Thursday, May 12, 2016

What's New with Culinary Innovator and Food Entrepreneur Dave Cook

Culinary innovator and food entrepreneur Dave Cook continues to renovate the former Merv’s Variety at 874 Dundas Street. The revamped premises will be home to a restaurant, patio, craft beer pub and Fire Roasted Coffee offering. Cook is also establishing a food incubator in the 14,000-square-foot Somerville Building at 630 Dundas St. He is developing a shared space where culinary entrepreneurs can set up and grow, in much the same way vendors can get their start at his Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market at Western Fair.

In the first stage of this project Cook is creating space for small businesses incubation and food start-ups, a Fire Roasted Coffee café and roastery, and a grocery store. The grocery store is a joint initiative with ATN Access. This project was prompted by the need for a new roastery for Fire Roasted Coffee, which has outgrown its home at the Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Western Fair. The Somerville Building will have a large patio facing Dundas Street with food and drink offerings available.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

On the Road to Jonathan Gushue's The Berlin in Kitchener


A recent road trip consisting of a meandering but scenic drive through Oxford County, Punkeydoodles Corners, Kitchener-Waterloo and the towns and hamlets in and around the Grand River, would eventually bring us to Paris, Ontario, for a two day reunion with long-time friends from London, Toronto and Parkhill.

We were looking for a new and top-notch culinary experience, and had been anticipating chef Jonathan Gushue`s return to the culinary scene. Our host/organizer made reservations at The Berlin in Kitchener, well in advance. The Berlin was already making a name for itself as a culinary destination. It was a given that we would be dining there. Jonathan Gushue is the Newfoundland-born chef who was instrumental in Cambridge`s Langdon Hall receiving a coveted Five Diamond Award, and also being named the 77th best restaurant in the world on the S. Pellegrino list several years ago.
The Berlin, which opened in December 2015, is named in homage to Kitchener-Waterloo’s German heritage (although the original settlers were not directly German but Mennonites from Pennsylvania). It is a partnership between Gushue and restaurateur Ryan Lloyd-Craig.

The restaurant is positioned to benefit from Kitchener-Waterloo`s thriving tech community, new condo developments and the revitalized downtown`s pedestrian-friendly urban vibe. Beginning in 2004, the City of Kitchener launched several initiatives to galvanize the downtown core. New lighting was added to the streets, sidewalks were enlarged, and curbs were lowered. The landmark Walper Hotel, two doors down from The Berlin, is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar rejuvenation and is being heralded as a unique, resolutely modern boutique experience combining the finest in contemporary building technology with the best of the hotel's historic features.

At The Berlin, we were greeted by a friendly server and seated at a large round table near the back of the restaurant and at the foot of the stairs leading to the elevated kitchen. I had an unobstructed view of the open-kitchen with its counter-side seating, the wood-fired grill and a denuded living herb wall.

We ordered a round of Kir de Crème with Nicholas Pearce Brut, Cassis and Earl Grey punch. The drinks were served in elegant long-stemmed champagne coupes and garnished with candied basil leaves.

The tables are unencumbered except for a vase of fresh flowers. The tables are well-spaced and comfy banquettes run along the wall. The interior appears to have been stripped down to emphasize the frame and raw personality of the building. The space is sizeable and has a décor of exposed bricks and concrete with reclaimed maple slats and soaring 20-foot ceilings that give it a modern rural sensibility.

Gushue and Lloyd-Craig spent eight months refurbishing and reclaiming the Renaissance-Revival architectural character of the building to create an 85-seat street-level dining room (120 guests for cocktails) with a central bar and an elevated open-kitchen that is the focal point of the room. The staircase in the middle of the restaurant leads to the second floor, where there are two rooms for private dining and receptions. Such work is not for shallow pockets.

The service is casual and unobtrusive and not in the least fussy or over-polished, the vibe is laid back and hipster-centric bordering on perfunctory. There is a mix of well-dressed and casually attired patrons.

This is not fine dining in its truest form. This is modern dining. Newer restaurant models are dispensing with everything that is unessential and entrenched about patrons’ dining perceptions. The guiding ideals are millennially-aligned — minimalist, accessible, self-assured and propelled forward with culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity. Millennials and the millennially-aligned are an adventurous group, characterized as trendsetters, thrill seekers, experientialists and restaurant explorers.

