One Writer’s 17-City Food Odyssey to Discover Canada’s Best New Restaurants
Writing Canada’s Best New Restaurants was both a dream assignment and a marathon of endurance that could cripple the metabolism and liver of even the most cast-iron-stomached eater. It was also a chance to see Canada in all its splendour, from the mossy, ancient-cedar-scented Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet, British Columbia, to the beach-rose-dotted dunes of Bouctouche in New Brunswick. I walked the shores of the Bow River in Calgary and Canmore, the rushing Yukon River in Whitehorse, and admired the placid beauty of Okanagan Lake in Kelowna. And those were just my downtime activities – rushed nature fixes snatched between dashes to taxis, rental cars, shuttles, trains and planes. I also got to sample the riches of Canada’s boreal forests, fields and oceans. In an era of “local and seasonal,” I challenge any Canadian to prove that they have ever consumed more forms of asparagus, morels, rhubarb, sidestripe shrimp or sea buckthorn than I did during those weeks.
At first, the idea for this digital feature was to keep a food diary of my trip. But when your job is to roam freely and extensively through the cocktail lists, wine lists and menus of the most promising new restaurants in the country, you want to keep your extracurricular eating to a boring minimum. Lack of appetite and its twin, palate fatigue, are an ever-present danger. So this diary became a record of the people I met, insights into our country that I gleaned and the diverse yet common human experience that runs through this vast and beautiful nation.
Wednesday, May 22, Toronto My journey begins in Toronto, where I live, with eight meals during the last 10 days of May. After downing platters of addictively delicious comfort food at Leemo Han’s Seoul Shakers, my dining companion, a wine professional and endurance athlete – contemplating the foie-gras-and-bone-marrow-paved road ahead of me – looks at me sympathetically and says, “Nancy, I really don’t envy you.”
Tuesday, May 28, Toronto. Over crispy triple-cooked fries, steak and pork chop at dinner number four at Le Swan, my friend Kate and I discuss wardrobe options in the elastic-waist-band category – dad jeans for restaurant critics. She suggests H&M, but I’m torn. Can I break my fast-fashion boycott for temporary, affordable comfort?
Wednesday, May 29, Thornhill, ON. Although all my reservations are booked for me under a pseudonym, on this night at Frilu, where an ambitious chef is fusing Nordic and Japanese influences, the moment I enter the room I see a sake agent I know, who’s hosting a Japanese brewer. The ritual introductions and exchanging of business cards ensues, all under the nose of the front-of-house manager. Busted!
Saturday, June 1, Bloomfield, Prince Edward County, ON. My husband and I are seduced by the honest live-fire cooking of chef Hidde Zomer at Flame and Smith. We also notice that women in this weekend-getaway town vastly outnumber men. Over a chicken-and-waffles brunch at Bloomfield Public House, we notice the ratio of women to men is 30 to four. “Bachelorette parties,” our server explains. “It’s a thing here. It’s kind of like, ‘What happens in Bloomfield stays in Bloomfield.’” The group of four women next to us went to a popular bar the night before, where the clientele was overwhelmingly women. It was really loud and really drunken. “We had to commit or go,” one of them told us. “There was just too much estrogen in the room. We left.” But not before noticing the two guys working the room. “They knew what was up,” our informant told us. Shades of the Wedding Crashers, PEC-style.
Monday, June 3, Toronto. My road trip begins for real! It’s exhilarating hopping off the UP Express at Pearson Airport and heading to my first flight, to Vancouver. There’s nothing like the freedom of the road. Halfway down the ramp to Terminal 1, I realize my smartphone is missing. This will not surprise my family members, but 40 minutes into my first big road trip, I’ve lost something. And not just anything. Everything from my trip is on my phone: my itinerary, my notes, my file of photos. I’m in a cold sweat. I run back to the UP Express platform to find a ticket agent holding my phone out to me. Canada in my book is second only to Japan in getting lost items returned. I’ve recovered my wallet (from an Air Canada seat), hat, gloves and, yes, my phone too many times to admit. During my whole trip, I lose only one item and have to have another one shipped to me. Not bad – for me.
Tonight’s dinner is at Ugly Dumpling, a rustic Asian comfort-food restaurant on Commercial Drive that punches way above its weight. Next to us, a group of six, some deaf and some not, are signing furiously with the server. Turns out the group consists of the server’s mom, her female partner, her three sisters and her own partner, who happens to know how to sign because her former partner was deaf. “The perfect partner,” our server says appreciatively. They’re celebrating the birthday of one sister. A birthday cake arrives at the table, candles lit. Everyone raises their hands and flutters them, a beautiful, silent gesture of laughter and applause. My dining partner companion and I bask in the glow of their good cheer.
