Why Canoe’s wild rabbit cannelloni is one of Toronto’s most essential dishes
Toronto’s a city of many neighbourhoods and many nationalities, so finding that one oh-so-Toronto dish is an impossible task. We’re asking some of the city’s top food folks about their favourite T.O. meals
For food lovers of a certain vintage, the name Splendido evokes memories of champagne carts and multi-course meals that ran late into the night and deep into the pocket book. It’s how restaurateur Yannick Bigourdan made his mark in Toronto, bringing over-the-top dining to what was then a prim, somewhat boring city. The restaurant’s 25-year run was impressive, but in 2009 Bigourdan sold his stake to focus on fun—rather than fine—dining. Today, he co-owns three kitchens: Carbon Bar on Queen East, Amano Pasta inside Union Station and two Union Chicken locations. “Since opening Amano, I’ve gained 14 pounds,” says Bigourdan. “I love pasta—maybe too much.”
Bigourdan’s pick for his favourite Toronto dish combines his two favourite things: wild game and pasta. “I started hunting when I was 10 years old. In the south of France it’s ingrained in our genetics,” says Bigourdan, who’s gone after everything from wild goat to pheasant. “I’m not interested in trophy hunting—everything I’ve caught, I’ve eaten,” he says. Canoe’s executive chef, John Horne, is also a hunter, and the two bonded when they met on a 2014 hunting trip. Though they haven’t gone hunting together since then, they still love to share game stories.
Canoe’s wild rabbit cannelloni
66 Wellington St. W., 54th floor, 416-364-0054, canoerestaurant.com
Bigourdan pulls up to the chef’s counter so that he can chat with Horne while he works. Today, Horne’s fired up about a recent excursion to Michael Bonacini’s acreage. Horne was trailing wild turkeys around the property when a huge tom popped up out of nowhere. He went to take the shot, but ultimately decided to let the bird cluck on. “I didn’t want to shoot something at my boss’s house!” Horne says, while placing chive petals on Bigourdan’s lunch.
The rabbit used in this particular dish comes from northern Quebec. It was caught for the fur trade, and Canoe has a special permit to buy the meat from trappers. Because the rabbits used at the restaurant are not farm-raised, rabbit dishes come and go from the menu depending on availability. Wild rabbits are leaner and boast a stronger taste than their farm-raised cousins. Because of this, Horne needs to braise the rabbit low and slow for hours, until it’s tender. He then shreds the meat and folds it into a rabbit mousse mixed with foraged Ontario mushrooms (chanterelles and morels). This becomes the filling for the cannelloni.
Some days, Horne makes his cannelloni with cattail flour, which gives the pasta a bright yellow hue. (Bigourdan prefers the traditional wheat pasta, however, because it’s not as chewy.) The rabbit-stuffed cannelloni comes with two sauces: celeriac purée and horseradish foam. For the purée, Horne wraps celeriac in a hay-salt mixture before baking and blitzing it.
“A true wild rabbit tastes like a spruce tree,” says Horne, who matches the bold bunny flavour with an equally punchy horseradish foam (made from a rabbit bone stock and fresh grated root). The plate’s then finished with morels, pickled mustard seeds, deep-fried horseradish leaves, chive blossoms and arugula flowers.
“This dish combines two things I love, but I also enjoy the company of John when I stop by,” says Bigourdan.
“Not many people say that,” says Horne.