Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

High Steaks: Foster's Inn Dinner Concert Session

For the past two winters there have been two things on the top of my 'blogs-to-do' list: 1) Eat a really, really good steak; and 2) Go to one of the Foster's Inn Dinner Concert Sessions. Luckily, Foster's Inn is Stratford's best place to enjoy a steak, so I was able to scratch both of these off my list when I finally made it out to one of these musical dining experiences.

The fact that I hadn't been to a Dinner Concert Session yet was not through a lack of trying. In fact, I've attempted on at least three past occasions to book a table for one of these bi-weekly winter events, only to find out they had been sold-out long in advance. With previous acts like Luke Doucete, Madison Violet, and Oh Susanna, it's no wonder scoring a table at these gigs is such a hot ticket!

But thankfully my steak-lovin' wing-man for the evening Brendon Lyoness (above) had the foresight to book us a table well in advance for one of the recent Sessions featuring singer/songwriter Craig Cardiff. If anyone knows how popular and busy these concerts are it's Brendon: he is a server at Foster's and always works the Thursday night shows - this was his first as a patron!

If you're lucky enough to get a table it's a really great deal: $45 gets you a delicious and satisfying meal plus entry for the concert (which you get to enjoy from one of the best seats in the house!). For $99 you get all that and one of Foster's Inn's upstairs rooms for the night, with breakfast in the morning! 

I kicked off the "Dinner" part of the night with a curried lentil soup garnished with a crunchy papadum. One of my favourites, it really got the tastebuds working in preparation for the star of the show...

The Steak!
I was outed a long time ago as Stratford's worst vegetarian, but the fact is I only eat meat when I know it is going to be stellar, and Foster's has a strong reputation for serving the best steak in town. I was totally up for trying one of Foster's legendary steaks for myself, and I made sure I got the full experience by ordering it rare. Bloody. Still mooing. It was truly gorgeous: Foster's claim to fame as our city's premier steak spot is clearly well-earned.

The "Concert" phase of the evening saw the actual star of the show taking to the stage: singer/songwriter Craig Cardiff:

Craig's musical talent is only paralleled by his sense of humour; he had me laughing all night, in particular when he was joking with the rowdy bachelorette party table sitting right in front of him (all of whom immediately admitted to being chronic shoplifters when targeted by his laser-like wit). 

I'm going try to hit at least one of the Dinner Concert Sessions again before the season ends: on March 1st Stratford songstress Dayna Manning will be playing; on April 5th Emm Gryner will be taking to the stage; and on April 19th String Bone will be playing along with Destroy All Robots (there are also shows on  May 3rd & 17th). 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Imagine yourself in a pub..."

"Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in the Cotswolds in England. Imagine yourself surrounded by your friends and family. Welcome to the Kingham Plough, transported to Stratford, Ontario."

England's culinary community has been on a serious roll this century, with a lot of attention being generated by celebrity television chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Nigella Lawson, and Jamie Oliver (a great cook who's become an even better activist), along with celebrity chef/restaurateurs like Heston Blumenthal (of The Fat Duck fame) and Fergus Henderson (master of snout-to-tail cuisine at St. John in London, who I had the pleasure of hanging with at Lassdale Farm's Terroir dinner last March).  

My wife Lisa's family took us along on a trip to England a few years ago to a little farmhouse nestled in an idyllic countryside. The place had a great kitchen and a veggie garden in full swing so this was my kind of spot. But I knew we were in heaven when we walked to the end of the lane and found the local pub, where the ale was like nothing I've ever tasted and the food was fantastic. Fresh, creative, locally sourced - not the kind of scran I'd expected from an English local. This revelation  was my first gastropub experience.

My most recent gastropub experience was last week when my folks joined Lisa and me at The Prune for our first Stratford Chefs School Dinner of the season. I realize The Prune is not in any way shape or form a pub, but as our student host for the evening encouraged us to close our eyes and picture a pub in England, I found myself transported back to that authentic first experience.

The international chef who brought the English gastropub to Stratford was Emily Watkins of The Kingham Plough in the Cotswolds of Oxfordshire, England (that's her above leading the students in the kitchen). Chef Watkins is renowned for her use of seasonal and local ingredients on her daily-changing menu. Before becoming chef/proprietor at The Kingham Plough (which she runs with her husband Miles, who was also in Stratford with her) she cooked at the esteemed Fat Duck with the aforementioned Chef Blumenthal. I was therefore really, really excited about this meal, and it did not disappoint.

The first dish was a Crab Bon Bon afloat upon a Crab Soup. Setting the precedent for a series of dishes using a single ingredient in more than one way, the Bon Bon was crunchy on the outside and creamy and light on the inside with a little heat in there too, which balanced well with the rich bisque-like soup.

The entree was a loin of venison coated with a beetroot jelly and topped with a horseradish foam, served alongside a beetroot potato maxim (BTW 'beetroot' is what Brits call 'beets'). The use of the sous vide method to cook the venison allowed for every area of the loin to be perfectly, uniformly rare, which rendered it very much the same colour as the garnet red beets that surrounded and enveloped it - a trick of the palette reflecting Chef's clever, artistic and world-class cooking. And local and seasonal, as I gathered Chef Watkins picked up the beets for this meal at the Slow Food Sunday Market!

I think everyone's favourite dish of the night however was the Cheltenham Cheese Pudding. Modest-looking but spectacular in its sharp taste and airy texture, it was served topped with thyme and apple and accompanied by an aged cheese crouton that was out of this world. Over dinner I mentioned how much I would like to learn how to make this dish, and was chuffed to find out that diners were all being given copies of the recipe on their way out!

For dessert we all indulged in a winter treat with a malted chocolate parfait and crispy chocolate mousse alongside a shot of hot chocolate sauce.

After dinner was finished Chef Watkins came out to chat with the diners alongside the student chef she had mentored through this fantastic meal - Whitney van Manen. Once again, the Stratford Chefs School Dinner series brought an international star chef to our city, and for just one night we found ourselves eating true British gastropub fare.