Big-spending downtown Torontonians have taken in the past few years to whining about Winterlicious, but the two-week dining festival, running from January 28 through February 10, remains popular for a reason: it offers great value, particularly if you choose your reservations well. Here are a dozen of Toronto Life’s best bets. They’re older, more established places, generally, with kitchens that clearly care. And though we haven’t yet tasted the restaurants’ 2011 Winterlicious menus, they’re full of interesting, delicious-sounding picks.
Amaya The Indian Room
This Leaside favourite was the first restaurant in the city to combine excellent Indian cooking with western-style service, surroundings and sommellerie. Its Winterlicious dinner menu is bargain-basement: $25, with options including mango-curry-coconut prawns, Rajasthani lamb shank curry and roasted marshmallow ice cream (so much better than kulfi). When a hot restaurant like Amaya prices its special menu so low, it’s natural to wonder if it’ll live up to its usual standards. We’re betting yes.
Pro tip: If you can’t get in here, try Amaya’s more casual sibling, Amaya Bread Bar. The Winterlicious menu is the same, though the surroundings aren’t quite as polished or charming.
The Rubino brothers’ latest incarnation on Mercer Street is one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in the city. Though the regular menu is priced a bit high, the Winterlicious version, at $45 per person for dinner, offers decent value. The menu is meant to be shared between two diners, and includes miso-marinated striped bass, wagyu beef rice, sushi and sashimi, among other choices. Don’t expect the usual stuff; chef Guy Rubino lives to make food more interesting, more complex and better tasting than it sounds, and the sushi, though great, can be a little whack. The cocktails are weird and wonderful and will quickly run up your bill.
Auberge du Pommier
This is easily one of the most romantic restaurants in the city, all crystal and linen polish set in a 150-year-old woodcutter’s cabin. The kitchen is French and fancy, but with a good measure of Canadian-style worldliness for balance. We’re betting on the $45 dinner menu, which looks like excellent value. Choices include Wellington County beef au poivre over a butternut squash, pearl barley and sunchoke ragoût, coq au vin and warm spice cake with crème anglaise and armagnac-soaked prunes.
Oliver and Bonacini’s classic downtown bistro can be easy to forget, as it’s been open for nearly a decade, and its Front and Yonge location isn’t as trendy as Ossington or Harbord. Still, it’s one of the best bistros in the city: solid and welcoming, with excellent, always-from-scratch cooking (they make their own pickles, bread and mustards) and an Old World charm that manages to sidestep the usual bistro insidiousness all the same. The Winterlicious menus—$20 for lunch, $35 for dinner—look very good; dinner choices include rabbit rillettes with that house mustard and mulled prunes, gâteau de poisson, braised pork belly with choucroute and apple gastrique, and medjool date cake with toffee sauce and lemon chantilly. The steak frites from Biff’s regular menu is excellent; the Winterlicious version should be good if they don’t dumb it down for the cheaper price.