Sunday, November 29, 2015

Food Literacy and Growing Chefs!








Food Literacy and Growing Chefs!

BY BRYAN LAVERY



Food literacy when taken literally means a person’s ability to correctly read food labels and Canada’s Food Guide – and the aptitude to comprehend basic nutrition well enough to apply that knowledge to food preparation. Food literacy also includes understanding how food is grown and produced, where it originates, how production affects the environment and who has access to what types of foods.

The need to introduce food into school life is the most compelling at the primary level, when children are just starting to establish food preferences, make independent choices and influence their friends. Growing Chefs! was conceived in Vancouver B.C. by chef Merri Schwartz in 2006, as she identified a need to articulate the story of the food we eat. Believing in greater engagement between chefs, farmers and the general public, she set out to educate children, families, and community members about nutrition, sustainability and healthy food systems. Schwartz achieved this by providing programs, seminars, and workshops in classrooms to promote local and healthy eating.

After working with Schwartz and recognizing the influence that Growing Chefs! was having in Vancouver, Andrew Fleet was inspired to launch the program when he returned to London, Ontario. Consequently, The Growing Chefs! Ontario Classroom Gardening Project was established in the spring of 2008 at Tecumseh Public School. Fleet is the Executive Director of Growing Chefs! Ontario.

What was initially known as the Classroom Gardening Project has been redesigned as a full-school project. The Growing Chefs! team visits every class in each partner school allowing individual schools to contribute time and effort into the coordination piece of the programming. With this model, Growing Chefs! is able to reach three times the number of elementary students annually, that’s 2,600 students up from 800.  “Kids are well educated in our school system on health and they know they need to be making healthy choices but we don’t show them how to actually do that,” Fleet explains. “That’s the Growing Chefs! philosophy — you give kids a chance to cook real food with real flavour with a real chef.”

This year Growing Chefs! hired Katherine Puzara as the lead chef for the elementary school project, Fresh Food Frenzy, and Growing Communities. Puzara has helped to redesign and expand the workshops and lesson plans, while working to challenge the perceived limitations of children and youth in the kitchen. The program welcomes children from public schools to the Covent Garden Market where they are given a list of ingredients to go and find in the outdoor farmers’ market. Afterwards they go upstairs to the Market Kitchen and prepare a healthy and seasonal meal.

“The experience teaches the children the difference between a farmers’ market and a grocery store, and we get to explore concepts with the kids such as why it is important to eat locally, and what are heirloom vegetables,” says Puzara. “In the older grades seven and eight we have the children doing everything possible from working on knife skills, mise en place, working clean, and plating and serving skills. It is a real accomplishment when they leave; they really take away some amazing practical life skills.”

Chris Meloche, Executive Chef, The Beet Café program, has been a stalwart volunteer since 2008 and was hired full-time to run the program. The Beet is an educational, skill-building program for youth with a focus on healthy food preparation, hospitality and business development. Led by some of London’s foremost chefs, and Growing Chefs!’ youth staff prepare delicious healthy food for school hot lunch programs, and make appearances at festivals, all the while learning invaluable life skills.

Projects Coordinator Sunni Vann has been at the heart of everything at Growing Chefs! this year, from communications, coordination, and working on front lines.

London Waldorf School is running licensed toddler and preschool programs for the first time this year. In order to comply with the new licensing, the school is required to serve hot lunches to these two groups of very small children. “We immediately thought of Growing Chefs! to partner with on this project because we are both committed to the same principles of providing nourishing, quality experiences for young children. The thought of being able to provide these children with local, thoughtful, scratch-made food was one we really couldn't compromise on,” explains Ruth Baer, Administrative Chair, London Waldorf School. 

The Montessori Academy has worked with Growing Chefs! since 2008, by using their students as test subjects for their School program at all ages. “So when we got thinking about providing a lunch program that was not only nutritious, but had community, educational and ethical impacts I contacted Andrew Fleet almost two years ago, to figure out if we could partner on this,” says Margaret Whitley, Executive Director, Montessori Academy of London. “Our hope was by doing this, Growing Chefs! would further their mission, our students would have a lunch experience that is completely integrated into our Montessori approach, and there are additional ripple effects both short term and long term for the whole community.”

The Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014 (CCEYA) came into effect on August 31, 2015, establishing new rules governing child care in Ontario.  “[This] was a catalyst … I think our implementation and the tremendous work Growing Chefs! and The Beet Café program is doing in re-shaping lunch programs [provides] models that could change a generation, in how they develop their senses, cultural awareness and economic impact of local food choices,” states Whitley. “Not only do we embrace the menus that Growing Chefs! are providing, all of our children (18 months to six years) are setting the tables, serving each other using fragile place settings and serving dishes. Our lunches support practical life skills, sensorial education, development of grace and courtesy around meal time and are a true celebration of community many days in our classroom. As a long-time educator I think we completely underestimate the potential of our children around learning to try new foods and helping to educate their palates”.

Over the years a who’s who of local chefs have participated in the Growing Chefs! program. The chefs include Andrew Wolwowicz from The Springs Restaurant who has been on the Board of Directors of Growing Chefs! since 2010, Jeff Fortner of The River Room, Kim Sutherland of Budweiser Gardens, Paul Harding, Scott Newman and Jason Shubert of The Only On King, Nancy Abra of From My Garden, Dani Murphy of the Root Cellar, Kris Pageau formerly of The London Hunt Club, Shauna Stewart formerly of The London Club, Shane Jones of The Springs Restaurant, Wade Fitzgerald of Fanshawe College, Mark Kitching from Waldo's on King, Ryan Irwin of Fellini's in Stratford, Yoda Olinyk of Yoda’s Private Catering, Yam Gurung of Momo’s of at the Market, Patrick Dunham of Patrick’s Beans, Amanda Jeffrey of London Hunt Club and Fanshawe College, Chris Chitty formerly of Delta Armouries, Aaron Cowell of The Only On King and The Early Bird, Ellen Lacroix of the Great Canadian Superstore, Vicci Coughlin of the Telegraph House, Dan Garlough of Crossings Pub, Laura Wall of Petit Paris, Tracy Little of The Springs Restaurant, Arif Kalid of Dolcetto Restaurant and Ted Sinasac of Sisters of St. Joseph, chefs David Rossen, Brian Magee, Kent Van Dyk and Carolyn Nesbitt-Larking and culinary farmer Paul Spence of Chatham Kent Table to name a few.

Based on the idea that education can alter behavior, Growing Chefs! and its many volunteers have made tremendous strides by changing the way many children perceive food and encouraging them to become excited about nutritious and healthy food choices.

 
 

BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Food Writer at Large.

 


Friday, November 27, 2015

Toronto Christmas Market 2016













Toronto Christmas Market 2016

For a sixth year, the Toronto Christmas Market is showcasing all the romance and splendour of a traditional European Christmas market.

Selected as one of the World's 10 Best Holiday Markets by Fodor's Travel and Jetlegs, the Toronto Christmas Market at the Distillery Historic District is the ideal place to rediscover the romance of a Dickensian-inspired Christmas Market.

Christmas Markets, known as Christkindlmarkts, have been a German tradition for 700 years. Christmas markets are an especially festive, anticipated event, bringing light and merriment to a cold, dark time of the year. Each town traditionally had a unique and distinctive street market to celebrate the season.

Local tradesmen sold their wares at these markets, giving each market an individual flavour and personality. The food and beverages being offer were traditionally regional, so each town's offerings were truly unique to the area. Tradesmen would line the streets with handmade wares that featured distinctive regional characteristics.

Traditionally, villagers bought and sold homemade Christmas ornaments, decorations, and gifts. Traditional handicrafts at the markets included hand carved nutcrackers, wooden smokers, wooden figures, cuckoo clocks, straw ornaments and blown glass ornaments.

The Toronto Christmas Market takes place Friday November 20th to Sunday December 20th at the Distillery Historic District in Toronto. The Distillery District comprises more than 40 heritage buildings and 10 streets; it is the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture remaining in North America.

In addition to the Christmas Market vendors, the Distillery Historic District features more than 70 ground-floor cultural and retail establishments in the restored red brick, Victorian-era buildings of the former Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery. The District also contains numerous specialty restaurants, cafes and culinary retailers within the buildings. The district was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1988.

