Hamilton Renaissance

What do I know about Hamilton? Comedians, steel, doughnuts. But, recently there is a flourishing arts scene, and a dining explosion. Really! Who knew? The architecture, the galleries, and the restaurants have all forced me to recalibrate to this up-and-coming destination along the Golden Horseshoe—and apparently I’m not alone. Check out (and check off) this culinary blitz: a dozen edible reasons to explore #HamOnt.

  1. Nestled into a banquette at HAMBRGR, I sink my teeth into a mouthwatering beef burger with sweet and smoky mustard-glazed peameal bacon, ‘merican cheese and a quail egg. So robust and juicy, I no longer care why they drop their vowels. This is my umami meltdown. Why is this beef so savoury? It is 100% locally sourced and organic, and there is nothing else added to it but a pinch of salt and pepper. The menu offers six different tantalizing types of bacon and an assortment of saucy things, but I’ve already devoured it. Vegan and gluten conscious, there are also substitutes from masala chickpea or mushroom barley burgers to lettuce wrap or oat waffle buns.
  2. Right next door is Made for you By Madeline. Joy Jones was inspired to bake madeleines from reading a seductive depiction of pairing tea with those “squat, plump little cakes” in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way—the same book that made me want to drop out of English and hang out at bakeries. “The crumbs touched my palate,” writes Proust. “A shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me…” Whatever, I just want more. Jones lovingly stone-grinds organic grain on-site in her open kitchen bakery for optimal flavour and nutrition. The distinction is immediate. The glazed lemon cake and the honey vanilla madeleines are each beautiful, delicate confections that should be Hamilton’s signature souvenir. It’s not sugary; it’s densely textured, organically sourced grain, dairy, eggs and butter; the real thing. As though a Remembrance of Things Past, with each bite I feel like a kid at the breakfast table, swinging my legs that can’t yet touch the floor, and indulging in warm cake and a glass of milk. That’s what wholesome baking should do: evoke nostalgic smiles—and of course be nutritious and good too.
  3. Radius is the direct line from the kitchen to it’s own outlying farm. Tin ceilings and brick set the scene for our rustic urban dining, and an eclectic menu from hand-rolled sweet potato gnocchi, and brie and gruyere fondue with duck sausage, to hoisin-glazed short ribs, and Korean fried cauliflower that punctuate a menu chock full of flavour. How about an order of the Chef’s Garden? It’s a plant pot of black rice, quinoa and farm-fresh sous vide vegetables buried and sprouting. Art imitating life.
  4. The key to passing the mid-day wall is a good coffee. Enter Café Augusta: the equivalent of tableside bottle service in a coffee house. Sampling a pour-over of fresh ground Pilot Coffee, and a smooth cappuccino, we’re then hypnotized by a sleek glass coffee siphon. The aroma and the mouth feel, like the boutique with its high walls and white fireplace, are clean and sophisticated. Equipped with a liquor license, they also serve specialty coffees, but I’m a purist, and I’m happy to pair this brew with a warm pumpkin doughnut.
  5. Hamilton is the new Hawaii! It seems the poké craze is riding a big wave, and it’s really good. Canada’s first poké bar, Pokeh, offers a range of refreshing bowls of meaty Atlantic salmon and ahi tuna with a dash of heat that make my taste buds zip and zing. Vegan and gluten-free options are available. This is a very satisfying reason to visit the Hamilton Farmer’s Market, and the meal to enjoy there.
  6. The heart of the Hamilton Farmer’s Market in the Real Food Court beats ice cream. Henry Brown’s Small Batch Ice Cream prepares experimental recipes on-site with fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients right from the market. A range of luscious scoops from the basic chocolate and vanilla to the out-of-the-box Guinness Extra Stout, Curried Carrot, Thai Coconut Sticky Rice, Zesty Lemon Velvet or Jamaican Fruitcake Batter feed my indecision. I am totally transfixed on Peanut Butter and Fudge Crackle. This richly textured spooning is the sexy centre-fold of a menu that does not disappoint. There is nothing comparable in Toronto.
