An Overdue Report: Conventioneering in Toronto
In early May, I was in Toronto with 7000 trademark professionals to talk and talk, and eat and eat. There was plenty of both! This is an edited version of some notes I sent to friends after returning to the SF Bay Area.
It was useful to learn that taxi drivers and many merchants readily accept American dollars in lieu of Canadian (or $1.05 Canadian, if they’re feeling generous).
A few hours after arrival, we met some friends for dinner at Jump Café, a trendy restaurant in an office complex. Sitting down at 8:00, we had the table for the evening and our wait staff provided the most leisurely service possible without driving us mad. We had plenty of time to go over the usual questions, catch up on gossip, and consider the wine list before turning to the menu. Jump Café offers a “blue plate special,” a prix fixe menu of appetizer, entrée and dessert with at least two choices in each category. Over glasses of Frog’s Leap zinfandel, we considered the options and ended up with one prix fixe and three a la carte orders.
I scoffed at a mizo-glazed black cod (butterfish), a Japanese preparation, served with a red Thai curry, and was challenged to order it and see whether the chef knew better than I did. Perhaps. The nicely tender fish was rich and flavorful, atop a mound of wild rice (and something). A moat of red coconut curry sauce provided a separate flavor note for the starch and vegetables. Not as crazy as it appeared at first glance. For dessert I inherited the St. André cheese plate from the prix fixe dinner. Seriously decadent with a honey sauce, it nicely complemented the final glass from the second bottle of zin.
This first serious day of nonstop receptions begins with dueling brunches put on by two large Chinese law firms, and ends with a dance party, or a late cocktail reception, or in our case, a long dinner in the popular Yorkville neighborhood. One of our search vendors took about two dozen folks out to Il Posto, an Italian restaurant with upscale pretensions. Understanding the conversation at our table of ten was a bit difficult; differences in regional accents certainly contributed to the challenge, but noise was the main problem. Even with voices raised, we often could not make out what was being said.
I skipped the first course and focused my attention on a rack of lamb. Cooked medium as requested, it was succulent, perfectly seasoned, and accompanied by pleasant sides; a major success. When our hosts insisted that everyone try a glass of 20 year old port, I ordered a cheese plate. The composition contained one very soft cheese that featured some dark areas I could not identify; they seemed perhaps to be ash rather than a blue or green mold. This cheese was tasty on its own and with port on the supplied bread crisps or sourdough. A second flavorful cheese was more crumbly, not quite as dry as a feta cheese, but more fragile than a cheddar. The other cheeses were all rather hard, like parmesan rinds, and even with the raw almonds and large seedless grapes I could not find a way to really enjoy them. All in all, the meal was a very good use of saturated fat calories. Thus sated, we retired reasonably early knowing that several more full days lay ahead.
We took some clients out to breakfast at Brassaii, a bistro in a neighborhood of restaurants known as much for their hip clientele and décor as for their food. The space was bright and peaceful at this hour, and was a welcome escape from the crowded hotel restaurants jammed with morning meetings. Web searches revealed mixed reviews for the servers at Brassaii, but our waiter was friendly and maintained a cheerful attitude even while adjusting the length of the table legs to the strangely uneven floor.
As if I had not already abused my arteries enough the day before, I just could not resist the Eggs Norwegian, a variation on Eggs Benedict where smoked salmon replaced the Canadian bacon. The poached eggs were done just right, but I was surprised that they did not seem to have been salted. When I took a “vertical” bite including the smoked salmon and English muffin, however, I found that the balance was just right. My colleague’s egg white omelet was a success (if you are in a low fat mood), and the blueberry pancakes were a hit as well. What a great start to the day.
For lunch my colleague and I wandered the main streets near our hotel looking for a simple salad and sandwich joint that might have quick service as well as tasty food. We finally settled on Red Tomatoes, a diner-ish joint one floor down from street level, below a restaurant named Fred’s Not Here (whoever *was* there was closed by the time we arrived). The meal got off to a rough start, with iced tea that tasted very strange, perhaps having been mixed in a plastic pitcher previously used for peach daiquiris. But the jerk-seasoned chicken breast sandwich was cooked just right, tender and juicy with a hint of Jamaican heat. The accompanying “yam yam” fries were a bit wilted or soggy, perhaps due to having so few customers, or perhaps sweet potatoes were never intended to be made into fries.
I had been invited to dinner by a lawyer from Singapore who started her own firm last year. I met our hostess in front of Jamie Kennedy’s wine bar, a restaurant known for its inventive small plates and the difficulty of getting a table. Of the five other diners — representing Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Thailand and Mauritius — I knew two, so it wasn’t all first time meeting talk, fortunately. We mostly accepted the suggestions of our waitress, and ended up trying a wide variety of dishes. To start we had pita-like grilled flatbreads with a three dips, including one made from white beans and one that was creamy and herb-y. Fries made from yukon gold potatoes (served with mayonnaise), and a salad of mixed organic greens, were well executed but fell short of adventurous. Our first wine, a Chianti, worked well with the appetizers, and with our deluge of “mains.”
Our somewhat larger small plates ranged from black cod to a preparation of cornish hen “two ways”; from entrecôte of beef to a “grilled cheese sandwich” featuring strong smelling raclette; from lightly seasoned prawns to chicken liver pâté (not my favorite food, and oddly characterized by our server as chicken foie gras). Our table, and our individual plates, soon were crowded and sloppy, making it more difficult to distinguish all the flavors. I had seconds of most everything, so certainly it was pretty good, but I don’t recall having thirds. Until dessert. The crème brûlée and chocolate almond torte were about what you would expect to find in any restaurant of this caliber. More interesting was a “jalousie” of rhubarb, something like a pie with a flaky, strudel-like crust enclosing a warm and tasty rhubarb filling, nicely matched with honey ice cream. The true star, though, was a pear sorbet with spices similar to carrot cake, or was it like pumpkin pie? I think I need another scoop to continue my analysis.
