Saturday, February 11th, 2012 at 7:06 pm

To T.O.: Summerlicious Adventures

Summerlicious, Toronto’s bi-annual prix fixe dining event and warm weather counterpoint to Winterlicious, puts Edmonton’s Fork Fest and Downtown Dining Week to shame. I realize it’s not exactly fair to compare our mid-size city’s efforts with those of Canada’s largest municipality, but the sheer number of restaurants (150 restaurants, all told), at every price point, in each quadrant of Toronto, that participate in the festival was mind-boggling.

My experience of Summerlicious made me consider planning my future travels around the event; it encouraged us to sample restaurants that I likely would not have otherwise – both in terms of high-end dining and in choosing lesser-known establishments.

In all, I sampled four Summerlicious menus (notably, Lee Lounge did not participate, cheekily naming their menu that week “Susurlicious”). We did have to make reservations in advance, though we did luck out with at least one known cancellation.

Jump

Jump was my entry point into the Oliver & Bonacini empire in Toronto. With the exception of Olive & Bonacini Cafe Grill, all of the O & B establishments are distinct in name and menu, and vary in level of formality and price, from the cafeteria-style O & B Canteen to the casual upscale Bannock to Canoe, their five-star crown jewel.

Nestled in the financial district, Jump was definitely a business lunch paradise – we were among only a few tables not in office attire. That said, we weren’t treated any differently, and after we arrived, were promptly led to a cozy wooden booth in the heart of the restaurant.

Jump

Jump

I loved the open concept kitchen, which seemed to give the restaurant a continuous sense of movement, with servers streaming in and out of the space with ease. The dining room also felt very warm, helped by the score of windows and skylights – it would be interesting to see how the atmosphere would change after nightfall.

Jump

Interior

The 3-course, $25 prix fixe menu provided quite a few options – our choice of four appetizers, four entrees and three desserts. My wild & tame mushroom soup, with no less than six kinds of mushrooms, had good depth and texture. And though they made do without butter or cream, a dollop would have gone a long way. Amanda’s watermelon and goat’s milk feta salad was gorgeous, summery and fresh.

Jump

Wild & tame mushroom soup

Jump

Watermelon and goat’s milk feta salad

We both couldn’t pass up the pulled pork for our main. It wasn’t the most elegant dish to eat, but then again, we weren’t on a business lunch! It was damn delicious, with flavourful mesquite barbecue sauce and pork that nearly melted in our mouths. The side of bagged kettle chips cheapened it a bit, however.

Jump

Pulled barbecue pork

It’s been a while since I’ve had panna cotta as smooth and silky as Jump’s. Their butterscotch version with salted caramel was just perfect, subtly sweet with a salty finish. Amanda also enjoyed her amaretto chocolate marquise cake – it was her favourite dessert that week, and even now, months later, is something she still thinks about.

Jump

Butterscotch panna cotta

Jump

Amaretto chocolate marquise cake

Jump was a great introduction to O & B. And it wouldn’t be long before we experienced them again.

Canoe

That same day, we had called Canoe (the most recommended Summerlicious restaurant on Chowhound) on a whim to see if we could get a last-minute reservation, as they were completely booked up on Open Table. Lucky for us, they had a cancellation, and we were able to snag a table early that evening. Sure, it meant we had to eat supper only two hours after completing our lunch, but Amanda and I were up for the challenge.

Located on the fifty-forth floor of the TD Tower, Canoe had an absolutely amazing view – we spent the first few minutes agog at the sights outside the window, including the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, Billy Bishop Airport and of course, Lake Ontario.

Canoe

The view

Service was professional and friendly, and matched the sleek but understated room. At first, we thought we’d be in the minority ordering off the $45 prix fixe menu, but seeing the same dishes coming out of the kitchen, we knew others were also taking advantage of the great deal. We had the choice of three appetizers, three entrees and three desserts.

My deconstructed salad featured Ontario bufala mozzarella, and it was a revelation: creamy, with so much inherent richness. It contrasted the fresh pops of peas and celery very well – I didn’t even mind the crab! Amanda wasn’t sure about the cold smoked whitefish and chilled potato puree, but she liked it in the end. It was also her first brush with edible flowers.

Canoe

Ontario bufala mozzarella salad

Canoe

Purdy’s smoked whitefish

Although I enjoyed my pan-roasted Great Lakes pickerel, the sides on my plate were the real star of the show – I loved the sweet corn and corn puree underneath. Amanda’s dish had mine beat, however – her slow-cooked Ontario pork loin was so tender, and even better, the Israeli couscous made us rethink that grain. Apparently, it had simply been cooked with mirepoix and stock, but tasted like so much more.

