Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olive Bar at Treadwell Inn – a Review

There is no place more relaxing or more beautiful than the back terrace at the Treadwell Inn, in beautiful St. Andrews-by-the-Sea. Celebrating their 20th year of hosting discerning guests at their beautiful historic inn, owners Annette and Jerry Mercer have created a little olive oil heaven right in their own back yard. They have once again transformed much of their ground floor, this time into a first class olive oil and balsamic vinegar emporium. Complimenting this is the Olive Bar, a newly opened seaside snug. Here Chef Markian Shafransky delivers a menu of small appetizer size plates is offered featuring fresh-from-the-sea Tuna Tartare, Halibut Ceviche, Lobster Cocktail, Malpeque Oysters on the half shell (arguably the best in the world!), and other tempting seasonal and local nibbles. The Olive Bar’s wine selection available by the glass (usually 12 varieties) makes this romantic spot a great place right on Water Street overlooking the sparkling harbor to spend a relaxing afternoon. The service is excellent. While the Olive Bar does not serve full meals, two small plates works very nicely for a light lunch or early supper. The prices are not inexpensive, but he views are priceless!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Restaurant Review – The Rossmount Inn

From the moment the large Victorian yellow house on the hill comes into view, one is enveloped in a feeling of bucolic splendor. Driving through the allee of upright Poplars, I get a feeling of being transported back in time to an age where simple elegance is the order of the day.

The Rossmount Inn is enjoying its 12th season this year. I clearly remember when Chris and Graziella Aerni first opened their doors to the public as the newest owners of this famous inn. Over the years, this formidable team of chef and hostess has beguiled their guests with incredible food and absolute charm.

The menu, refreshed daily according to what’s fresh, clearly reflects the philosophy of the restaurant. Everything must be fresh from the local waters, regional organic farms, or their extensive vegetable garden. The kitchen avails itself on a variety of organic growers in the area to supplement the sumptuous bounty of the garden.

Favorites of mine include avocado and salmon tartare, beef capaccio, halibut ceviche, or the Bantry Bay organic mixed green salad to start. The olive oil poached halibut melts in one’s mouth, as do the short ribs, the spit-roasted “suckling pig”, and the foie gras served with duck breast. One has come to expect magic from the kitchen when the chanterelles are on offer; ditto fresh oysters, salmon, tuna, or heirloom tomatoes and beets.

The desserts are a sublime end to the meal and are never overbearing. I often am quite happy with three gorgeous hand made chocolate truffles and coffee, and on occasion I will dive right into the perfect maple-ginger crème brulee or delightful chocolate truffle cake with raspberry coulis. What I like most is leaving the table without feeling bloated, yet fully satisfied.  

The wait staff is a well-coordinated team of dedicated women who move effortlessly throughout the main dining room and bar quietly attending to guests’ every need in a gracious and unhurried way. Although the tables are covered in crisp white table clothes, there is an understated formality to the atmosphere.

To be critical, the acoustics are not the best, and if there are a couple of celebratory tables on the go, having a quiet conversation is impossible. At some point, some of the chairs need some updated cushioning. On balance however, there is nothing to keep seasoned foodies and folks visiting the area for the first time from making reservations weeks in advance to ensure themselves a table.

Open eight months of the year, guests are treated to an ever-changing combination of flavors, with the chef continually creating and inventing amazing new taste sensations.

The Rossmount Inn is unquestionably one of my favorite restaurants of all time and arguably one of the finest restaurants in Canada.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Can We Raise Polite Children?

Perhaps this is a symptom of “school’s out for Summer!”, but I have been asked a thunderous number of questions about teaching children manners. Even more importantly though, is the fact that parents are beginning to seek advice on how to actually teach their children. Sadly, an entire generation (or more) was raised with such flexible guidelines and without boundaries that they have no real idea how to impart good manners to their children. And because the parents don’t know right from wrong themselves, it makes teaching decent, socially acceptable behaviour to their children very difficult.

Children are like sponges when it comes to in-taking information they glean from those closest to them – their parents. From the moment they are born, they instinctively acept that what their parents do is the correct way of doing things. Nothing escapes their attention, both good and bad. We are becoming more and more aware of the real need for parents to set much better examples for their children. They also need to actually take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, safety, and actions!

