Canoe Restaurant and Bar
66 Wellington Street W
Toronto M5K 1H6
Written and Photographed by: Andrew Coppolino
Food & Service: I’m sure that somewhere, at some time, someone has said something to the effect that there are probably a dozen or so restaurants in the country that you absolutely have to eat at it. Similarly, there are likely a few lists of top restaurants floating around proclaiming this, that, and the other are the country’s top eating spots.
I’m sure in both cases Canoe, a flagship Oliver Bonacini venue, must be among those proclamations. And justifiably so. On the 54th floor in downtown Toronto, for the last 15 years or so, Canoe certainly has to be Canada’s highest restaurant in more ways than one.
But more to the tasting point, it provides towering flavours and technique as it serves what has been described as “Canadian cuisine,” though that seems such a broad and vast descriptor coast to coast to coast.
Both the inside and the outside of Canoe are striking: for the latter you’re looking at a pretty damn spectacular view of the world (though it is too high up for dipping a paddle into Lake Ontario); for the former, the grace and elegance of the dining room has a balance and simplicity that doesn’t overwhelm given the drama of the altitude before you, and just a few millimetres through the glass. That balance and simplicity is thanks to a recent renovation, and the inspired design team behind it.
I think we’ve all been to eating establishments where the physical setting somehow overrides what ends up on the plates in front of you. We say, “It’s good to look good, yes; but to taste even better than that is crucial”. That crucial measure is certainly the case at Canoe, as it has been at other O & B establishments that I have visited.
I wouldn’t say “Canadiana” is the right decor word (a word I’ve resisted since the days I worked in a WH Smith bookstore), but there is a palpable Canadian feel to Canoe. A pleasing one too. It permits me to say, playfully, that it is a case of the palette corresponding deliciously with palate.
Okay, so I will retract then: Executive Chef Anthony Walsh has just a teensy bit more credibility than I to say that what Canoe has done since it opened in the mid-1990s is indeed one important example of what Canadian regional cuisine can be, and how delicious it in fact is. Dishes such as Ontario buffalo mozzarella, Cookstown greens, mustard, venison, rabbit, cranberries, and real tree syrups like birch and maple, some of which is made especially for Canoe.
Now it’s time to eat: and if you are going to trudge up the 54 flights of stairs to Canoe (doesn’t everyone like a workout before a big meal?), then I have to urge you strongly to immerse yourself in the tasting menu once you get to the restaurant. It’s around $100 per person, but it’s really the best thing to do here. A good tasting menu costs more, yes, but it is an evening of luxuriant entertainment that can produce long-lasting memories that build from amuse to a first course, to intercourse (nyuk, nyuk) and on to final heavier courses and sweeter dishes. It’s orchestral, and one would expect–given the name Canoe–nothing less than a Canadian arboreal symphony.
Maestro Mustard was conducting the ensemble tonight.
An ice apple cider–Cryomalus–from Saint Joseph-du-Lac is a delightful first sip, the apples ripened by winter’s cold. Jerusalem artichoke (the “Canada Potato”) is a satiny, slightly tart base for a succulent maple-braised pork belly. Could ever an amuse be more Canadian?
I have to immediately note the direction from Jean-Val, a master in overseeing all-things-front-of-house whoimpresses me with his knowledge and ease, who suggests taking a delicate mouthful of soup before introducing a sip of cider: the sibilant effect is pleasant indeed and all the taste buds are now awakened. Then there is the slight crunch of a Jerusalem artichoke chip against the buttery softness of the dish.
A large space is soon made on the table for a chunk of slate big enough for snooker–but instead of racked balls it’s octopus torchon–which is simply scrumptious–that takes the form of something like an opaque whitish stained glass window that mingles amidst ginger poached mussels (which worked quite well), dramatic jets of squid ink mayo and pickled mustard seeds (courtesy of the excellent work of Anton Kozlik), radish kimchi, some greens, and a challenging but rewarding tapioca “dust” that has a most interesting textural note.
