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COLUMN: 'Culinary MacGyver' makes local ingredients shine (6 photos)

At Orillia's Eclectic Café, chef Melanie Robinson is all about supporting local producers while crafting creative dishes

There are few places where I’d feel just as comfortable telling a chef to “surprise me” as I would deciding on something from the menu. Eclectic Café is one of those places.

I’ve always been a fairly adventurous eater, but if I see a dish that seems a little out there, with components that don’t seem like they should go together, I’m liable to pass.

Melanie Robinson, however, has a knack for making the unexpected palatable at her Eclectic Café in downtown Orillia.

I learned this the first time I tried her food when she was operating inside the late, great Carousel Collectables, and it still holds true.

Did you know tomato is a fruit? Did you know it can pair well with peaches in a salad? I knew the former, but not the latter. Chef Mel knew both, so she put Tomato is a Fruit on her menu. It mixes Niagara peaches, local heirloom tomatoes, pesto-marinated bocconcini, red wine vinaigrette, sweet balsamic, croutons and herbs.

Seems like it could be a hot mess. It isn’t. The acidity of the tomatoes cuts through the sweetness of the peaches to lay the foundation of a balanced bite.

“What grows together goes together,” Robinson said.

A major part of the appeal at Eclectic Café is the local focus. Robinson could save a lot of money by purchasing all of her produce and other ingredients at a place like Costco.

Instead, she loudly and proudly uses goods from local farmers and producers, including Fifty Acre Garden in Oro-Medonte, Quaker Oaks in Sebright and Dragon Acres in Ramara.

She also carries Sap Sucker, which is a sparkling tree water canned in Ontario, Collingwood Kombucha, and drinks from Guelph’s Hitchhiker Beverage Company. (Try the iced tea.)

“I want the dollars to go back into our local community, to the people that come in and support my business,” she said.

It’s a win-win. Buying from local producers also allows Robinson to use fresh ingredients, including those from Aquatic Growers. The Severn Bridge operation uses aquaponics to grow produce all year.

“It’s some of the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen,” Robinson said.

One farm cannot meet all of her needs, though, which is why her menu changes with the seasons. She introduced the latest fare with a harvest flair last week. It includes the Don’t Be Corny soup, Summer Chicken Had Me a Blast, the Peachy-Keen flatbread and the aforementioned Tomato is a Fruit salad.

Peaches are featured in a number of dishes on the new menu, but Robinson makes it interesting by preparing them in different ways.

She did the same with the beet-berry salad. It had roasted golden beets, pickled red beets and spiralled beets, paired with Ontario strawberries, feta cheese, watercress, champagne Dijon vinaigrette and — here’s what took it to the next level — toasted quinoa. But that was on the previous menu. You missed it. If we’re lucky, it will return next year.

I was surprised by what the toasted quinoa did for that salad — and surprised that I would get so excited about the humble quinoa — so I had to ask where the idea came from.

“I always look in my pantry first, and this is what anyone should do when making something,” Robinson said.

Turns out she had “a ton of quinoa” in her pantry.

It provided a crunchy texture to the salad, and Robinson is always thinking of textures when composing a dish. She takes a similar approach with the new menu item, Losing My Rind, a worthy successor of the beet-berry salad. It combines watermelon, feta, pickled blueberries, torn basil, arugula, toasted sunflower seeds and a creamy poppy seed dressing.

She’s a “culinary MacGyver.” She said it herself. She also proved it when she won Chopped Canada in 2016.

On the Food Network show, competitors are given a few ingredients that seem less than harmonious and are tasked with creating something that will please the judges. Some tripped up when they had to work with lobster bisque. Robinson stood firm.

She knew immediately what to do with it. A restaurant she used to work for regularly used it as a sauce. So, she thickened it and made it a sauce.

“People can get hung up on what an ingredient is instead of what it could be,” she said.

Robinson is most inspired by the cuisines of Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but hers is not an Asian restaurant or a Middle Eastern restaurant or a Mediterranean restaurant. There’s really no theme to her menu.

Want a grilled cheese? She has you covered. Want a strawberry strudel? (You do. Trust me.) She has that, too. Want the Banh Mel? She can do that. It’s her take on the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich.

While the menu is, well, eclectic, you might be noticing one theme: the punny names. Why not try the Breaking Baaaaaad (because lamb) or the Un-brie-lievable sandwich (because brie) or the house salad? OK, that one’s not funny.

It’s all part of Robinson’s goal to make Eclectic Café a comfortable, welcoming place for customers and staff alike.

She has worked in the type of traditional, highly regimented kitchen that had an executive chef, sous chef, chef garde manger, saucier, etc.

With Eclectic Café, she decided, “Let’s not take ourselves so seriously.”

“We just want to cook really good food with really good ingredients, which is exactly what Julia Child always said,” she remarked. “It’s not meant to be stuffy and pretentious. It’s meant to be fun and easygoing.”

And, of course, local.

“We’ve always wanted to be the café with heart,” she said. “That’s been the underlying motto, whether it’s supporting charities, farmers, other women in business — whatever it is.”

So, if you’re supporting locally focused restaurants like Eclectic Café, you’re ultimately supporting the community.

The good stuff

Most popular: the Big Turk sandwich and the Eclectic Reuben sandwich (which is why both remain on the menu year-round).

Melanie Robinson’s favourite: “Whatever dish showcases the peak of the season.”

My favourite: Do I have to choose? It’s a tie between the Big Turk sandwich and the Losing My Rind salad. Just get both.

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Nathan Taylor is a reporter at OrilliaMatters. 





Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is an experienced multimedia journalist and editor who covers Orillia and other parts of Simcoe County.
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