From classic bistro fare in Montreal to an altogether more modernist meal in Toronto. Canis opened in downtown Toronto in 2016 and has apparently moved fairly quickly up the city’s fine dining charts. They show up at #27 in all of Canada in one of those restaurant ranking lists and if there are 26 better restaurants in the country then Canadians are doing very well indeed. The truth, of course, is that these restaurant ranking lists are all silly and highly subjective—just the next evening I ate at another place in Toronto that is higher in those rankings and thought Canis was far superior. Indeed, I thought my meal at Canis was the best fine dining meal I’ve eaten in a long time, far superior to anything I’ve eaten in the Twin Cities since the heyday of Piccolo. Outside the Twin Cities, I think I would have to go back to our dinner at Hotel Herman in Montreal in October 2016 to come up with one as good; and to Hedone in London in August of that year for one that might have been better. (All three of the aforementioned restaurants, alas, are now closed.)
Coincidentally, Canis is in the broad genre of all three of those restaurants, presenting cerebral food on perfectly composed plates—in terms of looks, flavours and textures. As at those restaurants, there’s no single culinary tradition being referenced here; rather it’s in what I described in my review of Noble Rot in London as the Global Cosmopolitan school. They serve only a set tasting menu of 9 or 10 courses—depending on whether you count the bread/butter/whipped cheese that kicks things off as a separate course. There is only a sample menu on their website and so you can’t know what your meal will comprise till you get to your table—though they do accommodate dietary restrictions indicated at the time of booking (I doubt, however, if vegetarians could be accommodated). This menu does not turn over very often, I don’t think; the server I asked said it changed seasonally. If I lived in Toronto this would be the only thing that would keep me from coming back very often. (That and probably the fact that if I lived in Toronto there’d be far more restaurants I don’t know of that I would want to eat at as well.)
So, what was on the menu on the evening of my visit (I got there shortly after they opened at 5.30 pm on Friday)? The menu too is minimalist, listing only the primary ingredient of each course plus a couple of other components. The details below are drawn from my impressions and the descriptions gleaned from the presentation of the dishes. Please forgive any errors.
- Bread; grass fed butter, ricotta, wild onion. The bread was excellent as was the grass fed butter. The ricotta with charred wild onion was interesting but it was the butter I demolished.
- Fogo Island shrimp; rye tostada, XO garum. No, I don’t know where Fogo Island is or what garum is either (while setting it down the server just said “powder”). This was a striking presentation and a tasty enough small bite but was probably the least interesting of the courses. Oh yes, the shrimp was presented as tartare.
- Asparagus; lovage. I really enjoyed eating excellent local asparagus on this trip and this charred spear with strips of lovage and a light dressing was a highlight.
- Duck liver parfait; grape, yarrow. A beautiful presentation and wonderful flavour and execution. The tart-sweet grape jelly over the mousse complemented its richness perfectly; the yarrow flowers just made it beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with beauty. I will say though that this course felt out of place here. Though it was not overly large it didn’t seem to me to fit where it was. I might have preferred it later as a bridge from the savoury courses to the desserts.
- Striped bass; rhubarb, lemon verbena. Excellent crudo of striped bass topped with rhubarb and little slices of raw turnip; a wonderful “sauce” made with scallop, rhubarb and lemon verbena oil poured around it. Just lovely.
- Halibut; shiitake, split pea. From the raw to the cooked, or at least to lightly smoked halibut. The halibut (perfectly done) had shiitake mushrooms on top that tasted like their flaovur had been concentrated and sauteed pea shoots above that. As good as all of these elements were, the pea shoot dashi that was poured over it may have been my favourite thing on this plate.
- Pork; kale, morel. A very beautiful presentation—almost too beautiful to eat—and even more. I regret to inform that I failed to ask for details on how the pork (loin, I think) was cooked but it was done just right, glazed with more charred onion and seated above a lovely smear of sour dough miso. On top of it was charred kale, morels and chive flowers. Another highlight.
- Duck; cabbage, nasturtium. But this was the highlight of the savoury courses. You first have presented to you a whole duck breast (though probably not the one you will be eating parts of); it is done sous vide and then roasted hard. Then out comes a plate with a few slices of perfectly cooked breast meat over which a thick umami-laden Thai-style sauce is poured. Alongside it is a line of nasturtium leaves below which is a terrine of duck leg and cabbage. Served with it was an excellent little lollipop of duck heart. All of it was bloody excellent.
- Cucumber; dill. The pre-dessert was a sorbet made with cucumber, dill and kombucha. If you had told me this was what was coming I would have prayed to all my many-armed gods for protection but this was another of the meal’s many highlights: refreshing, palate cleansing.
- Black apple; creamcheese. I was curious to discover what this would be and it turned out to be a play on New York-style cheesecake. Butter cake as the bottom layer, darkly caramelized apples in between and whipped cream cheese on top. Just excellent.
Along with the check came a mignardise—a mini-brown butter tart coated with coffee and shoyu that was as tasty as it was unlikely.
For a look at the food and the restaurant please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, cost, value etc.
I was headed to the theater with the rest of my group after this and then to a bar to celebrate a group member’s birthday and so I restricted myself to just one cocktail: a rather excellent rendition of a Paper Plane. I rued this restraint when the somewhat dude-bro’ish bar we went to later charged me $26 for trace amounts of Lagavulin 16.
Service was solid and solicitous—though the presentation of dishes was in that slightly hushed mode that I described in my review of the Clove Club in London. I was the first person to arrive and was alone till just after 6 pm. The restaurant began to fill up slowly after that and by the time I left a little after 7 it seemed to be almost half-full. I will note that my meal went by rather fast. This was 50% my fault. I got there at 5.40 for a 5.30 reservation and knew I had to be out by 7.20 at the latest to make it to my seat at the theater before the show started. Accordingly, I asked how long the meal normally takes and was told it varied between 1.5 and 2 hours. Quicker would be better, I said, meaning the 90 minute duration, and then by 6.10 I was past the halfway mark of the menu. I didn’t mean quite that quick, I said at that point, and they slowed it down.
So, price. The tasting menu is $95 CAD. Along with my cocktail, tax and tip my total came to $150 CAD or $115 USD. This is not cheap but for the quality of the meal I am not complaining at all. This was top-notch, thought-provoking food executed at a high level. The only knock on this genre of cooking might be that its cerebral—some might say bloodless—nature invites contemplative attention and concentration and that in a way it might be food that’s most likely to be fully enjoyed/appreciated alone. Well, if I make it back to Toronto with the missus I’ll be very glad to put that to the test—and I certainly hope Canis will not go the way of Hedone, Piccolo or Hotel Herman before then!
Up next from the food front: perhaps my review of Priya Krishna’s Indian (-ish) (see here for the prolog). Or failing that, another Indian lunch buffet from Minnesota. In between there will be whisky.