Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Where to eat in Canada: The Berlin

The new Where to Eat in Canada is out, and The Berlin has made the cut for the first time, as a two-star restaurant. We happened to dine at The Berlin this weekend, and the reaction of the staff upon being told the restaurant was listed in the guide now, was basically:

We’re in the what now?

Which likely shows the diminishing influence of a publication that remains strictly print based (save this tiny website). There’s no app. Where To Eat recommendations aren’t included as part of Google searches. Heck, you can’t even get it as an ebook.

The author, Anne Hardy, literally still works on a typewriter, sending an occasional email to her contributors only with great reluctance (and some assistance from her editor).

So why would anyone under 30 know about it, even if working in the higher-end food industry?


Where to Eat in Canada is meant to be a kind of Michelin Guide for Canada—list only good restaurants, with ratings from no to 3 stars. Very hard to be a three-star restaurant—Cambridge’s Langdon Hall just made it back after a few years downgraded to two. But a difference with the Michelin (apart from them being quite web-enabled now) is that all reviews have the personal touch and style of Anne Hardy herself.

This makes it a fun look-over whenever the new edition arrives, and it can be handy when planning a visit to a particular Canadian city or town.

But it’s also always been organized a bit strangely, alphabetically by city name. There are maps, but only to indicate where each city / town is, not where the restaurants are in each locality (for how would that fit a in a physical book?). Each listing does include an address, but usually doesn’t say what part of town it’s in. I generally have to sit there book in one hand, Google Maps in the other, to figure out if a listing is anywhere near where my hotel is.

And as an intended traveler’s guide, it does lack some portability. Do you want to cart a 332-page paperback with you as you trek around town as a tourist? Or would you rather just check the TripAdvisor restaurant listings on your phone?


As for our Berlin dinner, they did quite a good job, despite it being a busy Saturday—A full restaurant plus a wedding party in the room upstairs—and having some key players away that day, including chef Jonathan Gushue.

Although the fixed four-course menu was pretty tempting, we went with assembling our own four-course dinner. Jean had the oysters in grapefruit dressing, I the roasted asparagus with lemon and pecorino. I had a really good gruner veltliner with that, Jean a very interesting sparkling.

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As an appetizer Jean went with a terrine of foie gras and pork while I had a tomato salad with fennel, avocado, and prawns.

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Then we both had the goose confit with a broccoli salad and white bean ragout.

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And we shared the strawberries and vanilla ice cream with fennel meringue, which was very interesting).

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The only hiccup in the service was a longer-than-ideal delay in getting our second glass of wine, a Tuscany rose for me, an intriguing muscat blend for Jean. Possibly because of that—or because I mentioned I’m a “food blogger”?—we were credited for some items on our bill.


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Summer vacation, abbreviated

We had planned to take a week’s vacation the first week of June, but Jean’s work obligations necessitated changing those plans on relatively short notice. Fortunately, we hadn’t made any grand travel plans—it was just going to be a driving trip to parts of Ontario and Québec. But we had to scale it back.

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We started with a weekend in Timmins, where Jean went off on fishing trip with his brothers. He expected, I think, that it would be a fairly leisurely couple of days. Instead, it was early mornings and late nights of fishing, cleaning, filleting, and vacuum packing. “I was not prepared for that!” he confessed on his return.

But, now we do have some very nice Northern Ontario pickerel.

I, on the other hand, really did have a leisurely time. I flew up and stayed with my Dad, visited with a Timmins friend, had a dinner with my brother’s family (hosted by Dad), watched some Netflix…

We traveled back on Monday and Jean had to work the rest of the week. I decided to take Thursday off to go see Guys and Dolls in Stratford. I picked it mainly because it was the matinee that day—I didn’t know anything about it, really. But it proved a good choice. Deservedly well-reviewed, it was a fun musical with beautiful costumes and some absolutely stunning dance sequences. The songs were great, and included two that I knew: “If I Were a Bell” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”.

