Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dressed to Impress at Turnbull & Stewart

Last Saturday afternoon I experienced the latest Savour Stratford tasting session: Wine and Winter Dressings.

The venue was the brand new demonstration kitchen at Turnbull & Stewart (located at 439 Erie Street in Stratford). Some readers may recall the last fateful blog mission I undertook at this paradise for kitchen supply - I met a food-loving cousin I never even knew I had when I attended Angelo Tramonti's olive oil information session. Ever since I have religiously returned to T&S to reload on his Sarafino Foods' extra virgin L'Ottobratico,  produced by the olive oil company that's run by our shared relatives in San Giorgio, Italy.

This time, I was attending a tasting session being led by another entrepreneur specializing in oils. But this stuff wasn't bottled in Italy - it was bottled in Listowel!

Chef Mark Filman of Feige's Fine Dining in Listowel always knew his family's homemade salad dressings were world class. They probably heard it a million times at the restaurant: 

"This stuff's so good, you should bottle it and sell it in stores!" 

So, they did.

Chef Mark came to break-in Turnbull & Stewart's brand new demonstration kitchen (featuring a state-of-the-art Thermidor induction cook-top) by expertly cooking a series of three meat dishes using his Feige's Gourmet Salad Dressings (above) as marinades.

While we were tasting Chef Mark's well-dressed creations everyone also got to sip samples of four different types of VQA wine from 13th Street Winery in the Niagara region of Ontario (above). Two of the bottles - the 'Noirs' and the 'Gamay' - were so good I think I may just have discovered my new favourite local source for gorgeous red wine.

Chef Filman used the induction burner and magnetically-charged pans to sear all of the meats at a high heat, then sent them all into the oven for varying lengths of time.

They all came out perfectly, and the flavour combinations that emerged from his pairings of meat and Feige's dressings were creative and unique, but also very right. Pork loin was marinaded in Feige's Raspberry Dressing, and the fruity complement to the perfectly cooked pork was reminiscent (but better) than pork chops and apple sauce. Chef cooked and served up some tender, moist chicken breasts marinaded in his Honey Mustard & Poppy Seed Dressing. And the medium rare rack of lamb? Marinaded in the simple but superb Oil & Vinegar Dressing.

We even got to try a Caesar salad prepared using Feige's German Caesar Dressing. When I asked Chef Mark what made this sweet, creamy dressing "German", he immediately admitted, "My wife!"

Last time I came to Turnbull & Stewart's I met my cousin. This time I met a talented local photographer who enjoys taking pictures of food and people as much as I enjoy writing about them. Sean from Lucid Musings Photo is a really talented person who is even better at shooting family and personal portraits than he is taking pics of food (check out his Facebook page to see even more of his stuff). Which you know is saying a lot after you check out the photo-montage he put together from the shots he took at Turnbull & Stewart during that delicious afternoon of wines and winter dressings:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

St. Paddy's at Molly Bloom's: The Secret Ingredient Is... Green!

Last Thursday was my first ever St. Patrick's Day in Stratford. I am the kind of person who would be inclined to take St. Paddy's Day more seriously as a holiday than, say, Christmas and Easter combined. I spent St. Patrick's Day in Dublin in 1997, so I have a strong idea of what constitutes a 'Good Craic' when March 17th rolls around. All I gotta say is - Stratford sure looks good in green!

I've been known to take the whole afternoon off to raise a few (dozen) pints of Guiness in commemoration of Ireland's snake-hating patron saint. That wasn't an option this year, and I paid the price for my professionalism: when Lisa and I got to Molly Bloom's Irish Pub around 6pm, it was so packed that folks were lining up to get in!

The wait was worth it though - when we got inside the place was full of great party music, people in the mood to have fun, and pitchers of bright green beer!

Molly's is owned and operated by Rob and Candace Wigan (above), and they were in fine form that night (St. Paddy's is the equivalent of the Superbowl for Irish pubs!). We hung out with them and some other friends and necked a few pints of stout while we waited for a table to become available on this packed night.

A great food-loving friend of mine from County Clare, Ireland, once shared with me some words of wisdom his aunt had bestowed upon him:

"Hunger is the best sauce."

We were hungry after the line-up and the quaffing session we'd performed while waiting for our table: the special Irish menu the kitchen at Molly's was serving up that night tasted about as good as food can taste!

I started off with one of my favourite things to eat, a steaming bowl of leek & potato soup. Simple and satisfying, in the true spirit of Irish pub food.

The lads in the kitchen got creative with the next dish - Irish Nachos. What makes Irish Nachos 'Irish', you ask? Instead of tortilla chips, the salsa, cheese, olives, and peppers were loaded over a pile of deep fried crosshatch-cut potatoes. As a sucker for any dish that includes fried potatoes, this was a real winner for me.
Someone at the table ordered a golden plateful of Guiness Battered Fish and Chips.

