Thursday, September 28, 2017

Five Fortune Culture Restaurant’s Authentic “Pure Chinese” Experience


Although the ethnic cuisines of Yunnan province may not be particularly well known in the West, they are touted as being among the best regional eating experiences in China. There are 25 ethnic groups in this southwestern Chinese province, all contributing within their cultural cuisine subgroups. Agrarian by nature, Yunnan is the birthplace of tea. Yunnan’s northwest corner is said to be the inspiration for Shangri-La, as described in James Hilton’s utopian classic, Lost Horizon.

A recent surge of interest in ethnic and regional Chinese cuisine is reflected in the growth and popularity of Yunnan restaurants in both Beijing and Shanghai. Encouraged by an explosion in cultural tourism the boom is a result of China’s modernization strategy which has put Yunnan on the gastronomical map.

In downtown London, Five Fortune Culture Restaurant proprietors Wenbei and Jie Liang Yin (Jeff) are part of the groundswell of restaurateurs offering an authentic "pure" Chinese dining experience. This is not the formulaic Chinese restaurant serving Anglo-genres conceived by old-style Taishanese and rural Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to suit local tastes and available ingredients. The cuisine, as prepared by Jie Liang and interpreted by Wenbei is Yunnan with Sichuan and Guizhou influences.

Many Yunnan dishes are typified by bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of chili peppers and garlic of bordering Sichuan province. Southern Yunnan takes its influences from Vietnam, Laos and Burma and many dishes have a similarity to Thai cuisine. Meat commonly plays a supporting role as a mere seasoning to the vegetables.

Aromatic steamed pineapple rice is popular among Dai people and the perfect side dish to soothe the heat of spicy offerings. In Jie Liang’s hands the fragrant rice has a stunningly delicate balance of sour and sweetness. A ripe pineapple is scooped out and the flesh is cut in small cubes and mixed with the scented rice and other aromatics. It is served in the hollowed pineapple shell with the leaf crown acting as a lid to keep the rice hot.

Yunnan is the home to a vast range of fresh rice noodle soups and stir fries. Mixian or fresh rice noodles are gluten-free with a silky texture which absorbs flavours efficiently. Yunnan's best known dish, Crossing Bridge Noodles is a bowl of extremely hot broth served with a range of ingredients supplied raw to the table, including rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, poultry and fish, leaf vegetables, bean curd, aromatics and cilantro to balance out strong flavours, much like a hot pot. If you’re not familiar with these flavours, it’s an assertive dish. If you are, it’s simply enjoyably comforting.

A trio of fish are offered whole, with head and tail intact. The choices were salmon, tilapia and a deep- sea fish with an untranslatable name. I avoid farmed fish so we chose the untranslatable-named fish. Jie Liang’s grandmother provided the recipe which is a thirty-six hour process from start to finish. The fish is wrapped in foil and steamed on the grill which keeps the firm interior moist and intact, the outer skin of the fish was candy-sweet and caramelized with green onion, soya, ginger and garlic.

Spicy Tom Yum seafood pot has a sharp freshness and briny meatiness, deriving its pungency from lemongrass and pepper. Other specialities include thick, soft and chewy Udon noodles made from wheat. The green onion pie is flavoursome and reminds me of the Japanese savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. Try the jiggly iced congee and glutinous dia bao (steamed buns). You will never need Sriracha again, once you’ve tasted Wenbei’s homemade, hot and spicy, red pepper dipping oil. She jars it and sells it in the restaurant.

Chinoiserie and other decorative arts and imagery decorate the dining room, giving personal expression to Wenbei and Jie Liang’s former lives in China. The purpose of a “culture restaurant” is to be an emissary and to facilitate the exchange of Eastern and Western cultural values. On selected evenings there is traditional song and dancing on a small stage that flanks the dining room. Wenbei, a former fashion designer, has an excellent singing voice.

Wealth, health, longevity, love, and virtue are the five good fortunes. Five also happens to be the name of their former business portfolio in China which they wanted to extend to include this restaurant. The investment projects included Five Fortune Herbal Cuisine (herbal cuisine restaurant), Five Fortune Very Ethnic (traditional embroideries and clothing), Five Fortune Arts (Chinese art and paintings), and Five Fortune Clothing (clothing design and production of ramie cotton produced from the nettle plant).

Hoping to live a more peaceful life, the couple travelled nearly eight thousand miles to start a new life in a strange land. Wenbei, who comes from a lineage of doctors, cites Norman Bethune, who is enshrined as a national hero in China, as an influence on their decision to immigrate to Canada. Famously, Bethune’s accidental death from septicemia evoked Chairman Mao Zedong's essay "In Memory of Norman Bethune," which urged all Chinese to match his spirit of responsibility and humanitarianism and became required reading for the entire population.

Jie Liang, who studied to be an art designer belongs to "Dai" a Tai cultural group from Yunnan that traditionally adheres to Buddhist principles. At Five Fortune the servers are intelligent and hospitable students that understand her vision and speak English. Service is welcoming and helpful with the kinds of detail about the dishes that can be hard to find in some Chinese restaurants. The restaurant caters to International students and gets extremely busy. When the restaurant is full the wait time for food can be exceedingly long.

There is a saying in Yunnan, “We will eat anything with four legs except for a table,” says Wenbei. Jie Liang’s translation of Yunnan cooking both pays respectful homage to the culture and, in the hope of making it more accessible, takes the most minor liberties with it. An epigram on the menu states, "The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose..." 

