From the exquisite pecorino from Monforte Dairy in Stratford to Langdon Hall chef Jonathan Gushue's dazzling organic gastronomic art, from the fries at just about any roadside "chip" wagon to Top Chef Susur Lee's cheeseburger spring rolls, my recent culinary escapade in Ontario rivaled the times I've spent eating around Quebec.
Though comestibles are always near the top of my list when I travel, there were also museum visits, new hotels to check out and an amazing trip to Niagara Falls to witness Nik Wallenda tightrope from the US to Canada.
I agree with Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford -- whom I got to see as part of Toronto's Luminato Festival -- who says there's a profound difference between the U.S. and Canada, something "beyond language," hard to put into words. Things did feel slightly askew. There was less attitude, less edge here than in the States. "It's much easier to stand out here," said my beautiful and exotic god-daughter, Skye Collyer, who -- in my eyes -- would stand out anywhere.
But despite the common border, Canada is a foreign country, so why wouldn't the people be different? Do I expect Parisians to act the way New Yorkers do?
Ford's heady discussion about literature and life with Canadian author Jane Urquhart, during which he read from his new novel, Canada, was worth the $20 ticket. (In NY or LA, it would have cost way more or you never would be have been able to get tickets.) A few days earlier, Luminato presented a conversation on Canadian food between New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnick, who is from Montreal, and writer Calvin Trillin, who is American but who has summered on the south shore of Nova Scotia for 40 years.
The Gopnick/Trillin talk made us hungry, so we tried Catch, a new sustainable seafood restaurant. The "more than one pounder" Lake Huron trout was the evening's hit, moist and tasty, though the steamer clams (which they called soft-shell clams) were pretty amazing, too.
One of my favorite meals during the trip was lunch at Canoe, atop the TD Bank Tower downtown. Though the place, which features artisanal Canadian ingredients, has been around for 16 years, it's as hip as ever in this newly renovated incarnation. The chef whipped up a pasta with summer vegetables so fresh I would have believed him had he told me they have an organic garden right next to the helipad. My god-daughter's lobster club was a knock-out.
The meal to end all meals, though, was a tasting menu prepared by Jonathan Gushue at Langdon Hall (more below), a Relais & Chateaux property a couple of hours from Toronto in Cambridge. Everything on the menu is local and sustainable and most produce comes from the hotel's prolific organic garden or is unearthed by their resident forager.
Gushue, who used to be the chef at the Toronto Four Seasons, served us a multi-course extravaganza that began with Monforte pecorino and one perfect shaved raw asparagus, then progressed to New Brunswick caviar, tete de cochon, lettuce gazpacho over heritage tomatoes, strawberries and an oyster mixed in oyster juice, succulent rack of lamb and on and on. This feast was accompanied by pastry chef Sarah Villamere's pecorino breadsticks, which she packaged for us (along with sea buckthorn marshmallows) for the ride home.
Other Toronto culinary detours worth making:
Trump International Hotel and Tower
WHY? It's a brand-new world-class property with a staff that will make you feel like a VIP from the minute you step through the dramatic porte cochere into the dazzling black marble lobby. Much more Ivanka (think young, elegant, gorgeous) than Donald, the place oozes luxury in every design detail from the crystal sconces to the black glass chandeliers to the burled woods and tons of Carrera marble.
Windsor Arms Hotel
WHY? Location, location, location. This discreet and elegant 28-suite hotel is on a tranquil side street in Yorkville, the trendy, tree-lined part of the city.
The Bata Shoe Museum. I'd heard about this museum for years, but never made it there; I much prefer shoe shopping to shoe gazing. The permanent collection has Lennon's Beatle boots and the Dalai Lama's flip flops, among other soles of famous souls. The Roger Vivier show (through 4/7/13) shows how the late Parisian shoe designer, who never became a household name like Louboutin or Blahnik, truly inspired the designer shoe revolution.
The Art Gallery of Toronto to see Picasso's Picassos -- 147 pieces that the master kept for himself -- and to check out the smashing Gehry addition. The museum restaurant is in on the act with a delectable Spanish luncheon menu though the end of the show in August.
I probably would have never made it to Niagara Falls if Nik Wallenda hadn't decided to walk across them. But he was, so we went and I'm thrilled I got to see this majestic natural wonder. The Marriott Gateway on the Falls Hotel, was the perfect place to stay: our room had a drop-dead view of both the U.S. and Canadian Falls from the bed! I watched Wallenda live, out the window, and on the flat screen at the same time -- what a luxury.
While in Niagara Falls, I ate at Canadian superstar chef Jamie Kennedy's Windows in the Sheraton, which offered another spectacular view of both falls. We toodled back to Toronto via the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill called "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world."
The Yorkville Club, if fitness is part of your life. Hotel gyms are great, but, if available, I like a full-service health club when I'm on the road. At TYC, you can purchase a day pass and partake in classes galore (don't miss Pilates with Melissa) then chill in the steam and sauna.
Two hours from Toronto, Langdon Hall in Cambridge is the perfect weekend getaway. Built over 100 years ago as a summer house by the great grandson of John Jacob Astor and looking every bit like a set from a PBS Masterpiece Theatre production, the Federal Revival mansion dramatically appears at the end of a long drive that curves around the greenest lawn in Ontario.
Langdon Hall exudes elegance and luxury in every detail from the sumptuous feather beds and ironed sheets to the talented healers in the spa to the exquisite cuisine created from the garden's seasonal offerings by Chef Gushue and his team. It's the kind of place you check into and never leave until you hit the highway to go back home -- a little croquet, a massage, a snooze by the pool, oh, maybe you'll take a bike ride, but that's it. The owners of Langdon Hall, Mary Beaton and William Bennett, who bought the place in 1982, have made Langdon Hall their passion -- and boy, does it show. Every Friday through August, Langdon Hall presents a Summer Barbecue Series where Gushue hosts guest chefs, wine makers, cookbook authors and other foodie-types.
If you're in Toronto in the summer you'll hear everyone talking about getting away to cottage country. Whether it's a cabin with no electricity or a monster mansion on a lake, to Canadians it's a cottage and if you don't have one you'll feel like a loser. Well, now you can have a cottage on gorgeous Sturgeon Lake, two hours from Toronto, at Eganridge, a heritage estate turned laid-back resort owned by George Friedmann, who also owns the Windsor Arms.
In the wild Kawartha Lakes region, east of Toronto, Eganridge boasts one of the oldest hand-hewn log structures in Canada, has a nine-hole (par 35) golf course in impeccable condition, a full-service spa, a dining room with a breathtaking view, beachfront on the lake and tranquility galore. A couple days here and you'll know the meaning of get-out-of-town. There are one- and two-bedroom cottages or individual terraced rooms.
Chef Jonathan Gushue's crab with edible flowers at Langdon Hall.
Opulence at the Trump.
The Dalai Lama's flip flops at the Bata Show Museum.
Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls.
Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario.
A cottage on the lake at Eganridge.