It takes time for kitchens and restaurants to hit their stride. Geoff Hopgood, based on the most recent meal I had at his establishment, is in the zone. The former chef at the revered Black Hoof has elevated his cuisine remarkably since I first dined at Hopgood's Foodliner shortly after it opened. It was outstanding then, it's beyond sensational now.
My meal at Hopgood's Foodliner was so good that it surpassed his Hoof alumni operating Bar Isabel and stands above every other restaurant in the city in my mind. The snow crab, brought in from Cape Breton Island in Hopgood's native Nova Scotia, comes dotted with leeks to bring an aromatic flavour to the light, fleshy seafood. The Halifax-inspired donairs are ridiculously perfect. They're spicy, loaded with thick slices of beef, and wrapped in a naan-like bread. Messy, fun, delicious. And then there is the black pudding. It is cakey soft, eye-popping in flavour. Served atop a slightly elevated puff pastry slice, the dish, playfully named Puff Daddy and the Notorious P.I.G., is a must-try.
It's rare that a restaurant can make every dish outstanding. Usually there's one weakling in the bunch. Not on this night, at this restaurant.
As Vacay.ca prepares to release its third-annual Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Dining Guide this week, I thought I would list my choices for the 20 best places I've enjoyed in the past year. These aren't necessarily the restaurants that ended up on my ballot for the Top 50, because judges can stretch their selections back to January 2012, but they are ones you should endeavour to visit as you travel through the country. Hopgood's did earn top marks from me this year.
1. Hopgood's Foodliner, Toronto, Ontario
A two-year-old restaurant on Roncesvalles Avenue in the city's west end, Hopgood's Foodliner is what a casual fine-dining experience should be about. It has a jovial atmosphere and a kitchen that turns out plates that would cost much more if served at a place with fancier decor and finer tablecloths and glassware. If you care about good food first and foremost, this unpretentious spot should be where you next make a reservation. [Read more about Hopgood's Foodliner]
2. Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay has opened a spectacularly wonderful restaurant in his hometown. Ayden creates in-house sausages and charcuterie as well as one of the best burgers you'll ever taste. [Read more about Ayden]
3. Vij's, Vancouver, British Columbia
The good times never stop at this enduring favourite in Vancouver's South Granville area. Vikram Vij and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, continue to create Indian cuisine that stands up to any other dining experience in the country. [Read more about Vij's and see a video of Vikram Vij at work]
4. Araxi, Whistler, British Columbia
Chef James Walt is a master of French and Italian cooking and his creations are even more enjoyable because of his dedication to local ingredients from the Pemberton Valley. [Read more about Araxi]
5. Farmer's Apprentice, Vancouver, British Columbia
There may be no more ethically conscious chef in Canada than Dave Gunawan. What he's managed to do at Farmer's Apprentice, a new 17-seat restaurant in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood, is serve vegetarian-forward cuisine that's crowd pleasing and true to its sense of place.
6. CHARCUT Roast House, Calgary, Alberta
The best poutine I've ever had and so much deliciously flavoured Alberta beef and pork that I think about it still! Connie Desousa and John Jackson have a restaurant that both connoisseurs and everyday diners will appreciate. [See CHARCUT's Connie Desousa in action]
7. Le Laurie Raphael, Quebec City
Microgastronomy that's not too clever for its own good. This elegant establishment in Quebec City's Lower Town manages to serve satisfying French dishes with the right amount of playfulness. [Read more about Le Laurie Raphael]
8. Hawksworth, Vancouver, British Columbia
Not only is the food immaculate, Hawksworth is also home to quite likely the best service in Canada and one of the best wine lists as well. A treat is the inventive Asian-inspired dishes that continue to populate the menu.
9. Sonora Resort, Discovery Islands, British Columbia
Chef Terry Pichor spoils his diners with a bounty of great dishes with ingredients sourced from British Columbia's lakes, rivers and oceans. And he's brilliantly added a "pre-dessert" dessert to the menu. [Read more about Sonora Resort]
10. Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler, British Columbia
Great plates, loads of fun, and a delightful atmosphere in this favourite in Whistler that serves Pacific Northwest fare. The Champagne sabering in the subterranean wine room may be gimmicky but it's not something you'll soon forget doing. [Read more about the Bearfoot Bistro]
Click here to read the rest of Adrian Brijbassi's top picks for best restaurants in Canada on Vacay.ca.
The 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Dining Guide comes out on Thursday, May 22. The judges this year included some of the nation's finest chefs, including Vikram Vij, Connie Desousa, David Hawksworth, Patrice Demers and Dale MacKay. Follow the hashtag #Vacay50 on Twitter for the big reveal.