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COLUMN: PICNIC provides one-of-a-kind culinary experience

'What we’re doing is pretty unique to north of Toronto,' says chef at downtown Orillia tapas bar

It’s Sunday. It’s getting late in the day. You’re hungry.

Maybe it’s Monday or Tuesday. Regardless, your seven-day-a-week options for food in Orillia aren’t as plentiful as they once were.

Pandemic-prompted staffing struggles led a number of businesses to reduce their hours and, in some cases, the number of days they were open.

Aside from the lockdowns, PICNIC has been consistent, open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. “’til late.”

It’s a bold move, particularly in a small city, to play closing time by ear, but it seems to work for the tapas spot at 140 Mississaga St. E.

The kitchen is usually open until 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. If it isn’t busy, staff will call it a night.

“We never really felt the need to post closing hours,” said chef Joel Bennett. “Logically, if we’re full, we’re not going to close, but if we’re empty and it’s been empty for a while, we will close.”

Risk is nothing new to Bennett and fellow owners Darcy MacDonell and Simon MacRae. They chose to open PICNIC during the pandemic, after all, in May 2021.

There isn’t anything in the area like PICNIC, though, so they were confident.

“What we’re doing is pretty unique to north of Toronto, really,” Bennett said.

Tapas remains the “pulse” of the place, he explained, though the chef has become more experimental over the past year when creating menu items.

Tapas are meant to be smaller bites, ideal for sharing, with intense flavours.

“It forces us to be a bit more creative,” Bennett said. “If something’s on the plate, it needs to have purpose.”

The menu includes food that might be fit for more adventurous diners — scallop ceviche, foie gras, Spanish anchovies on sourdough toast — but there are ways to ease people in, too.

If someone asks about the mushrooms and manchego, it can be described as, essentially, a grilled cheese, but it’s not a typical grilled cheese. It consists mainly of the meaty portobello mushroom, complemented by the sharp manchego cheese and finished with honey on seared truffled brioche.

Also easy to understand — and even easier to enjoy — is “the cure.” This breakfast-style sandwich includes cured pork, a fried egg, cheddar, and barbecue sauce on brioche.

The barbecue sauce is relatively new. When Bennett debuted the sandwich, it came with hot sauce instead of barbecue sauce, but he realized that wasn’t for everyone. (It was definitely for me.) For those who prefer it with hot sauce, the request can be accommodated.

Bennett’s culinary creativity is a product of years of work and inspirational mentors.

His understanding of spices, oils and vinegars was strengthened during his time in Montreal as an apprentice for a chef from Morocco.

When Bennett moved to Toronto, one of his mentors was a chef from India, furthering his passion for finding the perfect spices.

During his time with Oliver and Bonacini, he was able to receive feedback from some of the best chefs around, which helped him build “flavour snapshots” that worked for him.

Experience those snapshots for yourself at PICNIC. Visit when you’re hungry, and with friends, for the best experience.

PICNIC also has a weekly wine club that has grown in popularity. The owners try to find varieties that aren’t easily available on liquor store shelves. Some are “a little weird but in a good way,” Bennett explained.

Next up for PICNIC is the Uncommon Butcher — a takeaway butcher shop in partnership with the Common Stove, which is also owned by MacDonell and MacRae. It has just recently launched and currently includes four or five cuts of beef, as well as Common Stove burger patties that can be cooked at home, among other items.

What’s next for PICNIC?

“Between Simon, Darcy and I, we’re never satisfied. So, we’ll see,” Bennet said.

PICNIC will make its Mariposa Folk Festival debut next weekend. Always one to stand out, it will have a full pig roast over a fire pit, using the freshly cooked meat to make sandwiches, while also offering salad, charcuterie and other goodies.

Whether you’re looking for a snack, some quality cuts of meat, unique wines and cocktails or simply a one-of-a-kind experience, PICNIC is your place.

Check out the menu and more here.

The good stuff

Most popular: mushrooms and manchego

Joel Bennett’s favourite: duck confit, the cure

My favourite: the cure, potato pancakes, octopus

Nathan Taylor’s local food and drink column appears every other Saturday.