The damp, the rain, the leaves and the cool weather:…
Dinner for two with wine and several shared plates: $90-$100
* * *
The name might stumble off of your tongue slightly (Mih-Gee-Dah; we won’t worry about the accent), but the flavours of Miijidaa will certainly satisfy. The new Guelph cafe | bistro is part of the Neighbourhood Group of restaurants which includes Kitchener’s Borealis Grille. Located in downtown Guelph — in the former Ox restaurant space — Miijidaa has been open several weeks now, and their approach is a unique one.
In as close a translation as is possible, miijidaa is an Ojibway word that means “let’s eat!” or “come to the table!” (think: bon appétit!). Though the word closely identifies the restaurant with original First Nations peoples, influences extend much more broadly to the country’s full cultural (read European) history: that is, the menu also makes space for Nordic, Portuguese, French and British explorers and their contribution to things culinary.
In the impossibility, perhaps, of defining what is “Canadian cuisine,” Miijidaa takes an eclectic approach. The menu holds elk dishes, kale dishes (‘”dinosaur” kale, ‘cuz dinosaurs once ruled here ;o)), a delicious Portuguese piri piri cauliflower dish, bannock (including bannock beignets), a Scotch egg, Arctic char, pemmican, hay-smoked ingredients, tourtière and sugar pie. There are lots of craft beers and only Ontario wines on the menu, as far as I can see.
Anticipating that the initiative might get some push-back with the idea that a culture has been appropriated, co-owner Bob Desautels says that they spoke with various First Nations groups and individuals.
“As we were opening,” says Desautels, “I met with the Indigenous Learning Circle Guelph and they were ecstatic with what we are doing to the point that last night they held their meeting here.”
Desautels adds that, subject to the various approvals needed, they will erect a plaque that identifies the location as part of a much larger First Nations territory dating to 200 years ago or more and covering a huge expense of land.
When you look around Miijidaa, the sense you get from the decor is one of a tempered, respectful homage to First Peoples through their art. It’s there and attractive but not over done — and they’ve taken advantage of a “blessing of coincidence,” as Desautels calls it. “A Guelph doctor I know came up to me at the Wooly [the Neighbourhood Group’s Woolwich Arrow pub] with an offer of a dozen lithographs that he had purchased in Sioux Lookout over 20 years ago. He couldn’t use them and gave them to us.”
There are also Tom Thomson reproductions that serve as acoustic baffling on one wall, and Desautels says that they will be hanging prints of Montreal-born abstract expressionist Jean-Paul Riopelle. “It will take us from the founding people to a 20th-century break-through artist who inspired the Group of Seven to a modernist in Riopelle,” he points out.
The visual aspects of the restaurant aside, the Miijidaa menu is overseen by Shea Robinson, a chef who has spent several years cooking in Waterloo Region at a number of restaurants. Robinson is becoming a student of the cuisine, and he’s energized by the learning that is before him. He’s also a partner in the restaurant.
The menu moves from snacks, soil, land, sea, flats and sweets. You might observe in it a loose allusions to a sort of Nordic cuisine — something entirely possible given the nature of Canada’s terrain from coast to coast to coast.
A pemmican burger is made with elk and duck, blueberry preserve, organic lettuces, and spiced waffle-like gaufrettes. It’s served on a Grain Revolution bun: baker-owner Dave McRae bakes downstairs at Miijidaa and makes use of Canadian Red Fife grain — which, we have to add, he mills in little German-made counter-top mill. It’s very cool.
Duck breast is also hay-smoked and served with swiss chard, marinated fingerling spuds, cranberry and ginger gastrique along with salsify, also known as oyster plant. A tap root, salsify has a gentle oyster flavour; I’ve seen it only rarely on menus, the last times being at Canoe in Toronto, at Uptown 21 in Waterloo, if I recall, and at a restaurant in California, where I’m sure it was growing right outside the restaurant’s back door. Robinson prepares it sous vide with milk.
Fries are thrice-fried after having undergone a sous vide bath and before being cooked from frozen: there is a crisp exterior and a soft potato interior in the time and effort.
Ricotta dumplings are prepared with artichokes, swiss chard and foraged pesto — that’s delicious but the unique quality comes from a cured egg yolk that Robinson spends a lot of time nurturing and curing, days in fact: it is then shaved onto the dumplings and has the look of grated Parmesan and perhaps just the slightest hint of its flavour. (But might that be a trompe l’oeil of the power of suggestion?) A corn shoot garnish is added.
Bannock — what might be know as camp bread — is served with cultured butter. A dense, unleavened dough, it was a staple of northern English and Scottish settlers. The little balls might benefit from a flatter shape to facilitate cooking.
Robinson gets the balance right with the salt application and hay-smoking of Arctic char that is served with crisp, slightly caramelized gaufrettes (“hashtag potatoes,” the restaurant jokes). It’s quite a good snack, indeed.
Puffed wild rice — a technique Robinson has been playing with — is scrumptious. Wild rice, of course, is not rice but a native grass. It’s delicious and fun and would likely make for a nice and lighter crouton for salads.
A chicken liver pâté makes use of gin from Dillon’s Small-Batch Distillers as a gelée. The herbaceous, vegetal undertones are pleasing and remain subtle background to the earthier pâté. PEI mussels are served with chorizo sausage — a nod to the Portuguese and the east coast — made by Trotter’s Butcher Shop and Charcuterie of Guelph. The chorizo was too “dusty” and granular — Robinson says they working with the small boutique butcher to evolve the sausage.
A Canadian “flat” (pizza) is seasonal with tomato sauce, mozzarella, peameal, basil — and roasted peaches. The fruit serves the flat very well and makes for a lovely contrast with the saltier peameal and the acidity in the sauce. The crust needs only a slightly deeper colour and charring to give more visual appeal and a richer flavour.
I’ll be interested in seeing how Miijidaa evolves as it finds its feet as a new entry to the Guelph restaurant scene. It’s off to a very good start. The decor is warm and woody and welcoming with beautiful art; the service and front-of-house staff at Neighbourhood Group restaurants are competent and well-trained and they seem to care about what the kitchen is doing. They have the benefit of their cafe in the front and their adjacency with the book store next door as shared space: that arrangement is a Guelph anchor.
The field for cooking is a wide open one — the entire country and its history, in fact. There are many possibilities here, and I for one am glad that they are recognizing and drawing on all of Canada’s cultural past, especially that of our First Nations. The values of Miijidaa are the same as those of Borealis venues and the Wooly, for which Desautels paints his own picture. “We have five principles of why we buy local,” he says. “It’s like the trunk of a tree onto which you graft any fruit and it comes out in a different incarnation.”
* * *