Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, May 20, 2012

This Summer Belongs to Mercer Hall

Stratford's got a new 'it-place' this summer: Mercer Hall.

The street level of Mercer Hall Inn in was once the site of Tango Cafe...

...after much anticipation and a serious facelift, it's been transformed into a hip winebar.

Featuring an unbelievable cocktail menu (including some must-trys like seasonal/local strawberry-rhubarb mojitos!) the bar alone is going to be reason enough to become a regular. To help patrons make the  most out of their outstanding wine list they've also got a nifty device known as an an Enomatic: an incredible bottle of wine can now be opened to pour a glass or two, then kept for future wine lovers to enjoy inside a chamber filled with nitrogen (preventing oxidization, wine's enemy). 

To our delight, Lisa and I were invited for Mercer Hall's soft opening: the chef and management wanted to make sure they got everything perfect so they invited some of the local food community to come try a small-plates preview menu, giving the kitchen and serving staff the opportunity for a dress rehearsal!

Front-of-house star Jessie told us to pick a  few dishes to try - but no matter what we had to have the seared divers scallops. They were cooked and seasoned to absolute perfection, highlighting a balanced composition that also included a smoked celeriac puree and a zingy wild leek pesto. Take it from us: Whatever Jessie tells you to try, GET IT!

My eye was immediately drawn to the menu's Beef Tartare and slow-cooked egg yolk. I can never seem to get it right when I try to achieve a perfectly soft and creamy yolk at home, so I'm going to just leave it Chef Tim and his team from now on, especially since they serve it on top of succulent chopped beef popping with little mustard seeds, served alongside some crispy crosshatched potato chips. Just: Wow.

We had the pleasure of being seated at the same table as Anne and Dave Campion, owners of Revel Caffe. We offered our sincere congrats to them for recently receiving the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce Excellence Award for Hospitality! Then we all had a taste of Dave's mussels, which were at once smoky and spicy with a sauce flavoured with slices of chorizo sausage. 

Anne tried the Manchego Fritters with thin sliced ham. Jessie told us how this Spanish cheese is usually hard when it's fully ripe but this version was quite young and therefore capable of being breaded and cooked to a soft consistency.  Balanced in its  salty/creamy/crispiness and reminiscent of Spanish tapas in its ingredients and presentation, we all agreed this dish was a total hit. 

The next two offerings were created for sharing... the Burrata (Buffala mozzarella with a gorgeous creamy fresh cheese interior) will just get better and better as the local outdoor tomato-growing season unfolds.

The Mercer Hall kitchen team will be producing all sorts of cured meats, with a Charcuterie board that will be perfect for late night bites (the restaurant and bar will be open until 12 am!). Double smoked bacon, a terrine with pork done two ways, a rillette, and some cured ham... Mercer Hall is definitely representing Perth County pork country to the fullest! 

Massive thanks to Jessie and Tim for inviting us to be among the first to enjoy the superlative menu and wine they'll be serving at Mercer Hall. Already open for lunch, the dinner menu will be available this week. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

North Meets South at the Screaming Avocado Cafe!

Anyone remember my very first post as The Local-Come-Lately?

It was posted on April 12, 2010, and was entitled "West Meets East: It All Starts with the Kids". It was about the youth exchange between Paul Finkelstein's Culinary Arts students at Stratford Northwestern Secondary and a group of students from Sooke, British Columbia. All of the exchange participants had spent the day working together at the Screaming Avocado Cafe (the alternative cafeteria where Fink's students cook lunch from scratch every day to serve to the rest of the school) under the guidance of some local culinary talents.

Well this week, two years and a hundred and eighteen posts later, I found myself once again visiting The Screaming Avocado Cafe to witness another remarkable youth exchange, but this time it was a "North Meets South" encounter between Stratford students and a group from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. I was particularly excited to see the kids from Nunavut cooking alongside the Stratford students since I had accompanied Paul and his class in October, 2010, on an unforgettable trip to Cambridge Bay Nunavut (which produced what is hands-down my most memorable blog post as well as an article I wrote for Canadian Living!).