Setting a good example begins and ends at home. I understand my own parents did not always agree on any number of things, just like the rest of us; however, they never raised their voices to one another in front of my sister or me. As a result, neither of us tends toward raising our voices in order to make a point. We were rarely criticized or corrected in public; that was always clearly accomplished in private. Hence, we don’t tend to criticize others in public. There are just as many breaches of etiquette that occurred as we grew up, and for those, I at least, am still in the process of fully understanding.

I don’t think it’s necessary to overthink the process of teaching good manners. They really are not that complicated in their most basic form. Learning to understand The Golden Rule and realizing the consequences of our actions teach most of us many important life lessons. Learning to show respect for one’s elders can be understood at a very early age. For instance, children need to be taught to stand when an adult enters a room; they won’t have inherited this as an instinct. So either one explains this concept to them as the way things are done, or they will learn by following the parent’s example.  Children must learn that they are not the center of the universe and be made aware of the many others they encounter at school, in public places, etc.

Teaching table manners can seem a daunting task, especially if several children of varying ages are in the mix. As we would treat adults, we would also want to treat our children – with respect and kindness. As parents, it lies with you to give direction and instruction, mainly to keep your children safe. But good manners also make it far easier to make friends, make better grades and make fewer unwise choices. Even gaining acceptance into one’s college of choice or getting a better job placement can all result from having a good set of manners as a second nature part of your personality.

Simple etiquette courses could even be part of children’s educational curriculum. It is not secret that schools are short of both time and money. It takes a relatively short amount of time and money to set up such a program, but unfortunately good manners are obviously not a priority. As a result, the faculty is saddled with epidemic outbreaks of bullying, declining academic performances, and a weakened workforce for the future.

There has been no more important time to turn things around. Frankly, if incivility and rudeness infiltrate the fabric of society to a much greater extent, we may very well be dealing with an unsustainable society, as we know it today. Parents need to make good manners a high priority at home. Children must learn these simple soft skills at home first. Home needs to provide a supportive and safe environment for children in which to thrive and fully develop their highest potential.

Schools need to support good manners. But we cannot place the burden of responsibility for teaching our children how to behave properly on school faculty. Teachers are not trained to properly take on such a responsibility. Tasking them with this is inappropriate and totally unfair. Rather, the school setting ought to benefit from the proper behavior of students and rely on parental guidance to teach the basics of good conduct and civility.

Yes, it is very possible and actually very easy to raise well-mannered children. Clear communication, compassion, and a lot of love, respect and positive feedback will go a long way to make the whole learning process more effective and more pleasant. By setting a good and constant example is one’s greatest tool. By bringing the importance of good manners into sharper focus, tomorrow’s adults will suddenly emerge with greater self-esteem and greater respect for themselves and those around them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

May I Have Your Credit Card Number, Please!

Recently, a Canadian radio news anchor took great umbrage at the seemingly new restaurant practice of requiring the credit card number of someone making a reservation for a table. This procedure is common practice in many major cities worldwide, and is now being introduced onto the Toronto food scene. Understandably some eyebrows are being raised and customers who have never experienced this before are shocked! I was asked for an opinion as an arbiter of etiquette hoping that I would rush to the rescue of the customer.

Having been on both sides of the restaurant business, I completely sympathize with the restaurant owner, while understanding the confusion a potential customer might have as the result of this perceived invasion of privacy. In the end, this practice is most likely here to stay and we will need to adjust our mindset to accept this if we are to enjoy dining at the finer restaurants.

Given the vulnerability we face today with identity theft and credit card fraud, the temerity of the public is understandable. However, what the general public may fail to realize is the severe effect no-shows have on the viability of a successful restaurant business. The profit margin in the average successful food establishment hovers at a meager 4%. With this fact in mind, it is suddenly easy to understand that a small restaurant cannot afford sudden cancellations or no-shows. Sadly there is an element of society that feels a sense of entitlement and brashly changes their plans unaware of and insensitive to the impact such changes may have on others.