Five Fortune Culture Restaurant
368 Richmond Street
Menu Changes Friday–Sunday 
Hours can vary. Phone ahead for times.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Tea Rituals & Michelle Pierce Hamilton and Yixing Tang's The Tea Lounge

Yixing Tang and Michelle Pierce Hamilton. Photo: Spencer Drake


Tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton and her business partner Yixing Tang opened The Tea Lounge in a small charming house on Piccadilly Street east of Richmond. They recently launched a menu of cold drinks, iced teas and vegan-friendly lattes. Matcha, London Fog and cinnamon-orange spiced tea lattes are available hot or iced. There is afternoon tea service one Sunday per month. Book a sitting at the monthly Tea Flight Nights to experience a comparative tasting. A small in-house scratch menu and baked goods and healthful snacks from Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie, Boombox Bakeshop and Bliss Specialty Foods add to the experience.

London may be part of the explosion of indie cafés serving small-batch coffee roasts, which are part grab-and-go café and part bakery, but we’re a community of dedicated tea enthusiasts too. And now, with the rise of the wellness tea market, we are seeing several innovative tea-inspired concepts. These indie hot spots are about tea craft and accessibility and offer us a well-curated selection of ethically-sourced single-origin teas, blends, tisanes and infusions.

The upswing in the popularity of tea translates to enhanced flavour profiles, and blends that add fruits, flowers and spices for a richer experience. Pairings of tea with herbs, spices and fruits for beverages, tea-infused jams, condiments, and desserts, cocktails, cold brews and ferments are all on-trend.

The Tea Lounge

Certified tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton and her business partner Yixing Tang opened The Tea Lounge in a small and charming house on Piccadilly Street east of Richmond Row last fall.

Millwork shelving showcases an interesting selection of unique and traditional teaware. The focal point is a 10-foot “Wall of Tea,” featuring over 100 hand-selected teas from around the world.

The café has many seating options, including a rustic conference table with over-sized hand-carved dining chairs for groups and classes. A long crimson sofa accents the Indo-Asian decorative features of the eclectic central lounge. There is additional seating on the front porch in the warm weather.

Tang and Pierce Hamilton offer a premium tea service experience, serving ethically-sourced single-origin teas and tisanes from around the world, as well as retailing striking teaware. The pair offers traditional Chinese, Japanese and English teas, each with its own teaware and serving style. Chinese “grandpa style” is another option on offer. Or you can simply get a quick cup to go. Guests can sip meticulously-sourced teas while experiencing their choice of traditional or contemporary style tea service in the laid-back lounge.

Whether you’re in the mood for a tasty treat, wholesome ingredients, or have food sensitivities, delicious baked good and healthful snacks from Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie, Boombox Bakeshop and Bliss Specialty Foods add to the tea experience. A menu of light and nourishing food offers a daily wholesome made-from-scratch soup prepared by the culinary team at The Spruce on Wellington just around the corner. Other items include organic Mason jar layered-salads with names like Plant Protein, Fruitoxidant, Kitchen Sink, Greek Out and Sexy Mexi.

There is an “All ’Bout Cheese Board” featuring a selection of local Ontario artisanal cheeses like Gunn’s Hill Cheese, served with condiments, nuts and other accompaniments that they switch up, to keep things interesting. For the plant-based crowd, the “Nuts for Cheese Board” features a selection of ­artisanal, handcrafted, and vegan cheeses made from cultured organic cashews.

What makes great tea? Pierce Hamilton believes, “It starts with excellent quality leaf, with permission to naturally unfurl and fully reveal its flavours and aromas. Not crushed or crammed into a little bag or a ball.” The tea lounge owners create blends that don’t diminish tea’s nutrients, antioxidants and essential oils. They do the legwork, sourcing and selecting teas and tisanes from around the globe. An informative and exciting schedule of classes and events is also part of The Tea Lounge experience.

Tamarine by Quynh Nhi's Modern South Vietnamese Cuisine

By Bryan Lavery

This sleek and urban-chic downtown hot-spot has a sophisticated palette and an upscale mix of contemporary Asian-inspired motifs, art, cuisine and ambiance. Chefs combine the freshest ingredients with traditional flavours to create a unique menus designed to promote communal dining.

From a design perspective, the attention to detail is carried through in many small but striking ways such as the design of the cutlery and dishes, seasonal exotic floral arrangements and the various choices of seating arrangements. The mosaic tiles around the bar have a chameleon-like ability to change into a myriad of palettes, creating a swanky, sexy cocktail lounge vibe with a colour changing remote control. Lighting can also be adjusted to set the mood particularly in the far end of the dining room, where private booth seating provides an intimate and comfortable dining experience.

The cuisine is sophisticated and pushes culinary boundaries without breaking the tenets of traditional South Vietnamese cuisine. The flavours are multi-faceted and subtle and the dishes have plenty of visual appeal. Dishes are designed to be mixed and matched in ways that balance flavours and fragrance, as well as texture and colour.

The cooking is delicate and refined and combines the techniques of Chinese cooking with indigenous ingredients, the light accents of French gentility, and flavours and aromas reminiscent of India. 

The signature Crispy Spring Roll at Tamarine is made with chicken, pork, or a vegetarian version served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The restaurant is also known for its crispy Torpedo Rolls, made with shrimp and crispy Imperial Rolls with shrimp, pork, wood ear (a type of fungi) and glass noodles, which are also served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The Vietnamese use fish sauce to enhance the flavour of their foods, much the same way we use table salt, and it pretty much goes with everything.
Compared with its cousin, the egg roll, the spring roll is smaller, with much less filling. (Phan tells me that the “spring roll” is all about quality, not quantity). However, the terms “spring roll” and “egg roll,” like “spring roll” and “fresh roll,” are often used somewhat interchangeably and incorrectly. It can be quite confusing.