30-second look at Guys and Dolls

I had taken the train to Stratford (thereby learning you can take a train to Stratford) on what was an absolutely gorgeous day, and after the play Jean drove in to join me for dinner. We went to Bar Fifty-One, which is a new part of the Prune restaurant, a Stratford institution we’d never eaten at. I stuck with the bar menu, and was quite happy with my grilled asparagus with Parmesan appetizer and seafood pie entree. Jean tried the restaurant menu and was very impressed with the chicken liver mousse appetizer, but somewhat less so with his smoked Muscovy duck breast main.

For the following weekend, we’d had an Ottawa hotel booked, so we decided to keep that and book some flights to get there and back. I flew up earlier, with plans to tour Parliament and meet some friends for dinner. Neither of those plans quite worked out. The tours were sold out for the day, and I messed up my communication with my friends so they had the wrong Friday in their calendar. Still, it was a nice day there, and the meal at Play Food and Wines was delicious.

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Incredible gnocchi with edamame, shiitake, sunflower seeds, and truffle oil

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Pastry with chocolate cream filling and dulce de leche. Yum.

And Jean did arrive at the expected time. We took a walk, and enjoyed our funky, European-style Alt hotel.

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Ottawa has a lot of interesting street art

I did get my Parliamentary tour the next day, and it was pretty interesting. (It’s also the last year you can do so before the place closes for renovation for 10 years!) We saw the House of Commons, the Parliamentary Library, the Senate…

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Statue of the Queen who selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital, inside Parliament’s Centre Block

Ottawa was in full prep mode for Canada 150 celebrations on July 1, meaning a lot of construction and sections of museums down for renovation. We visited the Museum of Canadian History, where they had a pretty interesting exhibit on hockey—even for people not deeply into hockey—and another small one on the Canadian immigration experience. But the main gallery was inaccessible, so it did make the whole visit seem a bit “slight”.

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A rather cool statue in the Museum of Canadian History

We thought we had reservations at Whalesbone that evening, but they have this annoying phone-only system, and our two calls to them weren’t sufficient to hold it. We would have had to have make a third. We were still able to dine at the bar, and I have to say that the food was just delicious: Really fresh seafood with lovely, tasty sauces and sides. But not sure we’ll be back, given the difficulty of making a reservation (not as if they ever answer the phone…).

Sunday we went to the Market, where they had an Ignite 150 exhibit area highlighting different parts of Canada. Buskers were also on deck that day. That was fun. I also purchased a couple tops from one of the market vendors. And we went back to Play for a late lunch. It was really good again!

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Fig and prociutto appetizer on the right, cheese selection on the left

Then we did some more walking, shopping, and (mainly Jean) photography-ing on this warm but beautiful day. And our joint flight back to Toronto and even the drive back to Waterloo all went very well.

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Vieni wines

Not taking our usual Spring trip this year has given us a bit of restlessness, I think. Hence, a couple weeks ago, my comment that were out of rosé and low on “everyday reds” inspired us to take a road trip to Beamsville wine country, rather than just amble over to our local LCBO.

Our first stop was Aure wines, where the attendant recognized us immediately, despite our having been there exactly 1 (one) time before, in October. (Mind you, we did stay for a long chat and lunch that time.) They have a small wine list, and didn’t have too much new for us try, other than a Chardonnay that purchased a bottle of.

We did get a preview taste of the upcoming Viognier release, though, and it will be really nice. Jean also stocked up on some of the Pinot Blanc he enjoys (though at the rate he’s currently drinking it, our five bottles could last five years).

They were not serving lunch, however, so we headed over to The Good Earth winery for that. It being Sunday, they had a brunch menu, which I wasn’t entirely in the mood for. I ordered the strata, which seemed the least breakfast-y option. It was quite tasty.

Good Earth Winery and Bistro

Jean enjoyed his mushroom and poached eggs option.

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Nice, bright room at Good Earth; welcome on a rainy day

While there, after dining, we tried a few wines. They don’t have a very big offering, their philosophy being to see what grape works best in any given year and run with it. As an illustration, we tried the 2013 and 2014 Cabernet Franc wines: same grape, same vineyard, but really different taste—the 2013 being more to ours. We also got a bottle of their Big Forks Red, which they describe thusly:

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None of this was helping with our rosé shortage, though, so we then went to Vieni Estates. This relatively new winery has a very different approach than the other two, in that they offer many different types of wines: red, white, rosé, sparkling, cider, ice, and spirits.

