Thursday, January 29, 2015

Redux: A Reminiscence of My Culinary Life in 1,200 Words or Less



When I was a young teenager, our friends and family reacted like we were moving to Mars when we left Toronto to move to our cottage on Rice Lake. Our parents fulfilled a long-held dream when they purchased the cottage with a hilltop location and an acre of cedar forest backing on to the Ouse River. The site had previously been part of much larger farm acreage.

The cottage was a prefabricated shell with no amenities, in my unformed mind a zeitgeist in the back-to-the-earth spirit of the times, a handyman’s special that we idealized and had the potential to be transformed into our dream home.

At first, I thought we had landed in paradise, taking a cue from my parents who behaved like we had inherited heaven on earth. It was a convincing gambit that betrayed no hint of the hardships and sacrifices ahead. We briefly emulated the type of television family that enjoyed the solidarity of breaking bread together and took deep satisfaction from cooking meals over an open-fire in the moonlight.

Our parents purchased an old cast iron, wood-burning stove at a farm sale auction that had to be moved on a flat- bed pulled by a tractor. The stove was connected by a stove pipe to a temperamental flue that vented the smoke outside. The stove was both a heat source and cooker and would rarely burn unattended for more than a couple of hours. Gathering and chopping wood became a necessity that seemed to dominate our lives. If the embers were allowed to extinguish no amount of stoking, bellows work or fanning with a newspaper would resuscitate the fire.  It was on this volatile stove that I became a fledgling cook. I was most in my element in the kitchen or hunting and pecking on an ancient typewriter in my bedroom with a thesaurus by my side.

The experience of moving to our cottage was like going camping for an extended period of time. Like any make-believe, reality often crushes expectations. When the honeymoon was over, practicality took over, and after several months the “everything is awful” phase replaced our pioneering spirit. For a teenager accustomed to the independence of urban life and navigating a large city on transit the realization that we were isolated came as a culture shock, the effects delayed but inevitable.

At fourteen, I proved myself equal to stand a full days work. My first job was pumping gas and clerking at Heffernan’s, which was the only general store and one of few gas stations along a stretch of Highway 7 between Peterborough and the village of Norwood. Heffernan’s served a captive audience of hard-working farmers who purchased their weekly food stuffs and farming supplies as well as other passersby on route to small towns or the near north.  It was as a side-kick in the kitchen at the back of the store that I was indoctrinated into the art and science of baking and in retrospect this contributed to my life-long interest in cooking.

My formative years were spent managing the kitchens of the Keg and the Corkscrew chains, learning the business side of the industry when salad bars and steak and lobster were the very definition of middlebrow cuisine. Despite the lack of innovation in these kitchens I became an avid reader of cookbooks, the recipes were precise and I attempted to follow them to the letter.

In my early twenties, I was fortunate to have several mentors with a dedicated interest in gastronomy and was given the opportunity to work with talented chefs and restaurateurs all with difficult temperaments and strong skill sets that helped me develop a culinary backbone. My real education and passion for the culinary arts began while working at a series of French restaurants in Toronto that were bastions of haute cuisine.  The way I saw it, French seemed to be the only serious way to dine. Initially, I was an ardent student of regional French cuisine but after trips to Italy, I had to acknowledge that I was more inspired by regional Italian cooking and eventually I moved beyond France as my primary focus of interest.

As far as I can remember, travels in Europe and my introduction to food writers MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David were how my passion for food writing was incubated. In any case, it was Italy where I first encountered giant turtles fated for soup pots, wild game, a variety of unusual feathered birds and truffle hunting dogs. I enjoyed scouting the open-air food markets in Pisa and Florence and the Rialto market on Venice’s Canal Grande. The Italian market was my nirvana, with its abundant varieties of fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish, the night markets piled high with seasonal produce, fresh fungi and obscure local cheeses.

I was cooking at at a dinner club in Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, England, just as mad cow disease was evolving from a cryptic veterinary conundrum into an epidemic affecting 120,000 cattle. Speculation about mad cow’s relationship to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans had created a state of panic.  I realized that I had been naive to put my confidence in the perceived safety of our food chain. It was about this time that I became politicized about food security and began questioning our food and farming policies.

A decade later I was chosen as part of a contingent to partake in a culinary journey with seven Canadian chefs to the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. This was my first introduction to “Slow Food” and the movement to safeguard traditional regional specialties, time- honoured techniques and farm-to-table cuisine. It was on this trip that I had an epiphany about food boasting of regional authenticity and became a dedicated proponent of culinary tourism and Ontario's homegrown terroir.

In retrospect, I have had a rewarding career in the culinary arts and am gratified to be associated with establishing, owning or in partnership with many great restaurants that became a way of life but more importantly an ideology. More recently my involvement with the Western Fair Farmers` and Artisans` Market gave me a platform to lead and support innovative initiatives in the community during a transformational time. I have always felt that my true calling has been as a communicator. It has taken me many years to find my authentic voice.

