Over two centuries ago, when Colonel John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, declared this area the Township of Markham in 1791 and named it after his friend, William Markham, Archbishop of York, men of vision have had their eye on Markham. Now, residents of the City of Markham (Inc. 2012) can say, “Hey, let’s go downtown.” And that would mean a jaunt to Enterprise Blvd. for dinner at a white tablecloth restaurant, a first-run movie at Cineplex, a shopping spree, a beverage at a pretty café, or a hop-on for a breezy ride on the Pride of Canada Carousel, an interactive work of sustainable art.
The Remington Group, the third generation Bratty family company, employs a tangibly caring, hands-on relationship to the development of this “downtown.” It has created a unique area that plays host to art and sculpture installations, restaurants and cafes, movie theatres, a central hotel, and unique retail boutiques. It is a neighbourhood that blends art, culture, and architecture into a meaningful community hub. Downtown Markham has become the heart of the city. In fact, in the Western world’s most diverse country, Markham is known as the Diversity Capital of Canada. Its residents are multi-lingual, highly educated, well employed and incredibly trend-conscious.
A weekend at the handsome Toronto Marriott Markham gives me a peek into the Downtown Markham lifestyle. From the minute we drive into the parking garage, we are amazed at the Music Garage Mural and colourful renderings of famous musicians. This is our introduction to the Remington Contemporary Art Gallery, one of the world’s most ambitious public art programs, featuring more than $25 million of stunning installations cleverly integrated into the public spaces of Downtown Markham.
In the hotel, wherever the eye falls, there is something to admire: the undulating glass and metal light installation that resembles a dragon’s tail, and the unusually large lobby lounge with Draco Restaurant and it’s seven distinct seating environments. One of which is a row of booths, each seating eight guests, with a TV set installed in the wall—very popular during sports seasons. The mixologist has created an innovative bourbon program with enticing cocktails, coffee, and menu items featuring bourbon.
We’re just in time for lunch, and from a comfortable curved booth, we peruse the menu. Shareables of luscious seafood charcuterie and a generous cheeseboard are popular at other tables, but I see hot maple bourbon wings, lobster grilled cheese on challah and King Cole Duck confit, and I’m not sharing. Live music plays at night. A relaxing breakfast of modern classics from low carb egg options to cornflake crusted French toast, Belgian waffles, and a Lavender Mocha with bourbon-infused maple syrup make this the place to be.
Art is part of the personality of the hotel. At the elevators in the lobby, and on every floor, pause to admire the fascinating New York Times Canadian Photo Archive dating back to the late 1800s. At the beautifully appointed pool, a special piece is a Rollo Phlecks installation of colourful panels that change from moment to moment as light passes through each panel. This stunning mixed-use hotel reflects Marriott’s latest design concept combining sophisticated guest suites, world-class amenities and luxurious residences created with exciting detail. If a gift is in order, drop into Signature Eyewear for a cool pair of new glasses, or La Difference for a stylish Rolex. If you crave something sweet, do not miss Cacao 70 dip shop or Demetre’s for an inspirational ice cream confection.
Seriously hungry, my eyes light up at the sight of Ruth’s Chris Steak House just off the lobby. Consistency is key, and I know I will have the same robust and juicy steak I’ve enjoyed at Ruth’s Chris in any other city. After a New Orleans style appetizer of plump blue crab cakes sizzling in lemon butter and an aromatic saffron-infused Osso Bucco ravioli, we are ready to indulge in the finest USDA Prime ribeye, broiled at 1800 degrees and sizzling on a 500-degree plate that keeps my steak hot and delicious ‘till the last bite. Overnight-marinated lamb chops are succulent, and a luscious Chilean Sea Bass is accented with citrus coconut butter, and a whipped sweet potato and pineapple hash.
