Local writer Bert Archer dives deeper into some of Toronto’s Eastern European restaurants and must-try dishes to order now.
There are few cuisines as underestimated as Eastern Europe’s. Made fun of in films, and often reduced to its most basic dishes, food from the Baltics to the Black Sea and into Georgia uses figs and plums, barley and buckwheat, cheese and yogurt, mutton and partridge, pike, carp, cherries, and pomegranates to create dishes as varied as any of the world’s great culinary traditions.
Frankly, even if you stuck to pierogies (aka varenyky), there’s more to it than potatoes and cheese. Like all the world’s great dumplings, people from Ukraine to Slovenia, Moldova to Czechia put just about anything you can imagine in there: mushrooms, venison, sauerkraut; there are even dessert versions with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries….
But just take a look at the menu at Drom Taberna, one of Toronto’s newest entries in the field, and you’ll see just how much there is to discover. Drom Taberna is the result of Shamez Amlani’s decades-long love affair with the region.
While working as a busboy at Le Select Bistro in 1989, Amlani watched along with the rest of the world as the Berlin Wall fell and a world that had been mostly obscured for the previous 50 years opened up. So he took his savings and flew to Berlin, where he met some Polish travellers he followed back to Poland, which started him on a year-long journey across the region that would introduce him to both a world of food and his Polish wife, the artist (and now his business partner) Maria Flawia Litwin.
“In 2018, we saw this property for rent. It had been Tortilla Flats, and the building itself was built as a tavern 150 years ago. I said, “Babe, can we look at the building? I don’t want to see another Starbucks there.’”
Known for its nightly live music scene in pre-pandemic days, Drom has a menu that runs the gamut, from Estonia and Lithuania through Bosnia, Romania, and Poland, all the way to Georgia, with privately ordered liquors from the region, including several rakias, a kind of Eastern European eau de vie that pairs perfectly with the food.
“Definitely one of the things that the diaspora from the Balkans loves to show off when they come in,” Amlani says of the meat, cheese, and flatbread dish that’s rare to find outside the region, but is a staple of Bosnian cuisine. Made with ajvar and kajmak, and served on lepinja brought in from Sarajevo Grill and Meat, it’s one of the world’s great hand foods.
If you go to Ukraine or Poland, Georgian food is all the rage now,” Amlani says. “It really is where Eastern Europe meets the Middle East, without being hot-spicy, the herb-heavy content in Georgian food is absolutely magical.”
His recommendation is ajapsandali, a Georgian ratatouille set apart from the French version by its use of the rare blue fenugreek, not often seen on menus outside the Caucasus.
When they started serving it, Amlani said he thought it was pretty good. “Then one guy ordered it, tried it, and said, ‘I’m a chef, I’m Hungarian. This goulash is OK, but here, let me give you a better recipe.” He gave Amlani a few pointers (including mixing sweet and smoky paprika and never ever using celery), and he says the new goulash, which is available ready-to-eat or frozen, is even better now.
Drom Taberna is available for takeout, and make their own city-wide deliveries, but Toronto is rich with options.
Country Style, the last surviving member of what used to be the Little Budapest strip of Bloor West, is one of the places many downtowners got their first taste of goulash, schnitzel, and cucumber salad.
Cafe Polonez, one of the stalwarts of this traditionally very Polish neighbourhood, is offering daily specials for $20.95.
Armenian Bistro offers takeout, and its own delivery service for bills over $100, or the usual apps for smaller orders. Try their beef cheeks or chanaxi stew.
Amber European Restaurant has plenty of basic diner food for when you feel like an old-fashioned egg salad sandwich but you really have to try their version of pierogi, the Siberian pelmeny.
Prague Restaurant specializes in Czech and Slovakian food, including topinky (fried rye bread) and koleno, a pork hock braised in Czechvar dark lager. And if you feel like making your own stuff, they have weekly $44 pick-up baskets that’ll give you everything you need to make your own family feast.
Tucked between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova’s got some great soups (including a cold bologna soup) and a dish called brizol, made from veal rolled around mushrooms and onions, both of which are available at Moldova Restaurant.
There was a time in Toronto’s not-too-distant history when a “European” restaurant was always Hungarian. As the first generation of immigrants from the 1956 revolution have retired, many have closed, but Europe Bar and Restaurant is still going strong. Try their poppy seed pasta and the classic wooden plate (aka big pile of meat) for two or four.
The Old Country Inn has been serving Austrian food from this 140-year-old coach house since 1978.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door
there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.#OPENYOURCURIOSITY
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