At night you can celebrate the magic of Christmas under a spider-web of 1940’s style lighting which is festooned throughout the main square of the district. This year the centerpiece of the market is a stunning Christmas tree decorated with over 18,000 lights. The market features lots of festive décor, and musical performances from carolers and Bavarian brass bands. Santa's Lane features a vintage merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. And, of course Santa is also on hand with his elves. Last year also saw Father Christmas and Black Peter at the market. -

BY BRYAN LAVERY

Free admission Tuesday to Friday: $5.00 admission (incl. tax) Saturday and Sunday.
Visit 
TorontoChristmasMarket.com for the latest information




Monday, November 16, 2015

Hot Foodie Trends for Culinary Enthusiasts in 2016















Hot Foodie Trends for Culinary Enthusiasts in 2016

 BY BRYAN LAVERY

For over a decade, I have been a food trend chronicler of sorts. Keeping tabs on the trends requires being an avid reader of menus, cultural cookbooks, restaurant reviews and scrutinizing a wide variety of food and drink publications and, of course, reading other food writing. I am interested in how food trends became part of the culinary landscape and shape both the restaurant industry and the consumer at large.

To keep up-to-date on the latest culinary developments, I frequently dine out, attend food events, preview dinners and engage with culinary innovators, early adopters, chefs, farmers, food artisans and “culinary visionaries” in fields like nutrition, food policy and the environment.

Professional tastemakers and trend analysts use a variety of ways to gauge what’s hot and what’s not.  I always keep in mind that there is a distinction to be made between trends and fads.  Trends are basically a manifestation of our collective appetite. The fact is that most gastronomic trends advance in predicable stages before going viral, unlike culinary fads which are generally seasonal frequently don’t live up to their hype, fizzle out and never realize their potential in the mainstream market.

Chia made into a gelatin-like substance or consumed raw exploded into the health food of choice a few years ago. Every year a new way of eating healthy becomes popular, and this time it’s the movement to clean eating that is beginning to really accelerate leaving the gluten-free movement in the dust. Eating "clean" maybe a subjective term, but it's all about eating whole foods in their most natural state, and limiting anything that is processed or has been exposed to pesticides. Clean is the present-day form of the '60s natural food movement, for the counter-culture that wouldn't be caught calling themselves "hippies” or “hipsters."

Progressive chefs and restaurateurs are in sync with underlying culinary trends when it comes to menu development and augment those developments with their own twists and innovations to propel them in new directions. Breakout trends include, root to stalk cooking (with restaurants serving vegetable trimmings formerly headed for the trash can such as beet tops and zucchini ends) featuring dandelion, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collard greens and even carrot peelings.

Kale has gone main stream and you may as well forget about charred cauliflower, this is the year of both knobby kohlrabi, that suddenly pervasive cultivar of cabbage, and celeriac the farinaceous root that boils and mashes to a silky purée, and can be sliced raw for a crunchy salad. Still on trend are globalized ramen the hearty bowl of noodles bathed in hot broth with ethnically diverse toppings, or adding seaweed to everything from smoothies to salads to popcorn.

As independent restaurant concepts continue to evolve, changing demand creates the need for new ways to enhance the customer experience. Restaurants that continue to grow and even prosper are usually the ones that are most willing and readily able to adapt to changing trends. Today’s modern restaurants are about feasting, sharing, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating the craft and tradition of farmers, chefs, winemakers and brewers.

Shareable meals are surging in popularity in restaurants, as chefs cook larger cuts of meat or whole chickens and fish with supplementary side dishes. Other menu trends include fewer choices on menus, smaller plates, tapas, mezze and Dim Sum offerings. Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave are also trending.

More and more chef-driven restaurants are choosing a different model, based on the Italian concept of contorni: the seasonal vegetable side dish, which you order separately and are served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the main course — and pay a premium for it.

We are living in an age when innovative chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most creative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients. No group has a better outlook into the future of impending food trends than the culinary professionals who drive the industry.

Frequently the cuisine of a culture or country is deemed to be on-trend. This brings us to the convention of cultural appropriation: a practice that includes taking segments of a particular culinary culture, commodifying and trivialising them in the process. A subcontinent can’t be summed up by a curry or a korma. However, sometimes the build-up around a culture’s cuisine can be used as an opportunity to teach people.

Again, our preoccupation with chilies and heat lingers — chili-infused honey is one taste that’s continues to garner buzz. Food enthusiasts like to seek out their next big chili kick, and the continuing fixation for heat. Siracha the ubiquitous red sauce’s closest competition still remains gochujang (Korean chili paste), made from from malted barley and fermented soybean flour, red pepper and rice flour.

