Photography by Bruce Fyfe
Some people who live along Lake Huron call September the new June. Warm weather, smaller crowds and no bugs make lakeshore travel in the fall a special delight. A road trip to Sarnia offers the possibility of lakeshore and riverside drives, beaches and marinas, as well as some unique restaurant offerings. We recently visited three eateries – a vegan, organic, gluten-free café; a funky nightclub; and a restaurant with an all-Ontario tasting menu. Take your pick – you won’t be disappointed!
The Tree House Coffee Bar & Eatery
192 Christina Street North, Sarnia
Sautéed walnut meat, cashew sour cream, and Daiya “cheeze” are just some of the unique ingredients that Chef Greg Laviolette uses to create Fiesta Fridays: traditional Mexican street food that is 100% vegan and 100% gluten-free at the Tree House in downtown Sarnia. As owner of Veganerific Bakery, he is also part of a “potting” project with the owners at Tree House that allows Laviolette to run the kitchen on Friday nights and offer vegan, gluten-free brunches on the weekend. This arrangement suits owner Moe Harmer and her partner Josef Gumpoldsberger perfectly: they split for the nearby beaches or tour farmgate stands and keep their relationship alive while avoiding the usually gruelling life of non-stop restaurant ownership. Moe and Joe walk the walk of wellness that their café delivers to devoted health-conscious followers. A banner in the café proclaims: It’s not the food in your life, it’s the life in your food. “I just like to eat things that make me feel good,“ says Moe. The couple moved to Sarnia in 2008 after operating sustainable restaurants in Campbell River, BC. “This is our hub, with all our energies merging here,” says Moe. “We have travelled the world and brought all our energies here.”
Tree House offers a variety of wraps, pizzas, and salads, along with organic and fair trade coffees, teas and delicious juice cocktails. There are also a few shelves of organic grocery items. Not to be missed is the Cheeze Cake, which varies in season. We devoured the Chocolate Blueberry Cheeze Cake, which is dark and rich, made with organic fair trade cacao, organic palm sugar and organic blueberries on top of a crunchy crust of medjool dates, seaweed and almonds.
The 600-square-foot café also has a side outdoor patio. Inside, Moe encourages her staff to display their own art. “If they put their energy into it, they can do whatever they want here,” she says. She is clearly leading by example.
110 Christina Street South, Sarnia
A night at Lola’s starts with a Jar of Jam. Not meant for your toast. But rather to toast our host, Tania Auger, who has just celebrated ten years of Lola’s in Sarnia. This dynamo of the restaurant business with a smile as big as her generous heart may well be remembered by Londoners from her time at 99 King. Thankfully, the years have not diminished her effervescent personality, and we enjoy a tour of martinis, unique wines and some of her classic recipes from her London days.
Back to the Jar of Jam: just one of dozens of martini cocktails whipped up by long-time sidekick Natasha Storozuk, who delights in making Tania and her guests happy. “Bring us the Bitch wine,“ urges Tania. Natasha happily complies with a bottle of California red that features tasting notes that simply say “bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.” “I bought the last 50 cases – it’s perfect for Lola’s,” says Tania, laughing.
It’s also perfect with her Bourbon & Maple Syrup Lamb Chops – something Tania says “I dreamt about” during her London days. It’s been a hit ever since. In classic nightclub dining style, Tania also orders up Oysters Rockefeller, which have a tangy, chewy cheese topping, and Tequila Mussels & Frites, which alone are worth the drive. Zesty and boozy, these mussels are flavoured with jalapeño, lime and, as the name implies, tequila. You can also get them “loaded” – topped with shrimps and scallops. The creamy frites are better than the Point Edward fry truck – just saying.
Tania describes her restaurant as “funky chichi.” The music is jazzy and prominent without being overbearing, the elaborate lighting system includes glowing glass globes that swing from the ceiling, and the bar features a selection of art glass from Tania’s collection. With seating for 70, the place is packed on a Thursday night with patrons of all ages – who all want to greet Tania. “This place is special to me because my parents met here when it was The Embassy. I love Sarnia. I can’t say enough about it: the water, a beautiful home. I love it here.” It shows. Thanks, Tania.
1498 Venetian Boulevard , Point Edward
Chef Phil Washington of Bridges Restaurant has led the way in his community and throughout the Holiday Inn/Fortis chain as a proponent of locally sourced menus. Two years ago, he convinced a group of Holiday Inn chefs across Ontario to offer “A Taste of Ontario” menu at their hotel restaurants. Now he champions that menu himself at Bridges Restaurant. The restaurant overlooks a nine-hole golf course, and in the distance is the Sarnia marina. It is part of the Sarnia Holiday Inn near the Bluewater Bridge to the United States.
Washington’s Taste of Ontario menu is four courses of Sarnia-Lambton-sourced dishes including Purdy’s Pickerel Fingers, Bluewater Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio, and Lena’s Lamb Chops. He also sources some unique greens from Elgin County, including delicious popcorn sprouts, cilantro sprouts and heirloom tomatoes. The Woolwich goat cheese croquette is especially delicious – crispy and creamy, with tangy balsamic reduction for dipping. The entire menu is paired with Colio Estates wines, keeping the Ontario theme intact. It’s a bargain-priced tasting menu at only $36 for four hearty courses. The wine pairings are an additional $18 for four glasses.
“We are definitely successful with the menu, here. I really like the idea of cooking and eating like this. It’s reasonable. It’s how I like to eat: small plates. It’s fun! And the pickerel just came out of the lake,” he says proudly.
The Taste of Ontario menu changes every four to six weeks, depending on seasonality. Often Chef is invited to dine with his producers in their homes, allowing him to gain a further insight into their products.
Chef pays attention to the little things: he makes his own zesty ketchup. His white plates are artfully styled with sauces and sprigs. He clearly enjoys his home at Bridges where the hotel has given him great freedom to stray beyond typical hotel fare.
Washington also enjoys the benefits of working for a larger corporation. He was part of a culinary team representing Ontario that cooked a Canadian tasting menu at the James Beard Foundation in New York. His wife, Josina Washington, is also a chef who teaches baking at Lambton College. They like to experiment in their home kitchen, testing new dishes on their sons. “It just seems to be the right way to cook now. It’s what I like to do at home with my kids. And when I ask my five-year-old where he likes to go out to eat, he always says Bridges. I like that.”
Originally from Sarnia, Washington was trained at Niagara College. He returned home and has been operating the Holiday Inn kitchen for fifteen years and has no plans to leave. “I get to do what I like. It’s hard to compete with freestanding places, but it’s the little things here that separate us from them. And the restaurant here is still my favourite place to be.”
For further information about visiting Sarnia, please visit www.tourismsarnialambton.com.
Jane Antoniak enjoys culinary road trips to the regions around London – especially those near water. She is a regular contributor to eatdrink magazine.
Bruce Fyfe enjoys breaks from his day job as research librarian at Weldon, UWO, by taking culinary tourism photographs for eatdrink magazine.