Melted Brie Panini and Lemon Basil Crème Brûlée – Dining at Cafe Nicole For Winterlicious, Part II!

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The great thing about loving your Winterlicious meal?  You know your money went towards some delicious food that was well worth the dining experience.  The bad thing?  Visions of the food won’t stop dancing around in your head and all you can think about is running out the door to have more!  Winterlicious lunch at Cafe Nicole was fabulous and I would do it all over again if given the chance.  More salmon salad, more crème brûlée, more crunchy panini bread and melted, ooey gooey brie cheese.  Yesterday was Part I with the citrus cured salmon salad and today is all about the panini main and crème brûlée dessert!

With every Winterlicious menu I hem and haw over, there’s always one course I have difficulty making a decision about.  Most of the time it’s the dessert course because I enjoy sweets so much, but this time I had a harder time choosing between the main courses.  That’s not to say I didn’t want all 3 dessert options though because I certainly did!  However, my decision to dine at Cafe Nicole was mostly guided by my excitedness over the lemon basil crème brûlée so it was just a matter of choosing between appetizers and mains.

The citrus cured salmon gravlax I wrote about yesterday was almost a no-brainer for me given how much I LOVE salmon and salmon in and/or salad, but the mains tripped me up a little.  I was honestly happy with all 3 choices.  Even though a huge part of me was going gaga for the truffled mac and cheese and the herb grilled chicken with almond and currant cous cous options, I ultimately decided on the smoked turkey and brie panini with strawberry, basil, and red pepper jam because I thought the inclusion of basil fit so well with the dessert I was choosing.

I know aesthetically speaking, the herb grilled chicken with cous cous probably would have given me the “prettiest” photos, but I have to tell you, the turkey and brie panini was one of the best panini sandwiches I have ever had.  EVER!  Sandwiches, in essence, are simple dishes in terms of preparation, but they can be incredibly delicious and complex given the ingredients and flavour combinations.

There are so many reasons why this panini sandwich was amazing.  First off, the bread was perfectly grilled.  There were beautiful grill marks on the sandwich and every single inch was a crunchy, crispy delight.  The filling didn’t weigh the sandwich down, it didn’t get soggy, and the flavours were wonderful.  Punches of the red pepper jam filled my mouth every few bites and provided the sandwich with subtle smoky flavour while the sweetness of the strawberry and the fresh bite from the basil leaves cut through the savouriness of the cheese.  

The greatest thing about the panini though was the melted brie cheese.  It was unbelievable.  It was melted all the way through and the savoury cheese literally dripped down the sides of my sandwich and some of it even stretched in that delicious, cheese-strings-on-my-pizza way that makes us all wiggle with glee.  My meal came with a side of French fries, but clearly, the panini sandwich was the star of the show!

Amazing grill marks!

To end off the mouthwatering lunch, I sat back and savoured every single spoonful of my lemon basil crème brûlée, spooning it out of its ramekin.  It was EVERYTHING I hoped it would be and more.  I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of flavoured crème brûlées.  I had this one mango crème brûlée in the past that was delicious, but unfortunately, not flavoured with enough mango.  To be completely honest, the mango flavour was entirely lost.  You don’t want the flavour to be subtle, you want the flavour to punch you in the tastebuds because otherwise, you might as well just eat a regular crème brûlée; why bother with the song and dance of a weak flavoured one?

This crème brûlée was so far from weak.  My entire mouth was enveloped with the sweet and citrusy brightness of the lemon and that subtle minty pepperyness of basil that was amplified by the actual basil leaf on top.  I couldn’t believe how ridiculously good this tasted.  I thought the crème brûlée from Southern Accent was to die for, but this one existed on a whole other level.  It was so smooth, so creamy, so airy and light, and so lemony.  It was like eating the smoothest lemon cream you could imagine with rich licks of buttery caramel.

It wasn’t a crème brûlée with a cracked glass shard-like surface on top though.  The caramelized layer of sugar sits on top and literally just melts right into the rest of the crème brûlée when you start to dig into it with your spoon, giving you flavourful notes of both lemon and caramel in many spoonfuls.  It was bright, sweet, and lemon sugary on the one hand, and rich, buttery, caramel, and vanilla on the other.  I ate my crème brûlée as slow as humanly possible just so I could make it last and it was such a sad moment when I got to the bottom of the ramekin and spooned the last little bit.  My only consolation is knowing that this little dessert convinced me to eat at Cafe Nicole for Winterlicious, and that I ended up with another fabulous Winterlicious experience in my tummy.

*****

Cafe Nicole is situated inside The Novotel Hotel in downtown Toronto at 45 The Esplanade.  The dining establishment literally sits across the street from The Old Spaghetti Factory and it is steps away from The Sony Centre and the Yonge and Front Street E. intersection.

Citrus Cured Salmon Gravlax, Shaved Fennel, Spinach & Greens – Hotel Dining at Cafe Nicole for Winterlicious! Part I

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There is something so hush and lush about dining inside a hotel.  When I was younger, I went on countless overnight trips with my family and aunt and uncle to not-too-far-but-too-close places such as Montreal, Detroit, and Niagara Falls.  Getting the chance to stay in a hotel, or even just a cozy little inn, was such a luxury and I was always in awe of the wining and dining. 

