Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, January 28, 2011


Last Saturday Lisa and I bundled up the kiddies and trundled on over to Winterfest, the annual outdoor winter weekend where Stratford celebrates its Canadian-ness by embracing the cold and snow and turning the icy tundra into some serious fun-dra.

It was cold. 
I'm talking can't-feel-my-fingers-and-toes cold. 
But that didn't stop us and hundreds of other folks and families (and real live Mounties, with Fisher above!) from throwing on a few extra layers and coming down to Queens Park - between the hibernating Festival Theatre and the frozen river - for some Arctic games, Stratford-style.

The dogsled rides were a popular attraction for brave little mushers as well as people (like us) who just love looking at gorgeous huskies in their element.

But this is a food blog, not a dog blog. This guy was double-fisting the family-sized fries from Stratford's legendary chip truck Ken's Fries.

We came across another dad with an armful of sugary-crispy apple fritters from Brit's Apple Frits, and he assured us, "These are the best part of Winterfest!"

That night, Lisa and I also accepted a generous babysitting offer and continued the Winterfest-ivities  as we set out to take advantage of one of the dinner deals many of the downtown dining establishments were offering Saturday night in coordination with the event. We went to Molly Bloom's Irish Pub for a couple of pre-dinner Bloody Caesars (we were celebrating our Canadian-ness after all) and were tempted by their festive sign (above) inviting us to stay for a maple-glazed pork tenderloin dinner.

But there was one restaurant in Stratford I'd never been to but really wanted to check out that night: The Annex Room. The Annex is one place most Stratford long-time locals always mention to me when they list their favourite spots to go out for dinner.

I'd also heard that they cooked great pizza and lots of other great dishes using a beautiful fired oven (above). That night, we had a choice between two Winterfest deals. The first was a specially-priced three course menu featuring a starter of spring rolls, a Dijon crusted chicken supreme entree stuffed with goat's cheese, and dessert.

We thought the fiery oven offered a nice, warm nighttime contrast to our icy daytime frostbitten experience, so we decided to go with the other Winterfest deal, which was two pizzas for the price of one. After debating over the extensive pizza menu, the first one we went for was the Tiger Shrimp and Roasted Garlic (above), which the oven did a great job cooking since neither the crust nor the shrimp were overdone. 
Our next choice was the Artichoke Heart and Baby Greens on Pesto pizza. This vegetarian pie was fresh and vibrant and definitely warmed up this winter night. 

I don't usually comment on service but I can see why Francis, the head server at The Annex Room, is almost always mentioned when people tell me about why they love this warm, comfortable and inviting restaurant. She made us feel right at home, and will definitely be one of the reasons we'll return to this landmark Stratford dining room many times in the future.

I feared my first winter food blogging in snowy Stratford might be a challenge, but honestly the only difficulty I'm having is in keeping up with all the amazing culinary experiences that seem to be available almost every day! I hereby officially declare that there is no "off season" for great food in this city, as Winterfest demonstrated (albeit frigidly).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stratford Chefs School Dinner Series: La Casa de los Sabores

All winter I've been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to attend one of the Stratford Chefs School dinners (or one of the lunches for that matter!). This past week I was finally able to join the ongoing feast that students at Stratford's esteemed chef training institute have been preparing for our community all season as part of their curriculum.  

On Tuesday, my folks were in town for a visit before heading out on their yearly snowbird migration south. To see them off in tropical style, we all headed down to The Old Prune for a world class adventure in culinary education.

The Chefs School is unparalleled in its ability to attract incredible cooking talent from around the world to come and instruct their chefs-in-training in international recipes and techniques. Back in December, Michelin Star Chef Riccardo Camanini mentored the class of 2011 through a stunning series of Italian menus (I was drooling at the pics of the minimalist masterpieces posted on Twitter). The Chef in Residence leading the students last week was Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, owner of La Olla Restaurante in Oaxaca, Mexico. Chef Pilar's five sold-out dinners were particularly special events in Stratford, where we are blessed with so many great restaurants but, alas, if we want anything even resembling Mexican food we're stuck with... Taco Bell?!? Understandably, there was a lot of buzz about Chef Pilar being in town: most people have to fly south to experience real-deal Mexican cuisine, but last week Stratford's food lovers got to taste the authentic flavours of southern Mexico without leaving our snow-covered city.

When we walked into the stylish dining room at The Old Prune we were excited to see some of our friends from the local food community were also in attendance, including the lads from Anything Grows and Tina and Antony from Soiled Reputation. The Manic Organic pointed out that Perth County is actually an amazing location for sourcing-out many of the ingredients that form the backbone of Mexican cuisine, like pork, chicken and corn. He's such a big fan of Mexican cooking he and Tina came out to two of Chef Pilar's student dinners (lucky!).

