Chef Interviews and Restaurant Profiles
Originally published in West of the City, Local Flavour section
Local Flavour: Enver’s of Morriston, Morriston, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Regionally produced lamb, duck, rabbit and game birds like pheasant are some of the fall ‘harvest’ Enver’s of Morriston executive chef Ken Hodgins has to choose from when he heads out to source innovative ingredients for his winter menu. “People who are passionate about what they do give you the best product,” he says referring to the farmers and grassroots growers around the small town of Morriston, north of Flamborough and south of Guelph.
Passion is what this 31-year-old restaurant is all about. Hodgins is left to pursue his bliss creating menu items designed with foodies in mind. “I have the freedom to do whatever I want,” he says. “I want to make the restaurant a reflection of how I cook.” And to some extent lives. He becomes emotional talking about environmentally damaging fish farming. The most popular dish on the menu – the daily fresh fish special – is sourced from a west coast sustainable line-fishing supplier who moves the scaly creatures from water to table in three days. It normally takes a week, according to Hodgins, who also smokes meats and stuff sausages in the kitchen.
“I trust him completely,” says owner Terri Manolis. “If he’s not happy with a dish, or it’s not selling, he’ll take if off the menu before I do. A hands-off approach keeps things exciting for the guys in the kitchen.” Her passion is gardening (all heirloom tomatoes used in the restaurant grow in the raised beds behind the building) and sourcing selections for Enver’s extensive wine list. “A lot of research goes into designing the wine list,” she states flipping through a six-pages and admitting not everything in the cellar is listed here. “Finding something unique that fits the restaurant’s profile, something out of the ordinary, is exciting for me.” There are wines from Niagara, of course, but also from all over the world including a bottle of Hochar red she sourced from Chateau Musar, a “wonderful” winery in Lebanon.
The 72-seat (42 upstairs and 35 downstairs, perfect for private functions), was renovated a bit when Manolis bought it from the namesake owner 13 years ago, altering the name only slightly by adding the ‘of Morriston,’ to indicate a change – a change that’s about a love of sustainable fresh food, and a wine list that exceeds most restaurants three times its size. Enver’s is open Tuesday to Friday for lunch, and Tuesday to Saturday for dinner.
Before becoming Enver’s second owner in a three-decade history, Manolis worked at a research lab while then husband ran the Aberfoyle Mill down the highway. But like many entrepreneurs, a career change beaconed. “How I found this place was ironic,” she says. “A friend of mine was Enver’s first cousin and she talked about the place all the time. I ate here a lot too.” Then it came up for sale in 1998, and – after bringing a number of people to the restaurant to entice them to buy it – Manolis bought it herself and reopened in May of 2000.
Good timing struck again when, 13 years ago, Manolis ran into her now head chef Hodgins picking up one of his last pay checks from the Aberfoyle Mill where he worked for years. He told her he wasn’t enjoying his new job. She hadn’t closed the deal at Enver’s yet, but banked that information. Once Enver’s was hers, she immediately called Hodgins and he’s been head of the kitchen ever since, essentially living a chef’s dream: full creative control of each seasonal menu, choice of regional suppliers, his own smoker for creating bacon (which customer’s can buy by the pound), the freedom to source interesting foods and even forage for mushrooms and wild leeks, and an on-site herb garden.
The backyard garden, along with two decks, is quietly located behind the quaint street-front location in a charming village interrupted by the buzz of Highway 6, a major connection between the QEW to the south, and the 401 slightly, very slightly, north. While there are traffic calming measures currently in place in Morriston – “to make this the village it’s suppose to be,” says Manolis – and plans to extend the #6 bypass around town, the major highway outside their door is a mixed blessing. It does serve as an easy meeting point for many customers. Regulars travel north from Hamilton and Burlington, east from Milton and Toronto, west from Kitchener and Cambridge, but strangely few from Guelph.
For some reason, the northern neighbours consider Morriston out of the way, yet clients from the GTA and GHA view the convergence of the 401 and Highway 6 an accessible social hub. “We really are a word-of-mouth restaurant,” Manolis says. So try it, tell your friends, and gather in Morriston. Just drive slowly when you get there, or you’ll miss it.
Local Flavour: Lowville Bistro, Lowville, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Small town Lowville, 15 minutes north of Burlington, casts a strange summer spell on people – sometimes the first (or fifth) time they drive through, usually on their way to somewhere else, they stop. But for others, like the Lowville Bistro owner, Judie Starchuk, the enchantment is irresistible. She stayed.
