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Airport dining goes upscale: An eater’s guide to Pearson’s restaurant boom

Marathi, an Indian-style dining concept by Amaya’s Hemant Bhagwani in Toronto (Terminal 1, International).

Renee Suen/Renee Suen

In the spring of 2012, Pearson International Airport announced it would soon be home to a wave of restaurants from some of Toronto's best-known chefs.

The effort, led by a New York-based airport food company called OTG Management, would include more than a dozen new places by Mark McEwan, Pizzeria Libretto's Rocco Agostino, the Amaya restaurant chain's Hemant Bhagwani, the celebrity chef Guy Rubino, and others.

These were consulting deals, effectively; although there were assurances the chefs would be involved in menu development, quality control and hiring, OTG's staff would take care of daily operations. Still, it was good news. After years as a dining dead zone that didn't begin to reflect the deliciousness or diversity around the Toronto region, Pearson would soon rival downtown for quality and choice, Michael Coury, a top manager at OTG, boasted. "You're going to get a real restaurant experience."

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Better yet, that announcement spurred a race to the top for airport diners' dollars. Pearson's other food companies, HMS Host and SSP Canada, soon announced their own restaurant deals with star chefs. HMS signed with Lynn Crawford (Ruby Watchco), Susur Lee (Bent), Roger Mooking (ex of Nyood and Kultura) and Zane Caplansky (Caplansky's Deli), as well as with Paramount Fine Foods, a top Middle Eastern deli and bakery. Those spots are expected to begin opening this summer.

SSP brought in Massimo Capra of Yorkville's Mistura, who launched a cheery trattoria in the domestic departures area of Terminal 1 and a grab-and-go spot in international departures.

If you plan to fly out of town this March break, consider this: You can now get proper brick-oven pizza as you wait for your flight, as well as freshly made ramen and sushi, Indian chana masala, Italian calamari fritti, a signature Bymark burger from Mark McEwan, or French toast seasoned with five spice, served with real Ontario maple syrup.

In many cases, the food and drink is served in soaring, elegant spaces that come complete with an iPad at every seat, for ordering or browsing while you eat.

Over the past few months I've eaten at all these restaurants. My goal was to answer two simple questions: Do they live up to the promises? And, at last, is it worth arriving hungry for a flight?

Before the goods, a note. This article is based on a single visit to each spot. The restaurants are all located after security, in four separate parts of the airport. Barring a massive outlay on airplane tickets, the only way to eat in all of them was with visitor passes, which Pearson's management agreed to provide.

Nonetheless, the results have been surprising. A few of the places with the biggest names attached were by far the weakest, little better than airplane food. Yet, there were also unexpected standouts, one of them so delicious and reasonably priced, I'd be grateful if it opened around the corner from my home.

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Looks good, tastes…

The first rule of Pearson's new dining options: high ceilings, lounge seating and striking design don't necessarily mean good cooking.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the long and light-filled international departures concourse of Terminal 1, where four places run by OTG Management – Mark McEwan's Fetta panini shop, baker Devin Connell's Heirloom Bakery Café, master sommelier John Szabo's Vinifera wine bar and Hemant Bhagwani's Marathi Indian restaurant – are lined up in an almost painfully beautiful row. (Ms. Connell and Mr. Szabo's contracts with OTG recently expired; they are no longer involved.)

Because the terminal's ceilings are so high, the company couldn't install commercial exhaust systems for cooking fumes. And so none of them have real kitchens.

When I ate at Fetta on my way out of town last fall, the place seemed to be getting along very well all the same. The sandwiches were well-prepared and tasty, none more than the one with aged white cheddar, fig marmalade and arugula. A dish of roasted cauliflower wasn't all that roasted-tasting, but it was fine. The wine selection was impressive – sparkling Riesling from Hinterland in Prince Edward County, nice local reds. Even the kids' food was good – my six-year-old loved the ham and cheese sandwich. How civilized.

Yet, the offerings earlier this month at Heirloom Bakery Café fell far short of that standard. A plate of sautéed chard and kohlrabi was barely warm and greasy. One of the stalks had turned rusty brown from age.

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The "herb roasted" chicken sandwich, a special that day, arrived without the chicken. It was better that way, I learned; the meat, evidently reheated in a panini press, was nearly as dry and tough as pleather. The clam chowder and grilled cheese sandwich were good enough.

That is more than I'd say about Mr. Bhagwani's Marathi. The cooking was uniformly dreadful.

