Windsor Coffee: Let’s get Brewin’ Bros. and Salute as we drop an Anchor on a Lobster-Clawed Mermaid

Windsor was once a Tim Horton’s town.  Years ago, I spent countless hours in Timmie’s plugging away at a computer in between appointments when I used to travel there twice a week. At the time, public wifi was as non-existent as choices outside of lame coffee and cookie cutter, par-baked apple fritters.

In the years since Windsor has evolved into more of a cosmopolitan burghal.  Although the downtown is still a work in progress, glimmers of light have emerged through the cracks of closed eateries and boarded up retail stores. Neighbourhoods like Walkerville have developed their own identities, offering foodies everything from microbrews to quinoa burgers.

In conjunction with this expansion, there has been a explosion of coffee shops which have percolated up in all corners of Windsor. It goes without saying that Starbucks has jumped on the opportunity to sway local and loyal Tim drinkers and recruit teenage caffeine junkies to a life of lattes, frappuccinos  and cake pops.

I was recently down in Windsor for a couple of days of business and embarked on a mission to hit as many coffee shops as I could.  Not only did I want to sample the wares but I wanted to test the waters regarding the ability for everybody to play nice in the sandbox.  I was intrigued with a comment a good friend of mine and Windsorite made about her hometown.  She said that she doesn’t understand why the art community in Windsor can’t get along.  In particular, she was referring to belly dancing, yoga studios and coffee shops and since I would be an absolute embarrassment at the first two, I figure I would test the theory while drinking java while strumming away on my computer.

Salute Espresso Bar

Pronounced salute-a, this coffee house is located in the aforementioned Walkerville area.  It has an underground feel, partly due to the fact you have to walk down the stairs to get inside. This industrial theme is furthered by the painted concrete floors and unfinished ceilings.  It’s quite spacious and offers a number of tables and stools to sit and sip.  Instead of coffee brewed by the pot and housed in a thermos, Salute chooses to brew cup by cup using a chemex. I usually order decaf and their product is amazing,  As it cools, the flavour profile evolves, reflecting the complexity of a high quality coffee bean.  For latte lovers, if you’re against lactose in dairy and phytoestrogens in soy you can substitute in their housemade almond milk (which I sure as hell hope is carrageenan free). The pecan tarts are sinful. They also offer a small menu which offers a decent breakfast sandwich. During my visits,  many people walk through the doors to buy coffee and accessories.  They also sell high quality chocolate and…uuummmmm….toothpaste.

Salute Breakfast Sandwich and a Decaf Coffee
Salute Breakfast Sandwich and a Decaf Coffee

Those who would enjoy Salute include the following:

  • Local residents who choose not to deepen the carbon footprint by refusing to drive outside their Walkerville microcosm.
  • Members of the non-GMO, gluten free, vegan, raw and alkaline clan who can take advantage of the secret passage to Carrots N Dates next door so one can indulge on cold pressed juices, kombucha or longevity salads while sipping a brew.
  • People who enjoy listening to funky music off the owner’s ipod playlist set at a volume which only slightly impairs you ability to have a conversation with your table mate.
  • Those who like picking up things and bringing them home to enjoy later (I am referring to coffee here in case your mind wandered somewhere else).
  • Heathens who would rather drink coffee than go to church on Sundays.
  • Oral care enthusiasts who want clean teeth after drinking copious amounts of coffee and/or eating squares of delicious chocolate.

Anchor Coffee House

Pronounced “anchor”, this coffee house is tucked in a strip mall along Huron Chruch road. My impression is it that is owned by a young husband and wife team. The decor is more rustic than industrial, highlighted with a lot of wood accents and nice art hanging on the walls.  It’s quite cozy and is open 7-5 during the week and 11-8 on Saturday.  They are closed Sundays.  They offer a selection of brewed coffee as well as the normal list of espresso based drinks.  I ordered an decaf Americano which was delicious.  Since I was there a while, I also ordered a Chai Latte which they make from scratch in a stove top process which takes an hour or so. It was complex and nicely balanced with an aggressive amount of spice and minimal sweetness.  There is also a good selection of homemade cookies, scones and bars.  I was there in the morning and fell in love with the sight of a frittata on display at the cash.  It was a near perfect breakfast…light, fluffy, well seasoned and all that stuff.

