Sunday, 22 June 2008

Dining in Canada's Icewine Country - Part 2

Having grown up a bit more since we last went to the Niagara area as a family, our tastes changed over time, especially since when my sis and I were kids. That could not have been more true when it comes to dining out in the Niagara Peninsula. Just to put things into perspective... when I was younger I remembered Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls having quite a few tourist attractions, but at the time I thought they were novel and colourful as I passed them up (or down) the street. When we drove along Clifton Hill this time around, not only have the attractions intensified considerably along the same stretch, but the whole drag seemed so chintzy. It goes without saying then that dining in touristy Niagara Falls, with perhaps the possible exception of the casinos, as they aren't so family-oriented in nature, was not on our list this time around.

Having grown up now, since we were in the midst of the Niagara wine region, why not try dining amongst the vines? Some of the wineries in Niagara, especially the big-name players on the field (pardon the pun), not only are large enough to have private tasting rooms for busloads of tourists, they may also be large enough to have their own restaurants. Since wine traditionally is drunk while dining, what better way to showcase your own products than by feasting those whom, from a marketing perspective, you're trying to turn into customers of your vintages?

Like with finding "Inn on the Twenty", once again my sister deserves credit for finding the winery in which we tried its restaurant the following evening, Hillebrand Estates. Unlike the "Inn", Hillebrand's restaurant felt more open and relaxed with its higher ceilings and its several rooms which can accommodate a mix of small-table diners (like ourselves) or group functions, with one of the rooms a few steps higher than the rest of the dining area and its exterior facing us resembling a facade of perhaps a villa. The tables were especially wider than average, definitely ensuring bumping elbows would not be an issue. Most of the tables in the restaurant are able to look past the outdoor patio and view the wide tract of land in which the winery has staked its rows upon rows of lush green vines.

For starters I had the Wellington County Rib Eye Carpaccio with white asparagus, allegretto cheese and Cabernet jelly. The jelly was delightful and blended the flavours of the other ingredients well, ensuring the cheese struck a chord with the beef. With all the ingredients being soft to the touch, the asparagus adds a nice light crunch to each mouthful. The carpaccio was wonderfully thin, easy to the bite and definitely helping make a visually colourful dish.

The second course I opted to have was an oyster dish, the second such treat in as many nights; this time it was done in the style of a lobster BLT. I really liked the "Inn's" amuse-bouche version from the previous night as it was simple and light, but this version of oysters was just as delicious, and the richness in flavour was still at a very pleasant level. The bacon was fried extra crispy (my favourite way of doing bacon); not only does it give the bacon that satisfying crunch, it also helps to ensure as much fat has been fried out of the bacon itself as possible. The bacon was also mild on the saltiness, ensuring the oyster could still shine on the taste buds. The chopped loster mixture countered the bacon with its creamy texture, and in spite of all the rich flavours, the fresh tomato's natural sweetness and sourness kept everything in check and brought a degree of lightness to this dish.

Duck breast and confit arrived as my main course, and it too did not disappoint. The saskatoon berry jus was a nice reminder of the area where I now live, and the flavour of the berry went well with the duck. I've personally not been a fan of raisins for ages now, but thankfully the diced ham-raisin concoction beneath the confit was very tolerable, with the right amount of raisins tossed in the mix to keep it from being too sweet for me to comfortably associate with a savoury dish.

It was at this time that the waitress made a gaffe and brought the wrong main course for my sister. My sister didn't mind so much as the dish still tasted very good, and she said that she would have gone for the halibut anyway if not the rabbit (though I don't know if it really was "sour grapes" [sorry, another pun] on her part... but to be fair, she is one of those who still hesitates on the idea of eating rabbit). In any case, it ended being a blessing in disguise for us; with my dessert taking longest to prepare (~20 minutes, and can't be done in advance), the waitress made up by offering each of us complementary glasses of the estate's 2006 Vidal icewine. Oh, I'll take a dish swap for a few sips of liquid golden sweetness any day!

And this is my dessert that kept all of us waiting, the Michel Cluizel Dark Chocolate Souffle. Souffles are a finicky form of baked substance; they puff up in the oven, but after only a few minutes they'll fall flat again, mainly due to one of the ingredients being beaten egg whites. It is for this reason that souffles must be served piping hot out of the oven, and this one definitely was. As if there wasn't already enough chocolate for me (and who has ever heard that one can have too much chocolate? *grin*), between the souffle and the white chocolate ice cream was a dark chocolate truffle and a milk chocolate ganache, both of which I mixed into the light and fluffy souffle. None of the components were too sweet, and this dish was absolute choco-heaven for me.

Hillebrand was another pleasant experience in the Niagara Region, and to be honest with you, as the "Inn's" cuisine had a different approach it's a toss-up between the two. Even if you're no wine drinker, the food here is definitely worth a visit, and the atmoshpere makes dining at this place a relaxing and satisfying experience.