Our placemats were adorned with an intricate cut-out of the logo for Chef Pilar's own cooking school in Mexico: La Casa de los Sabores (The House of Flavours). The house was indeed full of all sorts of strong, complex and sometimes unexpected flavours as we were presented with a flowing five course menu executed by student chef Simon Briggs. Another student taking his turn at front of  house whet the hungry room's appetite as he announced the theme of the night, which was Mexican street food, "the essence of Mexican lifestyle."

Speaking of unexpected, the night began with a Margarita cocktail (photo above) rimmed with salt mixed with a couple of traditional Oaxacan folk ingredients: dried grasshopper and worm! The, uh, grasshopperiness of the grasshopper really complemented the, um, wormilicious worm. Seriously though: the drink was whimsical, one-of-a-kind and actually quite delicious.

Mexican technique was applied to local Ontario product to great success with the opening dish, Fish Tacos al pastor (photo above). When I spoke to her after, Chef Pilar told me that the traditional type of fish used in this dish is Red Snapper. This version used Pickerel and was accompanied by a bright red (but not-as-hot-as-it-looks) achiote sauce. Hands-down the best thing I've eaten in 2011 (and it's going to be a tough one to beat).

The Mexican flavours continued with a Cream of Poblano Pepper soup accompanied by a basket of zingy chili-dusted popcorn. I loved how the silky texture of the soup juxtaposed with the crunchy fluffiness of the spiced popcorn.

The next dish delivered the heat that Mexican food is so famous for. The Shrimp Skewers with Pico de Gallo Sauce saw two insanely hot peppers parenthesizing an impaled set of roasted  cherry tomatoes, red onion and two perfectly cooked and delicately seasoned shrimp. After eating the shrimp and tomatoes I finally worked up the courage to take a bite of one of the seed-filled chilis... and my bald head turned into a lawn sprinkler. My mom was dabbing my brow like a prizefighter as I gulped down enough water to cool the inferno in my mouth; be I ever so humbled, I was ready for the main course!

The entree (above) was a Steamed Chicken Tamale wrapped in banana leaf and served with a chocolate based black mole (pronounced "mole, eh") sauce originating from Chef Pilar's hometown in Oaxaca.

Finally, dessert was a Mexican cheesecake with an Oaxacan chocolate sauce and a quenelle of passionfruit sorbet (above).

Student Chef Simon Briggs (left), Chef in Residence Pilar Cabrera Arroyo (centre), and Chef Francisco  Alejandri (right, from the soon-to-open Agua Cave restaurant in Toronto's Kensington Market) came out to chat with the tables. We all expressed our appreciation for their fine Mexican menu - gracias!

Good news - although Chef Pilar is now gone, there will be one more opportunity for folks in Stratford to enjoy some authentic Mexican cuisine on February 3, 2011, when Chef Francisco returns to lead the students himself. All this week, the Chefs School is being taught by yet another international talent -  French Chef Alexandre Gauthier. If you haven't been to a Chef School dinner or lunch I highly recommend it - there's good value (wine is included in the set price), the food is superb, and it's all in support of Stratford's own not-for-profit chef training school, which without a doubt is one of the reasons our culinary community is blessed with so much talent.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Soup's On!

There was something in the air last Friday in Stratford. Anywhere you walked, it seemed that our fair city was infused with the smell of... soups!

Soup's On! is an amazing soup-making contest that has been taking place for the past 16 years as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Society of Canada. Professionals and amateurs alike bring-on their finest soup creations and compete for titles such as Best Hearty Soup, Best Creamy Soup, Best Vegetarian Soup, and the coveted People's Choice. 

I was up bright and early on Saturday morning to help out chef Shawn Hartwell (above) in the kitchen of Simple Fish and Chips. His 100% sustainable, Canadian-caught fish and seafood sourcing and general get-'er-done attitude has made him a Slow Food role model in the Perth County community. Slow Food Perth County (to which I am honoured to have recently been named a co-chair) and Perth County Kitchens (a community cooking education initiative founded by my also-recently-named-co-chair Laurie Knechtel) collaborated with Shawn on one of his Soups On! entries. 

Shawn told us he wanted to make a Roasted Garlic and Potato soup just like the one he had served all day to line-ups at the 2010 Stratford Garlic Festival. Perth County Kitchens just happens to be holding a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) information session on Wednesday, February 9 at the Falstaff  centre featuring the organizer of the Garlic Festival, Warren Ham. Farmer Ham (of August's Harvest in Gadshill) is one of the most successful organic garlic growers in the province, and Laurie was able to procure about 15 lbs. of local organic garlic from him for the purpose of soup contest supremacy! 

Soup's On is my kind of scene!

I thought I liked soup... but a lot of the competitors showed an enthusiasm that was above and beyond.

Laurie and I spent a few fun-filled hours helping Shawn serve up the heavenly Roasted Garlic and Potato soup, as well as a second creation Shawn called Harvest Pumpkin soup (resembling a slice of pumpkin pie in its savoury spiced taste) to the over 3,000 people who attended.

At times, I snuck off to sample the competition's offerings. I tried about half of the 34 soups being served up, and was definitely feeling the heat!

