Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Relaunch of Mercer Kitchen, Beer Hall, Hotel in Stratford


Photos by Terry Manzo Used by Permission 

The recently relaunched Mercer Hall has changed its name to Mercer Kitchen, Beer Hall, Hotel. Mercer bills itself as a one-stop location to explore the world of craft beer and one of the best beer bars in Ontario. They offer fifteen draft lines, Stratford’s only cask engine, and have crafted a rotating list of over 120 brands including international award-winners, and hard to find one-offs that rotate very quickly. Over half the bottles are Ontario brews. 

Alex Kastner, Director of Food and Beverage, at both Mercer Hall and The Prune Restaurant,  started his career in 2005, as a runner at the former Church Restaurant. He has his finger firmly placed on the Stratford culinary pulse. “There are so many Stratford restaurants that have excellent wine lists,” says Kastner, “Yet there was no one in Stratford who really tapped into the pulse of the craft beer movement in Ontario. There really is something for everyone when it comes to drinking beer.” 

The interior of the restaurant has been refurbished to project a casual more accessible ambiance. Katner has added some communal tables that they hope will help foster a sense of community and conviviality. In a conscious decision to eliminate any trappings of fine dining the service staff now wear jeans and custom t-shirts.

Kastner said, "They decided to get away from the prix fixe menu that they felt ticked the locals off. The prix fixe menu is a Stratford tradition." It is an arrangement that is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where dining theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously and later, there is a lull and the menu offerings become less restrictive. The new vision is a focused effort to make the restaurant more accessible in terms of food and drink. They want the locals to feel welcome year round.

The casual brasserie-style ambiance is essentially inspired by the izakaya, the informal Japanese beer pubs that Chef Ryan O’Donnell encountered during his travels in Japan.
Chef’s collaborative well thought out menus feature items that are meant to be shared communally and are perfect for the lively, dynamic atmosphere. “We wanted to create an experience that can be tailored to a variety of experiences,” says O’Donnell. The all-day menu is divided into categories: fresh salads, small plates, medium plates, substantials, fried chicken & wings, sides, burgers & bowls and desserts.

O’Donnell’s cuisine finds its roots in Stratford foraged cuisine and fine dining and he is known for incorporating Ontario ingredients into cultural dishes. The new 40 plus item menu (which includes some interesting sides and condiments) has Asian culinary influences and underpinnings. Featured items change often to reflect local and seasonal ingredients.

Some interesting cultural interpretations include Mercer’s Tonkatsu pork schnitzel coated in panko breadcrumbs; chicken karrage (Japanese-style fried chicken) with lemon togarashi mayo; improbably delicious steamed pork buns with spicy aioli, cilantro pickled onions, carrots ribbons and lime; and spätzle ramen with braised pork belly and soy egg. Barbecued pulled pork rice bowl with kimchi sauerkraut; and grilled whole sardine with scallions and wasabi mustard.

There are also pig tails with chili potato salad, in homage to the Huron-Perth Germanic heritage with buttered biscuits and baked beans.

Pastry chef Simon Briggs who is an instructor alongside O’Donnell at Stratford Chefs School is also part of the high functioning 18 member kitchen team. Chocolate ice cream with dehydrated chocolate cake, chocolate sauce, salted coco nibs and seabuckthorn berries is a current dessert offering.

Comfortable, cosmopolitan guest rooms that have had a recent face-lift are located above the restaurant.The restaurant is a member of the Feast ON program that has helped to identify culinary champions committed to showcasing Ontario grown and produced food and drink.

From local heritage pork to boasting ethically-farmed or sustainable line-caught West coast seafood they support farmers, fishermen and artisans in Perth County and across Canada.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Solo on Main is Port Stanley's New Hot Spot


Solo on Main is a family run business with chef Lauren Van Dixhoorn at the helm, twin brother Paul on the bar and working the floor, and their sister Lyndsay, handling the restaurant’s business affairs. Port Stanley's new culinary hot spot is located in the heritage home previously occupied by the former Mickey’s Boathouse. 