Five and a half years ago, Starchuk, a retired Human Resources executive, walked into the Lowville Bistro in that namesake pictorial town and knew this was the place she had to own. It was Saturday, and by Wednesday she made an offer. Starchuk grew up watching her dad run a neighbourhood pub, but deviated from that industry for several decades turning her attention instead to managing people and staffing issues in the corporate world.
That is until she turned 50. Then the large communications company she worked for gave her the ‘golden hand-shake’ leaving her free to explore a new career in food service, and to some degree the entertainment business, as sole proprietor of the Lowville Bistro. Leaving the big city chaos and a large house, Starchuk bought the Lowville property and downsized her life to a loft above the 30-seat restaurant in a historic c.1853 building that once housed the community’s general store, accommodating horse-drawn carriages at the front door.
Now, of course, there’s a gravel parking lot out front and horses are relegated to the many pleasure riding farms almost adjacent to the bistro’s property. Guelph Line Road cuts a sharp turn out front, forcing drivers to slow down through the affluent hamlet. Golf courses are nearby and the Lowville Park with nature trails balances the trinity of postcard perfect pastoral scenes. This is a destination restaurant for those coming north from Burlington or Oakville, or south from Guelph and Kitchener.
It’s the kind of place friends meet over plates of Crispy Dry Ribs in the dining room, reconnect over cocktails on the teak patio, or decompress listening to live jazz on Sundays. It’s also the place locals have claimed as their own, with many area couples eating here at least once a week. “It’s not uncommon,” Starchuk says, “for a wife to come here for lunch with friends and then come back with her family the same day for dinner.”
That’s why the much-loved menu of grilled paninis, pizza, and interesting Nasi Goreng (fried curried rice with fruits) or Melensane (breaded eggplant, bocconcini cheese and basil sauce) can’t change, but the nightly features of meat, pasta, risotto, salad and soup must. The features are for regular customers who have tried everything on the menu, she says, and the menu is for those who make the drive here for their favourites they expect to find.
Another indispensible feature of the bistro is general manager Robert Small who brings gracious warmth (and four decades of hospitality experience) to the Lowville Bistro, best defined as a combination of upscale tastes and expectations, without the pretension – or tension – of urban counterparts. He’s also Starchuk’s brother-in-law, so in some ways this is a family business. He was working in Mississauga when Starchuk bought the restaurant, and he had a similar instantaneous reaction to the aura of the property and town. “I was attracted to the opportunity,” he says. “I loved the area, and wanted to take the place up a notch, bring our own flavour and thoughts to it while retaining the bistro-style and home cooking quality.”
Small’s calm nature is a good balance to Starchuk’s gregarious straight shooting personality. She’s quick to add that while the team of herself, Small and current chef Greg Newnan, did raise the bar on presentation, art on a plate does not suit Lowville. “We seem to balance the customer’s expectation for service, quality and presentation with good value and portion size. No one leaves here hungry,” she says. As for reduced calorie concern – “I don’t see it,” she says, “especially when it comes to desserts. We have rich decadent desserts from a supplier in Toronto called Bakerstreet and I have no problem selling them.” She’s especially fond of chocolate banana cake, and unsatisfying portions are not a problem in this department either.
What else is not a problem is filling seats either during Sunday or Saturday brunch, which includes (Starchuk claims) the best Eggs Benedict you’ll ever eat, or Sunday jazz night featuring a six-week rotating list of artists such as Melissa Boyce, Diane Lee Clemons and Jorge Lasso. The music, like everything they do at Lowville Bistro Starchuk says, is suitable to the customer base: “It’s a mix of contemporary jazz, not classical, and easy listening.” The tradition started here before Starchuk and Small revamped the restaurant, but like everything, the team took it up a notch expanding the repertoire and offering an ideal way to wind down a summer weekend, relaxing in a town with no fast-food outlets or pizza delivery service. It’s almost like going to the cottage, without all the effort.
Local Flavour: Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Mississauga, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Completely abandon every branding principle known to business school and what happens? If you’re Ruth Fertel, you end up developing one of the most successful high-end steak restaurants in North America. Fifty years after the single mother of two sons bought Chris Steak House in New Orleans with nothing but a bank loan and no restaurant experience, the chain evolved into 130 locations, half of them franchises, in 10 countries including Canada. (In 1975, she added Ruth’s in front of Chris Steak House in a moment of pressure when she discovered she couldn’t legally keep the original name after a fire forced a location change – thus creating one of the most tongue-twisting recognizable brand names hostesses have ever had to utter.)
“Today Ruth’s Chris Steak House is the largest fine dining chain in North American based on annual revenue,” says Jesse Melbye, General Manager of the Mississauga location. He’s been at this restaurant for the last 6 years of his 20 year career in the hospitality industry.
