On Saturday, Chef Richard Nigro, one of the founding chefs of Juniper, opened the door to his very own Richard’s Hintonburg Kitchen, a much-anticipated new take-out/home catering shop on Wellington.
I say much-anticipated because Nigro has been drumming up my interest with a series of stream-of-consciousness email updates from the chef detailing the progress and inevitable delays related to City permits, construction, building inspections etc. over the last several months.
During that time, I’ve had a glimpse into the chef’s creative mind, quirky sense of humour, and offbeat approach to business that will no doubt make his kitchen unique to the neighbourhood and the city. In the first email he wrote:
“I feel as if I’m writing from deep in the big empty… Little steps, little steps that together make a leap, a bound and a jump across the finish line… I am hoping that like a snowball at the top of a hill, the renovations will slowly build momentum and speed as the work continues and will rush to a conclusion. “
How many chefs do you know who would describe construction delays in such poetic terms? The next email continued this theme:
“The Big Empty, which is slowly being transformed into richard’s hintonburg kitchen, is presently both more empty and more full. Is this some Zen riddle?”
What followed amounts to Nigro’s love letter to food and cooking and offers us a rare glimpse inside the mind of a chef who is truly free to unleash his creativity, and express his values, on his own terms:
“In constructing the first menu, I want the menu to be approachable, but not ordinary; to be intriguing, but not intimidating… March is a difficult time to open, the winter has gone on for too long, the root cellar has been drained, the flavours too often sampled; spring is promised, but ain’t here yet. In constructing the menu, I do so in recognizing and respecting the season, by drawing on my kitchen’s pantry — my pantry is built on the foods from a traditional root cellar and the preserves that I put down from last season’s harvest.”
“Consider the soup selection: as with all menu items, I am interested in creating a menu item that is seasonal, regional. Seasonal is fairly direct: we are in the last days of winter, with maybe hints of spring to come; but it’s still more dark than light, winter’s frigid chill may be left in January/February, but enough chill remains to seize our bones.
Regional: that’s more difficult — what is the Ottawa valley at this time of year but acres of snow, with perhaps puddles of almost frozen mud. I wanted to open with distinctive, but approachable: I’m thinking of Everything But the Kitchen Sink End of Winter Borscht and Scotch Broth. Both soups are satisfying, warming, comforting against the end of winter chill; both soups use common ingredients, however, ingredients which may be somewhat challenging.
Beets — which is not to say that my borscht is simply beets, because it isn’t — are saved over from the autumn’s harvest; however, beets aren’t to everyone’s taste — Mayor Watson confesses to having a particular dislike for beets — and Borscht isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And the Scotch Broth — I really, really love Scotch Broth — is built on a lamb broth and lamb meat; some — although I can’t imagine who — find the broth “fatty” and otherwise romanticize the lamb. I don’t think that either soup is too bizarre, I think that that they are seasonal and, as much as possible at this time of year, are regional. But still I get some worried comments because the “main” ingredient is either beets or lamb; is anyone really that frightened by these?”
So on Saturday I walked in to see the bearded chef looking intense but at home in his white apron and black T-shirt. I sampled a few things from the opening the menu, which was as eclectic and enticing as promised — and made decision-making difficult. On display in every dish is Nigro’s passion for cooking, his love of spice and new flavour combinations.
I enjoyed a delicately crumbly maple buttermilk scone served with Richard’s own strawberry jam ($2); a fabulous flakey croissant stuffed with sweet and smoky steelhead trout “rillettes” with a smear of goat cheese and thinly sliced red onion ($7); as well as a side order of Indian spice dusted roasted potato wedges served with a delicious dip made from yoghurt cheese and tomato chutney ($4). The homey desserts were also a huge hit: a chewy brown sugar-coconut tart ($2.25) and flawless cheddar crusted apple cobbler ($3.25).
My brunch companion ordered the cheddar, bacon, potato, and herb griddle cake with apple-onion compote and mustard drizzle ($8) that, though tasty, seemed to be crying out for a protein of some kind: a poached egg or some smoked salmon to complete the dish. There was a poached egg on the congee, described as a savoury long grain rice pudding with duck confit and pickled vegetables ($8) — which I look forward to trying next time.
I chatted with a couple of gleeful snowbirds, just back from Florida, who were excited to take home dinner from the “famous chef” who has set up shop in their neighbourhood: an order of O’Brien’s beef cheeks braised in Korean broth with sticky rice, bok choi, and kimchi ($15) and a barley apple risotto cake with cheddar cheese on a bed of savoy cabbage in a caramelized onion broth ($14).
So at last, the Big Empty is full. It’s nice to finally see you in your Kitchen, Chef Nigro.
Richard’s Hintonburg Kitchen, 1202 Wellington St. W., 613-422-2680.