Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bijou Chef Aaron Linley's Iron Chef Battle at Nick & Nat's Uptown 21: Where Isn't the Beef?

Back in February at the Perth County Food Summit, I attended a panel discussion where Chef Nick Benninger was speaking about the restaurant he owns with his wife Natalie in Waterloo, called Nick & Nat's Uptown 21. I had come across their food before at the Savour Stratford Sunday Tasting Tent, where I vividly recall trying a truly kickass duck-on-duck dish that's been etched in my memory ever since. At this year's Summit, Nick revealed one of the secrets of his culinary success, which is his strong relationship with local farmers and his ability to adapt his menu to the ingredients they show up with seasonally.

He also talked about the fun Iron Chef challenges his restaurant's been hosting for the past two years to test other chefs' ability to take whatever farm product was at hand and create something memorable. After the panel I told Nick I'd love to come watch a Stratford chef battle it out at the NN Uptown 21 Kitchen Stadium... and last week Chef Aaron Linley of Bijou Restaurant was given the opportunity to throw down!

Without a doubt, Nick and Nat couldn't have picked anyone better from Stratford than Chef Aaron. He grew up here, graduated from the Stratford Chefs School in the same class as his wife/business partner/pastry chef Bronwyn, and together they created Bijou, which is quite simply the best restaurant in town. Aaron and Bronwyn's success is based on their ability to also adapt their menu to whatever ingredients are available seasonally using a combination of all sorts of culinary techniques and traditions. Bijou's ever-changing chalkboard menu is testament to Chef Aaron's versatility and creativity - two signs of a true Iron Chef.

I really wanted to try Nick's own cooking so I went down a little early with my friends Kimberley Payne, who is the Executive Director of the Stratford Chefs School, and Bob Friesen, the Chefs School's Recruitment and Admissions Officer. There was a lot of buzz that it was going to be Battle Wild Leeks (they've just come into season around here); every course on the Uptown 21's Prix Fixe menu (except dessert) had the option of a dish featuring wild leeks, so Bob and I decided to see how Chef Nick handled what we thought might be the secret ingredient.

Our first course was a Gratin of Wild Leeks, Berkshire Prosciutto, Dried Red Prince Apples, Ermite Blue Cheese and Bread Crumbs (above). The salty Prosciutto balanced the strong garlicky flavour of the wild leeks, and the strong blue cheese and tart/sweet apples also contributed some robust flavours to this definitely-not-shy dish.

The season's first fresh wild product was combined with a local ingredient that keeps great all winter in the second course: Wild Leek & Sunchoke Soup with Wild Leek Brown Butter (above).  

I really like Nick's somewhat brash yet balanced cooking style - the Mushroom & Wild Leek Risotto with Parmesan Cheese and Lemon Truffle-Dressed Frisse (above) took no prisoners with its intense  and indulgent combination of tart, cheesy, savoury, fresh, and spicy flavours. If he were competing, and it was Battle Wild Leeks, he would be a tough Chef to beat.

But Nick and Nat (above) didn't pick Wild Leeks to be their secret ingredient on Wednesday night. Chef Aaron and his competitors from Verses Restaurant in Kitchener were instead presented with the challenge of creating up to four dishes using (drum-roll please....)

All sorts of absolutely gorgeous cuts of grass-fed organic beef from Baer's Organic Beef farm in nearby Baden!

What a blast the competition was! A crowd of food lovers gathered around the somewhat intimate open kitchen, cheering on the chefs as they and their respective sous chefs raced against the clock to create the best possible dishes they could using Baer's ultra-lean cuts of beef. Judges included the Baers themselves along with Kristina Roman from Rosewood's Estates Winery in Niagara and Waterloo's king-of-all-food-media (and friend of the blog) Andrew Coppolino. A local high school media arts class was filming the whole thing and streaming it onto large screen TVs for the whole restaurant to see. And proceeds from the night supported the local food bank! This was my definition of a damn good time, and I had a front row seat for the whole thing!

Chef Aaron prevailed! I tasted a lot of what he cooked and I have to say he really rose to the occasion and brought the flavour of the beef out in four very different ways that all worked for their own reasons.

I do have to give props to the chef from Verses for pulling off the unlikely feat of a dessert featuring beef - her bone marrow beignets with ice cream were devilishly rich and I'm sure got top marks for originality from the judges. I think my friend Kimberley was particularly proud: all of the chefs and sous chefs competing in the kitchen that night were graduates of the Stratford Chefs School.

