In January of 2014, a full eight months before his cooks at Canoe planned to debut a special all-Arctic tasting menu, the chef John Horne and his top lieutenants set to finding a blockbuster new ingredient they could serve as an opening course. The restaurant, perched on the 54th floor of the TD Centre, is a pioneer of modern Canadian cooking; its chefs had been doing wild-shot Caribou hind and musk ox brisket from Baffin Island for years already. Even snowshoe hare, while not exactly old hat, had turned up on enough of Canoe’s menus that Mr. Horne insisted it wouldn’t do. He was thinking it should be a fish of some kind. And no matter what, the chef wanted something incontestably new.
On a cold call with a fisherman on Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories, one of his sous chefs heard of a large, firm, oily fleshed fish species that might fit the bill, if only they could get it to Toronto. Even the name was perfect: Though locals around Great Slave Lake often call it “coney,” the fish’s proper name was “inconnu” – the unknown. With an additional two months of phone calls, shipping logistics and old-fashioned pleading, Canoe’s kitchen sourced 250 pounds. They had no idea how it would taste.
That inconnu finally appeared before diners last August, the first appetizer course on a menu called “Taste 60th Parallel.” Mr. Horne’s cooks brined the fish, and then hot-smoked it over juniper boughs, so that the inconnu’s white, meaty flesh came out moist and buttery, permeated with the juniper’s richly peppery, dark fruit scent.
They served a small piece of belly, tail and loin on each plate, with daubs of Arctic char caviar, crunchy fried bannock and crème fraîche that was seasoned with Arctic rose petals. And then just a few weeks after introducing that strange new fish and their all-Arctic menu – after all that work – the restaurant dropped them both, to make room for a menu devoted to Ontario foods.
That’s the Canoe way: The kitchen here produced six all-new regional Canadian tasting menus last year – one each for Quebec, Ontario, B.C., the Prairies, the Atlantic provinces and the north – on top of its booming à la carte, private dining and catering service. The restaurant never quits striving for the delicious and the new.
Twenty years old this fall, and 20 years since Canoe was last reviewed here (“If this is Canadiana, count me in,” Joanne Kates wrote), the restaurant is fresher, more ambitious, better-polished and more committed today to its cool Canadian mission than ever.
Was it the “Taste Prairies” dinner at the chef’s rail last December that persuaded me, with its ethereal, pink-blushed rutabaga pierogi in broth, and its foie gras “Stampede” corn dogs that came with a shooter of small-batch root beer?
Was it the “canushi” course on a sunny Saturday evening last month that melded the tastes of sushi rice, wild leeks and nori with the crisp-creamy texture of Italian arancini, under a fat slice of Lake Huron perch?
Or was it the quiet Monday dinner a few weeks ago as we sighed and awed and flat-out laughed at the deliciousness of a simple (but not at all simple) piece of B.C. rockfish served with gooseneck barnacles, and a simple (but not at all simple) plate of milk-fed pork – all while a lightning storm raged through the glass just 10 feet away?
It was all of these things. Over repeated visits in the last six months, Canoe has shown itself to be a bona fide four-star restaurant. And it’s shown that 20 years can do a place a world of good.
Canoe opened in September, 1995. Notwithstanding the important early work of the city chefs Michael Stadtlander and Jamie Kennedy, “modern Canadian” was still more of a theory in Toronto than reality then. And apart from Jump, which Canoe’s owners, the burgeoning Oliver & Bonacini company, had opened a few years earlier, the Financial District wasn’t yet known as a place for adventurous cooking. The new spot won acclaim almost instantly.
Today, the 100-seat restaurant typically books out for both weekday lunch and dinner seatings; Canoe’s kitchen brigade also serves a 70-seat private dining room and caters events for TD, which can add another 250 heads. On weekends, the restaurant converts into a wedding venue. It’s some kind of miracle they’re able to maintain the quality they have, much less improve it. But rather than funnel away the restaurant’s profit, O&B, which has grown into a major hospitality, events and investment group, has reinvested here.
So today, the kitchen can task five sous chefs with planning a year-long region-by-region Canadian tasting menu series. Or with tracking down 250 pounds of an as-yet-unknown fish. (FYI: Mr. Horne said on the phone this week that the restaurant has scored another shipment of inconnu.)
