Story by Jacob Richler
This can be a dark month for the restaurant industry, what with all the penny-pinching provoked by all those Christmas-burdened Visa bills looming in the mail, and -- I've been told -- some people actually tiring of treating life as the open bar and all-you-can-eat buffet that it is meant to be, and instead, turning grumpily to diets defined by restraint. When the collective thinking gets this potty, keeping a restaurant full requires inventive solutions.
Well, not that inventive actually. Most Toronto restaurants simply offer their own protracted Boxing Day sale, operated in Toronto under the stomach-turningly cute buzzword Winterlicious.
This sort of off-season restaurant-meal firesale is happening everywhere from Vancouver to New York. Our take now involves 120 grudging restaurants, each of them bullied into peddling their goods at $15 to $20 for lunch and $25 to $35 for dinner. It runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 9, and the best participants are already nearly booked up. Bymark, for example, installed two extra Bell-icious phone lines in the middle of last week, an annual routine designed to spare their posh regulars from the insulting ordeal of contending with a busy signal generated by impertinent bargain hunters.
''A lot of people call us to ask if we are part of Winterlicious and when we say we're not they say, 'Thank God,' '' says Yannick Bigourdan, co-owner of the equally spiffy Splendido, which, rather than go with the flow and try and do the nearly impossible and sell a top-end meal at $35, opts out altogether. Which makes the place something of an oasis for those rare flush locals who actually enjoy spending what they can afford more than hunting down a bargain.
Splendido, which works conspicuously hard all year long at putting together special events -- namely, elaborate, themed tastings built around everything from all-Canadian ingredients to wild game or the unveiling of a single rare cheese -- to keep the local public interested in a place that should be full every night based only on its standard merits, is also part of an exclusive local restaurant organization called Toronto by Table, formed in large part to offer a loftier alternative to the Summer-and-Winterlicious dining-on-the cheap specials.
At least, that is the way Toronto by Table started out just over a year ago, building slowly from casual conversations between high-end restaurateurs like Bigourdan and Libell Geddes, owner of The Fifth, who did not necessarily believe that selling cut-rate was the ideal way to showcase what their restaurants did best. The thinking gained momentum surprisingly quickly when Phil Sabatino's Via Allegro and Didier Leroy's Didier came on board, and then Chris MacDonald's Avalon as well as Perigee, the tasting-menu-only restaurant down in the Distillery District.
''The meetings are very interesting,'' Bigourdan says of the predictably tricky process of getting a group of competitive restaurateurs involved in the very different game of co-operation. ''You put five different restaurateurs in a room, you have five egos -- and five people who think everything they do is right.''
But that said, they have managed very nicely for the most part -- the conspicuous exception being that Leroy decided to take his restaurant out of the organization. And the five remaining restaurants -- Splendido, Perigee, Avalon, Via Allegro and The Fifth -- are all combining forces on a very nifty meal at Perigee planned for Jan. 30 -- bang in the middle of Winterlicious.
This, more or less, is what they get. For canapes, Splendido's David Lee will turn out octopus cuit sous vide, with scallop ceviche and tamari-sake gelee, and venison tartare with argon oil emulsion, and Perigee's Pat Riley will do fried bison kibbea on banana pepper slaw, Nova Scotia lobster tacos, mini oyster stew with Canadian caviar, mini Ruben sandwiches with shaved elk, and a foie gras cream gougere.
Then, at table, Avalon's MacDonald is doing something as yet undetermined with Quebec hare, and The Fifth's J-P Challet is serving a torchon of foie gras with mangosteen jelly and fig syrup and crispy orange. Next, cuttlefish ink risotto with wild caught scallop carpaccio and grated bottarga from Via Allegro's Lino Collevecchio. MacDonald answers with panko-crusted wild-boar-cheek terrine with caper-sultana chutney and mizuna. Riley provides a gin and cedar sorbet with jellied lime consomme and crumbled white pepper meringue. Lee follows with Nunavut caribou, Riley follows that with roast breast of squab with sauteed figs, frise, corn bread croutons, shredded confit of squab leg, and chunks of mi-cuit foie gras, and then, mercifully, there comes a cheese course (Northern Langhe Hills La Tu Crostata with Quince compote and 25-year-old D.O.P. balsamic vinegar), a pre-dessert (Tanzania chocolate box with griottines parfait), a dessert (licorice caramel mousse with candied fennel and blood oranges), some mignardises, and finally, a loosening of the belt and a slow, awkward trudge through the cold to the nearest cab.
Oh, I forgot something: There is also the bill for $195 a plate.
And this is the interesting thing about Toronto by Table: What was borne as a high-end alternative to the licious-thing now aims to be a whole lot more. Something altogether independent that aims to create a higher culinary profile for the city at large, for visitors and locals alike. ''The problem with Toronto is that we have incredible talent here -- we can compete with anybody -- but we don't have the consciousness,'' says Phil Sabatino. ''That's why New York is ahead of us -- because people here don't realize what they've got.''
Toronto by Table wants to help change that, and new members who believe in that cause are welcome. The dinner -- alas -- is all sold out, but each participating restaurant will continue for two weeks with a menu built on the same theme of game and foie gras. And another promotion will follow soon.