Archive for the ‘Ontario’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).

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

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

Château des Charmes: French connection pioneers

vqaontario.caChâteau des Charmes from York Road, St. David's
We couldn’t visit the Niagara wine country without paying homage to Château des Charmes (fromtheboscfamily.com/chateau-des-charmes). In 1978, founder Paul-Michel Bosc planted the first all-vinifera commercial vineyard in the region. He was determined to prove that the grapes of Burgundy and Bordeaux could flourish in cold-climate Niagara.

Bosc represents the fifth generation of family winemakers. Raised in Algeria, he earned a degree in viticulture and oenology from the University of Burgundy. After evacuation to France at the end of the Algerian war in the 1960s, he took his young family to Canada.

Château des Charmes vinesUnlike some Niagara pioneer wineries, Château des Charmes remains a family operation. It has expanded to four vineyards covering 280 acres (110 ha). They lie in the Four Mile Creek and St. David’s Bench sub-regions of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The handsome château-style winery sits just west of the village center of St. David’s, about 8 miles (13km) south of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The impressive family home sits across York Road—an estate winery in the French tradition.

Château des Charmes makes more than two dozen wines, most of them single varietals. They range from a fresh and cheeky Aligoté (a Burgundy white grape) to several sparkling wines to a very rare Cabernet Sauvignon botrytis red and an equally pricey Cabernet icewine. But the winery’s strength lies in outstanding table wines and that’s where we focused our tasting.

Château des Charmes "Four at Four" tasting

French grapes, Niagara tastes


Several tasting options are available at Château des Charmes. One of the most interesting is the “Four at Four” option. Offered weekdays at 4 p.m.. it includes a tour of a vineyard, the winery, and the aging cellars before heading upstairs for a tasting of four wines with food pairings. Our guide, Galina, a winemaker in the Republic of Georgia before moving to Canada, brought a wealth of technical expertise.

Our particular lineup started with a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($15) paired with Douanier, a mildly pungent Quebec cheese with morning and afternoon milk separated by a thin line of ash. Made in a cold-climate style akin to those from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the wine has an intense concentration of fruit with pronounced notes of lychee and pineapple petrol. The acids cut through the unctuous mouth-feel of the cheese in a perfect pairing.

Chardonnay has long been a flagship wine of Château des Charmes. The 2015 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay ($15) is a real steal. It’s an homage to Paul Sr.’s Burgundian roots. A nicely balanced wine with a good fruit expression and just a touch of oak, it could easily pass for a Macon-Villages. The pairing with ginger shortbread helped to bring out the vanilla and the round fruitiness of the wine. It is notable that the winery also makes a stainless-steel Chardonnay Musqué, using the extremely aromatic 809 clone of the grape. The winery also produces two more complex single-vineyard selection Chardonnay wines.

Real reds from 43°N


We also tried a 2014 Cabernet Franc ($30) from the St. David’s Bench vineyard. This is a stellar Cabernet by any standard. The vineyard nestles against the chalk hill of the Niagara escarpment far from Lake Ontario, so it retains a lot of heat late into the fall. The wine is hand-crafted in the vineyard throughout the growing season, with a lot of attention to pruning and tying up vines to guarantee maximum sun exposure. As a result, the grapes achieve both very ripe sugars and very ripe tannins, avoiding the green pepper flavors of lesser Cabernet Francs. Judicious aging in French oak extends the complexity. It was paired perfectly with dark chocolate, but we think it would be spectacular with Mexican mole poblano.

For the love of Gamay


We had expressed a particular interest in Gamay Noir, as Château des Charmes was a pioneer in the varietal. We’re already on record saying that Niagara may be better for Gamay than its home in Beaujolais. We tried both the 2015 Gamay Noir ($13) and the 2015 Gamay Noir “Droit” ($18) paired with prosciutto. The regular Gamay was typical of the region—full of bramble fruit (especially blackberries). It’s a perfect barbecue wine.

But the “Droit” is an extra-vigorous clone isolated in the Château des Charmes vineyards and registered as Canada’s first native vinifera grape. This is the wine that the big guns of Beaujolais-Villages wish they could make. Intense elderberry fruit on the nose and in the mouth is matched by fully ripe tannins that give the wine some significant body. This Gamay drinks like a light Burgundy. We have set a bottle aside for later next month when the yellowfin start running off Cape Cod and we can get local tuna steaks to toss on the charcoal grill.

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).

18

07 2017