Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bijou: Every Dish is a Daily Special When It's Created by Chef Aaron Linley

A lot of restaurants have daily 'chef specials', often conveyed via a chalkboard describing two or three dishes that are not permanently on the menu, but are available on that particular day.

At Bijou Restaurant, there is no permanent menu. Chef Aaron Linley isn't one to settle into a fixed culinary routine: he changes his menu every day in response to what is fresh, seasonal, and locally available, performing an unbelievable daily improvisation that calls simultaneously upon his mastery of French, Asian and Italian techniques and ingredients. If you were lucky enough to dine at Bijou everyday (and in my books that's about as lucky as a person could get), you would never order from the exact same menu twice. Every dish Chef Linley and his wife Bronwyn (who met at the Stratford Chefs School) serve at their intimate, family-run "Culinary Gem" is a daily chef's special, and the ever-changing chalkboard menu reflects Bijou's philosophy of originality, creativity, and spontaneity.
Bijou's entrance is tucked away in the laneway just behind Wellington Street, which right away gives you the feeling you are entering a place that is out-of-the-ordinary. The feeling persists as you walk in and  immediately encounter the open kitchen where Chef Aaron and his busy kitchen crew are performing their alchemy of the day.

For our pre-dinner cocktail my wife Lisa and I tried Bijou's cosmopolitan, made with berry-infused vodka. We're really looking forward to attending the Shake Your Martini fundraiser for Gallery Stratford (taking place at Gallery Stratford on Monday, September 20 at 7pm), which is being held as part of Savour Stratford's first-ever Culinary Week. Bijou and Pazzo are providing  hors d'oeuvres at this swanky, 1920s-themed event, and as if that's not exciting enough Bronwyn Linley herself will be showing us all how to make our own creative vodka infusions at home!

I think Chef Aaron saw Lisa and I lingering in front of the chalkboard, trying to decide between dishes that all read like a dream. He made it easy for us by generously sending over samples of a couple of the dishes we'd really been tempted by, but hadn't picked.

The shrimp and mussel ceviche that arrived unexpectedly at our table was eye-openingly piquant and lip-smackingly tangy and a great start to our dinner - thanks Chef! 
For her starter, Lisa ordered a soy and sake marinaded rainbow trout (almost like an Asian gravlax, photo above) atop a slaw of jicima, avocado and sesame that was beyond delicious. My own starter was a velvety onion soup a-swim with succulent poached spot prawns. One word: killer.

Another unexpected pair of plates suddenly showed up at our table courtesy of the Chef: Aaron's a longtime friend of Lisa's, and I've had the pleasure of hanging-out for some late-night patio drinks with him and Bronwyn many times, so I think he wanted to spoil us a bit now that we finally came to their restaurant! Both of us savoured every bite of the Chef's treat of crispy duck leg with oyster mushrooms, French lentils and baby bok choy stewed in wakame broth. 

For her main, Lisa ordered the seared sea scallops 'bourguignonne' with bacon and mushrooms in red wine. Perfectly cooked and seasoned, it was a stellar interpretation of what happens to be Lisa's favourite flavour combinations. 
Bijou is known as the place where local product is showcased in fine-dining style, so I went for the Lake Huron pickerel with shiitake mushrooms, pea shoots and edamame, which had been simmered in a sweet yet savoury broth of Chinese rice wine, soy and anise (photo above). The Suppliers Hall of Fame on Bijou's website reads like an all-star team of Perth and Huron County producers, so it was not surprising that my all-local entree was of the highest quality imaginable, both in its ingredients and its execution.
Bronwyn is Bijou's pastry chef, so there was no way we were skipping dessert! Lisa and I shared a duo of peaches, composed of slow roasted peaches with orange caramel and frozen peach parfait (photo above). There is nothing either of us like better than in-season Ontario peaches, and this dessert was the perfect way for us to enjoy this lovely and fleeting ingredient before it soon disappears.
I often interview the owners and chefs at the restaurants I visit for my blog, but in this case the simple-yet-spectacular food really spoke for itself. The only thing Aaron and Bronwyn are into more than food is their family: Chef Aaron left to get home in time to tuck his kids Hazel and Liam - who are responsible for the great art on the walls of Bijou (see photo above) - into bed. 

But before he went home, I had one question for Chef Linley. I'd just learned that Breakfast Television is coming to Stratford next week for a live broadcast preview of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. Of course, the festival organizers want to show-off the absolute best of the chef/producer teams who will be sharing their co-creations with attendees of the festival's Sunday York Street Tasting Tent, so Chef Aaron has been asked to provide a sneak peek of what Bijou will be making in collaboration with August's Harvest farm. I wanted to know: what was he going to be serving on TV next week? But, as his ever-changing menu board attests, Chef Linley isn't one to plan too much ahead, so he didn't have a definite answer for me. He did hint though that he was leaning towards a dish involving roasted tomato, garlic confit and goat's cheese. 

Anyone who wants to come and be part of the audience for Breakfast Television's preview of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival are encouraged to set their alarms early and come to the Stratford Band Shell on Veterans Drive at 6:30 am on Wednesday, September 15th. You will be able to share in Chef Linley's spontaneous creation, as well as shop for local food at the mini farmer's market being set up for the broadcast. Coffee from Balzac's will be provided for free along with mini scones from Let Them Eat Cake. Bring a lawn chair and a travel mug and come down to the riverside - I'll see you there!

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