Saturday 25 July 2015

Summerlicious 2015: Canoe, Nota Bene & Lee Restaurant Reviews

It’s that time of year again where I recap my dining experiences from Summerlicious! So the deal is, twice a year participating restaurants in Toronto offer a prix fixe multi course lunch and/or dinner menu for a discounted price. This gives more people the opportunity to try some of the finer dining experiences the city has to offer. I think it’s great and I always make a point of using the event to try new places. Summer and Winterlicious are usually a two week event but this time it has been extended to three weeks in light of the Pan Am Games that Toronto has been hosting. Both events officially wraps up this weekend. 

My food blogger friend, Fouad, and I checked out Canoe for our first experience. Canoe is located on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower in downtown’s Financial District. It offers a unique view of Toronto’s harbour front and the islands. Canoe is also owned by MasterChef Canada judge Michael Bonacini. This was both Fouad and I’s first experience here, but we had heard a lot about it before. Everything from the ambience, service, food and presentation was on point. The only unfortunate thing is that on this particular day it was gorgeous and sunny all up until a couple of hours before our reservation and everything got all grey and cloudy. Oh well.

Let’s get right into it. Fouad and I made a dinner reservation where we had a 3 course meal or $45. 

We both ordered the Ontario Bufala Mozzarella first course. It came with king crab, shelled peas, candied walnuts, radish and a cilantro-infused oil. I was a little apprehensive at first because (as I’ve mentioned before many times) I’m kind of a snob about eating cheese and fish/seafood together. I find most of the time it doesn’t work and when it doesn’t it’s foul so it restricts me from experimenting often. Fortunately for me this was a beautiful dish that I liked very much. The crab was sweet, as well as the peas which are in prime season right now. The mozzarella was actually quite mild, soft and tasted essentially of milk. So it didn’t clash at all with the crab. Just a well-balanced, light, summery dish.

For our second and main courses, Fouad ordered the apple brined pork loin with a maple-black pepper crust, red quinoa and parsnips in both purée and caramelized form. It was beautiful and he enjoyed it very much. I can’t help myself, but if you want a great brined pork recipe, click here.

I ordered the pan roasted heritage salmon served with asparagus, watercress semolina, a wild rose water tartar sauce, frisée and radish. It too was an attractive dish and I quite liked it. It was light, fresh, summery and full of flavour. The salmon was cooked to perfection; moist and tender with a crispy skin on top. The watercress semolina was really interesting because it added colour, a mild peppery flavour and a little extra body to the dish. The tartar sauce added a creamy richness and the frisée and radish helped brighten and lighten the dish at the end. A delicious and very refined meal

For our final dessert course Fouad opted for the thyme and apricot mousse with almond nougatine, pistachios, lavender and lemon vanilla gelée. He was kind enough to offer a generous bite size portion. It was very tasty, in fact, I actually preferred it to mine lol. Very interesting flavours and textures together that created a stunning and tasty dessert.

Since Fouad got a fruity dessert I decided to get the chocolate option which was a Valrhona chocolate ganache cake with sea buckthorn and whipped mascarpone. It was a beautiful dish with a deep dark chocolate flavour. I wasn’t crazy about it though. Not that it was bad, I just think subjectively it wasn’t the best choice for me. Call me crazy but I don't like sprinkles and wasn’t expecting to see them let alone so many. Its an ingredient that’s quite easy to avoid so it caught me a little off guard. Also the cake was very dense and almost too heavy for my liking. It was almost like fudge. I let Fouad had a generous taste of mine but in the end I ended up finishing it so it wasn’t that bad. ;)

So that was my first Summerlicious experience! Overall I absolutely recommend this place. It’s perfect for anywhere from after work drinks with associates to an intimate and romantic date. It is one of the finer restaurants that Toronto has to offer and patrons are expected to dress business casual to sharp. 

Canoe is located on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower on Wellington Street just west of Bay Street. It’s in the very heart of Toronto’s Financial District. If you’d like to learn more, please check out their web-site

On to my second Summerlicious experience! My good friend Mikey and I decided on Nota Bene, a popular and critically acclaimed restaurant that offers an eclectic fusion menu. It was the first visit for both of us. Very nice place. The restaurant is beautiful, the staff is helpful, the food is fantastic… we were both impressed. We would gladly go back. 

