Great Finds in
Toronto Part II
By Vanessa Shaw-Finel
 

 

The Fairmont Royal York

t was time to change hotels and move onto the Fairmont Royal York. Another icon of the city and when it was built it was the tallest structure in the city! It is also on Front Street, so named because it used to be the front street of the city. With all the building over the years, the infill into the lake has pushed the lakefront about a quarter of a mile further out!

Cutting some herbs on the roof garden.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast buffet in the York Cafe below the lobby. We then went to find our PR contact, the lovely Alka Patel, who gave us a tour of the massive kitchens. They are the biggest in Canada and can feed 10,000 guests at one sitting if necessary! They were also extremely well organised and very clean. We met the bakery and pastry Chef Joseph Chan, a lovely man who gave us time and attention during his busy day, later sending some delectable butter cookies, made especially by him, to our suite. What a treat. We also accompanied Alka up to the roof herb garden, (with a security guard). All the chefs’ herbs are grown fresh here, and what a wonderful overview of the lake and city.

Our gorgeous suite
Our suite was then ready for us and what a wonderful space it was. We’ve stayed in some wonderful places around the world, with some fabulous bathrooms but never one each! This was true luxury.

Some quick facts on this hotel as well as the fact that it has garnered many fine awards:

  • 1365 guestrooms, with 191 suites, 82 Fairmont Gold rooms and 800 business equipped rooms.
  • nine food outlets including the 5 year old EPIC signature restaurant, a Japanese teppanyaki steakhouse and sushi bar.
  • 70,000 square feet in 34 possible conference rooms.
  • 1,200 staff members
  • gorgeous health club with sky-lit lap pool, hot tub, sauna, massage and full fitness centre
  • hosted 40 million guests since 1929, including 3 generations of British Royals, stars and dignitaries.

You get the picture. An iconic hotel built from a bygone era but moving very much with the times. We were struck by how very pleasant and attentive all the staff were, from the ground up. This place was like a village, with many long-time loyal employees, which is always a great sign, who all seemed to know each other and care genuinely about the hotel. We felt the love!

The stunning EPIC Restaurant
The lobby alone is a work of art and a statement of the quality of the Royal York. This two, and at one place three storey, massive space, houses fabulous ornate mouldings, some gold leafed, marble trim, tables and tiles. There are faux finishes, scenic murals, leather and upholstered furniture, artwork and historical photographs that tell the hotel’s story all sheltered by the excellently maintained stencilled wooden beamed ceiling overlooking the clock tower and a beautiful spiral staircase leading to the lower level.

While I enjoyed the hotel Neal was off to the Hockey Hall of Fame where he immersed himself in the history of his favourite sport for a couple of hours.

Neal writes: Just a quick blurb about another side trip to one of my personal mecca in life. I love hockey and it was a thrill to pay a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Enclosed in what was a bank building, it has expanded over the years to include just about every bit of memorabilia from the “fastest game on earth.” Look for the videos of many of the inductees and listen how they are so humbled and proud to join their compatriots into the Hall of Fame.

It’s all here from the Stanley Cup (including a huge photo of the recent Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning!), to equipment from days gone by, a replica of the Montreal Canadians locker room, bios of all my favs, including Bobby Orr, and more. There is also a hands-on area where kids of all ages can suit up as a goalie, try to score, or even test your skills as an announcer. A great time was had by all who visited, including this kid!

Chef de Cuisine Jean-Charles Dupoire

We then met up for afternoon tea, (never high tea please, a totally different thing!), in EPIC and met Chef de Cuisine Chef Jean-Charles Dupoire. What a delightful Frenchman he is, and very popular with all the staff, which is highly unusual for his role! He was very interesting, having had the best training in the north of England and then the Dorchester in London, before coming here. We’ve never met such a personable Chef in his position, (or any other for that matter), to give us time, respect and attention along with his very busy schedule and the responsibility that he bears. Good for him and the hotel!

Tea was delicious and pampering, with many global tea choices. The restaurant EPIC is beautifully upholstered with curving banquettes and chairs in deep turquioses and golds set off by vibrant artwork and white linen tablecloths.

