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Winterlicious 2011 Reviews

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Hi everyone. I'm hoping this thread is populated by the experiences of those who dined Winterlicious this year. It would be really helpful to those of us who are deciding on where to go. Hopefully, we get a good objective account of the food and service of participating restaurants.

I'll start with my experience in Sassafraz.

I went to Sassafraz last night for dinner. I had read some reviews beforehand and while most of them were negative I was willing to give it shot. Those negative reviews have been validated. If there was one word to describe the evening, it's disappointing.

Starters:
- Baby Red Oak and Arugula Salad with Beet Chips, Toasted Pecans and Orange Fennel Vinaigrette
- Potato and Celeriac Soup with Truffle Beurre Noissette
- Shrimp Tamale with Roasted Poblano Chili Sauce

The salad is your pretty standard salad, with little vinaigrette (ie. too little). Quite ordinary. The soup was decent, again pretty standard and no wow factor. My dinner companion mentioned that it was something that could be made at home by sprucing up a tinned can of soup. I agree. Again, quite ordinary. The tamales was the biggest disappointment. No flavor, little shrimp, and a raw grainy texture. The best way to describe the taste is boiled mashed waxy potatoes. Poblano sauce was underwhelming because it was underseasoned and had little, if any smokiness All in all the starters were the biggest letdown of the night.

Mains:
- 10 oz. New York Striploin with Sweet Potato Hash, Haricot Vert and Ancho herb Butter
- Wild Mushroom Stuffed Cornish Hen with Red Quinoa and Winter Vegetables
- Duck Cassoulet with Confit of Duck, Braised Lamb, Wild Boar Sausage and Flageolet Beans

Best dish of the evening was the steak. It was well seasoned, and cooked perfectly. The vegetables that came with it were a good match and cooked al dente. The Casoullet, visually, looked like canned beans served with meat on top. Taste was quite ordinary, lacking richness and an element that would cut the monotony of the dish. The sausage was underseasoned. Confit was tender as was the lamb, though again, lacked depth. The Cornish hen was underseasoned, but had nice crisp skin and the meat was relatively juicy. The stuffing was the weak link as it was literally mush, and almost no mushroom taste came through. The quinoa was an excellent match and the vegetables were cooked perfect. Overall the mains were a underseasoned but portions were just right.

Dessert:
- Lemon Lavender Tart with Milk Chocolate Cream, Toasted Meringue and Amaretto Custard
- Chocolate Pave with Passionfruit Sherbet and Rosewater Gelee
- Gotham City Cheese: Ice Wine Washed Rind Made from Pasteurized Cow’s Milk with Fresh Fruits and Garnishes

The tart had a nice relatively crispy pastry crust and a rather tart lemon custard. Decent but ordinary. The milk chocolate cream went surprisingly well with it. The chocolate pave was a little too bitter but the sherbet was quite refreshing, though it did taste slightly like air freshener. It came with some jelly like substance that had no taste whatsoever and added nothing to the dish, Finally, the cheese. This was literally a one and half inch rectangular piece of cheese with rind that if tasted while blindfolded, tasted like supermarket white cheddar. It came with a few dried apricots and plums, some grapes, and crispy triangles that tasted like old fortune cookies with no sugar.

Service:
Excellent service. Out waiter was unpretentious, attentive, had a pleasant demeanor, and made you feel relaxed and right at home. This made the night a little more bearable.

I went to Sassafraz hoping that the negative reviews I had read were just overstatements. But unfortunately they validated those criticisms. It also, to a degree, validates the notion that Winterlicious brings out the worst in restaurants in Toronto. This was the kind of meal that underwhelmed enough to convince me to not come back, which is a shame because it is a nice restaurant and has an excellent reputation. You are better off spending $45 dollars on a non-Winterlicious prix fixe from Simple Bistro, which has less fanfare but excellent quality. At times during my dinner I stopped to imagine myself eating at a regular office cafeteria, and to my disappointment that level of quality they served would fit that setting. If I were chef, I would be embarrassed serving some of those items, especially the shrimp tamale. I would definitely not recommend Sassafraz for Winterlicious dinner. They seem to have really slipped this year based on the reviews they got last year.

