The restaurant at Peninsula Ridge Winery has been reported to have ambitions to be the French Laundry of Niagara. They've hired one of the better chefs from Toronto (Ned Bell, formerly at Accolade and Sen5es) and, bravely, serve only Canadian wines.
Situated in Beamsville, about an hours drive from Toronto (and 40 minutes from Niagara), there's not much competition in the environs. So, it had better be good to make the journey worth taking.
Main courses are in the $30-40 range (plus taxes of 15%), certainly upscale, even for Toronto, but much more attractive to tourists with US$. They also offer tasting menus at $70 (6 courses) and $100 (8 courses - the same as the 6 course plus extra appetizer and extra dessert). This menu can also be ordered with wine (4 glasses with the 6 course for $100; 5 glasses with the 8 course for $150). We both ordered the 6 course with wine and received identical meals. We also had a very early sitting (5:00) - they were sold out and turned at least 3 parties away (without reservations) that we saw. It's situated in a renovated old house, with rooms both upstairs and down - maybe 50-60 places in total.
The bread basket was impressive - small pieces of four different kinds - a nut, a red pepper, baguette and a 'yellow' bread - didn't taste like corn and didn't ask. The food started with a complimentary amuse-bouche, described as watercress with beet and a cross-hatched potato chip. Although garnished with watercress, it was actually celeriac (which I far prefer anyway). An excellent presentation of colours, flavours and textures. However, we were now getting antsy for some wine. Wine nicely kick-starts the digestive juices. We had already asked if there was a sparkling wine by the glass, with which to start our meal, but they only had one sparkler - a Canadian Rosé (méthode champenoise) at around $55, and it wasn't served by the glass. Because we were driving we skipped that. Our pointed question on when the first wine would be served brought forth a 2000 Unoaked Chardonnay from Peninsula Ridge. This was surprisingly round on the palate - I was sure I detected some vanilla with the very ripe citrus notes, but was assured that it hadn't touched wood. Shortly after, the soup course arrived. This was a puree of roasted parsnip, with chanterelle mushrooms, double-smoked bacon, diced carrot and sweet corn kernels. I'm guessing some milk (rather than cream) was there too as the texture was more soup like than pureed. A swirl of green olive oil was announced as being present (we overheard another table later being told it was pumpkinseed oil - which makes more sense). This was an exceptional dish. The flavours were pure, the ingredients fresh and the interplay of textures was superb. We had creamy, sweet (from the parsnip), chewy (bacon), dente (mushrooms), crisp (carrot) and squishy (corn), all in harmony. The wine paled beside this.
The server had now been trained to bring wine early, for the next wine appeared before the fish course - a 1999 oaked Chardonnay (also Peninsula Ridge). This seemed clumsy compared to the Unoaked; soft, sweet and flabby. It didn't really go with anything, including the cumin-crusted sea bass on a cauliflower/leek/corn emulsion (actually more of a foamulsion - Ferran Adría, what hast thou wrought?). But the fish was fresh and perfectly cooked. Not as memorable as the soup, but perfectly fine.
A serving of seared foie gras was an optional extra to the tasting menus. No problem! That makes it a 7 course. We had been told that the tasting wines were all from Peninsula Ridge, ending with an Icewine. We therefore requested that the Icewine be served with the foie gras, rather than waiting until the end. This request was easily complied with, so we received a Sandstone Select Late Harvest Riesling (from 13th Street Winery). OK, it's not an Icewine (nor Peninsula Ridge), but it was the perfect match for the foie gras (probably better than an Icewine), which was served on a toasted brioche with a pickled crabapple compôte. The serving was smaller than I would have liked, but that probably applies to any serving outside Alsace.
The third official dish was a blackberry sorbet. Pleasant, but a trifle too sweet for me.
The fourth (and main) course was a saddle of rabbit, served with fingerling potatoes, asparagus, a sage and thyme reduction and a roast garlic foam (there's Adría again). The wine was a Cabernet Merlot, but turned out to be 50% merlot, 25% cab sauvignon and 25% cab franc (begging the question why it wasn't Merlot Cabernet - aren't there laws about that?). Nevertheless, it was a pleasant match, with the food far outshining the wine yet again. Again, pure flavours.
The fifth was a cheese course. Kudos for the idea, which is rarely practiced in Toronto. But only one cheese each so we had a goat and a cow from Quebec (can't remember their names). Really enjoyed the balsamic garnish too.
Finally, dessert. We were both given the Study Of Lemon - three small servings on a platter, consisting of a lemon cheesecake, a lemon tart (with a brûlée topping) and a lemon/lime sorbet. This was an acidic combination that completely wiped out the remaining sweet wine - it lost its structure becoming syrupy and flabby. Apparently, they alternate desserts nightly, the others in the rotation being studies in apple, pear and chocolate. Coffee was extra.
Total bill for two, including taxes and gratuity was just over $300 ($200US). The verdict was that we'd had an excellent meal, and couldn't recall a more satisfying one (at a restaurant) this year. In particular, I applaud the obvious use of fresh local ingredients (OK the foie gras and cheese came from Quebec, and they didn't serve Lake Ontario fish, fortunately). This is a promising start and well worth a return visit. The food showed extremely well, but the service/front room was fairly casual - didn't see anybody obviously in charge or watching what was going on. The kitchen is downstairs, as were we, so I don't know if upstairs diners get their food á point. It's difficult to signal to a server on a different floor when the dishes are ready. I believe it's only open from Wed-Sat. It's no French Laundry - but at least you can get a reservation.