Archive for the ‘Niagara’Category

Backhouse realizes Niagara’s great potential

Ryan Campbell of Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Too bad the great French gourmand Christian Millau didn’t live long enough to visit Ryan and Bev Campbell’s Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake (242 Mary St.; 289-272-1242; backhouse.xyz). In 1968, Millau revolutionized the way the French (and, given the era, the world) regarded haute cuisine when he announced that he had discovered “the best restaurant in the world” in the provincial town of Roanne. He might have said something similar had he discovered this grill-centric, hyper-locavore restaurant in a shopping strip at the edge of this Lake Ontario resort village.

“Best restaurant in the world” is hyperbole, of course. But the comparison to Les Frères Troisgros is more than fair. Backhouse serves brilliant food far from the metropolitan restaurant scene. Asador Etxebarri in the small village of Atxondo in Spain’s Basque country might be an even closer comparison. Etxebarri’s chef Bittor Arguinzoniz cooks everything with open flame and coals. So does Ryan Campbell, one of the most talented and obsessive chefs we’ve ever met. He uses the trimmings from local peach and cherry orchards that would otherwise be burned as slash.

Light my fire


Campbell knows the appeal of the grill, and he places the five-foot cooking box front and center in the restaurant. Diners can opt to sit at conventional tables—or line up in seats along the bar facing the fire. We chose the bar for a tasting menu. We wanted to watch Campbell work the apparatus and poke the logs while wearing his heavy leather blacksmith’s apron. He is so organized and calm that his motions seemed almost meditative.

chicken liver purses at BackhouseThat’s probably because so much of the menu is prepared ahead. Locavore cooking in a cold climate means lots of smoking, drying, pickling, and even freezing products during their seasonal glut. Most of us associate open-fire cookery with quick roasting. Not Campbell. The chickens hanging in the back of the fireplace are cooking ahead for the first step in his “bird on a wire” dish. For our opener, we ate these pastry purses filled with chicken liver mousse and tomatillo chutney. He paired the dish with barrel-fermented sparkling hard cider.

As soon as we finished this earthy combination, we found ourselves looking at a small bowl of fresh curds and whey with just a dash of maple syrup and a beautiful viola flower floating on top. The milk came from Sheldon Creek Farms, a single-herd microdairy. The combination was ethereal and a bright counterpoint to the chicken liver starter. We thought we’d caught our breath, but immediately Campbell set out a tiny ramekin of fried egg white mousse with a confit egg yolk topped with trout caviar. We couldn’t help but think of the pintxos creativos of Spain’s San Sebastian. In effect, the liver purses, curds and whey, and “Meg’s Egg,” as Campbell calls it, formed a trio of canapes that hinted at the restaurant’s range.

Bread and veggies


After a short pause, another trio of dishes appeared in a sudden flurry. Campbell treats his sourdough breads with house-cultured butter as a course unto itself, as well he should. His sourdough starter, affectionately known as “Roxane,” has been with him for years. The bread and butter clean the palate for the intense vegetable dishes that follow.

wild leek and potato soup from BackhouseThe first was a wild leek and potato soup, thick and green, served with a sourdough brioche toast float, a dab of crème fraiche, and thin matchsticks of homemade prosciutto. (Campbell buys only whole animals and does his own butchering. Nothing goes to waste.) Since local asparagus was still in season, he completed the trio with a plate of wood-roasted Niagara asparagus, a smear of black garlic aioli and another smear of garlic mustard. (He makes his own condiments, of course.)

The meat of the matter


First Ontario shrimp at BackhouseWithout getting too precious about it, Campbell treats animal proteins with an almost religious regard for the creatures. He said it took him two years to rise to the top of the wait list to be allowed to buy First Ontario farmed shrimp. The farm only produces about 300 pounds per week, and Campbell gives each Pacific white shrimp a place of honor atop local grits in this small bowl.

bird on a wire from BackhouseOur tasting menu moved on to a variation of the “bird on a wire” dish—so called because Campbell slow roasts heritage chickens strung on a wire in the back of a firebox. He then picks the meat and presses the smoky flesh into a tubular sausage. Thick slices are quickly grilled over the open fire before he plates them with a chicken leg, wood-roasted locally foraged wild mushrooms, and homemade gnocchi. The dish might be the apotheosis of poultry. The glass of Gamay Noir from a local virtual winery (13th Street) didn’t hurt either.

Desserts at Backhouse are seasonally inspired. We were dining in late spring, and maple was Campbell’s inspiration. (We never asked if he uses sugar, but we suspect that maple is his sweetener of choice because it’s local.) He presented a sweet potato custard, a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, and a crumbly spice cake—all scented and sweetened with maple. Alas, we were too sated to try the plate of Ontario cheeses.