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Sassafraz
100 Cumberland St, Toronto, ON M5R1A6, CA

Simple Bistro
619 Mount Pleasant Rd, Toronto, ON M4S2M5, CA

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  1. I do not have such an extensive review, but everything at 93 Harbord (Middle East cuisine) is wonderful (dinners only, $25). Pangaea is terrific for $20 at lunch, especially if you take the serrano ham app and the duck leg confit and the Ontario cheese platter, as I did. And service goes right through the afternoon up to 5PM (we were there beginning at 2:30 PM on Fri). Next week we go to Biff''s and Globe for lunches.

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    93 Harbord
    93 Harbord St, Toronto, ON M5S1G4, CA

    1. Hi, I like your idea of reviewing Winterlicious experiences, as I find others' reviews very helpful in making dining choices around the city. I recently dined at Cafe California with a friend and we both ordered from the Winterlicious menu.

      Starters:
      Caesar Salad: romaine, parmigiano reggiano, croutons
      Goat Cheese: roasted peppers, aged balsamic vinegar, focaccia crostini

      The Caesar salad was a decent sized portion for one individual. The overall presentation was lacking, and it just appeared to be leaves of romaine lettuce thrown on a plate. The croutons were stale, and there was a barely-noticeable drizzle of house dressing. 2/5 for the salad.

      The Goat cheese appetizer was much more appealing: Thinly sliced roasted red peppers atop a slice of warm goat cheese, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, alongside a well-seasoned and toasted slice of foccacia. The dish was well put together, the presentation was simple yet elegant, and overall, quite enjoyable. 4/5

      Main Dishes:
      Chilean Sea Bass: chili citrus beurre blanc, warm green bean and potato salad
      Vegetarian Agniolotti: stuffed with goat cheese, mushroom, butternut squash, pesto cream sauce, roasted pimentos

      The Chilean Sea Bass was presented very simply on the platter, set on top of the beurre blanc. The portion size was approximately 4-5oz, and complimented by a green bean and potato salad. The Sea Bass was well-seasoned and nicely cooked. The attention to detail was lacking in the green beans and potatoes, however. They were both undercooked, and roughly chopped, and quite bland as well. Overall: 3/5

      The Vegetarian Agniolotti was quite a small portion for one individual, barely appetizer-sized, and left more to be desired. The pesto cream sauce was lukewarm at best, and quite salty as well. The filling, although flavourful, was also cold. Overall: 2.5/5

      Dessert:
      Kahlua Truffle Mousse Cake
      Cream Caramel

      The creme caramel was an adequate portion size, although not very appealing overall. There was a hint of caramel drizzled over the top, and the consistency of the creme caramel itself was disappointing, and bland for a dessert. There were a few garnishes added to the plating, with a layer of a sweet/red sauce under the creme caramel, which did not add to the dish. Overall: 2/5

      Kahlua Truffle Mousse Cake: This was the part of the meal I was most looking forward to, and although it did not quite meet my high expectations, it was still enjoyable. The portion size was a bit scant, and the plating could've been enhanced. The chocolate mousse was smooth and creamy, however the chocolate cake layers seemed a bit stale, and I couldn't detect a hint of Kahlua in the cake either. Overall: 3/5

      Overall, the service was great. The young gentleman was very helpful in picking out menu items and drinks, and was very attentive. There were only 2-3 other tables that were full at the time of our visit, although it was a Tuesday night. It definately seems that overall restaurant quality decreases during Winterlicious/Summerlicious, and it is a shame, because restaurants should use this opportunity to showcase the best they have to offer to promote return visits. I would give this a 3/5, but probably would not return.

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      Cafe California
      538 Church St, Toronto, ON M4Y, CA

      1. Hi! On Saturday night I had dinner at Reds Bistro & Wine Bar with 4 other people. 3 of us ate off of the Winterlicious menu and the other 2 ate a la carte. This was actually a great way to judge the quality and portion size of what we were getting off the Winterlicious menu. Overall, it was the BEST winterlicious experience that I have ever had!

