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
Price Range: Dinner $60-$80