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.

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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.

Soaking Up the Sun and Good Food – Preparing My Taste Buds for Toronto’s Summerlicious!

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In a matter of two weeks, Toronto will be kicking off another summer of price fixe menus and good food with the annual Summerlicious event taking place from July 8th-24th!  The concept and execution is exactly the same as Winterlicious and the only difference is that it takes place in July every year.  I’m always excited to see which restaurants are participating and what their menus have to offer, especially now that they’ve made it a point to specify exactly which meals are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.  It makes it much easier to figure out if a particular restaurant can offer you enough options to make it worth your while and this is particularly important if you’re going with a group of friends with varying tastes, diets, and lifestyles. 

Even though I love both Winterlicious and Summerlicious (and this year’s newest addition, Veggielicious!), I’ve actually only taken part for the past two years, going out for two Winterlicious outings and one Summerlicious.  I don’t go for the big ticket menus though and will always, always stick to the $15 lunch menus and $25 dinner ones.  In all honesty, even if I could afford the fancy pants places, creating parameters for myself with this budget helps in narrowing down my choices which means less hair-pulling when it comes to actually making a decision.  I have a hard enough time as it is because I’m so indecisive!

I’m really lucky to have had good experiences during the times I’ve taken part.  Never have I felt that a meal wasn’t worth it or that I made a bad choice.  I had a great Winterlicious lunch this past February at Amaya’s Bread Bar near Yonge St. and Lawrence Ave., a really fun time with my friend Sally the previous Winterlicious at Big Daddy’s Crab Shack & Oyster Bar on King St. West (no photos because my camera was unfortunately stolen not long after, ugh), and an AMAZING, memorable meal at Southern Accent (which is where the delicious photo up top was taken!), located in Mirvish Village.  My boyfriend and I have already made a decision that we absolutely MUST go back for another Summerlicious meal because it’s one of our favourite places to eat in the city.

I’m no expert on fine dining, but if I could offer any tips and opinions, these would be it:

  • Decide what your budget is.  If you’re new to the price fixe fest, it is overwhelming trying to decide what you might want to try and what you want skip.  The list of restaurants on the Summerlicious website specify what price points each of the participating restaurants are operating at during the duration of the festival, so at a quick glance you can either make a note or move on.  My budget has ALWAYS been the $15 lunch and the $25 dinner and I’ve never once strayed from it. 
  • Compare lunch and dinner menus at the same restaurant.  If you find a place you think you might like but you’re not sure whether to go for the lunch or the dinner or ditch the place entirely, read both menus and see what the similarities and differences are between them.  Chances are there may only be a difference in one main or a dessert and if that’s the case, the $10 or even $20 difference between lunch and dinner just isn’t worth it.  Look for variety between menus if you need to make a make-or-break decision.
  • Stay away from places that offer ho-hum, every day eats.  A place might make a mean Caesar salad, but you don’t need a price fixe menu to enjoy such a classic staple which you can enjoy any day of the week.
  • Piece together all 3 compenents of the meal (appetizer, main, dessert) and do some quick mental math to see if you’re actually getting a sweet deal.  If the main iself is normally something that runs close to $20 (or if appetizers and desserts go for $10 normally) and it’s being offered on a $25 price fixe menu, you know you’ve hit pay dirt.  This is one of the reasons why I LOVE Southern Accent during Winterlicious and Summerlicious because their mains sit around $18 on their every day, permanent menu, not to mention their food is just amazing.

If you plan on hitting up a place (or two…or even three, ha!), let me know what you’re contemplating!  As well, if you have past experiences you’d like share, feel free to leave a comment here as I love hearing about what others have to say about their meals!

*****

Southern Accent is a cajun and creole restaurant with beautiful New Orleans and southern inspired decor and amazing food.  They are located at 595 Markham St. in Mirvish Village near Bloor St. West and Bathurst.  The Summerlicious list of restaurants and price fixe menus can be viewed here.

Price-Fixe Menus and 3-Course Meals – Prepping My Taste Buds for This Year’s Winterlicious!

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Winterlicious starts tomorrow! 😀  And y’all know I’m excited for that!  For those who don’t know, Winterlicious is an annual foodie event in the city of Toronto where over 100 restaurants participate in offering special price fixe lunch and dinner menus, as well as special culinary events and presentations throughout the duration of the festival.  The food fest starts tomorrow on the 28th, and runs until February 10th and you can bet I’m going to haul my tooshie to at least one awesome eatery! 

I posted about my amazingly fun Summerlicious dinner experience at Southern Accent when I first started the blog almost 2 months ago and I also did Winterlicious for the first time last year with my dear friend Sally at Big Daddy’s Crabshack and Oyster Bar.  So I’m excited to try something new for Winterlicious!  The price fixe menus offer 3-course meals (appetizer, main, and dessert) and prices range anywhere from $15 for lunch to $45 for dinner, with $25, $30, and $35 menus in between.  As well, if you have a day and time in mind, it certainly doesn’t hurt to make a reservation as many of these restaurants fill up their seats quickly for this event. 

This time around I’ve set my sights on lunch menus and I’ve really taken the time to pore over the Winterlicious website to narrow down my choices.  I’m not afraid to say that I want bang for my buck and that I’ll toss out options that aren’t up to snuff.  I want to be able to tell right off the bat when I go over a menu that the establishment wants to go above and beyond with no strings attached.  There’s just no sense in going if you feel you can try any of the dishes any day on their permanent menu, or if the dishes are things you’ve seen and heard a million times over.  That’s the beauty of Winterlicious and Summerlicious to me; it enables you to go crazy and to try things you either wouldn’t normally try because they’re out of your comfort zone, or things you’ve always wanted to try but couldn’t because of the price tag.

I’m soooo looking forward to this!  And I’m also really looking forward to a bunch of things I have up my sleeve for the blog in the near future.  The Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year as I normally refer to it since I’m Chinese) is next week (Februrary 3rd!), and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so I’m definitely going to take advantage of them both to share a bunch of photos and stories with you guys.  I’m not a sucker for seasonal and celebratory occasions for nothing! 😀  For those planning on munching away at Winterlicious, have fun and feel free to share your awesome eats and experiences here with me!  See y’all tomorrow ❤