The Berlin’s concept is self-evident. Less selection heightened quality, kitchen proficiency, faster service, and hotter food. Not to mention accessible prices, lower over-head and a larger profit centre.
We have high expectations and are looking to be wowed. We are aware that The Berlin will be a real departure from Gushue’s oeuvre at Langdon Hall. The food is both simple and adventurous in its inspirations and contemporary in its sensibility and implementation. The ingredient-driven menus are compact and change twice daily. There are five appetizers and five entrées on offer. Our questions are answered in detail and intelligently by our server. A few of my fellow diners find the menu a tad too restrictive for their tastes.

The menu is built around the day’s harvests and driven by whatever the region`s many farmers and purveyors have on offer on any given day. Gushue has termed The Berlin’s cuisine as “modern European, with a nod to the classics.” Kempton Munshaw, formerly of Toronto`s Chase, and listed by Zagat as one of the ``9 secret weapons behind Toronto`s top restaurants`` last year, is The Berlin’s sous chef. The sommelier is Wes Klassen.

There is simplicity to the cooking of the nine-member culinary brigade. At the heart of the kitchen is the cult-favourite five-foot wood-burning grill by Grillworks Inc., which is taking the restaurant industry by storm. At its most rudimentary, a Grillworks grill is a self-supporting stainless steel wood-fired grill with a surface made of V-shaped slates that are slanted downward to guide run-off fat and juices into a basting pan rather than onto the coals. A crank wheel regulates the height of the grill surface over the coals, while a fire cage holds most of the heat behind the surface. Speaking about the wood-burning grill, Dan Barber, owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says, “We’re constantly challenged to use it to its full advantage, which makes it less like a tool than a source of inspiration.” It’s up to the griller to decide when and how to rake the hot coals underneath the meat.

The grass-fed “pasture” burger has the taste of both fat and fire and is served on a shiny milk bun with sharp vintage Cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, aioli and excellent hand-cut fries. Picture an endive and caramelized onion salad with a soft boiled duck egg and grilled smoky pork belly that has great crackle and flavour. More revealing yet is a thin slab of smoked pickerel terrine with baby greens tossed in red onion vinaigrette. Grilled and tender skin-on rainbow trout with mushrooms and leek stew is both delicate and hearty. Grilled marinated duck fillets, white cabbage and apple slaw, goat cheese and watercress are a contrast in texture and flavours.

They churn their own butter, bake the restaurant`s breads as well as curing their own meat. There is a meat locker in the basement where Gushue butchers whole animals. Dessert offerings include burnt lemon curd with goat yogurt ice cream and salted chocolate crumble, caramelized barley and vanilla pudding with poached kumquat, blood orange and lemon tea custard, and granny smith apple sorbet with ginger beer.

Gushue, Munshaw and Lloyd-Craig share an ethical and sustainable culinary philosophy, attentively caring about the provenance of their food and how it is grown or raised. Gushue shapes a formative, season-based and from scratch, farm-to-table dining experience that is both accessible and fresh.

The Berlin

45 King Street West, Kitchener

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Red Rabbit In Stratford: Down The Rabbit Hole

Down The Rabbit Hole at The Red Rabbit In Stratford



            “A locally sourced restaurant, run by workers, owned by workers, shared by the community,” pretty much sums up the Red Rabbit’s ethos. Chef Sean Collins is a Stratford Chefs School graduate, instructor and previously head chef at Mercer Hall before its sale last year. Collins terms his cooking as “Flavour First, Ingredient Driven.” He also says, “We cook food we like to eat.”

One of Stratford’s most anticipated openings last summer was The Red Rabbit, which opened in mid-July. Stratford born Jessie Votary and Collins left Mercer Hall to build the community-shared restaurant on Wellington Street with partners/workers Johnathon Naiman (sous chef), Adam Robinson (front of house), Tyson Everitt (Doctor and resident soda jerk and fermenting specialist), Steve Walters (front of house) and Gen Zinger (front of house).

Votary, who has been fittingly labelled the restaurant’s fearless leader and the mastermind behind the business, recently said, “The notion for the restaurant was born out of necessity and inevitability. We all sat down and agreed that we didn`t really want to do this for someone else anymore. If we were going to work 80 hours a week and throw our whole heart and soul into something, we should do it for ourselves. It didn’t make sense to have a money man at the top taking all the profits. Nor were we interested in trying to squeeze an additional dime out of every plate that comes out of the kitchen.”

