Plates of poutine
Poutine’s origins are as murky as a bowl of gravy but some believe the dish started in 1957 in Warwick – a town between Montreal and Quebec City – when a takeaway customer asked for squeaky cheese curds and fries to be popped into the same bag. Gravy was later added to soften the curds and – voila! – poutine was born.
It’s easy to sample low-brow and high-brow versions of the dish across the country. In its spiritual home of Quebec province, line up at La Banquise –a 24-hour greasy spoon in Montreal’s bohemian Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood – to try one of 31 variations. Many swear by the T-Rex – which pairs the chips, curds and gravy with a mountain of beef mince, pepperoni, bacon and sliced hotdog sausage. Chef Chuck Hughes serves a refined version – lobster poutine with lobster-infused gravy – at his Old Montreal fine-diner Garde Manger.
In Vancouver, The Fat Badger tavern’s empire poutine dresses the chips and curds with chicken tikka masala, paneer, crispy shallots and coriander. La Belle Patate, open until the wee hours on Friday and Saturday nights, serves 40-plus poutines. Try the smoked-meat poutine, BBQ chicken poutine or breakfast poutine with bacon, eggs and onions.
Stack those pancakes
Canadians just love their pancakes. Nova Scotia’s Sugar Moon Farm – a working maple farm and restaurant that’s open year-round – serves all-you-can-eat versions made from stoneground organic heritage flour and fresh buttermilk. Drizzle with maple syrup and add maple baked beans, bacon or sausage. Customise with extras: maple-glazed pecans, maple blueberry syrup or maple whipped cream.
At Thunder Bay on the shore of Lake Superior, pancake aficionados make a beeline for the Hoito restaurant in the basement of the Edwardian-era Finnish Labour Temple. Possibly Canada’s most famous pancake house, the landmark restaurant started in 1918 to feed Finnish lumberjacks when they flooded into town between working in Ontario’s forests. The plate-sized unleavened Finnish pancakes sit somewhere between wafer-thin crepes and fluffy Canadian pancakes.
At Mont Tremblant, a pretty year-round mountain resort 130km north-west of Montreal, Creperie Catherine is famous for its dozens of sweet and savoury crepe varieties. Think crepes loaded with everything from garlicky snails to smoked salmon to pears, ice-cream, chocolate sauce and pear cognac.
Vancouver’s Heirloom Vegetarian restaurant in the South Granville neighbourhood serves a vegan pancake dish – organic buckwheat pancakes topped with a seasonal compote and drizzled with cashew coconut cream.
Hark back to pioneer times
Bite into history at Quebec City’s Aux Anciens Canadiens restaurant. Start with wild caribou and bison rillettes or the flaky Quebec meat pie accompanied by fruit preserves. Chase that with red deer fillet in a cognac and pink pepper sauce or the bison in a blueberry wine sauce and, if there’s still room, squeeze in a maple syrup crème brulee. The restaurant is housed within the thick-walled 17th-century Maison Jacquet – one can only imagine the scenes that have unfolded within these golden-hued, timber-panelled rooms over the centuries.
Toronto’s Boralia does a contemporary spin on indigenous fare and early-settler recipes. For a little bit of theatre, choose buttery mussels swathed in pine smoke – all dramatically served under a glass dome. The menu might also feature chop-suey croquettes, bison tartare with wild ginger and garlic aioli, or the hearty pigeon pie. Desserts include Acadian beignets – more famous in New Orleans – although this version incorporates spiced chocolate ganache, beer batter and lemon sugar.
Whitehorse’s Wheelhouse Inn in the Yukon doesn’t purport to do pioneer food per se but with its 1930s period décor and mains such as bison shepherd’s pie with cranberry sauce, it certainly harks back to a bygone era.
Dive into a legendary diner
At Wilensky’s, a time-warped corner diner in Montreal’s bohemian Mile End neighbourhood that first fired up its grill in 1932, there’s no messing with the special. Hop onto one of the eight stools at the counter and watch as your fried bologna and salami sandwich with mustard on a kaiser roll is toasted in the sandwich press. In keeping with the diner’s no-frills ambience, it’s served on a napkin – and never cut in two. The diner also features an old-fashioned soda fountain. Cherry cola is the most popular flavour but the homemade syrups include pineapple, strawberry and chocolate. Another firm rule is no tipping.
