Birthdays have always been just numbers to me, at least in my adult years.
I don’t need or expect gifts. Big parties? Nah.
Not much is considered customary on the so-called big day anymore.
Except food. That’s how I celebrate.
Birthday dinners have always been special to me. I thank my late mother for that.
Every year, she would ask what I wanted. It varied in my younger days, but I once asked for steak, hashbrown casserole, and chocolate cake with Smarties or sprinkles on top. I never looked back after that, and Mom stopped asking. She knew.
She died in 2017, but I get a sweet reminder of her, thanks to my good friends, Linda and Chris, who recreate that birthday feast for me every year with the help of their two young kids. The casserole Linda makes is the closest one could come to my mom’s recipe, which includes a crispy topping of crushed corn flakes drizzled with butter before going into the oven.
It’s a rather humble meal. Comfort food. And it is typically a belated affair. So, on my birthday, I’m usually seeking out something I love. Elevated food, as all those TV cooking competition judges say.
Last year, I celebrated at Tent Kitchen and Bar. I knew chef Dave Palarajah would not disappoint. The meal itself seemed like a birthday gift: pan-seared halibut with oxtail, broccolini, pearl couscous and fried chorizo.
I was tempted this year, for my 40th birthday, to go to Tent again, but then I remembered there was a relatively new restaurant in Orillia I had not yet been to, and it had been getting rave reviews.
Chef Kalvin Sherry and Sarah Butler have transformed the dining area at Swanmore Hall on the Leacock Museum grounds, taking it from a hit-and-miss café to a home-run dining experience called FARE.
It’s difficult to pin down a specific type of cuisine at the restaurant. It takes comfort food to new levels with dishes like a French-cut pork chop and a burger that features a blend of bison and chuck.
The vibrancy of Asian and Hawaiian cuisine can also be found in the Korean nacho skillet and the tuna poke, respectively.
The menu is not all over the place, however. It’s populated with just enough options and international flair to show off Sherry’s skills in the kitchen.
I dine out often but usually don’t splurge — unless it’s my birthday. I know I said birthdays are just numbers, but I might have used 40 to convince myself it was OK to go big this time.
First up was the tuna poke. This dish featuring tiny, marinated cubes of raw tuna with seaweed, pickled cucumber and carrot was a delicious start to dinner, cleverly served with crispy wonton to give it some needed crunch.
My main course was next and, having reassured myself — “It’s fine. This is a big day. You’re 40!” — I opted for the priciest dish on the menu. It wasn’t because of the price; it was because it was beef tenderloin and I wanted to see how Sherry, who I already knew was a fantastic chef, cooked one of my favourite cuts of meat.
I took one bite and then leaned back in my chair. I needed a minute. I knew after that first taste it was the best tenderloin I’d had. Sure, everything else on the plate was wonderful — the whipped potato, heirloom carrots, crispy shallots, and creamy peppercorn sauce — but the meat did all the talking.
Also, what’s a birthday without a cocktail? Most diners that night were sipping beer and wine, and eyes turned my way when the server brought me a gin-based lingonberry sour. There aren’t any photos on the menu, so you don’t know what these drinks will look like. This one was a spectacle.
It came in a shallow bowl of a glass and the cocktail itself was a bright pinkish red with an egg-white topping that served as a pillow for a slice of lemon. It was almost too beautiful to drink. Almost.
My experience at FARE was a great way to cap my big day.
But, as tasty and expertly crafted as everything was, it wasn’t my mom’s steak, hashbrown casserole, and chocolate cake. Linda assures me another belated birthday dinner based on the meal my mom lovingly made for me for years is on the horizon. Then, we can really celebrate.
Nathan Taylor is the central news desk editor for Village Media. He writes a local food and drink column for OrilliaMatters.