Another friend ordered Chicken in an Irish Whiskey Sauce. Sláinte!

But Irish eyes were truly smiling on the special Shepherd's Pie we were served. A perfectly seasoned mix of gorgeous lamb and ground beef baked under a layer of fluffy mash - this was pub food fit for James Joyce himself!

We were tempted to order dessert, but opted instead to get back into the spirit of Ireland (literally) with a few shots known as "Irish Car Bombs" (a jigger of Bailey's Irish Cream sitting in a glass of Guiness, downed  all at once like a Boilermaker).

My first St. Paddy's in Stratford was my favourite combination - a great party and a great meal!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Raising the Barr: From Cocoa Beans to Chocolate Barrs

If you're like me, you might have just assumed that chocolate came from... um... hmmm? 
Let me rephrase that: If you're like me, you might have wondered, Where the heck exactly does chocolate come from?!?

Last week I visited the only chocolate maker in Stratford.

Now, I already hear readers crying out: "But there's more than one chocolate maker in Stratford!!" To be clear: I'm not talking about 'operations that make candies using chocolate' here, of which yes there are more than a few in town (hence the success of the Stratford Chocolate Trail launched this past year). 

No, for this blog post I met with an artisan who actually takes the raw ingredients used to make chocolate and creates this "Food of the Gods" from scratch.

Derek Barr of Chocolate Barr's in Stratford is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. In my post about the Chocolate Trail from last summer, I described him as, "a chef who prefers to work with confection as his medium." The combination of self-reliance and creativity is, in my opinion, the ideal skill set for culinary excellence. Derek Barr doesn't seem to care much for recipes combining pre-processed ingredients; he creates the ingredients himself and then sees where they take him. I distinctly remember being extremely impressed when I learned he'd created a whole line of ice wine jellies by reducing bottles of precious Ontario ice wine himself. And at the recent Perth County Food Summit reception, Derek's was serving up an all-local '60 Mile Toffee' he'd made from scratch using Robinson maple syrup/butter, C'est Bon goat's chevre/milk, and wild boar bacon from Perth Pork Products!

Last week, Derek Barr generously allowed me to shadow him as he created chocolate by first roasting, husking, and juicing the beans of the tropical cocoa plant. He's sourced out  cocoa beans from Costa Rica, Venezuela and Madagascar, which he processes by hand as a true labour of love.

The bitter cocoa liquor Derek is extracting throughout the video is then added to raw sugar cane and powdered milk to create what we know as milk chocolate. Or it can be smoothed out by the introduction of some  sugar and cocoa butter and transformed into, for example, dark chocolate with 80% cocoa ingredients.

Which is exactly what Mr. Barr has done with his most recent shipment of cocoa beans from Costa Rica. The latest Bean to Bar product is called Itzamna, appropriately named after the Mayan god of creation.

I found the flavour of this authentic chocolate bar intriguing. Having been brought up on milk chocolate candy bars, I think my mouth has been trained to anticipate sweet creaminess when it comes across this particular treat. But the from-scratch bar was very different - it was somewhat bitter and  crisply crunchy. That's what real chocolate is supposed to taste like!

St. Patrick's Day is around the corner, and Chocolate Barr's also has a whole line of really fun Irish themed chocolates and candies like Guiness Truffles (above) and Irish Potatoes (below).

Thanks goes out to Derek Barr for sharing his method for creating chocolate from Bean to Bar with me. His painstaking efforts to keep it real are above-and-beyond the call of duty, and the products of his labour are absolutely heavenly.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Things First: Chef Sursur Lee at Conestoga College Culinary Arts Fundraiser

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience at the Perth County Regional Food Summit. One of the workshops I attended was a panel discussion called "Culinary Tales: Making the Most of Media Attention". On my post, I celebrated one of the panelists, Andrew Coppolino, as our local "King-of-All-Food-Media" due to his gigs as a radio personality hosting The Food Show on 570News, as the publisher of his own foodie site Waterloo Region Eats, and as the host of a regular TV spot called Foodstuffs on the local Rogers cable program Grand River Living.

Andrew is a huge fan and supporter of the Stratford food scene. He's also a great friend of the blog, which was confirmed when he 'Direct Messaged' me on Twitter last week and asked me if I wanted to come to a very special fundraising event being held in support of the Conestoga College Hospitality and Culinary Arts programs. I've encountered Andrew many times as he's  covered the Stratford  beat, and now he was hooking me up with the opportunity to come and share in a food blog adventure on his home turf in Waterloo, which is a little more than a half hour drive from where I live.

