Saturday, 23 January 2016

R1: Nellie James Too

Review 1: Nellie James Too

Allow me to take a quick moment to repurpose this blog a little. Since the scope of my new job doesn't really afford me the luxury of resculpting the culinary landscape, I've decided to review local restaurants, instead. Consider it a hobby as I enjoy semi-retirement.

First up is a little place on James Street South called Nellie James Too. It is located at the corner of Duke and James, and is in the spot that Boo's Bistro and Wine Bar used to be situated. It is owned and operated by Ken LeFebour and his partner, Jackie, who are also owners of the reputable and popular Chef & Wife establishment in the heart of downtown Dundas, ON. It has since been renamed Nellie James Gourmet Food To Go. The resto on James, ostensibly, as one would garner by the "too" appendage of the nomenclature, is a sit-down extension of the Dundas store.

On first approach to the restaurant, the initial vibe is classy, welcoming and modern. It sports a glasshouse store front and a small staircase leading down into the dining room, making it non-wheelchair accessible. Service staff were friendly and quick to greet, and the coziness of the dining room was quite welcoming. The walls are adorned with kitschy artwork, and the banquettes are clad in a black-and-white pseudo animal print, which adds to the overall modern, funky and textural feel of the establishment.

The menus are blackboard based, which for me is two-fold: I appreciate the blackboard menu movement, as it is very trendy, but I have largely seen blackboards written by people who have little business holding a piece of chalk or a dry erase marker. This isn't just a Nellie James Too problem, it is a blackboard menu problem all over, by nearly everyone who attempts one. Perhaps I am being overly critical, but blackboard menus are meant to be illustrative, neat and well laid out...eye draw the diner to buy-in. I believe blackboards should be filled out by those with a flair for handwriting and lettering, but I digress. A small niggle, really. Moving on!

Daily Menu Slate


The menus were presented on slates with handles, with content that is changed daily, based on Chef Ken's whimsy. I found this to be a very creative and interesting way to present his daily card. The variety on this day certainly did not disappoint. Price points were very reasonable for gourmet cuisine, and Chef Ken has hit all the right bases here.


We were sold a bottle of California's Menage-a-Trois by the knowledgeable and personable bartender / maitre d'. It was a very pleasant, easy drinking and fruity bottle of wine, that was a pleasant aperitif, especially when paired with the complimentary house made potato bread, paired with a lemon herb aioli. The bread was moist, rustic and delicious, complete with chunks of tender potato baked in, and the aioli was replete with citrus, and very savoury.

Blackened Shrimp

The Cajun shrimp were presented simply, over a flavourful smoked cheddar potato pancake, crisp sauteed bok choy and a coconut lime broth. It came with three jumbo shrimp, and, while not easy to share with another, were well seasoned and perfectly cooked. The grilled lime was a nice touch, and the denatured juice livened the coconut broth up considerably. The bok choy was a little undercooked, though...not sure if this was the intent of this preparation, but it was still good, offering crunch, and varied texture. Perhaps maybe an avant-garde slaw?
Duck Burger
The mains arrived next. Despite being somewhat busy (they had about 16 covers on the go in a 25 seater), the timing was very good. We were never left to wait and wonder, and the staff was quite engaging and always struck up casual conversation in the interim. The first entree was their lauded Duck Burger, which I had heard about during a city-wide Hamilton burger promotion in November (Novemburger). They were happy to mention that it had been added to their menu based on popular consensus. It was cooked medium-well, nicely seasoned, over a slice of smoked cheddar toast, with parsnip chips and a house-pickled red beet. The portion was quite generous, and the duck was flavourful and delicious. I would have preferred medium done personally, but I completely understand the impetus on restos to serve medium well and up. The gastrique on the side was an interesting foil to the duck's richness.

