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LEE:

Not the Bruce Kind. The Susur Kind.


Famed Canadian Chef Susur Lee (of Iron Chef America, Top Chef Masters, Chopped Canada, and Masterchef Asia notoriety) captains this upscale King West eatery nestled in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. One of five in his extensive fleet including Bent, Fring’s, Luckee, and Tunglok Heen, Lee combines the "epicurean" traditions of China with the aesthetics and classical techniques of French cuisine.

If the name sounds minimalist, it could only be bettered by another monosyllabic word: red. From the neon, diner style "Restaurant" sign out front to the pair of majestic three-panel, backlit paintings, the rose-velvet bar stool covers, bar underglow, floor-to-ceiling reflective glass, and yes, even the exit sign, Lee glows red. Think the Macau casino scene in Skyfall. At least on one side. Divided into two sections, Lee boasts a whole

second wing, with exposed brick walls, 14-foot coffered, exposed-beam ceilings, a faded parrot mural, and more of a vintage factory vibe than the east wing's Asian/Vegas theme. With a street side outdoor patio, Lee completes its seating trifecta, offering diners the bustle of King West's night club energy in addition to fine dining and signature cocktails.


If the name sounds minimalist, it could only be bettered by another monosyllabic word: red. From the neon, diner style "Restaurant" sign out front to the pair of majestic three-panel, backlit paintings, the rose-velvet bar stool covers, bar underglow, floor-to-ceiling reflective glass, and yes, even the exit sign, Lee glows red. Think the Macau casino scene in Skyfall. At least on one side. Divided into two sections, Lee boasts a whole second wing, with exposed brick walls, 14-foot coffered, exposed-beam ceilings, a faded parrot mural, and more of a vintage factory vibe than the east wing's Asian/Vegas theme. With a street side outdoor patio, Lee completes its seating trifecta, offering diners the bustle of King West's night club energy in addition to fine dining and signature cocktails.


PLAYA CABANA

Cocina Economica


Mexican food tends to be the stuff of lunches or takeout or late night food-stops more than a first choice culinary destination for an evening on the town. It’s understandable if you’re a little over-saturated with rice and beans, or tiny tapas tacos, or burritos as big as your head. But thankfully there’s a trend going on in downtown Toronto bringing new and — and, well, actually old — aspects of Latin culture and cuisine (not the least of which is Mexican) to the city’s collective tastebuds (and eyeballs). It’s moving well past the Tequila Flats buckets of mojito mix and Margaritaville chimichangas to far more innovative and decidedly non-traditional Mexican aliment. And it’s not just the food. Increasingly, restaurants are sizably upping their interior decor game, offering diners not just stomach appeal,

but a visual feast, inflating a night out to more than just a bursting belt. Enter Cocina Economica. The newest ship in the prolific fleet of Chef and owner David Sidhu’s Playa Cabana restaurants, (including existing brands Hacienda, Cantina, Barrio Coreano, and Playa Cabana), Cocina Economica opened its doors in May of 2015, taking up residence in Toronto’s burgeoning Queen Street East neighbourhood, straddling Moss Park and Corktown. Tucked into a closet sized used-to-be two-storey rental house that was most recently The Berkeley Cafe, Cocina Economica is kitty-corner from Corktown’s most vibrant concert/event venue (and one time House of God), The Berkeley Church. With its Mother Goose-like size, and off the beaten track coordinates, you kind of need that double-click, map-app, magnifying glass

thing, or a keyhole satellite flyover to pinpoint its exact location. But trust me; the effort is well worth it. Cocina Economica is a Mexican restaurant with a theme. A really good theme. "Cocinas Economicas" (literally ‘economic kitchens’), are family-run, neighbourhood kitchen/restaurants that serve affordable foodstuffs to local residents. Their unaffected and utilitarian purpose is to deliver relatively low-cost meals, with easily attainable ingredients, that don’t skimp on size and substance. It’s supposed to be like Mom’s cooking, but on steroids. In the Playa Cabana version of the Cocina Economica, this is done with the utmost class and an artisinal flair. It’s also insatiably cool.


