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Toronto Fishmongers

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By Noelle Munaretto


With the amazing selection of fine dining restaurants in our city, Torontonians might be prone to eat their seafood outside the home. While chefs have the advantage knowing how to cook fish and other water dwelling animals the right way, enjoying the tastiness and health benefits of seafood shouldn't only be left to the pros.

All of the scales, bones and other fish-related appendages need not scare off fish-lovers who want to start cooking these sea creatures from their own kitchen. When it comes to not getting enough seafood through our front doors, and onto our dinner plates, there's an easy solution to the problem. Find a great fishmonger.

It's just as important to forge meaningful relationships with people who specialize in fish, as it is to get to know your local butcher, green grocer and baker. Not only will fishmongers help take some of the guesswork out of properly preparing seafood, but most specialty fish shops offer a incredible selection of product not found in conventional supermarkets. To help get you started we've created a list of the best fish stores in Toronto, organized by which area of the city they're located in. Take advantage of the expertise as well as the unique types of fish and other goodies you'll find at a great seafood counter. Fresh fish shouldn't only be a beautiful thing; it should be accessible to everyone outside the wholesale market. These seven retailers make that idea a reality, and make shopping for fish a hell of a lot of fun.

North: City Fish Market - 2929 Dufferin St. (at Lawrence Ave. West), 416 256 7373

The Store: This tiny shop is smack dab in the centre of a strip mall, and if you're not careful you might just miss it on the drive up. As soon as you walk in, you find yourself strategically positioned beside three aqua-blue tanks of wriggling lobsters. Step in a bit further you'll see an open case of whole fish spanning half the length of the North-facing wall, and an enormous closed case of butchered fish on the opposite end of the store. A large chalkboard posts fish recipes visitors can jot down, and the space is decorated with everything from fish streamers to the old restaurant guides that featured their name.

The Product: All of the pre-cut fish is butchered on site, but the people in the back will also scale and gut any whole fish the customer wants. You won't find live scallops, mussels or oysters here, but the unique sampling of fish this places stocks is worth a visit. Check out Spigola, sardines, gorgeous whole red snapper and the fresh squid.

The Reason: The place has been around for 18 years with owner Gus joining the team 6 years ago. He injects a burst of friendliness into City Fish, joking around with customers, referring to his staff as "the boys", and running a tight ship at the same time. You feel like family when you arrive, and that makes it hard to shop anywhere else.

South: Mike's Fish Market - 93 Front Street East (Upper Level 31), 416 368 0876

The Store: Located in St. Lawrence market, Mike's has been around for over 40 years. Customers become known on a first-name basis, and passersby with rival fish store bags are comically hassled by the guys behind the counter. Counters are organized in a giant square with the mongers working in the centre and re-stocking the cases on a regular basis. Bright pot lights, stainless steel fixtures and a glowing blue sign overhead give the space a modern feel.
The Product: Mike's stocks an impressive selection of product. They tend to stick to what's popular here, so that means you're likely to find Tuna, Salmon, Scallops, Halibut, and Sole instead of other sea rarities. Their shrimp selection is probably the best in the city, and they offer a wide variety of caviar and king crab meats. If they happen to have it, get your hands on some of the whole black cod. For those whole like frozen fish, their freezer case won't disappoint.

The Reason: This place is a Toronto Institution. Owner Rick Blackwood works behind the counter singing The Beatles' Yellow Submarine and tells us the reason for his success through the years. "I got the best staff anywhere," he gushes. "They're knowledgeable and talented!" Mike's is also extremely clean, showing the owner cares about food safety and presentation.

East: Diana's Seafood Delights - 2101 Lawrence Ave. East (at Warden), 416 288 9286

The Store: General Manager Chris Pipergias wishes we had dropped by on another day. He would have preferred us visiting him in a couple of months when the dramatic renovation to Diana's would finally be complete. As it stands, this massive fish store is still impressive. They have the longest counters of all the other stores in this article, and they're all packed tight with so many kinds of fish it'll make your head spin. When the reno is complete those counters will be extended to 40 feet, giving the store 80 full feet of open fish case. That makes Diana's essentially a giant fish supermarket, complete with turnstile and a developing deli counter. The décor is done in pretty shades of blue and the fresh sea-air smell makes you linger.

The Product: Let us warn you - it's going to be incredibly hard choosing what you want to buy at this place. The selection here is unparalleled. Rarities they stock include sea urchins, live scallops, abalone, geoduck, octopus, tilefish, and Cuttle fish. Oysters lovers rejoice too, since they've got at least 7 different types on display with Pipergias divulging he's got other breeds in the back. Everything is also very reasonable priced. When you finally decide on what type of fish to grab, the last step is to take it over to the cleaning station at the back of the store, where the staff quickly helps get your catch ready for the kitchen.

The Reason: Pipergias' passion for fish oozes through his pores. He's insanely meticulous about his business, calling out for more ice chips or better presentation at any given moment. Diana's supplies to Toronto restos Starfish and Scaramouche, and they also emphasize the importance of bringing in sustainable fish for the customers. The price is another clincher, since it's a lot cheaper than anything comparable you'll find in downtown Toronto. Basically, if this place was located near your house, you could eat fish from Diana's every day without getting bored.

West: Newport Market Place: 1140 Dupont St. (at Dufferin), 416 537 1278

The Place: Newport has its roots in the Portuguese culture. Locals visit their open-to-the-public part of the giant warehouse to pick up everything from flaky custard-filled Natas to Portuguese cheese to Moray eel. But, Newport is still known as one of the city's top fish suppliers, as they work with the folks at Joso's, Quince, Adega, Spuntuni and have often been asked for fish by Susur Lee. The walls are painted in a combination of royal blue and aqua blue, the pattern mimicking the churning sea. Overtop the fish counter hangs a series of bright international flags, and the salt cod section near the back of the restaurant is impressive.

