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Rostra rating: 4.5
Unlike most luxury train voyages, which are essentially rail cruises for well-heeled tourists, Via Rail’s Canadian provides genuine luxury for travelers on a year-round scheduled route between Vancouver and Toronto. Team Mago was surprised and delighted to find that Via’s Prestige class lived up to the hype and then some. With Amtrak’s cost-cutting regime continuing to erode its mediocre-at-best service (see Amtrak Can Suck, But Not Nearly as Bad as Flying) and European night trains (see Night Trains I Have Known) in even worse shape due to their virtual replacement by daytime high speed rail expansion, it is nice to know that genuine luxury train travel is still an option for those who think that the journey is every bit as important at the destination.
MagoGuide has travelled by train extensively in North America and Europe, to include a run on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Venice, but the 4,466 kilometer journey through the Canadian Cascades and Rockies and thence across the great Canadian plains and lake country beat them all hands down for beauty and diversity.
Technically, the Canadian has sixty stops, but fifty-five are on request only. There are 8 stops between Vancouver and Toronto, however, that last from half an hour to almost two hours. All offer a nice chance for walking and stretching, while some—the hour and a half at Jasper in particular—actually enhance the trip.
There are a lot of cars on the Canadian, and they are ordered in reverse Snow Piercer fashion—that is to say cost of travel decreases as one moves toward the engine. In and of itself, this makes for more fun than usual in walking the length of the train, which is actually possible at most times due to the smooth ride provided by the far superior Canadian trackage vis-à-vis Amtrak. Along the way, one encounters old fashioned sleeping berths I had not seen outside movies, sleeping compartments for one, two, or three passengers as well as coach seating, three observation cars, two bars, and a dining car.
If you are going to spend four nights and three days on a train, your cabin needs to be big and comfortable. The Prestige bedroom delivers. A queen-size murphy bed is the centerpiece of this very modern cabin. Unlike being sentenced to the evil claustrophobic bunkage that infects night trains worldwide, one actually wants to linger in bed with a picture window at one’s feet.
The bathroom comes in a close second in the Prestige cabin sweepstakes. Most bathrooms in train cabins are showers with additional functions, which means that everything is wet all the time after it is first used. On the Canadian, the sink/toilet area is completely separate from the shower itself, which is commodious by any train standards that Team Mago is aware of.
The rest of the wood paneled cabin is tricked out with a daytime L-shaped couch and seat combo set up around a pivoting coffee table. This arrangement allowed two full-sized adults to conduct our daily stretching routines together (again aided by the superior quality of the Canadian track system, even though the terrain was clearly more difficult than any Amtrak route we have undertaken). A flat screen entertainment system (plenty of DVDs available from the concierge) along with a well-stocked mini-bar also helped pass the time between feedings, walkies, and playtime in the Prestige Park car (see below).
The dining car subtly kicks the stuffing out of Amtrak’s deteriorating stock of cramped, dingy, and often dirty eating venues. The Canadian’s dining car is larger with bigger and cleaner windows, newer carpeting, and real chairs—you know those things that you sit in which can be moved around, as opposed to stationary bench booths with minimal distance allowed between diner and table and room for about one and a half real people to a side? Then there are the elegant art deco sconces and a bit of nice etched glass at either end of the car. The tables are nicely appointed with white table linen, good cutlery, and Noritake china. Even before one considers the cuisine on offer, the Canadian’s dining space promises a far better experience than Amtrak.
Premier class comes with unrestricted access to the Prestige Park car, which is a bullet shaped caboose with well appointed bar and lounge below (aptly named the Bullet Lounge) and a glass-domed viewing gallery above. This car allows the traveler to sit alone amidst nature’s splendor (noise cancellation headphones recommended for full effect) listening to music or books in a state as close to travel zen as mere mortals can approach; or to while away the time in convivial interaction with other passengers (lubrication via the bar’s extensive holdings recommended for full effect).
You cannot have luxury travel without great staff. Each prestige sleeper cabin has an assigned concierge. Yoan was more like a best friend on retainer than a butler, but in reality he was just our main interface with the concierge team that took care of us. Martin, Francoise, and Alain were always ready to help on the few occasions when Yoan was taking care of someone else. There was even a concierge trainee named Joe, but I would never have known he was a newbie if I had not been so informed by Yoan. From breakfast in bed (another reason to hang out in your cabin in the mornings) to drinkies and nibbles at five through to turn down while Team Mago had a night cap or three in the Bullet Lounge, Yoan and company were superb professionals who were neither impersonal nor fawning. They absolutely made the trip.
Two other Via employees stood out on the trip. Sylvie ran the dining car with grace and efficiency. She might have come off a bit more Teutonic in demeanor than her Francophone colleagues, but she also had to juggle a lot more people in the course of her duties as well as liaise with the wait and kitchen staff. Due to her formidable administrative skills, Sylvie was often able to offer Prestige diners the option to dine sans companions at one of the nominal four-person tables–a welcome respite on a long rail journey, even for social animals like Team Mago.