For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging on the Niagara Peninsula, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Spanning the decades of Niagara craft brewing

The craft brewing scene on the Niagara peninsula is, appropriately enough, fluid. Small breweries pop up in every town and their styles range from simple session ales to extreme brews. We stopped in to taste one of the newest and most experimental—Exchange in Niagara-on-the-Lake—as well as one of the pioneer craft brewers, now operating as Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery in a newly gentrifying neighborhood in Niagara Falls.

At the bar at Exchange Brewery

Exchange Brewery


Shiny black walls, shiny black bottles, and a marble bar immediately signal that Exchange Brewery (7 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-468-9888; exchangebrewery.com) is not exactly a suds-soaked beer bar. The brewery and tasting room in the Old Town heritage district strike a sophisticated urban tone in striking contrast to Oast’s aw-shucks country brewery image. The building was the town’s first telephone exchange, which explains the name and the fixation on naming each the beers with a numeral or symbol found on the phone keypad or dial.

Exchange was founded in 2016 by Robin Ridesic, a management consultant with a passion for sour beers and hoppy IPAs. She brought on a team of professional brewers to execute a wide range of beers. (Exchange made more than 30 different beers in its first year.) Those bottled with a symbol have been aged in oak wine barrels, those with a number matured in stainless steel. Ridesic chose 750 ml. Prosecco bottles for all the beers because the glass is manufactured can withstand the pressure of carbonation.

beer and cheese tasting boardAs the brewery finds it niche, it has come to focus increasingly on barrel-aged beers. The # Witbier, for example, spends three months in Hungarian oak. Head brewer Sam Maxbauer combines malted and raw wheat with orange peel and coriander in the beer. The Exchange strain of house yeast contributes nice pepper and clove notes as well. The popular Belgian Golden Ale spends two to four months in used Chardonnay barrels.

The tasting room offers eight lines on tap drawn directly from the brewery in the back of the building. In addition, there’s usually a cask-aged ale of one sort or another (frequently a sour). Flights are available as well as a very nice cheese and beer pairing board. Shown above, it includes three cheeses with three complementary beers and crostini.

Brewery tours are available on the weekends.

Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery


beer tasting at Syndicate

There’s a tangled story behind Syndicate, but the most important thing for a beer-lover to know is that it descends directly from Taps Brewing Company. Founded in 2004, Taps was one of Niagara’s pioneer craft breweries. The building of the Niagara Falls flagship of Syndicate Restaurant and Brewery (6863 Lundy’s Lane, Niagara Falls; 289-477-1022; syndicaterestaurant.ca) also contains Niagara Falls Craft Distillers (289-681-0124). The salesroom on the ground level sells the beers and spirits, while the pubby restaurant upstairs serves some unusual grub for a drinking establishment. (Think duck gravy poutine, fresh pasta stuffed with truffles, or dry-aged beef steaks.) The beers tend toward food-friendly familiar styles—an IPA, a fullsome lager, a crisp rye pale ale, and a porter or two. The brewery makes several house beers for other restaurants as well.

In the spirit of things


Niagara Falls Craft Distillers spirits

The distillation business started up in early 2017. All the liquors are beer based. As assistant brewer and distiller Mike McCormack explained to us, he brews a high-alcohol beer (about 10%) from roughly equal parts rye and barley, and pumps it over to the distillery side for distillation in a fractional column still. The Barreling Annie rye whiskey aims to pull through most of the aroma and flavor of the grain while the clear spirits (Lucky Coin Motel Vodka and 1814 Lundy’s Lane Gin) are double-distilled to make the spirit as neutral as possible. McCormack and head distiller Chris Jeffries are experimenting like mad. They are aging whiskey in three-liter barrels to see if the small format can accelerate the marriage of spirit and wood. (Yes, it does.) And they are crafting a heady absinthe with a swirling world of botanicals in addition to the classic anise and wormwood. We tasted and felt it had just the right balance of aromatics and alcohol. Despite being clear, it had the characteristic cough medicine quality of historic versions of the green fairy. So far, no date is set for release.


For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging on the Niagara Peninsula, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

20

09 2017

Lift a glass to toast Niagara’s fine craft beer

Oast bottles
As Niagara began to emerge as a major wine district, someone on the peninsula likely did a double take. “Wait a minute,” he might have said. “We’re Canadians. We drink beer!” Let’s face it, Labatt’s and Molson are more than holding their own against Canadian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But craft brewing has also swept across the Niagara peninsula with salubrious results. Although we, too, were focused on Niagara’s remarkable wines, we squeezed in visits to three very different and very good breweries. Here’s one. Look for the other two in the next post.