Anchor Chai Latte
Anchor Chai Latte
Anchor Frittata
Anchor Frittata

Those who would enjoy Anchor include the following:

  • Local business owners and workers who no longer feel the need to head down to the street to the Tim’s or Starbucks to wait in line with the other peons.
  • Those who need to cleanse themselves from the defilement of chain restaurants after wondering why the hell they went to the Applebee’s next door.
  • Travelers who need a caffeine shot prior to crossing the border and have this ill-conceived notion that you cannot or should not stop in Detroit because you might get carjacked by members of Eminem’s eight mile cartel. (On a side note, I think coffee is ok to bring across the border but just don’t bring an orange over.  The border patrol has citrus sniffing dogs and the punishment is a dirty look and having to watch a perfectly good piece of fruit tossed into the trash).
  • I can’t recall music playing so I think Anchor is good for those who want to enjoy the silence instead of listening to it.
  • Fans of frittatas, homemade soups and baked goods like grandma used to make.
  • Music fans who are looking for a  true coffee house experience.  Anchor offers live music on Saturday nights so one can be serenaded while sipping. Everybody can sleep in on Sundays.

Brewin’ Bros Coffee Company.

This is the newest addition to Windsor’s growing coffee culture. It is quietly located in a strip mall along Walker Road. In fact, I drove by it, missing the small black and white pop-up sign that was impaled in roadside snowbank. It’s internet presence  is as non-existent as it’s signage. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the name. It sounds like a brewery; I mistakenly typed in “brew bros windsor” and was provided with numerous sites linking me to Brew, a microbrewery located on University Ave. Perhaps a better name would be naivety (pronounced naivet-a) for a number or reasons. First, it appears to have a French theme as indicated by the Eiffel tower decal by the washroom, an array of macaroons in the display case and fact that individual cups of coffee are brewed via the French press method but it lacks a Parisian  bistro feeling. The ceiling is unfinished and furniture is more practical than cute.  Second, the prices are lower than I would expect. Third, they don’t have decaf which I find quite odd. Fourth, the husband and wife owners look younger than my kids.  I felt like a bit of a chaperone sitting there watching them making gaga eyes at each other at their makeshift office in the corner of the seating area. Lastly, they have the strangest hours.  They don’t open until 11 and stay open until 1130. Apparently the model is working but I prefer a different type of brew after 8 pm. They offer a small menu which I haven’t tried except for a piece of turtle cheesecake which was quite satisfying.  The macarons were decent too.

Brewin' Bros French Press and Turtle Cheesecake
Brewin’ Bros French Press and Turtle Cheesecake

Those would enjoy Brewin’ Bros include the following:

  • Drivers who prefer Walker Road as a means of getting in an out of Windsor and don’t mind getting their assess out of the car to get a coffee instead of joining the Tim’s or Starbucks drive-thru line.
  • Coffee drinkers who can enjoy a French Press at Brewin’ Bros. and then walk two doors down to Personal Service Coffee to grab a bag full of shitty mix and match Keurig pods for home.
  • Patrons of  “Mom’s” next door who would prefer a coffee to go along with their halal fried chicken combo.
  • People who want a one shop stop for coffee, bubble tea and soda.  You can bring your non-coffee drinking friend there, order them a bubble tea and tell them to shut the hell up.
  • Fans of name that tune. Acoustic sets of lyricless classic rock played who included Zeppelin and Hotel California by the Eagles, making it fun to see how it takes you to figure it out.
  • If you’re not a morning person or a religious zealot, this place is for you.  They don’t open until 11 am, stay open until 11:30 at night and aren’t open on Sundays.

Starbucks

I love when yelpers, spooners and bloggers go into in-depth descriptions about Starbucks.  “Starbucks is an international coffee chain out of Seattle that offers a variety of hot and cold drinks”. Gee thanks!  All I am going to say is that I went there on my way out of Windsor and unbeknownst  to me, it was the launch day of the La Boulange, the new bakery which promises a new line of French pastries that go magnificently with all Starbucks beverages.  I walked into see all the tables donning dollar store pink plastic aprons and the staff wearing matching pink aprons.  I felt like I was at a breast cancer fund raiser as I shoved a butter-laden chocolate croissant down my pie hole. It wasn’t bad but still tasted like a mass produced pastry.