MagoGuide is prepared to proclaim Chef Gilbert Leclerc a Canadian national treasure. I have had better food prepared on the Orient Express by a much larger kitchen team and with a far more generous budget, but in terms of consistency across a decent spectrum of dishes, I have never had a better culinary train experience.
The concierge team and Sylvie spoke of Chef Leclerc with respect and sorrow since his was closing in on a well-earned retirement. Team Mago actually ended up missing him sooner than his colleagues when the Francophone team was swapped out for the last twenty-four hours of the voyage. The service and particularly the food were not quite the same with the new team. In fact, they were quite competent and helpful, they just lacked that je ne sais quoi.
To their estimable credit, Team Anglophone were super efficient in dealing with the impact of a delayed arrival in Toronto. Let me juxtapose their response versus a decade plus of dealing with enroute Amtrak delays. On Amtrak the answer to any questions concerning estimated late arrival time, availability of connecting trains to one’s final destination, or relevant Amtrak policy concerning missed connections is some more or less polite variant of “sucks to be you.”
On our Via journey, two crew members set up a help desk in the Bullet Lounge and worked their cell phones continuously in order to keep passengers abreast of the actual arrival time and their revised onward connections. The train actually made up time over the last ten hours of the trip, allowing many passengers, including Team Mago, to make their original connections
Mago tip: even with Via, it is usually good to book at least a two hour cushion for connections when traveling overnight by train in North America.
Finally, one of our concierge team personally escorted us to our departure gate in order to make sure we made our very tight connection. Even more amazingly, our checked luggage made the connection as well.
Detailed notes for food and drink
Prestige class gets an amuse bouche before every dinner. My fave was a red pepper, carrot, and avocado puree. A very pretty presentation that tasted great for a train meal. The dining car menu changed with every lunch and dinner, while there was a different salad every night.
If you made it out of your bedroom car in time, breakfast was quite rewarding. You can get your eggs cooked any way you want. There are several healthy and tasty options in the form of fruit, granola, yogurt, or oatmeal for those who do not feel the need to eat like a lumberjack and then go back to one’s cabin for a nap prior to lunch.
Mago Tip: Prestige passengers can also dine hobbit fashion by ordering an early continental breakfast in bed and then hit the dining car toward the end of service for second breakfast.
The coffee is quite potable, better than the Princess Grill on the Queen Mary II, for example. My two stand out breakfast dishes were:
Omelet with mushrooms, green onions, and cheddar cheese: an old school French masterpiece, light, fluffy, excellent. Accompanying hash browns were a solid B.
Classic eggs Benedict – poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and Canadian back bacon served on an English muffin: totally on point with real hollandaise made that morning and eggs poached à la minute. Interestingly, this is the only dish on the Canadian that included Canadian bacon. Otherwise bacon was invariably streaky and cooked nice and crispy but never overdone.
The mid-day meal on the Canadian was hardly a soup or salad and sandwich afterthought. There were plenty of choices, many of them light and healthy (as well as tasty and crunchable precious):
Seared shrimp and scallop skewers served on a bed of lettuce with Saskatoon berry chutney: very good, fresh, and correctly cooked served on a bed of crisp fresh Mesclun and romaine lettuce.
Roasted pepper masala soup: a very decent, mildly spiced vegan curry soup that was better than any of the other soups we tried.
Salmon rose – Greenland turbot and Atlantic salmon cake wrapped in a thin salmon filet and garnished with leek and garlic butter: sort of a two fish croquette composed of salmon and halibut. The preparation had a good fish-to-filler ratio, but the accompanying balsamic reduction was too sweet for this dish and it pulled double duty as a salad dressing for the same meal. That proved to be a much better use, but the salad needed oil as well to dilute the syrupy reduction.
Bison burger – a Canadian bison patty garnished with lettuce and tomato served open-faced on a bun: a rare clunker. The meat was too finely ground, over cooked, and needed more cheese (there was but one thin wafer). The bun sucked, which is weird since all the other bread served on the train was quite decent.
Seared ahi with balsamic reduction: somewhere between B+ and A-. The fish was correctly cooked rare. Although the tuna could have been fresher, it was served on a train in the middle of the Canadian Rockies after all.
Pulled pork sandwich: decent pig, a bit sweet, bun = meh?
We actually looked forward to dinners on the Canadian. Chef Leclerc’s attention to detail always paid off handsomely during the evening meal. For example, the dinner rolls changed with every meal and were always served hot and crusty. Salads were invariably fresh and usually served with interesting dressings. Every veggie side was fresh, cooked slightly crisp, and correctly seasoned. Soups were generally good, although the tomato bisque could really have used a hit of decent Sherry.