It was not that long ago that we lacked dedicated local food media to report on the local food community. One of my goals is to continue to have  role in sustaining, mentoring and promoting talent and a vibrant culinary community.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Look Back at London's Food Truck Debacle


Here we go again. The London City Council is ready to revive the discussion on food trucks in London. As reported by the London Free Press Wednesday, city councilors are reviving the proposal the previous council rejected. Mayor Matt Brown and Councillor Josh Morgan are expected to be pro-food trucks and propose that city staff spend the next month reviving the plan with a view to launching a pilot program this summer. The request is expected to go to the Community and Protective Services Committee tonight.

Last year, the London Food Truck Pilot reignited debate and Community and Protective Services Committee  voted 5-0 to refer the food truck pilot proposal back to a special meeting. The issue has been a hotly debated for two years.  Among the more disappointing proposals was a recommended cap of 12 trucks and a lottery for licences.

City council eventually decided, by an 8-6 vote, not to permit food trucks on City of London streets. The unanticipated decision came after months of contentious debate, five reports, and three trips to council, two of which resulted in recommendations back for more information. The proposal had earlier been significantly tightened by the community and protective services committee, mostly a result of the intervention of Mayor Fontana.  The Mayor  who was initially pro-food trucks, called for a food truck ban  on Richmond Row, Old East Village, Wortley Road and Byron. The Mayor’s subsequent amendments to the proposal: higher fees, larger buffer zones and earlier closings.
Several of the councilors who opposed food trucks did so because they claimed they believed them to be a threat to the financial health of existing restaurants in the downtown core. The amended proposal would have capped the number of trucks at eight, levied an annual license fee of $2,865, and required a 50-meter (about 150 feet) separation from any existing restaurant, double previous proposals. The amended proposal reduced the number of potential downtown sites from 222 to 50, eliminating almost all of Richmond Ave.
Two years ago, London City Council agreed to get public feedback on a proposed program to allow food trucks. The proposal worked its way between city departments for months and has been refined and revised along the way to avoid the bureaucratic red tape that plagued Toronto’s unsuccessful food truck initiative. 

Initially, Ethan Ling, City Policy Coordinator, stated that an impartial food truck advisory review panel made up of local food industry experts was expected to provide knowledgeable opinion and recommendations regarding food truck strategy in London. In addition, the panel was anticipated to be charged with encouraging culturally diverse and original menu offerings, and endorsing the promotion of healthy eating. But the report that went to politicians stated that menu-vetting (read micro-managing) is too complicated to be part of London’s food-truck plan. 

Under last years rejected proposal, City staff would be able to designate locations based on such things as proximity to restaurants, schools and neighbourhoods. It suggested a 25-metre buffer zone separating food trucks from existing restaurants. Food trucks were also required to keep their distance 100 metres from schools, and vendors will be required to keep a log of their whereabouts.  Food trucks will be required to close for business between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. 

The proposed food truck by-law amendments appeared to provide reasonable recommendations and safeguards making the pilot much more accessible to entrepreneurs. However, it was and still is too early to try to define what the food truck streetscape will look like in London. There are 27 licences granted for trucks to serve food on private property, just metres from the street. Last year’s decision does not affect them.

After the failure of the proposal, Ethan Ling, City Policy Coordinator, said “There are still opportunities for  ‘refreshment vehicles’ – as they are dubbed in London – to operate on private property, parking lots, festivals, carts on sidewalks, etc.  So notwithstanding this decision, I hope that area entrepreneurs and food lovers can still find ways create, deliver and consume innovative, exciting and boundary-pushing cuisine from trucks, carts, stands or wherever.”

Commenting on City Council’s decision, Ontario Food Trucks tweeted, “Even if it would've passed, it was too restrictive and expensive! Protectionism hurts all!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Reconsidering, ‘Foodie’ and the Culinary Pecking Order


Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization. For the record, the original usage referred to the expression of dominance in chickens. With the keen interest in all things culinary, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is a gastronomic pecking order. At the bottom of the gastronomic hierarchy is goinfre (greedy guts), then goulu (glutton), gourmand, (one who enjoys eating), friand (epicure; one who with discriminating taste takes pleasure in fine food and drink), gourmet (a connoisseur of food and drink), and finally the gastronome (one with a serious interest in gastronomy).  

Let’s not overlook foodie, a ubiquitous term that is frequently used as a synonym for gastronome or epicure. Many people are unaware of the fact that there is a distinct difference in their meanings. The self-described foodie generally referred to an amateur or hobbyist, while gastronome referred to the educated palate and refined taste of a professional. In the past, I think  my antipathy to the word foodie has been its frivolous connotations.

Knowing my profession, people often say to me, "You are such a foodie!" I am never certain what they mean by this. Sometimes I think it's an innocent enough question, other times I think the word feels like a put-down.

Now it would seem, the term foodie is beginning to have political aspirations with regard to food and is starting to be used with more gravitas. 