Grilled Lamb Shoulder Chop
The other main was a grilled lamb shoulder with rosemary pan jus, and the very same beet and parsnip chip garnish adorning the duck burger. The server advised, before ordering, that the lamb was best grilled rare to medium rare. I found that unusual, as lamb shoulder can be a bit sinewy and a generally chewier secondary cut. Rare to medium doneness is usually reserved for the prime cuts of an animal. However, it was ordered as recommended, and while the flavour of the lamb was great, it was indeed a cut of meat that needed to be cooked up a few degrees, to medium or medium well, to be enjoyed more. The rosemary pan jus was very flavourful. The roasted garlic mashed potatoes that were ordered as an accompaniment were very garlicky and creamy.

Daily Dessert Slate
Pink Peppercorn Chocolate Tart

After the mains were cleared, dessert was the next on the agenda. The dessert slate I was presented with offered several house made creations. This, like their regular menu, changes often. I opted for the chocolate and pink peppercorn tart, and I was not disappointed. The chocolate ganache was spot on, and the salted caramel sauce was delicious...a match made in heaven. It was topped with a quenelle of homemade whipped cream chantilly, and an overly large piece of sugarwork garnish. This plate as a whole worked well, and was a memorable finisher to a great meal.

Great homemade gourmet meals in a modern setting. Friendly and accommodating staff. Very reasonable price points. Menu changes daily.

Nellie James Too is a solid part of the modern renaissance the Hamilton culinary scene is currently experiencing. Because of places like this, Hamilton is quickly becoming a hotbed of epicurean destinations!

Kudos to Ken, his wife and their staff for a great meal. Will definitely be back! 

Cheers, Chef D

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Hit The Road, Jack: Version Me's been what seems like a quasi-eternity since I have posted anything at all on this blog. Like all my interests, they pass and return...the eternal ebb and flow. I am thankful I have remained so committed to running for the last 2 years. I think maybe it was the fact I had so little to say over the last year. It has been a whirlwind. Upset apple carts and whatnot. Endless reflection in the past while has prompted me to make some changes; mostly major, and hopefully for the better, to get things back on track. I will try to avoid sounding self-serving as I write this, but I guarantee nothing.

I have recently decided to move on from a job that I have held for the last 14 years, on and off (but mostly "on"). Feelings of stagnancy and spinning my wheels in vain had supplanted the joy, passion and gratifying sense of accomplishment I had once felt toiling in the very same role. Things changed. Circumstances changed. People changed. The whole playing-field became razed...not unlike a modern day scorched earth. The collective vision of the powers-that-be, in my estimation, became fragmented and disjointed...even corrupted. The confidence people once had in me had somehow been replaced by some pseudo-delusion of malcontent...either perceived or real (the jury is still hung on that one).  The trickle down of all this is what you see here before you. I suppose this sort of thing is inevitable...expected, if you will...especially after all these years. But it made the decision to move on no less difficult. The decision to leave something so comfortable and routine and step outside of my self-imposed box was very challenging. It seems the old dog needs to learn a few new tricks...and in turn, make a few make status quo moving forward. Ain't nothing like a good life overhaul to shake things up a bit.

At the end of the day, in my wake, I have left something I will miss dearly. There were so many pros and cons, but at the end, it seems I have made a decision for the better. This view is shared unanimously with my colleagues...ones who are, like me *now*, on the outside peering in. I suppose only time will tell as I plunge headlong into the great unknown...that swirling, gaping abyss of which I have gambled a great deal on. Who knows? This could be the greatest thing I have ever done, or it could possibly be the biggest misstep I have ever taken. The  mistake was mine to make. Can't ever wonder what it would be like on the other side if one doesn't ever dream of taking the risk. This one was many years in the making...whether I was willing to admit that to myself or not.

I would like to thank all those who have stuck by my side throughout the years. Their hard work, determination and loyalty were all driving forces to me. I reserve a special place in my heart for each and every person who fought the good fight with me each and every day.

The old cliche holds true. Everyone is replaceable. And it seems I will be too, in time.

