Winterlicious Wrap-Up: 2011

The City of Toronto holds two annual gastronomic celebrations called Winterlicious and Summerlicious in their respective seasons. While I have never had the opportunity to take advantage of a Summerlicious event (I’m usually off galavanting somewhere outside of Toronto in the summer, thank you very much), Winterlicious always sets me timbers a’shiver in culinary excitement. You see, while I enjoy cooking simple, homestyle dishes – I actually really get off on fine dining. You’ll never find me searing a 2 oz piece of organic mackerel with a blow-torch then carefully placing arugula micro greens on top as a garnish, but heyyyy daddy, do I ever love eating that stuff when someone else is making it.

Basically, Winterlicious is over 150 restaurants in Toronto that offer a prixe fixe three-course menu for either lunch, dinner or both – and is very reasonably priced. You’re looking at a range of $25 – $45 for dinner and $15-$25 for lunch. It’s designed to tantalize and intrigue new diners – the curious, the thrifty, and of course, the hungry. There are also culinary events all over the city such as chef competitions, cookbook signings and celebrity chef schmoozings.

This year, I achieved a new record in my Winterlicous dining. I hit a total of 5 restaurants that I’ve never been to before in a two-week period.

Disclaimer: I am not a food critic, nor do I claim to know anything about restaurant criticism. I just write a blog. Also, these are not my photos, I got them from the City of Toronto’s Winterlicious web site.

1. Mildred’s Temple Kitchen – 85 Hanna Ave, 416-588-5695

($35 Dinner)

My friend’s room-mate is a cook at this restaurant, which was one of the main factors in our visit. It is a little far from my neighbourhood which is why I’ve never visited before, but for Winterlicious, you must go the extra mile to eat delicious and cheap food. We arrived early for our reservation at 6:30, but were seated immediately after we were relieved of our bulky winter coats.

Our server, James, was a godsend, really. Friendly, relaxed, casual yet professional. In fact, all of them were like this. It is really a fabulous atmosphere. It feels elegant but not stuffy or pretentious. The mellow lighting illuminates the modern yet cosy décor, and the open kitchen design gives the diners a sense of the craziness that goes on during a busy service. The cooks all know they’re on display, though – they conducted themselves with style and finesse. Seriously, it was like watching an episode of Iron Chef America, except without Kevin Brauch.

The three of us ordered a bottle of Prosecco and our dinner choices. I had the gnudi with swiss chard & field mushrooms to start; the pan-seared pickerel with smoked mushrooms, brown butter parsley root puree, leek sauce & swiss chard for the main – and don’t get me started on dessert. My dinner companions flaked out at the dessert stage and I was forced….FORCED to eat all three dessert choices – profiteroles with chocolate ice cream and caramel sauce; chocolate brioche bread pudding with espresso anglaise and soused cherries; and to top it all off, the apple beignets topped with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream, I exclaimed enthusiastically to our server, was so good it was downright sexy. Note: my previous post explains my general aversion to sweets, so you see how I really took one for the team in eating all three of these.

Over dinner, we chuckled heartily to each other about how Winterlicious was so great because you can enjoy high-end restaurants on the cheap. Well, the joke was on us by the end of the night – our final bill caused slightly arrhythmic responses in our frugal hearts, mostly thanks to the prosecco, the red wine with our meals, the cognac following dinner, the round of espressos and a hearty gratutity for our beloved James. But it was all worth it, and I will do it again in a heartbeat.

2. Frank Restaurant at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) – 317 Dundas St W, 416-979-6688

($20 Lunch)

I have been meaning to go to this restaurant ever since I moved to Toronto. How nice would it be to don my black beret, turtleneck and un-ironic thick black framed glasses and sit down to a nice meal at Frank after visiting the gallery? Very nice.

My Winterlicious visit, however, was nothing like the above (except for the nice meal part). Two of my colleagues and I went for lunch in the middle of the work day, so wine could not be consumed in abundance as it was at my first foray into culinary celebration at Mildred’s. Our reservation was at 11:30 (our choices were either 11:30am or 2:00 pm), and when we arrived the restaurant was eerily empty, which we soon discovered was because it was not even open yet – a fact that our server coolly noted, despite our reservation being accepted for a time at which the restaurant was closed – clearly our mistake.

Regardless, we settled in at our table and drank our water as the service staff met with the kitchen staff nearby to go over details of the day’s menu and have the daily pep-talk.

To start, I ordered the gingered carrot and beet soup with crisp heirloom carrot ribbons; followed by the grilled cheese and spiced apple chutney sandwich on cranberry focaccia bread, served with frites and lemon mayonnaise. My vegetarian, allergic-to-eggs companion was disappointed that there were no options that she could eat on the Winterlicious menu, but enjoyed a rich and delicious-looking risotto; while the third contestant at the table tucked into the seafood bourride with mussels, clams, white shrimp and chorizo sausage in a saffron scented broth with garlic toasts. To be honest, my grilled cheese was yummy, but a bit heavy for my taste. The lemon mayo with the frites was to die for, and the dessert of chai spiced rice pudding brûlée with pistachio biscotti was a delightful touch at the end of the meal. I realise now that my track record for not liking sweet things is starting to reveal otherwise.

Overall, I thought the food at Frank was good, although I wasn’t blown away, and I probably wouldn’t set my sights so keenly on going back. The service, I admit was a bit cool and aloof…perhaps to be expected at an art gallery café.

3. Café du Lac – 2350 Lake Shore Blvd W, 416-848-7381

($35 Dinner)

This Québécois cuisine-inspired Etobicoke restaurant was the first in a two-restaurant date series I enjoyed with my beloved Cheesler, at home for a weekend visit from his work assignment afar. It is faaaaar away from the homestead – definitely a drive-to location – but the menu really tickled my fancy, and Cheesler had given me carte blanche in organizing our weekend excursions. Look at me, using French in my Québécois restaurant review. La dee da!