The New York Times columnist, food journalist, and author Mark Bittman, suggested we should rethink the word ‘Foodie’ in an op-ed piece he wrote last year.  Bittman says, “So shifting the implications of “foodie” means shifting our culture to one in which eaters — that’s everyone — realize that buying into the current food “system” means exploiting animals, people and the environment, and making ourselves sick. To change that, we have to change not only the way we behave as individuals but the way we behave as a society. It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun; it’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time. That’s what we foodies do.”

Some people self-identify as foodies to avoid being characterized as the type of food snob they associate with old-school gourmets. When people say to me, “You’re such a foodie” in the past it made my skin crawl. I don’t want any part of my life to be categorized by a cliché.

Writing in the Guardian, Paul Levy, who claims paternity of the term foodie with colleague Ann Barr, admits that American restaurant critic, food writer and novelist Gael Greene may have coined the term foodie at about the same time in 1982. “What started as a term of mockery shifted ground, as writers found that "foodie" had a certain utility, describing people who, because of age, sex, income and social class, simply did not fit into the category ‘gourmet’, which we insisted had become ‘a rude word’.”

In my experience, those characterized by the French term goinfre (greedy guts) suffer a ravenous disposition. They are hard to stomach due to their selfish, insatiable appetites. Gluttony is often an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating you. Gluttons indulge their voracious appetites indiscriminately and over-consume to the point of waste.

Gourmand is an all-encompassing term for acolytes who take great pleasure in good food but who are routinely unacquainted with etiquette. They lack the skills of proper refinement while being over-fond of eating.

At the next level, we find the epicure. This term has had a renaissance but is still sometimes used to lampoon those devoted to the pleasures of the table. The Oxford Companion of Food says the term “derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who declared happiness to be the highest good, which came to mean, in a food and wine contest, a person of refined tastes.”

Gourmet denotes even more respectability and gravity in culinary matters. This French term originally meant “cultivated wine-taster.” Gourmets tend to be discriminating in their eating habits and sophisticated, with a cultivated and professional interest in culinary matters.
The gastronome has reached the highest level, taking great strides to comprehend the most subtle nuances of taste. It is a pleasing word, gastronome: unfortunately it has become archaic. The gastronome’s discerning palate and quest for illumination have been confused with pretension and snobbery. The fact is that gastronomy is the study of the art and science of food and the relationship between food and culture.
I have noticed that gastronomes and foodies have at least one thing in common: they both seem to have a strong desire to impart their observations to others.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Redux: Refined African Cooking at T.G.`s Addis Ababa


Dining at T.G.’s Addis Ababa is characterized by the ritual breaking of injera (the traditional yeast-risen flatbread which is spongy in texture, crèpe-like in appearance with sourdough tanginess) and sharing food from a communal platter signifying the bonds of loyalty and friendship. For more than a decade, T.G.’s Addis Ababa has offered a tour de force from the Ethiopian culinary repertoire. This is refined Ethiopian cooking.


The modest restaurant is tucked away off-the-beaten-track in an unassuming brick building the south side of Dundas Street, near the corner of Burwell and Maitland.

Having avoided the Eritrean – Ethiopian conflict in 1998, with little more than determination and a leap of faith, T.G. was eager to resettle her life in London. It was a tough route that included being detained in the United States for five months before she received refugee status in Canada.  Initially, T.G. was employed at a variety of jobs; attending classes to expand her English at G.A. Wheable Centre for Adult Education and training to become a hair stylist. She dreamt of opening a restaurant. Her passion for cooking was ignited as a child; both her mother and grandmother were restaurateurs.  

T.G. is pleased to make her home in London, “I chose to start my business in London, but more importantly, I chose to start my family here. It is a safe and welcoming community, and there is nowhere else I would rather build a future.” 
Ethiopian cuisine has emerged as a significant international cuisine in recent times due to scholarly interest and the re- interpretation of complex regional culinary traditions to create and popularize an Ethiopian national cuisine by middle class Ethiopians in places of emigration and diaspora. 
The cuisine has garnered repute for being blistering-hot, but truly authentic Ethiopian cuisine is characterised by a blending of flavours in order to produce a harmony of ingredients. T.G. is a skillful chef and her signature dishes from the repertoire of Ethiopian cookery comprise permutations of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, hot and fragrant. These flavour contrasts are the hallmark of T.G.’s cooking.
In recent times, T.G. had hoped to bring her youngest sister to Canada to help her with the demands and challenges of cooking a labour- intensive ethnic cuisine that requires specialized training. Initial approval was given to T.G.’s sister but because of her limited English there are still obstacles with the Canadian consulate in Ethiopia. T.G. hopes this will be resolved so that she will be able to spend more time with her young daughter. At present she would find it difficult and uncomfortable handing over the reins of her kitchen to an outsider. T.G. is acutely   aware that there would be consequences to employing someone who is not culturally indoctrinated in the nuances of the cuisine.
Customarily made out of fermented tef, injera is used as both the serving platter and eating utensil. Decorum decrees tearing pieces of injera off with your right hand, pinching up and then wrapping it around the meat or wat, and then popping the injera into your mouth. No other utensils are required. Various dishes are placed decoratively and served directly onto the injera, allowing it to absorb individual flavours and spices. Dishes are always accompanied by additional injera to scoop up the food with.
Sharing a medley of delicious dishes that have been expertly arranged on a common platter — the traditional way to eat — is an enjoyable introduction to the cuisine. During a meal with friends or family, it is a common practice to feed others in the group with your right hand by putting the pinched up injera into another's mouth. This is called a gursha, and I have been told that the larger the gursha, the stronger the relationship or bond.
Berbere is the brick-red blend of 17 ground spices which is an essential ingredient in Ethiopian cooking and adds a fiery heat and stimulating boost to many of the dishes that reflect its national culinary identity. 
Meat dishes fall mostly into two distinct categories: red stews (wat), which include berbere, and green stews (alicha wat), which do not. Wats are properly prepared with a generous amount of chopped onions, which the cook simmers or sautés in a pot. Onions are fried without oil, which gives them the distinct taste central to Ethiopian cuisine. T.G.’s menu includes several types of meat dishes, such as zsil zsil tibbs which are strips of beef sautéed with green onion and spices. Ethiopian cuisine does not include pork.
Another of her signature dishes is dulet kitfo, which consists of freshly minced, lean beef, mixed and cooked with clarified butter, onion, jalapeño and the traditional spice mixture mitmita (a dry chili blend containing ground cardamom seed, cloves and salt).

