Monday, July 26, 2010

What the truck or you can get Good Food in Wine Country Without all the Pretense?

What do you think of when you think food in wine country? At its best it makes use of the fresh seasonal local crop. It's set amongst the idyllic backdrop of the vines. And naturally it pairs well with the local wine. But does it always need to be rooted in classic French technique, amuse bouches, and tasting menus served on white table cloths?

Adam Hynam-Smith and Tamara Jensen are doing all the former out of a truck without all the latter because sometimes you just want tasty seasonal food without all the formality.

Hynam-Smith, a passionate and adventurous Aussie, has some serious cooking chops. He learned under Michelin-starred Jacques Raymond at his eponymous Melbourne restaurant. He also worked under Cath Claringbold at the well-regarded Mecca. It was there that he developed a love for Middle Eastern and North African flavours that he would expand upon in a trip to Morocco. That lead to traveling and working throughout Europe where he met Canadian Tamara Jensen. After further culinary travels in North America, the Caribbean and South-East Asia the couple settled in St. Catherines unable to resist the beauty and bounty of Niagara. They now run Peapod Cuisine.

From El Gastro

But he's all very modest about his cooking accomplishments and is much more interested in where I learned about the food of the Middle East and North Africa and what I thought of his food than talking about himself.

The idea for El Gastrónomo Vagabundo took shape at a local wine event where after enthusiastically enjoying some of Niagara's best Hynam-Smith talked to Ed Madronich. After an expensive catering quote proposing an uninspired menu, Madronich had Peapod cater Flat Rock's fifth anniversary party. The menu was essentially the essence of El Gastrónomo Vagabundo. The concept was such a hit that Madronich insisted the truck be parked at winery on weekends for the rest of summer.

Things are just getting started for El Gastrónomo Vagabundo serving at Flat Rock for the past two weekends. Staff at the winery's tasting bar enthusiastically invite you to stay for a bite comparing the concept to LA based gourmet taco trucks. The description is mostly correct, if a bit simplistic.

From El Gastro

The location of the truck reminds me of the affectionately named roach coaches (named so because they come out at night) that I came across in Sonoma which feed migrant vineyard workers & savvy tourist looking for break from wine country cuisine. The execution is more like Kolgi where traditional Korean BBQ tastes are delivered via taco and other easily handled Mexican street food. All out of truck which has its menu and location distributed via the Web and Twitter.

Unlike Kolgi the ethnic flavours are more global, reflecting Hynam-Smith training and travels. Thankfully it isn't fusion food because more often than not fusion tends to be a compromise between two ethnic foods that does a disservice to the respective cuisines. There's also a focus placed on local sourcing and minimising the environmental impact.

The set-up is a little strange with liquor laws requiring you to go through the winery and on to green roof patio. But tasting room staff will be happy to lead the way where Jensen and Hynam-Smith will make you feel welcome at picnic tables that overlook the vines and rolling bench landscape.

Given the Middle Eastern theme of the day's menu I thought a garden salad (picked from Hynam-Smith and Flat Rock's gardens) featured sumac for some colour and tart earthy, citrus flavours. It turns out it was beet dust—Aussie's love beets. But Hynam-Smith plans to make use of the sumac trees at Flat Rock to spice items later in the season.

From El Gastro

For me the the highlight was the Fez with lamb seasoned in Ras el hanout. It's sauced in a homemade harissa with a sneaking spice that's hot enough to raise your temperature but not so much that it obliterates the palette. Although the taco is good, it really comes together in bites featuring lemon zest, it's just missing that one elevating touch. When I ask Hynam-Smith about preserved lemons he mentioned that he's making some at home to provide the salty-citrus tang that will get the Fez tasting exactly to his liking. When they're ready I plan to try it again as it should be the missing ingredient that will bring everything together and elevate the layered spicing of the lamb taco.

From El Gastro

Given the hot day and the need for a wine deft enough to go between the different cuisines of the salad, Don Caprese and Fez tacos I ignore the Fez's suggested '08 Gravity Pinot Noir pairing in favour of the mineral and citrus forward '09 Naja's Vineyard Riesling. It gets a little lost in the harissa but the lemon and lime flavours highlight the zest and the acidity cuts through some of the lamb's richness.

Beyond weekends at Flat Rock this summer Hynam-Smith and Jensen hope to take El Gastrónomo Vagabundo to events and private parties. If you're touring the Twenty Mile bench this summer and looking for something different stop at Flat Rock for the duo's evolving menu (which you can get a peak at by following them on Twitter) of seasonal local produce and global cuisines. It's all very much an apt metaphor for the nomadic Aussie whose worldly experience has him exploring and interpreting the flavours of the globe for where he calls home.

From El Gastro

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