A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
For over a century, Casa Loma stood as a monument to Sir Henry Mill Pellatt, who dared to dream too big. In that time this Gothic Revival castle has served as everything from a secret sonar facility to sought-after film location; and luxury hotel to coveted event space and top Toronto tourism attraction. Nick and Pat Di Donato of Liberty Entertainment Group had big dreams too. They fulfilled the destiny of this lonely castle by restoring it to its original grandeur, and going above and beyond by opening BlueBlood Steakhouse. “The heart of a home is the kitchen,” mama said. And she was right. Now, Casa Loma is alive every evening with guests enjoying food, drink and good company worthy of a castle.
Sara Waxman: Anticipation builds as we drive up the escarpment, into the massive walled property and see the castle bathed in light. The walkway to the BlueBlood front door, guarded by two ferocious pink marble lions, leads us into an impressive foyer. At the entrance to the Oak Room, we stop to admire (and touch) the Salvatore Dali Surrealist Angel. Comfortable in a deeply tufted, fine leather booth, with brown and white cowhide covering the outside, it makes me think the originator of the deeply tufted sofa, the Earl of Chesterfield, would have approved of this fusion of styles. We love the unique antler chandeliers and the golden glow they cast. The whimsical message of portraits of The Queen at one end and Prince at the other is not lost on us. Clearly the avante garde has bumped into tradition and they have become soul mates. The Oak Room and the Lounge with its massive bar and display of seafood on ice, (once the Billiard Room and Smoking Room) are all conceived by designer Nadia Di Donato. She has created a thrilling environment for dining in another dimension.
Adam Waxman: When I think of Casa Loma, I think of my childhood and paying a $2 bill entrance fee on a field trip from day camp. I think of your first cookbook, The King’s Wife’s Cook Book, when you and Dad posed in front of the castle for that gorgeous cover photo. This was an attraction that has always been a fixture of Toronto, and yet… it was an empty castle. Soulless. It overlooked the whole city, waiting. Now, it has entered a renaissance. From Summer Symphonies and High Tea, to Halloween Legends of Horror, Winter Family Games and Escape Rooms, this is a castle with a pulse. A destination. It is so perfectly suited to a unique dining experience. Each room has a different ambience. In the Billiards Room, I forget what city and country I’m in—it could be a Spanish castle, it could be a Banff lodge. The Smoking Room and Oak Room are warm and lush, more elegant than steak houses of yesteryear. The artwork, Dali and Warhol, is anachronistic and punctuates the ambience with a sense of irreverence that sweeps away any idea of stuffiness.
SW: A server, who remembers me from a previous restaurant, has brought me a velvet cushion from the Pellatt bedroom to place behind my back for more comfort.
AW: Glassware is etched and steak knives are stamped with the BlueBlood motif. Even the fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread is branded. Rich pecan and herb butter and a bottle of truffle oil accompany warm bread and lavash crackers, sprinkled with chili and sesame seeds. I have to pace myself. Our server provides the wine menu in a tablet. It’s a deep catalogue of every category from cocktails to spirits, and all the wine regions to explore. This is actually fun for me, and I can make a more informed selection.
SW: The proof, however, is in the proverbial pudding. Can the kitchen possibly live up to the expectations set by this dining room? Tableside prep, a must in the fine dining rooms of the 50s, has made a comeback and it bookends our dinner. Caesar salad is a private interactive performance. Our server wheels over his ingredient-laden cart and describes each item as he whisks up Caesar dressing in a huge wooden bowl. He asks our preferences and dutifully begins his composition, adding in crisp Romaine, white anchovies and croutons baked to crunchiness with Wagyu fat. Now, the crowning glory: he grates Parmiggiano Reggiano over each serving until an extravagant snow cone forms. As he customizes our salad, we are so mesmerized by his diligence, that we forget to say, “Stop!”
AW: This Caesar salad is the best in the city. Refreshing, sharp, creamy, crunchy, all the elements I love. I can’t help notice what other tables have ordered too. I’ve never seen such a beautifully marbled Wagyu Carpaccio. The Shrimp Cocktail of tiger prawns appears with magical effect through a cloud of dry ice. And, the Seafood Tower of king crab, lobster, jumbo prawns, oysters, and salmon crudo is the height of indulgence befitting the blue blood nobility of the castle. I’ve ordered the French onion soup, and it is savoury and richly textured with caramelized onions. However, I had expected the traditional crust of cheese bubbling over the rim. Without that, the croutons and sprinkling of cheese in the broth seem like an after thought. It needs that texture to balance out the wonderful depth of flavour of the soup.
SW: Each dish is generous enough to share, and I do so happily. To its merit a generous portion of Australian rack of lamb is lovingly encrusted with pistachio, maple and Pommery mustard, which elevates its flavour profile. And succulent bone-on Provimi veal chop has been handled with care, and snatched from the grill at its peak of luscious, medium rare perfection.
AW: For enthusiasts, this steak menu is exciting for its variety of options: American beef from Nebraska, Kansas and Mishima Reserve farms; Canada Beef from Alberta, Ontario, PEI and New Brunswick; as well as Australian beef. Wagyu from Kagoshima and Washugyu from Australia and the US are also offered. I’m one who likes to go out with a few friends, order the same cut from different breeds, and compare. So, which ones should we select tonight? Our waiter is like a beef encyclopedia. He dazzles us with his knowledge of different feeds and recommended temperatures—even suggesting between wet-aged and dry-aged for the Tomahawk steak (both options are available.) I am impressed. We choose a bone-in centre cut striploin from Green Bay, Prince Edward Island, and a filet mignon of American Mishima Reserve. The Chef de Grille cooks on an infrared charbroiler and then finishes in the oven. We prefer more char, and ask for a straight cook on the grill. The beef is under-seasoned by design to encourage us to first savour the quality of the beef without any additives, and to then sample boutique salts like Himalayan pink salt; smoked Malden salt from Essex, UK; and a charcoal-infused lava salt from Spain. The latter perfectly enhances the robustness of the beef and its brittle texture complements the softness. This is the best of Canada Beef, refined and lean, with a juicy beefy taste. We can almost taste the iron-rich soil and rolling pastures of PEI. The Mishima Reserve has a gentle marbling and delicate tenderness reminiscent of its Japanese lineage, but with a more savoury beefy flavour from its Black Angus lineage.
SW: Sides fill every inch of the table. Pairing them with the steak has a similar effect to a wine pairing in influencing the overall flavour profile. Hand-foraged woodland mushrooms and the crunch of duck fat hand-cut Kennebec fries heighten the earthiness of the beef.
AW: The gnocchi, luxuriating in Gorgonzola, is so rich I could eat this on its own, but pairing with the steak is truly decadent. Could there possibly be room for dessert?
SW: Hard decisions: shall we enjoy the table-side pyrotechnics of Crepe Suzette or Baked Alaska? We are seduced by a profiterole. All things to all people, this chocolate dome hides house-made hazelnut ice cream encased in choux pastry with assorted berries until revealed by a warm chocolate sauce pour-over.
AW: Just when we feel we’ve had the full monty, there is one more surprise. A wooden treasure chest full of hand made chocolates. Sir Pellatt never had it so good!
~BlueBlood Steakhouse, 1 Austin Terrace, 416-353-4647~
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.