T.G. is a born communicator and guides the uninitiated to select from a menu that has been designed so you can order à la carte or eat communally. There is a large repertoire of vegetarian dishes, with a diversity of deftly spiced preparations based on lentils, split peas, chickpeas and other pulses. 
It should be noted that Ethiopian culinary staples like injera and wat are immortalised as a metaphor for prosperity and security in the various writings of nineteenth century travellers.  Hospitality is imperative in Ethiopia, and at T.G.’s Addis Ababa it is supreme. 

T.G. is dedicated to supporting important cultural and charitable initiatives and events despite the fact that she is a hands-on owner who does all of the cooking at the restaurant. T.G.’s Addis Ababa has been a stalwart participant in the Taste for Life campaign to support the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.

T.G. supports the efforts of local student organizers at Brescia University during their annual Multicultural Show, as well as the London Black History Coordinating Committee. Last year, T.G. was selected as one of “I am London’s” successfully settled immigrants from various countries that have chosen London as their home.

465 Dundas Street (at Maitland)



Modern and Sophisticated Vietnamese Cuisine at Tamarine by Quynh Nhi





This sleek and urban-chic downtown hot-spot has a sophisticated palette and an upscale mix of contemporary Asian-inspired motifs, art, cuisine and ambiance. Chefs Quynh and Nhi combine the freshest ingredients with traditional spicing and flavours to create contemporary menus designed to promote communal dining. Long Phan is your charming and knowledgeable host.

From a design perspective, the attention to detail is carried through in many small but striking ways such as the design of the cutlery and dishes, seasonal exotic floral arrangements and the various choices of seating arrangements. The mosaic tiles around the bar have a chameleon-like ability to change into a myriad of palettes, creating a swanky, sexy cocktail lounge vibe with a colour changing remote control. Lighting can also be adjusted to set the mood particularly in the far end of the dining room, where private booth seating provides an intimate and comfortable dining experience.

The food at Tamarine is more sophisticated than traditional Vietnamese spots. The chefs push the culinary boundaries without breaking the tenets of traditional South Vietnamese cuisine. The flavours are multi-faceted and subtle and the dishes have plenty of visual appeal. Dishes are designed to be mixed and matched in ways that balance flavours and fragrance, as well as texture and colour.

The cooking is delicate and refined and combines the techniques of Chinese cooking with indigenous ingredients, the light accents of French gentility, and flavours and aromas reminiscent of India. 

The signature Crispy Spring Roll at Tamarine is made with chicken, pork, or a vegetarian version served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The restaurant is also known for its crispy Torpedo Rolls, made with shrimp and crispy Imperial Rolls with shrimp, pork, wood ear (a type of fungi) and glass noodles, which are also served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The Vietnamese use fish sauce to enhance the flavour of their foods, much the same way we use table salt, and it pretty much goes with everything.

Compared with its cousin, the egg roll, the spring roll is smaller, with much less filling. (Phan tells me that the “spring roll” is all about quality, not quantity). However, the terms “spring roll” and “egg roll,” like “spring roll” and “fresh roll,” are often used somewhat interchangeably and incorrectly. It can be quite confusing.

Fresh rolls are referred to by several different names, including “salad roll,” “fresh spring roll,” and “summer roll.” Sometimes the word “Vietnamese” is added at the beginning of these words; for example, “Vietnamese roll” or “Vietnamese spring rolls.” It has been my experience that on the North American west coast, many restaurants refer to fresh rolls as “crystal rolls,” “soft rolls,” or “salad rolls.” Fresh rolls are easily distinguished from similar rolls in that they are not fried and that the ingredients used are different from (deep-fried) Vietnamese egg rolls.