Befitting their name—vieni means welcome in Italian—they were very friendly, calling us over quickly despite it being rather busy when we arrived. They also don’t charge for or limit tastings, so you have to control yourself. Which we were only semi-successful at.

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The Vieni tasting room: Photo from their website

The first suggestion was that we try a sparkling, but we actually had a rather good stock of sparkling on hand at the time. Nevertheless, we had to admit their Canada 150 was really different—a red sparkling that tasted off-dry despite being extra-dry. Kind of neat and just $17, so we got a bottle of that.

Fortunately, we did find their Alleria Rosé quite nice as well. Along with their Sauvignon Blanc, a Ripasso, and the Alleria Red, which is a blend of Cabernet, Baco Noir, and Marechel Foch. They have many more options that we could try on another trip. They also sell some food items, such as olive oil, which you can also taste upon request (which we did, and it was good, and now we have a bottle of that, also).

While it’s not the Rhone, Tuscany, or Napa, Beamsville did help us scratch the travel itch. At least for a day.


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Round-number birthday

Last weekend was when the first digit of my age increased. It wasn’t so traumatic. Maybe because I’m not that given to self-reflection anyway. Maybe because I made sure it was a pretty busy weekend.

Friday night we went to see Shaping Sound: Behind the Curtain at Centre in the Square. Shaping Sound is Travis Wall’s (from So You Think You Can Dance) dance company. The show presents a continuing, 90-minute story (with intermission). It starts with a whole lot of text—in the form of surtitles showing the story that Ttavis’s character is typing out—and not much movement. So many characters are presented, I was a bit worried: How was I going to follow all this and keep track of everyone?

But as it progresses, the dancing increases, and the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented: Literally, as the surtitles become just parts of sentences, and finally just a few letters. And you realize this isn’t a plot you’re meant to follow linearly. This is an emotional journey. This is the mind coming to terms. With coming out, among other things.

Shaping Sound preview from Ellen

I thought it was pretty great. Jean said I got way more out of it than he did. But he still enjoyed the time in the lovely member’s lounge, as we always do.

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Jean lounging, pre-show

My friends got wind of my round-numbered birthday this year and offered to take me out, which was really sweet. Especially as they selected the finest restaurant in the area, Langdon Hall. We were there on the Saturday night, and though nobody had the multi-course chef’s menu, we still managed to stay there for four hours and barely realized it. That’s some fine conversation!

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The ladies at Langdon Hall

The food didn’t suck, either. The amuse was a pork roulade. We were offered a choice of bread, and the gluten-intolerant were given a separate, very fresh alternative bread.

As an appetizer, several of us had the light and delicious crab with apple and sorrel sauce.

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Appetizing appetizer

As the main course, lamb was a popular choice, but I went with the venison with cabbage and foraged mushrooms.

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Rich and delicious main

For wine, we shared a bottle of a 2005 French burgundy (I think that was the grape), and I was very impressed at the staff’s ability to dole it out in tiny increments among the five of us so that it more-or-less lasted through the two first courses. (Though Sherry and I, who didn’t have to drive, did have another glass of a Syrah of completely different style.)

Dessert ran the gamut of options at the table, but I couldn’t resist the dark chocolate with coconut, cilantro, and lime.

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Possibly the meal highlight

And Sunday? Well, here’s the thing. Before this friend outing was arranged, I saw that Langdon Hall was having March specials, whereby if you booked a meal (supper / breakfast) and accommodation package, they gave you a $100 credit to use. March 5 was one of the nights the special was in vogue, meaning that Sunday… I returned to Langdon Hall. This time with Jean.

We first drove past the place, though, to go for a walk along the nearby river. It was a nice sunny day, albeit cooler than it had been, and we did get some nice views. On the way back, I got a call from my 87-year-old aunt. She used my home number, but I thereby confirmed that the VOIP app (this is new to us) worked in my being able to pick up home calls on my cell phone. It was good to talk to her.

