Daytrip Report: Niagara-on-the-Lake
As part of the monthly dinners that are organized on the google group, a bunch of hounds car-pooled out to Niagara-on-the-Lake for dinner. Our original intent was to go to Stone Road Grille, but they weren't prepared to accommodate a group our size (12 people), so we had to turn to an alternative, DeLuca's.
Of course, just driving out to NotL for one dinner seemed like a waste of a drive out to wine country, so we knew we needed to check out a few other places, as well.
Our day started at Upper Canada Cheese, where they were grilling burgers and sausages on the BBQ outside. The comfort cream burger with caramelized onions was good, but it didn't hold a candle to the debrezini and smoked sausages they were also serving which were juicy, flavorful and all around great.
We headed inside to try a number of different cheeses from around Ontario and a few from further afield. They had a rich, gooey Comfort Cream, and some smoked ricotta on offer, along with the Niagara gold. We also got them to cut some Sticky Toffee Cheese for us, which was fascinating. Imagine a sticky toffee flavored cheesecake. Now imagine that it's not a cheesecake, but actual cheese.
Our next stop was Whitty Farms, for wonderful, juicy, flavorful local strawberries, and asparagus. We also tried some garlic peanuts, and strawberry rhubarb tarts that were still warm from the oven and offered a perfect balance of tart and sweet, in a rich, buttery crust. I picked up some butter tarts for later, as well, and those were excellent, as well. The filling seemed a little sparse relative to the crust but given how sweet a butter tart is, that was actually a fairly good ratio.
Our next stop was Olson Foods' at the Ravine, which has recently added full table "service". Service is a bit of a misnomer, given how scattershot the experience was, with waiting for everything from menus to ketchup, to wrong dishes being delivered and us having to go off in search of our own silverware, but it was a beautiful day and the food was good, and we weren't in a hurry, so we only bitched a little.
I tried a little bit of everything, but I'll just comment on a couple of things I really liked. They're selling a local product called Gesundheit Grape Juice that was a little sweet (in the vein of an ice wine), but otherwise gorgeous -- great depth to the flavor.
Having already kind of over-indulged on the day, I ordered a lemon square, rather than a meal, and it was a great choice, if I do say so myself. It was the sort of delicious that you have to close your eyes while you eat, so you're not distracted from the flavors. Unlike a lot of lemon tarts, it was neither particularly tart, nor overly sweet, instead it was creamy and subtle -- just a hint of tartness and a hint of sugar.
Our next stop was The Pie Plate in Virgil for a little more dessert (this bought my daily dessert total up to 4, including the home-baked chocolate chip cookies that someone brought for the drive out there, or about 10, if you count all the desserts I tried at the Pie Plate). I split a slice of carrot cake with orange cream cheese icing with someone else (I'm a sucker for cream cheese icing of all kinds, so I loved this), but also got my fork into several other pieces of dessert, as well as one of their savoury beef & Guiness pies. I was still kind of blissed out on Anna Olson's lemon tart, so other than the really rich flavors in my own cake nothing jumped out at me too strongly here, but the mix of textures on the lemon coconut bar was really great.
We did stop at a couple of wineries, as well, first Sunnybrook Farms, which does fruit wines, and then Stratus, where everyone agreed that their white blend is unusually complex and layered for a white. I loved, loved, loved their Red Ice Wine, and while I usually can't pick out the flavors I'm supposed to recognize in wine, the promised strawberry and rhubarb flavors in that wine hit me like a truck -- I had no trouble recognizing them at all. I bought a couple of bottles to take home. I also bought a couple of bottles of the Pear Ice Wine at Sunnybrook. What can I say, I like my wines sugary.
Our final stop, then, was at DeLuca's for dinner. It shares an unassuming plaza with a bank, a Shopper's Drug Mart and a housing development sales center, which perhaps wasn't the most auspicious sign, but it all turned out okay.
Service was welcoming and friendly, and they started us off with an amuse of smoked trout with some leek puree. I ordered a mushroom risotto as an appetizer, that came filled with tons of mushrooms, and topped with some crispy fried sweetbreads. The cheese sprinkled on the top was a little too salty and overpowering -- it would have been better grated sparingly, rather than cut into small chunks and -- but it was otherwise a very good dish. For an $11 appetizer, it was also a very large portion. A lot of light eaters would have considered it a main.
I also ordered the roast venison, which came with fantastic gratin potatos, asparagus wrapped in bacon and grilled zucchini. I generally preferred the sides to the meat, which was fine, but a little tough, and kind of inconsistently cooked from person to person who ordered it, and served with a sauce I found way too strong. The sides, on the other hand, were great all the way around.
Having already had some several desserts that day, I passed at DeLuca's, though several people did try either their trio of chocolate desserts or their trio of creme brulee.
