Simcoe's foodie offerings are sensational!
It’s 6:00 pm on an ordinary September Wednesday night and the restaurant is packed; buzzing in fact, and reservations and tables are juggled with the delicate hand of the hostess. It’s a scene that would be more fitting in Toronto or Montreal late on a Friday night, but it’s happening in the heart of humble Simcoe, in Ontario’s Norfolk County.
Norfolk County is reputed as Canada’s finest farm land, but it isn't resting on its laurels. Lavender, ginseng, heritage beef, peanuts, and hops are all taking their place beside traditional crops and restaurants are embracing produce old and new to make the farm-to-table movement less of a trend and more of a lifestyle.
I appreciate businesses that support local farmers – and I REALLY appreciate a good meal – and I was looking forward to visiting Simcoe’s latest restaurant, the newly opened "The Combine". Set in a beautiful, country-inspired property with its own herb garden out back and a wood-burning oven in the retro-fitted kitchen, The Combine is spot on as a combination community kitchen and centre for cutting edge cuisine.
Time For Cocktails!
We started with humble, delicious bread from another Norfolk gem, the Good Bread Company, and tried some of The Combine’s creative cocktails. My rosé and rosemary sangria, made with local wine, peaches, and herbs from the restaurant’s garden, was delicious. Ryan went out on a creative limb to try the Bloody Beer, which combined a local pilsner, tomato juice, bitters, lime and pickle juice, and a smoked salt rim. As I dislike beer, tomato juice, and pickles, this was definitely not the drink for me! Ryan’s reaction was a bit more receptive, but ultimately it wasn’t really his cup of tea – perhaps a libation best reserved for brunch instead of dinner.
Our main courses were nothing short of spectacular. Ryan enjoyed the short ribs (supplied by local YU Ranch) – in fact, it seemed he enjoyed them rather too much, as he was looking at those ribs with a kind of misty eyed love he once reserved for me! I had the brick oven cooked local lake trout, which was extremely fresh and perfectly cooked. It came with grilled bok choy, a veggie I’m not normally a big fan of but in this case I found it delicious – a nice mix of smoky, crispy, soft, and salty.
We were bursting full but unwilling to give up on dessert, so we made plans to return later in the evening after fulfilling another commitment. I am so glad we returned! I had warm, homemade churros, coated in cinnamon sugar and dipped in dulce de leche. Ryan chose the brick oven apple pie (which was massive!). The best part of the apple pie was the inclusion of PEI Cows' Avonlea Clothbound cheddar cheese baked on the top. This is our favourite cheese, a national award winner, and it was fantastic to see it included on the menu. I loved that the dessert menu didn't just rely on chocolate desserts. I am, of course, a real chocolate lover, but I think a restaurant has extra moxie to not let it dominate the dessert menu and instead introduce different flavors to the patrons.
The Combine Sets Itself Above The Rest!
Two interesting things happened while we were snuggling up to our desserts. The chef himself (also named Ryan) brought out a cheese plate for another patron and it was amazing to hear him speak so lovingly about the cheeses (including Cow’s Cheddar, which he described as the best in the country).
The other interesting thing happened when I ordered a hot chocolate while everyone else was asking for coffee and Scotch. I never thought that it wouldn't be on the menu and – hey! – it was late at night and I thought a warm cup would be a nice touch. There was no cocoa in the kitchen and Chef Ryan himself concocted a cup of hot chocolate for me (I suspect some of the ingredients for the chocolate fondue were used!) I was touched that he delivered it to me himself and, of course, it tasted phenomenal.
In the amount of time it takes to wait in the line to get into a trendy bistro somewhere in Toronto, you could drive to Simcoe and be seated at The Combine, easily spending half as much and getting portions twice as large. I loved the combination of friendly, down-to-earth staff and setting and the solid, scrumptious, farm-friendly dishes. Norfolk County is doing such creative, innovative, community focused work on its farms and, as a traveler, it’s inspiring to see that work reflected in so many of the local eateries for all to enjoy.
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Have you ever discovered an amazing restaurant in a small town?
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My meal was included as part of a blog visit to Norfolk County. This did not affect my review and all opinions remain my own.
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