Following in Siracha’s footsteps are a variety of other condiments like garlicky chimichurri as a burger topping;  smoky, spicy and slightly sweet, Portuguese piri piri (birds-eye chili sauce) on anything grilled; zaatar the quintessential Middle eastern spice rub  slathered on crostini; and hot n spicy chicken wings with avocado raita to cool down the burn. I am sure you get the drill.

Speaking of heat, Indian cuisines continue to have their day in the sun, emerging from their traditional confines despite a 5,000 year history of various groups and cultures intermingling with the subcontinent’s diverse culinary traditions. The expansion of familiar Indian cooking with modernist interpretations of the cuisine like nouvelle-inspired tandoori-smoked eggplant tartare; and non-traditional wine pairings are changing the way we look at the cuisine.

Latin cuisines continue to be huge food trends, thanks to a seductive blend of international and native influences.  Brazilian Cuisine – Rio de Janeiro will bring the country's seafood stews, grilling techniques and Amazonian ingredients into the culinary limelight when it hosts 2016 Summer Olympics.  The black-purple açaí berry, with its purported health benefits, was among the first wave of unfamiliar ingredients coming out of the jungle. Also, think barbecued meats, thirst quenching caipirinhas, and lots of rice and exotic fruit. Culinary pundits are still predicting further international expansion of Peruvian cuisine. Paella is also positioned to make a comeback.

As the buzz about the purported probiotic powers of kimchi, sauerkraut and miso gets even louder, the lightly effervescent, fermented tea known as kombucha, and the vibrant pink turnips pickled in beet juice (kabees el lift) that add the requisite crunch to your shawarma are about to hit the mainstream.

In terms of mixed drinks, shrub is the term for two unlike, but related, acidulated beverages. One type of shrub is a fruit liqueur which was popular in 17th and 18th century England, typically made with rum or brandy mixed with sugar and the juice or rinds of citrus fruit. A shrub can also refer to a cocktail or soft drink that popular during the colonial era, made by mixing vinegared syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water. The term "shrub" can also be applied to the sweetened vinegar-based syrup, from which the cocktail is made; the syrup is also known as drinking vinegar.

Switchels, also switzel, swizzle or switchy are also undergoing a renewal with several start-up brands bottling the water and apple cider vinegar based colonial-era beverage which is often sweetened with ginger, honey or maple syrup.

From faux cocktails and sodas to innovative brews, rich, creamy espresso syrup with earthy overtones is a new star ingredient in more recent culinary-driven creations and has become a chic mixer in craft cocktails.

The movement for craft beer brought new interest, flavours and sales to the beer industry. Look for this movement to encompass other beverages and culinary items, as millennials are being given the credit for driving upcoming trends.

When it comes to appeal, local is another trend that’s creating quite a stir with craft beer drinkers. And to find out just how important local is, The Nielsen Company conducted an English-language survey by Harris Poll earlier in the year. The results indicate that while local is important across all alcohol drinking consumer groups (beer, wine and spirits), it’s most significant to beer fans. In fact, 53% of beer drinkers in this demo say local is very or somewhat important.

Hand- crafted, local, regional and small-batch have become buzz words and signifiers of trends that provide consumers with false prestige. But what do these terms really mean? In my experience, an artisan is a craftsperson who makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods. True artisanal goods can’t be mass-produced: they are limited in quantity and generally have specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature. The trend for “craft everything,” by independent artisans, however small and Indie, does not always necessarily equal a quality product. 


BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.





Monday, November 9, 2015

An Off-Season Look at Stratford, Ontario: The City's Restaurant Community Continues to be Open for Business and Not Just for Locals















An Off-Season Look at Stratford



BY BRYAN LAVERY

 

It may be the end of another Stratford Festival season which brought diners in droves to the city for prix fixe menus, but the city’s restaurant community continues to be open for business and not just for the locals. Stratford has been known for decades for setting the benchmark when it comes to dining, but until just a few years ago it wasnt feasible for many of the restaurants to operate year-round. But that has changed.

A full calendar of exhibitions and special culinary events, music programming, and lots of restaurants, cafés, food specialty shops, bakeries, farmers’ markets, epicurean treks, galleries, antique shops and a wide-ranging system of parks and recreation along the Avon River means that there is plenty to do in Stratford during the off-season.

 Savour Stratford has had successes in steadily increasing the awareness of the many and diverse offerings of Stratford when the theatre-goers are gone. Programs featured under an expanded Savour Stratford brand include Stratford Chefs School dinners, tutored tastings and a series of self-guided culinary trails.