“If you go to another location, you will get the same steak, mashed potatoes, and barbeque shrimp,” says Melbye. “Consistent quality is the basis of the brand. We want guests to have the same experience, the same ultra high level of quality, no matter what the location.”
A lot has changed since 1965 when Fertel sold quality steaks drenched in butter for $5 apiece. First, she sold the chain in 1999 only three years before she died at the age of 75 and second, marketing and branding strategies have become far more stringent and regulated among both corporate and franchise operations.
Menus are set by head office, and any changes, updates or chef’s specials must be approved. Consistency is important, and there is little creative flexibility for executive chefs at Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses, but that doesn’t bother Clayton Kistner, executive chef of the Mississauga location. He’s been with the company 16 years since starting at the Toronto location as a sous chef after apprenticing out of high school at the Aberfoyle Mill – different to what he’s experiencing now.
“That was French cooking, all from scratch and no recipes. It was a good experience and I had to learn quickly,” Kistner says. He then divided his formal studies between Humber and George Brown Colleges before becoming certified. “At Ruth’s Chris Steak House, I like the consistent high quality and working for a well known brand that people are impressed by,” he says. “As a chef, you also become very good at execution.”
“I became a chef because I get a feeling of satisfaction by making someone else happy,” Kistner says. Also, there is a teaching component. “As the executive chef you have to be assertive and have a backbone,” he says, “but you also have to teach and support.” Currently, he’s working with two apprentices.
Kistner moved from the Toronto location ten years ago, taking over the Mississauga kitchen as executive chef. On September 29th, this restaurant celebrates its 10th anniversary with a party that will fill the City Centre location with food-tasting stations and cocktail, wine and beer pairings. Special events, like this party and wine tasting events, is when the kitchen team gets to take a few creative liberties with the regular menu, but what doesn’t change is the use of U.S. Prime Beef, the top 2% of all beef produced.
“It starts in the field by separating chosen cattle and feeding them corn to increase weight and marbling,” says Kistner. Steak, prepared like no other, is still the primary focus at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, though menus do get contemporary updates. For instance, this fall pesto scallops served on a hot plate will be added to the menu, and the halibut will have a Panko garlic crust served over blackened potatoes. The popular slightly-breaded Voodoo Shrimp remains on the menu as well.
Keeping an eye on tradition is Lana Duke who, with her son David Duke, owns the Toronto and Mississauga franchise (along with two others in Texas). Lana, originally from the Niagara Region, was a good friend of Ruth Fertel. (In fact, they share a family mausoleum where Ruth is currently buried.) Lana was instrumental in developing the brand’s marketing strategy including the idea to serve steak on a sizzling hot plate: “It keeps the steak warm from the first bite to the last,” says Kistner.
The steak doesn’t change, nightly or regionally, but the wine list does, and so the interior design of the restaurants. Mississauga’s Ruth’s Chris Steak House has its own wine list and a new bar environment. This location will be working with Peninsula Ridge Winery to create a “Fall Harvest in Niagara” set-menu event that will be enjoyed by 40 to 50 guests for about $80 per person. Peninsula Ridge is also producing a proprietary red wine, called Ruth’s Chris Red, available for only twelve months starting in September honouring the 10th anniversary of this outlet.
The wine, and any other cocktail, can be enjoyed after work or later in the newly updated bar area that Melbye hopes will bring some much needed nightlife options to what’s essentially Mississauga’s downtown. There are plans for live music such as jazz and piano players. “There are a lot of entertainment venues around here for younger folks. We want to provide an environment for a mature crowd. You know, over 26,” Melbye jokes. A great steak is a given; now a great night out is the evening special.
Local Flavour: Plank, Oakville, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Everything at Oakville’s Plank Restaurant is made in house – everything including the cumber vodka infusion for cocktails, pizza dough, poutine gravy, and all condiments including the ‘butt kicking ketchup,’ so proclaims chef Gordon Goss. Plank is part of the Cucci, Firehall, and Catering by Heat group, and although Goss one of several investors in Bronte’s newest lunch, dinner, weekend breakfast, and late night social hub, he’s the imaginative engine behind this ‘chef inspired resto bar’ built, well, from the plank up.
“I like to say no trees were harmed in the making of Plank,” Gross quips, one many clever sound bites sprinkled throughout the conversation. Every piece of wood in this chic rustic wood-panelled restaurant is reclaimed from somewhere – think urban loft meets log cabin – and even the eye-catching wine racks are handmade from former Weston Bread pans and stacked shelf-style on every wall.
