Watch out: The Times of London’s powerful, acerbic restaurant critic Giles Coren has been touring a handful of North American cities — places he readily admits he knows little about — and directing his trademark piercing critiques at the local food scenes. It’s for a reality TV show that he originated, and in keeping with his media personality of supersized ego, has named “Million Dollar Critic.” (It airs on Canada’s W Network and BBC America) The premise is that the controversial columnist stops in at five restaurants in each of six cities and then produces a positive review — worth “a million dollars” — of one restaurant, to appear in the city’s daily newspaper.
Toronto was at the top of Coren’s list, which is where I caught up with him. (The five other cities are Quebec City; St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador; Philadelphia, Providence, and Charleston, S.C.) Charming and witty in person, he generously offered a culinary romp that reached beyond the show’s five restaurants. He reported highlights — sous-vide bacon and a blood crepe — and disappointments — a bad breakfast garnished with chilled tropical fruit. Overall, his impressions were of a Toronto food culture packed with hipsters, unburdened by tradition, and surprisingly vibrant.
He found that Canada’s biggest city proved to be “basically the hipster capital of the world. Everybody under 35 has some kind of interesting facial hair and piercing and then tweed tailoring, and is fascinated with some arcane bit of food.” Still, it rates as a legitimate culinary destination in his estimation: “It seems to have this great diversity, and it’s a more exciting and vibrant diversity than for example New York or LA, which are a bit jaded.”
Buca and Bar Buca
Neither of these two downtown hot spots — both owned and run by acclaimed chef Rob Gentile — was on the show’s itinerary, but Coren investigated after a colleague tweeted that he must try the blood pasta with sausage. The pasta wasn’t on offer, so instead he relished the amazza fegato or “murdered liver” — “spicy sausage made of kidneys and bollocks that was staggeringly good” – and a blood pancake with some crispelli “which were the best thing ever.” Coren returned to the restaurant to sample the blood tagliatelli — “fantastic” — and summarized: “It’s sort of hip and it’s also slick and modern and new but it’s got this real Italian soul to the food.” He also said he looked forward to returning for more.
Coren calls the cooking at this small, casual West End restaurant nothing short of “fascinating.” Chef Nathan Iseberg’s solo venture, which promotes foods from the bottom of the food chain, could be called quirky, interesting, or plain weird, depending on your tolerance for bugs on the menu, the absence of a menu at all (Iseberg cooks what he likes), and no prices (you pay what you think it’s worth). “Chefs are often crazy but in a boring way, whereas he was crazy brilliant,” says Coren. The meal includes geranium soup, a type of gnocchi with ash, and a risotto with escargots and crickets.While dining at the bar, the critic also noticed a few books around — some of them personal favorites such “Moby-Dick” and “Archy and Mehitabel” — “so I thought Nathan must be all right.”
Small Town Food Co.
As part of the series, Coren hit this “hipster place” in the West End accompanied by a Toronto journalist who happens to be a vegetarian. The menus are meat-heavy but the dining companion fared better than Coren with an inventive veggie pasta while the critic stomached deer tartare, kangaroo meatballs, and what he calls a mismatched dish of bone marrow paired with mackerel. “A great kitchen will always make a gross thing taste terrific,” he explains on-camera. The result is oily, but Coren likes the owners. “It’s run by two lovely guys in their mid-to-late 20s who don’t really know a lot about food.”
This throwback to the high-rolling 1990s, when executives had limitless expense accounts, is an institution in the tony Yorkville neighborhood. Perfect fare for the series. Coren calls it a place where you find “old-fashioned, rich people’s food.” And yet the dishes prove seductive and well-prepared, even “outstanding.” “I liked Opus,” he says. The quality of ingredients is exceptional: The lobster ceviche is super fresh, a pierogi dish is speckled with truffles, and a roast chicken even promises a balance of meat and vegetables that is a bit “modern.” Still, the price tag of nearly $600 seems a bit rich.
Tucked away in a downtown neighborhood, this Pakistani restaurant was chosen for the series. Featuring hot tables of prepared dishes that are reheated in microwaves, the story is the draw rather than the food. As Coren explains about the show’s choices, “You’ve got to have interesting stories for television. You can’t just go to six restaurants that are like Opus. You need interesting juxtapositions.” In this case, it’s the tale of a Pakistani restaurateur who sold his first location and opened this one — and this gives Coren the chance to compare the two. He proclaims King Place “the king of cheap lunchtime curry,” but that’s as good as it gets.
Rose and Sons
This cool diner, owned by beloved local chef Anthony Rose, is not in the show but appeared on Coren’s off-camera radar. “I had some of the best bacon I’ve ever had there. It was this big, thick piece of bacon that was crispy and sweet and then very soft.” It turns out it was cooked using a sous-vide method (sealed in a pouch of liquid and cooked slowly) and glazed with Dr. Pepper. “Great food and the scene in there was so good. It was maybe hipsterish, but there were old guys in there, too, having their breakfast in the morning.”
Coren’s worst stop, what he calls “a really bad breakfast chain,” also happened to be his first. It wasn’t on the list for the series so he walked in unprepared. “It looks a bit like a diner. They bring me a menu with pictures on it and every fry-up has this garnish of tropical fruit, which I do not understand and cannot comprehend. And the quality of the bacon is absolutely shambollock and the coffee was terrible. Really, I thought, Christ, I’m in this country for a month?”
Aguave e Aguagate
This one’s for the show. A quaint Mexican eatery in the popular Kensington Market has its roots as a food stall, and the menu still speaks to street food albeit with a “gourmet’’ twist. Coren likes the bright flavors of a ceviche but when he goes for the chef’s choice of beef tongue stew, the outcome disappoints. The critic has never taken to tongue and this Mexican classic can’t undo his prejudice. Still, the messy tacos — refried beans, chicken, and chorizo — remain memorable, he says, rating it one of the best Mexican dishes he’s tasted.
In the end, Coren is hopeful the shows will be broadcast in his home country “because they don’t know — and I tell you, they don’t know because I didn’t know — what’s going on and how great the food is here.”
Pamela Cuthbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.