The Royal York had arranged breakfast for us in their restaurant EPIC which was everything you could ever want offered in the buffet, from oatmeal to smoked salmon, omelettes to order and fresh made chocolate croissants. Such a treat.

We then met up again with Alka and had a special visit to their ‘silver’ room. This housed many piles if antique culinary silver serving platters, dishes, and containers of every sort. Some still used for banquets and weddings, it was a very unusual sight to see. A huge silver mobile chafing serving trolley, alone worth over $25,000 to buy new, even IF you could!


ONTARIO WINERIES

Yet another treat followed as we were given a driver, in the form of trusty Morton Sider of Niagara Airbus, (with a fleet of 130 vehicles to suit your every need), who took us to the lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake area, about one and a half hours from Toronto. We chose not to have the worry of a car in the city, and certainly did not need it, so this was a nice surprise.

A day in the wine country at
Niagara-on-the-Lake

Although we love to get away and enjoy a city fix, six days was quite a lot in one go. So a drive out to some wine country was refreshing. Ontario has a very prosperous and growing number of wineries we were delighted to discover. Our first was to tour and taste at the winery Chateau des Charmes.

Founded in 1978 this is one of the largest family owned wineries in Canada, with 279 acres of vineyards dedicated to the production of fine wines, with emphasis on single vineyard bottlings. Paul Bosc and his family are the fifth and sixth generation wine growers now they choose to produce their wines from this beautiful chateau that is surely a landmark in the Niagara-on-the-Lake countryside. New world excellence old world tradition is their motto. While we were there it was announced that Mr. Bosc had been awarded the Order of Canada, along with such notables as the late Peter Jennings and Diana Krall, for his work in industry, commerce and business. Many congratulations. His dedication certainly manifests itself in this gorgeous spot for enjoying a leisurely afternoon discovering the winesas well as for those celebrating weddings and other functions.

Our next stop was to the nearby Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery. Totally different in appeal, this set-up was very modern and stream-lined. Daily tours are available as well as the wine boutique, and ‘Twilight in the Vineyard’ where summer performances of talented actors and musicians can be experienced in the amphitheater on these handsome grounds.

ICEWINE

This area of Canada produces one of the most internationally sought-after products. This product is icewine. Icewine or Eiswein in Germany, is a late-harvest wine made from grapes pressed while frozen. Only three varieties of vinifera grape and Vidal may be used but usually it is made from Vidal and Riesling grapes.

To make Icewine, the grapes are left on the vine until after the first frost hits. These grapes are harvested after being frozen in the vineyard and then, while still frozen, they are pressed. They must be picked early - before 10AM. During both of these processes the temperature cannot exceed -8 degrees Cº. At this temperature (-8 degrees Cº) the berries will freeze as hard as marbles. While the grape is still in its frozen state, it is pressed and the water is driven out as shards of ice. This leaves a highly concentrated juice, very high in acids, sugars and aromatics.

In Ontario and in Germany, icewine is defined as naturally frozen. This means that here as in Germany, no other method of making icewine is allowed other than the natural method. No artificial freezing method constitutes icewine by definition or label. Most wineries in this part of Canada produce icewine, probably the best known here in Florida is from Inniskillin, which we passed but didn’t have time to visit. They were one of the industry’s pioneers in this area and now also have a new icewine tasting bar. Cool.

The traffic was very heavy going back into Toronto which was rather a surprise but we very much enjoyed getting to know Mort. What a global traveller and interesting character he is. He should write a book. We also leaned that most of the cars for rent, as well as taxis in the area run on propane! How great is this, much cleaner producing less pollution, cheaper and quieter than gasoline. Shame that this doesn’t occur in many more cities.

JAMIE KENNEDY WINE BAR

The staff at Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar includes server Paul, Chef Tobey Nemeth and Executive Chef Jamie Kennedy

Another great find was this buzzing and sort after eating establishment. Generally they don’t take reservations but the place was full all the time. The venerable team, wine bar Chef  Tobey Nemeth and restaurant Chef Eric Walker headed by Executive Chef/Owner Jamie Kennedy, were extremely talented with a passion for natural foods. A winning situation! Everyone in town that we mentioned to that we were going to Jamie Kennedy was impressed, he was obviously well respected in the dining field and he used to work at Scaramouche. The small place was done in brick, woods, lime green, black and stainless steel, it was spare and hip. One of the kitchens was open and the action was non-stop.