The L-shaped bar is predominate in the interior design reminding patrons that sometimes house parties end up in the kitchen, but the best pub gatherings end up on bar stools. To encourage some late evening activity, all pizzas are $10 after 10 pm and there’s a DJ planned after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and live music lined up for Thursday evenings at 8 pm. To add to the irreverent fun, if you show up on the last weekend of every month between 10 am and 2 pm for breakfast in your pajamas, your meal is half price. So far, according to Goss, about half of their primarily age 30-plus clientele joined this Weekender event in their flannels and button-up pjs. (Note that t-shirts and sweatpants don’t count).
But ultimately Plank is for foodies looking for a high-quality low-pretense experience who are curious to see what creative culinary minds can do with classic bar food, local produce, and a strict determination to make everything to exacting chef specifications. For example, the fish and chip option is neither smothered in chips, nor contains cod or haddock. “We add a cool blue potato salad which is vinegar based,” says Goss, “and use B.C. Arctic Char and garlic scape tartar sauce.” The chicken pot pie, a pub staple, is made with heritage-breed Chantecler chicken, sourced from a local supplier. This bird, according to Goss, is served to combat what he calls “Big Mac Syndrome.” It’s not mass produced or grown to an excessive size, but grows for 90 days and maintains its natural small breast and fat legs and tastes, Goss says, “what meat should taste like.”
No menu, especially at pubs, is complete these days without poutine, but this is not your Québécois uncle’s variety. Despite the fact Goss plans to change the menu, not seasonally but monthly at Plank, poutine (along with sliders) will be a staple – or people will rage, says Goss. Reasonable decision considering this is the only place in town the Quebec classic is made with shoestring fries (cut in house of course from Russet potatoes), duck confit, foi gras sauce and fresh cheese curds that actually melt into a stringy mess. Celebrate the duck in a big way (or three ways, as Gross says) and add a fried duck egg to the top of the mound.
Plus, small plate sharing and multiple sampling is not only encouraged, but the only option considering the menu consists only of a ‘bits and bites,’ options, a ‘small plate’ selection and a list of pizzas, four of which remain on the menu continuously including the most popular: Big Bird that has smoked chicken and bacon, caramelized onions, goat cheese and pesto. The Wagon Wheel, however, is for the true gourmet ‘za aficionado sprinkled with wild mushrooms, toasted pine nuts, truffle oil, Gouda and pesto.
Simplicity is the key to a great pizza, according to Naples-born chef and Plank pizza expert Bruno DiSarno. He mixes the dough, allows it to rise naturally for two days then hand stretches it in traditional Italian style before baking it for several minutes in Plank’s high-heat pizza oven imported from Italy. What results is a Neopolitan thin, crispy yet moist, crust topped with carefully selected and blended toppings and just the right dose of inimitable Bruno charm and care. If you want to know anything about pizza – why Margarita pizza is red, white and green, or who first put egg on it – ask Bruno. If you want to try egg on pizza, order the Carbonara. Goss scrambles a duck egg and pours it over the smoked duck topping and parmesan cream base.
Wash it down with bourbon, because this is a bourbon bar. Why? “Why not,” says Goss. “Do you know any others?” As of now, he has yet to distill his own bourdon, but root beer syrup made with 27 different roots and botanicals, blended with club soda, bitters, Makers Mark creates Plank’s signature cocktail, and the seeped spiced old fashioned infusion made in house creates “Christmas in a glass,” says Goss when mixed with the right about of bourdon and paired with the perfect Plank tapas-style creation.
Local Flavour: OC`s at Stoneboats, Oakville, Ontario
by Sherri Telenko
“I have a real passion for wild west coast seafood (salmon, Dungeness crab, Black Cod) and a desire to bring it to Oakville,” Jeff Burghardt, owner of the newly revamped OC’s at Stoneboats along Port Credit’s shoreline.
“It looked at a long of real estate,” he says. “I knew I wanted to be in Southern Ontario and Oakville has an educated affluent community with the ability to appreciate this product.”
Why this product: line-caught, flash-frozen West Coast seafood?
That answer is notably more complex. It involves the meeting of an Ohio-trained sushi chef with a degree in music, with a North American grain industry executive, and a seafood chef who owned a restaurant in Panama Beach, Florida. The story starts in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Originally from Ancaster, Ontario, Jeff Burghardt moved to Western Canada to work in the business side of agriculture, first as a beef salesman and eventually as the CEO of North America’s largest grain exporting business. After two decades in the industry, he retired in 2009 but in the meantime had developed a new obsession (next to golf) thanks to British Columbia’s nature-loving vibe: sport fishing, specifically for salmon in the Pacific Ocean. “There’s nothing liking catching, fighting and landing a 50- or 60-pound salmon,” Burghardt says. “The first time I ate wild Pacific Salmon, I had no idea fish could taste that good.”