But this wasn't just any invitation. The person leading the students in the kitchen for this event was none other than the Toronto/New York/Washington DC/Singapore restaurant icon and legendary Top Chef Master himself: Susur Lee!

[But I have more to thank Andrew Coppolino for than just connecting me with event organizer Matthew Worden, the Sommelier and Maitre D' of Bloom (the culinary program's restaurant at Conestoga College). I came to this incredible  dinner to cover Susur's visually-spectacular food for the blog, only to find upon arrival I had exactly zero juice in my camera's battery! This potential disaster was narrowly averted by the generous Mr. Coppolino, who took all of the dazzling photos I've included on this post.]

There might be only one blogger who I encounter on the Stratford culinary scene as often as Andrew, and that's Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto. Suresh also presented a workshop I attended at the Perth County Regional Food  Summit this past month, where he discussed what the next steps were in the evolution of social media. I was really glad to learn Suresh would be joining Andrew and me at the event's media table - the man knows wine and food like nobody's business, and this was the first meal we've been able to share together.

The event was held in a uniquely improvised space, as Conestoga College's tradespeople-in-training (including gas fitters, plumbers, and electricians) were called upon to create a kind of kitchen stadium, replete with high definition video screens broadcasting real-time images being streamed by a team of roving camera people (clearly Conestoga also has a great media arts program!). As we mingled and enjoyed some appetizers (like duck spring rolls, above) I met the manager of Langdon Hall in nearby Cambridge and told her how much I'd enjoyed the Terroir dinner at Lassdale Farm I'd attended only a few days before, which had been prepared by the Langdon Hall kitchen team. I spotted Nick and Nat of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 (which from what I gather is gaining a reputation as Waterloo's best place to enjoy a truly great locally-sourced meal) and made a deal with Suresh and Andrew that we'd all go to one of their upcoming Iron Chef events this spring.

Then it was time for dinner. I quickly learned that Susur does not take the phrase "time for dinner" lightly - it is his trademark to begin with a generous entree first, and he definitely came out swinging!

Chef Susur took to the microphone to introduce the first dish and explain his philosophy of starting dinner with the biggest course and then working back through smaller courses, "At my restaurants, I serve the most succulent courses first. That way, people don't want to eat so much bread." I have to say, bread was the last thing on my mind once I sat down and found a gorgeous rack of lamb (pic above) immediately placed before me by one of the hospitality students serving the meal. The flavours went from East to West, with Thai-seasoned lamb mingling with Middle Eastern chickpea puree and cumin tomato sauce, with a scattering of European sweet potato gnocchi. All I can say is that this dish definitely lived up to Susur's reputation: he  puts the "world" in world class.

The next course was less substantial in size but even more complex in flavour. The Spicy Lobster Tart with Bonito (above, in mid-composition) was a puff pastry filled with zingy tomatillos and poached lobster, and finished with a heaping pile of incredibly fragrant bonito flakes. This dish hit my nose first and called upon me to dig deep for the spicy tomatillo and lobster chunks, then at its base everything was brought together by an unexpected-but-crucial piece of crispy pancetta. Described by Susur as a "Surf and Turf Tart", I was again impressed by the dexterity of his cuisine and deft skills of the students who put it all together.

The next course flowed from the previous like an ocean current, as we were presented with a Seared White Tuna With Lemon Grass and Yuzu Japanese Salmon Pearls. For this dish, Susur's unique style combined Nouvelle French with Japanese techniques, and the results were a welcome cool-down from the strong spices of the last two dishes. So was the fantastic wine pairing selected by front-of-house talent Matthew Worden: VQA afficionado Suresh pointed out the fruitiness of the Trius Sauvignon Blanc accompanying this course, which he accurately compared to a "Lychee bomb."

And now for something completely unexpected...

I've been blogging for almost a year now, and this story marks my 70th post to date. I'm not a sweet tooth, and I'm pretty sure I could go over all of my previous posts and not find a single one where I proclaimed a dessert to be the best part of my meal. Not in a million years would I have anticipated  dessert to be the highlight of my first ever Sursur Lee dining experience.

But I was absolutely blown away by the final course of the night: a jiggly Vanilla Panna Cotta with Pineapple and Raspberry Ravioli with Spiced Passion Fruit Sauce (above). The chewy pineapple with the tart raspberry filling was sensuously enveloped by the creamy panna cotta, and the whole works were set off by the spicy-sweet sauce. Honestly, did that just happen?

The main came first, and the best was saved for last. I learned that Susur is the master of the unexpected as well as a genius when it comes to a meal's flow and visual affect. I also came to appreciate his commitment to mentoring the chefs of the future - taking part in the execution of this meal will undoubtedly be a highlight that will always be remembered by the Conestoga  College Culinary Arts students of 2011. I know it's definitely been a highlight of my year, and I want to thank Andrew Coppolino and Matthew Worden again for asking me to come and report on this highly successful fundraising event.