In seasonable weather there is a beautifully appointed patio and front porch that offers alfresco seating and great harbour views. Inside, there is a smart walnut bar in the lounge which is topped with quartz and has comfortable seats. The tasteful white linen dining room with its original hardwood floors is decorated in warm gray tones.

The cooking at Solo on Main is refined and the presentation modern and accessible. Van Dixhoorn and sous chef Brooke Cowitz are both alumnus of Niagara College's Canadian Food and Wine Institute in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The pair worked together later at Queen’s Landing.

The steelhead smoked trout frites are inspired with scallions, crème fraiche, crispy shallots and Guinness hollandaise - a fresh take on poutine. The classic bones and toast is roasted marrow bone with salt chimichurri and garlic rubbed bread.

Grilled calamari with pickled chili, fried garlic, chopped peanuts and soy caramel was delicious but the kitchen had challenges keeping the dish warm so they changed it. In its latest incarnation the calamari is being served puttanesca-style made up of anchovies, garlic, capers, tomatoes and chili peppers with preserved lemon and black olives.

There is a modern Italian flavour to the "Solo and Share Plates" menu, which is available all day, offering items like Nduja (spreadable pork sausage) crostini, ricotta and wild leek agnolotti (now out of season and replaced with a house-made pappardelle dish), mozzarella arancini and a daily risotto. At lunch there is also a breaded and deep fried provolone sandwich.

The evening menu  features roast chicken, flank steak with chimichurri, and pan roasted tenderloin with shallot anchovy compound butter. There is battered or pan-fried pickerel and perch available at lunch and dinner.

The white wine list has 5 Ontario offerings but the red wine list is bereft of VQA’s or local wineries, but with several good American choices on hand. There are 4 craft beers, a cider, 2 drafts and several bottled beers to choose from.

These are very early days. The fledgling restaurant opened in mid-May and is showing tremendous potential as a culinary destination. 

187 Main St. Port Stanley, 226 658 0999

Tues-Sun  11-11pm  

Chef Alfred Estephan is Looking Forward to Going Back to his Roots at Revive Kitchen in Soho


 “A peoples’ chef and you can often see Estephan mingling with his guests when he’s not orchestrating his kitchen,” says Lynn Orgryzlo of The Ontario Table.

The new Revive Kitchen features a menu whose mantra is local, farm-to-table and organic. The farm-to-table ethos is an essential mandate for Revive Kitchen. 

Alfred Estephan, formally the Executive Chef of Sunningdale Golf and Country Club, The Hilton, The London Club, The Idlewyld Inn and Director of Operations for Paramount Foods, is also respected hospitality consultant. Estephan has built a new bistro/bar/café in the space occupied by Organic Works Cafe, on Wellington Road just south of York Street.

Having emigrated from Lebanon to Canada with his family at the age of 10, Estephan has spent most of his life in the London, Ontario area. At the age of 15, Estephan began his culinary career by washing pots and pans at the Holiday Inn. Chef’s culinary studies began at Fanshawe College where he was one of the first students to go through the apprenticeship program under the guidance of Chef Volker Jendhoff.
Chef Ashton Gillespie has joined Estephan in the kitchen. Revive Kitchen opened in mid-June and includes a smartly appointed dining room, café, fresh juice/smoothie bar and a retail area that sells specialty bakery products and other quality products.

Chef Alfred Estephan’s’ passion for food translates into innovative cuisine that showcases local, seasonal and exceptional ingredients for discerning diners. With over 30 years of professional experience, there is not much that chef Estephan hasn’t seen in a kitchen. His unique and creative approach to cuisine has been rewarded with 25 culinary competition medals and a loyal following of well-fed clients. Chef is also credited with the training and mentoring of many local chefs. In this new venue, Estephan gets to display his culinary creativity in a truly unique setting whilst supporting local producers and farmers. The chefs like to highlight and feature products and ingredients that are locally conceived, locally controlled and as rich in local content as the distinctive countryside and time-honoured ways of preparing them.