Paying homage to the rise of craft beer and the boom in bacon as a culinary trend, The Bacon and Ale Trail continues to be a great success. After all, Perth County pork is legendary. This is the home of the Ontario Pork Congress. The Stratford Chocolate trail showcases skilled chocolatiers and bakers that work in a city with a storied history in candy making. Boutique chocolate-makers include Chocolate Barr’s, Rheo Thompson and The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Another well-liked tour is The Maple Trail, with maple-inspired stops with offerings that range from maple balsamic vinegar, to a maple-smoked bacon BLT, and, at Mercer Hall, a maple Manhattan.

Stratford boasts many independent niche retailers and specialty services situated in its downtown late-Victorian streetscapes, and in the well-preserved commercial districts on Downie, Ontario and Wellington streets. There are a number of great bakeries including the Downie Street Bake House, which bakes artisanal premium breads — high quality, hand-crafted and free of artificial additives and preservatives — and bills itself as, “Really Good Bread from the Wrong Side of the Tracks.”

 The quaint tree-lined streets just north of the river are great for walking and sightseeing. Several of the stately heritage homes and princely Victorian, Italianate and Second Empire edifices in Stratford are B&B’s.

Visiting Bradshaws, a premier culinary retailer known for its holiday grandeur, is an annual Stratford shopping tradition. Operated by Jeremy and Carrie Wreford, the downtown retailer recently celebrated its 120th anniversary and remains one of the country's truly inimitable stores.

This year the maturing restaurant community had a gastronomic rebirth and several restaurants were relaunched with plenty of fanfare  continuing to reinforce Stratford's already impressive status as one of Ontario's premier culinary getaways.

One of the standout features of Stratford's culinary scene is its laid back approach that unites restaurants and farms through food. There are so many exceptional restaurants in Stratford that it is impossible to recommend one or two. A short list includes Bijou, Rene’s Bistro, Restaurant at The Bruce, Mercer Hall, Sirkel Foods, Pazzo Taverna & Pizzera, Madelyn’s Diner, Keystone Alley, Down The Street Bar & Restaurant, Foster’s Inn and The Parlour Gastropub. These establishments remain open year-round. 

Chef Robert Rose’s Canadian Grub is one of few restaurants in the country serving exclusively Canadian grown and refined products. We also can’t resist Monforte Dairy’s 30 types of artisanal cheese, and visiting Monforte on Wellington, the seasonally-inspired osteria on Market Square, is always a highlight. The restaurant features an ever-changing selection of cheeses, charcuterie, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other specialties, prepared by Monforte’s culinary team.

Mark and Linda Simone bought Bijou in March, added a new entrance off Wellington Street, a new bar in the front area and extended hours with plans to operate the bistro for 10 months of the year. Chef Max Holbrook added to the daily-inspired chalkboard features a globally-inspired tapas menu of shareable plates featuring Perth County ingredients. The menus of small plates are paired with craft wines and some old world classics.  

Among Stratford’s most eagerly awaited openings this year was The Red Rabbit. Jessie Larsen and Chefs Sean Collins and Tim Larsen created the community-shared and worker-owned venture in a former bridal shop on Wellington Street. The instantly successful, down-to-earth, farm-oriented dining experience is built on years of deep symbiotic relationships that remain at the heart of The Red Rabbit experience. There is a dedicated focus on Perth County ingredients from area farmers like Church Hill Farm, Perth County Pork Products, McIntosh Farms, and Soiled Reputation. Regional ingredients abound on The Red Rabbit menus and include addictive house-made salumi (beef heart pastrami) and delicious rillettes of rabbit. Be sure to try the Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles, which has become a Stratford staple. In search of a watering spot that serves great craft and house-infused cocktails? The Red Rabbit is the ticket. Keep in mind that The Red Rabbit is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, from now through the winter.

The once celebrated Church Restaurant, where the Stratford Chefs School started in the kitchens back in 1983, was purchased and painstakingly refurbished by Rob and Candice Wigan. The former Baptist church turned dining and music venue is now the stunning Revival House and gastro-lounge Chapel. Chefs Kyle Rose and Byron Hallett met seven years ago in London, Ontario, and have been working together on and off since. “Our friendship started over a love of salty pork products, knives, hard work and the beverages that follow. We’re passionate about using local and sustainable ingredients, showcasing nose-to-tail cuisine and the best of what Ontario and Perth County have to offer,” declares Rose.

