Toronto restaurants with the best wine cellars: Evans Hammond

These venues have a proven track record of delighting diners with toe-curlingly good bottles and top-notch wine service.

By: Carolyn Evans Hammond Published Tues Jun 6 2017 on Star Touch and Sat Jun 10 2017 in The Toronto Star, syndicated

Many restaurants profess to cater to the wine enthusiast but few can wow even the most jaded aficionado. After all, doing so requires two things — a vast, well-stocked, carefully curated cellar and a knowledgeable, perceptive sommelier who knows all the wines on offer. Here’s why. 

Any place that stocks thousands of bottles prides itself on finding small wineries in far-flung places making minuscule quantities of amazing juice to list alongside better-known and iconic labels. Furthermore, every wine evolves from the moment it’s bottled, tasting profoundly better at some points in its development than others. So navigational support for any wine list is vital — especially when that list is tome-like. 

The best person to beeline you to the right bottle is always, always the person in charge of the cellar, whose title may be sommelier, wine director or owner. But never simply “server.” 

Restaurants may argue their wait staffs are knowledgeable about the list, but they’ll never know it as well as the person who stocks the cellar. When you dine at a wine restaurant, always ask to speak with the person who buys the wine. If that person is not available, speak to the sommelier. You’ll have the best shot at having your description of what you fancy translated into a bedazzling bottle within your budget. 

After all, if you’re dropping serious coin on fermented juice from a broad and deep selection of thousands of bottles served in opulent surroundings, you should expect to summit the sublime with every sip. 

Tony Amaro, who owns Opus Restaurant in Yorkville and stocks its 52,000-bottle cellar, says, “It’s about the buy, not the sell.” He gets a serious high from travelling the world, finding spectacular wines, listing them, then sharing them with patrons — something he’s been doing since 1992. 

I recently tasted a Portuguese dry rosé at Opus that Tony discovered, called 2016 Rosé Volcanico from the Azores Islands. It blew me and my dining companion away with its seamless structure and allusions of lilac, sea spray, stones and wild strawberries. Such a fetching drop — and just $65 per bottle. 

While top cellars will always feature Bordeaux Classed Growths, top Burgundy, cult Californians, and other feted wines, it’s the interesting stuff like this rosé that keeps a list exhilaratingly to-the-minute — separating the truly great cellars from the merely “correct.” After all, while the classics offer time-tested touchstones of quality, their stratospheric prices often put them outside most diners’ reach even for special occasions. Few can afford Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Burgundy’s top drop at thousands of dollars per bottle. So being able to recognize and pour undersung, undervalued offerings keeps business booming. 

The trick to talking to the wine expert on site is this: ask him or her to first recommend something based on what you fancy and your budget. Then, ask for a description of the recommendation before you order it. This way, you have a clear sense of what you’re buying. If you taste it and don’t like it, you have something to fall back on too.

“If you don’t think a bottle is up to par, let the sommelier taste it and ask if he or she thinks it’s a good example of the wine,” says Arron Barberian, who owns and runs Barberian’s Steak House and its 39,000-bottle cellar. 

“If the answer is no, have him or her bring you another bottle. If the answer is yes, say, ‘OK, I don’t think it’s what you described. Can we open another bottle and I’ll pick up both if the second bottle isn’t better than the first?’”

He says, “If there’s variation take the better bottle. If not, buck up and buy both. If you trust your palate, the odds are very high the second bottle will outperform the first.”

The question is, which restaurants have the best wine cellars in Toronto? And by best, I mean, largest, deepest, most sensitively curated cellars with a proven track record of delighting diners with toe-curlingly good bottles and top-notch wine service. 

These are my top picks. 

Recommendations

Opus Restaurant

37 Prince Arthur Ave., 416-921-3105, opusrestaurant.com. Open seven days 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner, and drinks are served till 2 a.m. 

Tony Amaro, a wildly passionate wine enthusiast, owns and runs this small, smart restaurant with his brother, Mario. In 2002 and every year since, Opus earned Wine Spectator Magazine’s Grand Award for its wine program — putting it within the top 80 restaurants in the world for wine for 15 years straight. When you dine there, ask Tony to help you select a bottle from the 2,400 listings that comprise his 52,000 bottle cellar. 

Barberian’s Steak House

7 Elm St., 416-597-0335 barberians.com. Open Monday to Friday 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 4:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. 

Arron Barberian, a self-described lunatic wine hoarder who loves to share, runs this 58-year-old Toronto institution with its 39,000 bottle cellar and 4,000 listings. The best time to go is when Arron himself is there, which is every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Ask for a recommendation from him to guarantee vinous delight. 

Bardi’s Steak House

56 York St., 416-366-9211, bardis.com. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday open for private events or selected conferences

Alex Manikas is the man behind this 50-year-old steak house with its 9,000-bottle cellar. Here, the atmosphere is “chummy,” with Alex priding himself in modest markups and knowing many of his customers by name. The wine list of nearly 450 selections ranges from Old World classics to new discoveries — and Alex, who is almost always there, can tell you about every one. 

Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse

12 Brant St., 416-366-0200, jacobssteakhouse.com. Open Sunday to Tuesday 5 p.m. to 10:15 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday 5 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. 

With sleek lines and a modern feel, this relative newcomer opened in 2007 and offers a contemporary take on the swanky wine and steak experience. The cellar is 8,500-bottles strong with about 900 labels, ranging from iconic classics to up-and-coming names. Wine director Robert Gravelle buys the wine and is trying to grow the list to about 1,500 selections now. He’s the man to talk to, so go between Tuesday and Friday when he is working the floor. 

The Platinum Club, Air Canada Centre

40 Bay St., 416-815-5983, theaircanadacentre.com/restaurants/PlatinumClub . Open for games nights from 4 p.m. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find another stadium anywhere in the world with a wine selection as vast and exciting as the one in the Platinum Club — the most exclusive restaurant in the ACC that opened in 1999. With 3,800 bottles and 500 selections curated by head sommelier Anne Martin, you can enjoy the excitement of the game with truly great wine. This posh place is accessible to anyone holding tickets with Platinum Club access. Ask for Anne by name; she stocks the cellar.

The Platinum Club is the closest this article gets to a private members club. Full-fledged private members clubs such the National Club, the Albany Club and the York Club stock cellars that boggle the mind with service to match. So if you’re invited to one, order wine. 

Carolyn Evans Hammond is a Toronto-based wine writer. She is also a London-trained sommelier and two-time bestselling wine book author. Reach her at carolyn@carolynevanshammond.com .