Chef Ashton Gillespie

Chef Ashton Gillespie is originally from London, Ontario and has cooked professionally on the east coast of Canada. Chef is a Fanshawe alumnus with a long stint at The Only on King (TOOK) and shorter stretches at North Moore Catering, and the now defunct Splendido. A stint at Yours Truly in Toronto, gave Gillespie an insight into the Korean and Chinese culinary canon and you can see evidence of this influence when he fuses unexpected ingredients into his cooking.

 Gillespie is a self-proclaimed vegetable enthusiast who likes to spend his free time foraging for wild ingredients. You can find him in the Revive Kitchen testing out innovative ideas and introducing local ingredients onto your plate.

Revive Kitchen

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with offerings ranging from fresh baked croissants to brioche, as well as a full range of breakfast entrees which will be made using farm fresh eggs, house-made bacon, freshly squeezed juices and health conscious smoothies. Lunch and dinner will offer even a wider range of locally sourced meats, poultry and fish.

Over the years Estephan has been involved with many community initiatives and charitable organizations and intends to continue that tradition at Revive Kitchen.

Note: Organic Works Bakery

Organic Works Bakery operated by Peter Cuddy continues to work out of the building in the underground kitchen. Putting the bakery underground was more good fortune than scientific research. The bakery is practically hermetically sealed and when combined with seven tons of air forced through the room it makes an excellent environment for leavening breads. Cuddy continues to build the reputation of Organic Works Bakery with everyday favourites like Nanaimo bars and sugar-free scones, seasonal treats like tarts and fruit pies, made-to-order cakes and cookies and more. Your taste buds and tummies will be thrilled with the gluten-free, nut-free, vegan bakery treats.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What's New with Culinary Innovator and Food Entrepreneur Dave Cook

Culinary innovator and food entrepreneur Dave Cook continues to renovate the former Merv’s Variety at 874 Dundas Street. The revamped premises will be home to a restaurant, patio, craft beer pub and Fire Roasted Coffee offering. Cook is also establishing a food incubator in the 14,000-square-foot Somerville Building at 630 Dundas St. He is developing a shared space where culinary entrepreneurs can set up and grow, in much the same way vendors can get their start at his Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market at Western Fair.

In the first stage of this project Cook is creating space for small businesses incubation and food start-ups, a Fire Roasted Coffee café and roastery, and a grocery store. The grocery store is a joint initiative with ATN Access. This project was prompted by the need for a new roastery for Fire Roasted Coffee, which has outgrown its home at the Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Western Fair. The Somerville Building will have a large patio facing Dundas Street with food and drink offerings available.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Restaurant Ninety One: The Perfect Calibration of Seasonal Flavours

Windermere Manor’s refurbished Restaurant Ninety One (formerly Windermere Café) relaunched in late April. I attended the soft opening with one of my colleagues. It truly was an exceptional dinner. The dishes were innovative and prepared and presented with flair and keen attention to detail. It was the perfect calibration of seasonal flavours. Restaurant Ninety One is destined to be one of London's top restaurants.

Restaurant chef Angela Murphy and banquet chef Josh Blackwell and their culinary team build on a sustainable culinary philosophy and farm-to-table sensibility that showcase a selection of old favourites, signature ingredients, and innovative taste experiences that change to take advantage of the seasons using elements from their kitchen gardens and ingredients from local purveyors.

I will be writing more about Restaurant Ninety One in a future post.

Open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner & Sunday brunch. There is plenty of free parking. Reservations are recommended and private dining rooms can be arranged upon request.

Restaurant Ninety One

 519-858-1391 x20430

Glassroots – An Innovative Plant-based Food and Wine Revolution

After seven years in London, Veg Out chef/owner Florine Morrison announced that she would be closing Veg Out in April. Culinary stalwarts Yoda Olinyk and Mike Fish — associates of Morrison —announced in January they’ll be opening their new restaurant Glassroots in the premises at 646 Richmond St. after Veg Out closed.

Olinyk and  Fish’s recently opened Glassroots last month and are already taking the concept of “local” to a new level, sourcing everything from as close to home as possible. Olinyk and Fish know how to build community and have done so very effectively partially through their crowd funding initiative and social media channels.

