Finding his voice: Darnell Gregg at Fistro Bistro Cambridge

Finding his voice: Darnell Gregg at Fistro Bistro Cambridge

Fistro Supper Club and Bistro
175 Beverly Street
Cambridge, ON  N1R 7Y9
519.543.0750
info@fistrobistro.com

Table d’Hote for two: $90
Open: Daily

*****

I have eaten Darnell Gregg’s cooking for what must be nearly a decade — and he’s only 27 years old. The former sous chef at Langdon Hall has a new venue in which to sauté, grill, sauce, perhaps sous vide and otherwise sling pans around in Cambridge: Fistro Supper Club and Bistro.

Gregg has always shown great knowledge of and sensibility to ingredients and making them into dishes that taste good and look good. And so he should: he’s trained, of course, with some excellent chefs at the Relais et Chateaux property Langdon Hall that reached the Pellegrino top 100 restaurants in the world. But now more than ever, Gregg is able to share his passion for food and cooking as head of his own kitchen at Fistro.

The young, up-and-coming cook
Kitchener-born Gregg attended Resurrection High School and was working at Langdon even before he attended Humber College for culinary training. He returned to Langdon as entremetier after chef school. He says he loves being able to cook for guests in Cambridge, whether that was Langdon or now at Fistro.

“We are flexible here and I really like the idea of cooking real food and cooking it properly with a reasonable price and in a pleasant atmosphere,” Gregg says. “I want to serve the kind of food that the best cooks in Waterloo Region might cook on their day off. We’re local without hitting you over the head with it. We’re trying to be eco-friendly without going over the top or advertising that.”

Gregg describes the menu as straightforward when it comes to flavour profiles and the types of dishes that many people don’t — or can’t — take the time to cook at home.

Gregg plating beets and steak and eggs (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

Gregg plating beets and steak and eggs (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

What I find important to note here is that Gregg is a local cook who spent long and demanding hours learning his trade and he’s now running his own kitchen. He could have gone off to a larger centre — having been trained at one of Canada’s top restaurants — but he didn’t. In doing so, he’s helping the industry here grow and deepen in strength.

“I’ve done the day-to-day operations before, but this is the first time that I have ever been maybe the most powerful voice in the kitchen. I’m proud of the team we’ve hired — Paul Gauthier, Colin Morrison, Kyle Redfearn — I didn’t think we’d have a chance to be able to hire them, but we’ve got some great professional cooks here. They know their stuff, and we bounce ideas off of each other.” 

The restaurant
Fistro owner Chris Farrell, a restaurant industry veteran, has set up a bit of a hidden gem behind a series of frosted windows in an unassuming strip plaza at the corner of Beverly and Dundas. Inside, the bistro has simple sleek lines, no table-clothes, a five- or six-seat bar, a large communal table and a couple of walls of subway tiles. There is an interest in Champagne and sparkling wine. The service is engaged, knowledgeable and comfortable with table-side talk. On the menu, there are a half dozen or so coffee cocktails, including a particularly knock-you-over-rich chef’s eponymously named hot chocolate with peppermint Schnapps and whipped cream. Brunch is served starting at 10 a.m. on both days of the weekend. There is also a late night menu and live music on some nights as well.

Two views of Fistro dining room (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

Two views of Fistro dining room (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

The supper club element of the business is a unique one, drawing on the tiffin or dubbawalla system of containers that are part of the food-delivery landscape in India. You join the club as a member (there are no fees to join, but there is a refundable deposit on the stainless steel tiffin) and order meals (by noon the day before ) for pickup. The menus change regularly with allergy and vegetarian options.

The dishes
The goal for the restaurant is simply to take good ingredients and cook them well, and cooking “simply” isn’t as easy as you might think. Gregg has worked hard to achieve that, and you can tell that he truly enjoys the craft of cooking.

Appetizers include seared albacore tuna accompanied by saffron, onion and ale soup, and smoked beets in a lemon vinaigrette. Also on this menu, there is a wild rice and white fish crêpe with an onion soubise, the latter a subtle, velvety béchamel-based sauce.