Between fishing trips he of course had to work and often his job involved entertaining international clients, primarily from the Middle East and Asia. Options in the small town of Prince Rupert, population 15000, were slim but located in what Burghardt calls, “the middle of nowhere,“ was a great seafood restaurant serving what he says was the best sushi he ever ate, thanks to chef Dai Fukasaku.
Fukasaku was born in Japan but moved to the U.S. to study music, specifically Italian opera. While putting himself through school, he worked in a restaurant and because he was the only Japanese employee, the owner offered to send him to sushi chef school in, of all places, Ohio. “I see a lot of connection between creating music and creating sushi,” he says. “Even today, every time I slice a beautiful piece of fresh Sockeye salmon from Prince Rupert, I smile.“
Eventually, he ended up plying the art in B.C., Canada`s sushi capital. And that`s where, five years ago on the golf links, Burghardt put the idea in Fukasaku`s mind of moving to Ontario to start a new business venture. Line caught, wild Prince Rupert fish plays a pivotal role in this idea.
“All the fish we serve at OC`s is wild, line and hook caught, no nets,” Burghardt says. “Each fish is brought on the boat, processed and flash-frozen immediately preserving the freshness so it can be shipped to Ontario and eaten days later.”
Burghardt says he works closely with suppliers there – not distributors, but directly with the fishing boats. Nothing caught is from the endangered list and everything is fished using sustainable practices. The fish, he says, is healthier, higher in Omega 3, lean and rich with a fine texture. “It really is a superior eating experience.”
Fukasaku emphasizes the fact the salmon has gone through a natural four-year life cycle where the fish travel from B.C. to Japan and back again, building muscle and eating natural foods.
So once they had the concept, the sushi chef and the fish, one more ingredient needed to be added. Enter Will Stewart, coincidently born in Ohio, but moved to Florida and opened his own beach-side restaurant taking advantage of the gulf-coast seafood bounty. He`s married to a Canadian (giving him a bit of Canuck cred) whose family lives not far from Oakville. OC`s was the ideal opportunity for him to put passion into practice in a relaxed fine dining atmosphere.
“We allow the fish to do the talking,” he says. “We take a simple piece of fresh Pacific tuna or salmon and allow it to be the taste experience.” The fish is grilled, sautéed, poached or baked to order (medium rare is recommended) and light, not overwhelming, sauces enhance the taste. The white fish is almost butter-like and the salmon has a natural pink texture and appearance. For those adverse to `fishy` tastes, the sweet Dungeness crab cakes will change your view and you`ll be sorry you ever ate any other shell fish.
As for other menu items – meat, vegetables, wine and even sake – local is the goal. Peller Estates dominates the wine list, but a notable option is Ontario Spring Water Sake produced in Toronto`s distillery district. After all, it`s also Burghardt’s goal to “open people`s minds and tastes buds to enjoying cold sake with dinner.”
Old might meet new, and west might meet east, here along the shores of Lake Ontario but change happens in moderation, especially in conservative towns. And that`s perhaps one reason this new dining concept is best housed in a historic ‘stonehookery’ building circa 1840, and the iconic name Stoneboats has been subtlety updated with a new font and quiet “OC`s“ added. The inside, however, was totally redesigned and reopened in May 2011 just in time to enjoy the patio facing the updated Port Credit waterfront – so naysayers be warned: technically you can see water while you eat the fish.
Local Flavour: Ivy Bar & Restaurant, Burlington, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
The Ivy Bar & Kitchen embraces dualities with the understated grace of a superhero: by day and early evening it’s a chic New York-style fine dining establishment where clients are wined and anniversaries celebrated over plates of lamb, Jail Island Salmon or dry aged Kobe beef. But by night, the tall tables in front of the bar roll away, and the spectacular circular crystal chandelier that dominates the decor sightline becomes a cascade of hip radiant colour getting the dance party started (especially for those over 35 on Saturday). Then there’s the summer, which this year marks the first anniversary of this newly minted restobar.
After two years of renovations, the grandeur of this place is visually compelling – not for its opulence, but the opposite: a blend of modern minimalism and country club posh. Picture a cement floor, exposed industrial ceiling accented by plush comforts of glittery light fixtures and grey velvet seats. The place is warmed up, and almost humidified, but a two-story ‘living wall’ behind the bar with foliage meandering to the ceiling. And that’s only the inside.