With a newly renovated and intimate dining room, (tables are quite close) Glassroots is already becoming a high-energy hub for an innovative healthy food culture, and a haven for "local" wine lovers.  

The phone is ringing off the hook and reservations are heartily recommended. Olinyk and her culinary team mix local and seasonal, made from scratch food, with a warm and inviting ambiance and a friendly and authentic dining experience. Some menu items change weekly.

There is an inspired and innovative healthy food offering dedicated to healthy plant based cuisine, and an all-Canadian wine list. Yoda Olinyk is a Red Seal Chef, certified in plant-based nutrition and the brains behind the former very successful vegetarian catering company called Yoda’s Kitchen of St. Thomas. Yoda brings her expertise and repertoire as “the healthy chef” and  creates innovative, sometimes surprising, flavoursome creations.

Fish, her partner in life and work, is a certified sommelier, Canadian wine scholar and cocktail guru who brings years of professional experience and training in the wine industry to the table, with a goal to offer one of London’s best wine, craft beer and cocktail lists. The cocktails are fresh, seasonal and a spin on the classics. Try the refreshing Horse's Neck. This is the only restaurant in town that you can get Muscedere Vineyard Pinot Grigio from Lake Erie's North Shore. 

Glassroots is open for full service dinners Wednesday to Sunday. Glassroots also features a Sunday brunch and a healthy, vegan, take-away lunch throughout the week. The restaurant is available for wine workshops, tasting events, fundraisers and more. There is a charming 14 seat elevated patio facing Richmond Street.

Glassroots Restaurant

646 Richmond St, London, ON


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

On the Road to Jonathan Gushue's The Berlin in Kitchener



A recent road trip consisting of a meandering but scenic drive through Oxford County, Punkeydoodles Corners, Kitchener-Waterloo and the towns and hamlets in and around the Grand River, would eventually bring us to Paris, Ontario, for a two day reunion with long-time friends from London, Toronto and Parkhill.

We were looking for a new and top-notch culinary experience, and had been anticipating chef Jonathan Gushue`s return to the culinary scene. Our host/organizer made reservations at The Berlin in Kitchener, well in advance. The Berlin was already making a name for itself as a culinary destination. It was a given that we would be dining there. Jonathan Gushue is the Newfoundland-born chef who was instrumental in Cambridge`s Langdon Hall receiving a coveted Five Diamond Award, and also being named the 77th best restaurant in the world on the S. Pellegrino list several years ago.

The Berlin, which opened late last December, is named in homage to Kitchener-Waterloo’s German heritage (although the original settlers were not directly German but Mennonites from Pennsylvania). It is a partnership between Gushue and restaurateur Ryan Lloyd-Craig.

The restaurant is positioned to benefit from Kitchener-Waterloo`s thriving tech community, new condo developments and the revitalized downtown`s pedestrian-friendly urban vibe. Beginning in 2004, the City of Kitchener launched several initiatives to galvanize the downtown core. New lighting was added to the streets, sidewalks were enlarged, and curbs were lowered. The landmark Walper Hotel, two doors down from The Berlin, is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar rejuvenation and is being heralded as a unique, resolutely modern boutique experience combining the finest in contemporary building technology with the best of the hotel's historic features.

At The Berlin, we were greeted by a friendly server and seated at a large round table near the back of the restaurant and at the foot of the stairs leading to the elevated kitchen. I had an unobstructed view of the open-kitchen with its counter-side seating, the wood-fired grill and a denuded living herb wall.

We ordered a round of Kir de Crème with Nicholas Pearce Brut, Cassis and Earl Grey punch. The drinks were served in elegant long-stemmed champagne coupes and garnished with candied basil leaves.

The tables are unencumbered except for a vase of fresh flowers. The tables are well-spaced and comfy banquettes run along the wall.  

The interior appears to have been stripped down to emphasize the frame and raw personality of the building. The space is sizeable and has a décor of exposed bricks and concrete with reclaimed maple slats and soaring 20-foot ceilings that give it a modern rural sensibility.