Niagara Oast House Brewers


Oast House barn exterior

Route 55 outside Niagara-on-the-Lake cuts through some serious farm country with several vineyards and an aromatic lavender farm lining the highway. But the big red barn of Niagara Oast House Brewers (2017 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake; 289-868-9627; oasthousebrewers.com) might be the most prominent landmark of all. The barn has been a fixture in the landscape since 1895. It’s been a fruit basket factory, a fruit packing plant, a farmers’ coop, and even a John Deere dealership. Since late 2012, it’s been the home of Oast.

Oast owner Cian MacNeillA former sommelier and winemaker, Cian MacNeill was one of the three founders. While he sees Oast as a beer-lover’s extension of the Niagara gourmet experience, he is also careful to ensure that the brewery never loses its fun-loving roots. Oast launched with Barnraiser Country Ale in the American pale ale tradition. At 5% alcohol and lightly hopped, it has a sweet caramel malt flavor that drinks well through all three periods of a hockey match. It is literally the beer that built Oast, which continues to make the popular brew but focuses principally on farmhouse ales that have a Franco-Belgian pedigree.

Specialty ales


Bottled in thick 750 ml. bottles, these ales tend to be seasonal—Christmas, spring, a tart summer ale with verjus (tart juice from unripe grapes). Our favorite of the group, however, is the French style Biere de Garde. A robust and malty ale, it has overtones of cherry, burnt brown sugar, and cocoa. True to its name (“beer for keeping”), it ages nicely in the bottle, reaching its peak flavor at about two years.

In a nod to the fruit-growing tradition of Niagara, Oast also produces about a dozen beers with local fruit in its Rural Route series. They are sold in cans. Flavors range from a strawberry-rhubarb ale to a Russian imperial stout with dark plums. One of the big favorites for fall is the pumpkin and squash spiced ale. The brewery roasts its own pumpkins as well as acorn, hubbard, and butternut squash to caramelize the sugars and provide extra body and depth to the ale.

You can stop by the beer shed daily to taste and buy. Tours of the brewery are offered at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekends.

16

09 2017

Cave Spring Cellars shines in Jordan, Ontario

Cave Spring Cellars barrels
Jordan Village compresses the Niagara Peninsula experience into a single stop. In just one kilometer along Nineteenth Street, the downtown packs in lodgings with character, a bakery, restaurants, a tavern, and just enough boutique shopping to stave off retail withdrawal. This being Niagara, there is, of course, also a winery.

Cave Spring Cellars (cavespring.ca), in fact, is the centerpiece of the community.

The Pennachetti family began buying land on the Beamsville Bench in the early 1970s and by the end of the decade, they had become visionary viticulturalists. Conventional wisdom held that only the area around Niagara-on-the-Lake was warm enough for European wine grapes to thrive, but the Pennachettis began growing Riesling and Chardonnay with considerable success.

In 1986, Len Pennachetti and family members joined forces with winemaker Angelo Pavan to found Cave Spring Cellars. Today they have about 164 acres of vineyards—about 135 acres on the Beamsville Bench and the remainder closer to Lake Ontario in the Lincoln Lakeshore viticultural subdistrict. The original plantings set Cave Spring on its course: the winery specializes in varietal white wines with a special emphasis on Riesling.

Tasting the wines


Pouring at Cave Spring Cellars Provincial liquor stores and some wine shops sell the wines, but about half the portfolio is only available in the Cave Spring Cellars tasting room in Jordan. The 1871 building was constructed as a vinegar works with thick limestone walls that keep the interior naturally cool both above and below ground.

All kinds of tasting options are available, but knowing that we’d be eating (and drinking) at the restaurant next door, we opted for a simple tasting of the “Dolomite” series. Only available at the winery, these limited-release wines are grown in the shadow of the Niagara escarpment in the transition between the Beamsville Bench and the Lincoln Lakeshore.

The 2015 Riesling “Dolomite” (retails for $18 Canadian) is the flagship of this group. It is a superb example of a Mosel clone of Riesling in cooler areas of Niagara. The floral nose leads into a nice fleshy mouthfeel followed by acid fruit notes of lime, lychee, and grapefruit. It is bright and vigorous—a terrific food wine.

Cave Springs wines at On the Twenty restaurant

Eating and drinking


Cave Spring was the first winery in the Niagara region to open a sibling restaurant. Located in the same building as the tasting room, On the Twenty (innonthetwenty.com/dining/dine-on-the-twenty) restaurant is perfect for exploring the food-friendliness of the Cave Spring wines. Chef Jason Williams is home grown. Niagara-born, he trained in the Niagara College Culinary program and worked under some of the region’s leading chefs.

heirloom beets at On the Twenty restaurant at Cave Spring Cellars Williams draws on the local bounty to build menus that complement and enhance the wines. This salad of roasted heirloom beets with a scoop of whipped goat cheese and a toasted hazelnut vinaigrette was a striking example of sweet early-season beets balanced by the light tang of the goat cheese and the dark, ashen quality of a smear of burnt honey. The house rosé (a light treatment of Cabernet Franc) tasted as if it had been conceived as a component of the dish.

venison carpaccio at On the Twenty at Cave Spring CellarsSimilarly, the venison carpaccio with dollops of egg yolk puree and parmesan emulsion is a very mild dish, even with the black pepper and crushed juniper berries on the edges. Trusting to the menu’s pairing suggestion, we had it with the Gamay. We’ve written before how this grape becomes very expressive in Niagara, and Cave Spring’s version is no exception. The fruitiness and soft tannins played very nicely with the spice on the edges and the unctuous meat.