However Tobey managed to give us a good part of her busy evening sharing her story and her loves. We learned a few things that night including Tobey’s love and skill of preserving foods. We were reminded of a gentler, more natural time when harvest produced a glut of fruit and vegetables so people would preserve them for the long winter months ahead rather than going without such treasures. Tobey continues this tradition at great expense and time, but the results speak for themselves.

Small plate grazing is the way to dine at Jamie Kennedy’s.

Opened only a year and a half, this truly was a ‘wine bar’ with its very extensive wine menu and a fairly short, but interesting and delicious, food menu. They have just opened a restaurant area, off the bar section, with a different menu. A very cool space with a moveable wall housing a large banquette. Fab idea.

Most plates were small and grazing was the name of the game; our favourite. We loved tastes of the comfort Yukon Gold Fries, chorizo and cheese curd with a light caramelised dressing, the Niçoise salad with olive poached tuna, the grilled Portuguese sardines with a slightly spicy Moroccan dressing and the simmered Pacific Halibut with clams. Our server was Justine, delightful, competent and between her and Tobey we had the royal treatment. Our wine tastings were also great; a Niagara Peninsula Chardonnay 2001 13th Street, and a Bonny Doon Reisling 2004, a Cave Spring Cellars Pinot Grigio/Gris 2004 and a Ronco del Gelso Italy Fruili 2003, a Russian River Valley Keegan Pinot Noir 2002 and a Hartz Barn 2000 Australian Shiraz.

Tobey then furnished us with tastes of the veal sweetbreads with noodles in a sherry reduction, not our usual but delicious, and the excellent quality pork belly, her specialty and a big Canadian staple. All foods and produce were from local specialty farms.

The artisanal cheese course followed and what a delight it was, all local and so fresh. I am sure my report tells the story. This place is worth the visit anytime. Thanks for caring so much guys and continued success.

After all this food we could only face a coffee to break the fast (ha! ha!) and we went off in search of the St. Lawrence Market in the old part of town. It was great with the freshest meat, fish and produce but alas no clothes or artworks. Oh well live and learn, we should have asked first, some good exercise though.

Gloucester Square Inns
of Toronto

An oasis in the city is the Gloucester Square Inns of Toronto.

Having stored our bags with the Royal York after check-out we returned to collect them and head off for our last two nights at the Gloucester (gloster!) Inn on Jarvis Street, the mid/eastern part of Toronto. This is not your mother’s B&B. This baby, is an urban Inn for every taste. This historical and most interesting find was a fantastic setting with two really well renovated red brick Victorian Mansions, plus one around the corner in progress to add to the family.  

OK, B&B you think, but wait...as the lovely Cu showed us to our loft guest area, she explained that this was the Tina Turner Suite... and that until 2001 Richard Branson (aka Virgin records, etc. etc.) owned this house as his Canadian base and a rehearsal studio for the likes of TT and Mick Jagger who had indeed performed here. The eaves ceiling was clad with pickled pine for acoustics and the space was huge. Cool digs.

A welcoming breakfast.

Plenty of room to party in the Tina Turner suite “We never do anything nice ‘n easy.”

Anyway, the Inn has eighteen guest rooms all varying in size and amenities. When booking they are kind enough to ask that a form be filled out so as to place and suit you best....hmmmm, not many places do that.

Beautiful common rooms were fitted with antiques and historical beginnings, the brick, and stone courtyards are gently planted and used for weddings, the newly renovated stables, for business meetings and the like and of course all was booked for the film festival the following week. An eclectic spot, as well as ‘a pleasant spot’ to be sure!


THE DRAKE

Taking a fairly long taxi ride right across town, along the fascinating and bohemian Queen’s Street West we arrived at The Drake Hotel. It looked like a run-down cinema, which it used to be, unnerving us somewhat. However the evening improved from there. This place was just waking up.