Wines are selected by sommelier Will Predhomme–a 2008 Flat Rock Cellars Riesling accompanied the octopus. Next, a marvelous 2009 Stoney Ridge Pinot Noir arrives just before a rabbit agnolotti with roasted heirloom carrot and fabulous slightly smokey Thunder Oak gouda. The sauce? A matching slightly smokey mustard cream that melds well with tender, mild, and sweetish rabbit and a pasta with a bit of toothsomeness to it. The creaminess and softness echoes the Jerusalem artichoke soup and follows the torchon nicely with its more rustic nature.
An intermezzo of apple and cedar-sap granita has an astringency that hits the taste buds late and is a nice break before the heavier courses, and which is announced by Claude, a warm and professional waiter, as a 2010 Norman Hardie Cabernet Franc, and a Pearl Morissette Winery Chardonnay, 2008 (both tremendous).
Skate wing is mustard-crusted with daisy caper ox-eye flower buds (very Canadian) and has a pleasant brininess alongside tiny beads of fregola pasta, baby lettuce, and brown butter. The meat tastes more like seafood than it does “fish”, and you won’t find this dish served in many restaurants.
An Alberta boar chop is served with crackling and a dynamite maple-mustard cassoulet, the latter the classic dish of Languedoc, and some braised winter melon chutney as a slightly acidic garnish. The protein offers tender meatiness but not a heavy boar gaminess in the least.
The cassoulet-bean component of the dish was actually the heaviest–and just as tasty. Pork belly re-appears here, this time with a flourish of crispness to its top akin to bacon (duh).
At this point, Chef de Cuisine John Horne appears to pour a Remonte-Pente 70 Brix maple syrup–from 150 year old Quebec maple trees (I thought Remonte-Pente was a Quebec ski-lift, no?). He pours and leaves with the bottle: with only a few hundred samples of elixir produced, you don’t leave it sitting around on the table like it’s time for Sunday morning pancakes. I sipped the nectar carefully and respectfully.
Finally, made in a style expressly for the banking crowd in Paris’s financial district (and it seems suitable since we are on Wellington Street in Toronto’s and Canada’s financial heart), a financier cake with black mustard seed and almond nougatine finishes the mustard symphony and breaks for the moment the heightened Canadian focus. Pineapple mustard ice cream is lovely, but the pineapple “paper” is the killer flavour and texture here. Sous chef Julie Marteleira tells me she thinks pineapple and mustard go well together because the tropical fruit is never too sweet.
A Rosewood Estates wildflower mead accompanies. For some, mead can be a challenge, but I love it and it works well in this pairing and with the petits fours too.
There are a few notable things happening here, aside from the magic of Canoe’s elevation (for me as a small-town boy): the restaurant balances perfectly the simplicity of flavours and textures–and visual aesthetics–in its dishes with a complex range of ingredients.
That takes skill and proper technical execution as well as inspired vision, lest things get unwieldy and confused. Walsh, Horne, and Marteleira, et al’s, success with mustard at Canoe foregrounds a quintessentially Canadian crop that doesn’t only just get squirted onto hotdogs at ball parks in a yellow goo. We are the largest exporter and the second largest producer of mustard seed in the world and are responsible for nearly 80 percent of global mustard exports. This delivery of mustard–from the heights of 54 floors up–takes the simple and makes it simply delicious.
Dinnerreviews.com© is proud to feature this Canadian restaurant reviewer for Echo Weekly and former restaurant critic of The Waterloo Region Record. He is a full time freelance writer, broadcaster, and food commentator, and host of both the radio program “The Food Show” on 570 News and the cooking and food segment on Rogers TV “Grand River Living.” Andrew’s done cooking apprenticeships at Kitchener fine dining restaurants, and does occasional kitchen stages when he isn’t writing for various publications, developing content for his website Waterloo Region Eats, or in a restaurant somewhere eating yet more food.