Time for bed


Inn on the Twenty, sister to Cave Spring CellarsAfter dinner, it’s a short walk across the street from the restaurant to the Inn on the Twenty (innonthetwenty.com), another property in the Cave Spring family. A former sugar mill has found new life as a stylish lodging with 24 suites that blend traditional furnishings with a confident use of color. (There are also several rooms in adjacent buildings). All the suites have fireplaces and some have hidden private patios. Breakfast at the Inn on the Twenty is included in the rates. If you’d like a bottle of Cave Spring Cellars wine in your room when you check in, be sure to ask when you make your reservations.

We’d suggest the Blanc de Blancs Brut, which has a delicious yeastiness from spending three years on the lees.

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca). For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging in the area, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

10

09 2017

Zee’s complements adjacent Shaw Festival

eating on porch at Zee's

The Niagara peninsula isn’t all about vineyards and fine dining. Many visitors flock to Niagara on the Lake for the Shaw Festival (www.shawfest.com). The theater company occupies a good portion of the east end of the village. It launched in 1962 to celebrate acclaimed Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). That year’s performances were Don Juan in Hell and Candida.

Just as wine grapes have flourished in the Niagara peninsula, so has drama. From those first four performances in a hall in the historic Court House, the Shaw Festival has grown into a major player in the theater world. This year’s April through mid-October season features 11 plays presented in four different venues. (A Christmas Carol is also scheduled for the holiday season.) Shaw, of course, is well-represented with productions of Saint Joan and Androcles and the Lion. But the season intersperses the Shaw among other classic, modern, and new plays.

Before and after the curtain


The theater facility is right across Wellington Street from the aptly named Shaw Club Hotel (www.niagarasfinest.com/shaw). Embodying a relaxed modern sensibility, the hostelry is an alternative to the plush traditionalism of the Prince of Wales. (See earlier post.) The covered front porch, where slowly rotating overhead fans stir the air, is a great spot for a pre- or post-performance bite. An extension of Zee’s Grill, it’s also an excellent perch to watch the comings and goings on Picton Street.

Executive chef Matt Tattrie grew up in the Niagara region and studied at Niagara College. He has a keen appreciation for local growers and producers. At lunch, he makes a mean burger with locally farmed beef and pork topped with pickled daikon, cucumber, carrot and sriracha aioli. He also offers salads and other options for those who prefer to eat lightly in warm weather. We found his chilled Smoked Red Pepper Gazpacho to be the perfect restorative on a warm afternoon. He kindly shared the recipe and it has already become a staple in our repertoire at home. He calls for a liter of roasted red peppers. You can certainly used canned roasted peppers, but we prefer to roast our own either on a charcoal grill or under the broiler. It takes about 10 red peppers to make the volume he suggests. If you roast them yourself, omit the Liquid Smoke.

Red pepper gazpacho at Zee's

SMOKED RED PEPPER GAZPACHO

Ingredients


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
1 bulb of peeled raw garlic
half bunch of fresh thyme finely chopped
1 liter container of fire roasted red peppers (about 10)
1 teaspoon of Liquid Smoke
1 liter of chicken stock (or water to keep it vegetarian)
Salt and pepper

Directions


Heat up a saucepot with vegetable oil. Once oil is hot add your onions and garlic and sauté for 3-5 minutes at medium heat. Add fresh thyme to pot and sauté for 2 more minutes.
Add your fire roasted red peppers and Liquid Smoke to pot along with stock or water. Simmer for 1 hour.

Let soup cool and blend gazpacho all together. Season with salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate.

Serve cold or at room temperature, garnishing with a drizzle of reduced balsamic glaze and a sprinkling of microgreens.

Adapted from Matt Tattrie, Executive Chef, Zee’s Restaurant, Shaw Club, Niagara-on-the-Lake

For an overview of travel on the Niagara Peninsula, see the web site of Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

04

09 2017

Afternoon tea gets royal treatment at Prince of Wales

Prince of Wales exterior
We got a quick refresher in British royal protocol when we stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara on the Lake (www.vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales). The stately brick property had been entertaining guests under a couple of different names for more than 30 years before the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) paid a visit in 1901. Thrilled with the royal presence, the property changed its name to the Prince of Wales. We finally figured out that the Duke assumed that title when he became heir apparent to the throne. His father was King Edward VII, the monarch best known from PBS as an unrepentant playboy who took socialite actress Lily Langtry as his mistress.