“Spring rolls” take their name from the freshness of the spring season with all the seasonal ingredients, and frying would, of course take away that element. At Tamarine, they offer fresh Spring Rolls with a choice of barbecued chicken or shrimp, vermicelli, crispy pastry heart, fresh mint, lettuce, and sprouts, all rolled in soft rice paper and served with peanut sauce.

Tamarine also has its own version of Pad Thai. Although it is the national dish of Thailand and has been known in various incarnations for centuries, the dish is thought to have been introduced to Thailand by Vietnamese traders. Tamarine’s version is a choice of wok-tossed chicken or beef with rice noodles and bean sprouts, finished with a spicy tamarind sauce and cilantro lime, and garnished with crushed peanuts.

“Tamarine is a second-generation restaurant. It is our interpretation of how Vietnamese food has evolved,” says Long Phan. “Our food is as symbolic as it is traditional. You can be anywhere in the world and authentically showcase our heritage with our cuisine.” The cooking remains delicate and refined and combines the techniques of Chinese cooking with indigenous ingredients, the light accents of French gentility, and flavours and aromas reminiscent of both China and India.

Wrapping spring rolls in lettuce leaves and including fresh herbs in the bundles is a vestige of the original civilizations that existed before the centuries of Chinese influence in Vietnam, and is practised with delicacy at both Quynh Nhi and Tamarine.

For well over a decade the family-run sister restaurant, Quynh Nhi, has developed a loyal following and prospered off the beaten path in a 40- seat premises that it shares with an auto repair garage at the corner of Wharncliffe and Riverside. Named after siblings Quynh and Nhi, the restaurant is a family run business operated by their extended family. 

118 Dundas Street,

519 601 8276

Quynh Nhi 

55 Wharncliffe Road North


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tableside at Michaels-on-the-Thames





My passion for French cooking was ignited when I travelled through France at age 22. A year later I was asked to run the kitchen at The Vineyard, one of Toronto’s first wine bars. In those days, French cuisine dominated the fine dining scene. My mentor was a serious gastronome who informed and educated my palate by wining and dining me in the most prestigious fine dining institutions in Toronto. All of these establishments — Napoléon, Three Small Rooms, Auberge Gavroche, Fenton’s, Les Cavaliers and the dining rooms at the King Edward Hotel and the Westbury Hotel — were French, and enjoyed august reputations and discerning clientele. The same welcoming hospitality, and the same discreet but impeccable service were extended to everyone.

Tastes are transitory and altered sensibilities have brought changes to the cuisine and classic styles of restaurant service that I esteemed in my early career. Good value to the patron does not mean cheap prices. It refers to the quality and quantity of the food, the level of service, and the décor and ambience.

To my mind, French food has always been the cuisine synonymous with refined taste and, to some extent, it still is. To this day I appreciate the skill and showmanship of French-style service. French service is distinguished by the fact that all or part of the preparation of the dish, or at least the finishing of it, is done in the dining room. This type of service requires a cart or gueridon and organized mise en place to facilitate cooking at the side of the patron’s table. Tableside preparations might involve sautéing or flambéing an item, or carving it, boning a fish or composing a salad from scratch.

Classic tableside cooking is part of the innate charm of Michaels-on-the-Thames. The restaurant is at once appealing and traditional, and yet old-school: Caesar salad for two, prepared tableside, as well as flaming dishes, also done tableside including whole Dover sole meuniere, pepper steak “Dorchester” with brandy demi-glace, cherries jubilee and strawberries alla Marco.

If you’re hungry for steak Diane the dining room staff will create that at a tableside cart for you too. It is not a classical French recipe, though its preparation is at least a cousin to the French (steak coated in cracked peppercorns accompanied by a cognac and butter sauce). It's all about elegance, presentation, and personal attention. The showmanship starts with a tender cut of beef tenderloin pounded thin and pan-fried in butter to your preference. It then is topped with a rich sauce of more butter, shallots, and mushrooms, and flambéed with brandy and a splash of fresh cream. An intoxicating wine bouquet and fragrant beef aroma emanates from the pan. The same goes for the Brome Lake duck à l’orange, whose boozy sauce will be whisked and flambéed a few inches from your table.

One evening while dining with my nephew, service professional Maria Homolay served us juicy-on-the-inside, seared and roasted Chateaubriand. The Chateaubriand, which can be ordered for a table of two, is served in the traditional manner accompanied by a variety of vegetables and crowned with béarnaise sauce. Chateaubriand and béarnaise sauce have a natural kinship, with the sauce of clarified butter emulsified in egg yolks, white wine vinegar and flavoured with tarragon playing off the beef tenderloin. There was naturalness to the way Homolay moved and worked – a professionalism that has made many dining experiences at Michael’s-on-the-Thames memorable. It offers classic French flair for diners who prefer a bit of finesse while dining—and appreciate a bit of interaction with their tableside preparation.

