BY JONATHON BARRABALL
On a recent afternoon, just outside downtown Guelph in the Royal City’s mature – majestic, even – Exhibition Park neighbourhood, TOQUE’s Chris Tiessen and I sat down to a sumptuous lunch at Park Grocery, the newest project of The Neighbourhood Group (whose other restaurants include The Wooly, Borealis and Miijidaa). As soon as we stepped through the front doors, located right on the corner of Woolwich and London, we were enveloped by the aroma of smoked meat and I knew we were in for an afternoon of good eating. And so did Chris, remarking: ‘I hope you came hungry. Because we’re gonna do this.’
After we took our seats in the bright and cozy dining room (decorated with what has got to be the region’s most photogenic floral print wallpaper), we were joined by Court Desautels, CEO of the Neighbourhood Group and visionary behind this, the Group’s latest venture, which had only recently opened its doors.
While we sipped local beer (a Fixed Gear Alley Cat IPA for me and Wellington Upside IPA for Chris) and began to chat, Court flipped through an original ledger book that had been found on the premises, and showed us records of sales for briskets, pork loins, and whole chickens dating back to 1906 when Park Grocery was a meat market. ‘The whole concept of this place is to pay homage to its heritage,’ noted Court. ‘To bring back the neighbourhood grocer feel to this part of town. And, of course,’ he added, ‘to serve up some delicious regionally-sourced meats, sandwiches and sides.’ I couldn’t help thinking that it was a bit surreal to be waiting for a platter of brisket and pork belly in a spacethat has provided such things for so many others for so many years.
As for the food – it was a dizzying array of soul satisfying smoked meats, hearty fresh salads, and an enticing array of other delicious accompaniments. All served on metal platters with deli paper. The Portuguese-style chicken was entirely addictive, tender meat under perfectly crispy skin with a zingy piri piri sauce. Pork belly, after a three-day brine, was slow roasted to perfection, and the BBQ braised pulled mushrooms, a meat alternative, were equally satisfying.
The true star, though, was the brisket. Marinated for twenty four hours and smoked for twelve, this notoriously difficult-to-cook cut of beef was perfect: an insanely flavourful crust capped a juicy interior, the fat rendered so precisely that each piece melted joyfully away in my mouth. ‘You want this last bit?’, Chris asked me as we approached the finish line. His fork already hovering over the bit of brisket, I gestured for him to take it. Which he happily did. Food finished and beers consumed, we then did what any stuffed-to-the-brim, fully-satisfied patrons of a restaurant like Park Grocery would do: we chased it all down with milkshakes. Strawberry for me. Chocolate for Chris. Each topped with mountainous whipped cream and colourful sprinkles hiding my childlike, ear-to-ear grin.
All of which raises the question: what is a restaurant? There are many ways to answer. Park Grocery gives insight into how a restaurant can be a textured embodiment of time and place: an acknowledging (and fascinating) glance to the past, a material (and delicious) expression of the present – and an inspired (and inspiring) vanguard for a positive future.
While the focus on past and present at Park Grocery strikes a beautiful harmony, the place is also a compelling expression of a new era of sustainable culinary enterprise. Aware of the transient nature of restaurant employment, Park Grocery pays its cooks and servers living wages and is working towards bringing health benefits to their staff. And through their rewards program, The Neighbourhood Club, Park Grocery and its restaurant siblings encourage community development and put money into local charities and initiatives.
294 Woolwich St., Guelph