This time the name stuck and the grande dame of lodgings in genteel Niagara on the Lake remains the Prince of Wales. Located where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario, the town was originally a British military stronghold and haven for Loyalists fleeing north during the American Revolution. But it was virtually destroyed by U.S. troops during the War of 1812. Quickly rebuilt, by 1830 it had developed a thriving steamboat business.

Drawing room at Prince of Wales Hotel

The Arcade Hotel, as the Prince of Wales was originally called, was built in 1864 in the prime location at the corner of Picton and King streets. It’s been carefully restored to its Victorian elegance. Yet in keeping with modern, more casual times, the hotel strikes a nice balance between decorum and comfort. That’s especially true in the drawing room (above) where afternoon tea is served daily. The gorgeous space features ornate woodwork, big mirrors, and a glittering crystal chandelier. The overstuffed chairs and sofas encourage a persistent indolence.

Pomp and circumstance of afternoon tea


server at tea at Prince of Wales HotelThe Prince of Wales serves teas from Sloane Fine Tea Merchants in Toronto. The company produces its own blends from teas sourced directly from the point of origin. The first step in the Prince of Wales tea service is to open small containers and sniff the various offerings. Once the tea is properly steeped and poured, a serving tray arrives with a variety of dainty sandwiches along with sweet small cream puffs and macarons.

Of all the goodies, the scones are the star of the show. Their subtle flavor derives from golden raisins that have been steeped in jasmine tea. The scones come to the table hot from the oven. Tea drinkers slather on jam, butter, and house-made crème fraiche to taste. (Chefs at the Prince of Wales found it impossible to get an adequate supply of true British clotted cream, so they devised this more than acceptable substitute.) For those who can’t get enough of the scones, they are also served at breakfast. One morning the couple at the next table ordered a half dozen to split between them. For those who still can’t get enough, the hotel graciously agreed to share the recipe.

scone at tea in Prince of Wales Hotel

JASMINE TEA SCONES


Makes 12 large scones

Ingredients


1 cup golden raisins
2 cups hot jasmine tea
4 1/2 cups (500g) cake flour
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
7 teaspoons (30g) baking powder
1 stick (115g) cold butter (cut into cubes )
2 (1/2 cup) whole eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (250ml) heavy cream

For egg wash
1 egg
1 teaspoon cream

Directions


Soak the raisins in hot jasmine tea mixture. Cover and let cool overnight in fridge. Strain and squeeze out most of the water before weighing. Use 175g, or 6 1/4 oz.

Combine the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Cut the butter in until mealy texture (slightly smaller than a pea).

In a separate bowl, mix together the cream and eggs. Add to the dough slowly while mixer runs. Add in the raisins and mix until combined. Rest the dough in a well floured pan for approximately 1 hour, preferably in refrigerator.

Roll dough to about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut to desired width. Brush tops of scones with egg wash. Let rest for another 20 minutes.

Bake at 340°F (170°C) for approximately 8–15 minutes for a convection oven or 15–22 minutes for a conventional oven. Tops should be just turning golden brown and toothpick inserted in one should come out with no dough slick. (A moist crumb is acceptable.) Be sure to open up at least one to ensure the middle is baked enough.

tea at Prince of Wales Hotel


For an overview of travel on the Niagara Peninsula, see the web site of Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

17

08 2017

Realizing a 150-year dream: Ravine Vineyard Estate

bottles at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Norma Jean Lowery Harber’s family has farmed the 34 acres of Ravine Vineyard Estate (ravinevineyard.com) in St. Davids since 1867. Indeed, her great-grandfather planted the Niagara region’s first commercial vineyard here in 1869 and the land was in orchards for many decades. Norma Jean and her husband Blair Harber bought the farm from the rest of the family in 2004. They set about creating organic vineyards and an organic winery. Norma Jean’s father had grown wine grapes, and the couple replanted vineyards to focus on the three classic Bordeaux reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) along with Chardonnay, Riesling, and small amounts of Gewürtztraminer.

Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantThe wines are reason enough reason to visit Ravine. As luck had it, we missed the tasting room hours. But we had dinner in the farm restaurant looking out on the kitchen garden and down to some of the vineyards. And, naturally, we drank Ravine wines with dinner. The Harbers practice biodynamic principles in their restaurant gardens as well as in their vineyards. The restaurant focuses on highly local products—including the Berkshire hogs raised on the farm. A smokehouse on the property allows executive chef Ross Midgley to feature dishes with cured pork. The chef also preserves local bounty to extend locavore dining into the less fecund seasons.