But I was also excited because Liz Mountain (above), Food Skills Coordinator at The Local Community Food Centre (the replication project for The Stop Community Food Centre I have been coordinating for the past year with The United Way of Perth-Huron), was going to be helping the students make some dishes featuring some Northern product sourced a couple of weeks back when the Avocados traveled to Cape Dorset on the first leg of the exchange. Liz actually inspired some really creative and fun North/South culinary fusion as she helped the students make Bannock Bread Pizza with Seared Caribou as well as some Bannock Bread Desserts!

Chef Joshna Maharaj (above on right) who previously ran The Stop's community kitchen and is also well known for her appearances on CBC's Steven and Chris show, was in the house to help the students make zucchini cupcakes and....

...some big ol' Bison ribs!

Phil Phillps (on left with the blue apron) showed the students how to make fish tacos using Arctic Char. Phil was once a student at The Screaming Avocado (he was in the class the year the Food Network Canada cameras followed them for the now-classic show Fink) and today he is the Co-Chair of Slow Food Perth County!

One of my favourite cooks - Chef Nick Benninger from Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 in Waterloo (above) - demonstrated the art of deglazing after he helped the students sear-off some Caribou Meatballs. He was a great mentor as he taught the kids some important lessons: "We waste nothing, right?"

Jerod Ritz, another of Mr. Finkelstein's protege's featured on the Food Network show, really went for it as he led the students through the process of smoking Arctic Char and making their own mayonnaise. I was reminded what Fink's program is all about when I overheard a couple of the visitors from Nunavut talking: 

"We made mayo!" 
"Why? You can just get it out of a jar!"
"Because that's way crappier!"

And yet another teen learns to appreciate cooking from scratch at the Screaming Avocado...

Everyone gathered together at lunch for a true feast featuring all the dishes that the students had made together that morning under the guidance of their amazing chef mentors. I got a video of the various teams describing their creations (and then dug into a fabulous North Meets South lunch - thanks everyone it was great!):

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Takeover: Slow Food Sunday Market and Food Truck Eats! in Market Square!

This past Sunday, Market Square in Stratford was the place to be for two reasons. First, for the return of the Slow Food Sunday Market, which will run every Sunday from 10am to 2pm until October 28...

...and second, because of Food Truck Eats Stratford!

Alan from Downie Street Bakehouse kicked off the outdoor season with heaping baskets of fresh, crusty loaves to supply the throngs of people who filled Market Square.

In addition to five food trucks that traveled to Stratford just for this event, some of our local businesses operated 'pop-ups'. Karen Hartwick of Tea Leaves ran her pop-up out of her Honey-I-Shrunk-The-Food-Truck custom Mini (above). Other local pop-ups included Molly Blooms (who served whistle dogs with Perth Pork Products bacon), Revel Caffe, Pazzo (who featured Loco Dogs with housemade condiments), and the soon-to-open-hotspot Mercer Hall (along with cheesecake-on-a-stick their chefs were also spinning Foie Gras cotton candy)!

The lads from Caveman Crops were ready for the crowds with their preserves and piles of fresh wild leeks.

When it was time for me to grab some street eats I headed over to the Blue Donkey Streatery. I love Greek food and the Blue Donkey was serving an absolutely killer Fried Calamari Pita with French Fries (that would be French Fries in the pita!) and Garlic Mayo. I hate to admit it but it was so good I went back for a second later in the afternoon!

It's been an early growing season so Ryan from Loco Fields was ready with some early radishes, greens and wintered leeks.

Caplansky's Deli was swarmed for the whole day... this family feast included Brisket Poutine, Brisket on a Bun, Asparagus Poutine (wow there's two words I never thought I'd see together!), and Bacon Donuts.

