There are no camels in Collingwood, but an oasis for Moroccan food has appeared at an established steak and seafood restaurant in this southern Georgian Bay town. That restaurant is Reef and Beef, which operates a stone's throw from the waterfront on Huron Street, right next to where the provincial court is located.
The reef in the name Reef and Beef ties to an Australian reference for seafood and the owner of this restaurant, Tony Sensenberger, has a long history as a restaurateur in this four-seasons' destination community.
I've got to be creative, Tony told me last evening, as my partner Nancy and I visited his second Collingwood restaurant specifically to try the Moroccan food.
You've got to love Tony's enthusiasm for food and for trying new things.
Collingwood and area, the last time I counted, has about 108 restaurants. With the popular ski hills of Blue Mountain Resorts close-by to the west, well-established restaurants in Collingwood, others in Wasaga Beach to the east and yet more restaurants beckoning in the south at Creemore and Terra Nova, there is no doubt that the restaurant business is extremely competitive in this area!
Tony has been part of the southern Georgian Bay restaurant scene since donning an apron at the Alphorn Restaurant in Craigleith, where he was schooled by J.P. Zing; a legend in his own right. From Craigleith, Tony went to the Four Seasons in Toronto and then - as so many people in the restaurant business tend to do - Tony worked at various places; always learning, always trying new things.
In the 30, or so, years that have passed, Tony came full circle and back to Collingwood where for a number of years he ran the very-popular Tony's Iron Skillet, across from the hospital on Hume Street. But life always brings change and that business closed and Tony reappeared with The Iron Skillet restaurant and pub which has blossomed to popularity.
Not one to sit still, Tony still has The Iron Skillet, and not long ago opened Reef and Beef.
Now, with the price of steak, cauliflower and salad-fixings (just to name a few items) increasing, Tony is getting creative by adding Moroccan food to his menu.
The real story came from Tony's lips earlier this evening as he told us that he was inspired to Moroccan cuisine by his wife, Doris.
At first, Doris was sending Tony e-mails with Moroccan recipe suggestions. Doris is innovative and works for Home Horizons, a do-good, community organization in Collingwood, which has a food-oriented promotion called Bowls for Beds coming up later this month.
But I digress.
When Tony ignored Doris' e-mails, he came home one day to find her cooking Moroccan food.
The smell was wonderful as he walked into his house, he recalled, and that was the tipping point.
Doris and Tony took off for Morocco where he visited restaurant after restaurant, enquired about spices and cooking customs.
If we had to call Tony by any other name, one could call him the Spice Man. For years, Tony's forte - when it comes to cooking and kitchens - has been to have the largest selection of spices in Collingwood, perhaps the southern Georgian Bay area.
And he loves to talk about them. Long peppers. Grains of Paradise. The spice names go on and on.
Once again, I digress. So, let's get back to our Moroccan dinner.
We sat with about a dozen other people. A diverse group. Julie Card and her husband Dan Plouffe, from mycollingwood, marketing and promotion specialists. Leanne Calvert and her partner Phil Tarlo, who operate Willow Trace Bed and Breakfast as well as the Collingwood Cooking Academy and Annette and Andy Lee who have about 11 years in Collingwood operating a five-star B & B called Bacchus House.
Phil Tarlo and Andy Lee have a lot in common when it comes to gourmet kitchens, culinary arts and wines. Phil has decades of cooking experience and, until he sold it, operated one of Collingwood's most-popular restaurants. Andy has vast hotel-business experience, which includes knowing his wines.
Selena Blais, owner-publisher of Georgian Life, was sitting at our table too and eager to learn more about Moroccan food.
Next to us, Doug Measures and his wife Tracey, were sitting with Jessica - a sleep therapist - and Emily, who writes frequently for On The Bay magazine. Doug is a community-minded, television producer with the local Rogers Cable folks. Doug is also a veteran of municipal politics, continuing to serve his community and our area on Clearview Township council.
Doris, Tony's wife, was sitting there too and Tony joined us once our meals were presented, tasted and devoured.
At other tables, other diners were enjoying Reef and Beef items. I saw one steak dinner on a single plate that could have easily served two people. Tony, who comes from an Austrian heritage, has never been one to skimp with his meal presentations.
Reef and Beef exudes a Collingwood theme. The focus is on things to do with the now-defunct, but historically-important, Collingwood Shipyards. For 103 years, before closing in 1986, the Collingwood Shipyards was the economic heart of this town.
Tourism has taken over this southern Georgian Bay region and, coincidentally, these days, tourism is important in Morocco as well.
Olives appear everywhere in Morocco, at mealtimes, Tony told us. We started with olives and round bread, served in large ramekins, in the shadow of bottles of product from the Collingwood Olive Oil company.
Then, came a hearty soup, laden with lentils and almost a meal in itself.
Vickie and Matthew were our servers and they hustled cheerfully to ensure that water, or wine, glasses were full and attended to our every need. Matthew has worked at Reef and Beef for about a year, but he has a decade of experience in what can be a demanding business.
Then came the main course, our tangine (some people spell it tanjine) chicken with vegetables.
Tangine is a North African dish named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked.
At Reef and Beef, they have single-serving and couple-serving tangine pots.
Ours arrived in Matthew's hands and he carefully removed the top, so that steam would not bother us, and the exposed dish offered a medley of vegetables, couscous and chicken.
There were a number of tangines at the tables and each tangine was decorated differently. Very colourful.
When I first heard about Moroccan food coming to Collingwood, I was expecting that it might be too spicey-hot for my liking. I don't mind gentle-spicey, but rocket-hot is not my style. I suspect you could get both at Reef and Beef, but this evening's Moroccan dinner was tasty and definitely inside my parameters for gentle-spicey.
I would come back for this, Selena Blais told me, as others nodded in appreciation. There was even a toast for chef Tony who had joined us at that point.
As dessert was being served, Tony told about travels in the Moroccan countryside. Somewhere, on a quieter road, he suddenly did a U-turn after spotting something very unusual in some trees. Doris joined him in temporary disbelief as they pulled up and parked alongside some goats which were standing on branches of the trees.
Tony, got out of his car, and simultaneously a herder appeared from a nearby ditch. The herder was as much an entrepreneur as is restaurateur Tony. The herder suggested that Tony might like to pay for the privilege of taking photographs of the goats in the trees. Tony did both!
Our desserts were Creme Brule, but they did not arrive in one dish. Instead, three flavours arrived in three smaller dishes - chocolate, strawberry and vanilla/lemon - definitely enough to share for two people. I could be wrong about the dual-tasting one. My wife Nancy thought it was vanilla. I thought it was lemon. No matter, with a tea, or a coffee, it was a nice way to cap off our introduction to Moroccan cuisine.
Tangier, a large city, has for centuries been the European gateway to Africa.
Now, with tagine added to the menu at Reef and Beef, one need not go to Tangier for a taste of Moroccan food. You could almost say that our town has gone to pot, tangine that is!
I have always maintained that Collingwood is not a sleeping hollow and that it is continuing as cosmopolitan. Just check out the downtown Farmers Market this summer. You will find Indian food. You will find Polish food. Then, just a few blocks from the market, Moroccan food added to the Reef and Beef menu. Prices are mid-range.
When you go, tell Tony hello from me. To find out more about the Reef N Beef, visit their website by clicking here.
Written by George Czerny.