I’m sure you’re all too young to remember this, but when I was a child, there was a place in most every small Ontario town that was called “the beer parlour.” You could smell its stale, yeasty odour on the street from about a block away and my mother always hurried me by the door, as if I could get some infectious disease if I lingered too long in the vicinity. In fact, I don’t think women were welcomed in those places at all. There always was a separate entrance labelled “Ladies and Escorts” where females (no doubt of dubious morality!) were “allowed” to share the premises with their “dates” and have a drink.
Later on, by the time I became a university student, things sure had changed. The drinking and meeting place was now dubbed “the Pub.” Hoards of students would arrive every Friday and Saturday night to carouse in a noisy, smoke-filled interior redolent of spilled beer, and worse. Decor was bare bones simple (grimy floors and Formica tables) and there was no food served beyond, perhaps, some unshelled peanuts, pickled eggs and sliced kielbasa. The purpose of attending was to become roaring drunk before the place was closed by law at midnight.
Well, enough “nostalgia.” Thank goodness drinking laws and habits have changed for the better and now a pub with pizzazz is a wonderful thing! Which brings me to The Purple Heather Pub, in north Burlington(corner of Walker’s Line and Dundas Street, http://www.thepurpleheather.ca/ — a comfortable place to relax, to have a few drinks, to chat with friends and to eat simple but delicious food. Anyway, that’s the aim of Doug Birrell, one of the owner/operators and general manager of the pub which also happens to be a new and important member of our Go Cooking team.
Birrell purchased the Pub with his partners in 2013, but he has also worked with the original owner since 2010. He has been part of the restaurant business all of his life — from doorman, to bartender, to DJ — and has been managing restaurants for the last 8 years. Times have changed, he notes, and there is a need to be very aware of economics these days since, over the last 10 years, profit margins in restaurants have declined to paper thin. Partly, he believes, this is due to the economy, but it’s also that our drinking/driving laws and smoking restrictions have affected business. Essentially, restaurants used to be able to make healthy profits from the bar. Now, the quality of the food has become equally important and managers have to be on top of everything. The Purple Heather Pub has evolved, changing with the times, although one of the changes that didn’t work out, Birrell laughs, was re-branding the establishment “The Purple Heather Gastro Pub.” When a customer asked if “Gastro” meant “Would they have a sore stomach after eating there?”, the re-naming of the Pub was re-thought.
The revised vision of the Pub is as a food, music and sports destination. Loyalty programs and discounts are offered to police, veterans and sports teams. Special events include live music on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday afternoons there is a blues matinee, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m, with Johnny Max, which finishes “just in time for dinner!” And I should mention that I omitted the Purple Heather listing as a Robbie Burns’ Eve participant.
This Saturday, January 25th, the Pub will host a Robbie Burns’ dinner which will include both haggis and cock-a-leekie soup.
Birrell has never been a chef but has a personal passion for cooking. It’s an interest in menus and presentation that comes through in the restaurant side of the Pub.
“We made some minor renovations to the restaurant,” he says, “to make it warmer and cosier and we built a privacy wall to separate the restaurant from the bar so that it is not as noisy. There is always a challenge with a bar area. There can be a healthy buzz and background music, but it needs to be quiet enough for people to talk.”
And the restaurant’s menu reflects the management’s desire to move the dining classification from “pub grub” to “casual fine dining.” The signature dish is still that old pub favorite, fish and chips. But perch is used instead of haddock just to take the dish up a notch. The other big seller, according to Birrell, is lobster mac’ and cheese; again, nothing really exotic but also something pretty special. In an effort to further elevate the dining experience, the pub now features a wine of the month and each week, the chosen wine is paired with something different on the menu. For instance, the latest wine was a Columbia Crest Amitage (from Washington State, in the U.S) and it was successfully paired with duck breast, grilled rib eye and lamb shanks. The house wines are an Australian shiraz and chardonnay.
The lamb shanks were on the menu for our Tuesday night Go Cooking session where the cooking honours were shared by the culinary team of Gordon Dyson and Paul Baker. The rich, tender meat was perfectly suited to our bitter wintry weather. So here’s their recipe, if you’d like to try to make the dish for yourselves.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary
6 lamb shanks (about 5 pounds total)
salt and pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, small dice
3 large carrots, peeled, small dice
3 stalks celery, small dice
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 750 ml bottle dry red wine
1 liter beef broth
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes with juice
5 tsps. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tsps. chopped fresh thyme
2 tsps. grated lemon peel
1) Sprinkle shanks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add shanks to pot and cook until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer shanks to bowl.
2) Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic to pot and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in all remaining ingredients. Return shanks to pot, pressing down to submerge. Bring liquids to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover. Simmer until meat is tender, about 2 hours.
3) Uncover pot. Simmer until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes longer. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill until cold. Cover and keep chilled. Rewarm over medium heat before continuing.) Transfer shanks to platter; tent with foil. Boil juices in pot until thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over meat and serve.