Fresh rolls are referred to by several different names, including “salad roll,” “fresh spring roll,” and “summer roll.” Sometimes the word “Vietnamese” is added at the beginning of these words; for example, “Vietnamese roll” or “Vietnamese spring rolls.” It has been my experience that on the North American west coast, many restaurants refer to fresh rolls as “crystal rolls,” “soft rolls,” or “salad rolls.” Fresh rolls are easily distinguished from similar rolls in that they are not fried and that the ingredients used are different from (deep-fried) Vietnamese egg rolls.

“Spring rolls” take their name from the freshness of the spring season with all the seasonal ingredients, and frying would, of course take away that element. At Tamarine, they offer fresh Spring Rolls with a choice of barbecued chicken or shrimp, vermicelli, crispy pastry heart, fresh mint, lettuce, and sprouts, all rolled in soft rice paper and served with peanut sauce.

Tamarine also has its own version of Pad Thai. Although it is the national dish of Thailand and has been known in various incarnations for centuries, the dish is thought to have been introduced to Thailand by Vietnamese traders. Tamarine’s version is a choice of wok-tossed chicken or beef with rice noodles and bean sprouts, finished with a spicy tamarind sauce and cilantro lime, and garnished with crushed peanuts.

“Tamarine is a second-generation restaurant. It is our interpretation of how Vietnamese food has evolved,” says co-owner Long Phan. “Our food is as symbolic as it is traditional. You can be anywhere in the world and authentically showcase our heritage with our cuisine.” The cooking remains delicate and refined and combines the techniques of Chinese cooking with indigenous ingredients, the light accents of French gentility, and flavours and aromas reminiscent of both China and India.

Words can describe the atrocities that Vietnamese “boat people” suffered when they decided to flee their homeland in crudely built boats, sparking an international humanitarian crisis. When Quynh and Nhi’s father Tan Pham wanted a better future for his family the authorities caught wind of it his first attempt to escape the country landed him 20 months of hard labour in jail. Subsequent attempts yielded him no promises to get him where he wanted to go. In 1990, he escaped Vietnam literally with the shirt on his back and that was the price he was willing to pay for a better future for his family. At that time there was no possible future for his family it was either poverty or death. The survivors sometimes languished for years in refugee camps. More fortunate ones were taken in by countries like Canada.

It has been a long journey for the family to get where it is now but adversity instilled a solid work ethic and team spirit that is evident in how they operate their restaurants. After making a name for herself at the Trail’s End Market with her hand-rolled, high quality spring rolls and stir fry’s, Du Bui (Quynh and Nhi’s mother who has always been in charge of quality) parlayed her signature spring roll eventually into what her son-in-law, Long Phan refers to as “the birth of two restaurants.”

Wrapping spring rolls in lettuce leaves and including fresh herbs in the bundles is a vestige of the original civilizations that existed before the centuries of Chinese influence in Vietnam, and is practised with delicacy at both Quynh Nhi and Tamarine.

118 Dundas St, London
Tuesday– Saturday 5 pm–9pm
Friday Lunch 11 am–2:30pm

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Where to Eat Vietnamese in London, ON: Fresh Rolls, Pho & Noodles Rule


The genius of Vietnamese cooking lies in the adaptation of foreign influences to develop a distinctly unique and subtle cuisine with contrasting flavours and textures. Sour ­flavours are balanced by salty ones, and sweet notes are tempered by heat from chilies and ground pepper. There is a dependence on rice; noodles figure prominently and a wealth of fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. As in China and East Asia, the Vietnamese serve their rice in bowls with chopsticks. Meat is an accompaniment rather than a central offering.

The Vietnamese custom of wrapping fresh rolls and spring rolls in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs are a remnant of the original cultures that existed before centuries of Chinese influence. The Chinese contributed many culinary techniques including their art of stir-frying using the wok; the French left their traditions and penchant for aromatic filtered coffee with condensed milk and crème caramel; scented ingredients like lemongrass were embraced from the Thai culinary repertoire; and the spicing techniques and aromatic infusions of curry-inspired recipes are suggestive of India. That is the short-list.

Pho, a popular street food in Vietnam, is a deeply-flavoured broth with long rice noodles, fresh herbs and thin slices of meat most often accompanied with a side of bean sprouts, peppers and lime wedges. Pho has become the mainstay of many Vietnamese restaurants. In London, students have given Ben Thanh and Pho Haven cult-status due to pho’s hearty, meal-in-a-bowl, comfort food popularity and its relative affordability. Thuan Thanh  serves probably the best pad Thai and most authentic pho in the city. I will be writing about them shortly. Here are a few Vietnamese restaurants in London, ON that dyed-in-the-wool foodies brag about.