Adding capacity to this almost 400-seat restaurant located along Burlington’s South Service Road is a teak and cedar outdoor patio. It’s a courtyard really that offers patrons a resort-like escape from the nine to five hustle (and highway headaches) a stone’s throw from the front door. The patio includes two outdoor bars, plenty of bar-height chairs, an extensive cocktail menu and an impressive list of creative adult fun food that focuses on light, healthy, organic, locally sourced (when possible), and quality raw materials. Executive Chef Mark Nethercot joined Ivy a few months after it opened last spring and is enthusiastic about rolling out his summer fare, clearly stamped with his influence. “We put a contemporary twist on fine dining,” he says. “The plan is to set the curve, not follow the curve.”
So where does this curve begin?
With beef, apparently. Specifically, dry aged meat is used for everything at Ivy’s from steaks to burgers. It’s a complicated process, Nethercot says, and one done at Beachwood Cattle company in Simcoe, an organic beef producer Nethercot’s been using for his young family’s meals for years until he convinced the producer to supply to restaurants in addition to their storefront.
“Dry aging takes longer than wet aging,” Nethercot says, but the results are worth it. “The meat is wrapped in cheese cloth and the blood and moisture is whisked out for up to 60 days. Enzymes in the meat breakdown connective tissue and make it tender and tastier.” It’s almost like putting it in a humidor for meat; it must be stored at a specific temperature (almost 0 degrees) and a specific humidity because you don’t want anything to rot.
“We have the ability to do quality food at a price point others, especially chain restaurants, can’t,” he says, “because our Friday and Saturday dinner clientele is willing to pay for lamb, steak and seafood, such as béarnaise sea bass.” As he speaks about the summer menu Nethercot discusses demands for fresher lighter fare, organic food and sustainably caught seafood that meets oceanwise standards, as well as vegetarian and vegan options.
These are clearly concerns for him as a chef, but not at the expense of business acumen. A graduate of the George Brown culinary school, and Mohawk College business program, and a former food technician at a major restaurant chain, Nethercot understands the fine balance between preparing the food that challenges a chef’s creativity and the demands of business success.
For example, he says that labour intensive food won’t work in a large seating restaurant and that’s a challenge because inspired ‘gastro foodie cuisine,’ such as Russet potato-wrapped filet of wild cod with sticky rice, Chinese broccoli, and balsamic glaze, or coconut shrimp with mango lime salsa, can’t be compromised. “That’s what I learned in a corporate environment,” he says, “balancing how dishes are suppose to turn out without taking an hour to make each meal.”
Special events are an Ivy focus, such as weekend brunch with omelet bar and carving station, wine tastings, the Friday 5 to 9 cocktail party with muscles, and special prefix menus for large groups. “We’ve become a destination for large parties,” Nethercot says. “Tonight, for instance, we have reservations for parties of 8, 10, 35 and 18.”
So gather your friends and ditch the cookie cutter franchises. The summer menu at Ivy Bar & Restaurant features updated pub food for grown-ups, a Big Apple mentality that doesn’t sacrifice fun for upscale value. A night out with good friends deserves equally good, fresh and light, noshes such as white cheddar, avocado, snow crab, tomato and smoked bacon grilled cheese, or the Ivy take on classic fish and chips: tempera battered wild cod with fries in a glass. Add a cocktail, and any night at Ivy becomes a special event.
Local Flavour: Walkers Fishmarket, Milton, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Make all the jokes you want about fishy business, but being a seafood restaurant has served Walkers Fishmarket well – especially after primary owners Bill Leslie and Stephen Bell noticed an unfilled regional niche in the competitive food service industry.
“When we first opened Walkers Fishmarket in Burlington almost three years ago, we didn’t plan on opening more in the area,” Bell says. “But now there are four. Walkers Fishmarket is part of The Pepperwood Group, a regional independent restaurant company competing with corporate-own chains popping up on every recently developed corner. Even though the company is also responsible for La Costa Nuovo, The Big Tomato, Pepperwood and Rosewood Bistro, it’s Walkers Fishmarket that’s proving to be, well, the big catch.
Why? First, Leslie attributes a trend towards healthy eating responsible for turning people’s attention towards fish as a desirable option. Second, from a food management perspective, seafood is not the easiest product to deal with. “It has a short shelf life,” he says. “By opening four fish restaurants, we go through a lot of fish so we are now able to buy in larger quantities from our supplier. We only use fish from sustainable stocks. For instance, there are parts of the world where sea bass is plentiful, and we don’t serve controversial dishes like shark fin soup.”
