Often introduced as one of Canada’s best restaurants, it sits on the 54th floor of the TD building at Wellington and Bay Street, with breathtaking views of the Toronto financial district and Lake Ontario. Within such a wavering and unsteady industry where restaurants come and go each year, reaching a 20 year milestone is definitely worth celebrating. Since its opening in 1995, the Oliver & Bonacini team has used Canoe as an opportunity to explore and bring new meaning to Canadian cuisine.
At a time when Canadian food brings to mind images of poutine and nanaimo bars, I often find myself defending what makes Canadian cuisine so special. When I try to suggest there is something to be said about Canadian cuisine I am faced with raised eyebrows and polite nodding. Whether misunderstood because our food identity is still under development, or because we are in the shadows of American fast food culture, convincing people there is a certain je ne sais quoi about Canadian-centric food tends to be an uphill battle.
Canoe has, over 20 years, been able to add definition to Canadian high-end cuisine and bring its strengths to the forefront. With Executive Chef John Horne and Chef de Cuisine Coulson Armstrong, Canoe uses quality Canadian ingredients to create dishes that are innovative, polished, and ambitious. At the core of what Canoe does in identifying what is Canadian is using all Canadian ingredients. The Canoe Twenty menu specifically celebrates where they are at the moment, in the here and now, as a restaurant and basking in the strong partnerships they’ve made from west coast to east coast. Chef Horne explained:
“Finding and highlighting people, places, history, and ingredients is what makes us Canada. It’s amazing to see what we can find and explore.”
Using only ingredients that are in season, Canoe sources from both small suppliers and large producers across the country. With that in mind, I was ready to dive in and discover what ingredients set Canada apart.
The menu is divided into three starters, a palette cleanser, the choice of a sea or land main dish, and dessert. First up was a mason jar filled with heirloom vegetables like carrot and cauliflower atop a layer of creamy fois gras mousse. A sweet rose petal onion exploded in my mouth as a burst of fresh flavor, suggesting spring after a long winter – with preserving, through the mason jar, being the only way to keep ingredients at their peak all season long.
To follow was the lobster carpaccio – my favourite dish of the night. It is served as a skinny trail of screech Marie Rose sauce trickled with greens, sesame shrimp crackers, tomato and peppers, edible flowers, and a lobster claw in deep fried phyllo that you can smell before it gets to your table. The lobster is unbelievably delicate and is matched perfectly with the flavours of the pickled daikon. Its melting texture contrasts with the crunch of the phyllo and the cracker. It has a story, too: “One of our long time suppliers, ‘Lobster George’ of Yarmouth Lobsters, was recently hospitalized. We wanted to continue to use his amazing Yarmouth lobsters to help support him while he recovers,” Chef Horne told me. The forest lasagna that follows “is very much about what’s in season in our forests at the moment that can be harvested.”
With wild James Bay rabbit (acquired with special permission), matsutake (spicy mushrooms), heartnuts, caribou moss, and an evergreen Mornay sauce, the lasagna is a walk through a Canadian forest.
“We wanted it to remind you of a walk in the woods on a crisp fall day, and bring up some smells, textures, and tastes you might experience in that setting.”
In between this and the main course was a shot of Muskoka cranberry juice as a palette cleanser, appropriate for this time of year.
For main dishes you are given the choice between a cerf de boileau venison (from the mountain regions of Quebec) or cod (from Fogo Island). The venison dish was spectacular: an unbelievably flavourful, exquisite piece of venison with an ice wine jus topped with artichoke soubric, dehydrated grapes, and a side of swiss chard. For the cod, I was warned by the gracious (and very informed) server that “it tastes like the ocean.” He was correct. Chef Horne explained the inspiration for this dish:
“This came about from a recent trip to the east coast to do a collaborative dinner with chefs from the U.S. and Canada. We were shown a lot about Newfoundland from the sights, smells, and ingredients the province has to offer. Upon returning to Toronto, we were approached by a group of fishermen from Fogo Island to buy their crab, cod, and other seafood delights. Buying direct ensures the fishermen receive 100 percent of the profits.”
It was a delicious piece of fish served with Tanner crab boudin, ocean salt potatoes, and strands of pickled seaweed.
Finally, dessert was entitled ‘100 km squash’ and consisted of a large plate of different elements: cattail crepe, white chocolate ice cream, prairie seeds, and grains.
“This dish came about from wanting to do a spinoff of the classic pumpkin pie. When we started to see the amazing squashes being harvested, we switched gears to highlight them while playing off of pumpkin pie.”
The cattail was especially innovative:
“Cattail Pollen is something that goes back to the grassroots of Canada […] we were able to get pure cattail flour for the crepe on the dessert menu. It is so yellow and flavourful, and takes the crepe to another level.”
The Canoe Twenty tasting menu is offered with wine pairings for every dish at $50 extra per person. Domaine Queylus’ Pinot Noir from Niagara (2012) is paired with the forest lasagna, a Closson Chase South Clos Chardonnay from Prince Edward County (2013) with the cod, and Pearl Morissette Le Spectateur Cabernet Franc from Twenty Mile Bench (2012) with the venison. Led by sommelier Billy Woon, Canoe has an extensive wine list. They also have local beers like Steam Whistle, Muskoka Cream Ale, and Left Field Eephus on tap. In addition to a variety of house cocktails, they have non-alcoholic drinks like ginger beer with maple lemonade ($10).
The floor-to-ceiling windows with views from the 54th floor speak for themselves: Lake Ontario, the city streets below, and the lit-up CN tower all within view. It may be the best restaurant views in the city. Beyond that, the décor is simple and classic with a couple Canadian symbols scattered here and there. An inukshuk decorates a corner of the room, and a tree trunk covered with foliage welcomes you at the door. For the autumn, they’ve scattered pumpkins around the hall. The best seats in the house may be at the open kitchen chef’s rail. From there you can enjoy the views of the city as well as the magic in the kitchen.
The Canoe Twenty tasting menu is available for $100 per person until November 20th. You are also welcome to order dishes a la carte along with their regular menu items. Canoe is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays, but is closed on weekends for weddings and other private events.
Like Canadian cuisine as a whole, Canoe by Oliver & Bonacini will only continue to get better with age. Their respect for the suppliers of fresh, local ingredients reminds us that it is important to know what is grown within our borders. Their devotion to creating delicious dishes that are seasonal, despite or due to the vast climates and terroir, is a discipline that opens our eyes to our country’s possibilities. Ultimately, through its food and drink Canoe is singing a love song dedicated to Canada. What’s the secret to success? According to Chef Horne: the Canadians themselves:
“The people who work here are the ones that make it special. Every day they walk in here they put their best foot forward, whether they’re glass polishers, bartenders, servers, cooks or even dishwashers that have worked here from day one. They make this place great and drive it forward using Canada’s bounty.”
Originally written for JamieSarner.com by Erika Simon