The Vietnam Restaurant
My introduction to pho and subsequent comparisons are based on the delicious concoctions that have a fragrant undertone, accompanied by thin slices of rare beef, which they have been serving at The Vietnam since my first visit twenty years ago. The Vietnam is located across from the former Kellogg’s factory that is being repurposed into a new multi-use attraction to be known as 100 Kellogg. Long Duc Ngo has been the welcoming hands-on proprietor of this long established Vietnamese restaurant since 1994. The kitchen offers a selection of accessibly-priced noodle, rice and soup dishes. The substantive menu includes superb spring rolls, pho, sizzling hot pots, and many seafood and chicken dishes. Favourites include Pho Dac Biet, the signature combination beef, rice noodle broth with rare and brisket beef, beef balls and tripe with fresh herbs. The cold rice paper roll known as goi cuon is a perennial favourite. It is comprised of noodles, shrimp, pork, lettuce, mint and Thai basil, making this savoury easy to dip in a thick sauce of peanuts and soya.
1074 Dundas St, London
Tuesday–Thursday 11am–9pm
Friday 11am–9pm
Saturday 12pm–10pm
Sunday (Closed Temp)

Thuân Kiêu 
Established in 1996, Thuâ.n Ki`êu is family-owned and operated and has developed an ardent and devoted fan base over the years for Chen’s (or Chu’s — he goes by both) hands-on approach, his ability to remember his regulars by name and his traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
For years the restaurant was located in cramped premises at Huron and Sandford Streets. The new incarnation has a slick urban sensibility with a variety of seating options. The ambitious menu offers a range of traditional/non-traditional Vietnamese dishes that reads like an encyclopedia. Some dishes reach out to other parts of South Asia. Due to its updated high-concept business model, it has lost some of its intimacy but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The service is very attentive but when it gets crowded, and it does, things at TK’s can go a bit haywire.
The appetizer to order is the Bo La Lop; the parcels of grilled lemongrass-infused beef wrapped in grape leaf are exceptional. At Thuân Ki`êu, they are zealously creating quality food using traditional cooking methods and techniques to impart the essence of Vietnamese cuisine.
1275 Highbury Ave N., London
Monday–Saturday 11am–9:30pm
Sunday 11 am–8:30pm

Quynh Nhi 
For well over a decade the family-run Quynh Nhi (named after siblings Quynh and Nhi) has garnered a loyal patronage and prospered because of its responsive service, consistency and traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The updated forty-seat restaurant is situated off the beaten path, next door to an auto repair garage at the corner of Wharncliffe and Riverside. Quynh Nhi built its formidable reputation on its spring rolls. The signature Crispy Spring Roll is offered with chicken, pork, or in a vegetarian version served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The restaurant is also known for its five different types of spicy pad Thai on offer. 
55 Wharncliffe Road N., London
Monday–Saturday 11am–9pm

Tamarine by Quynh Nhi 

Tamarine by Quynh Nhi 
Tamarine by Quynh Nhi is the sibling restaurant and the evolution of the venerated Quynh Nhi. This is the new wave of modern southern Vietnamese cuisine that has undergone a coherent development, it has a technical almost architectural articulation, and the chefs are concerned with creativity and innovation. Menu offerings are intended to be mixed and paired in ways that harmonize and contrast flavours. Both the shredded mango and shrimp salad with chili lime fish sauce, mint, crushed peanut and pickled carrots, and the green papaya salad with fiery beef jerky, basil and sweet tamarind sauce are otherworldly. Tamarine is known for its crispy Torpedo Rolls made with shrimp, and crispy Imperial Rolls with shrimp, pork, wood ear (a type of fungi) and glass noodles, which are also served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The kitchen combines fresh ingredients with traditional seasonings to construct offerings designed to encourage communal dining. 
118 Dundas St, London
Tuesday– Saturday 5 pm–9pm
Friday Lunch 11 am–2:30pm

Chi Hi Vietnamese
Chef Trinh's modest Vietnamese Restaurant features traditional fare including banh mi (black bean, tofu or beef subs) pho, fresh rolls, spring rolls, vegetarian Singapore noodles, beef noodle brisket soup, and black bean tofu vermicelli. There is also jade cake, banana cake and a large plant-based selection. 791 Dundas Street (beside Aeolian Hall at Rectory) 519 601 8448 

Ben Thanh Viet Thai Restaurant 
This popular Viet-Thai restaurant boasts meal-in-a-bowl specialties and vegetarian options at accessible prices. Cooks prepare your meal a la minute with authentic quality ingredients. The casual dining rooms are airy and relaxing. For over two decades Ben Thanh has provided London with accessible Viet-Thai food. London has three locations.
517 York Street
655 Fanshawe Park West
1070 Wellington Road South

Monday, September 18, 2017

Growing Chefs! Ontario Headquarters & Food Education Centre


Andrew Fleet, Executive Director of Growing Chefs! Ontario, announced earlier this year that the former Auberge Restaurant at King and Maitland would be the new home for the ground-breaking program that unites chefs, growers, educators and community members in children’s food education projects. They have worked hard to transform the former Auberge du Petit Prince restaurant into an innovative Food Education Centre. It is a venue where Londoners, young and old, can get excited about growing, cooking, sharing, and celebrating delicious healthy food together. 

The enclosed sunrooms, dining rooms and bar have been turned into teaching areas. Upstairs features an additional three intimate rooms that can be used for private functions, corporate meetings and teaching facilities. The outdoor patio has been transformed into a spectacular Learning Garden. 

Food literacy, when taken literally, means a person’s ability to correctly read food labels and Canada’s Food Guide and the aptitude to comprehend basic nutrition well enough to apply that knowledge to food preparation. Food literacy also includes understanding how food is grown and produced, where it originates, how production affects the environment and who has access to what types of foods.

