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The Good, The Bad and The Offal
A talk with Globe & Mail restaurant critic Joanne Kates about Michelin stars, meat, and separating your work life from your private life when it's all about eating.

Scaramouche Restaurant, Toronto When it comes to dining out in Toronto, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable than Joanne Kates. Her resume is impressive; Kates has been the restaurant critic at The Globe & Mail since 1975, as well as contributing her experience and reviews to publications such as Chatelaine, Maclean’s, The New York Times and Toronto Life. She has also written several books, including The Joanne Kates Cookbook and Joanne Kates Toronto Restaurant Guide. Last week, Post City Magazine published Kates’ second annual list of her top 100 restaurants in Toronto. The list represents a year’s worth of restaurant visits across the city from Chinatown to Parkdale, featuring both established Toronto culinary institutions (Lee, North 44) and newcomers (Parts & Labour, The Burger’s Priest) alike. “Every month, I’ll visit about eight restaurants and often I’ll visit them twice,” says Kates, on the phone from her office at Camp Arowhon, where she serves as camp director. Taking the number one spot this year? Forest Hill’s Scaramouche Restaurant, owned by chef Keith Froggett and maître d’ Carl Korte, which is known for dishes like crispy black cod with organic shrimp, veal with artichoke hearts served on-top of polenta and coconut cream pie.  In her review, Kates wrote, “If Michelin were to rate Toronto, this would be the one place to cop a star (or two)”. Though she’s been reviewing restaurants for just over forty years, Kates is adamant when it comes to what separates the best from the worst. “The number one thing is food. Always, always, always,” she emphasizes, “The second thing is service; it has to be gracious and welcoming.” It doesn’t matter whether the dish is an Ontario rabbit with papardelle from the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower at Canoe (#78 on this year’s list) or a burrito from Entertainment District late night favourite Burrito Boyz (#36). Her 365-days-a-year job involves searching the blogosphere to source new restaurants, revisiting old favourites and occasionally taking recommendations from her readers. “If you follow me and know my tastes, nothing should come as a surprise,” says the restaurant critic. Unlike many food writers and critics who might disguise themselves before heading into a restaurant (former Gourmet magazine editor and New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl being just one notable example), Kates has never felt the need for anonymity. “I always try to fit in with the culture of the restaurant,” she says, though she admits that sometimes it can be difficult to separate being a critic and simply going out to lunch or supper. “Especially if I’m not loving the food or know I’ll be reviewing it in the future,” says Kates,  “I went to a schlocky little Vietnam place last night, and because I wasn’t reviewing it, I had a lot of fun.” Last month, NOW Magazine ran a picture of a hand holding a large steak on its cover with “Meat” in large letters, a decision that was met with a plenty of angry and supportive letters from readers. Besides more places eschewing upscale for casual dining, Kates says 2011 was the Year of the Carnivore when it came to Toronto restaurant trends. “Way, way more meat. Everything’s meat and fat,” she says, “Because it’s comfort food.” When asked to elaborate on the continued popularity of beef, lamb and pig, despite rising world food costs, Kates adds, “These are cheap cuts of meat, not a filet mignon or a ribeye.” She admits half-jokingly, half-serious that as a restaurant critic, she hasn’t been absolved of falling for these temptations. “Meat is a battle that I fight in my daily life,” she says, “It’s sad that often the food we love the most is the unhealthiest for us.” Yet for all her experience as a restaurant critic, Kates doesn’t wish to make any predictions when it comes to what we can expect for dining trends in Toronto in 2012. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” she says. Whatever happens in what many people have claimed is Toronto’s successful bid to be regarded as a top culinary destination, we can count on Joanne Kates to be there writing about the good, the bad and the offal.  

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