On a visit to the Chapel, we began the evening with the Ontario Gouda Tasting. The sampling consisted of four half-ounce portions of Mountainoak and Thunder Oak Gouda (favourites were wild nettle and fenugreek), which the kitchen sources from the charming Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop on Ontario Street. Chef’s pairing takes cheese tasting to a whole other level. It was comprised of lightly pickled apple balls, a mound of torched maple meringue, a glass of fermented celery water, florets of crunchy charred dehydrated broccoli and a gorgeous chunk of pure comb honey from the "Revival House Hives" (produced in partnership with Huismann Apiaries).

The charcuterie board was underpinned by technique and skill and the salumi had lots of flavour. The offering included speck (smoked pork leg), lonza (cured pork loin), coppa (salt-cured from the neck) and rillettes which in this case were a rich spread of savoury, seasoned, slow-cooked pork. It should be noted that there were a heady 22 VQA’s to choose from on the impressive wine list.

Chef/restaurateurs Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, former owners of Bijou, introduced Linleys Food Shop, located at 51 York Street, in late-July. The chef-driven shop features catering, restaurant-style food to take away and a selection of gourmet fare. Both experience and proclivity led the Linleys —known for their visionary cuisine that espouses global inspiration, modern French technique and the very essence of Ontario — to become formidable culinary retailers.

Bill and Shelley Windsor, who own The Prune, purchased Mercer Hall Inn this summer and placed Chef Ryan O’Donnell at the helm. The restaurant at Mercer Hall continues to offer chef-inspired food and drink featuring heritage pork, line-caught west coast seafood and Ontario-focused wines.

After several delays, Down the Street Bar and Restaurant re-opened to rave reviews in July with Chef Lee Avigdor in the kitchen.

Following on the heels of last fall’s opening of Black Swan Brewing, comes Stratford’s own micro-distillery, Junction 56 Distillery. Owner Michael Heisz began his first batch in April, and is starting with vodkas, vapour-infused gins and moonshine on the shelves at Junction 56. The facility and retail outlet opened to public in mid-September. Tours and tastings at the distillery run every Saturday.

There are plenty of great cafés in Stratford. Anne Campion’s Revel Caffé, behind the red brick City Hall (with its gables, turrets, gargoyles, and finials), is a great place to grab and go or sit and watch the sights through the large glass windows facing onto Market Square.

 


 

BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Food Writer at Large.

 


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Black George and TOOK: The Remake of the Modern Ontario Restaurant


 


 
 


Black George and TOOK: The Remake of the Modern Ontario Restaurant

BY BRYAN LAVERY

 

Fine dining isn't disappearing. It is transforming into something fresh, as self-determining restaurateurs just keep changing and redefining it with new concepts and interactive experiences. But what is driving the change?

As independent restaurant concepts continue to evolve, changing demand creates the need for new ways to enhance the customer experience. Restaurants that continue to grow and even prosper are usually the ones that are most willing and readily able to adapt to changing trends. Today’s modern restaurants are about feasting, sharing, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating the craft and tradition of farmers, chefs, winemakers and brewers. We are living in an age when pioneering chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most innovative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients.

To stay at the top of their game savvy restaurateurs revamp and rethink their whole approach to their restaurant on a continuing basis. This is the story of two independent restaurants with big reputations on a similar trajectory. On the surface they may seem dissimilar. Yet they have a lot in common, appealing to both food enthusiasts and connoisseurs who enjoy participating in their own culinary experiences.

The Only on King recently went through a brief refurbishment and relaunched under the acronym TOOK. The relaunch included a makeover, rebranding, unveiling new menus, expanding the business hours, offering lunch Tuesday through Friday, and adding take-away options including coffee and fresh pastries. The updated interior is striking with lots of farm-to-table touches and handcrafted accents by local artisans.

TOOK, with its fully realized farm-to-table philosophy, dedicated acknowledgement of the local terroir and support of local farmers and producers, remains in the vanguard of the righteous modern Ontario restaurant.

Chef/owner Paul Harding brings many years of experience to this new venture. His commitment to using locally sourced ingredients on his menu hasn’t changed and the restaurant continues to serve some of its classic signature dishes. Chef is known for traditional farmstead practices such as pickling, brining, curing and ageing. There are antipasto, truffles, organic beef, organic pork, black cod and sheep’s milk ricotta together with more modest ingredients that are conferred equal reverence, and multi-cultural culinary treatments. TOOK is now open late into the evening with an expanded cocktail and beer menu to coincide with the fresh approach to casual late night dining.