Thursday, June 6, Burnaby, B.C. Breakfast is leftover Ramón Peña sardines in olive oil (from last night’s dinner at Como Taperia) on microwaved tomato bread. My stay at an Airbnb in the beautiful Heights neighbourhood has been challenging because the city has no ride-share system and taxis are hard to book if you don’t have a regular account with a company. It’s impossible to get a cab to pick me up in Burnaby. Yellow Cab and Black Top don’t serve the area. After 13 minutes on hold with the local taxi outfit, I’m told it will be at least a 25-minute wait. I ask the dispatcher, who is about to hang up on me, if I will get a confirmation call-back. “Oh yes, I see your number,” he assures me. Having no confidence that a cab will ever show, I start walking to Hastings Street to take the bus downtown. The cab, of course, never calls. My dining companion confirms my experience: She’s missed planes because of the city’s unreliable cab system. Even in downtown Vancouver at rush hour, a promised five-minute wait can stretch on and on. While some have pointed out the many advantages of a ride-share-free city, it seems like even Vancouver will let them in soon.
Friday, June 7, Whitehorse, Yukon. On the plane to Whitehorse I sit next to a semi-retired nurse who helps run a home for seniors. People do move to warmer climates to retire, she tells me, but a surprising number come back. “The health services here are fabulous. In fact, many younger people are moving their parents here to retire,” she says. After we land, she wishes me a good visit and says, “You know what they say, ‘Visit Yukon once and you’ll always come back!’”
My dining companion, a writer and cookbook author, confirms this. She visited her sister and ended up coming back and putting down roots. Dinner at Wayfarer Oyster House alone could convince me to stay. Over cocktails, my new friend and her husband, an avalanche-prevention safety expert and river guide, describe the Yukon lifestyle to me. “So many people pass through here on their way to climb or fish. They have a flat tire or breakdown. Ten to 15 percent end up staying. When we see them, baggy pants, long hair, we think, ‘Here comes the next generation!’”
It’s a young city, and a city where many have multiple occupations: the biologist who is a woodcutter, multitaskers from the tech industry. Our radiant server is a bartender, singer and guitarist who my dining companions met when she was a housepainter. Now she’s living on Squatters Row, a street in the woods that began, literally, as an outpost for squatters’ shacks. She sleeps in a wall tent in a 13-x-15-foot cabin outfitted with a stove, and can do the downhill bike ride into town in 10 minutes. Another friend of my dining companion has an office job in the city, but drops into her friends’ parties to charge her smartphone. She, like many, lives off the grid.
Saturday, June 8, Whitehorse, Yukon / Victoria, B.C. The morning I depart Whitehorse, I visit Alpine Bakery for the world’s best scone, made with spelt flour and dotted with dried orange and dark chocolate. Swiped with soft butter from a giant block that rests on the counter, it will last me (I hope!) through ’til dinner in Victoria. I arrive on Vancouver Island in mid-afternoon to find the island has been issued a Level 3 drought warning, one of many signs I see throughout my travels of low water levels in the West. I steal time for a walk along the Dallas Road waterfront, drinking in the brilliant blue skies, brisk winds, tall grasses and cruise ships in the distance. That’s the trouble with climate change: Nature’s beauty can obscure its dire warnings, lulling us into complacency.
Sunday, June 9, Ucluelet, B.C. In one of the most remote and beautiful places in the country, I dine with a fourth-gen Japanese Canadian. His fisherman grandfather was evacuated from Tofino and imprisoned in a WWII internment camp. Despite lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, he returned in 1950 and bought 20 acres of land in the area, selling off a chunk of it in the 1990s. My companion’s grandmother still lives on the island in a house with a wood-burning stove, not far from Pluvio, the fine-dining establishment we’re visiting tonight in Ucluelet. As we sample chef Warren Barr’s umami-rich candied salmon, my companion recalls how his dad, also a fisherman, would lay out strips of salmon to dry on the boat, and how flavourful it was. The hours he spent staring at the water out the back of his dad’s boat, he says, informs the work he now does as a Vancouver-based artist.
Thursday, June 13, Canmore, AB. We’re watching a lashing rain squall sweep over the Rockies and savouring a strawberry- and basil-infused Aperol and a duck-fat-washed bourbon cocktail at the natural-wood-panelled Sensory and Wit Bar. In the nearby private dining room, a boisterous group of about 14 are watching game six of the Raptors–Warriors series, the one that could clinch the NBA championship. My road trip has run parallel with the series – in Vancouver I’d have preferred to see game three instead of soccer at Como Taperia, but the owners have a strict soccer-only rule to keep the tapas-and-soccer vibe consistent. “We might play [the series] if it goes to game seven,” our server grudgingly told us. Tonight, although my dining partner is not a fan, I dash over to check the score. From then on, one of the servers begins capturing screen shots of the score, coming by to flash his screen and keep me up-to-date. Down by three, with 11 minutes to play! Six minutes, down by one! Four minutes, it’s tied! At this point I have to run over, rudely abandoning my companion. But it’s the game that won’t end, mired in technicalities, and the whole country is dying of suspense. Finally, the Raptors clinch it. I can sit down again. At last, we ask the kitchen to fire up our main courses.