Food Truck Eats! is the brainchild of Suresh Doss (the Globe and Mail had a great piece on him and the phenomenon he's created a couple of weeks ago). He's all over the Toronto food scene and he wanted to bring the hot trend for food trucks that's happening across the States (Eat Street is one of the most popular Food Network shows these days) to our country. Rather than trying to change the strict laws preventing food trucks from operating on every corner (I believe that's his next challenge) he created a traveling event. Stratford is the first place this edible caravan has happened outside of Toronto! 

It was a stunningly beautiful day and happy people were everywhere trying incredible street food. When they were done with lunch, most of them wandered over to the market and loaded up on Good, Clean and Fair products from our local vendors! That's what I call win-win!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Supporting Great Causes Has Never Been So Delicious!

Here in Stratford the last couple of weeks have been full of great fundraiser meals! I love nothing more than eating incredible food and knowing that the proceeds are going to a good cause. 

Remember when I accompanied Paul Finkelstein's Screaming Avocado Cafe crew (the culinary arts class/alternative cafeteria at Stratford Northwestern Secondary) when they traveled to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut a couple of years ago (I wrote about it on my blog as well as in an article published in the November, 2011 edition of Canadian Living magazine)?

Well, the Avocados returned to Nunavut in April, this time to the town of Cape Dorset.

To help pay for some of the expenses for their trip and for when the Nunavut kids come to Stratford next week, Fink's Culinary Club had a fundraiser dinner featuring an entree of perfectly cooked steak, crispy polenta fries, and seasonal wild leeks. 

Youth For African Sustainability is a Stratford-based initiative that provides opportunities for the next generation of activists to make a difference on an international level. Giza Wordofa (above, next to Nathan McKay) was born in Ethiopia, where the group will be travelling this summer to help build water wells.

Giza and his organization thought the best way to celebrate international cooperation was through a multicultural meal. And I have to say the food at this event was PHENOMENAL - I love Ethiopian food and there were also great dishes from Russia, India, Korea, and Thailand featured. The challenge was getting it to all fit on your plate!

On Thursday I was nominated for the Personal Excellence Award at the Stratford Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards. To even be mentioned in the same category as Antoni Cimolino (the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival who spearheaded the recent community- development-through-theatre initiative in Suchitoto El Salvador), Kimberley Payne (Executive Director of the Stratford Chefs School), Trevor Exner (from Black Angus Restaurant), and the winner David Blackburn (recognized for his outstanding work with Junior Achievement and much more) was a extreme honour.

The United Way of Perth-Huron was nominated in the Community Service category. Lisa and I joined UWPH Resource Development Manager Lesley Spencer-Cooper and  Executive Director Ryan Erb at the Arden Park Hotel where the awards event took place. 

On Saturday the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the Stratford House of Blessing was held at Knox Church. The first thing was to pick out a bowl from among the dozens of hand-painted creations.

Chef Jordan Lassaline (from Revel Caffe and Stratford Chefs School) coordinated the event, which featured dishes from all sorts of great restaurants like Pazzo (that's Pazzo's chef Yva Santini alongside Jordan above). 

Slow Food Perth County Co-Chair Phil Phillips and Slow Food exec member Ingrid de Martines (from Perth Pork Products) were serving up bowlfuls of all-local seasonal soup (Slow Food Market returns to Market Square tomorrow alongside Food Truck Eats, blog to follow...)

Phil created a Wild Leek and Jerusalem Artichoke soup with a Fiddlehead garnish (fiddleheads donated by yours truly after a recent successful foraging outing). In June Anita Stewart is coming to Stratford to contemplate Canada's culinary heritage - if she's wondering what a truly Canadian spring dish would look like, she should check out this pic!

After he stocked their shelves at Christmas, millions of fans now know that Stratford House of Blessing is Justin Bieber's favourite charity. Unfortunately there was no Bieber piece among the celebrity-painted bowls for the silent auction. But Celtic music star Loreena McKennit created a whimsical vessel (above on top) while Mayor Dan Mathieson painted a bowl in the Stratford tartan (above on bottom).

When it's time to raise funds in Stratford the food community is there to support those who are doing great work. Giving back never tasted so good!