ORETTA

New Flair for Italian Fare on King West.


Italian on King you say? Rivaling Little Italy herself, King West boasts surely the highest per capita Italian cuisine offerings in Toronto. With Kit Kat, Gusto, Cibo, Buca, Ovest, Bar Mozza, and Il Fornello all visible from the curb of King, there are molti choices. While it's possible there's never been a recorded complaint about too many Italian restaurants, especially in Toronto's long time entertainment district (rammed with locals and tourists alike), you'd think another Italian joint would burst the proverbial belt buckle. And while a challenge to stand out in an area chock-a-block with a single food genre, not to mention a zillion other good restaurants,

this new Italian gem does just that. Enter Oretta. Italian for "about an hour", Oretta boasts a cuisine and decor that entice you to do just the opposite. Or, er, you know, to stay longer. Owned by Salvatore Mele of Capocaccia (another Italian theme cafe/restaurant at Yonge & St. Clair), and headed by chef Christian Fontolan, Oretta throws a convincing curveball at King's existing Italian batters. Having opened late December 2016, Oretta is open for lunch and dinner, and reservations are easily made online or via their delightful, Italian Mama-ish, sing-songy answering service. Greeted by sleek, condo-like floor to ceiling exterior windows, Oretta explodes

with originality on the inside. With its stunning, Vatican-esque arched ceilings and central, semi-circular marble bar, Oretta is instantly impressive. Spacious, with a retro feel, and bright pastel color scheme, Oretta pays attention to the details: from the two storey ceilings, 80s vintage light fixtures, vivid floor tiles, to its crisp, clean branding and stylish leather-bound menus. Even Oretta's website shines. With its interior zing, Oretta follows a golden service industry rule, not just reserved for restaurants: if the space is inviting and beautiful, people will come. And for what Oretta offers, they'll stay.


Banjara

Indian Cuisine.


While it's hard to get an accurate read on what the afterlife might look like, if there is one, it's almost certainly a big pool of butter chicken. That or an Indian restaurant, period. While pious adherents to the world's unknown number of religions might suggest this classification to be a bit reductionist, I think many would agree—especially those who've tasted butter chicken, along with those who aren't lactose intolerant—that Indian food rules. Sure, it can be a bit heavy, and its version of 'mild' spice can still give a desert camel a runny nose, but for variety, aromas, picturesque beauty, flavour, and overall experience, Indian food is a strong

contender for the 'best food ever' and 'desert island food' awards. And while there are as many faux poseurs in Toronto's Indian restaurant market as any other, the cream in this restaurant's proverbial chicken korma rises to the top and warrants serious attention. Enter Banjara Indian Cuisine. Without reading (or writing) another word (after this one): go there. Having eaten at a healthy swath of Toronto's Indian food joints, Banjara is the only one whose name I remember (and constantly think about when mulling dining choices). The back story is a little confusing, but generally goes like this: in 2000, owners Raj Veerella and Anil Gurijala acquired

"Mr. Maharajah Indian Cuisine" located just south of Yonge and Bloor, a restaurant which gained much popularity and positive media attention. In 2003, they changed the name to Banjara, (a Hindi word meaning 'nomad') and moved to 796 Bloor West, near Christie Pits Park. They opened a second location on Eglinton close to Yonge, offering the same succulent fare and ambiance. While not sure whether the name has more of a story behind it, the term could certainly be used to describe the restaurant's penchant for drawing on dishes and traditions from both the north and south of India. Either way, the food is magical, plain and simple.


Banjara does an excellent job of offering a wide variety of dishes that, while being firmly rooted in the tradition of Indian cuisine, still present options for those more occasional or outright beginner venturers into this culinary climate. Add to this victuals for vegetarians and meat lovers alike and you get a pretty well-rounded menu (more on this below). Now, to the goods. For this review, we've selected the Bloor and Crawford location at 796 Bloor St. West, though fans should know that both Banajara locations sport exactly the same menu, flavour consistency, and welcoming staff.


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