Naturally, any time a new policy emerges there will be some resistance.  With this inevitability in mind, it would be ill advised for a majority of restaurants to adopt such a policy. High turnover establishments where walk-in traffic is the norm would only alienate potential customers and would likely be less vulnerable to no shows. However, at more formal spots where reservations are recommended, you should expect to be charged if you don’t make an appearance. In most places that do adopt this policy, a 24-48 hour cancellation is part of the deal.

When I bring this subject up for discussion, some peoples’ knee jerk reaction is, “I would never give out my credit card number.” For those of you with this same reaction, I simply offer the warning that you may just have to forego dining in some of the finer restaurants, especially if you are unknown to them. I would caution restaurants that are considering this new policy to also refrain from asking for these details from established clientele. The request in this case is unnecessary and may well come off as pretentious and disrespectful.

The first time I encountered this policy was in New York City at the well-known restaurant Vong. I had enjoyed eating there many times before and was, like you, stunned. However, the food is remarkable and I acquiesced. I didn’t dine there often enough to expect them to remember me and so I cheerfully cough up the information whenever asked. There are a few restaurants, not many though, in the Maritimes where this policy could easily be justified, so get ready!

From a traditional etiquette point of view, the need to enact this policy clearly reflects the growing climate of disrespect that pervades society today. Combined with the rough and tumble economic climate of the day, it makes perfect sense to me. Perhaps if we collectively showed more respect to the establishments in businesses that provide us the pleasures of good food and excellent service, they might be able to relax this policy. Until such time that this happens, we are likely to experience reserving with a credit card more and more. In the words of Deepak Chopra, “You will not show gratitude for something which you feel you deserve.” In my opinion, showing gratitude and being respectful are inseparable. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Etiquette of the Tailgate Picnic

‘Picnics are for ants and free-range children’ is a saying used by many a bah-humbug picnic invitee. Perhaps this rings true for so many because successful picnics are no mean feat! Weather dependent events and activities have a certain built-in fear factor that can give even the eternal optimist pangs of angst. Let’s face it; a picnic in the rain simply is no picnic at all.

Aside from factors outside of one’s control, there are some guidelines I have garnered over the years that can be helpful when planning a picnic, specifically a tailgate picnic. Last week, I spent a sun-filled afternoon at a racecourse where there was actually a tailgate picnic competition. This was part of an afternoon filled with racing and socializing designed to raise funds for land conservation. The competition has been in place for many years and has grown into quite a successful as well as creative and fun event.

When one thinks of tailgate picnics, one’s mind generally focuses on football games when cool autumn days lend themselves well to beer and BBQ’s set up in parking lots or sidelines. Whatever the venue, making a bit of an effort adds to the overall fun and festive atmosphere of a very hands-on activity.

A clean car with a spotlessly clean trunk is a good place to begin. A lot of men prefer their “old relics” to many of their own friends and take immaculate care of them. These are ideal for tailgates as they are clean, if not cleaner than many a very well kept kitchen. Car equipment i.e. oil cans, tire jacks and assorted other car accouterment need to be carefully and invisibly stowed for the day.

If you are flying solo and not coordinating your efforts with other like-minded souls, plan your menu to include a bit more food than what you yourselves require, as you will have both old and new friends who will pop round to see what you’ve got and you will no doubt want to share your bounty with them.

Essentials for success are large trash bags, plenty of ice, non-breakable cups, plates and serving dishes, and disposable cutlery (if any at all) or at least cheap cutlery, which won’t cause distress as it’s cheerily pitched into the trash bin with paper plates and plastic cups. I remember foolishly deciding to bring silver forks to a picnic once to celebrate a birthday. I was disheartened to discover a fork had gone missing as I was washing up at home. Undoubtedly it had been inadvertently tossed. As I have said before, avoid the avoidable!

Food is obviously the main attraction to any good picnic, perhaps only playing second fiddle to one’s attire. And like one’s attire, the menu should be carefully planned and be sensible, yet fun. By this I mean (for the food), to avoid mayonnaise and seafood. There may other ‘danger’ foods, but these top the list. Exposure to the hot sun, even for a relatively short amount of time (less than an hour) can turn a lovely dish into a nasty science experiment and wreak havoc with your meal, except of course for the ants.  

