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Feb 3, 2010 06:05 PM

Winterlicious at Canoe

I haven't been to a Winterlicious venue before, nor have I been to Canoe. I came to both with my suspicions, and both were amply confirmed. Take this for what you will.

I hesitated before ordering the unlikely sounding "Fanning Smoked Salmon Caesar, Maple Gastrique, Puffed Rice & Thunder Oak Gouda", but went ahead anyway, feeling a duty as one of a party of 3 to order the third 1st course. The smoked salmon, taken on its own (provided one could dissect it from the dressing) was spectacular. Easily the best I've had, anywhere, anytime. Fatty, salty, rich, ummmmm. However... It sat atop a halved head of romaine that was drenched in dressing, and anchored on either side, flying buttress-style, to the plate, with more of said dressing. And what a dressing! Clearly house-made, but sweet as candy. Not in any sense a vinaigrette. Back atop the salmon... well, it was only after coming home and looking at the menu again that I remembered there was supposed to be puffed rice. What I thought at the time was: "This is crunchy, and I'm expecting big grains of salt, but this is sweet - I guess it's rock sugar." Put the menu and the impression together, and you're left with Cap'n Crunch scattered atop fish, glued to lettuce, roped to a plate.

On to the main. What was advertised as "Fanny Bay Oyster & White Fish Cassoulet, Sweet Shrimp, Mustard Great Northern Beans" was, in fact, a fillet of abusively frozen / thawed whitefish - mealy and weeping water onto the plate, and tasting nothing like the whitefish you've had on the shores of Superior - topped with unremarkable braised cannellini beans, bay shrimp (not P.C. frozen, but still... meh), and a credible but misplaced wine-based white sauce. This was not in any sense a cassoulet, in which ingredients had been melded together into something altogether greater: it was, simply put, banquet food... and bad banquet food, at that. The Fanny (!) Bay Oysters were either missing, or else integrated into bi-coloured blobs of what tasted and looked like caponata and mushy peas.

The service was chilly, earnest at first, ostentatiously performative ("subtle" nods across the table to one another before swooping in with the dish). When things went wrong (I left half of my main unfinished) the service went off the tracks. The waiter said merely: "I have to refer this to someone else." A manager showed up, rattled off a scripted apology, and asked if we wanted another main. I explained that I didn't want to interrupt the flow of my companions' meals, so a glass of wine would be fine. The waiter poured an appropriately generous glass of what I had been drinking (after putting a fresh glass on the table, and after a silent consultation with a colleague, determining that a fresh glass wasn't called for, after all) and stomped off. He was cold for the remainder of the evening.

This recounting risks taking longer than the actual event, so I'll skip past the cheese plate (unremarkable as part of a prix fixe, insulting if you're paying for it.) Oh - the wine pairings were great, and a good value as part of the prix fixe.

I don't have hundreds a month to spend on restaurants. I was basically auditioning Canoe as a "next special meal" place, with Winterlicious as a discount. I don't think I'm their target audience. I wonder how many people on Chowhound really are.

54th Floor TD Bank Tower, 66 Wellington, Toronto, ON M5K 1H6, CA

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    1. Just throwing my two cents in after a similarly unimpressive Winterlicious lunch - I don't think we should take this as anything like an "ordinary" Canoe experience.

      I had the same salad as you and my companion had the soup; mains were tortellini and tortiere; desserts panna cotta and gingerbread. Nothing was bad, per se - your cassoulet sounds downright unpleasant - but none of the Winterlicious options sound particularly inspiring, either. Compare to some of the dishes on the O&B website:

      The Canoe Plate: Terrine of Foie Gras, Salmon Tartare, Chilled Lobster Salad & Chef’s Addition
      St. Canut Suckling Pig: Maple Hock Cannelloni, Bubble & Squeak, Spiced Apples

      It's not the way things should be, but Winterlicious is simply not an accurate representation of some of the participating restaurants. (A pity - I have 3 'licious meals left...) In the case of Canoe and comparably well-reputed restaurants, I think there is a certain amount of pressure to participate and give "the masses" a chance to experience them. If they chose not to participate (i.e. to protect the integrity of their offerings) they would face considerable backlash for the perceived snobbery of it. Instead, they participate and face complaints about substandard food from those who know they should be getting something better.

      My point here is that I think we shouldn't be too hasty to judge the food. The service, on the other hand, should remain constant. I can certainly understand you not wanting to return after getting attitude. (We did and do enjoy eating at the former JKWB, but always seem to be served by a painfully rude server) It's a problem in Toronto (IMO) but a surprise in a Canoe-type setting.

      I am going to reserve my judgment on Canoe until trying their actual tasting menu, or at least a regular meal. It'll take a very special occasion to warrant dipping that far into the old savings, but it seems like the only way to do it right.