The need to introduce food into school life is the most compelling at the primary level, when children are just starting to establish food preferences, make independent choices and influence their friends. Growing Chefs! was conceived in Vancouver B.C. by Chef Merri Schwartz in 2006, as she identified a need to articulate the story of the food we eat. Believing in greater engagement between chefs, farmers and the general public, she set out to educate children, families, and community members about nutrition, sustainability and healthy food systems. Schwartz achieved this by providing programs, seminars, and workshops in classrooms to promote local and healthy eating.

After working with Schwartz and recognizing the influence that Growing Chefs! was having in Vancouver, Andrew Fleet was inspired to launch the program when he returned to London, Ontario. Consequently, Growing Chefs! Ontario Classroom ­Gardening Project was established in the spring of 2008 at Tecumseh Public School. Fleet is the Executive Director of Growing Chefs! Ontario.

What was initially known as the Classroom Gardening Project has been redesigned as a full-school project. The Growing Chefs! team visits every class in each partner school allowing individual schools to contribute time and effort into the coordination piece of the programming. “Kids are well educated in our school system on health and they know they need to be making healthy choices but we don’t show them how to actually do that,” Fleet explains. “That’s the Growing Chefs! philosophy — you give kids a chance to cook real food with real flavour with a real chef.”

Katherine Puzara lead chef for the elementary school project, Fresh Food Frenzy, and Growing Communities. Puzara has redesigned and expanded the workshops and lesson plans, while working to challenge the perceived limitations of children and youth in the kitchen. The program invites individual grade 1-3 classes on a field trip to visit the Covent Garden Farmers’ Market. Students explore the farmers’ market, purchase ingredients, and share their findings with the class. Afterwards they prepare a delicious three course lunch in the Market Kitchen. This program gives students a unique opportunity to connect with local farmers and learn about the journey of their food from farm to table.

Students visiting the Education Centre on a field trip experience an authentic restaurant setting, explore the Learning Garden, and take part in grade-appropriate cooking activities.  In the restaurant setting, students can see the entire food system in action, from production to consumption and beyond. Field trips culminate with students sharing a meal they have had a hand in preparing a healthy and seasonal meal.

Over the years, who’s who of local chefs have participated in the Growing Chefs! program. The chefs include Andrew Wolwowicz from Craft Farmacy/North Moore Catering, who has been on the Board of Directors of Growing Chefs! since 2010,  Paul Harding of The Root Cellar, Dani Murphy of Blu Duby, Wade Fitzgerald of Fanshawe College, Mark Kitching from Waldo’s on King, Ryan Irwin of Fellini’s in Stratford, Yoda Olinyk of Yoda’s Private Catering, Yam Gurung of Momo’s at the Market and Patrick Dunham of Patrick’s Beans, to name a few. 

Based on the idea that education can alter behavior, Growing Chefs! and its many volunteers have made tremendous strides by changing the way many children perceive food and encouraging them to become excited about nutritious and healthy food choices.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

From the Archives: Chef Jason Bangerter and Langdon Hall Country House Hotel

"The restaurant is well-known for its terroir-driven Ontario cuisine, using the estate’s acreage as inspiration for the seasonal menus". - Bryan Lavery

By Bryan Lavery

As we turned into Langdon Hall’s discreet driveway and drove up the winding road, we passed through wooded acreage dusted with a light snowfall and arrived at the 75-acre hilltop estate’s main house, which is the centerpiece of the estate. Built in 1898 as the lavish summer retreat of Eugene Langdon Wilks, (a great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor), the imposing main house is inspired by Georgian and Classical traditions of the Federal Revival Style.

The property, with its expansive gardens and Carolinian trails, is situated in the countryside just outside the hamlet of Blair, which is now part of Cambridge. Langdon Hall is manifestly what food guides used to call a "restaurant destination" but it also offers guests an impressive experience with luxury suites, Victorian gardens, conference rooms, reception areas, a full-service spa and an outdoor swimming pool. A recently added $7-million wing provides an additional six luxury suites, as well as an event hall and an enhanced 10,000-square-foot spa.

Executive Chef at Langdon Hall, Jason Bangerter, is an influential culinary maverick on the national cooking stage, with international credentials, as well as a dedicated advocate for sustainability and seafood conservation. Both his early and present affiliations colour his cooking repertoire.

Bangerter cemented his reputation at the Auberge du Pommier in mid-town Toronto, and later at the O&B Canteen and LUMA at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In 2015 Bangerter was awarded the International Rising Chef Award in Paris from the illustrious Relais & Châteaux, and recently Langdon Hall was acknowledged for being the only restaurant in Ontario to have achieved the CAA 5 Diamond award for excellence in 2015.

Relais & Châteaux is a global fellowship of independently owned and operated luxury properties and restaurants. Prospective and current members are evaluated by the Paris-based group's traditional "five C" motto: caractère, courtoisie, calme, charme et cuisine. Langdon Hall easily meets the standards for all five criteria.

Since Langdon Hall began its conversion into a hotel in 1987, the main house, cloister suites and the stables provided accommodations with a current total of 58 guest rooms. My cloister suite was comfortably and tastefully appointed with a generous seating area, king-size feather bed, wood-burning fireplace and bathroom, complete with a deep soaking tub, walk-in shower and private dressing area. After unpacking I was gazing out of the large picture window which overlooked the grounds. At first glance, I admired what appeared to be a majestic deer statue, when it unexpectedly turned its head. The realization suddenly dawned on me that this was one of the many wildlife creatures that roam freely on the property.