Even with a mandatory gratuity of 18% for our large party, the bills were very reasonable. They were happy to do separate cheques, or group us into smaller groups or whatever, which was nice.
If you're interested in joining the google group to find out about the unofficial but fairly regular chowdowns, you can find it here: http://groups.google.com/group/chowho...
stratus white was the first one that really impressed me in such a way that it's seriously imprinted on my mind. i think it was the first year they were open so i want to say it was a 2001 but i can't be absolutely sure.
can anyone offer more specific tasting notes on it? it might be worth the drive for me ;)
I didn't take notes, but it has a huge, aromatic nose and a lovely, lovely finish. There is a really nice balance of flavors so that no one note dominates -- not too floral, not too mineral, not too fruity. I'm not very good at describing whites, so maybe someone else can jump in.
I'll open a bottle at next month's picnic so you can try it. :)
The Stratus white is different every year and is comprised of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Semillon and Viognier (i think), but not necessarily in that order and I think also not necessarily including all varietals in the same amounts (or at all) in any given year. So, it will taste different every vintage. The last one I tasted (can't recall) was very similar to Caymus Conundrum, which operates on a similar concept.
i was aware it was a changing blend, i think the one that i had they claimed was a 13 grape blend even though i can't imagine where they got 13 grapes from.... maybe it was salesman schtick i should have called them out on, anyway.
it was more so that i found the vintage directly after the one i drank to be so different and unimpressive (especially at those price points and irregardless of their intentions) that i haven't been tempted to go back to stratus as much. if there is a current vintage that was crafted to be more in the style of the one i really enjoyed... well niagara trip here i come!
It was a great day of food, and the beautiful weather just added the perfect grace note to the day. My favourite nibbles were the beautiful fresh strawberries and the strawberry-rhubarb tartlet at Whitty Farms, the bite of lemon square I had at Olson Foods, the banana cream pie and the steak and Guinness pie at The Pie Plate. At DeLuca's I really enjoyed my asparagus appetizer. You'd think that a few stalks of asparagus on a plate would be boring, but it was delicious -- perfectly cooked asparagus on a lemon aioli, some toasted pine nuts, a couple of slices of manchego cheese, and a perfectly poached egg on a tiny bed of greens. It was a great balance of flavours and textures. My halibut dish was also lovely -- very, very light, with the picard peanuts in the "crust" (which sadly wasn't very crusty) providing some needed textural interest to the dish. I think desserts were the weakest part of the menu -- I think creme brulee just needs to be banished from all dessert menus. The chocolate plate didn't interest me, and I had had several lemon-y desserts already that day. It would have been nice to see a dessert take advantage of the glorious local strawberries that are available right now. I would have paid a lot of money for a well made strawberry shortcake that night. :)
Olson Foods definitely needs to work out the kinks (gordian knots?) in their table service, but they are well intentioned and the setting is beautiful, so all is forgiven this time.
I don't get the appeal of Upper Canada Cheese. I went some time ago just after it first opened and was not wowed by either the taste or selection (apparently selection was limited by what dairy producers were allowed to make?). I do enjoy Monteforte products so I don't think I'm comparing our artisanal products to european or even Quebecois cheeses. What am I missing?
First off, Upper Canada cheese is made with the milk of Guernsey cows. Monforte was (Ruth Klahsen has shut down operations and is building a new dairy near Stratford) making cheese from sheep and goat milk.
So, Ontario artisanal cheese companies both, but you are actually comparing apples to oranges (or should I say, cows to goats).
Here are the pics from our outing:
It was a perfect day to be outside indulging in delicious delights. Highlights for me were the strawberry rhubarb tart from Whitty's farm. Fantastic crust with just the right balance of sweet and tart. The steak and guiness pie from the Pie Plate was delicious, if we weren't moving onto another food stop I would've stayed and ordered one just for myself! Very impressed with the red ice wine from Stratus and the poire sec from Sunnybrook Farm. I loved the combination of the pickerel sashimi and seaweed puree. You really didn't need anything else on the plate. I quite enjoyed the sauce with my venison, I didn't find it too strong while the rhubarb compote didn't served any purpose imo. Loved the duck prosciutto I stole from a fellow diner's plate, I'm definitely going to order that the next time I'm at Deluca's.
As someone who ordered one of those inconsistently cooked venison at DeLuca's, I have to say, they did a really spectacular job after I complained. The second piece of venison that came out was beautifully rare, and pink in the middle.
Overall, my impression of DeLuca's was that the appetizers were really great. The pickerel sashimi boasted a pretty clever deconstruction, with a sauce made from a seaweed puree. The asparagus and poached egg also boasted a perfectly done poached egg.