      7 Replies
      1. re: c.cow

        I'm not sure that I can excuse them so easily. Canoe is part of the Oliver & Bonacini empire and, as such, is not likely to be so easily swayed by pressure to participate in Wintelicious. Moreover, other prestigious restaurants such as Splendido, Kaji and Nota Bene are not on the participating list (per, so I don't buy this pressure to participate excuse.

        Bottom line is, IMHO, if you're choosing to participate, then do it right or not at all.

        1. re: syoung

          I think you're right that any participating restaurant should live up to its commitment. But, and this is all speculation on my part, I would think Canoe being part of the O&B empire is part of what compels them to participate. With Biffs, Jump, Auberge, etc. participating, a lack of participation on Canoe's part would stand out. Furthermore, I don't think that they are aiming for substandard results - that's just how the menu turned out.

          Being relatively new to Toronto and even newer to enjoying its culinary offerings - I spend my first years here on a cheap but unpleasant diet of uni residence food, Swiss Chalet and New Generation sushi - I am not as familiar with the history of 'licious as others on this board. Have the restaurants you mention participated in the past? Isn't this Splendido's first year under new management? From what I've heard, restaurants had to agree to participate in August and submit menus then, which some have complained about recently. Also, whether it's pressure or trendiness, the specially-priced prix fixe "event" seems to be a widespread phenomenon this time of year. Scaramouche is doing Lobsterlicious, the Taste of Burlington is coming up (and, true enough, the only real "fine dining" option, Blacktree, is not participating), and Fabulicious is in Niagara at the end of the month.

          Maybe I'm being too forgiving here. I don't think it's fair for any customer, myself included, to be disappointed by a dining experience, especially at such an esteemed restaurant. But I'd still like to go back for the real deal.

          1. re: syoung

            I'm not sure why anyone has a difficulty with this, but if you take the revenue that you normally take and divide it by three, you have to cut a cost somewhere. This isn't a specific "winterlicious" thing either, it's across the board with every prix fixe promo that has ever existed, whether here or at NYC Restaurant Week, you have to be willing to accept that.

            Also, the restaurant is governed by MIchael Bonacini & Peter Oliver, so if they want every restaurant to participate, than every restaurant will participate. Simple stuff.

            1. re: FoodJourno

              Who's saying that Canoe shouldn't participate? You're missing the point that if a restaurant particpates, they should do it right. And where did you get "revenue divided by 3"? I've never seen a Winterlicious menu where you're getting 66% off regular price. In almost all cases that I've seen, you're essentially just getting equivalent dessert for free.

              The original point of the 'licious program was to allow people who wouldn't otherwise go to that restaurant to try it out and, hopefully, these customers having had such a great meal will return later and thus bringing in more future business. These events are as much marketing driven as they are accounting driven.

              So if you serve substandard food, you're actually garnering bad will. People will say, "...geez, the food isn't very good, I don't think I'll come back and pay regular price for this, and I'll tell my friends the same" which is bad opinion that defeats one of the purposes of 'licious in the first place. And this is not just me talking. There are restaurants owners/managers who tell me they'll only participate if they do it right. That's why you don't see some restaurants on the list and why some resturants who are on the list, like Auberge, do it right. [note: Canoe usually does OK so maybe stonerose went on a bad day - but, regardless, the point still stands - do ig right or not at all].

              And talk about NYC Restaurant Week, you won't find top restaurants there such as Per Se, Jean Georges (not Nougatine) or Eleven Madison participating in this event. They don't need to and certaintly will not compromise their reputation by willingly serving substandard food. Canoe, as one of Toronto's top restaurant, should be the same way. Simple stuff indeed.

              1. re: FoodJourno

                You don't understand restaurants. They make big chunk, if not most of their, money on liquour. They don't cut liquors cost during 'Licious. They can still make money by just getting people into the restaurant so they can pay $15 for drink containing the exact same liquor they could get at the LCBO for $2. Or pay $80 for the exact same wine that costs $25-30 at LCBO

                1. re: evansl

                  sorry evansl it is you that don't understand restaurants. Out of every dollar that a restaurant brings in 75% of the sale is food and 25% is beverage. Many restaurant have their food (and beverage costs) at about 20% to 30%. During licious events the hit on food increases their costs by about 7 1/2%. Most restaurants operated on profit margins of only 5 to 10% so this is a substantial investment for them. If the patrons only drink water the hit is even harder. The actual liquor cost is only part of the whole cost of the drink or wine. Labour, gas, heat, electricity, health care benefits, other benefits like rrsps, the cost of mix, garnish, dishwashers, dishwashing chemicals, straws, candles, napkins and so much more..they all add up and figure into the experience

                  Sorry for the restaurant COGS 101 lesson but I couldn't let the assumption that restaurants are making a killing off of booze sales go unchallenged.

                  1. re: evansl

                    As a less significant point, all of the Winterlicious meals I've had so far have suggested "winterlicious drinks" both alcoholic and non - i.e. priced to match the meals. More profitable than tap water, but it also encourages the mindset of saving big through this promotion.

