Toronto Dine-Around

by Jennifer Iannolo

On Friday night our lovely hosts treated us to a real taste of Toronto — in the form of a 9-hour marathon of fine dining. I suppose this is somewhat like the Bordeaux marathon, only with less exercise. We had the opportunity to sample the finest in local cuisine from five of Toronto’s best restaurants, and each one delivered a different, memorable experience to our tastebuds.

We began the afternoon at Vertical with Chef Tawfik Shehata, who also gave us our tour of Chinatown and Kensington Market the day before. Chef Shehata has a unique story in that he has gone beyond using local, sustainable cuisine: He’s actually the farmer who grows most of the produce for his kitchen. When he isn’t in the kitchen he’s digging in the dirt, trying to perfect his growing techniques to deliver the finest in baby vegetables and herbs. Even better, his staff helps to harvest the vegetables, so they all have a personal investment in sharing their knowledge with patrons, as well as giving them a heads-up on what’s coming from the farm in upcoming weeks.

Chef Shehata’s menu features southern Italian and Mediterranean flavors, and he started us off with a pickled octopus salad with fennel, arugula and green olives served on grilled organic basil sourdough. Part two of our appetizer was a Digby scallop served on Tuscan kale, chorizo and piquillo pepper with a drizzle of a first cold pressing of grapeseed oil. What I love is that his dishes appear benignly delicious at first glance, but deliver an orchestral zing of flavor when you least expect it. Both the chorizo and arugula in these combinations gave the seafood a nice kick of pizzicante.

Our next stop on the tour of tastiness found us at Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner Museum. Renowned for pushing local, sustainable cuisine to the forefront in Canada, Kennedy and his team treated us to some comfort foods taken to a whole new level.

Sliders and fries are good on any day — on this particular rainy day they were mouthwateringly good. Our “sliders” were open-faced sandwiches of braised short ribs with a dollop of apple butter served on a bed of celeriac cole slaw, and the fries were made from Agria potatoes, which delivered a crunch that essentially drove us to annihilate the entire plate without blinking.

To add one more taste of local, Chef de Cuisine Scott Vivian crafted a mayonnaise using local cider vinegar. We do like eating our fries Belgian-style (with mayo), so I believe the table was very quiet during this particular interval.

Chef Scott spent a good amount of time with us talking about his efforts as the head of Slow Food in Toronto. There seems to be a real sense of community among the chefs of this city, where each is invested in using ingredients that are not only the finest in quality, but that also come from local purveyors. The areas surrounding Toronto are rich in agriculture, from vegetables and Icewines to seafood and cattle, so thankfully the chefs have much to choose from in crafting their menus.

Our next stop on the tour found us at sen5es with Chef Patrick Lin, who is quite playful with his flavors. He rather impishly told us of his desire to tempt our taste memories and buds with aromas and flavors that evoked moments in food time for us (he sat down with me for an interview, so look for that video in the coming weeks). Instead of one or two dishes, we soon found our table covered with an array of color, flavor and texture, from Hamachi to crab cakes and pork belly meatballs.

What stopped me dead in my tracks, however, was a taste that is still lingering in my mind (I’ll address this more in another post, as it deserves a space of its own).

Chef Patrick came out with a little ceramic “egg carton” that had little egg shells filled with some type of delicious looking custard. It turned out to be a savory foie gras creme brulee. Yes. I’m going to let you sit with that one for a bit.

We then moved on to Epic, where Chef Ryan Gustafson gave us yet another twist on local featuring flavors from the Ocean Wise initiative, Canada’s leading sustainable seafood restaurant program, launched by the Vancouver Aquarium.

Epic, which is housed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, is unique in that it hosts one of only three rooftop apiaries in the world. The honey is harvested and used in the restaurant, as well as sold locally (I brought home a jar that is torturing me as I write this).

Chef Ryan started us off with a little flavor explosion featuring Niagara prosciutto wrapped around a fig stuffed with blue cheese, accompanied by greens coated with truffle vinaigrette and a slice of orange. Hello, lover. The combination was sweet, tangy, zingy and decadent, all of which make my soul happy under any circumstances.

My main course was a little tower of Arctic Char graced with celeriac puree (a favorite), baby beets and green beans, all drizzled with — wait for it — a truffle port foam. Hello, other lover.

Interestingly, Chef Mark savored a dish of local salmon, which arrived sans the typical orange salmon color. As these particular salmon feasted on herring instead of the typical diet of krill and seafood, their flesh was white.

Though we questioned whether there was any room left in our tummies for dessert, we were committed to finishing the marathon, and forged ahead. Our final stop was at Scaramouche, where Chef Joanne Yolles prepared a taste of her famous coconut cream pie recipe.

And though I’m not normally a dessert person, this one knocked my socks off. I’ve never had a coconut cream pie quite like this, and I can understand why it’s famous throughout Canada. The cream is light as a cloud, and the fresh whipped cream on top only enhances that sense. The dessert was served with a 15-year-old rum, which served as not only a great accompaniment to the coconut, but also as a perfect digestive for all we had consumed that day.

I must say, Toronto, you certainly know how to host a dedicated gourmand. Chef Mark and I thank you for showing us your broad array of flavors, your well-informed and passionate chefs, and a town we intend to return to as often as possible.

Many thanks as well to all of the chefs and their staff, who delivered an evening to remember, resplendent with excellent service and tastes that will linger on in our mental mouths for a long time to come.

If you want to design your own tour of the city, take a look at the Tourism Toronto web site, which has a collection of offerings to suit any type of palate. To reinforce that, we will have other posts from our time in the city featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, Greek food and more. For us (and for you, we hope), it isn’t about the trendiest, the most expensive or the most controversial. It’s all about the flavor and quality!

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