Canoe

Pan roasted Great Lakes pickerel

Canoe

Slow-cooked Ontario pork loin

Our dessert was a bittersweet chocolate terrine was made up of vanilla marshmallow, Barrie Hill Farms strawberries and basil crème anglaise. I wasn’t a huge fan of the divergent textures, from the spongy top to the sorbet-like layer underneath.

Canoe

Chocolate terrine

As a whole, Canoe provided us with a great evening out – the view alone was worth the price of dinner, but at just $45, it was without a doubt our best deal in Toronto that week.

Trevor Bar & Kitchen

Many of my friends have relocated to Toronto in the past few years – I met up with two of them at Trevor Bar & Kitchen to catch up over dinner. Janice’s coworker had recommended this restaurant, though at first glance, it wasn’t the ideal location on a muggy evening, with no air conditioning and too many lit candles to boot. On any other trip, the dinner at Trevor would have been near the top of my list, but because we dined at so many exceptional restaurants that week, it ended up in the middle.

My favourite thing about my mozzarella and tomato risotto were the bits of melty cheese inside. The rice had been cooked well, and I liked the tomato flavour throughout.

Trevor Bar & Kitchen

Mozzarella and tomato risotto

The second course, a barbecue duck ravioli was a good fusion offering – the sauce, a thin broth, was a welcome, if unexpected, surprise. Presentation-wise, it didn’t seem to have been plated with much care.

Trevor Bar & Kitchen

Barbeque duck ravioli

I ordered the sorbet for dessert primarily because I wanted something cool, but it turned to a soup almost immediately. It was still refreshing, though less pleasurable to eat.

Trevor Bar & Kitchen

Sorbet

Though I imagine Trevor Bar & Kitchen would be a great spot to grab a post-work cocktail and a casual nibble, with the breadth of restaurants Toronto has to offer, I doubt I’d return straightaway.

The Drake – “Summer School”

Chef Anthony Rose’s restaurant, located in The Drake Hotel, was my favourite restaurant experience of the entire trip. The Drake, a hipster boutique hotel in West Queen West, had created a lot of buzz about their pop-up restaurant series, which rotated concepts every few months. In many ways, because Rose is the in-house chef, I’m not sure it would really qualify as a pop-up, but I loved the idea that some of the decor would at least change with each incarnation.

Drake Hotel

Interior

In July, The Drake was transformed into a “Summer School”, complete with kitschy accessories that I was unabashedly giddy over. Everything from the duotang menus, scantrons and Rubik’s cube salt shakers on the table. Offering a menu of 3 courses for $35, a taste of their retro dishes also didn’t break the bank.

The Drake

Giddy

No matter what though, Mack and I agreed that we had to indulge in their too-cool “juice box cocktails”, which were actually served in tetra paks. Who knew drinking from a straw could be so much fun?

The Drake

Cheers!

Amanda and I both chose dishes off the prix fixe list, but Mack decided to select from the regular menu, and opted not to order either an appetizer or a dessert. Amanda thoroughly enjoyed her creamy salad, not hard to do when two of her favourite things – shrimp and avocado – were stars of the dish. I also loved my alphabet soup, thicker than I anticipated, but slightly sweet and rife with perfectly cooked pasta.

The Drake

Salad

The Drake

Alphabet soup

Amanda and I both ordered the fried chicken for our main – it was the best choice we could have made. The chicken had been de-boned, making it easy to eat (bonus!), but was still moist on the inside with a crispy shell on the outside. It was further enhanced with a dollop of wildflower honey on top. The side of cabbage slaw was light and refreshing, and although Amanda was full, nothing would stop her from finishing the rustic mashed potatoes on the plate, as buttery as they were.

Drake Hotel

Fried chicken

Mack’s entree was comprised of an absolutely massive lobster roll ($27), which contained one pound of lobster!  While the first few bites were good, Mack said it was much too heavy for one person. Besides that, the dish came with four sides. His favourite was the macaroni and cheese, with the pickled cucumbers and red onions a close second.

The Drake

Conquer that!

All through dinner, I was most looking forward to dessert. Passion Flakie (sold in the same section as Twinkies, I realize), was one of my favourite childhood treats, and I was excited to see how Chef Rose would elevate it. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to expectations – Amanda’s was underbaked, and mine was overdone. I would have also preferred the whipped cream and fruit layers to have been more silky smooth.

The Drake

Passion Flakie

As a whole though, we had a great time that night. The setting, the service (our waiter seemed to genuinely love his job), and the food helped create something special.