Day 1- Tasting Menus and Creepy Paintings
To switch things up, our last team meeting was planned outside of the normal confines of the GTA and we headed to Niagara-on-the Lake. A hot spot for worldwide travelers during the summer months, this small border town on Lake Ontario sits quiet during the winter months populated by stray deal seekers and seniors who didn’t make the trek down south for the cold season.
I showed up at the Prince of Wales a little late but in time for the second course of a wine and food pairing. I quickly had a glass of Cattail Creek Pinot Noir shoved into my hand while the chef explained the salmon he prepared. It was a pan roasted organic salmon cake, blue cornmeal and citron aioli lettuce wrap slider. Very tasty.
The next course was a fair trade coffee braised Ontario short rib, sweet potato and succotash and watercress salad served with a Henry of Pelham estate cab/merlot. They paired together nicely and the spoon was a blend of nice winter flavours.
The final was a dessert tray with a divine 2005 Southbrook ice wine. Promised to have complex fruit flavours, it had an overwhelming but delicious raisin flavour that was delicious with the truffles.
Further inspection of the hotel afterwards revealed a setting which may have been the inspiration for the Shining or some other horror movie. The attention to detail in everything from the tapestries to the door knobs was incredible and a far cry from the facades which grace most of the modern day destinations in metropolitan areas. Part of the ambiance was a number of oil paintings scattered throughout the hotel depicting members of the royal family past and present. Almost ever suite in the hotel is different. Mine was a red room complete with velvety curtains, matching carpet and a Pollyanna backboard. There was antique side tables, cozy chairs and yes…an oil painting with two overdressed and unhappy children staring at me.
Day 2– Beer is the new wine but microgreens are alive and well
There’s a beer movement brewing in the wine-dominated Niagara region. The Prince of Wales featured Niagara-on-the-Lake’s own Silversmith black lager. It reminded me of a black and tan..it starts punchy and ends with a smooth finish. The Butler’s bitter is produced by students of the Niagara College teaching brewery and proudly features on the list of taps available. Meant to resemble the beer of choice (or perhaps necessity) by the 1812 British soldiers, it was pleasantly unrefined but surprisingly refreshing.
We walked down the street to the Charles Inn for dinner. It was a mere five blocks from the Prince of Wales but during a polar vortex it felt like a marathon of a walk. It’s a quaint hotel and unlike the Prince, it was decorated much more subtly but still maintained the feel of a 19th century abode. It was a set dinner but was a fair representation of the food scene in this sleepy winter town; squash, microgreens, pork and salmon. In a sense, it’s a fusion of old school dining with a flare of the new. I opted for the squash veloute (which in fact was a cream soup but I guess you can call it a veloute as much as you can call it a bisque). It was hot and creamy and flavourful. The roasted marshmallow was a nice addition but a few springs of crispy sage would have worked really well.
The pork loin was served roasted and was coupled with a square of belly, another example of a fusion of eras versus one of cultures. It was cooked and seasoned nicely and served with root vegetables and a sort of potato pave. I’m sure the latter is a favorite of the locals year round as it screams old school french.
Coming as no surprise, dessert was creme brule, the ubiquitous staple of purveyors of fine dining and pyromaniacs across the country. It had all the elements; crispy top, smooth bottom, a spattering of fresh fruit. and yes..icing sugar. Looking at it was like watching a Miracle on 34th street. I felt relieved knowing this dish would still be around when I was 65 or 70.
Day Three– Burgers, Balzac’s and Brass Tacks
So there’s no question that a winter virus plus a few too many brews makes one a little groggy the next morning so I crossed the street to Balzac’s to indulge in some sort of recovery beverage. Balzac’s is small chain of coffee shops that populate the Golden Horseshoe. They offer roomy interiors and a carousel of available coffees. In addition, they sell traditional coffee inspired beverages but also feature some interesting elixirs that crush things like Starbucks sickly sweet caramel flan latte. The citro-boost for example, is a potion of lemon, maple syrup, ginger and cayenne pepper. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. I trotted back across the street, sat in my meeting and felt medicinally wonderful as my colleagues sipped the watery, hotel made coffee of unknown origin. The next day I went back and had the Cafe Nordique, a latte with honey, vanilla and cardamom. Although a little on the sweet side, the cardamom burst through, resulting in a pleasurable treat.
In the still of winter, I was not surprised that the hotel was rather empty on Monday and Tuesday night. Wednesday, however, was a different story. After my meeting, the bar/restaurant was buzzing and filled to capacity. A wave of blue hairs and accompanying distinguished gentlemen had invaded the place. When I asked the barkeep what was going on she responded with two words: Burger night. It seems 5 dollar burger night is all the rage. The locals dig themselves out of the driveways and brave the cold to indulge on this weekly treat. You even see a pint or a glass of wine peppered on tables around the bar although fisticuffs remained at a minimum.
My plans involved crossing the street to the Irish Harp pub. Voted Niagara’s number one pub, it features an array of local and European beer. Their flagship pints are sold under the “Irish Harp” name and brewed close by. I sucked a few back over the evening with great delight. To my surprise, not every person in Niagara-on-the-Lake was eating a burger at the Prince. The remaining folks were about to engage in Wednesday trivia night. The place was quarter full but table tents with team names adorned most of the unoccupied tables. We took one of the only free tables on the bar side. Shortly after, the regular crowd shuffled in. One group was a half dozen twenty-somethings who looked like trivia was their only break from hours of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Another table was Niagara-on-the-Lake’s version of thirty something foodies. The remaining tables were serious looking mixes of older patrons who were here to play. The husband/wife trivia leading tandem showed up and we were off to the races. Six sheets were circulated in succession with questions that would stump Ken Jennings. The lager numbed the fact that I couldn’t list the first native american prima ballerina (who passed away in 2013) although I did know the author of Get Shorty. After 4 rounds we were in third place and received a few threatening glares from the locals but in rookie fashion we choked a bit in the last two rounds and finished out of the money in 5th place (actually it wasn’t money…first place was a basket of homemade chocolate).
I found the food average. The black and tan onion rings with Guinness spiked mayonnaise were a unique and delicious twist on the traditional appetizer although a little steep at $13.
For a main, I ordered the Irish hot pot which combined a small portion of Irish Stew with the Steak and Guinness pie for $13 and a side of mashed for $2.50. It was quite average. The meat was tenderish and the seasoning was acceptable but neither dish was mind blowing. The picture is really bad because I wasn’t allowed to use my phone during trivia so had to sneak a fast shot…proof I’m not Peter Parker. The pictureless bread pudding was quite delicious, a fitting end to a table who wasn’t quite smart enough to win the prized confections.
Niagara-on-the-Lake made me crave life after 65. The thought of indulging on microgreens, creme brulee and a weekly burger plus a trivia beat down while drinking copious amounts of microbrewed beer is a solid retirement plan. Sure, I would need to put up with annoying summer tourists and creepy oil paintings but it beats snowbirding to Florida, plying bingo and eating dinner at 4 pm every night.