12 best bets for Winterlicious 2011: our chief critic goes through the menus so you don’t have to

12 best bets for Winterlicious 2011: our chief critic goes through the menus so you don’t have to

A steak dinner at Noce (Image: Renée Suen) 

Big-spending downtown Torontonians have taken in the past few years to whining about Winterlicious, but the two-week dining festival, running from January 28 through February 10, remains popular for a reason: it offers great value, particularly if you choose your reservations well. Here are a dozen of Toronto Life’s best bets. They’re older, more established places, generally, with kitchens that clearly care. And though we haven’t yet tasted the restaurants’ 2011 Winterlicious menus, they’re full of interesting, delicious-sounding picks.

Amaya The Indian Room
This Leaside favourite was the first restaurant in the city to combine excellent Indian cooking with western-style service, surroundings and sommellerie. Its Winterlicious dinner menu is bargain-basement: $25, with options including mango-curry-coconut prawns, Rajasthani lamb shank curry and roasted marshmallow ice cream (so much better than kulfi). When a hot restaurant like Amaya prices its special menu so low, it’s natural to wonder if it’ll live up to its usual standards. We’re betting yes.
Pro tip: If you can’t get in here, try Amaya’s more casual sibling, Amaya Bread Bar. The Winterlicious menu is the same, though the surroundings aren’t quite as polished or charming.

The Rubino brothers’ latest incarnation on Mercer Street is one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in the city. Though the regular menu is priced a bit high, the Winterlicious version, at $45 per person for dinner, offers decent value. The menu is meant to be shared between two diners, and includes miso-marinated striped bass, wagyu beef rice, sushi and sashimi, among other choices. Don’t expect the usual stuff; chef Guy Rubino lives to make food more interesting, more complex and better tasting than it sounds, and the sushi, though great, can be a little whack. The cocktails are weird and wonderful and will quickly run up your bill.

Auberge du Pommier
This is easily one of the most romantic restaurants in the city, all crystal and linen polish set in a 150-year-old woodcutter’s cabin. The kitchen is French and fancy, but with a good measure of Canadian-style worldliness for balance. We’re betting on the $45 dinner menu, which looks like excellent value. Choices include Wellington County beef au poivre over a butternut squash, pearl barley and sunchoke ragoût, coq au vin and warm spice cake with crème anglaise and armagnac-soaked prunes.

Biff’s Bistro
Oliver and Bonacini’s classic downtown bistro can be easy to forget, as it’s been open for nearly a decade, and its Front and Yonge location isn’t as trendy as Ossington or Harbord. Still, it’s one of the best bistros in the city: solid and welcoming, with excellent, always-from-scratch cooking (they make their own pickles, bread and mustards) and an Old World charm that manages to sidestep the usual bistro insidiousness all the same. The Winterlicious menus—$20 for lunch, $35 for dinner—look very good; dinner choices include rabbit rillettes with that house mustard and mulled prunes, gâteau de poisson, braised pork belly with choucroute and apple gastrique, and medjool date cake with toffee sauce and lemon chantilly. The steak frites from Biff’s regular menu is excellent; the Winterlicious version should be good if they don’t dumb it down for the cheaper price.

You’re probably not going to get into this three-and-a-half-to-four-star Canadian classic, and if you do, you won’t get the best food or service that Canoe’s got to offer. But even second-best should make for a great meal, and that’s not even considering the incredible, 54th-storey view. The menu ($25 for lunch, $45 for dinner) looks good: chicken and goose parfait with birch syrup and pickled vegetables; mustard-crusted pork loin; seared albacore tuna with root vegetable ragoût and coconut couscous; pear and rosemary pudding with maple anglaise and booze-soaked raisins.

This iconic uptown room had its heyday at the height of the Mulroney years, but it got a well-considered make-over this past year, as well as a smart new chef—Jason Carter, formerly of Susur—who’s doing very good things at the stove. The $45 dinner menu’s offerings include a “risotto croquette” (sounds a lot like arancini, which makes us ravenous) with stewed tomato and zucchini salad; rigatoni with classic roast pumpkin, sage, ricotta and pecan sauce; and something called “chocolate cheesecake coconut crumble,” which is the sort of dessert description that has us jumping for the telephone to make a reservation.

Corner House
Romantic, reliable and run by the same talented couple for what feels like eternity, this upper-Annex favourite is the sort of place that should do a great job with a few discount weeks. It’s hard to imagine chef Herbert Barnsteiner sending out a crappy product, even if it’s not his regulars in the room. His $35 Winterlicious dinner menu looks like a crowd-pleaser: warm smoked chicken salad with honey mushrooms, grilled prawns with herbs, cognac and garlic butter and Cornish hen are a few of the highlights.

Chef Didier Leroy is one of the best French chefs in the city, and his haute midtown room turns out simple, meticulous, mostly excellent dishes. Standout Winterlicious choices from the meaty, $45 menu include jarret d’agneau, terrine de campagne, tarte tatin, and sea bass done in the style of François I (you know, the male line great-great-grandson of Charles V of France).
Pro tip: Didier offers a $58 prix fixe outside of Winterlicious.

Lai Toh Heen
Think high-end, impeccable and original Chinese cooking with western service and grace. The $35 dinner menu offers good value, with a dim sum amuse-bouche and such options as wok-baked lobster; deep-fried tofu with a king oyster mushroom, asparagus and bean salad; and fried rice and duck meat wrapped in lotus leaf.

The room mixes casualness and elegance, and the kitchen, run by chef Scot Woods, is one of the most creative and consistently surprising (in a good way) in the city. It’s a fair bet that the Winterlicious raviolo, for instance, which is made with pumpkin, consommé, sage pesto, cured duck and romano cheese, won’t be quite what it sounds like, but better instead. Other options include B.C. cod with house-made chorizo, roast Tamshire pork with bacon, fennel, apple, beet and black walnuts and Ontario apple cobbler served with brown butter custard, walnut, sage streusel and goat’s cheese ice cream.

This warm, friendly and civilized room at the southeastern edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park isn’t flashy or buzz-worthy or terribly fashion-conscious—it’s just consistently one of the top Italian places in Toronto. It’s also rather expensive, save for these two weeks in January, making it the perfect example of Winterlicious’s raison d’être. The gnocchi here are unforgettably good, so we’re betting on the Winterlicious rendition, which comes served with a veal ragu and ricotta salata. There’s also pasta e fagioli; egg chitarrine (a thin pasta) with wild mushrooms, prawns, oil and garlic; a good-looking seared fish dish; and oven-roasted Cornish hen. Great-sounding desserts, too.

If this wine-crazy restaurant—with its 50 by-the-glass choices, its 30-selection cheese list and a menu by talented chef Michael Steh—were located on Bloor Street or Ossington or even uptown, it’d be hard to get a reservation. Reds is in the financial district, though, so it’s often rammed at midday but deserted in the evening. Winterlicious dinner options ($45) include curry-scented Dungeness crab cakes with shaved celery salad, and spiced peanut and coriander chutney; fancy-schmants mac-and-cheese made with truffle boscato cheese and a brioche crust; and a roasted apple bread and butter pudding with bourbon-spiked crème anglaise.