        Starters:
        (Winterlicious)
        - Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Soup with Duck Rillette and maple glazed apple
        - 2 x Foie Gras and Chicken Liver Parfait with Toasted Brioche, Madeira Gelee, & Fruit Preserves.
        (A la Carte)
        - The Caesar, Crispy Smoked Pork, Garlic Dressing, Brioche Croutons, White Anchovies, Hard Boiled Hens Egg
        - Mushroom and Butter Ball Potato Soup, Brioche, Truffle, Celery, Enoki

        The Starters were all surprisingly good! It was nice to see that the soup ordered off of the Winterlicious menu was exactly the same size as the a la carte soup. The Sweet Potato and Squash soup could have been a little warmer, but it wasn't cool to the point of sending it back. The bits of Duck Confit in it were very tender and not stringy. Overall the flavours were rich and satisfying.
        The Foie Gras and Chicken Liver Parfait definitely was more chicken liver than foie gras. The Foie likely added to the creamy smooth texture but it was hard to identify the taste of it. Nevertheless, it was actually very good. Both my dad and I ordered this and though i tend to not love love Chicken liver, I ate all of it (except for what I handed out to the rest of the table!) The preserves it came with matched well. The only thing to change would be to add more little brioches as I ran out of them before the Liver/foie ran out.
        The Caesar salad totally lived up to my rather picky Caesar standards.. if I'm going to order something I can make on my own it had better be really good! The dressing was ample but not overbearing and gloopy. There was a good amount of bacon and real shavings of real cheese.
        The Best starter was the mushroom potato soup. It was very rich and creamy, and it had a really nice texture - a little thick but not chunky. The soup had a large brioche (i think.. or it was like a potato latke) floating in the middle that was like having the bread I might have dipped in already placed in the soup. I only got a spoonful of this but it really was good.

        MAINS:
        (Winterlicious)
        - Mac 'n Cheese w. Truffle cheese
        - Coq au Vin with potato Puree
        - Arctic Char w. cauliflower puree, roasted jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms and walnut beurre
        (A la Carte)
        - Yellow Fin Tuna w/ Eggplant Puree, Roasted Cauliflower, Warm Caper Vinaigrette
        - Ontario Lamb, Roasted Rack/Braised Shank w/ Honey and Lemon Gremolata Crust, Stewed Bean Cassoule

        Again it was nice that all the portions were reasonable. The only one that was out of place was the lamb as it was big enough for 2! I had the Mac n' Cheese (Because secretly its my favourite food) and it was great. Super rich and creamy so I had to share some, but the cheese was melted well, the truffle flavour was definitely evident and the toasted crust gave it a good crunch. I didn't actually get to try the Coq au Vin but it looked nice and was given the thumbs up by the eater. The Arctic Char could have been a bit warmer, but that was its only real shortcoming. The fish was cooked well and it was flavourful. The vegetables, specifically the Jerusalem artichokes, were very good. The Tuna was cooked properly, not over-cooked and was also very flavourful. The eggplant puree was interesting, but seemed to match well with the tuna. The winner overall was the Lamb. The meat from the rack was better than the shank but overall it was very tender and not chewy. The bones on the rack were well roasted. The bean cassoule it sat on was very good.. and there was enough of it to make a meal out of it on its own.

        Dessert:
        We just shared from off the Winterlicious menu. We ordered
        2 Roasted Apple Bread and Butter Puddings and
        1 Chocolate and Rasberry Panna Cotta.

        I'm not much of a panna cotta eater so i didn't give it a try. It didnt look like anything too special and no one who tried it raved about it. The Apple Bread pudding, however, was very good. not too big but also large enough that you didn't feel cheated out of dessert, it was not too sweet and neither the bread nor the apples were too mushy. I like bread pudding to be a bit al dente so this worked for me. It was almost more of a savoury dessert which was different and didn't seem like it was bought at a grocery store. The only thing that for sure would have improved it would have been a scoop of real vanilla bean ice cream.

        Service:
        The service was great. The waitress was polite, friendly and attentive. Our water glasses never sat empty (a pet peeve of mine). Our food was also brought out at each course by an army of servers so that we each got our food at the same time.

        Overall it was a very good experience, especially for Winterlicious. I would definitely recommend it and I would also go back there myself!

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        reds bistro & wine bar
        77 Adelaide Street West, Toronto, ON M5X 1B1, CA