The restaurant is well-known for its terroir-driven Ontario cuisine, using the estate’s acreage as inspiration for the seasonal menus. This is complemented by an extensive wine cellar. Wine is a large part of the restaurant’s credo and prestige, with over 1,000 globally sourced bottles and VQA’s on its extensive list.

At 7 pm, we dined in the newest of the three dining rooms, the Orchard Room. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a pleasing garden view. The whitewashed, white-linen dining rooms are très soigné in the truest sense of the expression. It was our good fortune to arrive at Langdon Hall during truffle season. Chef is a self-confessed funghi and mushroom aficionado who dedicated time to speak in-depth about his seasonal truffle tasting menu and how the kitchen sources the seasonal delicacies from Italy, Croatia, France and Australia.

An amuse that began our tasting experience was a luxurious hen liver parfait accompanied by a primordial-flavoured black truffle and crispy hen-skin cracker that Chef referred to as his version of “chips ‘n’ dip”. My starter was a finely minced and seasoned quenelle of veal tartare with paper-thin slices of Jerusalem artichoke, golden raisin and garnish of rounded nasturtium leaves. Nicholas ordered an artfully arranged sugar-cured trout elevated with red cabbage, crab apple and buttermilk.
A deliciously pungent black-as-night truffle crème de volaille accompanied by parmesan shortbread followed.  At my request, our waiter inquired if I could partake of two meat courses, and subsequently suggested game for my entrée. I decided on the elk served with bone marrow parsnip, foraged mushroom, orchard apple and young juniper. Two lean and tender elk chops with accompaniments arrived, cooked to a succulent and stunning medium rare.

Nicholas selected farmer Murray Thunberg’s heritage hen served with Savoy cabbage, salsify, smoked onion and a savoury jus. Bangerter told us, “Thunberg’s small-scale organic farm specializing in quality heritage meats and heirloom vegetables is practically on the doorstep of Langdon Hall.” In addition, there is a stellar network of farmers and producers in the area that complement the property’s own comprehensive gardens. Both our entrées showed off Chef’s extraordinary facility with taste, texture and colour.

Our engaging Maître d’ broke the top of my perfectly-risen quince soufflé with a spoon and poured warm apple cider caramel into the interior for “additional decadence”.  Nicholas wisely chose peanut butter sablé, with puffy clouds of Rosewood Estates honey mousse, and chocolate fudge. At the end of the meal a plate of mignardises, also known as petit fours, were served. The selection included profiteroles, squares of caramel, and shortbreads with Saskatoon berries.

The attentive down-to-earth discourse and wine pairings by sommelier Brie Dema were a top-drawer experience. Sommelier Faye MacLachlan later explained Langdon Hall’s wine platform by e-mail, “The wine program is fundamentally a reflection of our core values and commitment to excellence. The program is structured to provide a global selection, represented by producers on our list that embody the same commitment to quality and passion for their craft.” 
I also asked MacLachlan about reports that she is creating a variety of barrel-aged specialty cocktails made of blends of fruits, herbs, and roots from Langdon Hall’s gardens, with Head Gardener Mario Muniz. MacLachlan said, “It was like going flavor shopping on the grounds of Langdon with a walking botanical encyclopedia. Mario’s knowledge of the huge variety of both cultivated and wild species is amazing.”

There is an expectation of a particular standard of care in a restaurant befitting a well-run luxury hotel. Langdon Hall has achieved a reputation for setting the benchmark in Ontario when it comes to offering the highest pinnacle of hospitality. Luxurious facilities aside, the most impressive measure of Langdon Hall's excellence, besides chef Bangerter’s cuisine, is the level of genuine hospitality and friendly service.

Afternoon Tea

DAILY 5:30PM–9:00PM
DAILY 12:00PM–9:30PM
Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa

1 Langdon Dr., Cambridge, 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From the Archives: Jonathan Gushue`s, The Berlin in Kitchener


“ 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.” Bryan Lavery 

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, recently had 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
Tuesday – Saturday:
5:00pm - 10:00pm
11:00am - 2:00pm Brunch
5:00pm – 9:00pm Dinner

Closed Monday. 

Stratford Chefs School Long Table Dinner Fundraising Event

Chef Ian Middleton & Chef Aaron Linley

After a three-year hiatus, Long Table Dinner, the Stratford Chefs School's fundraiser, washeld at the newly revitalized and pedestrian-friendly Market Square on September 10th. The school had been holding the actual event location as a last-minute surprise. Inspired by “Diner en Blanc,” guests mostly dressed all in white gathered around one enormously long table to enjoy a four-course dinner of incredible local food complimented by Caves Springs VQA wine. 

The festivities began with guest mingling and being served Revolution cold brew coffee gin and tonics and Cave Spring Dolomite Brut. Passed around hors d’ oeuvres included smoky eggplant tart with creamy local goat cheese; cucumber, rainbow trout rillettes with fresh horseradish on cucumber slices and devilled eggs with crispy bacon and pickled jalapeno.

This was followed by a dinner comprised of platters of local organic vegetables, boiled eggs and poached mussels served with Perth County aioli; BBQ leg of local lamb with green tomato jam, late summer ratatouille and roasted potatoes ; and cold poached salmon with green goddess sauce. This was followed by a Monforte cheese board that featured Big Momma a bloomy rind water buffalo with ash; Bliss a bloomy rind sheeps’ and cows’ cream; and Toscano a limited edition aged sheeps’ milk cheese. This was followed by tables of seasonal fruit pies that included chocolate and raspberry and fresh pear which were served with crème fraiche.