Those who would enjoy Starbucks include the following:

  • People who enjoy making up a name for the side of the cup (yes..that’s right..my name is Chazz), prefer random strangers to know what your real name is or those who like watching the staff cringe when you go there with a friend of colleague with a name like Chanika or Harpreet.   Come to think of it, even the name Shawn is an adventure since I often have to spell it out like I’m standing in front of my grade one teacher. If they guess it correctly though, some of them act like they just got final jeopardy right.
  • Those who think contrived names like grande and venti are cool and think it ironic that a tall is in fact not really tall but actually a small.
  • Coffee drinkers who conform to the biggest coffee conglomerate on the planet yet long to be individualists by ordering a grande no-fat, half-sweet ,extra foam soy green tea latte.  In fact, I know somebody who made sure that his local Starbucks knew his individual  concoction should be ordered and understood as the “Captain’s cappuccino”.
  • Those with a mermaid fetish.  Looking at the Starbucks slogan, I don’t know how she can even hold a coffee.  I think her father must have been a lobster. If there was even an American Horror Story:Coffee Shop series she could be one of the lead roles
  • Of course, the numerous locations, familiarity and convenience of a drive-thru make it an easy choice for many people.

My Take

In addition to an influx of new and trendy restaurants, Windsor’s coffee scene has taken off in the last couple of years.  The success of such a scene is not indicated by the number of Starbucks within the perimeter of a city but instead a vibrant selection of  independent retailers.  This is not a blog to say that one of these establishments is better than other. If you’re in Walkerville or want a latte with housemade almond milk, go to Salute Espresso bar.  If you want a wicked chai latte in the west end, go to Anchor Coffee House.  If a little name that tune and a french press is your preference, then Brewin’ Bros. Coffee Company  is your destination.   I think riffs between independent businesses are counterproductive.  That’s what rap and religion are for.  Toronto adopted a coffee house passport a few years back in which patrons who visited a number of participating vendors  got a coffee mug or a t-shirt with a completed card.  It’s a small gesture, but it targets the people who would rather not stare at lobster-clawed mermaids. That said, imagine if the number of Timbucktoos (my term to describe Tim Horton’s/Starbucks regulars) in Windsor dropped and  even 10% of their business was diverted to small businesses like these.  Maybe these businesses would get drive-thrus, roll up the rim, put pink plastic on the tables and maybe even name their cup sizes something ridiculous like douze or seize.

In the end, the advent of coffee shops in Windsor is indicative of the city’s evolution as a whole.  Hopefully in five years these places will continue to be vibrant partners in the community and not causalities of big box (or in this case big cup) retailers.  It starts one brew, macaroon or frittata at a time.

 

Salute Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Anchor Coffee House on Urbanspoon

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De Niro’s Pad, Homicidal Snowplows and Psychoanalysis at Rino’s Kitchen

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”.

Charcuterie $15
Charcuterie $15

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.

Oxtail Stew $17
Oxtail Stew $17

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.

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7
Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

 My Take

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.

Rino's Kitchen & Ale House on Urbanspoon

 

Having a Lovin’ Spoonful at Chez Piggy

Music and food have a lot in common.  Both stimulate the senses and both tend to be driven by trends. Kingston’s Chez Piggy is an example of both.  At first, one might think it was a hot spot in the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie.  The locals, however, know that the claim to fame is the fact that this restaurant was opened in 1979 by Zal Yanovsky who was one of the members of the Hall of Fame Inductee band “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands that had a number of top ten hits you know but have no idea who sings them.  Even in their heyday, they were overshadowed by other hippie bands  in the mid-sixties.  That said, here are a couple of facts about the Lovin’ Spoonful.  First, in 1966 their biggest hit “Summer in the City”, was Billboard’s number 11 song of 1966, finishing higher than Paperback Writer, the Beatles’ top entry that year. Another fact is that two of the songs that kept the Spoonful out of the top 10 were by Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’. The irony was that these songs  were performed by the Mamas and the Papas, who that had two members who jammed with Yanovsky in the Mugwumps before forming their Hall of Fame band.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands who had a bunch of songs people know but can’t identify the band who sung them. For example, I remember numerous commercials asking the question “Did you ever have to finally decide?” while some dude had to decide which super model to choose. On the theme of questions, they also asked the question “Do you believe in magic?”.. a song that has survived the test of time.  I still remember Chris Klein singing it to Mena Suvari  during American Pie almost 35 years later (yes..there were more parts to that movie other than Stifler’s mom and objectophilia).