For thirty-one years and counting Michael’s-on-the-Thames has been regarded as London’s “celebration destination”, and for good cause. Owner-operator Brian Stewart, executive chef Denis Clavette, kitchen manager Dave Wyler and their kitchen brigade consistently give patrons what they want, and that is why the restaurant remains popular. There is no attempt to be trendy or cutting edge at Michael's.

Besides tableside cooking, there are prix fixe menus and many à la carte selections that mostly stick to tried and true classics. There is Cobb salad, colossal shrimp stuffed with crab and wrapped in pancetta and finished with a Pernod beurre blanc drizzle, baked west coast halibut with lemon beurre noisette, and even the Valencian classic, paella. In Chef’s hands, paella is a fragrant combination of Metzger’s chorizo, duck confit, mussels, scallops, shrimp and saffron rice.

An experienced entrepreneur (Stewart owned Sam the Record Man franchises), and inspired by his inveterate restaurant patron father's appreciation for fine dining, Stewart recognized he'd found the ideal location for his new endeavour the minute he saw the former tile and cement warehouse which gave way to Guildwood Lighting in the early 1960s.

The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere with its private dining areas, an enclosed sun room beside the Thames River, the sophistication of a baby grand piano overlooking the dining room, oak decor, tables with plenty of elbow room and a stone fireplace. A rotating cast of pianists that include David Priest and Dean Harrison play classics and jazz on the baby grand at select times during dinner.

Until a few years ago, Jack Di Carlo had been the maître d' at Michael's since 1986. He created a lasting impression on the clientele, greeting and serenading customers and cementing the restaurant’s reputation as a romantic dining destination. It is a reputation that endures.

General Manager Joelle Lees and certified sommelier/captain Andrew Fratepietro are warm and hospitable and, in addition to applying their skills and charisma as restaurant professionals, are focused on creating great dining experiences. Good service is one of the primary things diners consider in judging the value of a restaurant. The service here is a welcome throwback, countering the prevalent attitude of casual service that favours over-familiar waiters and high pressure upselling tactics.

Fratepietro’s wine list is a virtuous representation of the style and cuisine of the restaurant and has options for many different types of wine drinkers, both in terms of price point and style. There are some excellent consignment wines on the list.

While many restaurateurs and chefs are working to comprehend and respond to the expectations of the food savvy Generation X and the Millennial Generation, Michael’s remains an intentional and charming anachronism while appealing to the tastes and preferences of its changing demographic.


1 York Street (at the bridge) 519- 672- 0111

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Artisans' Market at the Western Fair Farmers' Market is London's Answer to the Big City Flea

Hunter's Precious Metals

Junction Flea in Toronto

London's Old East Village is home to a row of second-hand, vintage, retro and quasi- antique stores, attracting a diverse clientele of vintage aficionados, collectors, dealers and people who have a growing awareness and appreciation for the 20th century decorative arts and like to score a deal.

There is also a diverse vendors market on the 2nd floor of the Western Fair Farmers' Market on Saturdays known as the Artisans’ Market – which is similar to the big city fleas, (think the Brooklyn Flea or the Junction Flea in Toronto),  that are popping up in neighbourhoods all over major urban centres. The 2nd floor market is also home to the Fire Roasted Coffee roastery and the On the Move Organic production facility, and several other niche culinary businesses like Kosuma Foods, Everything Tea and Dessert Buns.

Over the last few years the ever-changing 2nd floor Artisans' Market has been a minimal-risk testing ground and business incubator for budding entrepreneurs to try out their ideas. The Artisans' Market has been purposefully curated and has evolved to offer an alternative to the traditional retail experience. Surprisingly, after eight years, many patrons of the Farmers' Market are still unaware of the Artisans' Market vendors who represent just less than half of the 100 or so permanent vendors at the Western Fair Farmers’ Market.

According to the New York Times, “Flea markets proliferate a volume of goods needing to be sold and people who are hungry — emotionally and aesthetically — to sort out the meaning of life,” said Michael Prokopow, a history professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, who teaches a course called “Stuff,” about things and their meaning. “For most people who go on these ritualized scavenger hunts looking for something that they may not know exists, it is a kind of pilgrims’ process through the detritus of the past.”

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that the rise of some of the hipper, trendier urban “fleas” and pop-ups have coincided with the "shop local", do-it-yourself and culinary artisan movements.

Paul Smith, a knowledgeable steward of modernism, operates the Mid-century Modern Market booth in the far left corner of the Artisans' Market. Smith retails a diversity of vintage and mid-century pieces. His small but ever-changing selection includes everything from vintage Scandinavian and Murano art glass, Italian and German ceramics, Lotte lamps, vintage upholstery, unique teak furniture to pieces from elite Danish furniture craftsmen and designers such as Finn Juhl and Freme Rojle. Other furniture classics include designers Florence Knoll, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson.

An example of a typical collector is my friend Peter who has an impressive collection of period household appliances, kitchenware and culinary artifacts. Peter is hot-wired with the idiosyncratic impulse that drives most collectors. In this particular case, the search for craftsmanship, state-of-the-art design, technological innovation and kitsch all contribute to his collection. Part of the appeal for the collector is the hunt itself as well as an educational pursuit.

