Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Raising Cane on the Stratford Victorian Christmas Trail!

I've always been the kind of person who starts thinking about Christmas on Christmas Eve, when I traditionally do all my shopping. But when you live with a two-year-old and a four-year-old, it's hard not to get in the Christmas spirit early and often.  Last weekend we all journeyed together along the Victorian Christmas Trail - the $20 pass lets you pick 8 stops from a choice of 16 of Stratford's most festive local spots, each offering a special gift to Yuletide travelers.

Our first stop in the morning was for caffeine - and a couple of hot chocolates and a gingerbread man! Balzac's Coffee hooked us up with a complementary bevvy to set us off on our adventure.

Right across the street from Balzac's is Chocolate Barrs, where confectionery artist Derek Barr was at work making giant candy canes by hand. There was a real Santa's Workshop vibe as we watched him and his team create these hefty tricoloured holiday hooks. The video (above) doesn't convey the whole experience: I think the peppermint oil vapours in the air (that's what gives candy canes their signature minty flavour) will keep my airways cleared for the rest of the winter!

Just off of of Ontario Street, Smallmart is a really cute little store full of kitschy and vintage stuff. This holiday season visitors to our bathroom will enjoy hand soap that smells like eggnog (above)! No tasting kids!

Lisa and I were in Barcelona not long ago and we fell in love with Spanish cuisine. When we visited Kitchen Connaisseur I immediately knew what spice mix I was going to pick for our gift: Spanish Spice Blend.

We sent Lisa in to Alexandra's Spa on Erie Street to get some Christmas pampering. She came out with some bath salts, some organic tea, and a voucher she can put towards a holiday treatment!

David from Turnbull & Stewart (left) was filling the store's showroom with incredible smells as he prepared some soup and hot cider for all the tourists who embarked on the Victorian Christmas Trail. Fisher (right) loved the Mary MacLeod's Shortbread owner Ken gave him.

Your Local Market Co-op was giving out popcorn that was still on the cob! We'll put it in a bag in the microwave and then string the popped kernels for tree garlands (unless we eat them first!).

The next day, I was at the Slow Food Sunday Market in the historic cellar at Anything Grows - everyone's favourite gardening & food boutique. Christmas Trail trekkers receive a set of four extremely-lifelike grasshopper magnets when they stop by... they made for eye catching ornaments on our sign (look closely above). By the way, for those seeking to stock up the pantry for Christmas with Good, Clean and Fair food, there is a special market this Friday, December 23 from 3pm-6pm at Anything Grows on St. Patrick Street!

After finishing our eight stops on the Victorian Christmas Trail there was only one thing left to do - hang the giant candy cane on the Christmas tree!

Merry Merry and Happy Happy to everyone this holiday season from the Stacey crew!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Classroom at the Stratford Chefs School!

This week I headed over to Rundles, the stunning riverside restaurant that transforms every winter into a classroom for the Stratford Chefs School. I was invited to come evaluate student presentations as a guest judge!

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the Winter Warm Up cooking class I attended at the Stone Maiden Inn with Chef Mark Brown. No wonder the comfort food I learned how to make that day was so good - we were in very good hands... 

...since Chef Brown is an instructor at the Stratford Chefs School!

Chef Mark is a SCS Alumni (above, those are this years' students in the Rundles classroom) and now he teaches Food Costing & Culinary Math as well as Nutrition class. I believe the Stratford Chefs School is unique in its provision of business and industry training for chefs - graduates have been schooled in all the realities of the food service industry and many go on to open their own restaurants.

I came to help judge presentations by eight groups of future chefs. Each group of four created a catering company and brand image (e.g. 'Top Hat', above), and presented detailed quotes for a fifty person reception. The coolest part was the catering outfit the judges picked scored a real, paying gig in the new year (so in a couple of months I'll to follow this post up with one where I attend the event!).

The 'Saisonnier' catering company impressed with their seasonal "Food for thought" menu featuring mid-winter local product used in creative dishes. One of their strengths was their strategy to let us judges taste their creations for ourselves - the Red Beet Ice Cream (based on a recipe by Thomas Keller) demonstrated that winter food can be as vibrant and clever as any other season!

Another group who really impressed us called their catering outfit 'Carnival': from the perspective of creating the funnest party food scene these folks ran away with the prize. Their dishes elevated fall fair Carnie food to a whole nother level, with items like Foie Gras Cotton Candy pops (above) and Chick Pea Corn Dogs.

After the first four presentations were over, the judges had a little break. Chef Mark and my fellow guest-judge Emily Chandler (culinary consultant with the Stratford Tourist Alliance) chatted about the presentations in the front window of Rundles (above), with its spectacular view overlooking the icy river. Other judges included the events coordinator for Homer Watson House and Gallery in Waterloo and a former Stratford restaurateur who now manages 100 Mile Market, as well as my brother-in-blog Andrew Coppolino (from Waterloo Region Eats) who continues to reign as our area's King-of-All-Food-Media with his radio show The Food Show on 570AM and a regular TV spot on Grand River Living.