We love the Drake!
Getting chummy at The Drake are GM Betty and waiter Daniel.

This is the hot and upcoming part of town that the Drake creator, Jeff Stober, had foresight to build on, literally. An extensive two year renovation restored and revitalised the building and on Valentine’s Day 2004 the doors were opened. The fabulous and ‘dangerous’ GM Betty, (who took no prisoners), gave us her precious time and showed us around the property with obvious pride. Her energy and sense of fun were infectious and we were sorry she had to leave us eventually. With five areas in which to eat/drink, the Dining, (restaurant), the Lounge (bar) plus Raw Bar, the Corner Cafe, casual with all day breakfast among other things, the Underground, for local artistes to strut their stuff and the Sky Yard a bar open to the stars, well and the sky. This plus 14 ‘crash pads’  for overnight or longer, this place had it all.

Hostess Kate greeted us warmly and showed us to our table, then our rather gorgeous waiter Daniel took over. The whole place is very edgy and retro-now but  serious about good food and wine. The floors are terrazzo and the walls in stained plywood covered in huge black felt Rorshach images! Innovative, imaginative and eclectic with Chef Grant Parry, sushi impresario Michi Tanaka and pastry prodigy Heather Pollock the menu boldly blended old world with new creating comfort cuisine with a flair.

Feasting on the sushi roll and spinach salad, energy for the party ahead!

Our first dishes from Chef were the Drake sushi roll, the Duck spring rolls with a fabulous orange and plum sauce and a small spinach salad with King oyster mushrooms, shredded egg and dried cranberries with a hot mustard vinaigrette were great. Accompanied by some Cava and a very nice Sonoma Coastal Ridge Chardonnay that wasn’t oaky at all. Delightful.

The next plates comprised very good Sake Salmon with white asparagus, Pomelo and honey mushrooms and the Flash seared Tuna with cherry tomatoes, asparagus and a delicious grainy mustard aioli. Both were topped with a truly amazing local herb garnish, a fragrant tiny-leaf basil. The reds were the Argentinian organic Malbec Buenos Ondes and the Niagara Starving Artist Cab/Merlot blend.

We skipped dessert in favour of the tour with Betty and some libations of the house! At around this time the whole place was in full swing with drinks flowing, the music setting the pace, and the crowd looking good and reved up!

The Drake rocked, beware!

SKYDOME

The Gloucester Square Inn offered a casual but fine breakfast selection of cereal, breads, pastries and an egg dish plus coffee, tea and other drinks, help yourself and mingle with the other interesting guests.
Baseball at the Rogers Center (SkyDome).
I was then off to shop at the enormous Eaton Centre while Neal headed off to the SkyDome for a behind-the-scenes-tour. Sorry but I can’t call it the Rogers Centre! Skydome is such a great name for it.


What’s amazing about Toronto and Montreal, is that because of the long, cold months, they have another life...underground. Everything that’s usually above ground is to be found below also. How great is that in the bitter cold and snow. Locals don’t even need to brave the street level as everything, including business es from the subway are accessible from that level. Very clever.

 

MARIPOSA HARBOUR CRUISE

We met up at the harbour front for a 1:30PM cruise around the harbour and Toronto Islands. The lake front is so attractive due to the little group of islands just off-shore. The Mariposa fleet, run by the affable Manager Rob Benneyworth and his happy friendly staff, includes 7 vessels, all differing in size for every occasion such as weddings, meetings, cruises and parties.

We very much enjoyed an hour and a half leisurely cruise listening to some commentary, history and local anecdotes. The picturesque little islands were fringed with house and sailing boats, weeping willows and wildlife, plus the oldest lighthouse in the Great Lakes, rumoured to be haunted.

We then shared a very good plate of smoked salmon and pizzetta toasts at the busy lake front Il Fornello. A very nice spot for a little sun on a mellow Saturday afternoon.

Neal was then off again to the SkyDome for some of the game with Tampa Bay Devil Rays. How could he miss this especially as ‘we’ won. I returned to the Gloucester Square Inn for a little taste of their very civilised afternoon tea. All sorts of large, loose leaf teas were available, complete with tea strainers, china, scones and pastries. very agreeable.