Café du Lac was bustling with activity when we arrived for our reservation at 6:00. Almost every table was filled, and we were led to a teeny tiny table for two in the middle of the action. I got the feeling that management had squeezed in extra tables during the two-week Winterlicious period to maximize their availability. There were several awkward “do I shove my front or my backside into these peoples’ plates as I walk by?” moments. Our server was prompt and friendly, a cute red-lipsticked young fille (pronounce “fee”) who brought our wine within 30 seconds, I swear. This was the one thing about the service – not that its anything to complain about – but it was almost too fast. We had no time to relax and gaze doefully into each other’s eyes while entwining arms and spoon feeding each other foie gras terrine. It was strictly business – get in, stuff face, pay, get out. There was a certain…je ne sais quois…about it, but not necessarily in that intangible, attractive way. But the food was divine. Divine!

I ordered the mini poutine featuring Yukon gold potatoes with foie gras cream sauce and pulled beef short ribs. Cheesler, the dear, wanted the poutine but knows my feelings about ordering the same thing at a restaurant, so he went with the farmer’s paté stuffed foie torchon. I’m going to go out on a culinary limb here and state for the record that it was really more of a terrine. Yeah. But it was tasty (I tried some), and the poutine was of course delicious. For our mains, I had the duck confit drizzled with cranberry maple sauce (Oh Canada!) with potato gratin and vegetables, while Cheesler filled up on the braised lamb shank.

Before leaving (literally, like – 3 minutes before leaving) we each had a slice of maple syrup tart, otherwise known as sugar pie, a Quebec staple food, popularized in sugar shacks. I just love saying sugar shack. Sugahshack! That’s 3 for 3.

4. Bymark – 66 Wellington St W, TD Tower, 416-777-9770

($45 Dinner)

Bymark has been my Toronto restaurant mecca since even before I moved here. Run by the Food network’s celebrity chef Mark McEwan, I have often dreamed of sitting at one of its hallowed tables. It is normally waaaaay beyond my price range, but thanks to Winterlicious, I finally had a chance to “mark” my name in its reservation book. It was everything I dreamed of and more.

Bymark was Night 2 of Cheesler and Sophie’s date weekend extravaganza. We arrived at 9:00 for our reservation and were seated immediately in one of its lush, leather-upholstered booths. The décor is really classy here – mood lighting, clean lines and minimalist flower arrangements. The staff are all dressed in black tie, and a hushed murmur of style exudes from every orifice of this joint.

I started with the roasted cauliflower risotto with seared scallop and bacon soffritto, which came perched in a huge plate and probably garnished with micro greens, I can’t remember. I was too busy having a foodgasm to accurately note the details of the presentation. Cheesler went with the duck wraps: boston lettuce cups, pineapple salsa and “crackle”. All of the things he holds dearly precious to him in life, besides me. For the main, we BOTH had the pastrami rubbed beef tenderloin with roasted beets, brussles…sprouts, horseradish dill mash and mustard jus. Let me take a moment to applaud whoever came up with the idea of putting horseradish AND dill in mashed potatoes. It is so simple, but tasted completely out of this world. The tenderloin was excellent, but astonishingly, the stars of this show were the vegetables. I have never tasted anything like them. I don’t know if they were local, organic, or what – but believe me, they tasted EFFING GOOD. Thanks, Mark!

Finally, eyelids drooping at the late hour and three quarters of the way through a bottle of wine, I had an apple crostada with rum raisin ice cream and caramel sauce, which Cheesler probably had to finish for me. My memory is skewed by a state of food-induced catatonia.

All in all, I loved Bymark and will definitely go back…probably for Winter or Summerlicious, by then I can save up for another go-round.

5. Veritas – 234 King St E, 416-363-8447

($35 Dinner)

Ok – I lied when I said I had never been to any of these restaurants before. I have been to Veritas once, and not for a “licious” occasion. But it was so good that when I saw they were part of Winterlicious, I was intrigued, and immediately made a reservation for the very last day of the event. This restaurant prides itself for local, seasonal cuisine in an elegant atmosphere.

My foodie colleague and I arrived after an arduous and horrible day at work and beseeched the server to bring us martinis, post-haste, after announcing that we were in no hurry and just wanted to relax and take our time. It was early, and on a Thursday, so she graciously humoured us. Much deliberation ensued about the choice of wine, and much bitching about work and the world in general before we ordered: I had the cookstown fuseau artichoke veloute with pickled hedgehog mushrooms and essence of sage; the braised beef cheek potroast with heirloom carrots, mashed Yukon potatoes, manchego cheese and grilled bread. Hello! I don’t know what they did to that cow’s cheeks, but my cheeks sure rose into a grin when I tasted them. For dessert, the cinnamon-dusted churros with spiced dark chocolate sauce. I was once again FORCED to eat my companion’s warm double fudge brownie with sour cherry compote, harmony cream and caramel crunch – which I couldn’t even finish (where is Cheesler when you need him?) and had to take home.

The remainder of the night was spent in a haze of high blood sugar and liquor, as we enjoyed an after-dinner cognac and possibly more martinis. Eventually, four hours later, we stumbled out into the cold night and went each to our homes to tuck ourselves into our respective beds, bellies full and stresses forgotten.

Phew! Winterlicious really kicked my butt (and my wallet’s butt) this year. I can’t wait to do it again in 12 months!

What are your thoughts? Which restaurant seems the most like one you would want to dine at?

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Categories: Food, Restaurants

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