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February 01, 2006

"You had me at crême brulée": Winterlicious at Mildred Pierce

There's something you should know about me: I don't really like to eat two desserts.  Sometimes it just happens.  Yes, yes, I realize this is the second time I've blogged about eating two desserts, and, sure, I haven't even been doing this for two months.  But that first time doesn't really count because, quite frankly, your friends calling a bowl of chili "second dessert," doesn't necessarily make it so; it could just as easily have been called "second dinner," for example.

Tonight, however, I fell victim to Winterlicious.

Winterlicious, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is part of an annual festival, WinterCity.  I hear WinterCity is a broad celebration of Toronto's diversity, as well as its art, entertainment, and culinary communities.  I guess I'll have to trust the stuff about diversity, art, and entertainment, because I'm usually too busy gorging on the cheap at some of this city's best restaurants to notice any of it.

The lure of Winterlicious is that participating restaurants, many of which have average cheques well into the hundreds of dollars, are challenged to produce a three course lunch menu for $20, and a three course dinner menu for $35.  This is no small test for a chef, especially those used to having the most expensive ingredients at their disposal.

Which brings us to Mildred PierceDonna Dooher, the restaurant's chef, has achieved a degree of notoriety through the restaurant, her cooking school, The Cookworks, and its eponymous TV show.  My wife and I have enjoyed a couple of meals there over the years, including this restaurant's noteworthy Sunday brunch.  The food and the service are consistently excellent, but we've always paid handsomely for it. 

So, how did they do?  Like I said, I did end up ordering two desserts.

Before I get too deep into the review, there's something else you should know about me: I'm genetically incapable of not ordering crême brulée (and not using awkward double negatives, it appears).  Sorry, it's the most delicious substance on this planet -- so inherently good that I'd probably order one flavoured with cod liver oil and brussels sprouts.  Now, a few years ago my wife and I enjoyed a meal at Mildred Pierce that culminated in a crême brulée trio: chocolate, vanilla and orange, and caramel, if memory serves.  It was astoundingly good -- three of the best I've ever tasted, actually.

As you can see, I was defenseless, then, when I saw crême brulée on the menu.  Then I was racked by indecision when our server told us that there was an unlisted dessert special too: bread pudding with Irish whiskey toffee sauce.  I know, I know, the injustice of it all struck me almost immediately too.  How can those beasts expect a person not to try both?  Luckily, my stomach is a quick thinker, and had my mouth ordering a crême brulée and a bread pudding before my brain could interfere.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I suppose I should mention that I was dining with friends, not my wife.  She had unavoidable work obligations.  This apparently limited her dinner-time food consumption to four, day-old cold spring rolls that had been left at room temperature for four to five hours. 

Don't pity her, though, be glad for me, because my fabulous dinner began with a delicious roasted red pepper and shrimp soup, with crème fraîche and chive.  This was a hearty soup with some delicate flavours, including kaffir lime, if I'm not mistaken.  My friend declared his crab and shrimp cake appetizer, "The best crab cakes I've ever eaten."  They were very good, and included an ingredient I would never think to put in a crab cake, jicama.

When it comes to winter comfort food, there may be nothing better than cassoulet, the archetypal, Alsatian bean and meat stew, unless we're talking about duck confit cassoulet with cabbage, rosemary oil and grilled lamb chops.  This dish was very good, and I would happily eat it again, but it didn't quite live up to expectations.  The lamb chops were a perfect medium-rare and salted just right, and the beans had wonderful texture, but the flavour of the duck confit was almost non-existent.  Shame that, because I really love duck confit.

Time for desserts.  I'm proud to report that Mildred Pierce still makes a superlative crême brulée.  Smooth, decadent custard, with a rich, deep vanilla flavour (and the black specks to justify it), and a gorgeous burnt sugar crust.  There's really no faulting it, though it's still a pretender to the crême brulée throne currently occupied by my version of the dish.