The second wave of presentations were equally impressive. 'The Traineez' name was inspired by the Chefs School students' vision of their educational journey as a train, "The school is like a train and it will take us where we want to go." 

'Ragouter' (translation: "To give appetite") got serious brownie points from me by serving the judges a glass of really refreshing Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling (above); they explained how they based their choice on what they tasted during their in-person visit to the Niagara winery earlier this semester. 

But out of all the groups I was most impressed by the simple but beautiful menu proposed by 'Dulcinea'. After visiting Barcelona recently I admit I have become highly-biased towards the Spanish tapas approach they chose, but I also noticed their low food cost. I really thought they had the potential to pull-off the challenge of catering a great reception with good value for the client (by which I mean killer food) with the important potential for them to earn profit. 

We will see if the other judges agree - I will post the name of the winning group in the comments section of this post when I find out who got the gig, and stay tuned in February for my blog about attending the winners' event!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Caffeinated Cuisine: Dinner at Revel Caffe

And when their ham and eggs need savor 
Coffee ketchup gives 'em flavor 
Coffee pickles way outsell the dill 
Why, they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil! 
- Frank Sinatra, "The Coffee Song" 

Last Saturday night Lisa and I were at Revel Caffe for an amazing dinner. This might surprise folks who are familiar with Stratford's hip little Wellington Street spot, which is known for serving fresh-roasted Las Chicas Del Cafe coffee (and some beautiful baked goods to go with it!) but doesn't normally serve incredible four course meals. Owner and uber-barrista Anne Campion (above) hosted an event last year that featured coffee paired with creative desserts created by students from the Stratford Chefs School. But this year, she's pushing the relationship between food and coffee up another level, asking the question, "What does it look like when you actually start to put coffee in the food?"

The person Anne called upon to answer that question was Chef Jordan Lassaline. Jordan is an alumni and veteran instructor from the Stratford Chefs School, and I've heard nothing but great things about his cooking. This was the first time I had ever had the pleasure of enjoying an entire meal prepared by him (above, he's putting the final touches on the opening dish featuring savoury coffee gnocchi, spicy arugula and earthy mushrooms). Although I expected some really good food this dinner was truly above and beyond. I am officially a fan of this talented Chef. He also grows a mean moustache (part of the evening's proceeds were donated to the Movember campaign against prostate cancer, which was fitting since me, Jordan and about ten other dudes were proudly sporting mo's). 

The second course was a pork tostada that brought to mind the tropical landscapes of coffee country. Chef Jordan's approach was evident here as the subtle roasted/citrusy tones of coffee brought out the sweetness of the pork atop the crunchy corn tortilla, "The idea was to highlight some of the flavours that are in the coffee without letting it take over, and still letting the other ingredients come through."

By the end of February, 2011, I had already declared two contenders for the Local-Come-Lately's 'Best Dish of the Year' (I encountered them at two Chef School dinners: the first was a Pickerel taco by Mexican guest chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo and the second was a Crispy Seared Veal Tongue by  France's Michelin star chef Alexandre Gauthier). My year-in-food has been absolutely phenomenal, but I gotta say this meal's Beef Short Rib main course is a runaway winner for the best thing I've eaten in '11. Rubbed in coffee and braised for hours in rich broth, the thick cut of beef slid off the bone and melted in our mouths. The Jerusalem artichoke puree and the Brussels sprout leaves provided a creamy and fresh pedestal for the sumptuous meat, which altogether made for an outstanding winter entree. 

After a meal like that there's nothing better than a good coffee, and coffee we got! A scoop of ice cream was drowned in a hot shot of espresso - a fun juxtaposition of temperatures that really worked flavour-wise too. Chef Jordan created a bread pudding out of coffee house croissants, which was perfect along with a steaming hot cup of Revel coffee (just as I like it, in basic black).

The Revel House Band (with Anne's husband Dave on drums along with some of his fellow musicians from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) entertained throughout the night with some coffee-themed lounge numbers (including the Sinatra tune I quoted above) and after dinner Anne joined in for a duet!

This is only the first in a series of dinners planned for Revel this winter and spring. On January 21 there is a meal themed on the trip Anne and Dave are taking soon to visit the Nicaraguan family plantation where all of the beans for the Las Chicas single origin roasts are grown. On February 18 there is an "Apres Neige" dinner planned that will pay homage to Anne's home province of Quebec (there will be snowshoeing involved!). Although both of those are already sold out (with waiting lists), there will be another meal in March and another in April (which will raise funds in support of my project The Local Community Food Centre, which will be up and running by then!). Don't miss them!