HOME > Chowhound > Ontario (inc. Toronto) >


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

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
    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 Toronto.com), 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.

                  1. Stonerose's experience wasn't unique. I was there last week, too. This was my comment on the cassoulet (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4631...) If you don't want to read it I basically said that I was astounded to sit in the most famous restaurant in Toronto and find myself hating the food. I'm still trying to reconcile my experience and my expectations. My companion loved her food, and she had beer and cheddar soup and a nice piece of pork.

                    This thread is enough to convince me that the dish may well be an anomaly. If I do try it again, though, it will be for appetizers or an all out splurge.

                    I'd still love to hear from someone who tried this dish and liked it. Was I missing something?

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

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: arugula

                      I actually have enjoyed munching away at the bar there. The sliders are a perfect pairing with...well with anything really they are just damn good!

                      As for the cassoulet, best to pretend that never happened!

                    2. "The Fanny (!) Bay Oysters . . ."

                      Why the exclamation point? Fanny Bay is a real place (on Vancouver Is.) with great oysters, hence: Fanny Bay oysters. Or am I missing something here?

                      Anyway, sorry you had a crappy experience. I had a fantastic summerlicious dinner there a few years ago. Everyone I know who's gone for one of their 'liciouses" in the past has been happy with the food and service, but I don't anyone who's been this year. Two things spring to mind: this just wasn't one of their better menus. I have to say Stonerose, that cassoulet sounds bizarre. Most of the choices you mention sound a bit weird.

                      The second is that you got stuck with the third app feeling duty-bound to round out the selections. Hence you got hosed. Is this also the reason you ordered the "cassoulet"? Frankly, as nice as it to eat the menu, it can be tiresome. Does anyone feel the same? I just want to order what I want these days and not feel some larger obligation to the rest of the table. Poor you. Your intuitions were right on but the social situation made you feel you had to ignore them.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: cinnamon girl

                        Re: the 'exclamation point', I believe that it was supposed to be an emoticon of a 'fanny'.

                        1. re: Derksen

                          Thank you Derksen. I was very curious but now you've solved the mystery. Very funny.

                      2. One last thing to add to this thread and I'm out - I 100% guarantee you if you simply told the waiter "I'm not happy with this dish" they would immediately offer you something else.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: childofthestorm

                          They offered to replace your main w/ something else, that's about the best a restaurant can do in those circumstances. It seems like you were already soured by the experience at that point, no manner of reconciliation would've changed your opinion. That is your right.

                          Personally, if a dish failed and they offered to replace it, I would be happy w/ their level of service. Most places would not even bother to offer a replacement.

                          The coordinated head nod is a sign of a well trained front of house, it seems that atmosphere is too stuffy for you perhaps. That is again your personal preference, but you can't really criticize them for it.

                          1. re: aser

                            Not so much a review of Canoe, because I have never eaten there. I HAVE seen Michael B. on several televisi0n shows, both as a guest and as host of the show. What he says has a validity to it, but after all these negative Licious experiences, I am just not willing to risk going to Canoe.

                            I am under the impression that Winter/Summerlicious sessions are MARKETING sessions, not public service activities to mollify the poor people. If its a marketing exercise, chalk the
                            food costs up to the promo/advertising budget and get them off the Cost of Goods Ledger! Two weeks of treating customers the way they are supposed to be treated is a great way to increase business. Two weeks of treating people like cattle at a trough is a good way to LOSE business.

                            I wold like to see some public occasion, tv or live, whereby Michael B and a few of his colleagues explain to the masses exactly why this travesty happens twice a year.

                        2. I've only gone once, so I am not sure how "qualified" I am at reviewing Canoe. It was 2 weeks ago. The food was very good; although I found the portions small; the scallops, were suppose to be a main, but only had two scallops. I had the tasting, but imo, these portions were much smaller than tastings at other upscale restos.

                          I got seated next to a window as I had requested. Service was great, except for the end. After dropping the cheque, they never picked it up. Luckily we were simply enjoying the last of our wine so we didn't care. But in the end, I ended up paying cash because they still hadn't picked up the bill.

                          Other than one very minor goof, I think it was a good experience. I don't think you can judge a restaurant by going to a 'licious event. You simply won't get the same experience. Lunch isn't a good substitute either. Canoe, imo would make a very good "special occasions" place, but so does Scaramouche and Auberge.