The question is whether Chez Piggy had evolved with the times or if it is a disguised homage to Zal who unfortunately passed in 2002. At first sight, it’s a secluded stable. When you enter, the landing on the stairway upwards has a tribute to Zal in the form of a picture along with some T-shirts boasting the Chez Piggy experience.  The setup is  more traditional than modern as you are rewound into 80’s decor that is much more intentional than the many retro diners which grace the landscapes.  The waitstaff are not pretentious students but instead a mix of people who have probably  listened to “Daydream” a few times in their lives.

Chez Piggy features a traditional cocktail menu with retro prices.  I opted for the ceasar for $6.35. I was pleasantly surprised as it was absolutely delicious and rivaled many others I’ve had that are priced in the double digits.

Delicious Caesar $6.35
Delicious Caesar $6.35

The menu is like a greatest hits album.  It contains all the classics with a few feeble attempts at new creative expression.  I hounded the waitress about the number one hits and she said the gambas al ajillo.  Not to be mistaken for a Carlos Santana song, it is a fancy of saying garlic shrimp.  This is the dish that has stood the test of time. It’s a pot luck favorite, bringing haute cuisine to picnic tables everywhere. It was deliciously incomplex.  Seven wonderfully cooked shrimp swam circles in a slurry of oil and garlic within the confines of a cast iron skillet.

Gambas al ajillo $14
Gambas al ajillo $14

I was intrigued by the coast to coast canuck plate.  Patriotism on a plate is always a risky en devour.   Consisting of maple cured salmon, duck prosciutto, cured venison, bison and blueberry sausage, highland blue cheese, lankaaster cheese, caramelized onion & cheddar tart, smoked cod spread with scrunchions, pickled beets, red cabbage & horseradish salad, it did fairly represent our great land.  It was plainly served on a white plate which took away from some of the aesthetic value but served as a reminder that a 35 year old restaurant need not succumb to silly trends like serving cured meat on cutting boards or finished cross-sections of tree trunks (although they do charge a very modern $23).  Otherwise, it was a tasty array and captured many of the elements of Canada on a plate.  It was sort of like eating a Tragically Hip song.

Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23
Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23

For the main, I got talked into the special, which was a short rib with  potatoes gratin  and roasted beets.  The plate had a forgivable messiness. The short rib was a bit disappointing in that it was too tough,  lacking the “fall of the bone” nature of a perfectly cooked rib. The potatoes were retro-good, another reminder of the days of old where my mom would orchestrate  her scalloped potatoes (served exclusively with ham), microwaves were not an option and hit songs tended to be only two or three minutes long. It pushed the limits of acceptable price with the $30 price tag.

Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30
Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30

My Take

I’m not surprised that Chez Piggy is a culinary icon in Kingston.  It appeals to those who enjoy a quiet and traditional dining environment.  I’m always amazed when I sit in a joint where foodies and seniors can co-exist.  I’m also impressed at the fact that, despite the late co-owner’s hall of fame induction, Chez Piggy doesn’t exploit the band. It’s not called the Lovin’ Spoonful (which is actually a cool name for a restaurant).  There are no cocktails called “She is still a mystery” or “Six O’Clock”.  Other than a modest picture by the T-shirt rack, there is no concert paraphernalia plastered all over the walls.  You leave with the impression that Zal wanted it this way.

The food is decent but a bit pricy.  The attempts at modernization are more along the lines of menu items additions like Vietnamese spring rolls and less about following current trends of modern cooking techniques.  It’s a bit of a refuge from the influx of bourbon houses, enotecas and restaurants named after their address.  My guess it’s the leading choice for a Queen’s student who needs to find a place to mooch a pricy dinner off their parents. As a result, it is a little sleepy.

In the end, Chez Piggy is like a concert from a band that hit their peak 30 years ago.  The crowd is diverse, the highlights are the old songs although there are a few ones thrown in and there is always a core group of fans who, despite the fact that the singer can’t hit the same octave as they could in the past, thinks the band can do no wrong.

Although it’s not a place I would flock to in Kingston, it’s not a place where I would say that I’m “Never Going Back”.