This is not to say that shrimp cocktail and crab claws are out of the question for a picnic; they just need to be iced and consumed first, being certain that the shells and tails are put in the trash as quickly as possible. I plan picnic menus incorporating as much finger food as possible. This might logically include fried chicken and sandwiches. If a grill is part of the mix, an ice-filled Styrofoam chest or cooler will keep the meats cold until grilling begins. Invariably potato salad or mixed greens come to mind. If these are on your menu, opt for the German style of potato salad as it contains no mayonnaise; and do not dress the greens until the last minute. No one wants limp lettuce. Using tomatoes in sandwiches is also a surefire way to get them soggy, so serve tomato slices on a separate plate. Another solution is to assemble the sandwiches on the spot, and voila, problem solved!

At the end of the picnic be sure to collect all of your trash and any that may have blown into your space. Leaving the area cleaner than when you arrived is the best practice and a great way to teach children how to be helpful, and civic minded. Cleaning up with you as part of the picnic incorporates them into another essential part of picnicking. If everyone does his or her bit to clean up, the cycle is complete. And don’t worry about the ants. We always leave a few scraps for them. After all, picnics are for ants!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Thar She Blows!

Just as I was pondering what to write about this week, I received this question from a reader.

“This happened yesterday, in fact. I was having lunch with a friend from church (albeit, he reached out to me in despair so I'm hardly going to judge him right now). But, it’s still gross.

“My partner's mother thinks I "don't like tissues" because I don't have boxes of them around my home, other than in the appropriate bathroom spots! His family thinks nothing of giving a good blow and putting the tissue in the pocket for another time -- and then going ahead with a meal! Nice people, but, again, still gross.

“Thankfully, I raised my children to respect manners and other people's feelings. When my daughter was 13 she told me she was going to open a restaurant where, on the door, she would post a photo of a nose and tissue with the red circle with the line through it, and other with a picture of a bratty kid crying with the same circle and line. It makes me smile.”

Let’s face it; no one finds the sight and sounds of someone blowing one’s nose attractive. In fact, most of us find it off putting. I have always suggested that if one needs to catch a surprise sneeze, then one has few choices. However, excusing oneself and repairing to privacy should be the very next move. This is a function of personal grooming and should not be shared.

I was at an airport today waiting for my plane and watched a man walk over to join a friend in the waiting area. Bad enough that he showed up with a smelly breakfast sandwich, but prior to eating that he pulled out a napkin and blew his nose just inches from his friend. Before pulling the food out of the bag, he jammed the used napkin in it. I was grossed out. I can only imagine how is friend must have felt. Lucky me got to sit next to this man on the plane! Needless to say, I did not strike up a conversation.

While on the subject of eating in public waiting areas, I can’t believe I am the only one who finds the smells that come from those closed Styrofoam containers, when opened, offensive. I don’t like them in movie theatres and although I understand that with the advent of no food served onboard airplanes these days, I find it annoying for someone to plunk him or herself down next to me, and start eating take away food. Perhaps I am just an old stick in the mud, but I think it is an invasion of my space. I have the same objection in shared office space.

In another even more overt display that left me utterly astounded, a man excused himself from a conversation with two friends. He was sitting in between them. He returned with a container of salad replete with stinky dressing, plunked himself back down between his two colleagues and proceeded to gobble down his salad as though it was de rigeur. Sensing he may have been offending them, he did make the effort to lean forward so they did not have to speak through him. He wasn’t going to let munching his meal stand in the way of joining right back into the conversation, chatting with his mouth full. Somewhere along the way, he had missed a few manners lessons. These three people were on their way to a conference and were employees of a well-known brokerage firm.

This is an example of how one can damage a company’s reputation even when they are seemingly off-duty! I was so close to opening up a conversation about business etiquette, but not wanting to break rules of decorum myself, I refrained.

I hope people will take the time to be more aware of the impact they have on those around them. I wonder if this man were traveling with his boss, would he have behaved like this? I would hope not. Are we moving at such a high speed that we have lost all concept of the effect our interactions with other people has on them? If so, we need to slow down and smell the roses, but sans used hankies and smelly eats!