But the night belonged to Chef Aaron Linley - he really killed it. The best part is that every night is a kind of Iron Chef challenge at Bijou, as Aaron and Bronwyn bring out the best of all the special ingredients that come their way over the season. They've just renovated their kitchen, and I'll bet Aaron's added another culinary tradition to his impressive repertoire after their family's recent trip to Peru this winter. I couldn't recommend a better place to eat than Bijou or a better talent to represent Stratford's restaurant community than Chef Aaron Linley. And if you ever have a chance to go to one of Nick and Nat's Iron Chef nights - don't miss it!

A Revolutionary Tasting: Coffee and Dessert Pairings at Revel Caffè

The Savour Stratford Tastings series for 2011 has carried Stratford food lovers through this long winter by connecting people who appreciate good food with the folks who produce it on a weekly basis. The More With Maple tasting allowed attendees to learn about maple syrup from the Hoovers, who had just finished tapping their trees days before. The Wine and Winter Dressings tasting saw us enjoying food cooked before our eyes by a chef using dressings he and his family created and bottled.

But I have to say, the tasting session I attended last week at Revel Caffè was above-and-beyond the culinary experience call-of-duty.

We Canadians love coffee. But there is obviously no way we can grow it locally. Now I like my local product as much as the next guy (ok, maybe a little more) but for me coffee is definitely one of those exceptions to the "buy local" rule.

But last Saturday I came to appreciate that there is at least one company roasting coffee in our region that reflects the same values that underlie the local food revolution: appreciation for family businesses where small scale producers grow an exceptional product with love and in cooperation with the environment. That company is Las Chicas Del Café.

Maria and Valeria are two sisters who roast coffee in London, Ontario. The special thing about their operation is that the beans they roast are grown by their father, Don Rey, on the family farm where they grew up in Nicaragua. Sometimes, after the years' harvest of beans has been picked and dried, Don Rey delivers them to Canada in person. This time, he and his daughters came to Stratford on the invitation of café owner Anne Campion, who wanted to connect her coffee loving patrons with the family responsible for growing and roasting the coffees we all enjoy every morning. The event was stimulating not just in in ts caffeination, but also in its education, as we all learned about the entire process that begins with farming coffee in Nicaragua and culminates with our steaming latte.

It doesn't get much better than learning about the coffee you are tasting from the people who grew it, roasted it, and served it, right?

Well, things were taken up yet another level as each coffee served was paired with a dessert created by students of the Stratford Chefs School to highlight the bean's unique flavour notes. The photo above is of (l to r) student chef Cortney Zettler, roaster Maria, student chef Amanda-Lee Chesley, and owner of Revel Caffè Anne Campion.

Anne and Cortney (above) started Saturday night off with a Whiskey Martini made with Revel Revolution beans paired with a Dark Chocolate Whiskey Truffle. The toasted crunchiness of the martini's full cappuccino bean mingled with the boozy, bitter-yet-sweet confection in a way that really brought out the coffee's bold strength. 

The next dessert also matched a very strong shot of French Press Maracatu with a sweet companion. But this time, the strong flavours were balanced by a nutty saltiness in the form of Candied Walnuts and Pecans. I could've eaten a whole bucket full of this stuff, although I have to say I really appreciated the cleverness of the nuts being served up in coffee filters.

I don't ever recall having polenta as dessert, but the Lemon and Almond Polenta Cake paired with the citrusy Americano Blend opened my eyes to the versatility of this creamy Italian version of cornmeal. This was my favourite dessert of the evening, and I could see that farmer Don Rey also approved of the combination of the tart lemon curd with  his deep, bright coffee as I watched him enjoy his from across the packed café.

The fourth pairing was a Milk Chocolate Mousse on Shortbread with a Coconut Twille, which was paired with the Revel Blend (above). Finally, a Creme Brulee was served alongside a shot of Revel Revolution espresso, which really highlighted the caramel flavour of that particular coffee blend. 

I went home wired to the gills on caffeine and mentally stimulated by all the great stories of coffee growing, roasting and brewing that were shared that evening. I've been to a few "Meet the producers" events over the past few years, but I have definitely never experienced anything on an international scale like this. My congrats go out to Revel Caffè, Las Chicas Del Café, and the Stratford Chefs School for putting this unforgettable event together so successfully.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Just Want to Celebrate: Lisa's B-day at The Sun Room & The Local-Come-Lately Turns 1!!!

This week, I had a lot to celebrate. My incredible wife Lisa had an unforgettable 35th birthday bash at The Sun Room Restaurant, and... 

The Local-Come-Lately turned 1!!!

