BY BRYAN LAVERY
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 in December 2015, 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.
45 King Street West, Kitchener