Food File: The Global Pantry

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organic sprin creek beef short ribs from Calgary's Anjou restaurant

From modern Korean to Italian, Greek and Chinese, ethnic cuisine continues to impress.

At Calgary’s Anju restaurant, chef Roy Oh is on the cutting edge of the latest food trend. With his lively soju bar and small anju — pub plates or tapas — Oh is introducing a new generation of Calgarians to cool Korean flavours.

“Korean food in North America hasn’t changed since the 1960s — no one tried to market it,” says Oh. “I think this is the first true contemporary Korean restaurant in Canada.”

Once relegated to table-top barbecue and bi-bim-bap of small family run restaurants, Korean is crossing into contemporary, even upscale, dining. From Korean-American chef David Chang and his Momofuko in New York to barbecue beef tacos from the trendy food trucks of L.A., there’s a new buzz around Korean cuisine.

At Anju, Oh interprets classics, offering a Stone Rice Bowl, with grilled vegetables, a slow-poached egg and chicken breast ($15) or grilled local heirloom pork belly, chicken or rib eye, with Belgian endive leaves ($17). He also cooks up creative combinations such as sea bass glazed with the Korean sweet-and-spicy chili soybean paste (gochujang) served with a sesame salad ($16). You won’t find basic bulgogi here, but you might get a seasonal special of spicy blue crab, cured like kimchi or a plate of tiny, crispy deep-fried whitebait with a sweet garlicky sauce.

But Korean isn’t the only flavour of the day. According to a 2011 NPD Group report, Canadian consumers want to see more Italian, Asian, Mexican/ Latin and Cajun influences at full-service restaurants, including hot/spicy, smoky and citrusy flavours. And, Linda Strachan, NPD analyst, foodservice, says more than three-quarters of Canadians consider themselves “adventurous eaters” who are “driving much of the growth in ethnic foods and encouraging broader acceptance of these dishes.”

The trend crosses segments. “There’s a trickle-down effect at restaurants, with a flavour or food starting off in ethnic restaurants, then showing up at innovative casual independent or chain restaurants, then eventually on QSR menu boards,” Strachan says, pointing to ingredients such as chipotle and Thai sweet chili. “The rise of adventurous eaters is expected to continue as a dominant trend,” she adds.

Ethnic entrées grew by four per cent in 2011, and today 11 per cent of meals served in restaurants across Canada include an ethnic entrée of some type. “Canadians ordered more than 700-million ethnic dishes in the past year,” Strachan says.

Chinese and Japanese, including sushi, are Canuck favourites, but Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Korean are also at the top of the list. Eighty per cent of the ethnic entrées we consume come from an independent restaurant, but ethnic entrées at chains are also up two per cent. QSR only accounts for 20 per cent of ethnic dishes, but they are driving substantial gains, up 10 per cent, compared to FSRs, which are up just one per cent.

Expect to see more Asian and Latin menu items and ethnic-influenced flavours as American fast-casual chains, such as Panda Express, Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grill head to Canada, says Strachan.

But Canada has its own favourite ethnic flavours tied to the unique regional demographics across the country. Asian is the dominant influence in the West, and Toronto’s multi-cultural scene has strong Italian and Greek roots that reach into the traditional French-dominated menus of Montreal.

In Vancouver, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie offers contemporary cuisine, serving small plates of braised beef tendons ($4), wok-charred octopus with confit garlic and Thai-basil pickled cucumber ($14), Pemberton beef tenderloin tartare with preserved mustard root, quail egg and watercress ($14) and cold soft tofu with black bean, ground pork and shimiji mushrooms ($10).

Owner Tannis Ling and chef Joel Watanabe want to introduce authentic Asian food to a new generation of diners in a contemporary setting. “I wanted to open a cool Chinese restaurant, with clean fresh food inspired by my mother’s cooking,” says Ling of the two-year-old establishment. “I wanted people to be able to have a glass of wine and enjoy Chinese cooking without [dining with a party of] 10.”

Ling says diners are “searching for a new experience” and don’t shy away from dishes such as beef tendons. “Most people can’t handle the consistency, but we slice them thin, like carpaccio, and serve them over a salad with a really good dressing.” she says.

She even has bar snacks such as crispy dried anchovies with sweet, salty peanuts that are typical in Taiwan and loved by customers.

“I call our food modern Chinese,” she says, “because our chef uses French and Japanese techniques with my input and ingredients. It’s an evolution of Chinese cuisine … but we’re going back to some of the traditional ways.”