I'll get to the Local-Come-Lately blog-iversary in a minute. 

First I have to tell all about the great Dinner-Come-Disco birthday shaker we had at our good friends' Carly and Ryan's wonderful restaurant on Saturday night.

Lisa is an extremely lovable person. Of course, I am somewhat biased in that observation... but I'm clearly not alone in my affection: forty of our best friends from Stratford and beyond came for dinner on Saturday night. 

Amanda and Paul Finkelstein (Paul above, digging into a Caesar Salad appetizer) were in the house.

Lisa and I had the roasted Duck Breast with Cranberry Compote and Blue Potatoes (above). Such a treat: Lisa had personally requested this festive dish for the custom birthday menu they'd put together especially for her (good news: it's available all the time!).

Others had the prime rib (my sister's above, perfectly cooked to medium rare).
A beautiful Asian-style noodle dish was also on the menu (above).

But nothing was more beautiful than Lisa that night (above). Her best friend Matty Ian (who also deserves a big "Happy First Anniversary" for his own  just-turned-one-year-old blog about the Stratford social scene!) made her a colourful - and really delicious! - cake we all shared for dessert!

Once the fabulous meal was over we set up the DJ decks and the night promptly evolved into a booty-shakin' dance party (sorry no pics, too busy having fun)!

Only two days later, it was time to celebrate another milestone: the first anniversary of the Local-Come-Lately's very first post! 

The first blog ever was on April 12, 2010. I wrote about the exchange between Paul Finkelstein's Stratford Northwestern High School culinary arts class and another group of foods students from British Columbia. 

Little did I know back then that I would go on work with Fink and his students to put nine gardens in elementary schools across Stratford, and that I'd eventually travel all the way to Nunavut with him and his class on what had to be the most epic Canadian food blogger adventure of the past year [sorry The Chew I love you but you've got a long way to come].

So here are some highlights and stats from the Local-Come-Lately's year in review:
Nearly 10,000 visits!

Over 15,000 pageviews!

Visitors from 98 countries around the world!

812 followers of my Tweet cult!

56 followers on Blogger!

My Top Five most visited posts:

1) Cambridge Bay, Nunavut: Local Food Adventures Above the Arctic Circle [I linked it once above, and doggone-it I'll link it again!]

3) The Stratford Guerrilla Gardeners Strike Again! [OK, I admit it - it was me and a few friends!]

4) Choc-in' Up Brownie Points on the Stratford Chocolate Trail [I love the pic of Lisa smooching me at the end!]

5) Arctic Charlie [about an Arctic-sourced 'anti-restaurant' dining experience I helped pull off with Fink and some other lovers of Northern cuisine, which is to be replicated next month at the James Beard House in New York City!]

Since I started my blog a mere 365+ days ago, I've had the best year of my life as a writer and a lover of all-things-food. 

I'm not sure if my blog is good because I've had amazing food adventures, or if I've had amazing food adventures to make sure my blog is good. 

Either way, I know that moving to Stratford a little over a year ago was the best decision I ever made (next to marrying Lisa) and that this is only the very beginning of the story of The Local-Come-Lately's Stratford culinary adventures!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Screaming Our Support: Japan Relief Dinner at the Screaming Avocado Café

On March 11, 2011, one of the strongest earthquakes to hit anywhere in most of our lifetimes struck Japan.

The seismic shock caused a tsunami that pulverized the coastal regions of the northern island of Honshu.

The tsunami took out the cooling systems at the island's nuclear power plant, which promptly started to emit radiation.

The epic disaster's triple-ripple effect also triggered  responses in communities many, many kilometers away from the quake's epicenter. In Stratford, many of the best chefs working in the local restaurant industry collaborated with Paul Finkelstein's Northwestern High School Culinary Arts class to create an Asian inspired meal in support of those who were victimized in Japan. 82 generous food lovers enjoyed this Stratford-culinary-all-star charity dinner  at the high school's "Alternative Cafeteria", and and over $3,000 was raised!

Stratford Northwestern is a very progressive school. Besides Fink's  culinary-arts-class-slash-cafeteria, a massive solar array has just been built in one of the school's courtyards, and next week Dr. David Suzuki is  coming to speak to young people about environmental activism.

Since December, I've been working with Paul's homeroom students to grow greens and herbs in the school's heated greenhouse. 

It's been a bit of a process of trial and error, but it's been a great learning experience for all involved, and the kids finally harvested their first few pounds of mesclun (mixed greens) just in time for the event! 

