Fall is one of the best times of year to eat out. Summer cooking, with its reliance on the grill and market-fresh produce, is all about simplicity. Things get more interesting as the days get shorter; autumn is when chefs really show their creative chops.
As many restaurant kitchens are busily canning and preserving the last of summer's finest, expect to see pickled everything garnishing plates. Nearly every chef we talked to rhapsodized on the full rich flavours of game, and they will be preparing it every which way from ragus to ravioli.
Chefs are not ignoring the rest of the plate either, experimenting with vegetables that are usually afterthoughts and teasing out unexpected tastes and textures.
Here is what some of top chefs will be serving up this fall.
Raymonds, St. John's
Fall is chef Jeremy Charles's favourite time to cook, and it's no coincidence that it's also hunting season in Newfoundland. "Moose, partridge, grouse, rabbit, duck. We have a plethora of wild game on the go, which is super-exciting for me. There's just so much flavour there," he says.
One dish he can't wait to get on the menu is moose ravioli. He braises the shoulder, blends it with mashed potato and sauces the pasta with a jus mirepoix and fresh herbs.
Charles is a local boy and it's his commitment to Newfoundland ingredients and the reinvention of traditional dishes – check out his agnolotti stuffed with Jiggs' dinner (pickled salt beef) and served with pan-seared cod and smoked ham hock – that earned the unabashed fine-dining Raymonds the top spot on enRoute's list of best new restaurants last year.
Nora Gray, Montreal
Chef Emma Cardarelli is on a mission to show Montreal what real Italian food is: light and full of punchy Southern Italian flavours. Her just-launched fall menu features last year's hit of wild mushroom cavatelli. "It's pretty chewy and the sauce gets all inside and it's like a flavour explosion," Cardarelli says.
Having grilled all summer long, she is looking forward to braising as temperatures drop, her choice meat being oxtail paired with pumpkin gnocchi.
Of late, Cardarelli has been experimenting with making pasta from the ancient farro flour, and is going to try out a farro bucatini with a ragu of duck confit. "I always like to serve duck in the fall because it's a super-hardy, warming kind of meat," she says.
Pear is featured, grilled in a radicchio salad with fontina cheese and poached in the zuppa inglese dessert.
Yours Truly, Toronto
The fluctuating 15-to-20 course Carte Blanche tasting menu lets the kitchen have fun with whatever is freshest on the day.
Right now, chef Jeff Claudio is inspired by the cornucopia of potato varietals. "They're cool, a lot denser right now, and the starch is different," he says. The lowly potato gets transformed in a single dish: mashed Yukon golds, roasted fingerlings and purple potato chips, all sauced with fresh milk and melted butter.
Like an obsessive fan, Claudio rhymes off squashes – butternut, acorn, spaghetti, kabocha – that he loves to showcase simply on the plate, roasting some, pickling others and dehydrating some into chips.
Chef Claudio Aprile thinks that it's about time people showed the cauliflower some love. He set out rehabilitate the crucifer by searching for its sweet spot. "I'm excited about that point just before it burns where ingredients really showcase their depth of flavour," he says. After roasting it for six hours at a low temperature and accented with Moroccan spices, he serves it with pickled and puréed cauliflower, and paper-like sheets of chickpea crackers.
He is trying this "beyond caramelization" with pumpkin too.
While Aprile loves apples, he thinks that the shortage in Ontario is a good thing. "It's a wake-up call to appreciate the ingredients we have."
With this in mind, he uses only the peel of Granny Smith apples to make "the most vibrant, bright apple sorbet that you can experience."
CHARCUT Roast House, Calgary
Co-chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa love the fall, but it's also hard work as they can and preserve 3,000 jars of the harvest's bounty, including saturn peaches with vanilla and oxheart plum jam with pecans.
In a city of steakhouses, CHARCUT is a nose-to-tail meat joint that does not ignore the fruit and veg. Jackson is particularly excited about the leeks, squash and kohlrabi they are getting from The Jungle Farm, one of their local suppliers. Kohlrabi stars in one of his side dishes, braised in butter and topped with breadcrumbs and a farm-fresh egg yolk.
DeSousa, who is famous for her apple butter, which is stewed for 18 hours, applies this long and slow technique in an apple butter tart topped with goat's milk gelato.
Chef David Hawksworth's take on contemporary Canadian cuisine is crunchy, spicy, fresh. "I want to feel refreshed with a meal," he says.
He finds inspiration everywhere: a Sunday dim sum joint, an upcoming research trip to New York and whatever is fresh each week.
Right now, Hawksworth is excited about the upcoming indigenous pine mushroom. He is working up some different dishes, but he likes to keep it simple. One idea involves slicing it thinly on a Japanese mandolin, tossing it in a salad and serving it on top of venison carpaccio. While he has not locked down the other ingredients, that is the direction of the plate, he says. "Nice and light and a condiment with some zip to it."
Stone Soup Inn, Lake Cowichan, B.C.
One benefit of giving up high-end kitchens for the secluded life of Vancouver Island is that you do not have to go far for mushrooms. "I'm up here in the forest and the mushroom patches are just steps from the kitchen," chef Brock Windsor says.
Expect to see mushrooms on his surprise five-course tasting menu in simple soups or sautés, trying to get the individual flavour of each variety.
The fall highlight will be pairing them with lamb. Windsor breaks down the whole carcass himself, braising the tough cuts and roasting the tender ones.
And he can't get enough of pears at the moment. "Pears are such a sexy fruit, really versatile. Raw, poached, cooked, roasted, the pear has such a delightful sweetness and acid rolled into one, sweet or savoury," Windsor says.
Pears are sweet, poached with lemon verbena on top of a tarte tatin crust and finished with grand-fir- scented ice cream and huckleberries stewed in honey.
Pears: Sugary and acidic, pears can be sweet or savoury, used raw or cooked. The most versatile ingredient of fall is showing up in salads and poached in desserts.
Wild mushrooms: The varietals are endless for salads, soups and stews.
Squashes and pumpkins: Chefs are discovering new flavours in these fall stalwarts by pickling and taking the gourds beyond caramelization.
Apples: Granny Smith rivals the pear's diversity, showing up in sorbets and lending its bite to nori rolls.
Game: Duck is the winner, but moose makes an appearance on menus. You can't go wrong with braising it.