The everyday menus are pretty incredible, too. On that Monday night this month, we ordered à la carte: a lobster dish, rockfish and pork among our choices. The lobster plate held hunks of claw and rounds of barely poached tail so fresh and yielding that the texture was more like lychee fruit than shellfish. You dipped them through a lobster and squid ink mayonnaise that was bathypelagic black, and then folded them, with crunchy black radish, into poppyseed steam buns.
The rockfish fillet was seared to deep-caramel, but juicy and translucent in its middle, with B.C. gooseneck barnacles that were smoked over cherrywood and as tender as marrow. They came set into a plinth of crunchy, creamy, intensely tasty polenta that had been enriched with powdered popcorn.
The pork combined milky roasted loin with a round of crisp porchetta and crackling, with white cabbage sauerkraut and kimchi that tasted like Bloor and Christie. It was technically masterful cooking, all of it, but it also connected emotionally. We drank a chardonnay from Jura – Canoe’s sommeliers, bless them, actively push the tasty, quasi-affordable esoterica as hard as the trophy bottles. “Unreal,” my friend kept exclaiming through dinner.
Up at the chef’s rail just before Christmas, a friend and I ordered the “Taste Prairies” menu that had debuted a few weeks earlier, and Mr. Horne and his kitchen showed the lightness and humour that so often runs through the experience of eating here. He set out hockey pucks like coasters to go under the tasting’s sublime bison carpaccio platter; another course was paired with a tall glass of rye and ginger ale. The “homestead osso bucco,” as he called it, synthesized the Italian veal marrow classic with the flavours of old-school beef-barley soup, with the texture, from hominy corn kernels, of Mexican posole. It was rich, sticky, warming, decadent – and also fantastically humble somehow.
On another visit, he sent out a simple palate-refresher: a small bowl of white sugar and two utterly perfect spears of forced winter rhubarb. It took me right back to childhood. That is what a great meal in a great restaurant is supposed to do.
There are always a few quibbles, aren’t there? A Monforte sheep’s cheese soufflé one night was remarkably light and flavour-charged, particularly with its sweet-sour maple and black pepper sauce, but it also slumped a bit, as though it had emerged from the oven a few too many minutes earlier. (The morel and hen’s egg raviolo that followed it, with its “wild leek nettle muck,” more than made up for that.)
And desserts were a consistent weakness – not for their conception, which was always smart and original, but for execution, which was too often flawed.
Service is as polished as you’d expect. It is also genuinely welcoming. As we tasted through a few of Canoe’s classic dishes one evening, our waiter told us about the first time one of them appeared on the menu; he’s been working there for 14 years. Another time, as the floor-to-ceiling glass began to blotch with raindrops, a server joined us in bemoaning the sudden downpour; like us, he had planned to ride his bike home.
It’s true you can’t eat a view, but the one from Canoe will never, ever get tired. “Every customer’s invisible inner child has his nose pressed to the window,” James Chatto once wrote of the place.
The second-to-last time I ate there, we got a 5:30 p.m. reservation. We wanted to watch the sun set. Up at the front of the open kitchen, Mr. Horne joked around with a party of six who’d installed themselves at the chef’s rail. Anthony Walsh, the O&B company’s corporate executive chef – a driving creative force here through Canoe’s 20 years – had come in to help out at the garde manger station. This was a special night, a rare Saturday opening, with a menu of dishes from the kitchen’s archives, in celebration of Canoe’s 20th year.
As the sun dipped low to the city’s west, the room filled with golden light. There were tables of suits, and young couples in skirts and khakis, and older parties bearing point-and-shoot cameras.
At a table across from us, a woman in a gold sari sat beside her twentysomething daughter, who was wearing an enormous diamond on her ring finger, which, if I had to guess, probably came from the twentysomething man who was sitting next to her, who was sitting next to a bleach-blond woman I’ll presume was his mom.
They were here to celebrate each other, sure, but also to celebrate a restaurant that after 20 years belongs as much to Toronto as to any one company. As the sun finally gave way to twilight, nobody pretended to be entirely grown up. At some point or another, everybody turned toward the windows and stared.Report Typo/Error