Ling, a longtime bartender, is even creating cocktails with traditional Chinese taste.

“We use a lot of dried fruit and preserved things from the herbalists in Chinatown,” says Ling of her tequila infused with dried tangerine peel, ginger syrups, salty preserved plums and chrysanthemum-tea-infused rum.

With local, organic and Ocean Wise ingredients, Bao Bei is following the example set by Andrew Wong at Vancouver’s Wild Rice, which opened in 2001 and has recently added a second location in New Westminster. Wong’s innovative Chinese cuisine — from orange and black bean Pemberton natural beef ($15) and seafood sui mai with house-smoked sablefish and orange and red vinegar sabayon ($7), to Buddha’s curry on jasmine rice with Maple Hill chicken ($20) — is modern, sustainable and Green Table-certified, with plenty of dim sum-style small plates for sharing.

While this kind of Chinese food is more expensive than traditional Asian fare, Chef Todd Bright uses “local seasonal ingredients — our seafood and meat are hormone free, naturally raised and source verified,” all important to a new generation of diners.

Innovation in traditional ethnic fare is popular across the board. In Montreal, Tasso Bar à Mezze bills itself as “modern Greek food” offering “discovery menus” with nine mezza ($42) or five mezza and fish ($46). It fits with the ongoing small plate trend, but this is not mom-and-pop Greek dining. From the oysters with fresh oregano and lemon emulsion, to salt-cured black cod with grape granité, olive-brined wild striped bass with anchovies, chicory and poached egg or fresh scallops, sea urchin orsoto, foie gras torchon shavings and pistachio powder, 24-year-old chef and co-owner Nicolas Mentzas’ menu is innovative. And, like many other modern ethnic concepts, his affordable sharable plates, paired with a fairly priced wine list, is fitting given the current economy.

Healthy and accessible, Greek food is gaining popularity at the quick-service and casual-dining end of the spectrum, too. Toronto-based Mr. Greek is expanding with four stores set to open in Kuwait in 2011. Vicki Raios, whose father founded the 21-store chain in 1988, says the family owned company continues to evolve with the market, using fresh, quality ingredients, with no MSG, trans-fats or preservatives.

The company has nine Mr. Greek Mediterranean Grills, casual restaurants serving traditional Greek specialties such as souvlaki, moussaka, grilled octopus and tzatziki, plus pastas and Angus steaks and 12 QSR Mr. Greek Express restaurants.

Calgary-based Opa! Souvlaki is another Greek fast-food franchise that’s growing at a fast clip. With more than 75 food court and fast-casual restaurants in every province from B.C. to Quebec, it’s the largest Greek franchise in the country.

Like Greek food, Italian is seeing a modern renaissance, with top chefs across the country scoring big with simple, rustic Italian menus at restaurants such as Corso 32 in Edmonton, Borgo Trattoria in Calgary and Campagnolo in Toronto.

Meanwhile, the CRFA lists Peruvian food among its top 10 trends. At Montreal’s Raza, Peruvian-born Chef Mario Navarrete Jr.’s Nuevo-Latino marries Latin flavours and innovative molecular techniques, while returning to everyday comforts at a second, more casual restaurant called Madre. From the traditional pisco sour cocktails to classic ceviche and beef with calamari, chorizo balls and zucchini purée, Navarrete offers an ever-changing prix-fixe menu at Raza (five courses, $59; seven courses $70).

Chef Rogelio Herrera draws on his Columbian roots and his partner Uri Heilik’s Mediterranean background for their global menu at Alloy in Calgary. Start with his crispy panko prawns with yuzu aioli, and mango and pasilla pepper salsa ($16) or tuna tartare with soy chimichurri and wonton crisps ($15), then move to Moroccan-spiced lamb loin with vegetable tagine and fried chickpeas ($29). The menu was designed to be light and healthy, combining the South American, Mediterranean and Asian flavours they love, but only when it makes sense. “We don’t want to put things together for the sake of putting things together to be different. It all has to work,” Heilik says.

As menus evolve and lines blur, it can be hard to tell which ingredients are global and which are considered mainstream. For Caribbean-Canadian chef Roger Mooking, host of the Food Network’s Everyday Exotic, Canada’s pantry is global. “Canada’s really unique,” says Mooking who was born in Trinidad, grew up in Edmonton and has a Chinese grandfather. “One person’s exotic is another’s everyday. But we can buy, and try, almost anything, and open a small cultural gateway through these ingredients.”           

image courtesy of Cinda Chavich

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