In a month or two we should be harvesting tomatoes from the hanging buckets we recently suspended with the help of local organic farmer Dave Koert (above at right), who's been getting things ready for the organic garden in the other courtyard this summer.

Shawn Hartwell from Simple Fish and Chips (above, with student) used the greens we harvested at the centre of his citrus cured salmon rolls, which were served alongside cold soba noodles with mango.

 A wonderful dish (with ingredients cultivated mere steps away)!

Karen Hartwick of Tea Leaves Tasting Bar (above) kept our glasses full of beautiful and authentic green tea from Japan.

Pazzo's Chef (and Slow Food sister) Yva Santini (above) was ladeling up a ramen noodle dish with a poached egg, all served in a delicate golden broth.

Mmmm. I loved when the egg yolk broke open and combined with the broth.  

Chef Ian Middleton from Down the Street Restaurant taught Paul's student Cam how to season and grill strips of beef for the evening's entrée.

The beef skewers with spicy potatoes were also accompanied by some ultra-local winter product - baby pak choi grown in the school's hydroponics lab by the horticulture class!

Chef Bryan Steele of The Old Prune (above) cooperated with the Stratford Chefs School to bring us all an absolutely stellar dessert.

The fromage blanc with elderberry sauce and poached pears was a fantastic treat. 

Supporting a good cause has never tasted so good. Some of the best chefs in Stratford - as well as servers and front of house from local restaurants and the Stratford Tourism Alliance - all donated their time and came together to provide an unbelievable dining experience and raise lots of money to help the folks in Japan.

I'll be back next week to help out when principal Deborah McNair and Paul (above) host Dr. Suzuki. I hope he comes to see the greenhouse!!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Maple Syrup: It's not just for pancakes anymore...

Spring is here. 

Or at least it's supposed to be here. 

It was here for a while, and I can prove it! For a whole week around mid-March the maple sap was flowing in Perth County - the surest sign of spring there is - and I got a bottle of genuine 2011 'liquid gold' to prove it!

The biggest local food discovery I made over the winter was when I met Terry and Diane Hoover (above) of Hoover's Maple Syrup in Atwood (just south of Listowel). Every spring, these folks tap 1500 maple trees and run the sap up from their bush to their sugar shack using a vacuum pump (that can even trick the trees into producing by simulating ideal barometric conditions for sap to start running!). They are the only fully "Certified Organic" syrup producer I have ever come across, a distinction that is well earned due to their complete avoidance of chemical cleaners or any other chemical products in their production process.

When I visited the Hoover's operation last Saturday it was, alas, dormant. It was just a little too cold that day for the sap to be running. I was told that I should have been there earlier that week - a celebrity chef from the Food Network Canada (who shall remain unnamed but who also shot a show at Perth Pork Products last year) had shown up right when the sap started running. Only days before, she'd filmed a whole episode of her "field to fork" series at the Hoover's farm! 

I was satisfied to hang out and have a chat with Terry about his recent TV adventures, and to pick up a fresh bottle of Medium maple syrup (and some maple candy for the kids), especially because I knew I'd be experiencing more maple later that day...

The More With Maple tasting session took place at Let Them Eat Cake's new location on Albert Street. There was a good crowd in attendance, including a large contingent of Toronto's most avid food bloggers (who I have dubbed "The Bloggerati"). The theme of the day was learning to use maple syrup as more than just a condiment for pancakes.

Terry and Diane introduced the event with a talk about all things maple. Everyone was treated to samples of Light and Amber maple syrup, and the consensus in the room was that the Amber was the finest (although I kind of liked the Light, which suggests that my original choice of Medium earlier that day was probably a good call).

Then it was time for the cooking demonstration. Chef Wendy from Let Them Eat Cake (a diminutive woman who wears a chef's coat with the badge "Kitchen Czar" sown onto it) presented a soup, a main course and a dessert that all used maple syrup to provide the dish with a sweet component.

The first creation Wendy demonstrated for us was a pureed soup made from maple-baked beets. This was remarkably easy and tasted fantastic... the sweet beets and the sweet syrup were countered by a dollop of rich sour cream, but the maple flavour still really shone through.

But it was the next demonstration that stole the show for me and the other bloggers. Before our eyes, Chef Wendy proceeded to put together a homemade smoker using a couple of aluminum foil roasting pans and wood shavings, then smoked a cured fillet of trout to perfection right there on the table top stove element!

When we all got to taste the smoked fish, the trout was wonderfully delicate and the maple glaze was a natural match for the maple smoke. Chef Wendy's technique is something I am definitely going to try, hopefully with a couple of trout I catch myself next month!