Chez Piggy Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Tasting, Trivia and Tea Time in Niagara-on-the-Lake

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.

Salmon Cake
Salmon Cake

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.

Coffee Braised Short Rib
Coffee Braised Short Rib

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.

Room at the Prince of Wales
Room at the Prince of Wales

Escabèche at the Prince of Wales Hotel on Urbanspoon

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.

Squash Veloute (aka soup).
Squash Veloute (aka soup).

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.

Pork Loin Entree with potato pave and root vegetables
Pork Loin Entree with potato pave and root vegetables

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.

Creme Brulee
Creme Brulee

Charles Inn Dining Room on Urbanspoon

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.

Balzac's Coffee on Urbanspoon

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.

Black and Tan Onion Rings $13
Black and Tan Onion Rings $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.

Irish Hot Pot $13 plus $2.50 for potatoes
Irish Hot Pot $13 plus $2.50 for potatoes

The Irish Harp Pub on Urbanspoon

My Take

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.

Review:Windsor:Honey Badger Bistro

The honey badger is a legend, an animal that has stepped into folklore with its ruthless attitude.  Some call it the Chuck Norris of the animal kingdom.  So, I was intrigued to sample a bistro which pays homage to this iconic creature, especially when it appears with a glass of wine and ready for a fight.  There weren’t ruthless looking patrons strewn across the small bar.  Instead, it was a plain looking place with tables donning burgundy tablecloths and plain walls minus a few posters telling me that “You’re the sugar to my tea”. How sweet!

The feared  wine drinking honey badger
The feared wine drinking honey badger (don’t be fooled by the hipster sweater)

I was with a friend  who is a cool version of three of the top 44 worst person in every restaurant (ironically she is also the one who sent me the article).  For the record, at times I can be classified at times as sad solo diner. My defense is that I travel a bit and don’t have the energy to ask my friends to indulge in my frequent culinary endeavors.  And yes, I do look at my phone a lot. I’ll get back to her in a second.

http://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/the-44-worst-people-in-every-restaurant

The menu would suggest it could be classified as a gastropub despite the fact it is called a bistro. There’s everything from small plates to sandwiches to burgers to poutine.  There are often gourmet twists on standard fare, with offerings  like mashed cherry jam and 40 creek mayo scattered across the menu. There is lots of meat and lots of bread, which means lots of gluten, a point which brings me back to my lunch companion.  If you didn’t click the link above, she is the cool version of each of the following:

The Substituter
“I’d like the salmon, but instead of the corn, can I get the braised cauliflower from the steak dish? And instead of the frisee salad, can I get that appetizer you used to have in the ’90s, but with a different type of aioli? And instead of the salmon, can I get thrown through the plate glass window in the front of restaurant?”

The Gluten-Free Evangelist
Stop giving us murder eyes when we go for the bread basket. No one cares what it’s done for your “energy”.

The Guilt-Tripping Vegan
Is the exact moment I bite into my steak tartare really the time to bring up that expose you just watched on what really happens behind the scenes at slaughterhouses? Doesn’t matter — I’m going to enjoy it even more out of spite.

So, a  gluten loving porkivore and a fish-eating, non-dairy consuming psuedo-vegan who neither guilt-trips nor evangelizes but does substitute enter a Windsor bistro  and order roasted butternut squash soup without cream, candied yam fries, a salad and a honey badger reuben.

The candied yam fries ($8) were insanity in a bowl.  The sweet potatoes were piled with torched mini marshmallows and topped with what the menu calls a a brown sugar drizzle.  It was more like a gravy, seasoned with  savory flavours like oregano.  Despite the odd sound of this combination, it was actually quite delicious, especially as the marshmallows melted into a delicious fry coating goo shortly after the picture was taken.  The fries were cooked well and the whole concoction was not overly sweet.  It was a pleasant surprise.  Even better, it was appropriate for a sort of vegan.

Candied Yam Fries $8
Candied Yam Fries $8

The reuben was also well executed.  The marble rye bread was grilled crisp and was cooked enough to allow the swiss cheese to melt thoroughly.  The brisket was tender and the unique addition of the forty creek mayo and brusselkraut (saurkraut made with brussel sprouts) was a delicious twist.  The side salad was pleasant as well, dressed lightly with a balsamic dressing. It was a huge sandwich (mmmm. gluten and meat) for a reasonable $12 and I managed to enjoy a little more than half of it before throwing in the towel without so much as a evangelist or guilt-tripping stare from across the table.

