Canoe, the flag ship of the Oliver and Bonacini empire, has spent the last 20 years highlighting the broad spectrum of fare this expansive country has to offer. So, not surprisingly, its 20th anniversary hoopla centred around a $100 tasting menu celebrating Canadian fare. There is a short video on their website highlighting some the principles which have driven their philosophy for the last two decades. Needless to say, I was excited to experience their take on coast to coast cuisine.
In addition to making Canadian food cool, I appreciate the fact that Canoe is relatively hipster free. Perhaps it’s the fact that it sits in the middle of the financial district or maybe it’s because it’s located 54 floors up with a swanky view as opposed to in a broom closet overlooking a spray painted alley. Majestic penthouse views, after all, suggest a certain societal hierarchy and we can’t have any of that. Sure, Canoe has its share of odd patrons, especially during summerlicious and winterlicious celebrations where every penny pinching socialite makes themselves king and queen for a day, usually at the expense of the staff but it does have a magically low hipster:non-hipster ratio.
The night started with bread served with a peanut (from Ontario) butter laced with local honey.
The mason jar paid homage to the art of pickling which was has evolved from a necessary form of food preservation (especially in countries with volatile climates) to a cool one. In this case, it was a simple array of carrots, beans and pickles atop a fois gras mousse. A little sweet and sour with a combination of crunch and velvet is always a good start to a meal.
Next was the lobster carpaccio. Lobster is one of the crown jewels of Canadian protein and the chefs at Canoe detoured from standard preparation techniques to offer an east meets far east appetizer. The chef explained that pounding it thin along with a short sous vide cook was an ideal technique to remove the textural barriers that normally exist with raw shellfish while at the same time maintaining its fresh flavour. It was made to look pretty with an array of greens and bright screech sauce (a twist on traditional Marie Rose or seafood sauce) and to taste pretty with a subtle acidity and a sesame cracker.
From the east coast to the shores and plains surrounding Hudson Bay came the next dish; forest lasagna. Combining rabbit with a cornucopia of intense and native earthy flavours such as mushrooms, heartnuts and the very unique caribou moss was, as my dinner mate stated, “Canada on a plate”. It was finished with an evergreen mornay sauce which added a paradoxical richness to a dish reflecting one of the more barren parts of Canada. In my opinion it was the dish of the night mainly due to the unique use of unorthodox yet truly Canadian ingredients.
I have driven by my share of cranberry bogs on trips to Northern Ontario, so I was pleased to see that the mid-meal palate cleanser was a foamy Muskoka cranberry cream soda. I was at the chef’s rail, so it was interesting to watch the urgency in the pour and delivery to the table before the froth faded to nothing. It was more sweet than tart and somewhat reminiscent of the my childhood reward of drinking Pop Shoppe cream soda from a clear bottle.
For the main, I opted to travel back to the east coast and all the way to Fogo Island for some jigged cod (I avoided the venison due to an ongoing promise I’ve madae to lay of Bambi for a while…grrrrr). Perfectly seared, it was served with a tender crab boudin (white sausage) and seasoned with flavours of the sea including ocean salted potatoes and pickled seaweed. It’s probably in my head but I think there is something cool about eating ocean salted potatoes Whereas the lasagna was Canada on the plate, this dish was the Atlantic on a plate…and it was delicious.
Fighting the urge to go down the sickly sugary street of butter tarts or sugar pie, the 100 km squash dessert was the polar opposite. The moderately sweet squash tethered some of the more extreme flavours found in the savory seeds/grain and the house made ice cream. The cattail crepe was nestled among the other earthy offerings and was simply phenomenal.
Canoe’s ode to twenty years of Canadian food was spot on without the need to gravitate to more pedestrian and recognizable food choices like pea soup, poutine or tourtiere. Each dish had treasures hidden within the plate’s topography which made the experience an enjoyable exploration of our country’s blueprint.
Canoe could make the claim that it served Canadian food before Canadian food was cool. With the advent of Toronto restaurants such as Antler and Borealis, Canadian food is emerging as the newest trend. Hipsters are already dressed for it and the thought of foraging for nuts and seeds as a means of sustenance seems well in synch with their philosophies. In fact, it may actually provide more of a purpose to their normal process of walking around aimlessly looking for bright lights and bourbon. That said, if they want to portage up to the 54th floor of the TD building they will need to brush up with the suits on the way so I suspect this won’t happen anytime soon, even if Canadian food is deemed the new Korean. As for the Canoe 20 menu, based on the articulate presentation, taste and the respect given to traditional and non-traditional homegrown ingredients, I have to give it an eh.