The final dish was a pear tarte created on the spot by the expert hand of Wendy. I reckon you don't get to be the chef at a place called "Let Them Eat Cake" without some serious skills in the pastry department... Wendy proved her mastery with this incredible dessert using maple pastry cream and topped with a pastry swan (just in time for the Swan Weekend!).

Slow Food Perth County is having our second annual Foraging Event at the Hoover's farm on May 14, 2011, from 10 am to 2 pm. Check out the website closer to the date for event details and come out for some fun picking fiddleheads and/or morels and/or wild leeks under the guidance of master forager Peter Blush. After we're going to have a picnic at the farm using foraged product... and I have the feeling some maple syrup will be involved!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Save Our Oceans - EAT OYSTERS! The Simple Fish and Chips Sustainable Seafood Dinner Club

For the past two weeks I've been fortunate to attend the first two installments of the Simple Fish and Chips Sustainable Dinner Club series. Stratford is so lucky to be the home of the only fish and chip shop in Ontario that guarantees all of its product comes from sustainable Canadian fisheries. Our luck just got even better as this favourite spot for take-out and casual family dining has been transformed into a weekly venue showcasing sustainable fish and seafood created with an elevated (but still, of course, simple) culinary style.

Shawn Hartwell of Simple Fish and Chips has been hooking our town up all winter with incredible frozen fish and seafood from his stall at the Slow Food Sunday market at Anything Grows. This month, with his four part dinner club series, he stepped his mission to connect the people of Stratford with sustainably harvested maritime product  up another notch.

I'm a huge fan of fish and seafood. You may remember my exploits as the first person to attempt to eat the Mammoth Lobster Sandwich in honour of the first anniversary of Simple Fish and Chips back in December. For the past two weeks, my dining experience at Simple has been slightly more refined, as Shawn and a couple of friends have presented the dinner club guests with a spread of gorgeous fish and seafood creations.

The first night saw Shawn joined in the kitchen with a fellow activist/entrepreneur striving to change people's consumer habits by providing them with the best quality fish imaginable. Dan Donovan is the owner and fishmonger at the new store Hooked Inc., which recently opened in Toronto's hip Leslieville area. While he and Shawn were putting together dozens of citrus cured salmon rolls (above) in preparation for everyone's arrival,  Dan told me how he and Shawn connected with one another, "The currents of sustainable seafood brought us together." [Knowing Shawn well, I think that means they follow each other on Twitter...]

 Dan spoke quite eloquently about the growing movement in consumer demand for fish harvested in ways that do not harm the oceans. My favourite part was when he told us all that eating farmed oysters actually helps clean the oceans, since they are natural filters.

That evening, we all did our part to save the aquatic ecosystem by slurping back a couple of fresh, raw Canadian oysters on the half shell (below).

Things got spicy with one of Shawn's signature ingredients: I never tried spot prawns before I had them Jerk-style at Simple last year, and my appreciation for this delicacy was amplified even more after trying them in a zingy tomato sauce at the first sustainable seafood dinner (below). 

For the main, we were treated to a creamy green curry with giant chunks of Pacific Black Cod served over a bed of aromatic rice (below).

One week later, and Shawn was right back at it with a whole new dining-room-full of folks eager to taste and learn about sustainable seafood. Everything Shawn and Candace serve at Simple Fish and Chips is Oceanwise approved; Oceanwise is an information program developed by the Vancouver Aquarium to help consumers at restaurants and stores choose fish and seafood options that are ocean-friendly. The speaker on the second Monday dinner was none other than the Oceanwise representative for Eastern Canada, Theodora (Teddy) Geach, who informed us of the possible collapse of the global fisheries by 2048 if consumer habits don't change:

Teddy was right - the best way to convince people to eat sustainable fish and seafood is to let them taste the difference for themselves - we all had a few of this week's selection of Canadian oysters followed by some spicy mussels (below).

For the main Shawn served up some sablefish cooked in a sumptuous oyster mushroom sauce over rice, with some more of those special spot prawns on the side.

For both dinners, the dessert that was served featured some little sweet and savoury creations by Lindsay's Bakery (who you can also catch at the Slow Food market every Sunday), accompanied by some blueberry teas with liqueurs (featuring tea from Stratford's Tea Leaves Tasting Bar).

If you're kicking yourself that you missed these two amazing dining events, don't worry - there are two more! On Monday, April 4th and Monday, April 11th, Shawn and Candace will continue with their wonderful series. There are still seats available, but I would book ASAP since the first two nights were completely sold out and I imagine these will be too.