The Victorian Order of Nurses warmed up the crowd with a unique Water Buffalo and Barley creation (top left).  Proceeding clockwise, I thoroughly enjoyed the Middle Eastern flavour of the Morroccan Tomato soup being served by the Stratford Country Club; loved the zest of the of the Bean and Jalapeno sample I received from The County Food Co., and appreciated the homestyle heartiness of the Deluxe Bean soup that the folks from Full of Beans were ladelling out.

We were stationed right next to the students from the Stratford's Chefs School, whose Jereusalem Artichoke Soup with a Parsnip Chip (above) featured the most unique ingredients of the contest. 

Having witnessed the enthusiasm for Soups On! communicated by the folks at Alpha Beet Soup & Juice Bar on their street sandwich board on Friday (see pic at top) I had to try both of their entries. On the left in the picture above is their complex Vietnamese Meatball in an Asian style broth, and on the right was one of my personal favourites of the day, the Red Bean Corn Chowder.

In fact, the Red Bean Corn Chowder was awarded that Best Pro Hearty Soup. Shawn's Harvest Pumpkin walked away with the Best Pro Veg title!

But the day belonged to Rob and Candice from Molly Bloom's Irish Pub (above), whose Loaded Baked Potato soup won both Best Creamy Pro and this year's People's Choice award!

If you want to see what it takes to win the title of Stratford's Best Soup (so you can strategize for next year!) go to Molly's and try it out - you'll find it on the menu every day...

I'm already thinking of next year... but I'm also looking forward to the second of Stratford's winter charity cooking competitions: Orr Insurance's Heart and Stroke Foundation fundraiser known as Heartburn Day (Saturday, February 5 at the Rotary Complex). I'll have to stock up on Rolaids: I'm going to be a judge!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Jenn & Larry's Brittle and Shakes: It's a Stacey Thing!

So ever since I moved to Stratford a little over a year ago, it seems that whenever I've introduced myself to someone:

'Hi, I'm Steve Stacey' 

I've gotten the same question:

'Oh, are you related to the Staceys? Jenny? Dan? Larry? Gail?'

For a while, I didn't know who they were referring to. 

Then one night out on the town I was introduced to Dan Stacey. We hit it off immediately (it's a Stacey thing, you wouldn't understand). I learned that he was a highly accomplished fiddle and step dance performer. Check out this footwork!!:

Over the course of this year, I've also become acquainted with the confectionery handiwork of Dan's twin sister, Jenn Stacey, aka Jenny of Jenny's Peanut Brittle. 

I first came across the Jenny's Peanut Brittle booth at the Canada Day event held in the Stratford city centre (above). Then, when I embarked on the Stratford Chocolate Trail I discovered Jenny's  chocolate-dipped almond cranberry brittle at Treasures, which was hands-down the best thing I tried on the town's sweetest tour.

Then, near the end of last summer, I was delighted to see that Jenn had set up a permanent retail location on York Street, looking right over the riverside. I brought my boys (aka the Stacey Brothers) by for a shake, and that was when we met Jenn and Dan's dad Larry Stacey, the co-proprietor of Jenn & Larry's Brittle and Shakes.

As it turns out, Larry Stacey, along with his wife Gail, are well-known as the former king and queen of drive-in cuisine here in Stratford. Back in the sixties and early seventies, Gail ran the food side of 'Larry and Gail's Drive In', and Larry was the man behind their trademark milkshakes, "The line-ups on Sunday began at noon and didn't end until 8 at night at the ice cream stand."

Larry and Gail sold their thrivin' drive-in around 1973, upon the arrival of twins Jenny and Dan. Which turned out to be a great decision: Jenn is also a highly accomplished performer and teacher of Canadian Step Dancing, and she and her brother would probably not have made it to the highest levels of step dancing had their parents not been able to travel all over Ontario to festivals with them every weekend beginning when they were six!
Great news Stratford: After a brief hiatus of nearly forty years, Larry is back in action with the best shakes in town! In fact, he still uses a vintage 1952 three-spinner Hamiton Beach shake blender (above: you can't miss that classic soda-fountain-aqua colour).

Jenn and Larry are extremely excited about the future of their family business (Dan and Gail both help out too!). Whether you come for the soft serve ice cream or brittle (or both!) you'll enjoy a unique experience and find a great treat for everyone in the family.

Jenn and Larry just announced some new products, including take-out ice cream tubbies streaked with rich deposits of chocolate fudge and/or caramel sauce. As a special winter treat they've been offering a Hot Chocolate Peppermint Float. Soon, they plan to serve a line of creative sundae toppings using local and organic fruit.

But the main reason I came by this week was for one of their new ice cream cakes. You see, my little Stacey Brothers have both been a little under the weather all week. I thought I might cheer them up with an awesome treat from Jenn & Larry's Brittle and Shakes [...and Ice Cream Cakes - watch for the catchy name change soon!]. Thanks Staceys - your delicious, creamy and fun cake totally made their day!