The paradox of choice is overwhelming in a city, such as Toronto, where the dining options are as vast as the trends they support. From comfort food to charcuterie, the city embraces it all. However, enter the "locavore" and a dining style dances the fine line between social movement and lifestyle choice.
Often farmer's markets are heralded as the driving force behind sustaining a 100 mile diet. Markets are clearly the one stop shop to source local resources for produce, meats, fish and dairy
and it all comes at the cost of a reduced ecological footprint and carbon emissions. However, get these products in the hands of restaurants, such as Bay/Adelaide staple, Reds Bistro and Executive Chef Michael Steh and a local farmer's operations are sustained for a year in a single transaction.
Steh, Oshawa raised to Slovenian parents, grew up in a rural environment helping his mother prepare food for a local banquet hall. Traditional preparation techniques and Eastern European charcuterie provided the ideal foundation for the chef whose beliefs would put Reds back on the map. It is Steh's fervent support of locally sourced, and ethically raised ingredients, that has set the restaurant apart from the rest of SIR Corp's Signature establishments. Year round, he is aware of what Ontario has to offer Reds and is eager to incorporate it in the menu whenever possible. The ambition to promote local farmers comes through a real effort to showcase the best of Ontario grown products as client appealing fare. In doing so, Steh is able to communicate to all diners, including time strapped suits, how easy "going local" can be.
Steh's tenure at Reds began in 2006, which means the antiquated décor predates him by six years. Likening the interior to a chalet, I am quick to dismiss my surroundings in favour of the lunch menu and an intriguingly deep wine list that focuses on over 350 bottles of New World and Old World vintages. Comfort food comes to mind because menu doesn't stray to far from the average person's comfort zone. When Steh makes a reach towards something slightly more exotic, he does so in subtle ways that can be appreciated by all levels of diners.
Organic Baby Spinach Salad ($14) is lightly dressed with a lemon mustard vinaigrette that packs an affably tart punch alongside the salad's currants, pine nuts and slices of duck prosciutto. Reds Charcuterie Tasting ($15) is a moorish assortment of Steh's own kolbassa, pâté, slim jims, ham, pickled asparagus and fiddleheads. The appetizer is ideal for two, but alone it can be a satisfying lunch for one without any trouble.
Reds Wagyu Rib Burger & Frites ($23) was a juicy burger that encapsulated the joys of artisan ingredients including a spicy mustard that remained fully unidentified but wholly enjoyed. Petite Basque cheese and Lendenspeck bacon was as remarkable as the crisp, julienned frites that I had to surrender and share with my dining partner, comedienne Stacey Prieur. The Reds Fried Chicken ($19), are two portions of cornish hen that are secretly battered and deep fried to swooning perfection. The meat, slightly pink, is a sure sign of brining and is for no cause for alarm as it can easily be mistaken for being undercooked.
To finish, Steh selected a generous assortment of cheeses from the incredible variety on their list - one of the most complete in the city as supplied by The Cheese Boutique. Alongside preserves and locally sourced lavender honey, the plate was exceptional. I highly recommend finishing with a cheese plate and deferring your selections to your server as they are all well trained on every item on the menu and fully capable of obliging.
The lunch service was long completed by the time Stacey and I had finished our meal and our education on the benefits of going local. Steh is also the chef who had made over 20 appearances in the past year talking about that very topic. Beyond the locavore bent, Reds is obviously known for its wines. The upcoming months will see a new wine preservation system installed, which will allow more premium vintages to be available by the glass (up to 70), more tastings, after work drink specials, Prix-Fixe as well as the consistent addition newer items to the menu.
Reds is more than simply a lunch destination in the heart of the Concrete Jungle. Reds is a persuasive example of how a large restaurant isn't simply buying into the trend of eating local, it's defining the movement; in the process, Chef Michael Steh has made locavores out of some of the most influential people in the city.