The Internet loves lists: the top 10 action movies, the worst 10 football fumbles, the 10 most watched Oscar moments, and six easy weight-loss secrets of the rich and famous. The lists go on.
Well, here is yet another list, but with a caveat; when you're dealing with a place as large and diverse as Toronto, titles like 'best' and 'worst' are even more troublesome than usual. Given that, I'm not going to declare the places below to be the absolute, no-doubt-about-it strangest restaurants in the city. But they are pretty darn unusual.
Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto
Forget the popular images of a restaurant full of tables and menus with the odd waiter here and there. Visiting Masaki Hashimoto's little establishment in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre is more like attending a very elegantly presented dinner party—minus the catering mishaps, awkward toasts, and that one guy who keeps going on about the trouble at work.
Here, the point is the food, and how much of an art form it can be made into. The restaurant's website boasts that
"A Kaiseki meal is the tongue-tingling zenith of the Japanese dining experience."
An experience which costs around $200 to $300 per person, in this case, making Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto not only notable for the authenticity of its cuisine (just about everything is shipped in from Japan) but also as one of the most expensive places to eat in Toronto.
The roots of the kaiseki style of cooking go back hundreds of years, and were at one point associated with zen monks and the tea ceremony. Since then, however, kaiseki has morphed into a highly ornamental form of Japanese haute cuisine.
Not surprisingly—given the price tag—Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto is an experience as much as a meal, with very few guests taken at a time, one server for every customer, and reservations made a week in advance. There is no menu but the chef's whim (with seasonal inspirations). In general though, expect lots of seafood.
Lunch (the slightly shorter, less expensive option) is six courses of sculpted, daintily arranged edible art. Dinner is eight courses—not counting dessert. There is also the possibility of a 'complimentary tea ceremony' after the meal.
Following the success of its Montreal branch, Canada's first dining-in-the-dark restaurant opened a second location in Toronto in 2009. The idea is to heighten the sensory experience of eating by completely removing the visual element: patrons eat in pitch darkness, served and assisted by visually impaired waitstaff.
Let the 'blind date' jokes begin.
Typically, all food selections are made in the lit area of the restaurant. Orders placed, diners are then led into the darkened dining room, where, apparently, eating without seeing isn't as difficult as one might think (although you may have trouble recognizing what you're eating at first—so thoroughly have many of us come to rely on visual cues). For added mystery, you can order the 'surprise' option for any of the three courses (O.Noir seems to operate entirely on a prix fixe basis). Those with a more restrained sense of adventure can sightlessly savour dishes such as filet mignon, pesto chicken, arugula salad, and chocolate mousse. A two-course meal is just over $30, not counting tips and taxes, while the three-course version is just under $40.
A sort of philosophical sister to O.Noir, Signs opened in the summer of 2014 in the Yonge and Wellesley area, with a crew of servers who mostly couldn't hear a word of what their customers were saying.
Fortunately, that was the point.
Along with the more conventional culinary and financial aspirations, it is the stated goal of Signs to
"provide career opportunities and growth for the deaf in the hospitality industry".
They'd also like to become a comfortable hub for the local deaf community.
While O.Noir started out in Montreal, and Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto has its roots in Japan, Signs can trace its lineage back to exotic Markham, Ontario, where owner and founder Anjan Manikumar watched a deaf restaurant customer struggling to communicate and longed to improve the man's customer service experience.
The result of that ambition is Signs, which replaces the tortured point-and-nod pantomimes witnessed by Mr. Manikumar with American Sign Language—which patrons are encouraged to learn on the fly while placing their orders. The menus all demonstrate the correct signs for each dish, while further tips are conveyed by posters on the walls and 'cheat' sheets at each table. A non-deaf host greets customers at the door and explains the ordering process, before passing them into the care of a hearing-impaired server.
They really do babysit you when it comes to communication in this place. Bridging the gap between signers and speakers is one of their goals after all, and—while I'm sure I mangled a few gestures on my visit—my beaming waiter (I'm not exaggerating. He was a big smile that happened to have a body attached to it) understood what I wanted, and brought it promptly.
