Where To DINE Now: Sara Waxman’s Top Picks – Part 1

Don Alfonso 1890

One of the pillars of DINE has always been the “Sara Says” ambiance reviews of restaurants that we recommend. Here, we highlight dishes and design.


Xango_Claudio Aprile
Photo courtesy of Xango Toronto

It opened without pomp or ceremony, indicative of the confidence of its creators, two industry icons, Nick Di Donato and Claudio Aprile, that this fickle dining out community will love it. And we do. Enter through rough board corridors that open to a room of understated sophistication, designed by talented Nadia Di Donato. Sit at the bar, order a cocktail: Full Brazilian or Everything Nice or Smoke and Sunshine and peruse a menu that will take you on a gastronomic tour across continents.

Choose from Nikkei cuisine, an evolution of Japanese Peruvian cuisines; Latin dishes that meld with Asian flavours; an outstanding sushi bar, raw bar, and robata bar. Boquerones, Tostones, Tempura Shishito Peppers, will be good choices. Crispy plantain and yucca chips with guacamole and salsa is a must. Servers are smooth. Signal and they are at your elbow in seconds. Small plates of shrimp with fermented chili or octopus with togarashi and sweet soy will hike your flavour quotient off the charts. Large plates like Miami Ribs, Roasted hen with papas fritas, or a re-introduction to a burger with chimichurri and smoked mayonnaise will leave you drunk with flavour. Go with friends and order the entire menu. From where I sit, you won’t be making any mistakes.

Don Alfonso 1890

Don Alfonso 1890The restaurant is a vision of white marble and pale gray walls with white leather chairs and napery. Nadia Di Donato’s design has taken the city’s collective breath away. Expectations are high since this is a sibling of the original 2 star Michelin Don Alfonso 1890 on the Amalfi Coast. The history of hospitality has traversed the continents and is much in evidence here, when, quite often, its chef/owner Ernesto Iaccarino visits Toronto and adds his special touches. It is easy to fall in love with this cool and elegant restaurant and its dual cuisine of a classic or vegetarian set menu and a la carte selections.

Dishes are served in plates designed to enhance the beauty of each offering. Dinner begins with fanciful hors d’oeuvres, a teaser of the seduction to come: ice creamed eel, crowned with caviar and accompanied by wild rose scented tagliatelle. Manitoba Bison comes wrapped in a rustic bread crust. Muscovy duck breast is sauced with anise demi-glace. Educated servers and a wise sommelier are trained to make our experience even more special. And there are more spectaculars to come on the multi-course set menus. Or, go up the stairs to the mezzanine lounge where a snack menu and scintillating cocktails are presented. This neo-Renaissance building glows in the glamour and opulence it now houses.

La Fenice

La Fenice
Photo courtesy of La Fenice

A downtown restaurant that is still a living, breathing entity after 35 years is almost as rare as world peace. So what’s the secret of the continued success and popularity of La Fenice? Authenticity and core values: exceptional classic Italian cuisine; professional service; and newly added, a wood-burning grill for scintillating steaks. Enter and be greeted as family–by Rita Orgera, daughter of founder, Louis Orgera. At a white-clothed table in front of the fireplace, a server with a professional manner and intimate knowledge of the food and wine being offered caters to us.

Antipasti arrives in all its splendor: Funghi di Bosco of Shiitake, Portobello and Oyster mushrooms sautéed with fresh herbs; Calamaretti Positano; luscious Grilled Gamberetti; heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. Carpaccio wears jaunty curls of Parmigiano- Reggiano. All the classic dishes of Italy that we call our own are here: Agnolotti and other pastas made by knowing hands in the kitchen. True renditions of the classics of Italian cuisine delight us: Veal Scallopini, lavished with Sherry and lemon, and Provimi Liver with braised pearl onions and sage are the best in the city. Owner/Chef Rocco Fosco has created a separate Grill Menu, and the steaks stand up well against steak house fare. Sandra Orgera, the wife of the late owner, continues to bake her special tortes. Family values. Close your eyes, and you’ll think you’re in Italy.

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ShoushinWhat distinguishes Shoushin is Chef Jackie Lin’s reverence to his craft, his passion for ingredients, and his delicate hand in eliciting their optimal qualities. His intimate and artful omakase service is unique in Toronto because he is true to the Edo- mae style, but also sources the best ingredients in the world. A variety of delicate sweet uni like Aka, Bafun, Ensui, and Murasaki from the cold waters of Hokkaido are in seasonal rotation. He smokes his bluefin tuna in wheat straw and crowns it with a pinch of grated onion; enlivens spot prawn with a dab of sea salt; envelops a morsel of shrimp paste with shrimp.

Each offering is accentuated for a completely distinct experience. And, when certified A5 Kobe beef can be sourced, he knows exactly how to prepare it. As he engages us throughout the meal, improvising a la minute, he encourages us not to use chopsticks, because sushi is a finger food. While there is high-quality soy sauce in the restaurant, he does not offer it, because he wants us to enjoy the unique flavour profile of each piece of sushi on its own, and not have it all taste like soy sauce. In the theatre of the kappo-style chef, seamlessly performing slender kata-like movements behind the counter to craft beautiful delicacies, we admire his virtuosity and his authenticity.

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  • If Sara Waxman likes your restaurant, it can help make it fly. And it s very rare Sara won t like a dining establishment because as long as they do what they do best, she s encouraging.

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