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As I mentioned in my 2016 year-end column the Taste of Burlington has morphed into a once-a-year promotion. The sold-out launch took place earlier this week, and saw a hard-fought contest among 20 or so restaurants for Best Taste and People’s Choice honours. The prix-fixe event actually runs February 20 – March 12, 2017 at 25 of Burlington’s restaurants, including some not present at the launch. It’s a great opportunity to sample their offerings at modest cost.
This year Ivy Bar and Kitchen won both Best Taste and People’s Choice awards, with a tasty crab & blue cheese crusted flat iron steak, honey-glazed Brussel sprouts, grilled pepper, fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat, and roasted garlic and rosemary jus. They unseated The Queen’s Head Pub, who won both awards last
year, relegating them to second place in the Best Taste category with their crisp salted caramel cannoli, accompanied by chai latte. The “Best Taste” judges awarded third place to Downtown Bistro for a crispy jambalaya with a Creole tomato sauce.
The popular People’s Choice ballot saw another regular top-3 winner, Stone House Restaurant place second for a superb Moroccan lamb shank, slowly braised with dates & apricots, and served with firm pearl couscous and honey vanilla yogurt. The second runner up was Purple Heather Pub for a rich Guinness + beef pocket with caramelized onions and mushrooms accompanied by an arugula salad with ginger lime dressing, goat cheese and spice nuts.
There were a lot of other good dishes that could have taken line honours, and this speaks to the level of effort put into the event by the various establishments. What struck me, however, was the great team atmosphere evident at each of the food stations. In uncertain times, and to attract and retain customers, the focus of restaurants has to be as much about service and hospitality as food.
A case in point: in the past, I found the Ivy’s approach to be too hip for their own good, and thus I was not drawn to eat there. This year, despite their being busy, I felt a real sense of welcome and warm engagement from the team when I stopped by to chat. As much as it is about serving good food, they now understand it is also about the joy of welcoming and feeding people. And, yes, I’ll be dropping by.
I asked many of the chefs present at the launch, what single dish visitors to their restaurant should make a point of trying during the Taste of Burlington. Ivy’s Executive Chef, Andrew Nelson, said it was the flatiron steak described above. Fair enough. Similarly, Queen’s Head Chef, Eric Hipkiss, said the cannoli, but when pressed for a non-dessert dish said folk should try the croque-madame, a delicious sandwich. Chef Steve Lucas (Purple Heather) promoted the red Thai Curry, Chef Mitch Lamb of Stone House the pan-seared barramundi (a type of seabass), and Chef Mike Lorinzini (Downtown Bistro) recommended the beef tenderloin and gnocchi.
Chef Matt Bronowicki (B&B Taps and Grill) suggested their bacon and blueburger, while Chef Keng Chutichai (Pintoh Cuisine) recommended the chicken thigh Massaman curry made a great introduction to authentic Thai cuisine. Italian Chef Ruben Rapetti (Fraticelli’s) boosted their crisp-skinned branzino served with creamy gnocchi with a white wine cream sauce: Prego, put me down for a couple of orders! Mario Carnicelli (Cellis Osteria) suggested a pasta I’d not heard of (Lumancini - described by him as like half-curved rigatoni) with slow-braised pork and beef Bolognese ragu.
Mohammed Emani of Rayhoon Persian Eatery extolled Tachin, a saffron crusted rice, layered with chicken and barberries, while Raewynne Sygrove, pastry chef at Wendel Clark’s, was bullish on their Cacoa Bailey’s cheesecake mousse. Turtle Jack’s Michael Vogt said he loves their wings made with antibiotic-free chicken, and Brandon Ashby (West Plains Bistro) lauded the white bean cassoulet accompanied by lamb ragout with cilantro lime yoghurt, the tasty dish he served up at the launch.
Pat Cornacchia, the new Chef at Alloro Restaurant, said his favourite was the stout-glazed sirloin steak. Michelle Kindos (Barrafion Tapas) suggested their popular Paella, and Ben Skinner (Pepperwood Restaurant) made lobster arancini sound irresistible: it features claw and knuckle meat, with a five-cheese Mornay sauce, and citrus aioli with a basil chiffonade. If it is well received, he might be putting it on his regular menu.
In that vein, I asked chefs what new dishes they were thinking about adding to their menus later this year. Look for that sneak peek in a future Food for Thought, including some surprising trends in what will be on offer.
Finally, a reminder that Living Rock Soupfest #15, is on February 28th at the Hamilton Convention Centre. It’s an amazing, fun and well-organized event, one I’ve been proud to be a judge at for a couple of years now. Tickets are very reasonable and all proceeds go to the Rock’s programs for youth at risk. Take the whole family, sample some great soup, and do some good at the same time!
Alex (Alex can be reached on twitter @AlexBielak)