The mood and decor of Signs is a bit bland, but not dingy or depressing (although I am tempted to apply those terms to the squash and carrot soup), and the sign language diagrams are quite easy to interpret (if not to remember!). Given that the food they refer to includes dishes such as butternut squash ravioli, kedgeree, and pork belly kimchi sandwiches, Signs seems to be aiming for the 'moderately international and fairly healthy' niche, with an emphasis on the growing vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free trends. Price-wise, the place rests in the low mid-range section of the spectrum, with most menu items ranging between $5 for soup or appetizers and $28 for the pricier mains.
This place won't be everyone's cup of tea (although, for three dollars they will sell you something called 'Lemon Ginger Detox Tea', which ought to give you some hint about what you've gotten yourself into). Rawlicious takes the current fad for alarmingly healthy-sounding vegan food to its logical extreme, boasting on its website that they offer 'clear conscience eating' free of dairy, meat, wheat, and refined sugar. It's also mostly uncooked, just for extra green-and-wholesome points.
If you're not one to shrink at the notion of zucchini noodles or almond cheese, Rawlicious offers a selection of intriguing creations, including flax seed and buckwheat crust pizza, collard leaf wraps, kelp and zucchini pad thai, cashew cheesecake, and 'superfood cookies' (goji berries are involved. As are hemp seeds). Entrees are between $10 and $15 each, while appetizers are between $6 and $10.
Drinks (of the non-alcoholic kind) are also a big deal here, and range from the traditional tea and coffee, to healthfully bizarre sounding fruit and vegetable juice concoctions and an array of dairy-free smoothies. If you've been longing to see mango and kale together in the same glass, this is definitely the place for you.
Having actually visited the Yorkville Rawlicious, I can report that the place is small and cheerful—as are the portions on the plates (well, appetizers and desserts, anyway). Six dollars will get you two cold little spring rolls and a bowl of dipping sauce, and when they use the word 'fritters' (as in 'sweet potato fritters'), banish from your mind any thoughts of deep-fried doughy confections, for you shall instead be faced with five sober orange patties no more than an inch and a half across. The pad thai's not bad though (it's one of their more popular dishes), once you get used to its resemblance to salad slathered in peanut sauce.
In its defense, Rawlicious is a chain, and has done well enough to have locations all over the place (including Whitby and Barrie). In fact, the server for my visit assured me that—despite her love of conventional cheese cake—she'd stopped eating the stuff about five years previously in favour of the Rawlicious version, which she considered admirably similar (but much healthier).
And finally, for the really health-crazy, Rawlicious offers 'Cleanse' packages, wherein the customer pays a (considerable) fee, and the restaurant provides five days' worth of raw meals, or at least one day's supply of fresh juice—depending on the package purchased.
The Sultan's Tent & Café Moroc
This one's the winner for ambiance, hands down. We have rich colours, a wooden floor, ornate hanging lanterns, elegant onion-dome archways, potted palm trees (which may not be real, but still...), and booths hung with shimmering curtains to mimic the walls of the particularly sumptuous tent. In the evening, belly dancers come out to shimmy and wiggle.
There's also food.
But first, some history.
The first Sultan's Tent existed for many years at Yorkville and Bay, before having to relocate in the face of an up-and-coming development in 2002. The new location at 49 Front St. E. is not only larger and more luxurious, but is also a historically notable building in its own right.
The Dixon Building (as 49 Front is known) was built in the 1870s, and originally used as a warehouse. It is—according to the Canada's Historical Places—one of the few buildings in the province with a cast iron facade, which was apparently all the rage back then.
All right, back to food.
Like Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto, The Sultan's Tent falls under the broad heading of 'ethnic', based as it is on French Moroccan culture and cuisine (or a romanticized Western version of it, anyway. The Café Moroc is apparently based on Rick's Cafe from the movie Casablanca). This means that you can order Harira soup, lamb provençal, escargot, and pistacchio strawberry cake for dessert. I admit, this doesn't sound very Arabic to me, but the focus here is on French Moroccan dining. If you want something really exotic sounding, order the Casablanca Burger and be done with it. Appetizers range from about $6 to whatever the market price for oysters is at the moment. Entrees hover between $17 and $39 (for the lamb), at least in the case of the dinner menu. Lunch and brunch are a little bit less demanding on the wallet.