In fact, there is a room in his spacious split-level home that resembles a small museum. Perhaps this display is better described as a time capsule, where the artifacts are on a kind of private permanent show and tell. It is in this subterranean room that our curator wears different hats: curator, guardian, repairman and spokesperson.

The first time I saw the collection assembled, I was surprised by the ingenuity and commitment required to accumulate such a vast array of formerly neglected, mainly forgotten objects that appeared to have been abandoned with no regard for their artistic vanguard, utility, social or historical interest.

Considered passé by today’s mass manufacturing standards, many of the household items do not suffer modern built-in product obsolescence, surviving intact from the ravages of time and use. Peter’s collection is a compilation of durable and highly-stylized vacuum cleaners, futuristic coffee percolators, toasters, blenders, mix masters, can-openers, food processors, tools, kitchen gee-gaws and gadgets purchased at flea markets and second hand stores.

Speaking of tools, Bud, (who just celebrated his 90th birthday), and Marian’s booth across from Smith’s Mid-century Modern Market has an interesting selection of hard-to-find vintage and antique tools.

I often see the stylish Forest City Fashionista at the Artisans' Market. She has turned her obsession with unique and high fashion clothing and photography into a blog, scoping out vintage fashion and accessories from the vendors like Faye’s at Passion 4 Fassion.

The Artisans’ market is also a  great place to find culinary ephemera -  almanacs, church and promotional cook booklets, product and marketing brochures, recipe leaflets and other printed food-related information that have been historically given away gratis or sold at a nominal cost.

Culinary ephemera make fascinating and informative reading. In addition to general knowledge and practical homespun advice, they provide a unique historical perspective and social commentary offering solicited testimonials, helpful household hints, cooking secrets and entertaining rules of etiquette.

The increased awareness and interest in environmental sustainability in terms of reusing, recycling, repurposing and repairing, rather than just giving unwanted items the heave-ho, makes a lot of sense and not just because we are in economically challenging times.
 The next time you are visiting the Western Fair Farmers' Market be sure to visit the 2nd floor.

 Be sure to check out the Forest City Fashionista's Blog.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Shortlist of Where to Eat Breakfast and Brunch in London, Ontario

By Bryan Lavery

For years, we’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day...
Edgar and Joe's

Best Deal in Town: 

Edgar and Joe’s Café offers an affordably-priced breakfast menu featuring nutritious food made from scratch with locally sourced high quality ingredients from purveyors like Las Chicas Del Café and Metzger Meats. Hand-crafted bread and baked goods are freshly-baked daily; condiments, preserves, soups and daily features are made from quality raw ingredients. The in-house baking, eclectic salads, breakfast features and a variety of exceptional sandwiches have become particular standouts. The all-day breakfast is elevated by homemade jams and breads, and the particularly tasty addition of sweet potato to the home fries and with the addition of house-made ketchup is bliss.

Billy’s Deli is a local downtown institution, and a prime destination for breakfast and lunch for many reasons, notably their fresh seasonal pies with local ingredients. However, lately the pie counter has looked a little bit sparse. Billy’s actually looks less like a traditional deli and more like a diner, with three rows of tables with bench seating along the walls, four tables with chairs in the center, and a pastry counter near the front door, connected to a welcoming display window. The main room has been updated, but retains its freshly scrubbed, homespun appearance. There is also additional seating on the second level when it gets busy or for private parties and events. And Billy’s does get busy — very busy — because it has legions of loyal regulars and new converts on a daily basis. The deli is well-known for its breakfast menu, and the regulars congregate Saturday and Sunday mornings to partake in the deli’s delicious offerings that inspire great conversation over a cup of steaming coffee and a hearty breakfast. Breakfast offerings include everything from omelettes to crisp potato latkes served with sour cream and homemade applesauce, to Huevos Rancheros, a classic Mexican breakfast, presented at Billy’s as an ample dish of eggs, sautéed peppers, black beans, chopped lettuce, black olives and cheddar, served on baked tortillas with a homemade spicy-sweet tomato chili sauce and then oven-baked. Another signature breakfast dish is the Skillet, served piping hot in a flat-bottomed, cast-iron pan heaped with caramelized onions, sautéed peppers, potatoes, corned beef, smoked ham, bacon, two eggs and melted cheddar.

Jane Beattie’s The Bag Lady, a funky retro café, variety store and take-away located in the heart of Woodfield has a kitschy, quirky retro ’60s vibe and serves an all-day breakfast menu, seasonal salads, made-from-scratch desserts, and brown-bag lunches-to-go at the back counter.

Gregg and Justin Wolfe’s Early Bird is King and Talbot’s red-hot, retro diner with casual farm-to-table cooking. The Early Bird has a quirky charm and a hotchpotch menu of updated retro diner classics with a new generation comfort foods. Signature dishes include: the king-sized “turducken club” sandwich. You can’t get much more hip-but-earthy than the Early Bird. Opens at 10 a.m.