Across the street is The Origin, Downtown Markham’s epicenter of public entertainment, home to Cineplex VIP + IMAX, York U’s YSpace Innovation Lab, Yamaha Music School, a 24-hour GoodLife Fitness and even an outpost of Currey’s Art Supplies. “Sneakerheads” stand in line awaiting limited edition shoe release at specialty boutiques. At Chatime, Capsule and Go For Tea there are line-ups to order the latest trendy beverage. I make my way to the larger Lucullus Bakers and Roasters, a microcosm of a Hong Kong bakery. The kitchen brings out an endless supply of freshly baked and steamed buns, cakes and light entrees. I am so happy with my soufflé cake and an excellent cup of coffee.
Wandering through this plaza, admiring the stunning art installations, it strikes me that one could eat here every day for weeks and not dine at the same place twice. Costa Sorrento is an authentic Italian restaurant with all the classics and a few interesting surprises: for the adventurous palate, an appetizer of marinated fresh anchovies with chili flakes, parsley, and oregano. Just right for sharing, a whole grilled Adriatic crispy skin sea bass has the freshness of the sea. Pillows of gnocchi, fettuccine, and plump ravioli, are all homemade by a fine Italian hand. Pizza with so many inventive toppings makes me order one to take home for later. There is even fresh mini cannoli for dessert, and that’s amoré.
If you’re dreaming of sushi, Kiu Japanese Restaurant’s goal is “to bring happiness to your taste buds.” A5 Wagyu comes directly from Miyazaki and the sushi counter is like a market of today’s catch. Want to custom-order your own whole fish sashimi directly from Japan? Speak to the manager, who will have it for you within one week. At the oyster bar, they’re pairing oysters with ponzu jelly and wine. We come here for the clean ramen selection from salt or soy sauce-based bowls with custom-made noodles. House-made chili oil and red miso with wok-fried ground tofu, bamboo, wood ear mushrooms, and thick, twisty noodles is a vegetarian delight. Kotteri Shoyu Tsukemen is a rich double soup of seafood and pork broth blended with Ishhin Shoyu and thick noodles served hot or cold.
A chandelier of over 1000 bulbs illuminates the deep blue and emerald green Lanna Thai Restaurant, named for a Thai spirit and dynasty. All the better to appreciate the vibrant panoply of ingredients set before us. A Street Food platter including satay chicken, turmeric fried shrimp, and grilled pineapple wets our appetite before our senses are totally seduced by a fragrant bowl of rich and silky green curry with pop in your mouth Thai eggplant and chicken thighs. Plump tiger shrimp crown steaming aromatic Phad Thai. Delicately crisped sea bass, accented with peppers, is perfectly tender, as are fall-off-the-bone Massaman curry lamb shanks and Panang curry beef short ribs. Dungeness crab is presented in a signature curry with a depth of sweet heat. Each dish of vegetables, meats, and fresh fish, in their complex range of preparations, are generously portioned, beautifully presented, and delight every palate.
Terre Rouge stands in a glass jewel-box like building, adjacent to the carousel. Chef Forrest Lieu has a passionate and elegant touch. A slice of velvety foie gras torchon is caramelized and sits on brioche crumble. Added swagger comes from tart Hawthorne compote and a whimsical pile of smoked “snow.” Order salmon tartare and it appears rolled in strips of avocado, sporting a dollop of caviar. Sharing is the shine of the times. A whole roasted Rock Cornish hen is carved at the table, crisp-skinned and so unusually juicy, I ask chef for his recipe. Golden miso-glazed black cod on spinach risotto, crisped duck leg with beer foam, and buttermilk spiced fried chicken with apple mango slaw all enliven our palates and set our taste buds awhirl.
Broadly defined, a visit to Downtown Markham is a rewarding cultural experience. The structurally relaxed architecture and sophisticated yet friendly restaurants and shops invite multi-generational families to enjoy a day’s excursion. Many come to appreciate the art installations integrated into to the public spaces, or for a retail fix. But the visionaries have more plans. Stay tuned for the next chapter.
For more, visit Downtown Markham.
READ MORE: Arts and Dining in Markham
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.