Eleanor Kane, chairperson of the event, who helped found the school in 1983, along with fellow Stratford restaurant owners James Morris and Joe Mandel, said she commended the leadership in the school, the board and the administration of the school for creating this new generation of the school.  “I think tonight’s support from the community is testament to the kind of decisions that group has made because with that came the need for fundraising and tonight with 185 people sitting here for the Long Table, the school made all the right decisions”. Kane, who retired in 2013, remains in an advisory capacity to the board of directors.

The menu was developed by Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, from Linleys Food Shop. Kane said, “The Linleys and the Stratford Chef School reached out to many restaurants and food purveyors to support this evening, people donated and worked in their kitchens to provide this wonderful menu.” There was sponsorship involved in almost every facet of the dinner, which shows the generous support that the Stratford Chefs School's receives from the local food community that is so deeply centred in the city.

Remembering Ann McColl's Kitchen Shop

By Bryan Lavery

Hospitality and the culinary arts have always gone hand in hand. In London, Ontario, we have a history of exceptional restaurateurs, chefs and culinary retailers. Among the latter are Ann McColl Lindsay and David Lindsay, the former proprietors of the legendary Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop, one of Canada’s finest cookware shops.

Ann and David met, married and taught school in Windsor, Ontario from 1961 to 1968. They resigned their positions, sold their red brick bungalow, and embarked on a year-long food pilgrimage across Europe while camping in a Volkswagen van. Travelling in the van with a gas burner allowed them to truly enjoy the local terroir.

The first six months of their tripwhich ended at the French border, is described in Ann’s memoir Hungry Hearts – A Food Odyssey across Britain and Spain. The second volume, Hearts Forever Young, includes their travels in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

This formative trip introduced the Lindsays to small independent grocers, hardware stores, street markets and antique stores jammed with domestic serving pieces. It was during this time that they started to collect the one-of-a-kind utensils that would comprise a useful and saleable batterie de cuisine. Of a foray to British food writer Elizabeth David’s Kitchen Shop, Ann says, “This innocent morning’s shopping expedition turned into a lifetime obsession”.

Upon their return to Canada, they opened Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop and Victoriana in rented premises on Dundas Street where they lived above the shop. They specialized in culinary utensils, antiquarian books, furniture, and Victorian paraphernalia.
I should point out here that it was about this time that the Lindsays befriended restaurateurs Ginette Bisallion and Robin Askew, who opened the seven-table L’Auberge du Petit Prince ((named after Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince, who, if you remember, cooked over volcanic jets on a far planet). L’Auberge was later purchased by chef Chris Squire in 1976. Squire would operate the landmark business for 21 years. These steadfast relationships cemented their connection to the local restaurant scene.

After several years on Dundas Street, the Lindsays moved to new premises with beautiful storefront windows, on Richmond at Hyman Street. It was one of just three small owner-operated specialty shops on Richmond Row at the time. Ann started to write cookbooks. David, a talented artist and photographer, illustrated them.

Ann McColl Lindsay and chef David Chapman 

In 1977 Ann authored The Cookshop Cookbook, which instructed readers in the use and care of kitchen utensils and equipment. “We had always been traditionalists in the matter of kitchen equipment, shunning all electrical contrivances and putting our faith in good knives, sieves, mortar and pestles. The autumn of 1975 saw a change in all that. The Cuisinart Food Processor arrived in Canada and automatically half the stock in our store became obsolete,” wrote Ann. The business prospered anyway and they outgrew that location.

In the 1980’s they relocated the shop to 350 Talbot Street. Built in 1890, the building was originally erected as a showroom and repair shop for Massey-Harris Co. To this day, the landmark building provides a strong reminder of the late nineteenth century commercial activity in downtown London. The new store was one of the most professionally stocked and artistically merchandised cookware shops anywhere. It had everything you needed to be a successful cook, except the food. The shop offered bakeware, pots and pans, woks, scales, utensils, gadgets, drain boards, glassware, bowls, and many specialty utensils. There was even a step-down kitchen in the renovated tractor repair shed with an AGA stove for cooking classes and demonstrations.

Already outspoken heritage activists, having had four of their buildings designated, they campaigned for the preservation of the streetscape on the Talbot Block which culminated in a “Hands Around the Block” demonstration. Ann’s commentaries on culinary matters, urban issues and heritage preservation have appeared in countless newspaper articles, magazines and letters to the editor over the years.

In 1994, the Lindsays published Ann McColl’s 25 Greatest Hits, which showcased 25 of the store’s greatest products beautifully illustrated by David. Eventually, they would sell this building and move the business to King Street, across from the Covent Garden Market.

The Lindsay’s announcement in 2002 that they were retiring and closing down their store on King Street presented the opportunity for Jill Wilcox to expand Jill’s Table into that location. The space was four times larger than Jill’s original market space. Jill’s Table was able to fill part of the vacuum that Ann McColl’s was leaving in the community.

During the 33 years they ran their kitchenware business the Lindsays were also avid gardeners at their home in Woodfield, and in community gardens. To this day the Lindsays are fondly remembered as the benchmark example of how to blend culture and commerce. They continue to be intrepid market enthusiasts, artists, heritage preservationists and community boosters.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Food Media and Restaurant Reviewing 101


In the confusing and compromised arena of food writing; restaurant reviewing, food journalism,and public relations marketing, each one of these disciplines are different. These genres are often mistaken as being one and the same. Bloggers and hobbyists who position themselves as restaurant reviewers should not be mistaken for professional critics with educated palates, credible journalistic intentions backed up with experience.

