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Sneak Peek: Café Boulud and getting the most of Winterlicious

I love the concept of Winterlicious. For a couple of weeks in the dead of winter, over 200 restaurants across Toronto offer three-course prix fixe lunch and dinner menus at cheaper than usual price points. You’ll find lunches at $23, $28 and $33, and dinners at $33, $43 and $53.

It’s a great reason to finally pry yourself out of the couch, perhaps consider wearing something other than pyjamas, and go have a delicious meal at that place you’ve always wanted to check out.

The problem with Winterlicious, and a common refrain I hear from some disgruntled licious-goers, is that it can be really hit and miss.

At the best of times, it can be the ideal way to try one of the city’s top restaurants that might typically be outside your budget. At the worst of times, it can be a human zoo stirred to frenzy at feeding time with unmanageable crowds and noise levels, seriously sub-par food, and dismal service, and a somewhat traumatic aftertaste.

Café Boulud is one place to find the former this January: a best-of-times Winterlicious experience.

Café Boulud’s Winterlicious lunch menu

While at other places I’ve found the pick of menu options to maximize value yields a fairly obvious choice of starter, main, and dessert (skip the pastas and salads; go for the fish, unless you’re vegetarian obviously), at Café Boulud I had a harder time deciding.

The choice of starter is between a meaty coq au vin terrine, a delightful comfort food staple — French onion soup — and a perfectly light and fresh smoked salmon salad with julienned apples. Uh, I’ll have one of each, please??

The pike quenelle I ordered for the main course surpassed my expectations. For the uninitiated, a quenelle is like a savoury sponge made with a combination of creamed fish, breadcrumbs, and egg to bind it. It’s much better than it sounds. It was huge; not common for a fish dish, especially not a Winterlicious one, and came surrounded by a rich and buttery bright yellow sauce with some firm mushrooms for a nice flavour and texture balance, plus rice pilaf on the side.

Chef Daniel Boulud has said this is his favourite dish on the menu, because it offers a slightly more adventurous, yet still accessible, foray into French cooking for diners who are keen to explore the cuisine further.

But the ile flottante for dessert really — excuse the eye-rolling cliche — took the cake (I know, sorry). That fluffy meringue resting delicately on a creamy pool of crème anglaise, dotted with a couple of raspberries and topped with a paper-thin maple sugar crisp, could be the best ile flottante I’ve had.

This is all orchestrated in a bright yet cozy upstairs dining area inside the elegance of the Four Seasons. It’s full of dark greens, rusty oranges, comfy leather banquettes and warm brass accents.

You can find Café Boulud’s full Winterlicious menus for lunch and dinner here.

How to get the best Winterlicious experience

Start by choosing your restaurant wisely. The cheapest options aren’t always the best value. I’ve found that it’s often better to “splurge” on a higher end restaurant, and at $33 for lunch it’s not that much more of a financial stretch. Look for places that have some prior years’ experience delivering Winterlicious menus so you won’t face any first-timer kinks. It can be wise to choose a smaller place with fewer seats to avoid the fall-flat catered feel of mass-produced menu items.

Finally, check out menus online first so you can be confidant there’s something on there you’ll love, and try to book during off-peak days (early in the week) and times (lunches are often less hectic).

Winterlicious runs January 26 to February 8, and bookings are already open. Seats can go pretty fast depending on the restaurant so make sure to book as soon as possible to get the table you want.

Do you plan on trying out a new restaurant this year? Let us know how it goes in the comments below!