Risotto at University Club
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20908 Road Ring
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1
(519) 888-4567, ext. 33801
Two local chefs with connections to well-known restaurants in the region run a hidden gem of a kitchen at the University Club at University of Waterloo.
Head chef Richard Cramm has been there for 11 years; joining him is chef Mike Magda. Between the two, they create food that is unique, imaginative and accessible.
It’s important to note that it’s likely the only restaurant in a radius of several kilometres that isn’t fast food. And the bigger picture is that they’re doing exactly what any restaurant worth its salt is doing, according to Cramm.
“We promote local and sustainable and try to keep prices down in doing so,” he says.
Along with the rest of UW food services, they get much of their ingredients from the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative. Having opened in 1970, the Club seats 220 and has been open to the public since 2015. It’s one of only a few remaining faculty clubs in the country, and that makes it unique.
Cramm cooked for a good time at Bhima’s Warung in Waterloo and at the restaurant’s Bali location; you can spot that experience on the menu, which currently has a dozen dishes (plus dessert) topping out at just under $20. In summer and fall, Cramm and Magda make use of the vegetable garden right outside the kitchen’s back door.
Barely seared tuna ($18.95) comes with togarashi and a ginger-ponzu glaze, while the fettuccine is wholly Mediterranean with mushrooms, basil pesto, sundried tomatoes and truffle oil. The lamb ($19.50) is popular and looks delicious: served with cous cous, raisins, raita and preserved lemon (which you don’t see on many menus), I saw it travel from the kitchen a few times in my visits (and made a note to try it on a subsequent one).
On Fridays, there’s a fish and chips special.
When I spotted risotto ($16.95), I selected it. A favourite dish for me both at a restaurant and to make at home, I seek it out on menus. It’s polarizing, however, with two schools of thought: should it be very loose and soupy or tighter and more contained in the dish? Magda’s is the latter.
Risotto is four components: riso (rice), soffritto (sauteed aromatics), brodo (stock) and condimenti (those ingredients like squash, mushrooms or peas).
It can take 30 minutes to make, standing and stirring, and adding stock regularly. Restaurants make it by partially cooking the rice, commonly Arborio, about three-quarters of the way.
“It’s very simple to start. We don’t even add the salt until the end,” says Magda, who has cooked locally for years and helped open Kitchener’s Fork and Cork Grill.
When the rice is almost done, he spreads it onto a sheet pan and cools it to stop the cooking. “When we get an order, I put a serving in a pot, add veggie stock and finish it.”
The condimenti is roasted butternut squash that gets pureed, seasoned with salt and pepper and fresh sage. “I put a good amount of it into the rice and some shaved Grano Padano cheese. It simmers until incorporated and then it’s plated,” Magda says.
The risotto is garnished with roasted pumpkin seeds to bolster the squash theme and gets a final shaving of the cow’s milk cheese, a cousin to Parmigiano-Reggiano, with the slight granularity.
The ingredients are historically intertwined: rice in Italy grows in the north of the country, including along the Po River in Lombardy. Risotto, especially risotto Milanese, is virtually a “national” Lombard dish; the loop is closed when you then add the Grana Padano, the latter word denoting “from the Po Valley.”
The connecting stories of “what-grows-together-goes-together” aside, risotto is an ideal comfort food for winter weather, says Magda.
“It’s filling and versatile and as a blank canvas it accepts so many different flavours and textures,” he adds.
The University Club is open for lunch Monday to Friday and for special events.
If you are visiting the restaurant, there is free parking adjacent to the club.