The Product: Among some of the items stocked on the blue-and-white tiled counter are whole Sole, octopus, Conger eel, Monkfish, Scabbard, White Stickleback, Robbins, Sea Bream, Sea Bass, Grouper, and Ocean Perch. The seafood selection is limited to pasta clams, large clams and mussels but the come here for the cod. The sun-dried Bacalhau Cura Natural Amarela is likely the best salt cod in the city.

The Reason: The fish that comes into Newport isn't limited to one geographic location. They pull product from all around the world, while still placing an emphasis on Portuguese products. Newport has been around for over 40 years and now 25-year-old fishmonger Frank has taken over from his dad. He admits a funny secret though. "Honest to God I can't stand fish," he says, revealing that it's been all about fish in his family since the day he was born. "If I have to eat it, it's going to be Monkfish." Don't limit yourself to just one type like Frank though, as the selection is simply too good to ignore.

Central: Whole Foods: 87 Avenue Rd (in Hazelton Lanes), 416 944 0500

The Place: American import, Whole Foods is a grocery store that attracts everyone from foodies, to organic lovers, to celebrities. They have earned their reputation as one of the city's top spots for clean, organic food, and have departments full of rare food finds. At the back of the store, between the meat counter and the start of the produce section, you'll find the fish section. Hanging chalkboards and bright posters accent the well-lit counter tops. There's a deliberate focus on bringing in colour, not hiding the fish between too much ice, and clearly labeling each product. If you have to get fish from the supermarket, this is where you should get it.

The Product: Whole Foods stocks everything you could want from a fish store, with exception of truly rare breeds, and hard-to-find seafood. Some of their options include Green Tiger Shrimp, Turbot, Sashimi Tuna, Coho Salmon, Buramundi, Sable Fish and king crab legs. Fish comes in 7 days a week, with no more than 24-48 hours passing before it gets in the display case. Whole Food excels in the prepared fish category. They have an amazing selection of already marinated fish - that is still all butchered on-site - which can help fish novices experiment with the product. Marketing Manager Jim Empey is especially proud of the fact that the store operates with traceability in mind. "It is one of our core values," he insists, adding that they also support sustainable fishing and reducing the carbon footprint their fish operation has.

The Reason: At Whole Food's it's all about traceability of the product. Each marker on the fish clearly states where it came from. Ontario choices are marked with a different colour tags. The fish cases all feature posted signs that give customers fish facts, encourage them to ask the mongers how about flavour pairings, and disclose the company's policies for supporting pesticide-free fishing. Just ask and the seafood department will supply you with pamphlets about Coho Salmon, Chilean Sea Bass, recipes, and market quality standards. The friendliness of the staff is also a bonus. Llita, who works behind the counter and is barely 5 feet tall, offers you samples of cooked shrimp and greets your kids from across the room with a cheery smile.

Markham: Taro's Fish: 3160 Steeles Ave. E. (at Victoria Park), Suite 6, 905 944 1377

The Place: If you're looking for sushi grade fish this is probably the best spot in the city to get it. The store is made up of a small counter with a fishmonger cutting paper thin slices of buttery fish, an area for packaging, a small cash register, an upright fridge case and few other refrigeration units. It's a very tranquil store, with most customers knowing exactly what they want when they visit. This spot will be moving soon, so be on the lookout for their new, and currently undisclosed, location.

The Product: Each piece of fish is ever so carefully butchered into a small piece, placed on a foam tray and tightly wrapped in plastic wrap to preserve the freshness. Don't let the supermarket-like treatment fool you, because this is some very precious fish. For those who don't want to cut their sushi pieces at home, Taro's also has pre-done sashimi trays with tuna, salmon, octopus and other rare offerings. They have the most fantastic, ruby-red, tuna we saw. Other items, such as miso glaze fish, are vacuum packed for maximum freshness. Their selection of clams and oysters also would make a great addition to any sushi party.

The Reason: This is truly a gem of a space and an out-of-town secret that stocks amazing product. Jamie Kennedy is rumoured to get some of his fish from Taro's and it also attracts other restaurateurs who are seeking out the best fish to enjoy raw. The hefty price tag isn't that way because of the location or the operating costs, but because of the craftsmanship that goes into cutting the fish and the undeniable fact that you're getting only the freshest cuts possible.

Etobicoke: Big Fish Market: 765 The Queensway (at Royal York), 416 259 1585

The Place: Ironically, Big Fish Market is actually a quaint hole-in-the-wall. The shop has been around for 17 years, with owner Frank working tireless behind the counter, running the store practically by himself. Though the shop is in dire need of a makeover, don't let the dated green marble and knotty wood paneling fool you. The shop is barebones when it comes to the atmosphere but the screamingly fresh fish makes up for it.

The Product: Big Fish has the most plump and gleaming un-cleaned squid, the mussels are firm and tight, and the pre-cut fish filets gleam with freshness. For those looking for the whole fish, Frank cleverly hides his catches with a thick layer of clear ice-cubes. He scrapes and guts everything clean while you wait. First-rate Nova Scotia lobsters are the first to go, so get there when the store opens at 10 to avoid disappointment.

The Reason: If you want to support a local fish business in the west-end and recognize a store with a big heart behind it, Big Fish is the place to be. Etobicoke residents have been coming here for years and have been eating better fish because of it.



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