Live theatre, live music, dining out.
Besides being three of my favourite past-times, what do they have in common?
Each is a performance in which skilled and talented people collaborate, bringing the best they have in order to create memorable experiences for the patrons they serve. The people who do it have to be on top of their game every day, individually and in the way they work together. If you happen to know anyone whose work is performance you will also understand that it’s hard work, and much of it goes unseen.
All of which brings me to the Fork and Cork Grill, a new restaurant that has just opened in Kitchener. The name says what this collaboration is about: food and wine. It’s a casual place where friends and family can gather at table to share good food and drink as a catalyst for conversation, laughter and simply enjoying one another’s company.
So what does this collaboration look like?
Owners: The Fork and Cork story began when Robert Zablocki and his wife, Dorothy, arrived in Kitchener from their native Poland in 1989. In the years that followed a house building business began to focus on flooring, then restaurant flooring, and finally a restaurant with purchase of an Angel’s diner franchise 10 years ago. They did well, and after a long and successful run with the diner they were ready to move on to a new adventure. Their dream was to bring something new to the K-W area, a casual dining experience that featured really good food and great hospitality.
Executive Chef: Eric Neaves and his wife, Lexzi, (who also works in the Fork and Cork kitchen) add another chapter. Both grew up in families where good food was important. Meal times were family bonding times that also served as a focal point for hospitality. No stranger to performance, Eric trained as an opera singer before his passion for cooking led him to Stratford Chefs School where he and Lexzi met, and from there to a number of fine restaurants.
Eric’s cooking has focused on restaurants devoted to the “Farm to Table” and “Nose to Tail” concepts, including time at London’s acclaimed “The Only on King”, Toronto’s “Marben” and Rob Gentile’s award winning “BUCA”. His training in classic French and Italian techniques has given him great respect for old world traditions, seen especially in his pastas, cured meats, cheeses, breads and pastries. He brings passion, imagination and skill for using top quality ingredients and treating them with care in order to produce memorable meals.
Sommelier and House Manager: Good service doesn’t just happen. Peter Lavoie leads the front-of-house team, helping to set the tone for hospitality at the Fork and Cork. A former instructor at the Stratford Chefs School, he also worked as sommelier and house manager at the Prune Restaurant in Stratford. The wine list he has put together features some exceptional offerings from the Niagara region. There is also a great selection of craft beers from across Southwestern Ontario.
Farmers and Producers: The Fork and Cork is also a showcase for the best of what Southwestern Ontario farmers and craft food producers can do. They are a vital and unseen part of the whole dining experience, and the menu acknowledges their contribution with a word of thanks and a list of who they are. The web site provides links for anyone who wants to know more about them.
The menu brings together an eclectic mix of old-world and contemporary ideas. Starters range from the very simple (warm marinated olives) to some truly unique offerings like poutine made with duck jus and topped with pulled duck. Salads and cold plates include a summer vegetable salad (local vegetables, olive oil, lemon and fine herbs) that changes from week to week depending on what is available. Savouries include cured trout, a charcuterie board and a selection of local cheeses.
Pizzas are done Romagna style – ultra-thin crust, interesting toppings and flash-baked. Pastas are all made fresh and presented in flavourful combinations. A personal favourite of mine is the double-stuffed ravioli, with green pea and goat’s cheese fillings served with pea tendrils, aged balsamic and parmigiano. The list of entrée is not long but each dish offers something unique.
My wife and I attended the second of two “Friends and Family” nights that opened the Fork and Cork. It was a lot like being at the opening of a new theatre production: a lot of preparation in the weeks leading up to a moment of truth when it all comes together for a live audience. First impressions of the the space itself were of elegant simplicity – inviting and comfortable. It’s a good-sized space with seating for 120 people in the main dining room and another 40 in the bar area. Music was upbeat and interesting but not intrusive. All of the front of the house staff were friendly, relaxed and knowledgeable, welcoming us warmly and conveying a genuine sense of excitement about being able to share in the start of something new. While we waited at the bar for the rest of our group to arrive we had a nice chat with the bartender. She was busy but she also took the time to talk while she prepared our drinks.
On to dinner…
My wife started with the gazpacho. Garnished with a deep-fried zucchini blossom, she described it as the best she had ever tasted – thick and flavourful with a perfect balance of tart, sweet and spice that went nicely with a Chardonnay from Ravine Vineyards. I had the Summer Greens, which included a white bean puree, burrata cheese, tomato confit and basil oil. Paired with a Pinot Grigio from Peninsula Ridge there was a delightful contrast in flavour and texture, bringing together the greens, creamy cheese, tomatoes and wine.
For an entrée, my wife ordered the braised duck leg spaghettoni with oyster mushrooms, basil and marscapone cheese, which she enjoyed thoroughly. I opted for the Falafel Burger, a vegan-friendly offering that anyone would enjoy. Topped with traditional falafel toppings (hummus, tomato, red cabbage, greens, house pickles) and fries on the side with garlic-tahini, it was very tasty. It went well with a big, fruity Gamay Noir from 13th Street winery.
We sat at a table of 8 that collectively sampled a large portion of the menu (steak, burger, pasta, pizza and grilled tuna salad) with enthusiastic approval all around. Our server was attentive and ready with answers to questions about the menu and also about the wine and beer list. Despite the busy night (roughly 100 diners who all arrived within a short enough time to stress the most seasoned crew) service flowed smoothly. Dorothy, Robert and Peter were very visible, sharing a few words of greeting with each table and helping out where needed. Eric even managed to get out of the kitchen briefly to visit with a number of the folks who were there. There was a genuine sense that everyone was having fun.
Kudos to Robert and Dorothy for the vision and drive to create a new venture, to Eric and the kitchen team for their excellent efforts and to Peter and the rest of the nearly 50 people who make up the creative and delivery sides of this collaboration. Finally, thank-you to the 20+ farmers and producers who work behind the scene to make it all happen. Bravo! We’ll be back.