  7. I tend to be cynical. If you’re going to call yourself Berkeley North, you better be able to back it up. Inspired by a trip through Berkeley, CA, Diana Chetcuti and Matt Webber brought home a concept they love, and have honestly and easily won our hearts and tummies. A salad of whipped feta, green strawberries and baby beets is playful and refreshing. A sweet conical Jersey cabbage smoked over charcoal and wood, slowly cooked in garlic oil, and resting on a zesty romesco sauce has turned me into a vegetarian. This is simple goodness eliciting an unexpected richness. Arctic char tartar with pickled kohlrabi and crisp sunchoke chips is addictive. Pasta is al dente and served with a meaty and generous portion of in-season (at the time of this dinner) Alaskan king crab. There is such a lovely feel-good vibe here, and despite the emerging line-up outside, I really don’t want to leave. This is my new “go-to” in Hamilton.
  8. What do Frida Kahlo, Jamon Iberico and Tupac have in common? Uno Mas. Focused on atmosphere, drinks, food and music, it’s like an old European wine cellar with Mexican accents; slow, funky beats; and refined Latin edibles. It’s as though the chef put a menu together of all of our favourite things to eat: seafood from Spain, imported Italian and local cheeses and meats, and an inventive selection of flavour-forward pintxos. We indulge in charcuterie with fresh in-house-made Italian burrata. The vast menu of tequila and mescal is 100% from blue agave (not always the case.) This has to be the hip new spot in town, and tops my list for a cool date.
  9. Bar Izakaya is an unpretentious “Canadian-influenced” izakaya with all the essentials for the lover of Japanese style pubs. Of particular note, tender chicken kara-age is delicious. Marinated for two days in soy buttermilk, deep fried in potato wheat and rice flour, splashed with stewed cranberry, and drizzled with semi-fermented yuzu aioli. Paired with sake or beer, this is a savoury and crunchy palate opener for the evening.
  10. Nique is the new “industrial cottage chic” space with globally inspired cuisine and a pop art feel that is attracting young Hamiltonians who want to go to Toronto…without having to go to Toronto. The chef has a well-stamped passport and the menu to prove it. It’s a very cool space where we are quenched with a Morocan 75 cocktail of pomegranate molasses, rose water, baking spice syrup and a soda top.
  11. Chef Vittorio Colacitti has his finger on the pulse of our dining trends. Admired for his Good Son restaurant on Toronto’s Queen West, he sees Hamilton as the next hot spot. Born and Raised is packed with those who know that Chef Colacitti’s sea bream ceviche with its crisp taro, creamy avocado and burst of citrus is the best ceviche outside Peru. And his pizza? It’s all about the crust. From within his wood fired oven, reminiscent of an Argentine asado, pizzas of wild mushroom and Sicilian octopus sizzle. He patiently lets his dough rest to allow the yeast to activate for a flavourful and crunchy crust that, layered with San Marzano tomatoes, fior de latte and fresh basil, makes me sing Amoré!
  12. Hearty Mediterranean flavours abound at Lake Road. Behind the bar, mixologist, Rob Male crafts my favourite cocktail of 2016. He calls it “Orchard Killer” and it has just slayed me. A vibrant blend of cinnamon-infused rum, French brandy, in-house-made ginger beer and apple juice is pure ambrosia. The only thing that could make me happier is a platter of their butter tarts. Glazed in brown butter, spiked with Forty Creek cream, speckled with sugared pecans, and finished with whipped goat cheese, these have to be the best butter tarts I have ever tasted.

The culinary gems that dot the new emerging dining scene in Hamilton are absolutely worth the drive, and their hospitality makes us feel we’ve actually traveled much further away. Happily surprised, I begin the drive home, and am relieved that the post-rush-hour QEW is clear. WAIT! I cannot leave Hamilton without an order of lip smacking, maple honey-glazed, crispy skin, 12-hour confit duck legs! Frantically veering off the highway, I make the call: “Hello HAMBRGR? You still open? I’ll be there in 5.”
For more info go to: www.investinhamilton.ca

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