With 100 shares at $1,000 each, the Red Rabbit’s ownership group raised a percentage of the capital they needed to finance their project. They then turned to an innovative financing model akin to community supported agriculture (CSA), but in this case adapted for the restaurant business. They modelled it primarily after colleague Anne Campion`s business model at Revel Caffé which itself is a spin on a CSA model that Ruth Klassen at Monforte Dairy pioneered in the Stratford area. Campion and Votary both believe in the importance of supporting new models of community-centred businesses that strengthen and help build communities.

Interested subscribers were invited to purchase restaurant futures in the business. This raised an additional $57,000 in funds, which helped them get the doors open by paying for opening wages and putting inventory in the bar and the kitchen. The futures will be reimbursed in prepaid meals over a period of time. Votary says, “We were looking for investors, but we were also looking to build community around our vision.” The bank put up the rest of the capital through a business loan. At the time, Collins called it “a somewhat radical concept.”

Votary and Collins and the passionate and focused team poured their blood, sweat and tears to get the venture open. Located in a former bridal shop on Wellington Street (off Market Place) Votary refers to the premises as initially being a blank white box. The Red Rabbit seats 45 comfortably with an additional 10 seats at the bar.

Collins leads the talented kitchen team, along with sous chef Jon Naiman. Other members include partner Everitt and newer members Lee Avigdor and Greg Him, formerly of Susan Dunfield’s former Down the Street.

The instantly successful, down-to-earth, farm-oriented restaurant is built on years of deep symbiotic relationships that are at the heart of The Red Rabbit experience. There is a dedicated focus on Perth County ingredients from area farmers like Church Hill Farm, Perth County Pork Products, McIntosh Farms, and Soiled Reputation.

The team has crafted an evolving menu of Southern-style comfort foods. Divided into omnivore, carnivore and herbivore sections, the dinner menu offers Colonel Collins’ fried chicken, duck poutine, Perth County “hammed” pork shoulder, rabbit and leek pie, BBQ celery root, creamy fried polenta and duck egg with chermoula. The menus have also included addictive house-made salumi (beef heart pastrami) and delicious rillettes of rabbit. During the day we like the breakfast with fried eggs, local pork, beans and focaccia.

We have driven to Stratford several times for a delicious repast of Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles. Its secret recipe of thirteen herbs and spices, maple syrup and carrot hot sauce, served with house-cut fries has made it a Stratford culinary staple.

The heat quotient on the spicy hot chicken sandwich with sweet pickle, tzatziki, house-made bun and hand-cut fries is just what the doctor ordered. A newer addition to the lunch menu are four perfectly prepared falafel on a bed of lettuce, (for wrapping), which is served with perfectly seasoned tabbouleh and tiny pots of harissa, tahini, garlic aioli and the traditional pickled turnip. Sensational.

An important difference between the Red Rabbit and other restaurants is the amount of creative input that the staff members bring to the table. Close-knit relationships are central to the core of the restaurant. The service is welcoming, heartfelt and friendly. Most of the front-of-the-house service professionals were previously restaurant managers or owners. Long-time Stratford restaurant professional extraordinaire, Cassandre Frost, is the new restaurant and bar manager.

This past winter the team surpassed all of their expectations as well as crushing every target they had set for the restaurant. The team consistently seated more than 100 covers every Friday and Saturday night throughout the winter. The success of the “small plates” tradition called Nosh Mondays was unparalleled with a waiting list each week.

 This summer they are planning to knock things out of the park. The team will be reintroducing the prix fixe menu, an arrangement that is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously. After 7:30 the focus will be on a local á la carte menu.

Chef Kris Schlotzhauer recently joined the team. Votary says, “He is putting his chef whites away and joining the front of house crew, transitioning into the general manager role as he learns the ropes.” Schlotzhauer was born and raised in Stratford, and has spent the last four years in Toronto where burnish his name and reputation at the much lauded Enoteca Sociale. Attracting plenty of media attention, he has been working to balance work and life roles for his staff. As a vocal champion for fair working hours and pay, his philosophy is closely aligned with the Red Rabbit’s, making him a natural fit.

There is plenty of growth potential for both staff and partners to transition into a new venture in the future. In the meantime, are you in search of a watering spot that serves great craft and house-infused cocktails and flavourful food? Going “down the rabbit hole” is the almost perfect metaphor for embarking on a down-to-earth culinary adventure at the Red Rabbit.


The Red Rabbit

64 Wellington Street 519 305 6464


SUNDAY 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM


THURSDAY 12:00 PM – 9:00 AM

FRIDAY – SATURDAY 12:00 PM –12:00 AM


BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.


Open 7 days a week.