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Off The Beaten Track

Off the Beaten Track

Times change, but for decades people have been willing to travel for a fine meal.

Back in the 1920s, when the authors of the Michelin guide first started evaluating restaurants, they described exceptional ones (two stars) as being a “worth a detour,” while all-but- perfect ones (three stars) were “worth a special journey.” That general idea is consistent with how I rank restaurants myself.

For example, in our home city of Toronto my wife and I like to dine at Dandylion. We live in Cabbagetown, on the east side of downtown, but chef Jason Carter’s hotspot is in the West End. Now, if I haven’t planned ahead and am acting on a whim of appetite (most days), the place will already be booked when I think of it, and I am going to get stuck with an early table. Say 6:30, peak rush hour, when that seven-kilometre trip will graduate from detour to journey (it could take 40 minutes—even an hour). Is Dandylion worth a special journey through the abject hell of Toronto’s rush hour?

For me, yes. So, while we don’t hand out stars, I was glad to see that our judges voted the place among our Top 10. But then I would make a special journey for all of the restaurants in the upper reaches of our list. All of them are worth it.

But there are also plenty of other restaurants around the country that fit that description more in the Michelin sense of things. These are restaurants not situated in the big cities that most of our judges get to frequently, but instead are off the beaten track, in places where only a few judges visit, infrequently. In other words, quality restaurants that some judges vote for enthusiastically. But the fact that not enough judges get to those places means they aren’t as high up on the list as their quality might otherwise justify.

So, we thought we’d showcase a few of these gems. Restaurants that got votes but not quite enough to crack our list.

On the east coast—or anywhere—you cannot get much more off the beaten track than the Fogo Island Inn. Its remoteness is an asset essential to the experience, but maybe not ideal for generating repeat customers. All the same, even with founding chef Murray McDonald departed, Fogo continues to draw solid votes. Don’t forget about it.

Staying with the Atlantic provinces, chef Jakob Lutes was singled out for his work with New Brunswick ingredients at Port City Royal in St. John. Many judges gave the nod, too, to Pierre Richard at Little Louis’ in Moncton. Field Guide, Edna and the Bicycle Thief also drew votes in Halifax.

In Quebec City, it’s good to see Restaurant Initiale, entering its 27th year in business, back on our top 50 list, which it fell off last not for any reason of wavering quality, but rather, by dint of diminished judge traffic through Quebec City. If you make it there, you must go: Yvan Lebrun and Rolande Leclerc run one of my favourite fine-dining establishments in the country. Le Clocher Penché also continues to draw solid votes in that town. And nearby, so did a small new bistro in Kamouraska specializing in regional cooking, called Côté Est, which I’ll do my best to investigate soon. If you find yourself north of there—well, northeast, headed for Gaspé—stop in Rimouski and visit Chez St-Pierre, a perennial favourite with the itinerant Quebec chefs on our voting panel.

In Kitchener, Ont., chef Jonathan Gushue’s first post-Langdon Hall restaurant, The Berlin, is building support. In Winnipeg, Segovia was the unanimous favourite, and Clementine (not the Edmonton Clementine on our list) was frequently mentioned, too, especially for its brunch. Hayloft, in Airdrie, Alta., looks like a place to watch. And in B.C., old haunts like Zambri’s in Victoria still have many fans.

And, of course, a host of fine restaurants in major cities came tantalisingly close to securing a spot on the top 100. Tuck Shop, Hvor, Lawrence and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Montreal, Richmond Station, Sushi Kaji, Mamakas
and Boralia in Toronto, North & Navy and The Pomeroy House in Ottawa, The Guild and Charbar in Calgary, Royal Dinette and The Pear Tree in Vancouver and Burnaby—they all fell just shy. It was a fiercely competitive year, with all sorts of worthy new detours available for the hungry and discriminating. May it continue thus.