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Will Momofuku Put Toronto on the Culinary Map?

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I visited New York last month to see what Torontonians can expect from the Momofuku experience when that restaurant empire makes its much-anticipated Canadian debut in the coming days -- I didn't think I would find the maitre d' investigating too.

"I'm just seeing how things operate. Getting a feel for it," says Joel Centeno, who moves over from the formal Auberge du Pommier to be the host at Daisho, the flagship restaurant of David Chang's ambitious enterprise that's attached to the soon-to-open Shangri-la Hotel. The Momofuku Toronto franchise, whose debut was scheduled for July 28 but has been pushed back because of construction delays, will also feature three other eateries: Shōtō, whose Japanese name means "short sword" (Daisho is a term that refers to a set of samurai swords); Nikai, which means "second floor" and will be a level below the main restaurant; and a Momofuku noodle bar that will instantly be the hottest lunch spot in the city and possibly a go-to late-night choice as well.

It's not only the most anticipated restaurant opening in Toronto in recent memory, it may be the one notable event that finally gets Canada taken seriously as a culinary destination around the world. No Canadian city has a Michelin restaurant guide, while there is one each for New York, San Francisco and Chicago. The country has gone nine straight years without placing a restaurant on the World's 50 Best list, while Momofuku's Ssam Bar in New York has made it two years in a row.

"Without a doubt, it instantly raises the city's foodie cred," award-winning food reporter Steve Dolinsky of Chicago, a regional chairman for the World's 50 Best list, says of Momofuku's foray across the border. "If Chang is able to maintain his high standards in a remote location -- which includes consistency and his presence more than a few times per year -- then I think it becomes one more important reason to visit Toronto."

Chang said he spent more of his time in Sydney, Australia than he did in the Big Apple during the year he opened his only other Momofuku location outside of New York. With Toronto, it's too early to know how much time he will be in Canada but he has a reputation for being a hands-on owner. As I discovered, Chang doesn't have to be on-site for his restaurant to shine.

When I went to New York to see what all the fuss is about, I was impressed for reasons beyond the food. Má Pêche, the franchise's restaurant in the Chambers Hotel in Manhattan, captures the spirit of a culture that's post-recession, post-fine dining and eagerly communal, but has managed to elevate eating out to an activity akin to going to a fine art museum. We want top class, we don't necessarily want to look like it in order to have the experience.

What The Black Hoof -- named Toronto's top restaurant by Vacay.ca judges earlier this year -- lacks in classy atmosphere, Daisho will possess thanks to the Shangri-la, the latest luxury accommodation to hit a downtown area that has seen the addition of Ritz-Carlton, Thompson and Trump properties in a short amount of time. What other restaurants in the city are missing in inventive cuisine, Momofuku's brand will deliver.

There are Korean and Japanese influences, for sure, but the complexity of Chang's cuisine redefines fusion. His chefs aren't simply throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks -- a characterization made by some early commenters of the New York operations --, they're pushing the envelope the way great chefs from Grant Achatz to Michel Bras do. The steamed lobster bun at Má Pêche (or "mother peach") is addictively good. The monkfish was so tender you could've mistaken it for poached lobster, while a bowl of curried carrots shocked with the deliciousness of its flavour. Desserts, including the famous White Chocolate that features salty popcorn and caramel, drive repeat business on their own.

All of that outstanding food comes in an atmosphere that is as casual as a food stand on the beach. Servers at Má Pêche wear shorts (if they want) while rock music, hand-selected by Chang, plays softly, allowing you to carry on a conversation in the airy, elegant room without yelling like you have to do in so many new restaurants. Má Pêche also offers a family-style dinner featuring a whole roast chicken that is ordered a day or more in advance.

"They really care about the product. That's what I've noticed. People here are just really passionate about what they do and they have the chance to be creative too," says Dominick Mangine, a server and bartender who has worked at Má Pêche for about two years. "Toronto can expect that level of quality. It's going to be a lot of fun up there."

Momofuku, whose name means lucky peach, is certain to turn Toronto's cocktail scene up several notches. While Goodnight! Bar had been a great location for a while, its quality dropped off dramatically in the months preceding its recent closing. Creative cocktails are a staple of the Momofuku experience and if Daisho and Shōtō take their cue from Manhattan, Toronto's thirsty set will be satisfied. Bartenders at Má Pêche make their own syrups and the drinks range from a sake-infused take on a Manhattan to a boozy twist on the mint julep that's named after 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another.

"We're always trying stuff, always mixing with new flavours behind the bar. It keeps things fresh," Mangine says.

Toronto has many above-average restaurants and a handful of excellent ones. It's culinary scene has fallen short of greatness, however. With Chang's venture now in town and with chef Matt Blondin, who once worked for Claudio Aprile at Colborne Lane, moving over from Acadia to take the reins in the kitchen, that seems about to change.