TOOK’s dinner service focuses on a well-chosen but limited selection of bigger plates and an assortment of smaller tapas-style offerings divided into categories which include snacks, soil, sea, land and sweet stuff. This menu style proves to be infinitely versatile by accommodating almost every culinary tradition and the shareable plates allow diners to eat communally and sample a variety of items. It also allows diners the opportunity to curate their own tasting experience, either by ordering a selection of dishes to share, or enjoying their appetizers as entrées and vice versa.

 Some of the recent menu items include sheep’s milk ricotta gundi (gnocchi-like dumplings) with red sauce and fresh basil; miso marinated black cod with pickled mushrooms and a kimchi burger with organic pork and beef patty with cilantro lime mayo. These types of modern menus remain important tools for chefs to communicate their ethos to their customers.

The other relaunch in downtown London is an updated, re-imagined Kantina — which has, after more than five years, evolved and morphed into Black George. The vibe at Black George is hip and edgy while the food is modern, rustic and playful. Owner Miljan Karac built the former Kantina’s stellar reputation on innovative Balkan-inspired cuisine, prepared from scratch with farm-to-table ideals.

The newly refurbished space has a clean, minimal style with whitewashed bricks and higher ceilings with dangling red cords and bare bulbs. The updated interior is even more casual, with less formal service than the former incarnation. It is the natural evolution and maturing of Karac as an innovator and restaurateur.

Black George similarly showcases original cuisine with small, shareable plates tapas-style. In order to fully experience the concept, your dishes are served as they are prepared, with understated confidence by Chef Courtney Noble. The Stratford Chef School alumna runs a focused kitchen and all items are made in-house and bear her stamp. Her personalized dishes underscore a passion for big flavours and a respect for farm fresh, seasonally appropriate foods.

The restaurant’s most popular dish, and its namesake, comes with its own symbolic narrative. Legend has it when Serbia was under Soviet rule a high ranking official visited a local restaurant and ordered Chicken Kiev. The chef dared not disappoint but didn’t have all the ingredients to prepare the dish. Instead, he created a rolled, fried schnitzel and called it the Karađorđe (Black George) after the first elected leader of the First Serbian Uprising that liberated Serbia from the Ottoman Empire, and who became a national hero.

On a recent visit, the deep-fried Black George arrived at the table cut in half, with its creamy filling oozing out onto the plate. I tasted it and admired how the combination of flavours — the buttery clotted cream-like kaymak, the tenderized pork and the melt-in- your-mouth ham blend so perfectly. The dish was served with roasted potatoes, baby heirloom carrots and cubes of knobby kohlrabi, that suddenly ubiquitous cultivar of cabbage.

The new menu combines old favourites with some inspired recent additions. We love the house-made duck sausage with kale pesto and risotto. In Noble’s hands, warm feta and lemon dip with olive oil and chickpea flatbread tastes like a deconstructed version of the Greek fried cheese appetizer saganaki. An appetizer of kataifi-wrapped (phyllo pastry that looks like shredded wheat) tiger shrimp with cocktail sauce and avocado purée remains the perfect amalgam of flavours and textures. There is a chilled, layered and luxurious lemon meringue parfait served in a mason jar which has both sweet and savoury components. The salted caramel pot au crème becomes a hedonistic experience after the first spoonful.

Black George and TOOK are independent businesses that thrive on creativity, dedication and commitment enhanced by well-honed and sophisticated culinary points of view. Both restaurants continue to be meccas for serious food enthusiasts. Karac and Harding seem to be directing their attention to growing successful, sustainable businesses — based on renewed strategies for winning customers by staying on top of evolving trends while remaining true to their strengths and culinary philosophies.

Many new restaurant concepts are shedding everything that is superfluous and ingrained about guests’ fine dining perceptions. What’s left is understated and confident, genuinely hospitable and fueled with the life blood of culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity.

 

BLACK GEORGE

349 Talbot Street
London, ON

519-672-5862


 

TUESDAY – THURSDAY – 5:30 – 9 PM
FRIDAY & SATURDAY – 5:30–10:30 PM

Available for private bookings SUNDAY & MONDAY

 

TOOK (The Only on King)

172 King Street

London, ON

519-936-2064


 

TUESDAY – THURSDAY – 11AM - 10PM

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BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.