I’m riding along the highway, one arm resting on the window ledge, a warm wind ruffling my hair and Don McLean’s American Pie playing on the radio. It’s an exhilarating feeling, moments of freedom woven together without interruption, as I zoom away in a red Chevy Corvette on a 4,900km gourmet road trip in Canada. Epic is a mild word to describe it.
The Canadian food scene is bubbling with lots of alternative food movements and a raft of new restaurants serving creative cuisine, so I spend 10 days driving cross-country from the west to the east coast, meeting as many chefs and eating as much good food as I can. The Corvette isn’t the only icon to feature here though; I also put up at fabulous hotels, and enjoy a continuous reel of panoramic views of this country famed for maple syrup, unbelievable scenery and Céline Dion.
A member of Ocean Wise, The RawBar at Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver is the city’s first fully sustainable seafood eatery with clams to die for.
After picking up the Chevy from Sixt, I head into Vancouver in British Columbia, where I check into the Fairmont Pacific Rim, one of the city’s most luxe hotels designed by James KM Cheng, the Canadian architect.
Scrubbing off jet lag in my very own Jacuzzi in a bathroom with wall-to-ceiling windows on the 48th floor, I admire the breathtaking views over the bay framed by purple peaks, and watch seaplanes landing and taking off from Coal Harbour far below.
Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and Coast Mountains, Vancouver is consistently classed as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Part of its attraction is food. At The RawBar, down in the hotel’s Lobby Lounge, a pianist tinkles on a Fazioli by a roaring fireplace as sushi chef Takayuki Omi tells me about Ocean Wise, an innovative seafood project launched by Vancouver Aquarium, which the restaurant is part of – it’s Vancouver’s first 100 per cent sustainable seafood destination. The brine-fresh Manila clams are sumptuous. ‘And you can enjoy them with an easy conscience,’ Taka says.
Early the next day, I go on a paddleboard tour with Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres to take in Vancouver’s skyline from the water, before heading out to explore the shops, food boutiques and craft stores on Granville Island, the city’s bohemian peninsula.
‘We are very creative here,’ a tea café owner tells me as I sip one of its crisp, flavoursome oolong brews. Charismatic guide Jenn, from Tours By Locals, says the same thing that afternoon as I follow her on a Hippie to Hipster tour of Vancouver. ‘There’s always something happening in the city, it’s very exciting,’ she tells me, as we wander the cobbled streets of historic Gastown before winding up in East Van Roasters, a social enterprise that makes its own chocolates from beans to the shelf.
Later that evening, I visit Forage, one of Vancouver’s most sustainable restaurants, for dinner. A warm, unpretentious eatery, it’s run by chef Chris Whittaker, a back-to-nature food advocate who takes regular sabbaticals to head out and find food for his restaurant. It’s not always spot on, but inventive dishes like the pepper-braised bison tongue served with fettuccine are in a realm of their own.
The drive to Calgary via the Rockies is breathtakingly beautiful and I take a few nights’ break in Banff, Alberta’s charming resort town located within Banff National Park, before hitting the highway once more. It’s nice and warm in Banff – about 850km away from Vancouver – but in Calgary there’s a slight nip in the air when I arrive. Luckily, there’s a roaring fire waiting for me in my cosy room at the Kensington Riverside Inn set on the Bow River.
Breakfast is at Chef’s Table, the boutique hotel’s award-winning restaurant, and one of Calgary’s best fine-dining places. As I tuck into executive chef Duncan Ly’s speciality – fluffy lemon ricotta pancakes – he tells me about chinook (pronounced shnook), a warm wind off the Pacific that has a huge effect on Calgary’s climate. ‘You can get all four seasons here in one day,’ he laughs.
Duncan also tells me how, once upon a time, Calgary was a bit of a culinary boondocks, but these days, the city’s affluent residents, who eat out two or three times a week, are a lot more exigent, so the food scene has blossomed into a world-class phenomenon. Although meat is still a big player in this city, which attracts over a million visitors each year, it’s used in far more imaginative ways than usual – as I discover after meeting furry bison and elk with massive antlers at the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch, then sampling them later at The Lake House, a beautiful chalet-style restaurant overlooking Lake Bonavista.
