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

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