Charcuterie and Merlot


Ravine charcuterie plate

In fact, we started dinner with the chef’s charcuterie platter. The meaty anchors were honey ham, sliced coppa, and sausage—all cured downstairs in the charcuterie closet. A pot of heavenly chicken liver parfait was great for spreading on the country French baguette, and the pork country pâté en croute was just unctuous enough to benefit from the tangy pickled fennel and shallots and homemade coarse mustard.

On our server’s recommendation, we drank Ravine Merlot with the dish. Merlot is the most round-heeled of the Bordeaux grapes, ripening to voluptuous fullness even in Niagara’s short season. Ravine’s version is soft and round, but it’s not sloppy. Nine months in French barrique disciplines the fruit.

Carrot soup and Riesling


Carrot ginger soup at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantRavine’s restaurant has a nice touch with its soup of the day. It serves each bowl with a savory sour cream and chive muffin. That was especially nice with a bowl of carrot-ginger soup topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The accompanying wine was the house Riesling. Like the Merlot, it is a fruit-forward wine with a good acidity that brings out the brightness of the grape. Characteristic of the Mosel clones, the aromatics are lightly floral.

Scallop and pasta with Sauvignon Blanc


Scallop and pasta at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantChef Midgley’s sense of food balance paired especially well with winemaker Martin Werner’s rendering of Sauvignon Blanc. The pasta of the day was a delightful tangle of homemade spaghetti with lovage and arugula, a butter sauce, and asparagus. Perched on top was a perfectly seared scallop. The range of textures and flavors in a small dish was striking.

The Sauvignon Blanc was even more striking. Werner treats it like Sancerre, fermenting with both wild yeast and a controlled inoculation, then barrel-aging on the lees. It has pronounced white grapefruit and lemon notes with a surprising creaminess. The crisp acidity cut through the butter sauce and highlighted the herbal notes of the vegetables in the dish.

Chardonnay for the main dishes


entrees at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Ravine ages its standard Chardonnay in small barrels of an assertive French oak. That produces a French-inflected wine with distinctively New World fruit. It is creamy and lightly oaky, lush with the apple and pear notes characteristic of cold-climate Chard. Those properties make it a good all-purpose white to pair with food—much as the Ravine Merlot is a good all-purpose red. We had a brined and smoked heritage half-chicken and a mixed-grains “risotto” made with shiitake mushrooms and an Ontario gouda-style cheese. The Chardonnay’s oakiness was a nice complement to the smoke in the chicken, and its broad acidity counterbalanced the richness of the cheese in the “risotto,” which had intense cereal flavors of its own from the wheat berries and barley.

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca) or Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Ontario food rivals the view at Elements on the Falls

Canada 150 at Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, ON
A big “CANADA 150” sculpture celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary of Confederation had just been installed when we settled into a window table at Elements on the Falls Restaurant (niagaraparks.com/visit/culinary/elements-on-the-falls-restaurant/). People were having so much fun climbing on the sculpture and posing for photos that we were almost distracted from the glorious view of Horseshoe Falls.

The restaurant is one of five owned and managed by Niagara Parks. The agency was established in 1885 to preserve and protect the natural resources of Niagara Falls and the Niagara River. Niagara Parks also ensures a good time for all in this legendary natural setting. They oversee everything from cruises and zipline tours of the falls to gardens, golf courses, historic sites, and the Niagara River Recreation Trail. Their guests also eat well at the Niagara Parks restaurants.

We’re often leery of restaurants with great views. Restaurateurs sometimes think that the scenery will lead diners to overlook less than stellar food or that people will pay a premium for the view alone. But we needn’t have worried at Elements on the Falls. Our meal was every bit as good as the view.

Chef Elbert Wiersema, Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

Elements participates in the Feast ON program (ontarioculinary.com), which promotes fresh food from Ontario province. Chef Elbert Wiersema (above) knows how to make the most of that local produce, fish, and meat. The Dutch-born chef cooked in Paris, London, and Bermuda before landing in Ontario about 15 years ago. He has cultivated a deep appreciation for the foods and wines of his adopted home.

An Ontario feast


Our first dish featured a small fillet of lake perch, fried very crisp and served with a side dish of local wild rice, farmers cheese, and fruit salsa. The mild fish matched the soft flavors of the rice and cheese, while the small cubed fruits gave a piquant counterpart to the crisp skin.

Lamb mixed grill at Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

Chef Wiersema’s unique version of lamb mixed grill (above) had its own built-in drama. We were each served on a piece of slate where a roasted merguez sausage sat atop roasted heirloom potatoes, green onion, and asparagus. A saskatoon berry sauce made with reduced Baco Noir wine provided a sweet-tart counterpart.

As the plate was served, we were cautioned that the stone sitting on one end was very hot. Indeed it was. Chef Wiersema had selected flat-sided stones from the banks of the Niagara River, then heated them blazingly hot in the oven. The hot stone on each plate was an individual grill where we could cook our lamb sirloin steaks to taste.