            2. And yet Winterlicious reservations for Canoe were next to impossible to get. Makes you wonder how much of it is reputation versus reality.

              I also have 3 more dinners lined up, and whereas my first one (Lai Toh Heen) was underwhelming, I'm hoping for a little better at the next three (Byzantium, North 44, Crush Wine Bar).

              1. I've been to Canoe for two straight Summerlicious, one dinner and one lunch, and both were really quite excellent and among my better fine dining meals in Toronto. Compared to a lot other menus I always found Canoe's to be more inspired. The price for good ingredients and creativity seems to be in small portions as after both meals I felt like with the portions served 4 courses would have been better, but that's the reality of serving food at the prices -licious requires.

                Your cassoulet sounds bad, I agree, but I wonder if the salad is just a case of something not being your taste. A gastrique is going to be sweet, that's the whole point, and I don't see mention of a vinaigrette... a ceaser salad wouldn't normally have one anyway. Your love of the salmon has been my experience with their Summerlicious menus - really delicious ingredients handled well.

                I don't have any particular illusion that the -licious events are Canoe at its finest, but at the same time, my experiences have made me really want to go in at a normal time and I've been consistently impressed with the service, food and overall experience.

                So that's a long way of saying that -licious Canoe works for me.

                5 Replies
                1. re: pastabroccoli

                  I hate <insert season here>licious.

                  I love Canoe.

                  I would suggest you give Canoe another chance. I know paying full prices for a meal at a place that let you down once already is not something that immediately jumps to mind as a good idea. That being said, you have to trust that the literally hundreds of positive comments about Canoe on this board and practically unanimous praise from food critics around the world are representative of the norm and your depressing experience the exception.

                  Generally, I found 'licious meals to be substandard almost everywhere, that is why I won't go anymore. It's not an excuse really, if a restaurants joins they should keep the quality up, the reality is they don't. I would rather pay full price and get the real deal.

                  BTW that cassoulet sounds like a terrible concept to me, not sure what the intention was behind it. Anyway it is a rare miss for a restaurant known for making quality ingredients shine in dishes that are not overly fussed.

                  1. re: JPJ

                    I agree with your comments regarding Shitilicious/Waterlicious JPJ-certainly no judge of any restaurants abilities IMO. I have had the opportunity to try Anthony Walsh's cuisine only strictly outside the confines of Canoe, and I have to say it was excellent. Truly delicious. However, I find the regular menu prices to be exhorbitant, particularly in light of comparing them to some fine world class restaurants I've dined at across the globe. That's what always prevented me from dining there. I am not denying that its probably very good based on my experiences with his food outside of Canoe, but I am tired of "supporting" the additional costs of any restaurant that chooses to open in a high rent area where its obvious they are catering to a particularly affluent crowd. Its just not for me. I've also realized with time that the opinions of "esteemed" food critics are just that. As with anything, opinions and politics aren't exclusionary.

                    I find your comments hilarious childofthestorm! The reality is that at the regular prices, Canoe *is* a Bay St. expense account indulgence. So what-the "regular" folks from "all walks of life" get a bone thrown to them twice a year? Like we need to get a "taste" of how the wealthy live? After reading multiple issues of Toronto Life and seeing the self-congratulatory party pictures in every newspaper on a weekly basis, I don't really care to eat with those people.

                    1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                      I didn't realize I was sitting in Marxist theory class! Hey, sometimes I like to treat myself. Sometimes I'm eating tacos and burgers. It's good to mix things up. And as a treat, Canoe is pretty fantastic.

                      1. re: childofthestorm

                        Sure, we all like to treat ourselves, myself included! I just thought those comments from the assistant manager are really contrived. That's all.

                        Marxism and food always go well together! ; )

                        1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                          Oh believe me, I was well aware I was getting the speech emanating from a well-trained employee of a well-run company. But I guess for me the bottom line is that the Oliver&Bonacini mini-empire is well-run indeed, Canoe, Auberge, Biff's, etc. are quite well-regarded by food lovers in this city, and thus and it's not a bad thing that they choose to participate in 'licious.

                          Just stay away from anything involving "whitefish" is my best advice.

                2. I had a sublime meal at Canoe two weeks ago - tasting menus with matching wines - and the sommelier/ass't manager came by to chat. I mentioned Winterlicious in a disparaging way, and he talked passionately about how seriously they take the event, hiring a dedicated operator to deal with a separate reservation line they set up, and how the staff in general rallies around 'licious as a chance to show people who otherwise would not experience Canoe what they can do. As he put it, maybe they'll come back, even if it's just to sit at the bar and have a drink and a dish or two. Bottom line, he said, is that Canoe is perceived as a Bay St. expense account indulgence, and they want to be more accessible than that because they want people from all walks of life to enjoy their food and service.

                  Maybe it was the party line but I was impressed. And the food, oh boy was it a good meal. I've never eaten at 'licious there, but I can't help but think that any chance to try Canoe for the first time is a good thing.