Then we went to check into our room.

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Very tall bed!

I’d say the difference between Langdon Hall and other reasonably nice places we’ve stayed in are in the details, such as:

  • The little bag of welcome snacks were freshly baked cookies with fresh raspberries.
  • The in-room coffee maker makes espresso.
  • The complimentary bottles of water include sparkling.
  • The fireplace is a real one, not gas, and already set up with a firestarter, paper, and wood (though you can ask for help if that’s still too intimidating for you). It was nice having it going, but did leave everything in the room with a “burning fireplace” smell. Not unpleasant, but kind of odd.
  • When we went out for dinner, they came in and “turned down” our room, leaving a chocolate on the pillow. (Haven’t had that since the Alaska cruise.)
  • Bathrobes are provided (had that before) in men’s and women’s sizes (never had that before).
  • TV channels included HBO and TMN. I did take advantage to watch John Oliver interview the Dalai Lama.
  • Bathroom had both a full tub and a full shower—separate.
  • Privacy fence outside the window meant we could keep the curtains open longer.

And dinner was very fine again! Though somehow it didn’t take Jean and I four hours to get through it on the quieter Sunday night.

As on the Saturday, we discussed wine options with the sommelier—given that there are a crazy number of options here. Jean got him excited, though, by asking about the possibility of a Grüner Veltliner wine with the scallops. We thereby found out that it’s actually a quite versatile, food-friendly wine, but because of the richness of the scallops, the sommelier suggested something else, and since we were clearly “adventurous”, ran off to the wine cellar to figure out what (though we dampened his enthusiasm a bit by giving him our wine budget).

We ended up with a German pinot blanc that was quite enjoyable. It tasted semi-dry even though it was not, which made it quite fine on its own as well as with the scallops.

The dinner menu was the same, of course, but they brought out a different amuse, this time a nice, light crab mousse. The breads were also different—really nice raisin hazelnut option this night.

Cathy's Birthday Dinner at Langdon Hall

As appetizers, I went with the borscht en gelee with trout roe, which was quite fine as long as you’re good with beets and “popping” fish eggs, which I am. Jean had the sweetbreads with those delicious foraged mushrooms.

Cathy's Birthday Dinner at Langdon Hall

The afore-mentioned main course of scallops and cauliflower, which we both ordered

For dessert, Jean was all about the cheese, while I resisted the chocolate this time and tried the honey mousse with peanut butter sable and chocolate fudge (OK, I guess I didn’t resist the chocolate at all).

Breakfast the next day consisted of one “kitchen selection” plus access to their nice buffet of fruit, smoothies, pastries, and such like. I had the fried duck egg with pork belly. The duck egg was bigger than a chicken egg, but tasted much the same. Jean enjoyed the soft scrambled eggs with crab and trout roe. (Yes, they’re very big on crab there.)

And then we both had the rest of the day off work, which was nice in itself.


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Holidays

The Timmins evacuees arrived and departed in waves: first to get there were Jean and I, the evening of December 22; then my older sister, Joanne, followed shortly by my younger sister Michelle and her family, on December 24. Boxing Day was the first departure, by Jo; then Jean and I drove back on December 27; then Michelle’s family flew back the following day. Some small departure delays due to weather and a bit of a close call getting through the very crowded luggage drop-off at Pearson were the extent of the travel issues.

The influx of people made gave my Dad some stress in keeping us all fed and finding everyone a place to sleep, but it all worked out. It helps that Dad’s a very good cook, and yes, we all pitched in with grocery shopping, baking, food prepping, and cleaning up. Michelle and Jackson kindly volunteered to sleep on couches the two busiest nights, so no one had to check into a hotel.

Big Guy!

Even Santa was helping with the food

The 23rd we had a great visit with our Timmins friends (all two!) and Christmas Eve offered a succession of family Réveillons.

Only the Kid's can get this exited about Christmas

Lefebvre great-nieces excited for Santa

Santa!

