I love Windsor. I’ve mentioned before it reminds me of my hometown of Sudbury. Although it will probably never be part of a conversation about the best dining destinations in Canada, Windsor has quietly evolved into a diverse and vibrant culinary locale. Driven by a number of mom/pop or brother/sister joints, one can choose almost anything. If you’re in the mood for a family style joint, you can hit the Lumberjack’s salad bar or order Penalty Box’s chicken delight. Food Network junkies can hit a number of joints visited by John Catucci on You Gotta Eat Here. If you are in the mood for ethnic food, there is fantastic Italian along Erie Street and great Thai, Lebanese and even Ethiopian scattered throughout the city. If you are still stuck you can hop onto Windsor Eats, an impressive website which provides up to date information on local restaurants and even offers tours which highlights local fare.
What makes things even better are the uncontrolled circumstances which usually occur involving a trip to Windsor. It’s never simply a go to a restaurant, eat and leave experience. There are always a few things which happen along the way that makes things stranger than fiction. Take my recent visit for example.
I left the hospital on my way to a meeting with two colleagues; one works with my company and the other is a local doctor. The latter had suggested we hit an Italian cafe so we can experience Erie Street. Once I turned onto the street, we pulled over in front the first cafe we found that looked open. I’m reluctant to name it over fear for my car tires and general well-being. Upon entry, the people in the place scattered, abandoning any card games or whatever else was going on. The cafe basically consisted of a small bar, a huge espresso machine and an empty gelato bar with a smaller ice cream cooler beside it which was housing three or four flavours. Looking around I saw a bunch of Italian guys, a picture of Robert De Niro (who apparently visited during Superbowl in Detroit) and an aged and framed oil painting of an Italian man who I have yet to identify. I think I even saw the eyes follow me as I walked around the place. A large television was showing Grey’s Anatomy much to the pleasure of a few of the patrons. Things seemed to settle down once they figured out we weren’t cops and we were able to order. Given it was about 10 degrees below zero, I ordered a decaf Americano and my work colleague ordered a latte. The doctor, on the other hand, ordered a chocolate gelato on a waffle cone and proceeded to eat it like a happy 12 year old child. While we waited, an old Italian guy walked out of the washroom. He was either hiding in there after thinking a sting was going down or maybe he just needed to use the facilities but his reaction was nothing short of priceless. I should point out that my colleague is an attractive blond woman whose likes probably haven’t stepped foot in that cafe for 30 years. His jaw hit the floor like a Warner Brother’s character and he started speaking in tongues. The woman behind the espresso machine just told him to go sit down. He complied but continued to mutter drunken Italian nonsense in our direction for the remainder of the visit. In between bites of chocolate, the doctor suggested that I should probably switch chairs so my back wasn’t facing the front door. So, with Dr. Dreamy on the tube, a smiling De Niro on the wall and a bunch of old Italian guys (including the paisan in the oil painting) staring at us, we had our meeting, finished our coffees (and gelato of course) and scurried out.
After we dropped him off we decided to grab a bite. Not only was is cold but it was starting to snow. I should take this opportunity to point out something about Windsor; they don’t like snow. In fact, they would have no problem declaring a state of emergency once enough snow falls to erect a Tyrion Lannister snowman. So, with nothing more than a centimeter of snow on the ground, out came the plows. I was driving down one of the many one way streets and a saw the plow behind me. I was immediately reminded of a scene from 1986’s Maximum Overdrive. The only thing missing was the Green Goblin face. The homicidal plow approached at a feverish pace, sending sparks instead of snow ten feet into the air. I turned onto another street the minute I had a chance, took a deep breath and realized that my life had now been threatened twice in the same evening.
We eventually decided on dinner at Rino’s kitchen. Rino’s encourages you to “Taste the finest Essex County has to offer. Farm to table at its best in a relaxed pub atmosphere.” It was also recently featured on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”. At this point I should point out the fact that, like most cities, there is a subset of Windsor’s population who thinks they are hipsters. The last time I came to Rino’s there were a table of clowns that looked more like the cast of Scorpion than self-proclaimed food aficionados. To be a good hipster you really have to be a self-righteous asshole. Just wearing the plaid and sitting farm to table joint in a small, blue collar city is not enough.
Luckily, hipsters were absent on this evening. Instead, we arrived on the tail end of an art show. Small pictures were hanging all over the place. In fact, we switched tables so as not to get in the way of the viewing audience. I did have a look at some of the pictures and my colleague, with her psychology background, had commented that most of them looked like Rorschach blots. I had to agree and felt tempted to lay down on the bench I was sitting on. One of them looked like De Niro pointing a gun at me. Another looked like the Green Goblin. Asa a result, I quickly ordered on of the four or five Ontario pints available on tap.
The menu offers all sorts of choices ranging from seasonal salads to protein laden mains. I’m always a fan of house-cured meats, so we started with the charcuterie plate for $15. Two types of meat (salami and coppa) and cheese (asiago and pecorino) were served along with roasted red peppers and bread. The quality of the ingredients were quite good although it would have been nice to have some mustard or other condiments along side. I would have also liked to see something like aged Ontario cheddars available “on board”.
As tempted as I was to order the signature pork and waffles, the pleasant waitress talked me into the seasonal oxtail stew served atop potato mash ($17). The stew was filled with tender meat and carrots and served in a hearty portion with more carrots on the side. It was a lot of carrots. Maybe a few green vegetables would have been better. In addition to a good dose of carotene, it was a delicious dish which was seasoned well.
They offered an apple crisp and a pumpkin walnut cheesecake for dessert. I ordered the latter. Pumpkin and walnut go well together and the cheesecake was not overly sweet or heavy. I think the icing sugar was a fitting garnish for a couple of reasons. First, it’s kind of a f#ck you to the hipster movement who would likely reference the fact if wasn’t 2003 and then suggest a ground cherry as a more appropriate condiment. Second, it’s the perfect example of a small town, blue collar adaption of the farm to table concept in a relaxed pub environment.
In the span of a few hours, I escaped a scene from a Robert De Niro movie, outran a homicidal snowplow and got psychoanalyzed by the works of a struggling Windsor artist. I also ate a decent meal at a restaurant which adheres to farm to table principles from charcuterie to dessert without the associated urban pretension. You won’t find mason jars or the unnecessary yet abundant use of radishes at Rino’s. In fact, the menu offers trendy, tasty and reasonably priced choices without compromising portion sizes at the expense of making things look pretty. Ya, I love Windsor…with icing sugar on top.