Thanks for everything!


Saturday, 4 May 2013

Oh, the Humanity

 Oh, the humanity...

 I enjoy writing. I always have. It seems to serve me well as an outlet to my absolutely raucous mind. I have to share is a virtual tempest of baggage, things to do, problems, micro and macro crises, trials and tribulations....dotted with dreams, longings and aspirations. And oh, there are longings. And there's the recently identified mid-life crisis.....the recently acquired red sports car, the desire to eat well, running to stay in shape, doing yoga to become more flexible and zen, and to look as good as I ever have. And there is the proliferation of beginning multiple sentences with conjunctions. But I digress. Damn.

There is only one thing more liberating to me than putting on a pair of running shoes and taking off on a run of unknown length and duration. That would ostensibly be cracking my laptop and putting fingertips to these stupid chiclet-style keys computer builders are so keen on putting on portable machines these days. If only I could master that damned SHIFT key. If you encounter a stray lower case "i", please know it to mean "I". i, no...*I*, would be eternally grateful. Hell, if it wasn't for this keyboard, I would have nowhere to channel this overly verbose tripe, and I would likely explode. And that would leave a mess.

There is something quite gratifying about putting these thoughts down in soft-copy. It is sort of like a cache cleansing on a bogged down PC. I am rampant with so many random and disjointed thoughts throughout any given day, that an outlet is almost academic. Needed. Required. I am surprised I get any sleep at all, really. Let me tell you my thoughts on people. People you may work with or live with. People who seem to make the clock hands move quicker during the day, and those who seem to make them move slower, stop, then move backward.

As a manager, one must assume the responsibility, at least as a sympathetic ear, to other people's least to a degree. As much as it seems ridiculous as an idea, it is absolutely key to understanding other people. Walking a mile in their shoes. Being in their head. Understanding the whats, whys, whens, and occasionally, the elusive hows. Being sensitive to their situations....their little microcosm, their "slice" of this bigger thing smarter people than I haven't figured out yet. To what end? Simple. To be an effective human resources officer, you have to understand and decipher the "human" part. People can be strange, so very, very strange. Yet, people can also be wonderful. There is just so much grey between those two lines, that it seemingly boggles the mind. For example, there are some people who you may not be able to make eye contact with, because of how awkward they make you feel. The sound of their voice and the content of their dialogue makes you cringe. The Strange. We all know a few, and I am no doubt one of them to you. Others, the wonderful, make you jump out of bed every morning with such vigour, so that you can spend the most time possible with them, to see where they may take you and what yarns they may spin. The "greys" are usually acquaintances, of increasing degree of familiarity. All of these makes up the whole. The battle to figure out what makes people do what they do is elemental to figuring out the "human" aspect of human resources.

I have always regarded Human Resources as the most challenging aspect of management. People provide such infinite variables. Every single person is their own little enigma, wrapped up in a riddle, and stuffed deep inside a paradox. So incredibly beautiful, yet, somehow, so incredibly bizarre. One cannot ever hope to understand everyone. But having a little insight, a little sympathy, and some empathy and understanding of what makes other people do what they do, and act how they act, will provide a good basis in the fundamental. The puzzle that makes up human nature has baffled even the most foremost psychological minds.

Here is how I explain the science of Human Resources, when it all boils down: I find that people, ALL of us, are akin to a jigsaw puzzle that lacks that *one* missing piece to mark it's completion. It's not absent or hidden on purpose. Not at all. It's vacancy is meant to be filled with a modicum of understanding and compassion from someone else. That completes it, really and truly. I'm not sure I can make it any clearer than that, especially at this hour.

I suppose I just need to not take it so personally sometimes.

Thanks for making it this far.


