Overnight the world stopped, and all the joyful restaurants that make our cities our homes closed, some for good. But, after several weeks, the industry took a collective deep breath, and put new safety measures – and menus – into effect. They reopened for take–out with fewer staff, slimmer profit margins and crazier–than–ever hours. And they did it for us. They reopened to give our days some normalcy, to feed and to buoy us – and the food and hospitality are as soulful as ever. In return, we must support them. Soon we’ll dine together in re–imagined ways. Eating out again will be daring and different and new. But, for now, we can still eat across the country, at home. To inspire you to explore your local takeout options, here is a look at what some of our past Canada’s Best New Restaurants (CBNR) winners and longlisters have been cooking up – then “carton–ing” up – from coast to coast.
La Banane, Toronto Tiers of fresh seafood, fluffy fine–herb omelets and sea bass en croute – luxurious old–world French amidst an evocative fin de siècle room has always been the La Banane way. But in what must be the greatest pivot since the Hamill Camel, chef and co–owner Brandon Olsen has gone from preparing fine French food to dishing out buckets of fried chicken from La Banane’s back alley door. “If I could make fried chicken for the rest of my life, I would,” says Olsen. Brando’s Fried Chicken (BFC) is a recipe of deftly seasoned boneless chicken, fried to a shattering crunch, that he developed while working with chef Thomas Keller over a decade ago and has been cooking ever since. Now Olsen is all in with a BFC five–piece box, 10– and 15–piece buckets, a fried chicken sandwich and a choice of three simple sides. “I’m not sure La Banane will ever be La Banane again,” he says. “So, until I know what La Banane 2.0 will be, I’m enjoying frying chicken.”
Flame and Smith, Bloomfield, Ontario The last trip I took before The Great Shutdown was to Prince Edward County in February. And one of the last memorable meals I had was at Flame and Smith in Bloomfield, PEC. Outside there were toques on our heads and snow on the ground and blazing fire pits all around. Inside, a wood–burning hearth warmed the room while also cooking smoky mushroom salad with Taleggio, coal–roasted sweet potatoes and a perfectly rosy 12–ounce dry–aged ribeye. Every bite had been kissed by fire. After dinner, chef and owner Hidde Zomer chatted with me about the care that went into restoring the historic space and the feeling of community in the area. Thanks in part to that community, the fires are still burning at Flame and Smith, with a take–out menu that includes wood–fired mac and cheese, whole rotisserie chickens and “burnt” Basque cheesecake.
Gema Pizzeria, Montreal Pizza joints like Gema have lent an air of normalcy to the coronavirus chaos, for where there is pizza, there is cheese and crust, and where there is cheese and crust, there is comfort. There are no starters or mains on the menu right now, nor gorgeous, confident servers. Only pizza and wine for take–out. But what pizzas! And what wines! The Vetri is all about homemade Mortadella with pecorino, pistachio pesto and Quebec mozzarella di buffalo, while the Hawaienne may change your mind about pineapple on pizza. (To wit: tomato sauce, homemade smoked maple ham, oven–roasted pineapple, Quebec mozzarella di bufala and pepper oil). Meanwhile, a bottle of Pacina’s Toscana sangiovese is good for drinking now, or later. Newly back for the season are swirls of homemade frozen custard. Surely a harbinger of better things to come.
Bar Kismet, Halifax Sitting hip–to–hip on bar stools during a recent visit to this family–owned bar and restaurant, I thought back to my university days in Halifax when there was one good Vietnamese take–out, two sushi restaurants, 23 donair spots and the Seahorse Tavern. On this trip, however, I was met by a pumped–up city primed for a renaissance. From the boardwalk to the gleaming new library, change is afoot as down–home has gone decadent at spots like Bar Kismet, where the charred carrots are spooned with béarnaise and fresh crab, and there is soft and light gnocchi to be had. Still, somehow the cocktails steal the show. For now, they’re selling pasta kits, snacks, and wine to go, including a Chehalem Grüner Veltliner, cured Atlantic salmon, sweet potato agnolotti and flourless chocolate cake. Different, but still decadent.
The Merchant Tavern, St. John’s Chef Jeremy Charles celebrates the ingredients of the land and sea at his temporarily closed fine dining Raymonds restaurant. Its little sister, The Merchant Tavern, is more of a casual celebration of smash burgers and vinegar pie – a delicious dessert based on the island culture of making do with what you’ve got (in this case vinegar instead of lemons). Translating the hospitality of a tavern into takeout has meant selling local beer and putting together traditional family–style roast chicken dinners with root vegetables and gravy, and lasagnas made from hand–rolled pasta and house–made ricotta. They’re also doing fresh Newfoundland snow crab right now. Thirty years ago the cod stocks collapsed and the population plummeted in the fishing villages around the province but, slowly, they’re recovering, as is the way of the Newfoundlander.
