It's mid afternoon and a hungry pack of us have come inside from Sunday's mixed bag of weather to warm up in the embrace of Irish hospitality that is Leslieville's Ceili Cottage. A bowl of scratch-made oyster chowder is put in front of us, and we don't waste any time digging in.
This is the kind of dish that warms you to your core, and it just happens to pair well with an oyster stout with which to wash it all down. Oysters, after all, are owner and chef Patrick McMurray's specialty. Shucker Paddy, as he's better known, is a world champion shucker — he can pop open 38 in a minute — so it makes sense that the pearl-producing mollusks feature prominently on Ceili Cottage's menu. While we slurp back from our spoons, McMurray regales us with stories about ingredients, Ireland and the work involved with converting the former auto body shop into the Irish cottage of his dreams.
But we can't dwell too long — there's places to go, food to eat. This only stop two of 10 on a tasting tour during Leslieville Wanderlust, an annual showcase of the best of what the neighbourhood has to offer. Adventurous foodies and those just hungry for a local bite descended on Leslieville with empty stomachs and a sense of exploration, ready to hop between some of the area's most notable restaurants, pubs and specialty food shops.
Plotting along Queen East and traversing cross streets in between, the tour included talks, walks and stops for nibbles and drinks. From comfort to culinary, the diversity and quality of the community's thriving food scene is undeniable, and it's easy to see why the neighbourhood has become a destination within Toronto.
Take Edward's 1290, for example, a longtime Leslieville staple, well known for its seasonal menu and intimate space. Edward's was one of the first restaurants along the strip to start drawing diners to the neighbourhood. Owner Edward Levesque is an intense character, and he shows it just as much working in the kitchen as he does with the scrutiny of ingredients he brings into it. Edward's menu puts an emphasis on local organic foods. In fact, most of the ingredients that supply his restaurant come from one source (Levesque makes it clear it's not Sysco): a farm about 90 minutes west of the city.
Little AAA Bar is a relative newcomer to the neighbourhood, but it didn't take long for people to saddle up to the bar here for Austin, Texas-inspired barbecue. We feast on smoked chicken wings and dry rub ribs as owner Racquel Youtzy debates the merits of the various sauces and marinades to smother them with.
Crate is also new-ish and just finding its footing in the neighbourhood. The semi-subterranean space is a tapas and cocktail bar that also opens for weekend brunch. A few of the small-plate dishes are served up for us including vegetable pakoras and smoked gouda arancini balls.
On to Sandy Aleksander where Max Ryan takes us through the domestic and imported offerings of his Leslieville specialty food shop before a five-course sampling of its finest prepared soup, cured meats, cheese, jelly and chocolate.
By this point, it's clear the group is starting to slow down. But we rally and push on to local organic grocer Raise the Root. The store's vendors popped in to give us a sampling of raw and vegan nachos and cheese that beat your typical greasy plate, with a side of vegan pumpkin spice ice cream exploding with flavour.
We did a complete 180 walking into Completo, a snack-focused takeout counter, that put its classic Chilean-style churassco sandwich in our hands. Thin slices of griddled, naturally raised steak stuffed between a toasted bun and loaded with avocado, diced tomatoes and hot sauce.
At Majesteas, celebrating its fifth year in the neighbourhood, we get reprieve from food and a chance to digest with an infusion of various teas hand-picked by owner Ian MacDonald, who is also a certified tea sommelier (yes, there is such a thing).
We need to sit, and luckily we've reached our final destination, Purple Penguin. The corner spot at Queen St. E and Logan had a number of short-lived restaurants try to make a go of it, but none of them had the massively popular apple fritters this cafe has become known for. We're told people come from all over the city for these hot, sugary doughnuts. Good thing we don't have to travel for them.