For one reason or another, I've managed to have three great meals at three of Niagara's best restaurants over the last week, so here are some brief highlights:
Zest is participating in "Summerfest", a promotion among several restaurants in Fonthill. Three course prix fixe at dinner for $25. Considering that Zest's mains are usually in this range, this was an unbelievable bargain. They even threw in a complimentary amuse, being an Indonesian rice cake with sriracha/hoisin dipping sauce. A fiery start to a splendid meal! Highlights included mussels in a roasted heirloom tomato sauce that was dark and smoky, tempura prawns with a mango dipping sauce, duck in a Thai broth with jasmine rice, and grilled salmon with new potatoes and heirloom tomatoes. The restaurant was understandably packed last Friday, but the service remained first-rate, and Michael Pasto and his crew put on a great performance in the open kitchen. Encore!
Next was Hillebrand with a couple of good friends from Toronto on Saturday night. The "Taste of Niagara" was lovely, with tenderloins of pork, veal and beef prepared three ways, and served with a flight of three generous "2 oz." portions of wines mated to each. We all shared two cheese plates, trying all the cheeses on offer that evening, and were delighted with the candied nuts and wild blueberries that accompanied the wonderful cheeses on the plate. Dessert was a peach Tarte Tatin, which was made even better when our server told us that the peaches came from his family's farm down the road. The peaches were succulent, the caramel perfect, and the pastry buttery and decadent.
ON THE TWENTY
Last night was spent in Jordan with some colleagues and a good client. We had a truly splendid meal. Smoked salmon with dungeness crab, caviar creme fraiche and gewurtztraminer-cucumber jelly was delicate and beautifully presented. Grilled sweetbreads were crisp on the outside, creamy within, and served with an apricot bread pudding, walnut-scented lettuce hearts and fruit mustard. Absolutely outstanding. The rare tuna, wild striped bass filet, beef tenderloin and veal tenderloin mains were all great, and were made even better with a couple of bottles of Napanook from Yountville CA. (I understand that they also have a small, but growing wine industry.) Dessert was a marvellous bitter chocolate peanut tart with tamarind ice cream, nicely offset by the fruity sweetness of a glass of Cave Springs' own Indian Summer Riesling.
You can't go wrong with any of these restaurants, and they are great examples of our thriving restaurant culture in the Peninsula. Especially at this time of year, when the rewards of a long, hot summer are coming in from the fields, the fresh local cuisine in this area can't be beat.
The winery restaurants are pricey, but generally there is very good value for the money. I have to say that I was really surprised to see that Hillebrand was still offering only Hillebrand and Peller wines on their wine list. I realize that the restaurant is to an extent a marketing showcase for the company's main product, but I think it is undesirable to arbitrarily limit the list like that. It makes the food seem like an afterthought somehow, and I think that Tony DeLuca's food deserves better.
Cave Spring Cellars, on the other hand, does not limit its wine selections at On the Twenty, and offers its own excellent product legitimately alongside some of the best of the rest that Niagara and the rest of the world have to offer. Recently anointed executive chef Kevin Maniaci and his team are both talented and focused on delivering the best combinations of flavours and textures that our region can offer.
I've never had a bad mouthful of anything at Zest, and it remains one of the very best examples of Niagara's "new breed" of locally owned, regionally focused, globally infused eateries.
There's an apartment for rent upstairs from Zest right now: I wonder what the rent would be...