Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. ~Albert Camus
We are headed to Toronto to visit our eldest and her SO, Matt. Late September, Indian Summer in Ontario. There is no better weather or view. Blue sky gives way to steely cloud fronts. The breeze carries a balmy 23 degrees. Great day to hit the road. Highway 416 is ablaze with scarlet sumac, bouquets of goldenrod, amethyst purple Michaelmas daisies, and the tired, faded beauty of spent cornfields. The deciduous trees are beginning to flaunt their fall colours and the conifers intensify in contrast.
The Rideau River hosts a fishing boat or two and reflects the darkening sky. Median grasses welcome with their feathery plumes, umber bulrushes stand tall, denuded, charcoal cedar trunks lean helter skelter amid the jack pines with their horizontal tresses towering above, arresting against the fall sky. 416, the Veteran’s Memorial Highway, is at its best this season, and I proudly note that the wild beauty delivers an impressive drive for American tourists entering Canada’s capital city. After 40 minutes we turn on to highway 401 which will take us directly into Toronto, Ontario’s capital. The 401 slashes through the Canadian Shield. Soon we begin to pass rocky outcroppings that eventually turn into stone faces in shades of grey, rust, slate and ochre and topped with the hardiest of saplings and other green finery.
The rugged beauty of Eastern Ontario features every colour of nature in its fall landscape from the dullest buff of dried hay to the flashes of silver poplar leaves shimmering in the wind, and every shade in between. In two weeks this scenery will hit its peak and the views will be spectacular. Today we are content to enjoy the soft beginnings of the fall season, dotted with horses, Black Angus cows, hawks whirling overhead, weathered barns and the occasional stone Loyalist house.
We are staying at the Pantages Hotel in downtown Toronto. We settle in after a brief visit with the kids. Saturday is forecasted to be cold and rainy and we are surprised with another beautiful, warm sunny day in the morning. After a little downtown shopping, we are lunching at Delux which serves a Cuban lunch. Delux’s menu is short and served up on a tiny clipboard. Rob and I first had Cuban food last winter in Miami. We were told we must have a pressed Cuban sandwhich, medianoche. We had them and were underwhelmed. I have oddly craved one ever since. This was my opportunity.
Delux is a small bare bones resto with a few booths, tables, bar at the rear and artsy lighting. A cozy vibe presides with a Beatles sound track. I ordered an avocado, citrus, green olive salad and a medianoche. The others ordered a pressed Cubano sandwich. Heather ordered fried plantains, which were fresh and perfectly fried to a sweet caramel, and Rob asked for red beans and rice on the side.
My salad contains several ingredients I love: fresh orange segments, grapefruit, avocado and green olives slivered thin. However, I’m not sure these items worked in combination. Presented on a bed of young arugula and dressed lightly with a good quality vinaigrette, the salad was visually pleasing but fell short on the palate.
My sandwich featured cider roasted pork, excellent ham, gruyere cheese and a tiny bit of cornichon pickle on a soft, rich bun. The sandwich was an excellent sandwich but in no way resembled a medianoche.
The others ordered the pressed Cubano which appeared to be closer to the Cuban sandwhich I remembered in Miami, but it too, fell short. The panini style bread is no substitute for the eggy, toasty bread used in a traditional Cubano. Secondly, the layer of pickle was missing. Pickles were present but not in sufficient quantity. Overall, the quality of the ingredients at Delux was superior to the Cuban fare we experienced in Miami, but the mark of authenticity was missed.
Dessert was coffee and homemade donuts served with whipped cream and caramel. They arrived in a paper bag and were simple, sugar crusted and delicious.
We spent the afternoon cruising the St. Lawrence Market before heading back to our hotel to relax and dress for dinner at Scarpetta. “Chopped” judge Scott Conant opened this fashionable eatery late last year on the ground floor of the trendy Thompson Hotel.
The atmosphere is dark chic basked in warm low light with a friendly, knowledgeable staff. We are seated for our 7 pm reservations immediately and peruse the menu. The bread basket arrives with a plate of olive oil, eggplant tapenade, and marscapone butter. Digging in the basket under the excellent crusty Tuscan bread, revealed even better goods: stromboli stuffed with salami and mozzarella.
I order Strozzapreti, a pasta dish with seafood, scallions and chilis and forego an app. I have seen the cheese plate on the menu and it looks awesome, so I will save a little room. This turns out to be an error because the portions at Scarpetta are well designed, and allow you to indulge in three to four courses. Oh well, I had planned to steal a bite or two of whatever Rob ordered anyways. Rob chose Crispy Fritto Misto to start. The Misto app was wonderful. Lightly battered calamari, shrimp, vegetable strips and herbs, rosemary being prevalent, were deep fried and brightened with fresh lemon. No dipping sauce required. Fresh flavour.
His main was a Basil Scialatelle with Nova Scotia lobster, chili & tomato. The freshness of good tomato offset the richness of the lobster and the sweetness of the basil.
Heather ordered an app of deep fried mozzarella in stewed tomatoes with a basil oil finish and for a main, Duck and Foie Gras Stuffed Ravioli with a marsala reduction. Normally I avoid ravioli on a high-end menu as they are always stuffed with decadent, expensive ingredients that are pulverized into a stuffing and lose their identity. These however were tiny and full of rich duck flavour highlighted by the delicate sauce.
Matt chose scallops to start and roasted chicken, with sweet corn, greens and a pine nut gremolata for a main. The scallops were perfectly done and accompanied by a pesto with sunflower seeds. I did not get to try his chicken but it looked delicious.
My pasta (Strozzapreti) was well made, perfectly cooked with a sprinkling of calamari and shrimp, scallions and some nice chili heat.
The cheese course selection at Scarpetta is small but well thought out. Each selection comes with its own suitable accoutrement. We chose four along with a ten year Graham’s port. Our cheese selection:
My only complaint about this most excellent course was the cracker accompaniment. The round, donut-like hard bread sticks were awkward to eat. Crostini, or a light thin cracker, even baguette would have been preferable. Dessert followed. Scarpetta’s dessert menu is small but impressive. More than one thing grabbed my attention but I settled on the coconut panna cotta with guava soup because I love all things coconut. It was excellent with the silky creaminess of the panna cotta and juicy chunks of coconut in the ice cream and a toasted coconut wafer, but can’t compete with the buttermilk pana cotta at Town in Ottawa. Nothing can. Other desserts at the table included the chocolate cake selection and Scarpetta’s tiramisu.
After a lovely evening at Scarpetta, we returned Heather and Matt home and made the long trek back into downtown Toronto for some shut eye before returning to Ottawa in the morning. We woke rested and to another glorious Indian Summer day. Our trip up the Highway of Heroes and beyond was a little more vibrant on the return journey and hinted more strongly at the glorious fall splendor which was slowly unfolding towards its peak in mid October.