Read a list of the restaurant “who’s who” in Toronto and you’re certain to find at least one reference to the Oliver & Bonacini family of restaurants – and if that list is one of fine dining you’re likely to find Canoe at or near the very top of the list. Seated very high indeed, on the 54th floor of the Dominion Bank Tower (Bymark – my dinner 2 nights prior is located in the lowest floor,) and offering a lunch service throughout the week I knew I’d be making my way to Canoe at some point during my visit and fortuitously my friend was able to take the day off to join me. Calling to make reservations I requested a window seat for 1:30 and was told “absolutely” – intrigued by the menu I also asked if it would be possible to perhaps order something off the dinner menu during lunch – “not a problem at all.”
Arriving 15 minutes before our reservation and making our way up the speedy elevator to the 54th floor the restaurant was easily accessible and abuzz with a sort of energy that one doesn’t often see at lunch – actually, every single seat in the house was full, some with business folks and some far more casual. Browsing around I have to say I was astounded by the large windows and the view – the CN Tower, the ACC, Skydome, everything was so close and visible. Greeted promptly by our server, Greg, we were handed menus and a wine list while our waters were filled – a simple request of the dinner menu produced results only moments later with the caveat that he’d have to ask the kitchen before guaranteeing any orders off the later menu.
Left to browse the scenery and the menu for a short time we were faced with some tough decisions – aside from the fact that I don’t eat beef there wasn’t a single item on the menu that didn’t sound impressive – and my dining companion loves beef, so even that wasn’t overlooked. A short while passed before Greg returned to answer any questions and to see if we wanted anything besides water to drink. After a couple simple questions were fielded we each ordered two dishes with the likelihood of adding a third – a decision we both later decided to act on thus ending up with a total of six savories. Despite the busyness of the restaurant I will note that I found Greg to be the perfect “Casual professional” server – around when needed, gregarious and friendly, full of knowledge and suggestions – on par with servers at any of the Keller establishments stateside (my personal standards for great service.)
Kicking things off we were brought a basket of breads along with an impressive chickpea and sweet pea spread – no butter. Finding this quite interesting we delved into the three bread selections – a crispy white with plenty of spring to the interior, a hearty whole wheat that was toothy without being tough, and a beautiful walnut and cinnamon option. Tasting the spread first on its own, then on the bread I was struck by the impressive manner in which the sugar of the sweet peas complimented the nutty flavors of the chickpeas – almost a sweetened hummus in essence and definitely justifying a second bread basket.
Our first round of food arrived next with my friend receiving the “Mushroom Soup – no creme, no butter” and myself the Paillotte de Chevre with Walnut and Honey. Tasting only a bite of the Mushroom soup but listening to Heather ooh and ah about it with each bite we inquired how exactly this porridge-esque concoction was made and we were told that it was essentially a mushroom stock that they use for some of their other sauces with a puree of marinated pan seared mushrooms blended in. Thick, succulent – the very essence of the mushroom. My option was certainly a more heavy choice and featured thick round of ashy yet unctuous cheese similar to Humboldt Fog atop a crispy piece of cracker crust and topped with a single almond and lavender honey. Served warm and slightly melting the flavors of this dish melded flawlessly while the addition of the frisee, beets, and flowers served to add a vegetal component (and great visual appeal) to the dish.
Arriving next (shortly after that second basket of bread) our next course consisted of Applewood Smoked Duck Breast with Lingonberries, Salsify, and Spiced Walnuts for my friend and the Foie Gras with Sunflower Root, Pumpkin Muffin, and Walnut Pickle for myself. Taking only a single bite of my friend’s duck and salsify I will say that the rare meat was delicious and she very much enjoyed the dish. On my side, the foie was a beautifully cleaned piece – albeit small for the price – and the accompanying components were interesting to say the least. Crisp and woodsy the Sunflower Root was a nice balance in texture while the balsamic pickled walnut was the very definition of savory. Small and sweet the a small piece of baked sweet potato and a pumpkin-pumpkin seed muffin graced the left side of the plate and the whole plate showed a unique progression in flavors from sweet and soft to unctuous and creamy to crunchy and savory.
Our third courses were decided on late but turned out to be our favorites of the afternoon – for my friend the Steak Tartare with Potato Chips and Pepper, Onion, and Yolk and for myself an appetizer from the dinner menu entitled Yarmouth Lobster with Yukon Gnocchi, Crispy Sweetbreads, Creme Fraiche, and Preserved Lemon. As I don’t eat beef flesh I skipped the tartare but was told it was “amazing.” As for my dish – without exaggerating this is probably in my top ten dishes of the year. Flawless potato dumplings with a firm exterior yielding a creamy melt-in-your-mouth center were absolutely laden with fresh butter poached lobster and crispy pan seared sweetbreads while the whole dish was then topped with a creamy sauce of sweetened lemon and tangy crème fraiche. Half expecting the characteristic flavor of the thymus to overwhelm the delicate lobster I actually found that the lemon/crème/chives admixture served to mellow the sweetbreads while drawing forward the lobster’s sweetness. A wonderful take on “surf and turf” featuring two ingredients I’d have never thought to pair – the bite I spared to my friend led her to a resolution to return for a full plate of her own in the future.
After such a sublime meal and great service, Greg’s suggestion to “tempt” us with dessert really didn’t require much effort – we ended up ordering two. Starting first with the Dark Chocolate Truffle Cake with Sour Cherry Compote, Chantilly and Pistachio Ice Cream – it was good. A dark chocolate ganache well tempered in its decadence by the sour poached cherries and creamy Chantilly crème plus a dollop of smooth ice cream that tasted very much like salty Pistachios atop a pistachio cookie crumble – plenty of textures, temperatures, flavors, and nuance – during any other meal I’d have been quite impressed.
The dish that prevented my amazement with the cake was our second dessert – again a contender for top 10 of the year, this time in the sweets category. Sticky Date Pudding, Whisky Sauce, Cherries and Apples, Bacon Toffee Brittle, and Creme Fraiche arrived in a large bowl and really didn’t “look” to be anything special – at first bite however, looks didn’t matter one bit – looking up at Heather I realized she agreed. Steamed through and appearing to be somewhere between a custard and a bread pudding in texture the date flavors simply melted in the mouth while the whisky sauce ascended to the palate creating a flawless blend of spice and heat with the sweetness. Further enhancing the experience were diced pink lady apples and sweetened cherries smoothed out by the crème fraiche. Finally, adding texture was the Toffee – a creamy butterscotch with potent top notes of salt and pork that paired beautifully with the whisky sauce and the pudding both – to call the mélange of flavors well thought out would be the understatement of the year.
Settling our bill and talking a bit more with Greg as the restaurant had cleared out and they began to prepare for dinner service I was thoroughly impressed by his knowledge of the local dining scene and willingness to make recommendations of places both fine and casual – an experienced server who knows more than his own menu can be your best ally when traveling. Stopping for a few pictures of the skyline before leaving to get ready for that night’s Hall of Fame inductions I have to say I definitely “get” the appeal of Canoe and despite the fact that some may consider it to be a bit too “businessy” I personally found every aspect of the execution to be calculated, refined, and full of finesse – if I lived in Toronto this would definitely be my destination to impress out of town guests and on my next visit I fully intend to return for the nightly tasting menu.