The meal concluded with a salute to Canadian cuisine that evoked the very symbol of the country in this celebratory year. A crispy maple tart sat in a swash of reduced ice-cider and was garnished with tart and citrusy sea buckthorn berries. Chef kindly shared his tart recipe. We’re looking forward to trying it during New England maple season.

Maple tart at Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

MAPLE BUTTER TARTS

Ingredients

6 sheets frozen phyllo pastry, thawed
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) melted butter

For filling
1 egg
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) Maple syrup
2 Tablespoons (30 ml) melted butter
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
1 teaspoon (5 ml) fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup (85 ml) coarsely chopped pecans

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Place the phyllo pastry between two sheets of waxed paper and cover with a damp tea towel. Place one sheet on a work surface, keeping the remaining sheets covered.

Brush the phyllo with some of the melted butter; top with a second sheet. Continue stacking the sheets of phyllo, brushing each with melted butter, until you have a stack of 6. Brush the top sheet well with butter. Cut into 12 even squares.

Press the squares evenly into 12 muffin cups.

In a bowl, beat the egg well with a whisk, then whisk in the sugar, maple syrup, butter, vanilla and lemon juice. Stir in the nuts.

Spoon the filling evenly into the prepared phyllo cups, being careful not to let the filling come up above the pastry. (They will appear about half full.)

Bake in the bottom third of the oven until the pastry is golden, about 15 minutes. Place the pan on a rack to cool completely.

Courtesy Chef Elbert Wiersema, Elements on the Falls, Niagara Parks

07

08 2017

Vineland Estates Winery: a clone of one’s own

Tasting room at Vineland in Niagara

“These trees are the beginnings of Canada,” David Hulley told us as he welcomed us to the cathedral-like log barn that serves as the tasting room of Vineland Estates Winery (vineland.com). “Trees were being cut down for warships. Some of them weren’t needed, so they were used for this barn.”

The 1877 structure and the landmark stone tower are among several practical and handsome buildings remaining from a 19th century Mennonite homestead. They perch on an elevated slope along the Twenty Mile Bench of the Niagara escarpment. The chinked log-cabin barn certainly makes the region’s most dramatic tasting room. The winery’s setting atop the rise among vineyards makes it among the most picturesque estates in the Niagara region.

The buildings anchor 42 acres of vineyards, including the initial 1979 plantings of the Weis 21 Riesling clone. Vineland founder Hermann Weis hails from Germany’s Mosel wine region and brought the clone that bears his family’s name to Canada. The winemaker and nurseryman was convinced that Riesling would thrive in this particular slice of the Niagara peninsula. The heat sink of Lake Ontario keeps the vineyards cool in summer and warm into the fall. The limestone soils have good drainage, and the slope between the Twenty Mile Bench and the lake encourages good air circulation. After tasting the wines in the rustic barn, we were convinced that Weis was on to something.

At the tasting bar


Pouring at Vineland in NiagaraThe Elevation Riesling is Vineland’s signature wine. It is crafted with grapes from old vines in the St. Urban vineyard surrounding the winery. The 2015 ($20) is an outstanding example of the Mosel clone flourishing in the Niagara setting. The vines are in their fourth decade and produce grapes with impressive intensity, a citrus zing, and luscious fruit with overtones of ripe peach and apricot. Fermented fairly dry, it’s a very food-friendly wine. We also tried the 2008 ($30), which was made in a sweet German auslese style. The same stone fruits are present in the mouth, and the intense acids balance the residual sugars very well. It would be perfect with a game bird stuffing with chestnut dressing.

And now the reds…


Riesling may have been the founder’s passion, but Vineland also found its niche red early on. “In Niagara, Cabernet Franc is king,” Hulley told us. “There are very few places in the world that can make pure Cabernet Franc.”

bottles in tasting room at Vineland in NiagaraBefore trying a reserve Cab Franc, we sampled the 2014 Elevation Cabernet ($28). This elegant wine is a blend of two-thirds Cabernet Franc, one-third Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged for 15 months in French oak with a light toast. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes powerfully to the cedar and elderberry nose, but Cabernet Franc and its vegetative tannins dominate the mouth. It needs a few more years in the bottle—or a salty piece of meat—to show at its best. A fully mature 2009 Elevation Cabernet ($75) demonstrates a more harmonious marriage of the grapes. The tannins have softened and the fruit flavors have overtaken the vegetative flavors. The lush wine lingers on the palate like a sunset’s afterglow.

Perhaps the best middle ground is the 2012 Vineland Estate Cabernet Franc Reserve ($50). It’s mostly (89%) Cabernet Franc with a mellowing touch of Merlot (9%) and just a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon. In a tasting, it shows leather and coffee on the nose and rich black fruits with bittersweet chocolate in the mouth. It makes you hungry for a steak.