The bread pudding was worth the embarrassment of ordering a second dessert.  The bread was neither overly soggy or crunchy, the custard was rich and tasty, and the sauce was a not-too-sweet counterpart to its partner.

What can I say?  Dinner was fantastic, and only $35 per person.  One of my dinner companions was so impressed with his meal he bought one of the restaurant's cookbooks.  Good.  Now he can make us all crab and shrimp cakes.

To those of you wondering why there are no photos, I share your sadness.  Have no fear, despite a certain degree of reticence, I am finding the courage to take photos of my food in the middle of restaurants.  The problem is that today's photos took some kind of magic journey to a digital netherworld.  What I'm trying to say is: the camera randomly deleted all my %^$#ing photos from today's dinner and lunch.

I debated including a photo of something fun and European anyway -- a shot of a butcher shop window in Paris, actually -- but my wife quickly labelled that idea "stupid."  What do you think?

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Comments

Michelle

You're cruel. Poor wife...just rub it in a bit more! But OMG - I share the same genetic abnormality you have - creme brulee is my utmost favorite dessert. Put in your shoes, however, I would have had to order two desserts just as you did. This sounds like an incredible event. I would love it if they had something like this in my town. Sorry about the camera mishaps...that kind of stuff happens to me all the time!

Tania

OMG, I adore Mildred Pierce! I heard that they changed chefs last summer ... so glad to know the standards have not changed.

Rob, I just blogged about my Winterlicious dinner at Pangaea. Where else will you be dining and/or lunching? Isn't it wonderful to be in Toronto now?!

rachel

Michelle, thanks for the sympathy: it is much appreciated!

Tania, your meal at Pangaea sounds fantastic! I work around the corner, and it is a favourite of mine -- probably the best restaurant in the neighbourhood.

For the record, Rob has it wrong -- it was just two leftover salad rolls I had for dinner the night he was feasting on double desserts!

rob

Tania, I adore being in Toronto right now. I just hope my stomach can hold up for another week because I've now eaten four Winterlicious meals in two days. So far I've had lunch at Bymark and Canoe, and dinner at Mildred Pierce and Romagna Mia. I will be writing posts for all of them, but expect Canoe next. And whatever you do, avoid Romagna Mia.

Did Mildred Pierce really change chefs? I had no idea. Does that mean Donna Dooher is gone and my post is -- *gasp* -- inaccurate?

Michelle, glad to see were of one mind about two desserts. Unfortunately, I showed restraint today.

Ivonne

Rob,

Wonderful post about Mildred Pierce! I am lucky enough that my uncle worked there for years. In fact he is close friends with Donna. When the Brunch book was published he actually got me a signed copy which I cherish.

I plan on posting about that one day.

Your meal sounds incredible. That's what I love about MP. The standards are always high, the food is always exquisite and yet the ambiance is so relaxed.

If you don't have the "Brunch" book I highly recommend it. The blueberry buttermilk pancakes ... best recipe ever!

Big Daddy O

Hi Rob,

Long time blog reader...First time blog poster. Love the blog. Love the enthusiasm. Love the veiled references to your "wife".

Althoguh, i sense, we may differ in opinion on many matters, we are two hearts with but a single beat in the arena of Creme Brule. It is without a doubt the most delicious substance I have ever placed in my mouth.

Sorry about the pause, I had to fight of an off colour joke.

If Creme Brule tickles your fancy, try the version on offer at Starfish. I cannot complemnent it highly enough. Words cannot do it justice. Well maybe "MMMHHHHHN NNHHHMM OHMIGOD AHHHHHHH"

I know your "wife" will love it!

rachel

Well, I made it to Biff's for a Winterlicious lunch with firends, and it was just as fantatstic as Rob gleefully reported. I must disagree, though, with his description of the creme caramel as creamsicle-like. Way too dark and deep in flavour, and too sophisticated, to even come close. Yum!

Tanna

Between you and Ivonne, I find I'm totally deprived. Creme brulee is one of if not the most difficult dessert to pass, Pecan Pie being the other.

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