Mikey ordered the Crispy Duck Salad that came with crispy chips of taro root over Asian greens and edible flowers. He really enjoyed it.

I ordered the chilled gazpacho served with creamy crab meat and crispy toast on the side. Gazpacho is a puréed soup from Andalusia, Spain. It typically consists of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, garlic and sometimes stale bread for body. The soup is prepared and served chilled. At Nota Bene, they serve their gazpacho in a bowl over another bowl filled with crushed ice so the soup stays cold. If gazpacho ever becomes room temperature it muddies the flavours and they cannot be recovered. Gazpacho done well is refreshing and has a very natural symphony of flavours between its simple ingredients. I could have had two more bowls, it was that good. The crab was sweet and rich and was perfect spread on the little toasts. 

Mikey ordered the cavatelli pasta option that’s served in a truffle-scented, creamy mushroom bolognese sauce. I use “bolognese” as a quote from the menu. I have always interpreted Bolognese as a rich meat and tomato sauce. There didn’t appear to be any tomatoes in this dish, but Mikey was happy with how the dish tasted. He let me have a taste and I agree, it was delicious. This is the restaurant’s vegetarian entrée option. Creamy, earthy, sumptuous and hearty. 

For myself I ordered the Lake Huron whitefish served over cauliflower grits and a Malaysian red curry lobster sauce. I thought the concept of this dish was very interesting and inventive. The flavours and textures really blew me away. The fish was cooked really well with just a bit of gnarly, crispiness which I like. I have been a cauliflower fool this year so that’s one reason why I gravitated towards this option. The cauliflower was smooth, creamy and rich with the odd bit of cauliflower chunk here and there to remind you what you’re really eating. The curry sauce was fantastic too. It added an exotic Asian element where you normally wouldn’t expect to find it and it worked so well. I definitely recommend this dish. It was amazing. 

For our dessert course Mikey ordered the Hewitt’s Dairy panna cotta. Hewitt’s is a well known and respected family owned dairy business in Southern Ontario. Not only is it a sign of working to incorporate ingredients from local sources but Hewitt’s also comes with its own guarantee of quality. Because of Canada’s pasteurization laws, we have the best quality dairy in North America. That means freshness and flavour. Nota Bene’s panna cotta is served with a blueberry compote and a yuzu granité. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit and granité is a French term for crushed, flavoured ice. Mikey described the dessert as light, delicious and refreshing. 

I asked our server for her recommendation between their hot sugared doughnut or the sticky toffee pudding and she pitched the latter without hesitation. I wasn’t disappointed. Sticky, gooey toffee sauce poured all over a dense cake, however the serving size was just enough to be forgiving and satisfying. The whole thing is topped with a scoop of walnut ice cream. Yum!

As I mentioned, we really liked this place. You would do well by making a point of dining here if you get the opportunity. The atmosphere is grown up but inviting and not stuffy. Everything that they brought to our table was incredible. What more can I say?

Nota Bene is located at 180 Queen Street West, near Queen's intersection with University Avenue (Osgoode subway station). To learn more, click visit their web-site.

My third and final Summerlicious experience was with my dear friend Alicia at Lee Restaurant. Alicia joined me in a review of the only restaurant I got to try for Summerlicious last year. It was only fitting that we join forces again this year. Dining with Alicia is always a little more interesting because she is a vegetarian and has a number of allergies, so choosing a restaurant comes with a little extra scrutiny. Luckily we ended up finding a place that turned out to be pretty fantastic. I really lucked out this turn of LiciousTO.

Lee Restaurant is located in Toronto’s downtown Entertainment District and is known for its fusion menu of East Asian and French flavours, but as you’re about to see their menu also has some South American, Italian and Indian elements as well. The dishes were quite elaborate and very interesting.

For Alicia’s first course she ordered the tomato & jalapeño guacamole served with sumac, jicama, fennel, cucumber, heirloom carrot, garlic-parmesan lavash and smoked olive oil. The plating was very impressive and Alicia said she really enjoyed this dish. There were many contrasting flavours and textures to enjoy throughout.

