“I remember when Winterlicious was created—it was sort of to get the Earth back on its feet after the Twin Towers attacks, so it was a pretty pivotal moment for everybody,” says chef Mark McEwan, head judge on the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada and owner of Toronto food empire, the McEwan group. “New York City rallied with a similar accessible winter dining event when people were reluctant to go out, then that whole sentiment spread to other cities, including Toronto.”
So how exactly does Winterlicious work? The event, organized by the city of Toronto, will run from January 26 to February 8. Two hundred restaurants across the city will offer three-course, prix fixe lunch and dinner menus.
“It gives people the chance to get out during the winter and try restaurants they’re not necessarily going to on a regular basis,” says McEwan, who has been board with all of his restaurants since the event’s inception.
And there has never been a better time to hop on the train to Toronto and sample international cuisines by eating your way across the city. “Toronto dining is on fire right now,” says McEwan. “There’s an energetic chef community, and the scene is driven by quality and a healthy competitive spirit—it gets all us chefs out of bed early in the morning.”
Many of the city’s best-loved restaurants participate in Winterlicious. It’s a great time to dig into the perfect steak-frites at celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud, in the Four Seasons hotel. Or maybe you want to savour the Ishiyaki Hot Stone Rice Bowl at Hapa Izakaya, a lively Japanese spot on College Street. And don’t forget Bar Lisa Marie in the Fashion District, where you can try one of Toronto’s most iconic desserts: a brioche French toast with zabaglione, brown sugar cooked bananas, peanut butter whipped cream and candied bacon, also known as “the Elvis”.
So what spots would McEwan himself recommend?
“I would go to Nota Bene, on Queen West; they do a very nice job,” he says. “It’s owned and run by David Lee, one of Canada’s best chefs.” This modern restaurant offers up an eclectic menu with exquisitely plated dishes and “super-tasty good food.” McEwan likes to go there year-round with his wife for dinner and a glass of wine. “We don’t make reservations, we just sit at the bar like a couple of barflies,” he says. A highlight of the evening Winterlicious menu is a fragrantly spiced braised Moroccan lamb shank, couscous, raisins and coriander. And on the lunchtime menu, the truffle and cookie plate, with fresh-baked salted caramel and chocolate chip cookies is a crowd pleaser for dessert.
Chef McEwan also recommends Canoe, on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower, in the Financial District. “That’s a very special spot where you get a bird’s eye view of the city, over Lake Ontario,” he says. “The executive chef is Anthony Walsh, and his style is contemporary Canadian, with a healthy respect for the past and the traditional.”
On their evening menu for Winterlicious, the Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality restaurant will be serving up creative dishes such as sunflower oil-poached salmon, squid salad, curried rouille, ink chips and pickled cucumber. One of their most playful lunchtime offerings is the birch syrup and molasses cake with vanilla screech ganache and hazelnut praline.
Of his own restaurants, McEwan suggests trying Bymark or Fabricca, each offering a completely different dining experience. “At Bymark we do a lot of fish and seafood, a lot of crudos and a lot of handmade pastas, and we make everything in house, right down to the bread,” he says.
Conceived by international interior designer Yabu Pushelberg, the brick-walled and sun-flooded space has a long well-stocked bar with sombre wood and leather furnishings. A Winterlicious dinner menu highlight is the rich and smoky pork belly and shrimp grits, with tomato, hickory sticks and scallions appetizer. For dessert, try the apple cider donuts with airy Chantilly cream and honeycomb.
“At Fabricca the cuisine is very much old-school, made-from-scratch Italian,” says McEwan. The place has an Old-World, rustic feel.” The warm vibe starts in this North Toronto restaurant with its design: it has a distressed wood interior, open kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven and a salumi cellar right in the middle of the restaurant. At lunchtime during Winterlicious, diners can feast on comfort food like grilled sausage, creamy polenta, kale and peppers. For dessert, they’ll have the dilemma of choosing between classics like cannoli (a roll of fried pastry dough stuffed with sweetened ricotta) and the ethereal set-custard treat that is panna cotta.
“All in all Winterlicious is a fun time for us Toronto chefs to see clients we don’t typically see and to show them the best side of our restaurants,” says McEwan. “We’re just focused on giving diners an amazing experience.”
Top Image: © Josh Tenn-Yuk