Canadian cool

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Written by HEIDI FULLER-LOVE

With the Pan American games just over the horizon, Heidi Fuller-love digs her fork deep into the food scene of four of Canada’s coolest cities.

Leaving Vancouver airport behind me in a trail of dust, I hit the highway in my little red Chevy corvette. The Canadian food scene is really on the up, so I’ve decided to spend ten days driving from Vancouver in the west, to Montreal in the east, staying in iconic hotels, meeting as many chefs and eating as much good food as I can whilst getting a panoramic view of a country famed for its stunning scenery, sapid maple syrup, and superb seafood.
Fronted by the Pacific Ocean and backed by the mighty Coast Mountains, Vancouver is consistently classed as ‘one of the world’s most liveable cities’. Exploring the town on a Hippie to Hipster tour with guide Jenn a few hours later; it’s easy to see why. The wide, tree lined streets bustle with life, people are friendly, and in winding backstreets near the historic core of Gastown we discover wonderfully quirky food stores ranging from bean-to-bar chocolate makers East Van Roasters to artisanal bakers Peche Migon.

Later we head for Granville island, a bohemian peninsula studded with hip boutiques and craft food stores, where award-winning artisan Masha Shiroki makes a range of crisp, light sakes with the rice that he grows in a field a few miles away. ‘We are very creative here in Vancouver – we have alternative food movements and lots of new restaurants serving creative cuisine,’ Shiroki tells me.

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After checking into the sumptuous K.M. Cheng-designed Fairmont Pacific Rim that evening, I head out for dinner at Forage – one of Vancouver’s most sustainable restaurants. The warm, unpretentious eatery is run by chef Chris Whitaker, a back-to-nature food advocate who takes regular sabbaticals to head out foraging food for his restaurant. The food is not always spot-on, but inventive dishes like pepper-braised bison tongue served with slivers of fettucine are in a realm of their own.
Quitting Vancouver in hot sunshine, I drive through the Rockies to Calgary, where temperatures plummet to zero and I’m happy to snuggle up next to a blazing log fire on the sofa of my thick-carpeted room at The Kensington Riverside Inn.
Over breakfast at The Kensington Chef’s Table, a restaurant hailed as one of the city’s best, I chat to chef Duncan Ly between mouthfuls of his light-as-air lemon ricotta pancakes. Duncan tells me that one upon a time, not so long ago, the city which hosts the mammoth, cowboy-themed Calgary Stampede each year was a bit of a culinary backwater. All that changed in the first decade of the millennium, however, as Calgary became the city with Canada’s fastest growing economy. ‘Nowadays, people have money so they eat out several times a week, which means that they are a lot more demanding. Our food scene is world-class’.

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Perhaps inevitably given the city’s informal nickname of ‘Cowtown’, meat is still popular here – as I find out that afternoon, admiring rugby-shouldered bison at a local ranch, then sampling them in a range of innovative dishes at the ranch’s laid-back chalet restaurant, The Lake House.

The following day, I join Karen Anderson of Calgary Food Tours to explore Inglewood, a city suburb that’s home to some of the country’s most inventive food stores. We watch some keen chopping at chef Kevin Kent’s store; stocked with knives made by master blacksmiths from Japan; then sample bean-to-bar chocolate from Canada’s top chocolate makers, Choklat.

Finally, we hit Spolumbos an old-style deli owned by Tony Spoletini, brother Tom, and partner Mike Palumbo, who gave up their American football careers to make high-quality gluten-free pork sausages. The dim, atmospheric deli is packed and queues long, but it all seems worthwhile when I bite into dense, flavoursome chunks of Spolumbo’s Spicy Italian Sausage encased in a crusty bun.

Top Chef Canada finalist Connie de Sousa, famed for skinning a pig’s head in under a minute on live television, greets me that evening at Charcut Roast house. Connie owns the restaurant with partner chef John jackson, but originally trained as a ballerina. ‘We feel really at home here, because Calgary has such a forward-thinking food culture – it’s a city that really embraces chefs and innovative ideas,’ she tells me, as I happily plough my way through the restaurant’s ‘meat-centric’ dishes, including Charcut’s decadent twist on traditional Canadian favourite poutine (chips in gravy), where the chips are fried in duck fat and the gravy studded with truffles.

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From Calgary, the Trans Canada highway takes me to Toronto, that edgy city on the northern shores of Lake Ontario, nicknamed ‘Canada’s New York’. At St. Lawrence Market, recently rated ‘the world’s top food market’ by National Geographic magazine, I indulge in Ontario’s speciality crunchy butter tarts, topped with nubby pecan nuts. 

That evening it’s on with the heels and out for dinner at Luckee – the latest venture of celebrity Chef Susur Lee. Seated at one of the tables of Lee’s newest restaurant, I relish the celebrity chef’s fascinating tales of life as a judge on Top Chef Canada as much as the beautifully prepared dim sum.

My ten-day gourmet tour ends in Montreal, where I check into Le St-Sulpice, a plush hotel right at the heart of Montreal’s old town. With its French cultural influence, this sultry, food-loving city is an ideal sport to end my trip. Like the other Canadian cities I’ve visited, Montreal’s food scene is experiencing a minor revolution; something I rapidly discover as I visit pioneering eateries like the food truck-cum-snack bar Graumann 78 and innovative restaurants like EVOO, where a new generation of young chefs are working hard to reinvent the city’s gourmet profile.

My final night is spent at Richmond Station, the restaurant of chef Carl Heinrich, Season Two winner of Top Chef Canada. As I take my first bite of Heinrich’s velvety smoked trout bourguignon and the rich flavour floods my mouth, I reflect over the memorable, equally-rich delights I’ve tasted throughout my tour – and collude that Canada is definitely one very cool country.

Photography courtesy of Heidi Fuller-Love

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