Friday, June 14, Canmore, AB. My clothes are getting tighter and tighter. Although I should go to the gym at the luxury hotel I’m staying in, the Rockies, which are right outside my window and breathtakingly gorgeous, demand closer attention. My alarm wakes me at 7 a.m., and I’m crestfallen to see a thick white wall of mist completely obscuring the view. But by the time I’m out the door 15 minutes later, it’s brilliantly sunny and the snow-veined sides of the Three Sisters are visible. I’ve got less than an hour: Let’s go!
Saturday, June 15, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Toronto. My aisle-mate on this flight is a grain farmer from outside Saskatoon. He tells me his farm, which he purchased from his father, is “only” 1,600 acres, and he grows wheat, canola and oats. April and May of this year, he tells me, were the driest on record. But the upside is that unlike the Dirty Thirties, or the American Dust Bowl, there is no dust blowing in Saskatchewan because most farmers practice zero-tillage farming, which retains soil moisture, increases microbial biomass and reduces topsoil loss. As someone who writes about sustainable agriculture, I’m thrilled to learn that the Prairie provinces were pioneers in this progressive agricultural practice. Yet for my aisle-mate, like farmers across the globe, the work is a balance of risk and reward, at least economically. His day job is as a seed salesman.
Friday, June 21, Montreal. I buy a 10-ride pass for Bixi, the city’s bike-share system. The urban bike lanes here are fantastic. I ride alongside the Old Port, then cut up Rue Berri to visit Parc La Fontaine, a beautiful old park in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood. During my time here I’ll visit the Outremont parks, the shores of the island and tour the great old Expo 67 site on Île Notre-Dame and Île Sainte-Hélène. One morning near La Bête à Pain bakery in Griffintown, I see a man with a large flatbed Bixi truck taking 10 bikes off the dock and loading them onto the truck. In a couple hours the dock will be full, so he needs to make room for the bikers who will be heading downtown. Later, at dinner at Pastel, my enRoute dining partner tells me that Montrealers love to ride down from Mount Royal to the water, but opt for public transit back up.
Thursday, June 27, Caraquet, New Brunswick. Over dinner in the laid-back dining room of Origines Cuisine Maritime, my dining partner, a recent Concordia journalism grad, regales me with stories of her three-week trip around the Maritimes in her Chevy Express van. Converted by two mechanical engineers, it includes a built-in cot, solar-heated stove and cooler of water suspended over a stainless-steel bowl to simulate a sink and tap. I listen with envy to her tales of camping and hiking in Forillon National Park on the remote tip of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, where she was visited by a moose and her two calves and saw whales, porcupines and a bear cub on her hikes. One of the best parts of my journey has been my dining partners, some of them friends or family, some friends of friends. They tell me about new places, about the towns we’re dining in and are great sources for travel and dining tips.
Saturday, June 29, Moncton, New Brunswick. I make a quick trip to the Saturday market (lots of hand-crocheted potholders, usually sold alongside homemade pickles and preserves) before catching my next plane. Lynn of Lynn’s Fishcakes introduces me to this Maritimes staple, ideally served with baked beans, two slices of tomato and a bit of chow chow, or sweet green-tomato pickles, on the side. It’s a favourite of old-timers, many of whom send their children to the market to pick up a plateful and bring it to their assisted-living facilities. I love Chiac, a dialect that is a hybrid of French and English, that I hear all over this part of the province. The market’s official name seems to be Marché Moncton Market. At the airport, a dad comments of his child’s behaviour, “C’est hilarious, really.” It is, vraiment.
Monday, July 1, Ottawa. How perfect that I spend the penultimate day of my road trip in Ottawa on Canada Day. Fearing traffic shutdowns downtown, I hop on the 97 bus (all buses are running free today) at the airport. Whole families pile in, decked head to toe in Canada gear. Young parents with three squirming children do their best to quell their excitement – it reminds me of trips to Disneyland in our family when I was a five-year-old: barely controlled anticipatory joy. I stroll up Parliament Hill to see flag-draped, face-painted revellers breaking out into spontaneous dancing on the street. The sound of random vuvuzelas pierces the air, anticipating the music and fireworks to come. How I love this country, in all its idealism, its arms thrown open to the world, its endless natural beauty and a food-and-drink culture that continues to evolve to reflect the land and its people.
And for those of you who are wondering, I never did have to buy those elastic-waisted pants despite six straight weeks of eating out with only four nights off. There were days when I wanted them, I needed them. But I persevered.
Click here to see the 2019 contenders for Canada's Best New Restaurants and stay tuned on October 23 when we reveal the Top 10.
Read this article at enRoute.AirCanada.com