While there are many menu standards that don’t change between the Walkers’ menus, the list of fresh catches and oysters do. And the list of options changes daily (every menu is dated and handed out like sheets of paper from a pad), and it can vary between restaurants depending on seafood supply, local demand and the individual chef’s preferences. Executive chef Michael Levin oversees the general direction of Walkers’ menu, and he works out of the Milton restaurant so that’s ground zero for dish design and direction. For instance, one day late November saw Costa Rican Tilapia, Ontario Pickerel and Louisiana Catfish on the selection list alongside Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, Icelandic Arctic Char, and Nova Scotian Atlantic Salmon. Each is prepared to customer taste: steamed, grilled, broiled or bronzed (a spicy Creole sauce).
Milton may be landlocked, but thanks to modern transportation methods, the saltwater bounty is at the doorstep. Walkers Fishmarket is, according to the menu, “committed to providing our customers the freshest fish and seafood from around the world.”
And just when you might be thinking this is too rich for your (or your kid’s) tastes, both Bell and Leslie admit Walkers’ Fish and Chips – Haddock coated in a signature Pepperwood pale ale beer batter – is still the number one seller at all locations. “We might look like an upscale restaurant,” Bell says. “But that’s one comment we get a lot: this is a very appropriate restaurant for families and most like our kids’ menu.”
The Milton location, near the newly opened Longo’s, is definitely more of a dinner draw than other locations closer to office buildings, and being beside the Galaxy Theatre means a crowd before and after movies – especially if blockbusters are playing. But that doesn’t mean people in this city of 70,000 (and growing) don’t like to unwind, kid free, especially after work. “Late afternoon, oysters are popular especially on Thursdays when they are free with a drink purchase in the bar from 4 to 6pm,” Leslie says. “We call this Happy Thursdays.”
While raw bars are trendy in major cities located closer to ocean edges, they’re scarce as pearls west of Toronto. Oyster variety, however, is more plentiful than most know and savoring the diversity of flavours can be similar to wine tasting. “There are more than 200 varieties of oysters in the world,” Leslie says. Walkers Fishmarket always offers Malpeque and two or three other options. “People like to sample the different tastes – like cheeses.” he says. “Oysters are shucked in front of the customer and sit on ice on the raw bar. They pair well with white wines like a Sauvignon Blanc, but they are also great with beer. On Thursday night, we have an Oyster Caesar drink – it’s a shot glass of spicy Clamato-based cocktail with an oyster in the bottom.”
Leslie is most enthusiastic when discussing the restaurant’s menu, inspired a lot by travels he’s taken around the world. “We offer a fabulous traditional cream-based East Coast clam chowder,” he says, “but we also have a San Francisco Ciopinno because the West Coast is often associated with a healthier lifestyle.” The Ciopinno, unique to the Bay City, is a tomato-based soup, almost like a bouillabaisse. “It’s a great deal because it’s full of fresh fish. We butcher our own fish here and the smaller pieces go into this fish soup along with shellfish like mussels, shrimp and clams.”
For land lovers who prefer their meals raised rather than reeled in, Walkers Fishmarket offers sirloin, filet mignon, striploin and hamburger from the grill. But why miss the boat? Walkers brings the world’s oceans to you.
Local Flavour: Ristorante Beccofino, Oakville, Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Ristorante Beccofino looks like a relatively new kid on the block in downtown Oakville, but its history runs deep. Owned by Allan Michevicus and Eleda Shiry, formally Trattoria Il Timone owners, the pair are once again returning their starry ceiling Italian restaurant back to the leisurely old-school fine dinning establishment which made it so popular when they first bought it in the 1980s.
The history of the restaurant is a tale as layered as Northern Italian lasagne, but two things have remained the same: it’s always been popular and it’s always been in the right location. That last one Michevicus has a theory about. “Location, location, location, that’s very true,” he says over a cappuccino after recounting the decades that led to him being where he is today. “To be successful, a restaurant should be on a street running west and east, and be on the north side of the street. Think about all the streets in Toronto that are successful as neighbourhoods where people walk, like Queen Street West, then think of all the streets running North and South that struggle, like Jarvis. Also, on a west to east running street most people walk on the north side. The north side is warmer in the morning and cooler in the afternoon because of shade. We are more influenced by the sun than we think.”