Now think about that critique for a minute and try to square it with the Amtrak gastroverse—multiple soups, on a single train, to include a bisque? While team Mago has to tell it like it is no matter what venue we review, it is important to understand our criticism within its proper context. Such context must also be applied to the following dishes:
Duck beast marinated in a tangy ponzu sauce: crispy skin, but the meat was slightly overcooked (carry over cooking on a train has to be a bitch). The ponzu sauce was a nice change from the sweet sauces usually served with duck. Leclerc’s roasted taters were nicely cooked, but the (real) haricot vert stole the show.
Rack of lamb coated with a blend of Dijon mustard and bread crumbs, roasted to medium, and topped with a mint and balsamic vinegar-infused sauce: this was mature and (again) slightly over cooked, but the meat was properly rested. I am sure that I would have gotten a classic Gallic stink eye from Chef Leclerc, but in this case mint sauce would have elevated this dish given the age of the meat and its internal temperature at time of service. It should at least have been offered as an option.
Prime rib of beef – AAA Canadian beef, oven-roasted, and served with a rosemary demi-glace: cooked to medium as advertised. Once again the veggie sides were good, but the mashies were exemplary and the gravy did not disappoint in the least.
Pan-seared halibut served with a fresh fruit salsa: a bit overcooked to my taste, but the salsa helped. Disclaimer: I don’t like halibut in any prep, it is bland and boring unless the cheeks (and the cheeks alone) are deep-fried. Like Dover Sole, this fish is essentially an expensive platform for butter-based sauces.
Pan-fried Canadian pickerel (that would be Canadian for walleye) smothered in a creamy remoulade sauce made with mayonnaise, red onions, capers, dill, and lemon juice served with jasmine rice: the fish was perfectly pan-fried and the rice was good, making me wonder why Chef Leclerc did put this skill to use in more of his dishes. The dill sauce with red onions and capers was key to this preparation and the walleye stood up to it in a way halibut never could.
Veal chop rubbed with Cajun spices, served with a tomato-infused demi-glace: a culinary tragedy and Chef Leclerc’s only real misstep. The chop was real veal (as in you can’t ever get it in the US) but cooked dry–what a waste. The sauce was good but the taters a disappointing B-. Upon reflection I should have sent this dish back, if only to see how that would have worked out. I think I’ll turn that bug into a feature by riding the Canadian again, order the veal chop, and see what happens.
The one area where the Canadian repeatedly bested the Orient Express in terms of food was dessert. The classic haute cuisine last courses on the Orient Express all turned out to be exemplars of gastronomic over reach. Even with triple the staff, more galley space, and access to much higher end ingredients than Leclerc, the Orient Express could not pull off this semi-separate culinary discipline, because in the end we are still talking about cooking on a train with all the limitations that implies. Chef Leclerc’s desserts all came from the comfort food end of the spectrum, and, being well executed, were delicious.
Lemon mousse: light, citrusy, rich, excellent.
Chocolate brownie with ice vanilla cream: great brownie, chewy and chocolaty with light and dark layers as well as a mouse-like icing. The ice cream had been allowed to soften just to right consistency, nice touch Chef.
Carrot cake: very moist with visible bits of carrot and chunks of nuts; very nice coconut icing
Cheese cake: dense and decadent with a nice dark and crumbly crust.
Chocolate caramel torte: Duncan Heinz redux–light and creamy, definitely a triple, but some liqueur in the mix would have made it a home run.
Apple crumble: a very sturdy rendition of this classic dish, which could have used a touch more cinnamon in my humble opinion.
Cherry ice cream: rich and bingy (I do not care if it was not made on the train, it was damn good).
Cave Spring Vineyard, riesling, Ontario: while some rieslings can be very dry and age worthy, this one was not.
Union White, riesling, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc (kitchen sink blend, eh?), Ontario: off-dry would be the polite thing to say, but way too sweet is somewhat more accurate.
Pillitteri Estates 23, chardonnay,Ontario: very potable plonk. We drank a lot of this puppy. Nice forward fruit with just a touch of oak, great with fish or fowl.
Jackson-Triggs Black Label, merlot, British Columbia: quite drinkable, decent fruit/terroir mix. My favorite red of the journey.
Sandhill Estate, cabernet, merlot, British Columbia: fruity with medium hard tannins.
Konzelmann Estate Winery, baco noir, Ontario: lots of forward fruit, more Beaujolais than Burgundy.
Steller’s Jay method classique brut 2009, British Columbia: an excellent dry sparkler that tasted like cava cross-dressing as prosecco. This was our fave of the journey and Team Mago greedily drank the train out of their supply by night three (note to fellow passengers: sorry, but you snooze, you lose).
Final Mago Tip: Get to the station early. In either direction, there is no dinner service on the Canadian your first night out. However, Via gives Prestige travellers taxi vouchers to and from any restaurant you choose in either Toronto or Vancouver. So make your dinner reservations several days in advance and at an early enough hour to leave time to get back to the station, then enjoy a great meal along with subsidized transportation.