Friday, 26 April 2013

Flaying the Beast

" Flaying the Beast "


 "More than you ever wanted to know about basic butchery"

At some point, I really wanted to write a blog discussing the fine art of beef striploin butchery. No time the present, I say.....So, I took some pictures recently of the steps I took when I actually prepared a raw beef striploin, and turned it into steaks and usable trim. Maybe you've had a hankering to purchase one of those daunting whole AAA striploins in the fresh meat department at Costco, and were wondering, deeply, how you may go about breaking it down? Fear not. I have arranged this easy to follow tutorial, for your degustation and perusal. Fair warning though; it does get quite bloody, and you will need several tools you *may* not have in your home, or within easy procurement. If the sight of blood and animal tissue offends you, please feel free to re-read my previous blogs, and move on. :)

First off, you will require a sharp boning knife and/or a carving cimiter, a large cutting board, lots of paper towels, or a clean absorbent towel or rag that you would consider disposable after this. The cimiter is the desired blade of choice for this, but the more common boning knife works just fine in a pinch. Just make sure they are very sharp. Nothing in the kitchen is more unsafe than a dull knife. Why? You overcompensate for the lack of precision cutting with what turns into frustration and reckless force...this is bad. So, sharp knives only, please!

What I have pictured here is your standard 0x1 Reserve Angus beef striploin. It weighs in at an average of 11 lbs....the perfect size for cutting steaks of proper length and thickness. Signatures of quality beef striploins are: size -- not too big or small, eye -- not too large or small, fat -- milky white and solid, and a 1/4" fatcap, and marbling -- prevalent. I will describe what marbling is a bit further on.  Striploin is one of the most revered cuts of beef, coming from the shortloin, which is between the prime rib section and the sirloin section, working nose to tail. Have a quick look at the diagram at the top of the page for reference.

To begin, make sure you have a clear and clean work surface. Place a damp cloth under your cutting board to prevent sliding. Remove the striploin from the vac-pac bag it comes in. I normally flip it over revealing the underside, and run my knife gently along the length of the bag, just enough to smake an opening, but not enough to damage the underlying meat. Grab the loin firmly, and pull it out of the bag, making every attempt to leave most of the blood behind, inside the bag. Discard the bloody vac-pac bag, and place the strip down on your cutting board. Give it a good wipe with plenty of paper towels, or your cloth or rag, to sop up any extra blood. What you should have is illustrated below. Notice how the "tail" of the striploin is oriented away from you. The tail side is the side that slopes downwards. The backstrap is somewhat flat and squared off in section.

 The first cut we will make is to remove the backstrap. The backstrap is the thick chord of elastin and other connective tissue that runs along the back of every beef striploin. You want to remove it, as it is very chewy and largely inedible. Removing this is called the "New York" cut. I start about 2" in from the back, and cut towards the outside, then straight down, to effectively remove all of it....illustrated below.

Next, turn the striploin around so the tail is now facing you. I choose to remove most of the tail, as the excess fat rendering just causes flare-ups on a grill. Run the knife lengthwise down the length of the strip as illustrated below. You can see the shape of the classic New York steak being revealed.

What you have left should be this. You can choose to remove some of the excess fat-cap if you wish. I remove some of it, but not all. Most "better" strips come with 1/4" of visible fat-cap, which is within normal tolerance. I just shave off some of it....just remember to cut away from you, not towards!

 Next, turn the striploin over to expose the underside. there is some fine trimming to do here. The white bits are inedible connective tissue elastin) and silver skin. Leaving this on will make the resultant steak very chewy.

 Run your knife parallel to the table, as illustrated below, along the bottom of the strip, removing the silverskin and tissue, all while trying to leave the actual meat intact.

When that is done, flip the striploin back over, with the tail part oriented towards you, backstrap facing away from you, as illustrated below. Now fun part begins! Now you can cut steaks to your liking, as thick or thin as you like. Cutting steaks by weight accurately, while minimizing waste and mis-cuts, takes a great deal of experience. The steak I have cut is an 8 oz. steak. It is about 10-12mm thick. This will vary by striploin, as none are ever truly alike. Keep cutting steaks until..... reach what is called the "tissue end". The tissue end is where the striploin interfaces with the sirloin part of the animal. You will notice a curved arc of gristle that makes its way through the top middle part of the steak. These cuts are generally not served to paying customers. The gristle is quite inedible and chewy. I always break down the sirloin end of the striploin into what I call "usable trim".