I remember there being all-you-can-eat buffets for dinner in the hotel lobby, a lavish breakfast buffet in this one hotel my aunt and uncle stayed in when they came back into town after moving away a number of years ago, and of course, the oh-so-chic bars and lounges that were for “grown-ups” and off-limits for wee ones like myself.  This Winterlicious, I relived those awe-inspiring moments when I stepped into the “hush and lush” that was Cafe Nicole, nestled in the main lobby of the Novotel Hotel on The Esplanade downtown.

Call me naive, call me easily amused – I am still overcome with big-eyed wonder when I walk into a hotel and marvel at the pristine lobby, the grandiose corridors and hallways, and stylish dining establishments.  I don’t think this feeling is something I will ever get used to and that’s fine with me because it makes dining in a hotel all the more exciting and fun.  The day I start feeling ho-hum is the day I realize that something is very wrong with me!  Novotel’s heavy wooden doors opened and welcomed me like royalty when I made my way to the hotel for my highly anticipated Winterlicious lunch.  I quietly strolled into Cafe Nicole, passing the lounge and bar, into their big, airy, open dining room bathed in shades of chocolate brown and caramel.

After labouring over my Winterlicious choices for weeks, I hoped so much that my experience would be a great one, just like the one I had last year at Amaya’s Bread Bar.  My experience here was more than great – it was fantastic.  The food was so delicious and satisfying and I was treated with the utmost of care.  I know what you’re thinking: “well, duh, you should be treated well when you go out to dine!”  It’s a little more complicated than that though.  I am very particular, even more so since I started Ate by Ate and started photographing food full-time.  I hate to refer to myself as a “princess” with princess-like demands but, well, sometimes I do.  But I always ask in the sweetest, most polite way possible and it’s always for the sake of the blog and nothing more! 

I asked the staff if it would be okay for me to take photos around the dining room and after I saw a second of hesitation, I quickly rushed on to say that I did a lot of food photography, that this was only for my blog, and that I wished to seek permission first.  They were happy to oblige and left me to do my snapping. 

Princess-like demand #2 that sometimes makes me cringe?  I asked if I could switch tables.  I looked up from the table I had originally been seated at and cringed at the light shining right above me.  My photos were going to be shrounded in awful shadows.  The weather was overcast and the light over top was just not going to cut it.  I needed more natural light.  So I sweetly requested to be moved to a table closer to one of the big windows on the other side of the dining room.  The waiter I asked didn’t even bat an eye as he took my water glass for me and guided me over to another table.  And the Winterlicious experience only became better from there.

The $15 lunch price fixe menuincluded 3 options for all 3 courses: appetizer, main, and dessert.  If I could, I would go back and try the other options and do another price fixe lunch in a heartbeat because my food was so good.  I chose the citrus cured salmon gravlax with shaved red onion, fennel, and mandarin orange segments as my appetizer; the smoked turkey and brie panini with strawberry, basil, and red pepper jam as my main; and the lemon basil crème brûlée.  YES, that’s right, LEMON BASIL CRÈME BRÛLÉE!  And that, folks, is how I ultimately decided on Cafe Nicole for Winterlicious.  I could not turn down the opportunity to try that dessert so I scanned the rest of the menu and made up my mind to try this price fixe and I am so happy I did.

The citrus cured salmon gravlax salad was out of this world.  For starters (no pun intended), I couldn’t believe the portion of salad I received.  The salad itself ate like a meal!  The salad was piled high with greens and meaty slices of salmon and for a minute, I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to eat all my food given the larger than expected plate of salad.  After inhaling my plate though, I realized the salad had actually kick-started my appetite even more so that clearly worked to my advantage!

The cured salmon was sliced into meaty slices on top of baby spinach and greens, shaved red onion and fennel with segments of mandarin orange strewn throughout.  The salad was light, fresh, and crunchy from the shaved fennel and with just a mild hint of bite from the red onion.  The mildness of the red onion was a relief as I am not the biggest fan of that spicy bite it naturally brings.  There were plenty of salmon slices and the thickness was perfect.  Not paper thin, but not thick slabs either.  The slices were just the right size, enough to impart that satisfying meaty texture that gave the salad its body. 

The entire salad was dressed in a lemon dressing with a hint of creaminess, mustard, and dill that made the salad even more delicious than it already was.  Combined with the zesty flavour of the salmon gravlax, the entire salad was a plate bursting with bright, refreshing flavour and if I could, I would have eaten two plates of it.  I took a piece of buttered bread and literally mopped up the little bit of remaining vinaigrette on my plate.  It was divine.

Tomorrow’s Part II Winterlicious post will continue on with the melty cheesiness of the smoked turkey and brie panini with strawberries, basil, and red pepper jam, and the finale: the lemon basil crème brûlée!

*****

Cafe Nicole is situated inside The Novotel Hotel in downtown Toronto at 45 The Esplanade.  The dining establishment literally sits across the street from The Old Spaghetti Factory and it is steps away from The Sony Centre and the Yonge and Front Street E. intersection.