Gushue and Lloyd-Craig spent eight months refurbishing and reclaiming the Renaissance-Revival architectural character of the building to create an 85-seat street-level dining room (120 guests for cocktails) with a central bar and an elevated open-kitchen that is the focal point of the room. The staircase in the middle of the restaurant leads to the second floor, where there are two rooms for private dining and receptions. Such work is not for shallow pockets.

The service is casual and unobtrusive and not in the least fussy or over-polished, the vibe is laid back and hipster-centric bordering on perfunctory. There is a mix of well-dressed and casually attired patrons.

This is not fine dining in its truest form. This is modern dining. Newer restaurant models are dispensing with everything that is unessential and entrenched about patrons’ dining perceptions. The guiding ideals are millennially-aligned — minimalist, accessible, self-assured and propelled forward with culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity. Millennials and the millennially-aligned are an adventurous group, characterized as trendsetters, thrill seekers, experientialists and restaurant explorers.

The Berlin’s concept is self-evident. Less selection heightened quality, kitchen proficiency, faster service, and hotter food. Not to mention accessible prices, lower over-head and a larger profit centre.

We have high expectations and are looking to be wowed. We are aware that The Berlin will be a real departure from Gushue’s oeuvre at Langdon Hall. The food is both simple and adventurous in its inspirations and contemporary in its sensibility and implementation. The ingredient-driven menus are compact and change twice daily. There are five appetizers and five entrées on offer. Our questions are answered in detail and intelligently by our server. A few of my fellow diners find the menu a tad too restrictive for their tastes.

The menu is built around the day’s harvests and driven by whatever the region`s many farmers and purveyors have on offer on any given day. Gushue has termed The Berlin’s cuisine as “modern European, with a nod to the classics.”

Kempton Munshaw, formerly of Toronto`s Chase, and listed by Zagat as one of the ``9 secret weapons behind Toronto`s top restaurants`` last year, is The Berlin’s sous chef. The sommelier is Wes Klassen.

There is simplicity to the cooking of the nine-member culinary brigade. At the heart of the kitchen is the cult-favourite five-foot wood-burning grill by Grillworks Inc., which is taking the restaurant industry by storm. At its most rudimentary, a Grillworks grill is a self-supporting stainless steel wood-fired grill with a surface made of V-shaped slates that are slanted downward to guide run-off fat and juices into a basting pan rather than onto the coals. A crank wheel regulates the height of the grill surface over the coals, while a fire cage holds most of the heat behind the surface. Speaking about the wood-burning grill, Dan Barber, owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says, “We’re constantly challenged to use it to its full advantage, which makes it less like a tool than a source of inspiration.” It’s up to the griller to decide when and how to rake the hot coals underneath the meat.

The grass-fed “pasture” burger has the taste of both fat and fire and is served on a shiny milk bun with sharp vintage Cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, aioli and excellent hand-cut fries. Picture an endive and caramelized onion salad with a soft boiled duck egg and grilled smoky pork belly that has great crackle and flavour. More revealing yet is a thin slab of smoked pickerel terrine with baby greens tossed in red onion vinaigrette. Grilled and tender skin-on rainbow trout with mushrooms and leek stew is both delicate and hearty. Grilled marinated duck fillets, white cabbage and apple slaw, goat cheese and watercress are a contrast in texture and flavours.

They churn their own butter, bake the restaurant`s breads as well as curing their own meat. There is a meat locker in the basement where Gushue butchers whole animals. Dessert offerings include burnt lemon curd with goat yogurt ice cream and salted chocolate crumble, caramelized barley and vanilla pudding with poached kumquat, blood orange and lemon tea custard, and granny smith apple sorbet with ginger beer.

Gushue, Munshaw and Lloyd-Craig share an ethical and sustainable culinary philosophy, attentively caring about the provenance of their food and how it is grown or raised. Gushue shapes a formative, season-based and from scratch, farm-to-table dining experience that is both accessible and fresh.
The Berlin

45 King Street West, Kitchener