Head to Vancouver’s trendy Kitsilano neighbourhood to find Moderne Burger – it serves up the 1950s with its booths and burgers, malts and milkshakes.
For a haute diner experience, try Calgary’s Diner Deluxe. The Edmonton Trail location (within a converted garage) blends retro furniture with a 21st-century spin on classic breakfast fare. Its breakfast poutine morphs chips into rosemary hash browns crowned with a poached egg and basil hollandaise, all cradled within a skillet. The maple fried oatmeal also arrives in a skillet, topped with a dollop of lemon curd and surrounded by vanilla bean cream.
Bacon every which way
Bacon lovers, rejoice. Canada’s raging love affair with bacon means you can indulge in your favourite meat in ways you didn’t know existed. Montreal’s Bar Brutus serves bacon sushi: bacon rolled around a filling of tempura chicken, Japanese omelette, date puree and rice. Au Pied de Cochon’s rib-sticking Plogue a Champlain is a buckwheat pancake stacked with foie gras, a fried egg, potato, cheddar and a pile of thick-cut bacon – all doused in a maple syrup reduction.
On the prairies, Saskatoon’s Park Café and Diner takes bacon seriously. Its bacon lover’s breakfast stars three types of bacon – peameal, maple and homemade back bacon – served with eggs, hash browns and toast.
Calgary’s River Café – in scenic Prince’s Island Park on the Bow River – puts bison bacon on its posh eggs benedict (served on a buttermilk scone with brown butter hollandaise). For lunch, order peameal bacon (back bacon rolled in cornmeal) with a fried egg, beets and roast potato.
Combine bacon with dessert at Vancouver Lucky’s Doughnuts – the maple-glazed apple bacon fritter is topped with crunchy bacon bits. Want your bacon on a cocktail? Vancouver pub The Wolf and Hound twists the Caesar (a clam-tomato-vodka cocktail), garnishing with crispy bacon instead of a celery stalk and lime wedge.
Experience Aboriginal cuisine
Explore the many interpretations of First Nations cuisine. While some restaurants focus on pre-contact fare such as wild game, foraged greens and berries, others embrace the post-colonial period, serving contemporary indigenous favourites. Toronto’s Tea-n-Bannock attracts a loyal indigenous following with familiar fare such as Indian tacos, which combine the usual taco fillings with fried bannock – a bread that Scottish settlers introduced to native communities. Indian tacos are also on the menu at Vancouver’s Salmon n’ Bannock, along with a range of bannock burgers (elk, BBQ pulled boar, free-range bison, sockeye salmon).
Canada’s 3500-member Huron-Wendat community is the driving force behind Hotel-Musee Premieres Nations – a boutique hotel (modelled on a traditional longhouse) and museum complex on Quebec City’s northern outskirts. After touring the museum, lunch in the modern La Traite restaurant on three sisters’ soup made from corn, beans and squash, and salmon stuffed with duck confit and dried cranberries. Afterwards, join a ceremony that revolves around minty Labrador tea served daily from 3pm near the hotel’s central fireplace.
In British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, find North America’s first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, on the shores of Lake Osoyoos. Tasting fees go towards the preservation of the Okanagan language.
How sweet it is
At Sucrerie de la Montagne, a sugar shack in the middle of a centuries-old maple forest an hour’s drive from Montreal, it’s hard not to notice the big bottles of maple syrup adorning the tables. It’s de rigueur to liberally splash maple syrup over the traditional sugar-shack feast. This sweet excess will seem decadent to Australians, who use the syrup sparingly at home. Consider this your chance to go wild. The sugar shack is open year-round (many others only operate from March to April). Arrive hungry to enjoy the massive feast traditionally served to workers tapping the trees during the spring thaw. The banquet includes pea soup, meat pie with fruit ketchup, crispy pork rinds, baked beans, omelette soufflé, pancakes and sugar pie.