He creates a wonderful roasted pumpkin salad that is cooked to create appreciable texture and body. Right now, in this season, Gregg is interested in squash and pumpkin and adorns the latter with toasted pepitas and marinated chilies and smooths it with a softening crème fraîche. He plates simply and with an attractive artistry without being fussy.

Gregg’s beef tartare is fresh and vibrant and with the acidity of the ravigote sauce (see this earlier post) that gives it a nice balance. (I say more tartare in Waterloo Region!) He has fun with delicious fried chicken-skin “chips” with a chili-infused honey that makes for a crisp roasted and satisfying bite that is impossible not to gobble with abandon. None of the dinner mains is over $27 making it an accessible menu for a casual upscale restaurant.

Trout with cauliflower (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

Trout with cauliflower (Photo: Fistro Bistro).

At $45, the table d’hote menu is a four course (with amuse) affair that is difficult to choose among. The amuse is a triad of turnip puree as foundation for finely shaved radish and a bit of torn raspberry finished with a roasted onion and juniper vinaigrette. With snow outside, this has a Canadian and even Nordic personality. The little morsels are tantalizing bites with allied and contrasting flavours — it’s a happy thing that there are three of them so you can get a real taste of what is going on. (I also say more amuses in Waterloo Region too!)

As I’ve said, fall and winter ask for squashes, and Gregg knows it: the roasted butternut squash soup has an Indian undertone with its partner of spiced pumpkin chutney that is nicely noticeable in its pie flavouring — and which wards off the blustery night outside — without being overpowering. The spice arrives on your tongue late but settles easily.

Braised lamb shank is rich and not ridiculously tender that it has no body or chew and sits upon a fine and creamy polenta made even richer with the addition of the lamb braising liquid and bit of Parmesan making it another perfect wintery dish. Wilted kale offers colour, texture and a grassy component, while cooked figs and saffron butter complete the earthy range of flavours.

“It’s comfort food to me,” Gregg says of the lamb, and who wouldn’t agree? “The figs and saffron make it wintry but also very warm and inviting,” he adds. “I see them as luxurious too, especially at this time of the year.”

Gregg says the twice-baked sweet potato with seasoned chickpeas, chili jam, Roquefort and celery marinated in white balsamic and lemon is his favourite on this menu. “I’ve actually never done a twice-baked sweet potato before, and I was excited to play around with it,” he says. The attempt worked. It is quite good and a hearty non-meat option with a bit of acid from sherry vinegar and some brown sugar that balances with that richness of the sweet potato that can become almost too rich at times.

Finally, as only makes sense, Fistro desserts are winter-driven as well as “granny-driven:” two large glazed doughnuts are Gregg’s grandmother’s recipe and come with an exuberance of chocolate ganache (almost too exuberant) and a peppy candy cane cream. The banana bread pain perdu is deep banana flavour with the crunch of toasted pecans for texture rounded out by honey butter. It’s rich and satisfying and not too sweet.

The future
Gregg says that Fistro Bistro is filling a niche in Cambridge: he’s right. And it’s and important dynamic with young chefs being able to find their voice that we need in order to draw more attention to Waterloo Region as the food landscape continues to grow. Kudos to Farrell for his key part in building the restaurant. 

Gregg is a sort of bridge from Langdon, and he recognizes that that experience has given him the ability to do what he’s doing now. “My resume features only five positions in total, and Langdon Hall was 10 years of my life. They taught me how to cook and how to cook properly. I can’t believe how lucky I got to be there starting at 16 years old and learning from both Jonathan Gushue and Jason Bangerter. That experience is totally invaluable.”

He represents a new generation of young cooks that will prepare food and create experiences in Waterloo Region. But in carrying with him a culinary history and the fundamental cooking techniques of his teachers that he’s applying in his own kitchen is an important evolution and for Gregg a dream come true, he says. “It’s made me the chef I am today, and I want to move forward  and build on that here.”

*****

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