A Year in Niagara: Summer at the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette

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When I arrive at The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette, it’s mid-afternoon and the staff are as welcoming as ever, but it’s been a long and busy summer and it shows. I spend time catching up with chef Eric Robertson, who informs me they’re short a few bodies in the kitchen. A turned ankle during a lunchtime soccer game, knee surgery for another staff member and they’re down two cooks. “The guests don’t notice any difference, but we work a little harder to get a 10-course tasting menu out.”

Maitre d’ Roisin Fagin comes over to say hello as I wait to speak to chef Daniel Hadida. I ask Fagin if she saw the last story I’d written about the restaurant. I’m pleased to hear she’d seen and enjoyed it but, she points out that I referred to their patrons as customers — something they never do. Fagin says they refer to people who dine with them as guests. This exchange cements what I’ve come to know about this restaurant — leadership’s commitment to the guest experience is not just rhetoric, it’s something that starts at the top. If it didn’t, the kind of ‘escapism’ the team is trying to provide would not be possible.

There are several items I want to cover for this instalment of this series, including the increasing challenge of dealing with dietary restrictions and Hadida’s thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry. Although he’s trying to change the current restaurant model, Hadida recently said he feels the industry is making progress and I ask him to explain his thinking.

When it comes to dietary-restriction requests from guests, Hadida and Robertson admit they gave the issue huge consideration when they were opening the restaurant. They considered saying no and even charging more. In the end, they committed to accommodating any requests, as it aligned with their goal of providing a luxury experience. “Our decision is validated by the great feedback from guests who are touched by the effort,” says Robertson. Hadida adds he hasn’t wasted a moment second-guessing the decision; it doesn’t make him happy, but he’s grateful.

When asked about the process they use to make this happen, the chefs produce a reservation sheet for the upcoming week, which shows approximately one-quarter of the 240 guests they will serve have some form of dietary restrictions. There are vegans, pescatarians, guests on gluten-free diets and those with allergies to mangos and cinnamon. In order to deliver the high level of cuisine they’re committed to, Robertson says the team looked for ways to make handling these requests less of a burden. Given it’s a reservation-based restaurant that books months in advance, it’s able to receive information from guests ahead of time. When I’ve made online reservations at the restaurant, I’ve been prompted by Tock (the online reservation system) to provide any dietary restrictions my party may have. Fagin or another member of the service team follow up by phone a week in advance of a reservation to ensure they have all necessary information.

The chefs recommend I attend the restaurant’s weekly menu meeting to get a better understanding of the efforts required to deliver on this promise. I arrive just as the meeting is getting under way. All managers and employees are present, including the farm team and forager, who have had a particularly busy year as the restaurant has more than doubled the size of its gardens as well as adding a greenhouse on site. The first 20 minutes are taken up with what Hadida refers to as a weekly check-in. Everyone takes a turn sharing what they’ve done on Monday and Tuesday, the days the restaurant is closed and everyone has off. There’s a comfortable feeling around the table, as well as a sense of equity among all.

Once the catch up is complete, the team moves on to the business of the menu. Robertson shares the details of the 10-course tasting menu ($96) they’ll be preparing for the week. One dish that catches my attention features sweet corn with sea urchin and black-bean miso finished with a plant grown in the garden called ‘rabbit tobacco.’ When crushed, this plant gives off the scent of maple syrup. Notes are taken by staff and questions asked before moving on to how to handle this weeks’ dietary restrictions. The team has prepared an “allergy sheet” for the week that’s broken down by each service.

Robertson starts his review with Thursday dinner service, which includes 40 reservations. The allergy sheet shows 12 of these guests have some form of dietary restriction. The team goes through every plate that will be affected by these requests and, while some substitutions are obvious, others take several team members’ input to come up with an appropriate alternative.

The next part of the meeting involves the restaurant’s forager and farm team, who provide an update on what they’ve been working on. Summer is a slow time for foraging, but there’s been lots of work in the gardens — including harvesting a variety of melons and squash and planning and planting beds for the upcoming seasons. During the farm update, I’m shocked to hear the farm team make the group aware they’ve planted some lettuce and arugula specifically for staff meals and it will be ready in the upcoming week. Though I’m aware of Hadida’s belief that staff meals provide an opportunity for the front and back of houses to get together in a transaction-free environment, I had no idea they were growing specific foods for these meals.

After the meeting, I sit down with Hadida for a broader industry discussion. Despite his belief that the current restaurant model is broken, he’s positive about the progress made in the last 10 years. He believes the restaurant industry is in a transitionary period. “I was fed that passion bullshit for a long time; I was institutionalized,” he says of a business model that was old, tired, and hadn’t changed in years. When asked what’s changed, he compares the industry to “a piece of kitchen equipment you move and see that it’s dirty underneath. In the past, the industry has not addressed the dirt, we’ve just put the equipment back — we’re now addressing that dirt.”

It’s a Friday night and time for me to enjoy The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette as a guest. My companions — one of whom is vegetarian — and I arrive and after a warm greeting, are shown to our table. Wine orders are taken and we have the menu explained by one of the servers. My friend comments that the term ‘vegetarian’ was never used when it was explained she’ll be enjoying a menu with a few different ingredients. In all, four of the 10 courses come out prepared slightly differently for my guest, including a dish prepared with wild mushrooms in place of fish. At the end of the meal, each of us is presented a printed copy of the menu we enjoyed to take home. We’re all left speechless when we see that my vegetarian friend’s menu featured the exact dishes she had enjoyed that evening. We expected her menu would read like ours, but the team had taken the time to personalize a version of the menu just for her.

A life-long vegetarian, my friend says she’s never had a dining experience with a set menu where she’s not felt that she was being ‘accommodated for’ or even made to feel a burden. Upon leaving the restaurant, we thanked Hadida for a magical experience. My friend told him how special she was made to feel by the restaurant’s seamless accommodation of her vegetarianism. A smile crosses the chef’s face as he receives the praise for his team’s effort. At least for this moment, I’m certain he’s pleased he decided to face the challenge of dietary restrictions head-on.

Written by Bruce McAdams

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