Being a lover of island food I opted for their jerk pork ribs that came with Chinese steamed buns, crunchy shredded salad, pomegranate and a ginger-mango sauce accompanied by a spicy scotch bonnet sauce. The idea is to shred a bit of the meat from the ribs with your fork and use it to construct little Asian inspired stuffed buns. Wow, this was incredible! My only critique is that the ribs didn’t taste much like jerk to me. More like a sweet teriyaki sauce with some allspice added, but they were still very good. If you’d like a great jerk recipe, you needn’t look any further than here.

For her main dish Alicia ordered the ravioli of spinach and ricotta served over a coconut red curry sauce with sautéed asparagus, fresh peas, poached raisins and butter roasted cashews. Alicia was nice enough to let me try a bit of this too. The ravioli were stupendous and the red curry sauce was also quite delicious. They weren’t necessarily bad together, but I’m not sure if it’s a combination that I’m dying to try again. The peas and asparagus added a beautiful touch of green and freshness to the dish, but neither of us could really figure out why there were raisins in it. Raisins are of course sweet and because they were poached they were big and juicy. They were a great ingredient, we just didn’t think it really belonged on the plate. Regardless, we managed to finish the whole dish between the two of us. It was still very delicious.

From my first skim over of the menu I knew instantly which main course I wanted to try the most. I got the Asian duck confit that came with steamed pancakes. This dish is a play on the traditional Chinese pancakes with crispy duck, hoisin and usually scallions. Lee offers a jacked up version with foie gras paté, matchsticks of fresh cucumber, cilantro, beet-stained pickled ginger, hoisin sauce, tofu crisps and a ginger-mango purée. The confit duck itself is breaded and fried soo gai style. This was also my first time ever trying duck confit so this was a nice foodie milestone of mine. To cook something confit means to slowly and gently braise something in fat (in this case, duck or goose). The result is an exquisitely moist and tender product that’s full of flavour. To serve something braise-tender that’s also breaded and fried almost seems like sorcery. I have my suspicions but I’m not entirely sure how they pulled that off. It was amazing though. In fact everything about this dish was amazing and was a fun, little DIY project as well. I also really liked the tofu crisps, although they resembled nothing like tofu at all. They were light and shatteringly crispy almost like phyllo dough. How they made that from tofu is also a mystery to me. I have to say that of all the dishes I had during Summerlicious this year, this one has to be my favourite. 

Usually during LiciousTO you get a choice of three or four options in a course, including dessert. Instead Lee offers one dessert choice but is in fact a trio of different amuse-bouches. If that wasn’t enough, they playfully smeared a design of marshmallow creme on the plate and torched it so when the server placed the plate in front us we immediately got a wafting scent of campfire marshmallows. Going from from front to back we had a coconut crème caramel with black sesame seeds and toasted coconut,  a rosemary, wildflower honey and lemongrass gelée encased in a sort of papadum pocket and a dark chocolate truffle and candied orange over a light and crunchy chocolate feuilletine. Gorgeous, exotic and very tasty. What I loved most about it is that you get so many different flavours, textures and cultural influences but it wasn’t overcomplicated or heavy. Just a great little treat.

Lee is located at 601 King St West in Toronto, Ontario. You can learn more about them at their web-site.

Three whole weeks of Summerlicious! What a treat. Now I’m looking forward to Winterlicious when it rolls around. This is a great event that I always look forward to and if you live in Toronto or get a chance to visit while it’s going in, I really recommend you take advantage of it. All of these multi course meals were just $45 each before taxes and gratuity and that is the most expensive as it gets. Multi course lunches start at $15. I always look forward to this event and take part every year.

I hope you enjoyed this post! There hasn’t been much of my own stuff on the blog lately. I have been eating a lot of repetitive, lean meals that include a lot of chicken or fish methods I've already posted and salad. Breakfasts are usually grapefruit, cottage cheese and almonds. I’ve been really fitness oriented this year, especially this summer. In one week from today I’m going to be in the Caribana Mas festival with a couple other of my MasterChef Canada friends like last year. I can’t wait, it should be a lot of fun. A lot of my fitness goals have gone into preparation for Caribana so I’ll be able to loosen up a bit and start preparing food with a little more excitement afterward. Most of my “cheat meals” this month were tied up in Summerlicious. Totally worth it if you ask me!

Come back again soon! Until next time.


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