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Zest Bests the Rest

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Zest Bests the Rest

Gourmando | Sep 20, 2003 08:00 AM

Okay, show of hands: How many people know where Fonthill is? I didn't think so. I recently moved back to my hometown, about 20 minutes west of Niagara Falls in the heart of the Peninsula, after several years in Ottawa, and while several wineries in the region have developed some seriously good restaurants, I never imagined that one of the best local tables would open up right in the heart of downtown Fonthill (pop. 5000).

Back in May, some stylish renovations appeared to be happening at the former Tradewinds Restaurant on Pelham Street. Eventually, a sign appeared: Zest...Modern Canadian Cuisine. Good sign. An even better sign was the sandwich board on the sidewalk that said "Open" a couple of weeks later.

The People and the Space

Chef Michael Pasto and Manageress Leigh Atherton have come together to create a cool, open space that is at once chic and inviting: Deep blue walls, light wood floors, and a small bar overlooking the spacious open kitchen. Michael started out at Centro in Toronto, but has since broadened his talents around the world, including stints in Hong Kong and most recently New York. I don't know what led him back to Ontario, and specifically to Fonthill, but whatever it was, I hope he stays.

The Wines

The wine list is small, but reasonably priced and carefully chosen. There is a good cross-section of some of the best local wines, but also solid choices from the other great wine regions of the world. A bottle of 2001 Angel's Gate Cab Franc was reasonable value at $42, and our smart server knew enough to offer to decant the bottle, something that many restaurants would never think of, but that really helps to smarten up wines that may not have reached their full potential in the bottle.

The Food

I think you need to be either a moron or a genius to want to cook in an open kitchen. Fortunately, all the evidence so far points to the latter conclusion in Michael's case. Both preparation and presentation are delivered with careful attention to detail. It seems as though every dish on the menu has its own unique plate to complement and accent the food (e.g., large square white plate for the foie gras; oblong dark blue dish for the calamari). The chef's time in the pacific rim is evident in many of his dishes, in which he successfully marries east and west; it may just be my impression, but I think their logo (a big "Z" with "est" in front of it)is a subtle hint of the strong influence from the Far "Est". Some highlights from two recent visits:

- A complementary amuse-bouche; fish both times, last night being a tiny grated carrot salad with seared rare tuna and infused oil

- A generous slab of pan-seared Quebec foie gras was crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle, and perfectly mated with fresh berries, potato crisps, and a slaw whose specific composition I can't recall.

- Crispy calamari served with Vietnamese siracha dipping sauce was tender in the lightest of batters, with a properly and boldly spiced sauce.

- A summer salad of tomatoes and goat cheese with aged balsamic was a refresing take on a seasonally classic pairing, with tiny red and yellow tomatoes, fresh greens, and grill-marked chevre.

- Pan-fried duck breast with Chinese five-spice and Asian vegetables was unusual. The duck was properly cooked and moist, but I thought the strong anise flavour of the five-spice was too overpowering; it seemed to eclipse the flavour of the meat itself, rather than enhance it.

- Seared rare tuna served on wilted baby spinach with a curried carrot broth was fresh and melt-in-your mouth delicious.

- Tagliatelle tossed in a fresh tomato basil sauce with grilled prawns and scallops was my main course last night, and a good choice after the rich foie gras! The pasta was properly done, the sauce was fresh and lively, and the seafood was perfectly cooked and delicious.

- Desserts included a smooth milk chocolate silk with toasted almonds (I figured after the "light" pasta, I could return to decadence for dessert!); a baked vanilla cheese cake with peach compote was also sinfully good; and a light lemon mousse with oat crisps and fresh berries was a refreshing choice.

The restaurant was busy last night, and I hope that business continues to thrive. The quality is certainly there from every aspect. It is easily the most expensive restaurant in town, but I've seen much higher prices for much less innovative food in some of our bigger cities, so I think the value is good. Time will tell whether the initial quality and innovation will evolve and develop to hold our attention, but Michael and Leigh seem to have the talent and entusiasm that will make it happen. Those of us who live in this area should take advantage of this new jewel. Those of you who don't should find Fonthill on the map, and make Zest a destination on your next visit to beautiful Niagara.

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