Sunday, January 31, 2010

WINTERLICIOUS: The Chaos That was Toula

Tony and I had our first Winterlicious outing to Toula on Friday night. I forgot how crazy Winterlicious restaurants can be, because we arrived for our 7:30pm for our reservation and the restaurant was PACKED. I don't imagine that Toula is normally that busy, known more for the view than the food (situated on the 38th floor of the Westin Harbour Castle). The hostess told us there would be a bit of a wait because patrons were staying beyond their 2 hours; while I was ok to wait, I am generally put off by that excuse. While I understand they cannot force people out, it is up to the restaurant to manage the situation and gently remind patrons their reservation is up. There is some good news to this story: Toula understood how to manage the chaos that seemingly overwhelmed them. Waiting patrons were offered glasses of champagne for the wait, a small but welcome gesture to make up for the inconvenience of waiting despite a reservation; bread and water also arrived as soon as we sat down, which helped ease the wait to place our order. The waiter was friendly and by all means making the best of the situation and the effort is appreciated - we want to know people are trying!

Despite the initial wait, our food did come quickly. I think on a normal night, Toula is probably better quality than we had, they seem to have the right foundation - reliable, and accompanied by an amazing view of the city. I had a seafood salad to start, with giant prawns and scallop, and Tony had a mushroom salad with polenta. For mains, I had tagliolini with lobster, and Tony had lamb. My pasta was just average with little discernable pieces of lobster, but I could tell the pasta was fresh. Tony's lamb was quite delicious, but not extraordinary. We could tell the base quality is there but it seemed the food was being produced en masse in the kitchen, sacrificing a bit of quality and perhaps any uniqueness.

Toula probably did not do itself any favours participating in Winterlicious as the crowded restaurant took away from the fine-dining charm, but they held their own and managed to feed everyone promptly. For $35, the food was acceptable, and in the end, we can't say we were disappointed, just not amazed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Classic Dining Experience at Pangaea in Yorkville

Tony and I were hunting for a place to eat Saturday night and ended up at Pangaea in Yorkville. Walking into the restaurant, I was greeted by a beautiful Hermes Kelly bag from one of the patrons near the door, and on our way to our table, I came across a beautiful grey Chanel sweater on another patron - this gives you an idea of the regular crowd! I'm not sure how long Pangea has been around, but it's as "classic" Yorkville restaurant as any.

To start, I had pork rillette (a spread) served in a mason jar with mini toasts - delicious and homey! We've noticed a number restaurants using the mason jar as a means of serving meals lately, like the poached egg and lobster we had at The Modern in NYC, so I suppose it was very "on trend." Tony's lamb sausage was served on a bed of stewed vegetables and was very flavourful. For mains, I had pheasant served with wild rice and mushrooms - the accompaniment was surprisingly delicious and really made the meal. Tony's liver was grilled and served with stewed lingonberries, it was savoury and exceptionally well done - it's rare to find liver in a high end restaurant and we really enjoyed it. For dessert, I indulged in a light yet delicious banana coconut cream tart and Tony had panacotta with grapefruit. I think my tart was more unique, with a delicious pastry crust and coconut ice cream ball and caramelized bananas.

Pangaea is not a cheap night out but the food quality definitely has a standard - I trust that any meal I have there would be solid. The menu offers many choices and the service was also exceptional - we were seated quickly, given menus and specials right away, and the sommelier made his way over to help us with choices without asking. We mentioned that we were looking to try some new wines we might like to have at our wedding and not only did he recommend 2 great wines by the glass, he also gave us some tips on what to buy, how much, and how to budget. The extra steps in customer service are always much appreciated!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to Winterlicious! Jan 29- Feb 11

Winterlicious reservations started this week! I was among the eager and started making phone calls on Tuesday thanks to American Express Front-of-the-Line (sidebar: it is a great AMEX benefit!). Reservations opened to the public today, and sure, many of the most popular restaurants might be full already, but there is likely still a good-value foodie opportunity for you.

When we first moved to Toronto, we were excited by the bi-annual promotion of dining out via Summerlicious and Winterlicious; however, we were also overwhelmed by the number of participating restaurants! In both Vancouver and Calgary, I had a really good sense of what was a good deal and which restaurants were worth booking; but here in Toronto, there are so many restaurants I am unfamiliar with that it was simply daunting to review all the menus and decide which were worth calling. I figure others out there might share my experience, so here is how we do Winterlicious, after 3 seasons of taking advantage:

1. Look for value: We like Winterlicious, and any good variation in other cities, because it is a good opportunity to try restaurants at an affordable price. Restaurants offer a mix of lunch and dinner menus at different prices. Some restaurants are worth the $35/$45 menu, others are simply re-packaging the regular menu at normal prices - I believe that misses the point of Winterlicious and we generally avoid these offerings. Restaurants should create menus that highlight the character and flavours of their food to visitors at great value - this is the opportunity to entice loyal patrons! Knowing a restaurant's regular menu (which is often available on-line) can help you find worthwhile experiences.

2. Filter: There are over a hundred restaurants - the keen may look through every menu but I simply don't have the patience. I look for well-known restaurants that I may not have tried before, those that have been recommended by friends where I have not had a chance to visit, and sometimes I simply "judge a book by it's cover" by randomly viewing menus of restaurants that have interesting names. I always look for at least one item that I would LOVE to eat - if there is nothing that excites me immediately, I move on.

3. Be flexible: Certain restaurants are exceptionally popular (Canoe, North 44 etc), so be flexible with your dates and times if you are dying to try it out during this period. It may also be hard to book a table for 6 of your friends - if you MUST check a popular place out, you are probably better off trying for smaller parties. There is a wide array of restaurants participating in Winterlicious that you may have never heard of or intended to try so be open to new experiences and you may surprise yourself.

4. Be social: We always leverage Winterlicious as an opportunity to meet up with friends - it's always better to share food with others! With prix fixe menus, it is easy to manage expectations with food costs - no one will be surprised by menu prices and everyone takes part in the experimentation so no one has to be responsible for finding the "right food" for everyone. The downside, however, is that there are limited selections, and as I mentioned, large parties can be hard to come by. We've always managed to make reservations for 4 so pair up!

5. Timing: This really depends on your style, but I recommend spacing out your reservations. Dining out should be a fun, social experience - the last thing you want is to pack your schedule and barely recall the meals you have had. We normally target 2 to 3 restaurants based on quality and value vs maximizing # of restaurants. This also give you flexibility over the week to secure reservations at popular venues.

We love to eat so we have enjoyed both Summerlicious and Winterlicious. Even if you are not into scouring the menu or researching best deals, check out the site if you just need a place to eat from Jan 29 to Feb 11 - we've often landed on some good restaurants just by chance. This year, we'll be checking out Toula (at the Westin) , Trevor's Kitchen (we have been before, but the menu was enticing), Auberge du Pommier, and possibly a return to North 44. Check out menus here and let me know of any great places you find!