It’s still chilly when I meet Karen Anderson, the owner of Calgary Food Tours, at Spolumbo’s Fine Foods & Deli, an atmospheric traditional Italian deli where personable co-owner and ex-football pro Tony Spoletini, tells me: ‘When we started in 1992, people thought we were crazy to give up football, but now everyone comes here.’
The dimly lit eatery is packed to the hilt and we wait in line for ages, but it’s worth it when I bite into dense, flavourful chunks of free-range turkey breast and organic lettuce slathered with mustard and encased in a crusty Kaiser roll.
We are in the heart of Inglewood, home to some of Canada’s quirkiest food stores and boutiques. Karen takes me to meet Kevin Kent, a former sous chef who founded Knifewear, a boutique that specialises in Japanese knives, then we visit The Silk Road Spice Merchant, a vast spice emporium where mixes are made to order.
Having taken in the spectacular scenery of Banff, head towards Calgary, where fine dining is touching new heights as a meal at Charcut will demonstrate.
At the Charcut Roast House that evening, I had to loosen my belt a notch to make room for sapid goodies prepared by chefs John Jackson and Top Chef Canada finalist Connie DeSousa. Connie, who owns the restaurant with partner John, originally trained as a ballerina, but gave up dance for food.
‘We are lucky to be here because Calgary has such a forward-thinking food culture that embraces chefs and innovative ideas,’ she tells me as I ooh and aah my way through a succession of dishes. These include tender slow-roasted heirloom beets topped with home-made soft goat cheese, and Canada’s traditional dish poutine (chips in gravy) with one luxurious twist: the chips are fried in duck fat and the gravy is sprinkled with truffles.
Feeding the penguins in Calgary Zoo is just as fun as dining at 360 The Restaurant at CN Tower in Toronto.
A quick trip out to feed the penguins at Calgary Zoo and I’m off again, nosing my throaty Corvette on to the Trans-Canada Highway and en route to Toronto.
The trip takes three days, with stops in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, two cities in Ontario. By the time I check into DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Toronto Downtown, I’m exhausted, but after a good night’s sleep, I’m ready for my first encounter with the city on the northern shores of Lake Ontario.
For a brief respite from food, I start at the Bata Shoe Museum where the private collection of Swiss businesswoman Sonja Bata as well as more than 13,000 footwear and related artefacts from prehistoric and Egyptian times are exhibited, along with Elvis Presley’s blue loafers and a pair of Queen Victoria’s slippers.
Club your foodie tour with some memorable sightseeing in Toronto as you visit the towering CN Tower in downtown or enjoy it from the water.
Soon, I’m whisked to the top of CN Tower to dine at the award-winning 360 The Restaurant, where dishes made with local products, including wild mushrooms and Ontario lamb, are almost as thrilling as the views.
St Lawrence Market in Toronto’s old town was named the world’s best food market by National Geographic magazine.
Over the next few days, I visit St Lawrence Market, named the world’s top food market by National Geographic magazine, with Bruce Bell of Bruce Bell Tours – who leads me past stalls piled high with local specialities, including Ontario’s legendary butter tarts topped with pecan nuts – before digging out the heels and heading for dinner at the Chinese restaurant Luckee, helmed by celebrity chef Susur Lee. As I sup on a range of beautifully prepared dim sums, and crisp Peking duck, I listen to the Susur’s fascinating tales of life as a judge on Top Chef Canada.
The drive to Montreal is a doddle after the previous leg of my trip and I arrive ready for my final adventure. After checking into Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel Montreal, a gorgeous property in the heart of Old Montreal, I embark on a bike tour with Montreal On Wheels, clattering along on cobbled streets before stopping to snack on poutine at iconic diner La Banquise. Resuming our ride, we amble along the picturesque La Chine canal and then climb the winding roads to the top of Mt Royal – which is where Montreal gets its name. With its French heritage, this sultry, food-loving city is ideal to end my trip. I rapidly discover pioneering eateries like the food truck-cum-snack bar Grumman’78 and Restaurant EVOO, which serves locavore French cuisine, and where a young chefs are working to reinvent the city’s gourmet profile.
I’ve only scratched the surface of gourmand Canada, and while my trip may have ended, the flavours I’ve tasted will linger for a long time to come.