With the 11th anniversary of Winterlicious currently underway, Torontonians are looking to enjoy the city’s premiere dining scene. For this year’s festival, we had the chance to have dinner and chat with chef John Horne of premiere restaurant, Canoe.
Produced by the City of Toronto and sponsored by American Express Canada, the annual prix-fixe festival is celebrating its busiest season yet, with over 190 restaurants participating, and a record number of reservations across the city. A recent Ipsos Reid study estimates the number of meals that will be served during 'Licious at over 500,000.
The festival provides an opportunity for diners to explore new restaurants, neighborhoods, and cultures. It also gives those sticking to a budget the chance to dine at some of the city's finer establishments, such as Canoe. Since the inception of the prix fixe festival, Canoe (and the Oliver and Bonacini group of restaurants) has been an ambassador for the program, and to this date, remains the hottest ticket in town. Every year, the restaurant dedicates a number of reservation lines specifically for the festival, and reservations are almost always booked-up quickly. To give you an idea of just how coveted and popular a Canoe Winterlicious dining experience is, we were told that the restaurant was preparing to serve close to 2,500 guests during the opening weekend of Winterlicious.
Amex loves to bring these exciting dining experiences to life, which is why we were invited to be one of their 'Roving Reporters' for this year's Winterlicious. We had the chance to dine at Canoe restaurant and experience its Winterlicious dinner. Canoe remains a popular choice amongst diners for Winterlicious for a number of reasons. It continues to be rated as one of the top restaurants in the country; food, service, and the view of the city and harbourfront are unparalleled; and during the festival diners have the added benefit of a discount—a Winterlicious lunch is just $25/pp and dinner is $45/pp.
Canoe's 2013 Winterlicious menu is a celebration of all things Canadian, with ingredients from coast to coast. It is easily one of the most exciting 'Licious menus in the history of the restaurant and is a culmination of ideas from the collective culinary talent in the kitchen according to executive chef John Horne. A hearty squash and parsnip soup, with gently charred yarmouth lobster and a dollop of birch yoghurt, was the first dish to arrive. It set the tone for the rest of the meal. The soup has all the right elements; it's hearty, cooling, with tender chunks of sashimi-like lobster meat. Other starters on the menu include: a deconstructed bed of fresh sheep's milk cheese (Quark) dressed with winter greens and carrot. And a buttery creamy Pork Rillettes accented by mustard aioli and cider jelly.
Three main options are offered. A healthy serving of 'Duo of Ontario beef' is a hearty, rich plate, the beef sits on a bed of creamed potatoes . Cornish hen is roasted and served on a bed of creamy ancient Algonquin grits. Chef explained that these are a type of heirloom corn, referred to as 'white corn' which he sourced from a producer in Schomberg, Ontario. This type of corn has pronounced earthy and nutty tones, which translate beautifully in grits form. The dish was finished off with Niagara bacon, northern woods mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. A plate of olive oil poached heritage salmon is the lightest dish of the group, dressed with preserved fennel, celery, buttermilk cream, and Israeli couscous.
Canoe sommeliers Will Predhomme and Joel Wilcox have also carried over the menu's theme of featuring some of Canada's best to the wine list. Each and every appetizer, main and dessert has a featured Ontario VQA wine partner available by the glass. Just like the food menu this select wine list highlights the beautiful diversity that Canada and specifically Ontario wine country is able to produce. There's crisp Riesling and Chardonnay, aromatic white blends, a juicy food-friendly red, a bold Merlot and of course Canada's best known liquid export Icewine. All the glasses are affordably priced ($15 for all pairings on the Winterlicious menu) so you can enjoy one with each course and still stay within your Winterlicious budget. The Rosewood 2011 Long Rose white blend (Riesling, Chardonnay and Sémillon) with its crisp aromatic notes and weighty texture stood out as a perfect pairing for the soup. Similarly the 2010 Angels Gate Gamay with its juicy berry notes and bright freshness was the kind of food-friendly red that really sings with a lighter dish like its Salmon pairing. Dessert even has some interesting and adventurous pairing partners including: a Rosewood mead (honey wine) and Peninsula Ridge's 2006 Ratafia (a Chardonnay dessert wine fortified with plum spirits). And for those who have never had the chance to try the beautiful toffee and dried fruit notes that develop when an Icewine has aged, there's the perfect opportunity with Southbrook's 2005 Vidal Icewine.
If you're a foodstragrammer that loves to share photos of your meals, you can benefit from one of the incentives Amex is running during this year's program. Instagram users can upload their 'licious photos for a chance to win a $100 American Express gift card by tagging photos with the #dinewithamex hashtag. You can also submit your Instagram photos through the DineWithAmex facebook page here.
Many restaurants are still accepting winterlicious reservations, even Canoe (Staff advised that week 2 is your best bet to take advantage of last minute cancellations).
You can find the full list of participating restaurants here. There are also a number of culinary events that are taking place as part of Winterlicious, from a fashion themed dining experience at the Drake hotel to a Group of Seven Chefs dinner. The full list can be found here. Also, Winterlicious chatter is hot on social media, you can follow the buzz on Twitter through #dinewithAmex, #liciousTO, @liciousTO, and @AmexCanada.
Disclaimer: Suresh was part of the 'roving reporter' DineWithAmex program for this year's Winterlicious festival.