A culinary tour of Ontario

Karl Wells
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… with two of Britain’s top soap stars

Occasionally (once or twice a year), I’m offered a gig hosting a unique type of live stage show for fans of the TV soap opera “Coronation Street.” (I’ve been a fan of the program most of my life.)  It affords me the opportunity to travel to quite a few Canadian cities that I might otherwise never visit.

Recently I travelled to many cities in Ontario with actors Sue Cleaver, who plays Eileen Grimshaw on “Coronation Street,” and Tony Hirst, who played Eileen’s fireman boyfriend, Paul Kershaw.

Often, when touring, I have the opportunity to dine in restaurants with the stars. It allows me to get to know them a little better and helps build a relationship that usually benefits the stage show, which is essentially me interviewing them before hundreds of very knowledgeable and devoted fans.

Sometimes, funny things happen in these restaurants, like when a woman came up to Cleaver and Hirst at a Chinese buffet in Barrie, Ont., and blurted out, after her initial shock at recognizing the duo, “What the hell are you doing in Barrie?”

Then there was the time in Hamilton when they were met outside a bistro by two mothers and asked to have photos taken with their infant babies. I remember joking that the photo might yield the U.K. tabloid headline, “Corrie stars have secret Canadian love child!” Sue Cleaver laughed so hard at this, I thought she’d double over.

What follows is my take on three of the restaurants visited on the tour. I’ve chosen these because they were the best of the lot and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed should you ever choose to visit them.

Michael’s on the Thames

1 York St.

London, Ont.

London, Ont., is a typical North American city and it looks like a typical North American city. Outside of a few very old buildings like the Middlesex County Court House, which mimics an English castle, the names on certain streets, and a river called the Thames, there’s nothing about the city that much resembles or reminds you of London, England, or England generally.  

Michael’s on the Thames is the kind of posh, romantic restaurant that was very popular in the 1980s. It features napkins folded like fans, low lighting, intimate nooks, a grand piano (played nightly) and tableside cooking of flamed sauces and Caesar salads. A special sunroom provides a riverside view of Ontario’s Thames.

I enjoyed a simple two-course meal at Michael’s. First I had the insalata alla Caprese. This towering starter featured thick slices of tomato layered with round slices of Bocconcini cheese on a base of red lettuce. Two slices of grilled focaccia were leaned against the tower on either side and looked as if they were shoring up the construction. Around the perimeter of the plate were chiffonaded basil leaves, and a thin line of olive oil drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I loved the flavours and the freshness of this colourful dish.

Next I enjoyed Michael’s breast of Ontario chicken. A baked, buttery jacket potato with melted Jack cheese served as a pedestal for a plump breast of roasted chicken anointed with a sauce of melted butter and chopped fresh herbs. Fresh green beans, strips of carrot and a few cauliflower florets also decorated the plate. It was a simple, elegant dish that provided great satisfaction.

Bistro Parisien

150 James St. South

Hamilton, Ont.

Years ago, when I was a kid, a cousin of mine worked in Hamilton for Stelco.

He drove home one year and I asked him what took the shine off his relatively new car. He told me it was the result of the car being exposed to the fumes emanating from the great industrial smoke stacks of Hamilton.

I immediately had the impression that Hamilton must be a very bleak spot with everything dulled by toxic fumes and where unhealthy people dragged themselves to work, coughing all the way.

Well, I couldn’t have been less accurate, at least as far as the Hamilton of 2013 is concerned. Hamilton is a lovely city with plenty of green parks, public sculpture and heritage buildings, like the great historic home called Whitehern. Whitehern was the home of Hamilton’s first iron manufacturer, Calvin McQuestin. The city of Hamilton also benefited hugely from McQuestin’s philanthropy.

We found a true French bistro, Bistro Parisien, on Hamilton’s James Street South, an area with plenty of interesting restaurants and boutique shopping. The luncheon special that day was a prix fixe meal for $20 where you received three courses consisting of starter, main and dessert. Driven by curiosity, I ordered the prix fixe lunch. I wanted to know what I’d be offered for that small amount of cash. It was wonderful.

First came a full basket of beautifully tender, fresh-from-the-oven artisanal bread. Then I broke the fragrant, melted gruyere cap of a bowl of classic French onion soup and lapped up the best tasting onions in beefy broth I’ve ever had. Following this was a crepe of chicken with herbs served with cream sauce and frites. It was a delightfully decadent savoury plate. The frites were perfection.

The dénouement of the meal was another well executed classic, chocolate mousse. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout, “Bravo!” It was the best $20 I’ve ever spent.

See CAN’T, page F2

Bannock

401 Bay St.

Toronto, Ontario

Bannock, in the heart of Toronto, is named after the flat bread.

They serve bannock at Bannock, along with a great many other quintessential “comfort” foods.

It was Saudi Day at Yonge-Dundas Square and after taking in the music and excitement of the square, we ambled southwest in the direction of Toronto’s Old City Hall. It was the name of the restaurant that first captured my attention. I had a hunch that a restaurant named Bannock might just have the kind of food we were in search of on a late September day.

It’s impossible for me to say enough good things about the food in this restaurant. Not only can it be consumed in the restaurant’s casual, cosy dining rooms, you can order dishes to take away from the restaurant’s busy main counter.

One of Bannock’s most popular starters is a soup called Parsnip and Yukon Gold Potato. Apart from water, salt and pepper, I don’t think there was much else in this one. From my first spoonful I assessed the composition of the soup to be approximately 60 per cent parsnip and 40 per cent potato. I believe the key to the success of this soup is the robust flavour and sweetness of the parsnip as well as the creaminess and colour imparted by the potato when both vegetables are puréed together.  

Being someone who is quite fond of meat in pastry I couldn’t resist trying Bannock’s Ontario Harvest Venison and Rabbit Tourtière. The pie was small but very thick. It arrived with roasted root vegetables on the side, as well as two packets of ketchup — an accent for the pie and meat. The pie shell was chinched with meat: venison, rabbit and beef to add fat and moistness. It was gloriously dark and deeply game flavoured. The crust was rich with butter, tender and delicate. When combined with the meat filling it provided a rare taste experience for me.

Bannock is one of the Oliver and Bonacini group of restaurants that includes such stellar dining spots as Canoe, Luna and Auberge du Pommier. (Conrad Black is a regular at Auberge du Pommier.) Bannock is a departure from their normal style of high end, highly designed restaurants. However, this casual eatery with its “grab and go” service maintains exactly the same standards and quality of its sister restaurants. I urge you to check it out the next time you’re in Toronto.

• • •

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: North American, Middlesex County Court House, Stelco Canadian Culinary Federation Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Hamilton, Ontario, U.K. Barrie England London Toronto Parsnip

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  • tommy
    December 09, 2013 - 10:34

    r