London’s once thriving “counter culture” continues to disappear, yet a few fine examples of this restaurant style have managed to survive. The Del-Mar in east London has been operating since 1953 and still serves a great all-day breakfast. The High Lunch has also remained the genuine article for over forty years, with its counters, bar stools, open grill and good food. At the helm, Pat Spigos is a formidable cook and the model of generosity and hospitality.  Carrying on the family business, Pat’s children Betsy Kouklakis and Bill Spigos operate the very popular Prince Albert’s Diner on Richmond Street, a great breakfast spot and trendy late-night eatery which has been catering to the Richmond Row clientele for 18 years.

CLOSED: Another notable Richmond Street eatery is the popular Toddle inn. It was refurbished several years ago but remains a well-loved destination by many Londoners. The Toddle Inn opened as a modest establishment with a simple menu and a large, horseshoe-shaped counter. Customers were mostly single people and students. In later years, tables were added and the Toddle Inn expanded its menu to appeal to a broader clientele. Nearly 70 years later, the Toddle Inn is still operated by the Egleston family.

The Church Key Bistro Pub
Highly Recommended:

The Church Key Bistro Pub offers a top-notch brunch and chef Michael Anglestad has a repertoire of flavours that are big, brash and rustic but thoroughly cosmopolitan. Pastry chef Cliff Briden is also at the top of his game. Best of all owners Vanessa and Pete Willis haven’t overlooked its roots as a place for locals to meet and imbibe. The Church Key serves one of the best Sunday brunches in the city. Brunch ($25) begins with a large basket of freshly baked pastries for everyone to share. Then, select one of the featured brunch entrée items like: Tom Yam Pla (hot & sour fish bowl) with crispy pickerel, steamed salmon, trout and assorted vegetables in a natural fish broth garnished with lemongrass, lime leaves and spicy shrimp toasts or eggs Benedict with a potato crumpet topped with garlic cured pork belly, house kraut, frankfurter sausage, boudin blanc, poached eggs and Meyer lemon and gin hollandaise.
River Room Café and Private Dining 
Highly Recommended:

Speaking of brunch, panoramic views and the tailored simplicity and elegance of the River Room Café and Private Dining make it an excellent spot for Sunday brunch. Chef Jeff Fortner has over a dozen dishes on offer on the brunch prix fixe menu ($25.00), including sublime eggs benedict with perfectly poached eggs and delicious hollandaise; classic Cobb Salad with grilled chicken, crisp bacon, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg, chopped tomato and cucumbers; brioche French Toast of the Day; and prime rib beef Hash, with peppers, onions, potatoes and prime rib, topped with two soft-boiled eggs and accompanied by signature greens. Brunch is served with a generous basket of warm mini-muffins and fresh-baked, melt-in-the-mouth cheddar scones, as well as coffee or tea and your choice of a glass of red or white wine, mimosa, Caesar, bloody Mary, screwdriver or domestic beer.

The Idlewyld Inn & Spa
Highly Recommended

The Idlewyld Inn & Spa has two well-appointed dining rooms with well-spaced tables, comfortable armchairs and banquettes. Chef de cuisine Trevor Stephens comes to the Inn after spending nine years at the Elm Hurst Inn. The restaurant offers a locally-inspired menu of contemporary and traditional choices, complemented by a selection of international and local wines, and draught ales are on tap.
Stephens’ menus are loaded with ingredients which, along with the stylish dining room, evoke the phrase fine dining. The Inn serves breakfast daily and on Sunday’s brunch. Classics like eggs Benedict, and cured salmon and spinach Florentine with poached eggs, toasted English muffin and mornay sauce. Be sure to try the seared slices of crispy duck breast confit. The breast meat was grilled to a seductive char on the outside and deep pink within and accompanied by an arugula salad. The arugula is tossed in blood-orange vinaigrette and garnished with dried cranberries, toasted almonds and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Blackfriars Bistro
Highly Recommended:

Blackfriars offers a deliciously artistic setting only a short walk from Downtown London. The central location and ample parking make this the perfect meeting place for a culinary adventure. Upbeat, knowledgeable staff is your first introduction to Blackfriars. A large blackboard, featuring several daily specials — utilizing the most interesting ingredients the area has to offer — covers most of one wall.. The bistro’s intimate size and style allow for perfect closed room parties, and Blackfriars has established a strong reputation as a caterer.

Blackfriars’ innovative culinary team, led by Chef Jacqui Shantz, showcase their talents with seasonal menus handwritten by restaurateur Betty Heydon, who has presided over this local culinary landmark for over 19 years. Blackfriar’s is well known for its Sunday brunch.

• Sunday Brunch — a must to highlight your weekend. Try the classic Eggs Benedict with house-roasted potatoes or the Eggs Bombay — two eggs nestled on a bed of mixed grain rice with a mild red curry sauce and fresh fruit. 46 Blackfriars Street, 519 667-4930