Toronto's Meals and Museums Offer Up an Aesthetic Feast
Sunday, June 21, 2009
There's a term for people like me who tailor travel plans around eating: We're culinary tourists. As long as the food is tasty, we don't care if it's served in fancy dining rooms or from pushcarts on the street. My other passions include art, design and architecture, so when a friend in Miami suggested a weekend of museums and dining in Toronto, I didn't hesitate. Toronto is a place where a couple of the hottest reservations in town are actually in the museum, making each visit a potential twofer.
We booked a hotel in the Yorkville neighborhood, conveniently located across from the Royal Ontario Museum. (In this acronym-friendly town you'll hear it referred to as the ROM.) On late Friday afternoon there's half-price admission, and our 4:30 p.m. arrival allowed plenty of time to tour some, though hardly all, of Canada's largest museum of history and world cultures.
We lingered in the stately galleries of the early-20th-century building, ogling painted ancient Chinese jars and lead-glazed earthenware from the Tang dynasty, before heading to view the dinosaur skeletons in the new wing, called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Designed by Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, this controversial addition -- named in recognition of a $30 million donation from Portland Holdings Inc. chairman Michael Lee-Chin and open since 2007 -- looks as if a compound tetrahedron fell from space into the elegant older structure. The interior, all wonky angles, makes displaying art a challenge (and looking at the works actually made me dizzy). However, the space works perfectly at C5, a super-hip restaurant located on the top floor.
Chef Ted Corrado, who has the boyish looks of a teen pop star, sources local products at C5 to produce a limited yet sublime menu on which the ethnic flavors of Toronto shine through his studied technique. Offerings change with the seasons, but recent choices included porcini papardelle with white anchovy and paquillo peppers, and rack of wild boar with eggplant cream, baby leeks and litchi. On a budget? Order a cocktail and an appetizer, and savor the city view through the enormous tilted windows.
Before a day at the Art Gallery of Ontario (a.k.a. AGO), the newly reopened museum with an addition and renovation by Toronto native Frank Gehry, we headed to the Carousel Bakery and Sandwich Bar at the St. Lawrence Market for peameal bacon sandwiches on fresh-baked sourdough rolls. (Ask for a squirt of honey mustard and you'll be eating like a native.)
The main floor of the sprawling indoor market is a lively place filled with purveyors of meat, cheese, produce and seafood, as well as bakeries and delis. It's especially popular on Saturdays, so if you're crowd-averse, like me, it's best to arrive early. One floor down, there's a wealth of vendors selling prepared food, including Greek souvlaki, Italian chicken Parmesan and Ukrainian cherry pirogi; there's also a fruit and salad bar if you prefer something lighter.
We spent the rest of the day in the AGO marveling at both Gehry's architectural achievement and the art collection, which includes works by such European masters as Cézanne, Degas and Monet, an extensive array of photography and contemporary art, and one of the largest collections of Inuit art in the world. We were surprised to learn about Canada's impressive art heritage, represented by rooms and rooms of paintings from the mid-1800s to the 1970s, and were wowed by an enormous light-filled gallery housing the largest public collection of works by the British sculptor Henry Moore.
At the top-floor espresso bar, coffee and biscotti jolted us from midafternoon doldrums and carried us through a few more galleries -- and the gift shop -- till it was time for a cocktail and dinner at Frank Restaurant. (The name Frank refers not only to the museum's architect but also to the steel Frank Stella installation in the space and to the "honest and direct" cooking practiced by executive chef Anne Yarymowich.) We couldn't decide which impressed us more: the all-Danish stylish interior -- Georg Jensen cutlery and bowls, Fritz Hansen chairs, Holmegaard wine glasses -- or the artfully presented and flavorful food. Our steamed mussels and clams were fragrant with fresh fennel and garlic, and the accompanying frites were appropriately crispy. A salad of wild arugula and pickled heirloom beets, plus a glass of pinot noir from Niagara, made our meal complete.
Sunday morning we slept late and strolled from the hotel to the nearby Gardiner Museum. Before viewing the galleries of this small but impressive museum devoted entirely to ceramics, we made a beeline to the third-floor restaurant, Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, for a meal prepared by chef de cuisine Scott Vivian. Unfortunately, our seasonal meal was one of the last: The place closed about 10 days ago.
But we didn't know that as we plowed through the Yukon Gold fries and, for dessert, the sticky toffee pudding. We walked off our calories while touring the museum and still had time to catch the flight home, visually and gastronomically sated.