That, and hiring the right people and encouraging them to stay by sharing the wealth, is his secret to success in the restaurant business. It’s interesting insight from an accidental restaurateur and former computer programmer and math teacher originally from Lithuania. His brother first bought the Italian restaurant in the early 1980s, and Michevicus was involved as investor and building owner only. Then, when his brother died of cancer, Michevicus and his wife (who had a lot of front-of-house restaurant experience) became culinary entrepreneurs. “I brought a lot of business experience regarding planning, hiring, looking ahead to the future and patience to the operation,” he says. And that worked for awhile. But when things got too busy in early in 2000s, Michevicus and Shiry decided to take a 42-month break and handed the restaurant over to their then head chef and staff members. In 2007, in their early 70s, they came back to their passion, and renovated the kitchen, hired their assistant chef, Martin Kahn, as their head chef, and brought in a lot of family to help return the place to their original vision. (Former head chef and several employees moved Trattoria Il Timone to Winston Park Drive.)
The menu at Ristorante Beccofino is simple Italian-influenced dishes using a lot of spice to create flavour and aroma. This reflects the contemporary Mediterranean ambiance of the décor inviting leisurely dining with wine. Popular on the menu is the open-faced ravioli filled with seafood and cream sauce, and the shrimp linguine with pesto. Of course, Osso Buco, braised veal shank, is still available. This lesser known Italian dish put the restaurant on the map in 1994 when Tim Allen mentioned it in the movie Santa Clause. The subsequent restaurant scene in the film was shot outside the doors of Michevicus’ property, signs in full view. “The week the film was released, I got calls from all over North America asking for Osso Buco – some from former regular customers who’d moved away,” he says.
And that is just one of the many stories Michevicus can tell after three decades of being involved with downtown Oakville’s evolution in a location he calls ‘magical.’ He’s watched a lot of restaurants come and go. “Every time I see a new restaurant opening I think, ‘I hope it’s good,’” he says. “Because it’s hard to compete with bad restaurants.”
Local Flavour: Treadwell, Port Dalhousie (St. Catharines), Ontario
By Sherri Telenko
Everyone loves a good story and that’s what Treadwell in Port Dalhousie is about. Well, that and good food – specifically, “quality food, not B.S. cuisine,” according the chef and co-owner Stephen Treadwell who opened the restaurant in 2006 with his son, James, also co-owner and sommelier.
When you dine at Treadwell you learn the story behind the food in front of you, the wine in your glass and exactly who produced it all and where. The menu changes seasonally, and Treadwell says, each staff member tries every dish before it goes on the menu. “We tell them where the ingredients came from so they can explain it to the customer – customers are looking for experiences and good food. We do good food, not fast food.”
Treadwell senior is iconic the ‘eat local’ foodie world of the Niagara Region. Originally from Scotland, he’s a traditional chef with a big personality as straight-shooting as his food. The emphasis at Treadwell is on ingredients, and not too many of them in one dish. These ingredients, however, have to be the best, the freshest and the most flavourful and that’s why Treadwell sources as much local artisan products as possible – about 75 to 80 percent from regional suppliers, including the wine, another integral part of the Treadwell experience.
Formally the head chef at the Queens Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Auberge du Pommier in Toronto, Stephen Treadwell brought the European concept of Farm-to-Table dining to Southern Ontario almost a decade ago sourcing regional suppliers such as Cumbrae Farms and Best Baa Dairy within an easy transportation distance to the restaurant, located in St. Catharines.
“Seven years ago the fresh foods concept was something different,” he says. “Now everyone says they are doing it but most don’t to a great extent.” Treadwell is so committed to their local supplies they list them on the back of menus and encourage patrons to contact them including Bertha’s Bounty eggs – a third generation free-run egg farm in Fonthill producing a blue-tinted Ameraucanas heritage chicken egg (among others). Treadwell has a standing order for ten dozen each Friday, almost exhausting Bertha’s supply, and these deep yellow yolk eggs find their way into Treadwell’s homemade pasta and the occasional amuse bouche. Those wishing to try a farm-fresh scramble at home can purchase a dozen eggs, along with jars of Treadwell’s homemade preserves, from the deli fridge beside the coat rack.
Treadwell is a destination restaurant, located along the waterfront in Port Dalhousie minutes walk from the beach and marina. Admittedly, 80 percent of their clientele is from the GTA area according to Stephen and James and that’s due in part to good press in various Toronto media outlets. “We’re about a 30-minute drive from Burlington,” says James, also a Burlington resident.
People come to this historic building overlooking a man-made waterfall and walking bridge to spend the evening lingering over a plate of Pan Roasted Lake Erie Pickerel with “Pinque’s” Pork and Fennel Sausage or Braised Shank of Ontario Lamb with buttered leeks and crushed fingerlings.