Père Noël appreciates the adulation

The little gift exchange theme this year was “ornaments”. Jean’s made the biggest splash: He Etsy’d his own ornaments starting with old photos of his siblings, converted into luggage tags then ribbon’ed by hand. My contribution of ornaments made by Peruvian artisans landed well with Jean’s sister, who had just returned from a trip there. Jean ended up with these rather cool bird ones.

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New ornaments for our tree

Christmas morning at McNair’s we did the stealing game again. This was after much email discussion, during which we’d decided that each person would get an age-appropriate gift. Of course, the kids don’t really do their own shopping for this.

My brother, for whom there is time like the last minute, was copied on all emails but didn’t really dig into them until about Christmas Eve, when he was off to do his shopping. He checked with Michelle: “I have to buy gifts for my own kids?” he asked. “Really?”

Yes, really.

This didn’t really work out with Sarah-Simone, though, who—even after “her” present was available—simply couldn’t resist going to the pile of presents to try again after some adult  kindly “stole” the present she had. Even though, as she pointed out, most of the presents “sucked” for a 10-year-old.

Her package :)

Another gift not entirely suitable to its recipient…

Things eventually got sorted through final trades.

The Stealing Game :)

Or in my case, earlier, by stealing this fine wine collection from my brother

Jean ended up with the item I had contributed, a coffee infuser. It’s not fast, but it does make a nice smooth brew!

We also got out for some snow shoeing on this gorgeous winter day.

Winter Wonderland!

Jean and my brother-in-law went again on the less-pleasant Boxing Day, coming back with a harvest of chaga tea (which looks like dirt mounds, but you clean it and brew it and it’s apparently full of anti-oxidants. Pretty mild-tasting.)

Slaying the dragon and making off with the Chaga!

Slaying the dragon

The days between Christmas and New Year’s, Jean worked while I sat around and ate bonbons.

Not really. (Well, maybe a few bonbons.)

New Year’s Eve, we returned to The Berlin, one year after first going, for their four-course dinner. City buses are free that night, so we decided to travel that way. We did the whole route-planning thing on the transit website, and found the perfect trip. As long as all buses were exactly on time.

However, the first one was three minutes late, meaning we missed our transfer by about two minutes. And faced a 28-minute wait, 30 minutes before our reservation.

Fortunately, seeing our expression, the bus driver asked where we wanted to go, then helped us get there. Her route had another stop with a downtown connection. We had very little wait for that bus, and we were arrived at the restaurant just five minutes late, so all good.

New Year's Eve Menu

We sat in view of the kitchen for the first time, which was pretty interesting. (And not only because chef Jonathan Gushu is kind of a babe.)

The Kitchen Crew

It was busy night there, of course, but everything we had was just delicious, and the wine pairings were creative and uniformly excellent. Service was a bit scattered at times—running off with menus before actually finding out what we wanted each course, for example (“I can’t believe I did that”, he said)—but generally they have their timing down now. (We just have to accept it’s not as luxuriously paced as Verses used to be.)

Eying my Roe!

Amazing starter

As appetizers, I had the lobster ravioli and Jean the terrine.

Terrine - Pulled Pork and Foie Gras mmmmmmmmm!

To cleanse the palate, they gave us a pineapple sorbet in sparking wine.

Pinnaple Granite in some bubbly :)

Then it was duck all around, with a really interesting Italian wine, that not everyone got (we’re special 🙂 ).

Duck Breast and Ragout, with Honey Mushrooms and Heart Nuts served with a great pairing wine from the Canary Islands

And Jean concluded with the pear dessert, I the hazelnut nougatine (with a vermouth). We also received a touch more dessert for the road.

Hazelnut Nougatine!

We took a taxi home. 🙂


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Chefs in Bloom

Not for the first time, our waiter asked, “How is the food, ma’am?” while looking at my husband, which was confusing to both of us. He also inquired as to whether it was OK to remove plates we were clearly done with, given that they were entirely bereft of food. Offered us more bread only after we were pretty much done our entrees. Kept trying to refill our sparkling water glasses with regular water. Initially forgot to bring us the dessert course.

And somehow, we didn’t mind at all.

The waiter was good-natured, and was definitely trying to do a good job.