 To create "usable trim", remove all of the fat-cap from the sirloin end chunk that you have left. You will find a knob of meat overtop of a thick bandof gristle and silver skin. You can see it in the picture below. I had removed this knob of meat for the sake of a photo. You can see it on the left of the knife. The removal of this gristly band is next. You physically want to excise this, so just run your knife under it, following the band, and remove it.

What you will be left with is this: Usable Trim. It is great for a multitude of things....stirfries, curries, fast fry steaks, stewing beef, etcetera.

To break the usable trim down further, we need to slice it into manageable pieces. I always prefer thin slices, for use in stir-fries, curries and pasta dishes. In the above picture, the grain of the meat (the direction of the muscle tissue strands) runs *lengthwise*. Therefore, the grain in the trim in the picture above is running from the top of the photo to the bottom. You want to slice *against* the grain, that is, *across* it. I break the above trim chunk down further into 3 somewhat equal size pieces grain-wise, thne proceed to cut slices against the grain, like what is pictured below. Slices cut with the grain will be stringy and chewy. Against the grain cuts will result in greater tenderness.

The above steak is a perfect New York steak. Minimal fat-cap, no backstrap and no elastin underside. Ready for marinating. Notice the marbling----the intra-muscular fat deposits, or 'white-streaks' in the steak. This is highly desirable, especially where tenderness, juiciness and flavour are concerned. The more "marbling", the better. The most marbled steak I have ever encountered is Wagyu (Kobe) beef:

Now, *that* is marbling. It also costs $35-$40 or more per pound, whereas the strip I butchered comes in at about $8 per pound. It may look enormously fatty, but the cooked version is super tender and succulent. The intra-muscular fat aids in "self-basting" of the steak during the cooking process. Steaks of this caliber are often served RARE and cooked over very high heat, for a good sear, which locks in the juices.

I hope you enjoyed this mini-lesson of basic striploin butchery. If you followed along correctly, no doubt you will have some great steaks to grill. A simple marinade of chopped garlic, sea salt, cracked black pepper and rosemary leaves works great, with a splash of red wine and a little olive oil to coat.

As a footnote, I also make use of the inedible trim (the backstrap, the tail, elastin trim etc.)...I roast it in a hot oven on a tray til it's sufficiently browned, then I simmer the roasted trim in enough water to cover it in a large pot. I deglaze the pan with red wine, add the drippings to the pot, with some mirepoix (diced celery, carrots and white onion), and some bouquet (stems of parsley, bay leaves and whole black peppercorns). I let this simmer for a few hours,or even overnight on LOW sometimes, then I strain it and use the resulting liquid as a base for gravy, au jus or even soup. French Onion soup comes to mind here. I will add a recipe for a *killer* French Onions Soup after the jump. The flavour is much better, more homemade, than using overly salty beef base or bouillion cubes.

Have fun, and remember: ALWAYS CUT *AWAY* FROM YOU!

And don't run with scissors, too.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Hitting the Road, Jack

"Hitting the Road, Jack."

...or, A User's Guide to Industry Transiency


I woke up today and decided to jot down a few disjointed thoughts on one of the main and most prevalent distractions in the foodservice industry.......transiency. Be it through termination, relocation, or the desire to move on to the proverbial greener pastures, it is one that is redolent among those who toil in foodservice. Make no mistake, all industries demonstrate a degree of employee transiency. It is human nature for employees to want to go abroad and do something that they feel will make them more whole. Fair enough. But in some cases, especially where I am concerned, it doesn't ease the sting any. I have been experiencing more than my fair share of it lately. The real rub here is losing that personal contact with friends and colleagues when they decide (or have that decision made for them) to weigh anchor and sail on.