Wayfarer Oyster House, Whitehorse Last summer in Whitehorse I was still wearing sunglasses at 10:30 p.m. One weekend we followed the sun instead of the clock and ended up at Wayfarer Oyster House for a late–night dinner of cremant and oysters and finely wrought shared plates. During the evening a rain shower swept through the city followed by a brilliant rainbow and out we all spilled onto 6th Avenue to take it in. For now, the restaurant has swapped out rainbows and roasted bone marrow for garage door pickups and online reheating instructions. But their takeaway menu includes delicious things you want to eat, like asparagus risotto, tuna tostados and roasted hen and potatoes with the following directions: “Preheat oven to 425ºF. Roast hen and pots on a roasting tray for about 12–15 minutes. Rub some butter or oil on hen every five minutes or so to get a crispy skin.” Crispy chicken skin is sort of like another type of rainbow.
AnnaLena, Vancouver Before the shutdown, chef Michael Robbins’ restaurant was known for approachable, local ingredient–driven eight–course tasting menus with descriptors like Trout (seared steelhead with manila clams, kale and koji) and Beef (flank steak, sunchoke, black garlic jus). Now he’s offering “Strange Times Take Away,” a collective takeout effort between all three of his restaurants (the other two being Hundy and TheirThere, for tasty breakfast sandwiches and cheeseburgers). “We wanted to present the most authentic version of what each normally offers diners within the constraints of these strange times,” Robbins says. What that means for AnnaLena guests is four–course meals that include the likes of Bread (torn bread, smoked tallow butter), Asparagus (smoked prosciutto, greens, roasted tomato dressing) and Salmon (pea and faro risotto, leek and ramp relish). “This experience has changed the restaurant industry, permanently,” he says. “In acknowledging this, we’re finding ways to adapt and create something that was better than before.”
Clementine, Edmonton When I was in Edmonton a few years back, I was astounded by how good the food was everywhere I ate. From the taco spots and chocolatiers, to Corso 32, which made the CBNR list in 2011, and RGE RD, which ranked fourth in 2014. More recently Clementine joined the CBNR winning ranks for its kitchen’s technique–driven cooking (curing, smoking, pickling, fermenting) and the bar’s barrel–aged cocktails. Inspired by Art Deco and fashioned into a welcoming spot to exchange conserva and conversation, for the time being, instead of shared plates like lamb croquettes and scallop crudo, you can take out more portable house–made options such as sourdough focaccia, charcuterie and a Buffalo Trace Bourbon sour. But the lively banter is now up to you.
Bar Von Der Fels, Calgary Curls of Compte and hasselback crab potatoes are gently pushed forward by a smiling bartender. Snacky plates, and then roasted beef tongue, more tipples and laughs. How to duplicate this food, and this feeling, at home? Well, order smoked olives (perfect for quarantinis), then decide between the two takeout mainstays, the Von Der Donair and the crispy green pea falafel plate, or choose from their weekly “Rounds” of changing menus. “Round 2” features recipes from Andy Richter’s Pok Pok cookbook, eight Thai street food dishes in all, including grilled corn with salty coconut cream and Laap Meuang (Northern Thai minced pork herb salad in lettuce wraps). A rare silver lining during these times? The freedom to try something new.
Avenue, Regina The independently owned Grassroots Restaurant Group has four restaurants in two cities spread across a vast prairie province, a particularly tricky set of circumstances to deal with. So, what they decided to do, says co–owner and head bartender Christopher Cho, is curbside pick up on Fridays and Saturdays only. Each week a set meal is created, inspired by one of their restaurants (Avenue, Ayden Kitchen and Bar, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks and Stone). The first featured Sticks and Stones’ Korean fried chicken with japchae, house–made kimchi, and a yuzu panna cotta, the next was a taste of Avenue with rotisserie chicken, crispy potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, coleslaw and bourbon–raisin bread pudding. On take–out days they open Avenue in Regina and one of their three restaurants in Saskatoon. It is complicated, but it’s working, says Cho, who is also offering signature cocktail kits with instructions. “They’ve been selling a lot better than I could have imagined,” he says.