Interesting and refreshing owner Ric Tremaine joined me and then gave me a very informative tour of his properties, despite hosting a wedding in the next hour! He was full of knowledge of the city and locale, sharing charming stories of the mansions’ history. Designed by E.J. Lennox, ‘the master builder of Toronto,’ these two Canadian Heritage Mansions were built in 1889 by Charles Rundle. Ric has painstakingly restored these lovely old homes, all 20,000 sq.ft. of them, to their former glory and has produced 26 superior guest suites with private baths, whirlpools, telephones, TV and VCR, DSL ports and Wi-Fi. A home office and ‘parlor’ rooms are available available to guests as well as a gorgeous spa room complete with masseur.

STARFISH
World champion oyster shucker Patrick McMurray displays his work at Starfish.

This our last night, was very much enjoyed dining and chatting at Starfish  with owner and great character, Patrick McMurray. The young and vibrant Patrick is the Guinness Book of Records Champion Oyster Opener at 33 per minute, beautifully done, not chopped us as he said. There’s more to this art than you ever realised and he has travelled to Galway, Ireland for the competition many times. I was curious as to the state of his hands and they were quite soft! But they did bear the scars of many stitches! He is not in competition now though (giving someone else a chance).  He now designs and moulds his own knives, especially for his hand as well as designing them for others now also.

Starfish outside

There are four types of oysters to be harvested. Bottom, off-bottom, rack grown and when in season, wild grown!

Patrick always wanted his own restaurant and runs Starfish with his wife Alison. Starting at Boba, Patrick gained his French training via Rodneys with Simon Bauer in his former establishments, as well as with George Gournon of Pastis.

Starfish was a good size, spacious yet with a cozy feel, done in woods, taupe walls, handsome long banquettes, crisp white table cloths and many sparkling candles. The bar is long and was very busy with guests watching all the oyster opening action.

Patrick prepared a small mixed plates of his fresh, fresh oysters for us to start. These from as far as Ireland, flown in twice a week the Malpeque, Aspy Bay Nova Scotia, (scuba divers dive for these), and from Washington State the Kumamoto. Very delicate and tasty and all the better prepared by the champ himself.

Entrees include Roast Black Bass fillet on a rustic puree of white beans and double smoked bacon, braised baby fennel, baby candystripe beets, sauteed rapini and patty pan squash with roasted garlic and red pepper beurre noisette. Divine!

Our waiter Tim was lovely and helpful and with the oysters we benefitted from the delicious Niagara Malivore Melon 2004. The uncomplicated but excellent menu was unusually divided into, ‘From the land’ and ‘From the Sea’ categories, prepared and printed every day new! We tasted the delicious chilled calamari and navel orange salad, with sundried olives and mizuna greens and the grilled South American escolar on a baby spinach salad, red wine glazed cipollini onions with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Chef Martha Wright works her magic from the kitchen and Patrick oversees, especially where the oysters are concerned and can jump in wherever he’s needed.

The next course were the Roast Black Bass fillet on a rustic puree of white beans and double smoked bacon, braised baby fennel, baby candystripe beets, sauteed rapini and patty pan squash with roasted garlic and red pepper beurre noisette(wow) and the Duck Confit, (the last one of the night which I fought Patrick for and won!), served with grilled baby leeks, French beans and sauteed mustard greens. Divine. All the restaurants paid as much attention to the accompanying, so varied, vegetables as the protein, which was really good and they were all so fresh and mostly organic, again from local farms. A Castle Rock Pinot Noir 2003 from Mendocino County California paired beautifully.

“He shoots (photos) and scores”-
Neal Finell

Our dessert tastes were from the dense and divine signature flourless chocolate cake and the ‘special’ peach crumble with ginger ice cream, gorgeous.

This was another truly great find, immediately friendly and fun, like an upscale ‘Cheers,’ but much more serious about very good food.

We always love Canada and the Canadians and really enjoyed discovering Toronto. We have invitations to return in the winter, can’t wait!

Photos by Neal Finelli

"If you missed our previous Toronto article, here it is."

   
 
 
E-mail: finelli@tasteweb.net
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