Spring brings fresh take on menus, writes Andrew Coppolino

While widespread local spring fruits and vegetables are still a few weeks away, spring dishes and drinks are already popping up on restaurant menus in Waterloo region. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino looks at what's new.
Lobster ravioli at Swine & Vine in Kitchener, Ont. is a peek ahead into the start of the popular crustacean season. (Denis Hernandez/Swine & Vine)

Winter weather always hangs on a little bit longer than we may like, but that doesn't stop restaurants from starting to roll out their spring suggestions.

Local menus are starting to see spring dishes and beverages pop up despite the odd snowflake in the forecast. You can find several offerings in and around the region (please check with individual venues for dish availability and hours of opening).

Pasta primavera – the Italian word for "spring" –  is a celebration of light and fresh ingredients, so let's start there. Restaurants often have variations on the theme for this dish: Find a cream version at Rustico, while Casa Rugantino serves angel-hair pasta with a fresh tomato-basil sauce.

Levetto's pasta pomodoro is similarly a light tomato sauce for their house-made pasta. At Vivo, orecchiette con rapini is "ear-shaped" pasta with the green vegetable, olive oil, garlic and chili pepper flakes.

Ocean influence

Fish and chips are  popular for the Easter weekend but when the weather gets warmer, many restaurants add a lighter fish dish or two. The Cambridge Mill serves a tagliatelle pasta with shrimp, lobster and tomato – rich but still light.

Pirooz Jafari at Elixir Bistro will serve salmon and octopus dishes as well as bouillabaisse (the Provençal fish stew) and pan-seared scallops.

At Swine & Vine, chef Denis Hernandez is taking advantage of the first peek of lobster season with lobster ravioli and house-made ricotta, confit fennel and a vanilla bisque.

"Lobster is coming into season, and all these flavours are very light and spring-forward," Hernandez says.

In downtown Kitchener, Ellison's Bistro owner Elvis Ellison says he will roll out a number of Caribbean island dish specials this spring, including a chicken with a ginger-cream sauce.

Using their noodles

Filipino and southeast Asian food and catering specialists Jin-Hee Song and Katrina Tioco of Gayuma are planning a "Fully Loaded" fresh noodle bowl – they say details are coming.

The noodles made at Crafty Ramen in downtown Kitchener are 'sheeted' — a process of laminating the dough two or three times, which stretches the gluten. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Crafty Ramen, with both Kitchener and Guelph locations, will have special spring ramen bowls on the menu, including vegan options.

Spring mornings

If starting morning fresh and new counts, downtown Kitchener's Yeti Café has a new banana-oat pancake breakfast with maple syrup (an early local harvest) and berries. The pancakes are vegan and gluten-free, according to Yeti's Victoria Kent.

"Enjoying this dish on a warm spring day is divine, especially after the long cold winter we've just had," Kent said. 

At Dana Shortt Gourmet Waterloo, you'll find mango-coconut scones and a caramelized apple and rosemary French toast breakfast pudding new on the menu.

The banana-oat pancakes with maple syrup (an early local harvest) and berries is a vegan and gluten-free breakfast spring addition to the menu at Yeti, in Kitchener, Ont. (Victoria Kent/Yeti Cafe)

For all food operations, planning and executing a new menu is a lot of work. Saddy Kulafi at Jack's Family Restaurant near St. Jacobs Market re-booted his breakfast menu last year during Covid-19 but is promoting it again this year.

"We did a big breakfast overhaul, but it felt like many people missed it with the pandemic and didn't get to try the dishes," Kulafi said.

Included are avocado toast and poached eggs, strawberry-banana French toast and strawberry and cream French toast.

Spring drinks

As for new beverages, there are both alcohol and non-alcohol varieties. Scott Pautler, owner and brewmaster at Wave Maker Craft Brewery in Cambridge, says they are releasing a series of sour beers based on fruit such as "Lemon Sour Candies."

"We also are releasing a sports-themed IPA called Defence," he said. It sounds perfect for the upcoming baseball season.

Kitchener's TWB Brewery has four spring beers now available – one with a fitting name and punctuation – "Spring! White IPA."

"It's a blend between a hoppy IPA and a Belgian wit. There's clove, slight lime, tropical fruit and we throw in some lemongrass at the end of boil. It's the perfect beer for drinking and dreaming of the warm months ahead," according to TWB's Aleksandra Szaflarska.

At Wellington Brewery, their new "Welly Mix Volume 10" four-pack is available at the LCBO and includes a new pineapple gose sour and "All Weather Is Passing" kveik (a brewing yeast) IPA.

The Hot-Lime Bling with coconut sparkling water, cucumber, raspberry and orange from Wilks' Bar at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. (Aaron Hatchell/Wilks' Bar/Langdon Hall)

As for non-alcoholic beverages, check out Aaron Hatchell's creations at Langdon Hall's Wilks' Bar.

"We have several low-alcohol beverage and spirit-free drinks on the menu as of Thursday. One is Hot-Lime Bling with coconut sparkling water, cucumber, raspberry and orange," said Hatchell.

He will also serving a Seedlip non-alcoholic "gin" cocktail for Earth Day on April 22.

Wellington's "Sparkling Hop Water" has hops but no sugar and no calories, according to Wellington's Brad McInerney.

"It's just hops, water and a touch of brewer's yeast and citric acid to make the magic happen," he said. "It's crisp, lively and full of refreshing citrus-hop character."

Sweet spring

Finally, as for seasonal sweets, look to three of the world's great religions.

At Passover, which comes to an end in the evening on April 4, coconut and chocolate macaroons are common sweets – made by local baker Sweets by Marev – as well as candied nuts or rock sugar candy.

But there is also a new addition, according to Rabbi Moshe Goldman of Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life.

"Chocolate-covered matzah is a recent but beloved treat as well," he said.

Look also for kunafeh and ma'amoul which, according to Jawad Ghabra of Shawerma Plus in Waterloo, play an important role in Syria.

"For Arabs, and specifically Syrians, ma'amoul and kunafeh are popular desserts in many celebrations," he said, adding that Shawerma Plus sells kunafeh by the pre-order only.

Elsewhere, Chic Pea Middle Eastern Kitchen in Waterloo has kunafa and Kitchener's Arabesque Family Restaurant has a kunafa dessert made with fresh cheese and phyllo and topped with homemade syrup.

As for ma'amoul, Oma World Foods and Ammar Halal Meats and other Middle Eastern food purveyors sell the butter cookie, which is popular across the Arabian Peninsula: they're part of Eid-al-Fitr and iftar observances during Ramadan (starting April 12) and at Easter for Christians.

"We have many varieties of ma'amoul in many sizes and with different fillings and flavours," said Faaez Al-hendi of Ammar.

And here's the pro tip: "They go very nicely with tea."