                          1. I ate at Canoe last week under the Winterlicious dinner menu. Overall, the food was very good; the apps great and the mains quite decent but you are right, they were not outstanding. However the ambiance was amazing and our service spectacular. It could not have been better. Our waiter was friendly, informative, engaging and very welcoming. Personally, it is the service that brings me back to this restaurant time and time again. In all of my travels and dining experiences, I've never had better. And for me amazing service with really good food is a better match than amazing food and not so great service. I had that at Mistura this past week. Again, apps that were divine - some of the best I ever had - but a waiter that told us to hurry up, I need your order "now" as we were 4 minutes into our 6:30 reservation time. I asked if we were on a time limit and said that if so I had not been advised of that when we booked. He said of course there is, we don’t need to tell you. “Everyone that goes to Winterlicious knows they are on a time limit. It’s Winterlicious!!” Perhaps that is why he didn’t ask me to try the wine before he served it or why the staff set the plates down so quickly they were spinning as they landed. Again, personal preferences are just that - personal. I loved the food at Mistura but the attitude of that waiter will certainly make me hesitate to return. Yet I will have no hesitation in returning to Canoe.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: traceoftaste

                              I am with you on preferring that amazing food be coupled with amazing service. I also had the pouring wine without letting me taste it incident occur at Bymark this year. Very annoying.

                              1. re: traceoftaste

                                That's outrageous treatment at Mitsura. I'd be inclined never to darken their doorstep again. So you're just supposed to be grateful to be there? uh . . . b/c the food is FREE?! I've noticed the past year that it's extremely easy to get reservations during 'licious - at places where it didn't used to be. Obviously they want the 'licious business; and in any event, no one's forcing them to participate. Now all they need to do is pass the word onto the servers - this one is clearly stuck in 2007.

                              2. Originally, I was quite disappointed that I wasn't able to get a table at Canoe for Winterlicious. I went there at the beginning of the year as a celebration for the start of a new year and time in my life, and it was the best meal I've ever had, hands down. I had seared fois gras served over chicken liver french toast with birch beer foam and lingonberry sauce, a "Lamb 3 ways" dish that was fabulous, and a sticky toffee pudding with a piece of bacon butter toffee. That's really a shame that you had a bad experience there, but I would definitely give it another chance with the normal menu.

                                I went to Bymark this year instead, and it was amazing, though it didn't give the kind of experience that Canoe does. The food was incredible, and the service was pretty good, but overall it felt a lot more like a steakhouse. (which is is :) There were more people, and the staff was far more casual. The only problem I had was a bit of confusion with the menu. The starter I ordered was "Pureed cauliflower with steamed scallops and brown butter"... naturally, I was expecting a pile of pureed cauliflower, with a couple of scallops nestled on top, drizzled with brown butter. What I received was a soup. It WAS one of the best soups I've ever had, but I didn't really get the impressions that it was a soup from the menu. I had a homemade tagliatelle with Hong-Kong style braised short ribs and chilis, which was amazing, especially the broth then I sopped it up with some of the warm bread that was passed around. The dessert was nice, a mixed berry black forest cake, although it wasn't anything that I couldn't do better myself...

                                There was one interesting thing that happened... I spent $120 there... this was of course a fault of mine, but almost without realizing it, I paid the price of a normal meal there, simply because I had a gin and tonic, which was $13!!!! and 2 half glasses of wine with my food. I wonder if a lot of people do that... for the amount of money I paid, I actually would have preferred to go and order off the normal menu... I want to try the poutine SOOOO bad!

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: banjoman2375

                                  Puree indicates something less mash-like and more soup-like in my experience. I would have expected soup reading that. Though I might have thought the scallops would still be on top :)

                                  1. re: jlunar

                                    I dunno, soup is soup, puree is puree. Talk about bullshit semantics on a menu.

                                    Just call a spade a spade.

                                    1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                      *thinks about this before posting something that will not get deleted*

                                      Soup can often be a puree, no?

                                      1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                        I'd be alright with that.

                                        Also... $13 for a DECENT-sized G&T is pretty normal... and they do pour pretty reasonable ones at Bymark.


                                        If Curtis Elson, the Sommelier for Mark at One has anything to do with it, I'm pretty sure the wines are up to snuff as that man has a damn good palate.

                                        So the wines BTG should be great.

                                        Tell me if I am wrong though?

                                        1. re: Non Doctor

                                          Wasn't me that complained about the price of the G&T dude. And I'm sure the wines are fine-again, made no derisive comment in that direction either?!

                                          But man, while a soup can be a puree, a puree is not always a soup right?

                                          We are up way too late no?


                                          1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                            Some of the talk here makes me long for the days of 54th. I know Canoe has been here for a while, but who remembers the 54th, what an old school way, red meat and liquor, to make a pop culture reference it was something out of the "Mad Men" era. I am 33 so I remember going there with my dad as a kid and it was so classic.