Colleagues are very special people. They wear alot of hats for me in my life. They are the shoulders to cry on, the sympathetic souls who gladly lend an ear, the people who fight the very same fight you do, and the confidantes you sit down with after work and share a drink with. Their presence is my life has been and always will be....invaluable. Unfortunately, at some point, they all ultimately pass through that revolving door, easing so brutally and suddenly in and out of my life; the old, comfortable and familiar being replaced with the shiny, the new and the strange. The endless cycle. The most peculiar thing about this sort of relationship is this: you have to share the common fight. Once that strand is broken, future conversations and interactions become increasingly more difficult, and perhaps strained. It is truly that common fight that binds colleagues, and brings them together. It is such a precious, delicate strand.

I wish to convey my sincerest good tidings to the two people that have found the doorway out most recently, by means of their own, or by circumstances beyond their control. I envy your courage, your outlook, and the fresh start elsewhere that awaits you. Somebody out there is going to gain a couple of really good colleagues. Thanks for all the memories, good times, and the laughs.

The revolving door spins again.

Please don't forget to visit.  I have the barstool waiting, and the glass is on ice.


Thursday, 18 April 2013

And It Begins...

Ahhhh.....spring time. In Southern Ontario. A little later than usual this year, but she is a welcome bird nonetheless. Time to put away the heavy coats and snow brushes, clean up the yard, and to take the winter tires off the car in favour of something a little more sporty.

And patio season at the Burlington Waterfront, and at restaurants around the world.

It's around this time of year that I begin ramping up and preparing for the busy season, which begins promptly at sunny-warm-day-o'clock. If you're unprepared, mayhem ensues. Good thing this is not my first rodeo. Believe me, you only get exposed once or twice before you have to make the necessary corrections, or else summer will become the most dreaded time of year. it doesn't necessarily have to be, at all. Staff need to be hired and trained, mentalities need to be adjusted, par levels need to be upped, menus need to be written, processes streamlined, and above all else, a gut needs to be checked. It's going to be a long 6 months until September (the soft ending), and alot of blood, sweat and tears will be spilled in that time. More sweat than tears or blood, hopefully.

I have fully bought into the notion that I improve every year: Techniques are perfected. Scheduling is honed. Methods and strategies are polished. All of these are quintessential to the success of the balancing act that is the busy patio season. Mistakes from past years must be learned from, else bear the inevitability of being repeated. I get to know all that goes on down here at the Waterfront....when and how things happen....when parking is mayhem...which events draw the most people...which festivals need preparing for, and those which do not. It's all a little crazy.

I will definitely try to post more, as it has gone forgotten over the past several months. I want to post more pictures of things I am working on, along with companion recipes. 

So go pull on your hoodie, get out there, and enjoy the spring, while it lasts.


Friday, 31 August 2012

Another Summer, In the Books

Hey there, been a whirlwind summer, managing the kitchen of a busy lakefront, patio-based bistro. It gets easier every year, but I suppose 'easy' is a relative term. There was sweat, and BUCKETS of it. There were curse words, and plenty of them. Had a terrific staff this year. I love them all. Thanks for everything. Labour Day weekend marks the day when I have to bid adieu to some of the stalwarts that made the summer as successful as it was. I will miss you all and thank you so much for your time, love and tenderness, to paraphrase Michael Bolton. Without your help and attentiveness, this summer's chaos would not have gone so smoothly.

I hope to begin to make more blog entries henceforth. Summer is too busy to stop and reflect, unfortunately. To those of my employees who are staying on through the the fall...thank you! There is a new menu being launched soon, and many more good times to come. To those who are going off to school, I offer you a heartfelt thanks, and wish you all the best of luck in your collegiate endeavours.


Chef D
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