat next to the open kitchen, then had a round of distinctly European double-cheek kisses, followed by thanking the staff and heading for the door. Having arrived stressed, we left feeling refreshed and full, both literally and figuratively.
The food, wine and atmosphere make Jules Bistro one of our top picks for a cozy Valentine’s Day date.
924 Queen Street West
Miku — not your regular sushi bar
When you arrive at Miku, the first impression might not be what you expect, as this doesn’t look like a regular, cozy, family-owned Japanese restaurant. On the contrary, the interior perfectly fits the contemporary skyscraper that is its home, with high ceilings and modern details of Bay and Queens Quay streets.
This is a Japanese-Canadian restaurant that had its first location in Vancouver. It opened in Toronto around a year ago and has gained the reputation of a high-end restaurant, specializing in the original flame-seared sushi. The owner, Seigo Nakamura, pays homage to his Japanese and European heritage, balancing Japan-exported and local seafood, desserts crafted according to European patisserie traditions and even Arita Yaki pottery, delivered from the village in his native Japan.
We tried Miku Kaiseki, a 5-course meal that was paired with 5 different plum wines and liqueurs, pre-selected for us. The first dish was a selection of Sashimi, served with two different soy sauces: one was traditional and one — made-in house, to complement different types of fish depending on its fattiness. The fish was extremely delicate, soft and fresh. The second dish — Kaiseki Zensai — was served in round bowls, which, when put next to each other, took on the shape of a sphere. Deconstructed, there were three plates with pan-seared scallop, tuna tartar, octopus sunomono and oysters. The third course was an AAA Sterling Silver Prime Rib, served on a brown wasabi sauce with wild mushrooms, which was followed by the fourth course of Aburi Sushi, Miku’s signature sushi selection. At Miku, the sushi is prepared with the use of blue torch which caramelizes it. The sushi is also blended with citrus, soy sauce and original add-ons that are kept a secret. It all already comes balanced with soy sauce, so there is no need for a soy dip.
To wrap up this decadent meal, we had The Green Tea Opera signature cake, which apparently takes three days to make. It consisted of multiple layers, featuring a variety of chocolate, green tea, hazelnut wafer and matcha ice cream on the side. As Anthony Yeung, General Manager of Miku, told us: “Some people come and order it first, and then have the main course, because they know how good it is and they don’t want to miss it.”
Miku is definitely not a regular sushi bar, and a great place for a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. This year, they are offering Miku Valentine’s Day Kaiseki, with a prix-fixe, 5-course menu at $98 per person, which features a selection of appetizers, sashimi, an entrée, sushi and the chef’s assortment of desserts.
105 – 10 Bay Street
Canis — a creative experience
Seasonal, local and sustainable — Canis has a very distinct menu. Its décor is unusual too: the tables are bare, the walls are bare and the only decorations are the jars of preservatives and potted plants between the kitchen and the dining room. Instead of candles or flowers, each table features its own low-hanging light that acts as a spotlight for the artfully plated food. This venue is an Instagramer’s dream, but the food doesn’t only delight visually: it also tastes great!
I tried Canis with one of my best friends who is also a Toronto food-scene expert — she was excited to join me as she’d heard some buzz around it. Walking through the front doors, the first thing we noticed was the number of people: we didn’t expect so many guests on a Tuesday. Among diners, we saw a young couple who were holding hands across the table, a group of friends who enjoyed snapping photos of their meals, and an off-duty chef from another restaurant. As we sat down, we were greeted by the general manager, Adam Ashukian, who explained that the minimalist Nordic-inspired décor is purposeful, so the food remains the focal point.
We started with a drink from the selection of organic wines. Tasting a variety of dishes from the menu, we began the experience with the dainty but full-flavoured Chicken Liver Parfait. Next, the Albacore Tuna with radish and herb emulsion, and the finely minced raw Beef Tartare, that was paired with garlic and turnip, and in which you could perfectly and exquisitely taste the quality of the ingredients. Following this, we each opted for the Celeriac that was served with caramelized whey and nasturtium, a dish I later learned was Head Chef Jeff Kang’s favourite. We also shared the 18-day aged Duck for Two, which was brought to the table for an explanation and photo opportunity, before being taken away to be carved. The duck returned on a plate with sunchokes and wheat berry; it was tender, expertly cooked and delicious. Finally, we had two tasty ice-creamesque desserts: the Fermented Grape with buttermilk and brown butter, and the Milk Chocolate with buckwheat ice cream and honey. During dinner service, I noticed the staff’s excellent attention to detail in two ways: 1) each course arrived at our table in a perfectly warmed or chilled dish and 2) the kitchen, which is opened to the dining room, was nearly silent, so I was able to watch as chef and his two sous chefs worked quietly, in seamless harmony.
After our meal, we chatted with Chef Kang and it quickly became apparent that Canis is a passion project helmed by three friends: Manager Ashukian, Chef Kang and Sous Chef Tosh Agassiz. The three worked together in Vancouver before moving to Toronto. Together, they develop seasonal menus, bringing in new ingredients and trying new dishes regularly.
We left the restaurant pleased and parted ways. Later, I got a text from my friend: “Still dreaming of that duck,” she wrote. So, if your date is a foodie who appreciates artful plating and fresh ingredients, then this is the place to go. With a four-course menu (instead of an à la carte) you’ll enjoy sharing and tasting each other’s delicious selections. Added bonus: Chef Kang makes a point to visit each table to explain the entrées and say hello. It’s a great touch to elevate any date night.
746 Queen Street West