As a longtime food writer and one-time restaurant critic, I dread the oft-asked question:
“Which is your favourite restaurant?”
My usual response to this query about Toronto, my former home of 30 years (these days, the same info is asked of Stratford, Ont., where I now live – more of that in a future blog) is to request that the person name a category: high-end or cheap and cheerful, ethnicity of food, area of town etc. etc. Even then, as I rifle through my virtual restaurant rolodex, I’m often stumped.
But happy day, I now have an answer that’s sweet and simple: Le Paradis, 166 Bedford Rd. (near Avenue Rd. and Davenport), 416-921-0995.
This is where I head when I want a simple but well prepared French-inspired meal that’s delicious, bargain-priced, with a good accompanying wine selection served – and this is the crucial part – in a hospitable, comfortable, welcoming environment.
Owner David Currie is nearly always there quietly being manager and maitre d’. He and the late, super talented but fraught-with-demons chef Freddie LoCicero opened the place in the spring of 1986. It was an instant hit and now has such a large, loyal following that there is one caveat – it’s hard to get a table.
My answer is to show up, alone or with a friend, seat myself on a high stool at the bar, and kibbitz with Guy, the laid-back, friendly bartender. Like most staff, including several of the stalwart crew who cook up a storm in the very open kitchen, he’s been here for years.
The menu is classic bistro: steak frites (my usual choice), an excellent beef bourguignonne, duck confit, and a seafood stew that regularly varies in style and seasoning. The latter idea – a brilliant one – also applies to chicken, lamb shanks and other dishes. In other words, the menu is basic, simple and down-to-earth but never gets boring for regulars like moi.
As for the price, I usually spend less than $30 (before tip) for dinner: A glass of wine (try the Grenache Carignan Syrah from St. Jean in France), a main course and sometimes soup or salad. They’re also open for lunch Tuesday to Friday.
My one regret about this: I may never get a seat at this restaurant once this blog gets out or will have to make reservations well ahead. Oh well, it’ll have to be Tuesday nights at le Paradis for me when most folks eat at home.
Update: As of late in 2007, I have found the food here inconsistent and hope this is just a glitch rather than a trend.
Here is my version of seafood stew that’s pretty close to one I’ve tried at Le Paradis:
Vary types of fish and shellfish, as desired. See Fish Stock recipe below. If using fish stock from a cube, you may not need salt. Substitute 2 cups of canned or fresh tomatoes for the can used here, if desired. This garnish is optional. Le Paradis sometimes sprinkles thin slivers of oven-baked taro root on top – yum!
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Good pinch hot pepper flakes (optional)
19-oz (540 mL) can tomatoes with juice, chopped
2 cups fish stock or clam juice
1-1/2 cups dry white wine
1 tbsp each: chopped fresh basil, oregano and thyme OR 1/2 tsp each dried
Pinch saffron (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 oz (250 g) boneless skinned cod, haddock, bluefish or grouper, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) boneless, skinned salmon, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) boneless, skinned monkfish, cut in chunks
8 oz (250 g) scallops
8 oz (250 g) large shrimp, peeled, deveined
Croutons (recipe below)
Sour cream or thickened plain yogurt *
Fresh thyme sprigs
In large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; cook onion and garlic 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened. Stir in hot pepper flakes, tomatoes, fish stock, wine, basil, oregano, thyme and saffron (if using). Bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes or until thickened slightly. Add salt and pepper. (Stew may be made ahead to this point.)
Stir cod, salmon and monkfish into simmering stock mixture; cook, uncovered, 3 minutes. Stir in scallops and shrimp; cook, uncovered, 2 to 4 minutes or until fish flakes when tested with a fork, scallops are opaque and shrimp are pink. Taste; adjust seasoning.
Ladle into large soup bowls. Top with croutons, a dollop of sour cream and herb sprig.
In large bowl, toss 6 cups bread cubes with 1/4 cup olive oil and 4 finely chopped garlic cloves. Spread on baking sheet. Bake in centre of preheated 350F oven 15 to 18 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until golden and crisp.
In large saucepan, barely cover 1-1/2 lb (750 g) bones and heads (gills removed) of lean white fish with cold water. Bring just to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to simmer; skim any froth from surface.
Add 1/2 cup dry white wine, 1 small onion, 1 stalk celery, 1 clove garlic and a pinch of thyme. Simmer 20 minutes. Strain, discarding bones and vegetables. Freeze leftover stock.
Makes about 6 servings.
*To thicken yogurt, drain in paper-lined coffee filter about 1 hour or until of desired consistency.