Most so-called restaurant “critics” aren’t there to give a fair and balanced review. They are employed to create controversy and attract viewers, readers and listeners to various media outlets. We live in a culture that overvalues hyperbole and disparagement, underrates intelligent skepticism and constructive criticism. There is also an unwillingness to  make a clear distinction between news and entertainment. Restaurant criticism has become less about food knowledge and more about blood sport and entertainment.

There is not denying the pressures of independent restaurant ownership. The so-called “critics” have little at stake. If they are incorrect or misinformed in their assessments, there are few consequences, but the restaurateur, chef and employees have their livelihoods on the line.  Reviewing restaurants isn't just a matter of a “critics” personal taste or uninformed opinion.  Restaurateurs have the right to expect that the “critics,” and media outlets that employ them, uphold standards that ensure journalistic integrity, objectivity, and accountability. A misguided reviewer’s need to create controversy for sheer entertainment can result in plenty of unintended collateral damage.

To stay abreast of the culinary scene, I meet and talk with restaurateurs, chefs, farmers and food artisans about their businesses, their challenges and successes. When I tell people that I make my living as a food writer and consultant, they imagine a frivolous existence of dining out night after night. I do eat out a lot and in diverse spots for equally diverse reasons. I tend not to dwell on pedestrian dining experiences or unfortunate cuisine. The reality is that food writers are subjected to more than their fair share of mediocre food, disappointing culinary experiences and people, and I rarely feel the compunction to write about it.

No reader wants us food writers to pile unrestrained acclaim on every restaurateur, chef, farmer or entrepreneur.  It’s disingenuous and it gets obnoxious.  I am an adventurous diner and I like to discover new restaurants randomly but listen to suggestions from my readers and a large network of contacts. In my quest to eat well, I have been sent on many a wild goose chase.  In these situations, the crucial caveat being, I can forgive unpleasant surroundings or underwhelming service if the food is exceptional.

We are living through a gastronomic renaissance and more than ever my work puts me in front of the orthodoxy of local food sourcing, business incubators, and food entrepreneurs advancing innovation and regionalism in our food culture. I can’t help but be enthralled by chefs and food producers that support farmers and food artisans and pay close attention to the provenance and authenticity of their ingredients.

Friends and colleagues ask why I do not approach restaurants with a more critical pen. My answer is  that I am a food writer more than a reviewer or critic. There are many restaurants and chefs whose virtues deserve to be recognized without too much hype or derision. I have never been in league with publishers, editors, colleagues, destination marketing organizations or the hospitality industry to hype undeserving entrepreneurs, chefs, restaurateurs and their establishments. I do not feel I need to manufacture controversy to attract readers.  Along the way, I have had to put up some pretty strong fights with publishers and editors so as to not undermine my credibility and voice.  As patronising and trite as it must sound, my personal mission has been to encourage people to dine out, support culinary innovation, independents and small business. I am a local food movement advocate and a long-time advocate of culinary tourism and agritourism.

My columns and articles are not platforms for taking pot shots at restaurants or over-inflated personalities. There are other individuals who feel this is their job. Of course who among us couldn't benefit from a figurative kick in the pants every once in a while. However, this writer attempts to provide a fair and unbiased reporting on the local food scene while keeping his penchant for satire and sarcasm mostly in check.

As I have said in the past, the food media are necessary members of the culinary community. Like any thoughtful patron, I hope that I continually bring appreciation and sensibility to the table. But the food media’s mission goes beyond that. We must pass our unbiased impressions on to the readers while alerting the dining public to the diversity of choice on the culinary scene. Good reporting furnishes you with enough information and insight to enable you to make informed decisions, while helping to arbitrate the standards of dining out. If you don’t have a good, strong food media whether you love them or despise them—you don’t have the same degree of interest, enthusiasm and accountability. it has always been clear to me that there is no way to have just one meal in a restaurant and give a fair and credible critique if  you  are approaching food reviewing with integrity. Three visits, ordering multiple items, is the minimum requirement. 

Food, identity, and culture are closely tied together for many people and inadvertently insulting customs and cuisine you don't understand is offensive.  Even a hobbyist should meet certain journalistic standards when reviewing a restaurant. People who have strong opinions in a given discipline or make sweeping statements — and many of us do — but don’t have the broader knowledge or context that give an opinion merit and weight, are not proper critics. (It’s this reason that online restaurant reviewing by vituperative diners can’t be taken too seriously.) 

The credible restaurant reviewer can’t simply be a euphoric advocate either, someone whose adulation for a restaurant or chef is reduced to innocuous platitudes. The thoughtful and intelligent negative review has its own merits and pays homage to serious chefs and restaurateurs who want to be critiqued with fairness and objectivity, rather than showered with meaningless praise.

One of the greatest things about reviewing and writing about restaurants is unearthing the unforeseen jewel or the diamond in the rough. The unpleasant part is discovering the restaurant that doesn’t live up to their reputation or the complaining owner who forgets that you are there to dine.

Writing about restaurants brings unique challenges. Often I am offered invitations with the underlying implication that in return the invitee will receive an endorsement by me.  Fabricated enthusiasm and lazy hyperbole do businesses no favours. A glowing article about a restaurant, even when it is deserved can set expectations so high they’re difficult to maintain on a daily basis. Sometimes the food may be tremendous, with the perfect calibration of flavours, but the service wanting. Other times the service is top-notch but the food anemic and undistinguished and the experience feels like something that needs to be endured.