And the food—which was very good—was $20 for three courses. That’s $20 Canadian for the whole meal. Despite including items such as beef tenderloin, lamb, foie gras, and fancy French cheeses.

Foie Gras ... my achilles heel!

The controversial but delicious foie gras

When foie gras alone is typically over $20 at a “regular” restaurant, that kind of a deal can buy you a lot of good will.

Yes, last Wednesday, for the first time in some time, we returned to Bloom restaurant at Conestoga College, where students’ training for a possible career in the hospitality industry includes running this restaurant open to the public—under the watchful eye of people who know what they’re doing. This week’s theme was foods of Southern France.

They went all out in trying to give us a French restaurant-like experience, starting us with an amuse bouche of mushroom and cheese. As appetizers, while Jean enjoyed his foie gras, I had a very nice wild mushroom crepe.

Crepes to Start

Wild mushroom crepe

We then received a palate cleanser of pear and brandy sorbet. Couldn’t taste the brandy much, but it was nice and refreshing. And pretty.

Pear and Brandy Ice!

For mains, Jean won the coin toss to get the lamb three ways, which was really great. I very unusually opted to go with beef tenderloin, as it was accompanied by an interesting mix of Brussels sprouts and turnips. (Other possibilities on offer were salmon and a bean cassoulet.)

Rack of Lamb .... hm hm hm!

Lamb in the foreground, beef in the background

The managing chef made the rounds of tables as we were waiting on our dessert (which they scrambled to deliver once they realized it was missed). They had no decaf espresso, so they made us a latte of decaf roobois tea, which was pretty good.

Jean had wanted the apple dessert, but they were out, so he managed with the cheese plate. I had a deconstructed blueberry tart that was light and delicious.

Benedictine Blue!

Benedictine Blue among the offerings

Dining at Bloom is an experience worth having. The service hiccups are just part of the charm.


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Aure wines

Last weekend we had to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a work event of Jean’s. We were put up in a historic hotel, taken on a wine tour, then had dinner and evening of live jazz.

Poor us. 🙂

So, I know, but the fact is we didn’t really feel like going, for whatever reason—maybe because we weren’t long back from our New York / Montreal trip.

But, such circumstances do have a way of putting one in a better mood. The Queen’s Landing hotel was quite attractive. Tawse winery, maker of fine though somewhat pricey wine, is interesting to tour, what with their hand-pick / organic / gravity-fed philosophy. And, we had a beautiful Fall day for that—20° C!

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Interior of the Queen’s Landing hotel—photo from their website

Dinner was fine—good conversation, decent food. Room acoustics made the jazz band a little loud for conversation, so we eventually got up the nerve to take to the dance floor. Being the only ones there able to dance that type of music, we had plenty of room to slow fox, quick step, tango, and jive.

Other than the included breakfast, we were done with corporate events the next day. The weather had taken a turn to the rainy, though, so that kiboshed any thoughts of hiking or ambling Niagara-on-the-Lake’s downtown.

But, it was fine for more wine tasting. We first stopped at Pillitteri Estates, earner of some good Google reviews, and one we hadn’t been to previously. It does make for pleasant visit. They have a food store section featuring nice jams, vinegars, ice wine chocolates, and such. And their wines are quite respectable, of the food-friendly and modestly priced type. We especially liked the Gewurztraminer Riesling blend, the Pinot Gris, and the Cabernet Merlot.

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Aure wine tasting room, from Uncorked Ontario

But Aure wines in Beamsville, picked out because I liked their description in the Wine Country Ontario app, was the best discovery. We were the only visitors at that time, so had plenty of time to discuss the four whites and four reds we tried—which is about everything non-reserve they have. I quite liked their blends, but they do an especially good job with grapes less commonly used—Viognier and especially Pinot Blanc and Marechal Foch, their best-seller. And most are priced under $20.

We also had lunch there, which they offer tapas-style. Very good squash soup, pork chorizo stew, grilled vegetables, and cheese plate. With lunch we each tried a glass of their reserve wine, which you can do for $9. The “wild fermented” Chardonnay was crazy good, very rich.

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Aure winery restaurant—picture from their website

So we returned from our arduous journey laden with wine and lighter in spirit.