The culinary scene in Kitchener-Waterloo is being nourished by the community, including from the thriving tech industry (from indie startups to international goliaths), global think tanks, condo developments and downtown Kitchener’s pedestrian-friendly urban vibe and entrepreneurial spirit. The new LRT line is helping to transform the region by creating better access to Downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo. Initiatives launched by the City of Kitchener to galvanize the downtown core are making an impact. New lighting was added to the streets, sidewalks were enlarged, and curbs were lowered. Planned developments are exploring ways to bring more retail and restaurants to the streetscape.
Downtown Kitchener exemplifies a new urban identity, with arts, culture, recreation and commercial spaces that underpin an excellent quality of life and well-being. Anchored by Kitchener Market, this district is home to one of the region’s most interesting cluster of culturally diverse restaurants and eateries. Venture along King and Queen Streets to explore independent, locally owned shops, attractive cafés, pubs and great restos like TWH Social Club, La Cucina, The Rich Uncle, B at the Museum and Gilt Restaurant. The influx — and growth — of technology firms in Kitchener’s downtown have changed the area and the restaurant scene continues to morph to better serve not only the millennial crowd and the tech community but the increased foot traffic and energy that seasonal events bring to the core.
Trella White and Stephanie Randall, both in their late twenties, grew up in Cambridge, Ontario, attending the same high school. Being roommates throughout university and friends since high school, they graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with Bachelors of Business Administration. White and her mother (Starr) opened the much-lauded farm-to-table inspired Cork Restaurant in Elora in 2010. After university, Stephanie joined them as a partner and took over the kitchen operations.
Stephanie has a passion for the kitchen and quickly became an accomplished and creative cook under the chef at Cork. In relatively short order, she assumed the lead in the kitchen and along the way transformed into a professional, self-taught chef. Randall and White operated Cork for several years before they decided to expand their business interests. They set their sights on Kitchener-Waterloo, ultimately choosing their current location for their new restaurant. “Downtown Kitchener stood out to us, as it is a vibrant, creative, technology-driven community and we knew we had to be a part of it,” says White. “We didn’t want to be followers, we wanted to be leaders. When we moved to downtown Kitchener there weren’t any restaurants doing anything remotely similar to what we wanted to do. There was no one here downtown and we changed and innovated as the tech sector grew, evolving both the restaurant and catering business.”
Gilt opened in September of 2014, a contemporary tapas restaurant with a millennial vibe in a re-purposed space in the heart of the technology triangle. The bar, lounge and 65-seat restaurant on the main floor of the office tower at 305 King Street West can also boast an elevated patio for alfresco eating and drinking. Gilt is urbane, open, airy and sophisticated, with lofty ceilings and a stylish and comfortable industrial ambiance. The music is upbeat.
Gilt is about sharing, feasting, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating craft, innovation and tradition. Chef de cuisine Alex Janke has been at Gilt since the beginning. Randall and White tend to focus on the catering end of the business. The culinary team share innate instincts when it comes to flavours, marrying global ingredients and enriching dishes by taking them to other contemporary dimensions. In speaking with Janke, I learned that he has been cooking for a decade and attended the Culinary Management program at Niagara College. His repertoire includes a variety of cuisine ranging from Thai and Indian to French and Mexican. “My favourite flavour profiles are Thai and Mexican combined with local ingredients,” says Janke. “For me, keeping ingredients as local as possible is essential if we would like to keep our farmers and businesses in Southern Ontario prosperous.” As for Janke’s favourite places in K-W, “I’d have to say Arabella Park Beer Bar if I’m going for a quick bite to eat and drink, and Red House is, in my opinion, one of the best restaurants in Waterloo.”
Dinner service focuses on a well-chosen selection of smaller tapas-style offerings divided into categories: Fish, Meat and Vegetarian. This menu style proves to be infinitely versatile, giving diners the opportunity to curate their own tasting experience, rather than offering individual starters and main courses. Shareable plates allow diners to eat communally and sample a variety of items. Dishes are brought to the table gradually and continuously throughout the meal by conversant, friendly service professionals.
The sharing and small plates menu appeal to the sophisticated, global palate, with culturally-grounded contemporary offerings like Middle Eastern-inspired fried cauliflower florets with citrus aioli, chives, pomegranate, and pine nuts or bacon-wrapped dates with chorizo, which are rich, dense and sweet. Korean Fried Chicken (KFC) with honey bourbon and hoisin has a super crunchy kick and is served with golden-brown potato puffs. Yellowfin tuna nachos are served with mustard emulsion and a tangy lime aioli, with a soy reduction and crispy taro root chips. Brussels sprouts “Caesar” is prepared with fried caper popcorn, hard Spanish Manchego, orange wedges and blue cheese.
The menu features an astonishingly delectable Beef Tartar with yolk, toasted nori powder, ginger, soy, bird’s eye chillies, peanuts and cilantro and served with potato chips. Try the Curried Oxtail with dukkha-seasoned (Egyptian spice blend) sweet potato gnocchi, candied ginger cream, parsnip chips and curried tomato butter or Lamb Neck Fries with hand-cut skinny fries, tamarind raita, tandoori salsa, feta cheese and aromatic Rogan Josh gravy.
Sharing plates and appetizers have become the contemporary entrée, with tapas, cicchetti, meze, and other small tastes popping up on menus. Call it the era of the curated tasting menu, or cloud nine, for those diners who want to nosh on it all. Expect to order too much, and finish it all anyway.
I asked White about why the restaurant is named Gilt. She explained how they loved the many iterations of the meaning of the word and how they applied to the restaurant: gilt as in “covered thinly with gold leaf or gold paint” (the restaurant has gold throughout it); as a homonym implying “all things guilty” (guilty pleasures); a female baby pig (pork being a staple and base of their cooking) and as a synonym for premium.
Expect pleasant surprises.
305 King Street West, Kitchener
Sunday to Wednesday: 11:30 am–10:00 pm
Thursday to Saturday: 11:30 am–late