Name: Hillebrand Estates
Address: 1249 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
Cuisine: Canadian
Price Range: Dinner $60-$80
Accessible: Yes

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Dining in Canada's Icewine Country - Part 1

As you may have read in the previous post, my sister has decided to move on with her own blog. I strongly encourage you to also keep an eye on hers... already her first posts have whetted my appetite! In the meantime, I'll continue to post my culinary adventures on this page, and right off the bat, I must provide reviews of two of the restaurants I tried last week while I still remember.

Last week I flew to Toronto to be with family in the area for two reasons: a one-week vacation for myself to see family, friends and relatives, and also to see my sister's convocation. Of course, with such things to do, and with living in hotels, dining out is virtually unavoidable, and I had some of my cravings of foods that seem "ordinary" in this region satisfied where it could not fully be back home. Shanghai cuisine is one example where I can easily get in Toronto or even in Ottawa, but not back home. Also, Swiss Chalet has yet to break out in Manitoba (alas!).

But I digress. There were definitely some upscale restaurants in the mix during the trip, and two of them were in the Niagara Peninsula wine country. This area is still reputable as one of a few major fruit belts in Canada, but it has also grown to become good wine country as well in part thanks to the geography and the nature of the soil. Because winters still arrive in the Niagara region (only time will tell if climate change will alter weather patterns in the future), Niagara is especially renowned for its icewines, wines made from grapes that have been picked in the middle of the night after being exposed to a certain amount of time in a certain level of freezing temperatures. Only one drop can be squeezed out of each grape, resulting in a rich and very sweet wines. Of course, where there is good wine being made, there's also bound to be good food in the area, and the two places my sis picked out of the hat did not disappoint.

The first one we visited was Inn on the Twenty, a restaurant which is part of an inn and spa tucked away in a quiet village sitting over a wooded valley called Jordan Station (west of St. Catharines, south of the Queen Elizabeth Way); the view of the valley made me forget that we were still fairly close to urban Ontario. The windows, valley scenery and decor seemed reminiscent of an English setting (and there still is a strong British historical presence in the Niagara Peninsula), but the ambience is definitely not old-school British at all; the interior, contemporary yet complementary to the surroundings, though more moderate in style and making the place feel intimate, did not feel stuffy at all. Perhaps one factor that helped ensure this restaurant feel intimate and quiet was the fact that we were there in early June; the real tourist season had still yet to begin.

The first item we all had at our table was an amuse-bouche of fresh PEI oyster with homemade dill. The sourness of the vinegar, the refreshing nature of cucumber and the natural saltiness of the oyster made for a pleasant combination, and the homemade dill definitely helped whet my appetite as I waited for my dishes.

My starting course was dumplings made of lobster with mixed greens that included baby asparagus. The dumplings were bursting with the flavour of lobster, and the meat within was cooked just right, the meat being just mildly chewy. The baby asparagus was a fun surprise, as until then I'd only had fully grown asparagus. The flavour is milder, and the tips were small, firm and still bunched up tightly.

The main course was tenderloin of Ontario beef with asparagus and a potato-chanterelle gratin. The tenderloin was done just to my liking and was flavoured just right. The gratin was also done quite well, as mixing potato and cheese, if not done just right, can bring about a greasier, and therefore more filling, result. The dish, with all the various elements, was still simple enough that the flavours didn't clash one another.

For dessert, I opted for the ricotta cheesecake with rhubarb sherbet. This dish was simple, clean yet elegantly done. The level of sweetness was just right for both the cheesecake and the sherbet.

Overall it was a pleasant experience at the Inn, and the food is delicious. Inn on the Twenty is definitely worth a visit, especially if you wish to experience fine dining in a more rural setting and, for those living especially in Toronto, in a rural setting that's only a daytrip (or an end to a wine tour) away.

Name: Inn on the Twenty
Address: 3845 Main Street, Jordan, ON
Cuisine: Continental
Price Range: Dinner $40-$70
Accessible: Yes

Sunday, 1 June 2008

What's been cooking?

Posted by Bonita

It's certainly been awhile, but alas, I did not forget this blog nor have I suddenly found a distaste for food. Far from that! Rather, I've been busy preparing the move to my new blog. Yes, after much thought and deliberation on my part, I've decided to part ways with Andrew here and create my own separate blog.

It's certainly been an amazing past year here. Looking back, I've made quite a few things. Some were great, while some turned out to be disasters. More importantly, I've had some great friends and family to share my culinary adventures along the way. Food is nothing, and honestly cannot be thoroughly enjoyed, if you don't do it properly and in good company. I hope to continue this tradition with my new blog. It's one thing to cook and eat good food, but nothing makes me more excited when I can share it with others, literally and virtually. I also want to thank my brother, Andrew, for having shared this space with me the past year. It's been fun, and we've had our fair share of delicious meals together. And it certainly won't be the last! You'll just have to come home more often...

Please come check out my new home, Bon Eats, where I hope to continue to share my passion and adventures in all things culinary with everyone!

To Bonita's new food blog --> Bon Eats