Dinner for Close Friends

 

The night was the hottest so far of the year; so hot for spring that we definitely weren’t going to cook that night, and anyway, we’d been thinking a lot about the food at Hazel, a new restaurant we’d tried last fall, a short drive south on the Bohemian Highway, about 15 minutes from Ananda.

Hazel opened last summer in a small place on the outskirts of the town of Occidental, taking over the location from a popular eatery known as Bistro des Copains (that we never got a chance to try). “Copains,” as far as our French goes, means something like “close friends” (another translation is “boyfriend or girlfriend”) … and like we said, the place is small.

The Bistro is gone, but Hazel still seems like the spot for close friends—yes, because it’s slightly close quarters—but much more so because some of the fare is pretty perfect for sharing, especially the selection of about half a dozen wood-fired pizzas (more on that in a bit). And the welcoming, stripped-down rustic atmosphere, punctuated with colorful art and warm lighting, invites conversation.

 

When we visited Hazel in October, diners had packed the place everywhere but the small patio, where it was too cold to sit. That time, we ate at the bar, enjoying the people-watching that sitting near the front door afforded. Just the kind of cozy evening that makes autumn such a well-loved season.

On this most recent visit, we did longingly consider the patio, but evening temperatures can drop pretty quickly this time of year, and we knew the heat would disappear when the sun did. But with all the windows open, the restaurant offered a welcome taste of summer in April. We’ll just have to save the patio for next time.

A wood-fired pizza oven, visible from the dining room, turns out a centerpiece of Hazel’s menu: a range of thin-crust pizzas, with more familiar choices like the margherita or pepperoni (spiced up with jalapeño), as well as more unusual pairings, some of which change with the seasons: sausage with egg; butternut squash with pine nuts and crème fraîche; or caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese with toasted walnuts.

We started with a roasted asparagus appetizer and then shared the Gorgonzola pizza and a red quinoa bowl with sautéed kale, asparagus and maitake mushrooms.

The pizza was rich, dominated by the strong flavor of melted Gorgonzola, but with sweet undertones from the caramelized onions and a welcome crunch of walnuts—it’s so creamy and rich, it’s definitely a good choice to split. The clean flavors and wholesomeness of the quinoa bowl balanced nicely with the decadent pizza.

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Paired with caramelized onions and toasted walnuts, creamy melted Gorgonzola makes for a rich pizza.

 

The quinoa bowl is one of about five or six main dishes that highlight a variety of proteins, including seafood, poultry and steak. From starters all the way to desserts, the menu features lots of local ingredients, from the cheese on the pizzas and starters (showcasing some of the North Bay’s many awesome creameries—always a great thing), to locally grown produce.

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Plenty of fresh greens in the quinoa bowl—and they didn’t skimp on the cheese, either.

 

We finished off dinner with a perfectly not-too-sweet apple crumble a la mode. During dessert, we ended up googling what a “fruit crumble” was not only because we didn’t really know the difference between “apple crisp” and “apple crumble,” but mostly because all that brown sugar—and a good amount of butter?—in the lightly crunchy topping made us want to learn how to make our own, even if it won’t live up to Hazel’s version. It’s good stuff. (And unfortunately, we were so eager to tuck in that we didn’t take a photo.)

About halfway through dinner, we were surprised by a loud siren that seemed to echo in the streets. Especially since most of the other diners didn’t bat an eye, we were so curious that we had to ask our server what the siren was all about. She told us that the local volunteer fire department was being summoned to a call, adding with a smile, “That’s small town life.”

Occidental is small—we hate to use the “q-word” but we’re going to—because Occidental is quaint in the best possible way. And this location actually makes Hazel seem that much cozier. So even though it’s not officially the spot for “copains” anymore, it’s still a perfect spot to bring close friends—or have a romantic dinner.

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Dinnertime

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