At the table


Vineland also opened one of the first winery-based fine dining restaurants in the area. Simply called “The Restaurant,” it occupies an 1845 farmhouse (above) with expansive views across the vineyards. Executive chef Justin Downes grew up in the town of Vineland and studied at Niagara College. Like many Niagara chefs, he has a firm commitment to local products. After the teaser of the wine tasting, we were eager to pair some of the estate’s wines with Downes’ food.

charcuterie at Vineland restaurant in NiagaraThe flagship 2015 Vineland Riesling proved its versatility with our first two courses. The lemon-lime zestiness of the wine balanced nicely with a plate of briny Nova Scotia oysters on the half shell. With that wine, a mignonette was superfluous. Then Downes surprised us with a stunning platter that was almost a study in the branches of charcuterie. It included a marvelously mellow pâté de campagne with just a touch of brandy, an unctuous medallion of pork rillettes, thin slices of duck prosciutto, cured pork loin, and a chorizo with a healthy dose of black peppercorns. The pickled onions and green beans provided an acid counterpart. Once again, the Riesling more than held its own.

Every course was carefully thought out and meticulously executed. One pairing that surprised us was roasted quail with a kale pesto, wild spring mushrooms, a sunnyside-up quail egg, and a dab of ricotta. Downes served it with the 2014 Elevation Cabernet—the same wine we found too closed in the tasting. The salty little quail brought the wine alive. Because the meat had such a concentrated flavor from the browning, it stood up just fine to the wine. Below is the dish—beautiful and rustic at the same time.

quail at Vineland restaurant in Niagara

Overviews

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca) or Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Fruits, now and forever, in Niagara

Niagara peaches at St. Catharines Farmers Market
Grapes may rule the Niagara Peninsula today. But peach farmers were the first to recognize the potential of the rich soils of the limestone escarpment. When they planted peach orchards in 1825, they set the area on its agricultural path. By 1950, the Niagara Peninsula boasted more than 4,000 fruit farms, with peaches and cherries the dominant crops.

Many former orchards have been transformed to vineyards. But Niagara still supplies about 90 percent of Ontario’s peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots—as well as the lion’s share of plums, pears, and cherries. That’s according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the agency charged with paying attention to such things.

The folks in the area seem to keep an equally close eye. They wait for the succession of tender fruits to ripen and make their way to market. In May, when we visited the St. Catharines Farmers Market (https://goo.gl/S44kN8) in downtown St. Catharines, it was too early for the new crop of tree fruits. Or even for strawberries and raspberries. A few folks were selling their preserved peaches (above) and some cold-storage apples. Farmers were offering asparagus, rhubarb, local honey, cultivated mushrooms, and hothouse cherry tomatoes. By now, the cornucopia is overflowing. Pecks of apricots and peaches vie for table space with watermelons, hanks of garlic, baskets of onions, and big juicy tomatoes.

Il Gelato di Carlotta in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Gelato: Fruit with Italian cool


Purists contend that there is nothing better than a sun-warmed peach fresh off the tree. We can hardly argue with that juicy sweetness. But Il Gelato di Carlotta (gelatodicarlotta.com) has achieved spectacular success combining fresh Niagara fruits with the Italian flair for making gelato. Florentine Carlotta Cattani, who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, launched the gelateria in 2013 with her husband and her two Italy-based brothers. Their first shop was in Niagara on the Lake (above). It proved so popular that they have expanded to the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls and the Vaughan Mills shopping mall north of Toronto.

Carlotta trained in Bologna to master the fine points of making gelato. She’s very particular about what goes into her frozen treats. She uses all natural ingredients and never resorts to preservatives or artificial colors or flavors. Her pistachios hail from Sicily, her hazelnuts from Piemonte, her coconut from Sri Lanka, and her mangoes from outside Bombay. But the peaches, strawberries, raspberries, plums, and pears are all grown by Niagara farms and orchards. Her simple, respectful treatment only enhances their goodness.

Greaves storefront in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara’s own jampot


Greaves Jams & Marmalades (greavesjams.com) beat Carlotta to the punch. The company opened on Queen Street in Niagara on the Lake in 1927 to make and sell jams, jellies, marmalades, and other condiments. From the start, Greaves has employed Niagara fruits and vegetables. The company has also adhered to a strict ban on pectin and preservatives. Production has moved to a larger facility, but uses the original recipes. Indeed, the original shop still sells the wares. Greaves’ own line of 35 jams, jellies, and preserves line the shelves along with products from other manufacturers and tableware and serving pieces. It’s a lot to choose from. We decided to stick with classic strawberry jam and peach jam. They should make great toppings for the delicious scones that we are going to try to recreate using the recipe given to us by the Prince of Wales, the small town’s most gracious hotel. We’ll be publishing that recipe soon.

28

07 2017