At Vinifera wine bar, where the by-the-glass offerings include an incredible 60 selections, our server couldn't describe a single wine. When I eventually settled on a red from Greece, he seemed surprised. He'd never heard of it until then, he said. It felt like being lost on a treasure island without a shovel or a map – a very expensive treasure island. In several cases, the cost of a glass was just $1 or $2 short of a full bottle's retail price. And all those iPads weren't much help. To read descriptions of the wines (or of dishes), you click on whatever you're interested in, wait for the description to load, then click out when you're done. Worse, every time you order something, there's a pop-up box with a set of up-sells that you need to click away.

Would you like Irish coffee with your basmati rice? Neither did I.

A real stove helps

The OTG-run spots in Terminal 3 have real kitchens. That helps to some extent at the mixed domestic and international departures area's Corso, where Rocco Agostino is the consulting chef. Corso has a gas-fired pizza oven. The $12 margherita pizza was excellent, its crust crisp and blistered, the dough flavourful, the tomato sauce balanced between bright-tasting and sweet.

I'd go back for that pizza. As for the pastas, not so much. Corso's spaghetti pomodoro verged on mushy. The carbonara was soupy. The fried calamari were fine – not bad at all, really. The arancini tasted mostly of fryer oil.

Nearby, Acer, a modern Asian spot from Guy Rubino, in the international-only area, has perhaps the best of the OTG lot. The sashimi was freshly cut and appealing, the grilled eel delicious. Acer's wakame salad and cabbage kimchi were combined into a refreshing little pickle plate. The vegetable and chicken curry rice bowl was basic but healthy tasting and nicely made. Even the ramen was eminently decent. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat there, but I'd be fairly happy if I did.

I would go out of my way not to eat again at Mark McEwan's Nobel Burger Bar, in Terminal 3's U.S. departures area. Nobel's busy kitchen, ringed with a bar that's crowded day and night, is the focus of the place.

Yet, I didn't get the sense that Mr. McEwan, or anybody really, had taught Nobel's cooks to use it. My $15 Bymark Burger was so overcooked that it had turned grayish white at its core. (The One Burger was also overcooked, but not as badly.) The onion rings were more dough than onion but otherwise decent. The gravy on the poutine: Memories of Bouillon Cubes.

That meal of two sad-sack burgers, a poutine, an onion rings and one bottle of cider cost $70 after tax and tip.

Two years ago, OTG Management's Michael Coury told me: "Some of your best restaurants downtown will now be in your airport." From what I tasted and experienced, that is not yet even close to being the case.

A model that works

What gives me hope is Massimo Capra's restaurant, Boccone Trattoria Veloce. Set in Terminal 1's domestic departures area, Boccone shows how good airport eating can be.

I had a Roman-style margherita pizza there that was the equal to what you'd find at Terroni, and a $14 plate of spaghetti and meatballs so beautifully made that I could hardly put down my fork.

The calamari fritti were light, blonde-battered and beautifully cooked. The bean and tuna salad was perfect. Nearly all the food is made fresh, in the restaurant – this with union staff, which are typically considered an impediment in the food business. (The OTG spots use non-union employees.)

The service was friendly and the wine list affordable. The menu came on real paper, bless it: Ordering was fast and easy.

A key difference here: Mr. Capra isn't a mere consultant. Although the business is a partnership, his role, more or less, is the same as any restaurant owner's. And his face and name are everywhere at Boccone – something you don't see at the OTG spots. Eating there, it felt like somebody cares.

How will the new places from Susur Lee, Lynn Crawford, Zane Caplansky and Roger Mooking turn out? Although the company they've contracted with, HMS Host, was short on details when I spoke with a representative this week, she said the chefs will be "very intimately involved" in the restaurants' day-to-day. I hope that's the case.

But either way, Pearson's greatest success these past two years has been creating competition between its restaurant companies.

That will almost certainly mean good news down the road when you show up for a flight.

If even a few of those still-to-come places are as well-executed as Boccone is, the laggards will face just two choices: get better, or get out of the way.

Where to eat and drink at Pearson International Airport

Terminal 1 Departures

Domestic:

  • Boccone Trattoria Veloce. Order a pizza, a plate of the terrific spaghetti and meatballs, a salad, fried calamari and a few glasses of wine.

International:

  • Boccone Pronto, for a pizza
  • Fetta, for an aged white cheddar and fig jam sandwich, a salad and a cocktail
  • Vinifera for a glass of interesting wine (the Kotsifali-Mandilaria is incredible).

Terminal 3 departures

Domestic and international:

  • Corso, for excellent pizza.

International only:

  • Vinifera, for a drink.
  • Acer, for noodles, pickled vegetables, some sushi and the grilled eel.
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Chris More

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