Canoe: What A Meal Should Be
Looking out over Toronto Island from the 54th floor of the 66 Wellington TD Tower, I am happy.
Last week my father and I indulged in a dinner at Canoe. I had high expectations for this meal but that didn't stop chef Anthony Walsh from completely surpassing them with a tasting menu that excited and entertained me just as much as it fulfilled my taste and appetitive needs.
We started off with the Amuse Bouche (just something small to "cleanse the palette" and get you ready for the meal ahead). This came in the form of a Shrimp Tartar with an Avocado Citrus Sauce, topped with deep fried little things that I can't remember the name of. Oh, and a Cherry Tomato.
Up next was the Applewood Cold Smoke Salmon Plate, with Pickled Enoki Mushrooms, Granny Smith Apple, and a Horseradish Infused Creme Fraiche. Simply to die for. The sweet creme fraiche with the fresh horseradish was something I could never have thought up in a million years.
The second appetizer was a soup course. Ivory Oyster Mushroom Soup with Stewed Rabbit, Meyer Lemon Confit, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, all topped with Black Truffle Foam. The foam just disappears in your mouth and leaves hints of truffle and mushroom flavour behind. I am convinced part of the reason for the foam was an element of surprise. Every spoonful you took, you had no idea what you were going to get. A little rabbit maybe... a little mushroom... some crunchy celery... every bite was something new and exciting, yet somehow entirely familiar and comforting.
The last appetizer was a BC Side Stripe Shrimp Fricasse, with Blue Mountain Fiddleheads, Cinnamon Caps, and Bonacini Wild Leeks, finished off with Chicken Broth Foam. They left the pan fried shrimp head in tact so you could suck out all the juicy and salty insides. I know that must sound kind of gross to some people, but you seriously have to try it before you knock it.
This was the main event. Nunavut Caribou Hind, with Foie Gras Tourtiere (a sick and twisted take on a Canadian classic that made you feel like you were at your grandmother's house only she'd somehow been inexplicably relocated to Pluto... a truly original and deliriously delicious side to the meal). Also on the plate are Northern Beans, Honey Mushrooms, and something I have never seen before in my life; a Pickled Walnut, still crunchy, covered in a dark chocolate sauce. Truly a brand new flavour in the life of my taste buds. Oh, and of course the caribou... I think Anthony Bourdain put it best when he said that when a meal's so good, you start to run out of intellectual compliments like delicious and divine and inspiring, and you just have to revert back to simply describing what you're eating as fucking amazing. This is how the caribou made me feel. This was my first time eating caribou, and I'm still completely in the dark about how they managed to make such a lean and wild piece of meat taste so tender and not at all gamey. I could have eaten this thing quite happily and effectively without teeth if I needed to.
Oh, I should also mention that each course had a wine pairing. This was a detail I failed to take into account when I biked over to Canoe from work. Halfway through the meal I realized I was slowly but surely becoming less confident in my biking skills (especially as the sun was going down) so I opted out to leave my bike at the TD Centre. But while we're on the subject, I have to mention that the wine paired with the caribou was the darkest and richest red wine I've ever seen or tasted. Even in the sun, it appears basically black. When you smell it, you're reminded of a fresh cup of espresso (I'm not at all a wine expert, but the smells and tastes were truly obvious to me) and then you taste, and afterwards, you're left with the lingering of dark chocolate and spices. I don't usually get excited about wine at all, but this red was just insanely good (for those keeping score at home, the wine was a JL Chave Offerus Saint-Joseph Rhone VQA 04... I honestly don't know what that means. Wine's not my thing.)
A small little wrap up to the savoury dishes was something that was listed on the menu as Thunder Oak Gouda and Friend Chicken. Chef Walsh's rather minimalist take in this dish was a bite sized slice of salty and briny gouda, sandwiched between two thin pieces of deep friend chicken skin, finished with caramel. My lord. Best single bite ever.
The pre-desert course (called Maria's Pre-Sweet) consisted of a small cup of lemon cream, almost like a citrus pudding, that I'm pretty sure I could have eaten an entire punch bowl of. And it was capped by a dehydrated slice of lemon that was not at all sour. Just entirely sweet.
Oh, and the "shot glass" was made of ice. How Canadian of them.
And finally the desert. I think I forgot to mention that this was supposed to be my late birthday dinner (this type of meal doesn't get served to me on a regular basis... this was a once in a lifetime thing). For desert they lit a tiny candle for me, and the table beside me started singing happy birthday. A little awkward, but in that harmless "I'm too tipsy to really care so I'll just grin like an idiot" sort of way. Oh, and the desert was a Manitoba Wild Rice Pudding, with Cranberry, Kumquat Spruce Ganache, and a new favorite of mine; Goat Cheese Ice Cream. Truly a perfect end to a perfect meal.
I don't use the word perfect very lightly. Especially when it comes to food. Everything has to be taken into account; setting. time. space. sounds. people... and of course food. But in this regard, Canoe has pretty much everything going for them. Initially, I'll admit, it is a little intimidating because I tend to avoid most restaurants that require you to wear an ironed shirt (this isn't actually part of their dress code). But after the first course, you get to know the server and you can tell that they know these meals are meant to be fun and adventurous. They get it. That's very important.
I once watched a special on the restaurant on FoodTV where the floor manager spoke about that "one thing" that you go home remembering and just loving. He said there should always be something within the course of the meal that just makes you say, "I can't believe that just happened." For me, it was a moment at around 7pm, when a row of 6 servers walked casually together to the west wall of windows, and all at once hoisted the blinds (and they made sure everyone heard and saw this) as if they were raising a marble pillar of some holy temple. It was as though they were "announcing" the sunset. Everyone looked over in amazement, as if they had forgotten for a moment that the sun was still there, and that as they ate, time still passed.
The meal itself took just over 3 hours. It was well paced and constantly entertaining and delicious. But it's not the time, or the pace that really matters here. It's the thinking that a meal isn't just something that you eat because it keeps you going. A meal is something meant to be enjoyed and remembered. Whether it's a 3 hour marathon of flavours on the 54th floor of an architectural landmark in Toronto, or a 10 minute slurping of a spicy bowl of pho at a street vendor in Hanoi, it should be something precious and wonderful and comforting and exciting and inspiring... and yes, sometimes simply fucking amazing.