While we're on the subject of fundraising for worthwhile culinary education causes...

Anyone remember this blog post from December, 2010, where I told my story about helping out with the Arctic meal Paul Finkelstein presented at the  Toronto "Anti-Restaurant" Charlie's Burger (the dinner was inspired by the trip I took with Fink and his high school culinary arts class to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut)? At the end, I hinted that Paul had another venue up his sleeve:

"Next Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident stop: James Beard House in New York City!?!"

Well, James Beard House has in fact invited Chef Fink, Chef Louis, and some of his students to come to New York City this spring to replicate the meal for US foodies at this mecca of American culinary arts (Susur has cooked there several times). To raise funds to send the students and chefs to fulfill this incredible honour (it's like a rock band being invited to play Madison Square Garden), a draw is being organized with prizes that include a trip to NYC to attend the meal, a dream culinary weekend in Stratford (including a tour guided by yours truly), and a package of dinners at some of Toronto's best restaurants (including The Beast and Centro). For tickets and information keep an eye on the Screaming Avocado website this week!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Truly Holistic Experience: Terroir V Dinner at Lassdale Farm

For the past five years, Arlene Stein (formerly of Hart House in Toronto, presently with the Evergreen Brickworks) has held an annual symposium called Terroir, where hospitality professionals (everyone from chefs and restauranteurs all the way to farmers and authors) meet to share ideas and attend workshops to learn about best practices from some of the industry luminaries.

In past years, Arlene has held a special dinner after the event to thank the keynote speakers for travelling to Toronto to take part in her annual food biz convention. This year, she decided to have the dinner before the event. I think she may have made some arrangements at the Savour Stratford Perth County Food Summit a few weeks ago, since she chose my friends Mark and Chris Lass' Lassdale Farms/Wild Violet Pottery as the venue for an incredible dining experience.

Among the guests for this remarkable evening of Canadian dining were Fergus Henderson, a British chef who is well known as a leader in the popular Snout-to-Tail carnivore movement; Trevor Gulliver, Chef Henderson's business partner at the St. John restaurant in the UK; Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation; David Kinch, award winning chef at the California field-to-table gem Manresa; and Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: The Book. Mark sourced out some Nunavut seal meat for the event that he offered to share with Fergus, Mitchell, and Trevor (left to right above).

Now I'm no industry pro, but I do know that the best dining experiences are those that stimulate the body, mind and spirit. The pottery barn where Chris Lass works - nestled in a vast snowy field - provided a gorgeous rustic environment. Her stunning, often iridescent clay creations - within which all of the food and drinks were served - added an earthy authenticity appropriate to the whole Terroir concept. Mark and Chris explained how the special kiln they built at the farm produces Chris' dazzling pottery (which even includes pieces made of clay dug up on the farm itself!).

Chef Kinch and Mitchell Davis were immediate fans of this talented local artisan!

Local farmer Antony John (aka Soiled Reputation Farm's The Manic Organic) was crooning the classics back in the barn, and we all tried some of the raw seal, as well as some local elk jerky, some skewered beef tips made with veal from the very farm upon which we were standing, and smoky duck prosciutto beside some oysters with seal merguez sausage (above).

All of the food for the evening was prepared by the kitchen team from Langdon Hall in Cambridge, who cooked in the great outdoors alongside a heaping handful of student chefs from the Stratford Chefs School (who need to be congratulated both for finishing their grueling first year a few days previous and for sticking around to prepare such a stellar meal for these serious VIPs).

I was able to take some video of the evening that included a clip of the adventurous Mark Schatzker offering to be the first to try the seal (I think "North of the Border" may have been a better song for that one Antony); as well as intros to the meal by Stratford Tourism's Danielle Brodhagen and winemarker Norman Hardie of Prince Edward County.

The meal included Arctic Char, Muskox and Caribou served family style in Chris' ceramic creations. Soiled Reputation vegetables provided a local complement to the northern delicacies to which our American and British guests of honour were treated, many for the first time.

The pottery studio loft was alive with conversation and buzzing with personality.

I found Chef David Kinch to be a real class act, which he demonstrated when he took the time to talk to the chefs-in-training who prepared our meal while we all enjoyed a spectacular platter of local goat and sheep's milk cheese from Monforte Dairy. Chef offered the dudes in the kitchen some of his invaluable culinary insights (above). Word has it he'll be in town for a week next year teaching at the Stratford Chefs School (I'm not going to miss those dinners).

I was disappointed that I wasn't able to attend the full Terroir V event at Hart House in Toronto on March 1, but I think I got the next best thing by being invited to share in this sensational winter dining experience!