Thereafter, service slowed dramatically and it took forever to get our caffeinated beverages and the check.
Lunch was at Canoe, which must have been booked solid by lawyers all week. After a brief meet, greet, and cocktail interlude with our hosts from Hong Kong, all twenty seats in our private dining room were filled. From its quarters on the 54th floor of an office tower, we took in a mind-boggling view of the seemingly diminutive Convention Center and vast Lake Erie. The menu, too, laid out the local scenery, more specifically, the particular taste preferences of the local dining scene. To start, I chose the soup over the salad. As in other local high end restaurants, the wild mushroom soup was made without cream, and tasted simply of mushrooms with a hint of vegetable or chicken broth. From my California perspective, it could have used some cream.
Among the entrees I chose the Screech and Maple glazed sablefish, which arrived perched atop a short, slightly stiff cylinder of wild rice risotto. The screech, a rum popular in Newfoundland, added a slightly adventurous character to the simpler sweetness of maple sugar, while the fish itself was tender without seeming fatty. The chewy texture of the rice made a nice contrast. (I can’t recall what we had for dessert.) One last peek at the view, and it was back to the real world.
For lunch I met my colleague and an attorney from Singapore at EPIC, a restaurant in the Fairmont Royal York hotel just off a lobby bustling with other conference attendees. While the photos on the Fairmont’s web site depict EPIC’s big comfortable booths, there were plenty of regular tables more appropriate to a lunch meeting. Be careful with the teapots: the lid fell into my cup as I neared the bottom of the pot! The wait staff generously supplied me with a new pot (the green tea is nice).
The menu is divided between traditional fare and “spa cuisine,” the latter featuring less of what makes food taste good. I divided my attention between the lightened asparagus salad and the more decadently sauced pan-seared scallops. The tasty grilled asparagus was buried under a huge nest of mixed greens; with a fillet of chicken or salmon, it could have been a complete spa meal. I have been spoiled by the delicate sweetness of “live” scallops at sushi bars, and the meaty deliciousness of mesquite broiled scallops in Alaska, so EPIC’s scallops seemed only so-so. The scallops were meaty, but relied too much on the rich sauce for flavor. It was a small reminder that the convenience of eating “on site” between meetings often involves some sacrifice in the dining experience.
Although the INTA provides substantial quantities of food at its “grand finale” party, several of us decided to have a sushi dinner instead. I scoured Chowhound for recommendations, did a lot of mapping, and made a reservation at Japango, a hole in the wall with 6 or 7 tables. The fish did not disappoint, and there were several items on the deluxe sashimi combination that one could say were more “Canadian” in character (whether fished locally or simply reflecting local tastes). On the other hand, the age-dashi dofu (fried tofu in bonito broth) could barely be distinguished from raw tofu; it definitely could have used more time in the fryer, or perhaps the type of tofu (very silky?) just wasn’t right for this dish. My companions shared plates of California, salmon, and tempura shrimp rolls, leaving over plenty for me. Overall, it was a refreshing break from the monotony of French technique with Asian influences.
I'm so glad you went to Japango - it's one of my favourite Toronto restaurants. Their butterfish nigiri is gorgeous - reverse-engineering how they do it, seems it's brushed with sesame oil and run quickly under a broiler; it's just the teeniest bit seared and slightly warmish. Mmmmmm: I could eat nothing but for the rest of my life.
The rest of your experiences sound pretty corporate/high-end, woooooo, conferences. Those aren't my favourite places, but you made some good choices, especially JK which I like a lot (notwithstanding, as you referenced, the irritation factor of waiting). Next time, if you're in the mood for something smaller and more intimate, try Pony on College west of Spadina. It's lovely: I've never had a bad experience there. Another nice spot is Nassau Street Bistro. Both have really good food, and lovely warm service.
Hi Spigot.. I noticed you have recommended the Nassau Street Bistro a couple times and I'm intrigued. Yet I'm unable to find any other mention of this place on the web or in the yellow pages. Does it go by another name? Do you know the address or phone number of this place? My wife and I were thinking of trying Palette but since recent reviews seem to indicate things are not as wonderful there as they used to be, Pony or Nassua Bistro sound like possible alternatives in the vicinity.
Again, thanks for reporting back.
Also, on the 'sweet potato fries' issue, there's NO EXCUSE for a poor one. As with 'regular' potatoes the best raw material is a starchy tuber. Hence use Russet potatoes for fries.
There are dozens of different types of sweet potato - the choice of raw material is key. The best i've had in T.O. have been at Universal Grill (on Dupont) and Shanghai Cowgirl (on Queen) - but there must be others. Maybe a separate thread?
"the meal was a very good use of saturated fat calories"
Ah dude, I think that's about the best thing I've ever read in a Chowhound post, and something we all, chefs and chow'nders alike, should aspire to...
...I shall add that a well-made sweet potato fry is a thing of beauty and a joy, well, not forever; just until you finish the serving...
You IP guys have all the fun...
Thanks for the lengthy report. One small correction: If you could see Lake Erie from Canoe, it must have been a very clear day indeed. That was probably Lake Ontario.
I know you are spoiled with wonderful food in the Bay Area, so your standards are deservedly high. That being the case: Did you enjoy Toronto, and would you return?
Thanks for the note on the Lake. I must have misread my map.
I did enjoy Toronto, except for those wickedly cold winds. ;-) The difficulty with the trip was being confined to a very small area of downtown. I know from reading this board that there are many, many excellent choices beyond walking distance from Rogers Centre (I stayed in that Renaissance, but did not exhibit in the window). Hopefully I will get back there in a few years and have time to see and eat much more.