Chef Martin Picard runs a popular seasonal sugar shack near Montreal. To experience his way with sweet things at any time of the year, try his Montreal fine-diner Au Pied de Cochon where the dessert menu includes a milkshake with maple toffee and maple crème brulee.
Canada is also famous for ice wine, made from frozen grapes plucked from the vines. At The Ice House Winery, in Ontario’s Niagara wine region, try the sweet dessert wine served as a slushie.
Follow a trail
Unearth great food and drink hidey-holes. Canada’s culinary trails showcase everything from decadent lobster suppers to ciders, wines and cheeses. In British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, four hours’ drive east of Vancouver, pick a route and taste-test your way around some of the region’s 200-plus wineries. Or head west to the Vancouver Island area – a region known as the Wine Islands. With dozens of tasting rooms, visitors can sample wine, mead, cider and artisan spirits. Temperamental pinot noir is the island’s most planted red variety; wineries also specialise in making oaked and unoaked pinot gris. Make like a local and try the sparkling blackberry wine.
On the other side of the country, Prince Edward Island is known as Canada’s Food Island. Traipse around its culinary trail to slurp Malpeque oysters, tuck into a hearty lobster supper along the Green Gables shore, or dig for clams when the tide goes out.
In Quebec, the lush Charlevoix region north of Quebec City is home to a Flavour Trail showcasing the handiwork of more than 40 producers and restaurateurs. Highlights include apple, pear and plum ciders, a bakery famous for pates and pretty “grandmother tarts”, and a cheesemaker who makes an unforgettable liquid cheese – Le Secret de Maurice.
Say wha-a-a-t? Wacky food
Find freaky food by two-stepping straight over to the annual Calgary Stampede (the 2016 event is from July 8-17). Between watching cowboys and cowgirls compete for more than $2 million in prize money, sample the deep-fried delights that are a hallmark of the Stampede. In 2015, visitors could chow down on everything from the “biggest dog on a stick” (four corn dogs on one stick) to red velvet chicken strips (chicken battered with red velvet cake mix). Those with deep pockets could splash out on a $100 dragon dog (a hot dog packed with a bratwurst snag infused with Louis XIII cognac, Kobe beef cooked in truffle oil, and topped with lobster tails. Gourmets could try the cactus burger, which paired cactus leaf with black beans, roasted capsicums, roasted garlic mayo, caramelised onions, mushrooms, cheese, lettuce and tomato.
Canada’s national cocktail, the Caesar, gets a freak makeover at Vancouver sports bar Score on Davie. Its most outrageous version stacks a roast chicken, burger, pulled pork slider, onion rings, chicken wings, hotdog and brownie on top of the glass. Montreal eatery L’Gros Luxe garnishes its Caesars with everything from mini grilled cheese sandwiches to onion rings and quesadillas.
Savour seafood in the Maritimes
There’s something evocative about tucking into seafood in Canada’s atmospheric Maritime provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (PEI). In cooler months, slurp a warming bowl of velvety seafood chowder. In 2015, Nova Scotia’s Chowder Trail featured 61 chowders from across the province. In Lunenberg on the south shore, Salt Shaker Deli is renowned for a smoked seafood chowder that showcases shredded smoked haddock. Further south, The Lobster Shack adds its signature ingredient to chowder topped with a crispy cheese finger crouton; it also serves lobster “the way locals like it – on toast”. For something completely different, order the lobster nachos.
In the Nova Scotian capital of Halifax, Five Fishermen occupies one of the country’s most haunted places – a building that served as a morgue for bodies recovered from the Titanic disaster. These days, it’s easy to forget about resident ghosts when faced with a plateful of lobster-stuffed scallops or lobster linguine with torched corn and lime foam.
New Brunswick’s Saint John Ale House dishes up the likes of periwinkles with wild onion mayo, smoked bacon maple scallops and mussels with fries. PEI’s New Glasgow Lobster Suppers is the place to go to order lobster by the pound.