Honey Badger Reuben $12
Honey Badger Reuben $12

As for the soup, I only had a bite.  It was okay…but I think it needed cream.

My Take

I was hoping for a T-shirt saying “I survived the Honey Badger” but instead left with a stomach full of a decent meal. The menu is casual but well thought out and executed.  The yam fries were extreme and the reuben blended an old-school classic with an eclectic spin. The soup needed cream.  As for the ambiance , it was a bit drab and certainly didn’t match the exciting food. Either that or I walked into my first ever (and probably last) beestropub.

PS. Thanks to Windsor Eats  (www.windsoreats.com) for posting the menu online.  Another example of the comradery which exists in this  tight-knit culinary community.

Honey Badger Bistro on Urbanspoon

Review:You Gotta Eat Here:Barrie:Pie Wood Fired Pizza

John Catucci left a bad taste in my mouth after my visit to Dr. Laffa. So I must admit a was a bit reluctant to place a take out order at Pie Wood Fired Pizza during a recent trip to Barrie. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I picked up the phone and ordered three pies for the trip home. This isn’t an easy task, however, since there are around 20 choices ranging from classic pies, crazy pies and hold the tomato pies.  There is even a $100 fois gras and black truffle pizza.

Pie Wood Fired Pizza is located in one of the many large malls that hug the 400.  Easy to see from the highway, it’s slightly harder to find.  Based on the menu (and the name of the restaurant), pizza is the mainstay and it supported by some pastas, sandwiches and appetizers from calamari to salty balls. Upon arrival, I noticed that the front was plastered with You Gotta Eat Here propaganda.   For example, there was a rather large poster with a proclamation from John Catucci himself….”I love the taste of pie…it’s delicious”.

SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza
SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza

The interior is a cross between an Italian bistro and a sports bar.  Its quite open with nicely spaced tables and a large bar along the back.  The walls are lined with posters and paraphernalia  with plenty of pie, pizza and beer references.  A blackboard explains the daily drink specials (long island ice tea, ceasars etc for $6).  I paid for the pies and went on my way.

Pizza one was the Pepperoni pie…the easy solution for any child under the age of 10. There was no shortage of any of the promised toppings and passed the kid test quite easily.  It had that crust pliability that provides great entertainment value as well as taste for the young ones. Not bad for $12 either.

Pizza two was the St. Lucia pie…a Hawaiian type topped with tomato, pineapple, house smoked bacon, mozzarella and shredded coconut.  Other than the coconut, I have yet to understand the correlation between the name and the toppings.  That aside, it was a delicious pizza.  The bacon was sliced thin and  full of flavour.  Chunks of fresh pineapple and the subtle use of coconut add a delicious sweetness.  The toppings were abundant but didn’t compromise the integrity of the delicate thin crust.

pie st lucia

The third pie was the tomatoless cow pie, named for the use of braised beef shank as the main protein.  It reminded me of a steakhouse dinner on a crust as it came complete with roasted potato, spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheese Sauce and parmesan. Once again, despite the cornucopia of toppings, the crust was not compromised at all.  The pototoes were tender and the ingredients were presented in a good proportion.

Cow Pie $14.50
Cow Pie $14.50

My Take

Traditionally, really good thin crust pizzas are reserved for  enotecas  such as Queen Margarita or Terroni located along the trendy streets of urban centres.  One wouldn’t suspect some of the best pizza going lives in a commercial area in Barrie, Ontario. The concept is brilliant; make pizza the mainstay of a sports/casual  bar theme.  Instead of serving a default, thick-crusted, warmed up pizza in order to add diversity to a burger and fry centric menu, Pie makes pizza the star. Sure, some of the crazy pies may appear a bit gimmicky (eg. captain pie liner, hedge hog, green egg and ham etc.) but I don’t doubt each is made with the same attention to detail as the ones I ordered to make a stellar product.Although I can’t comment on the service in the restaurant, it will be a place I will at least think about when driving to and from Northern Ontario instead of hitting the En Route or one of the many crowded chains along Bayfield street.

In the end, I fully agree with John Catucci…

“I love the taste of pie.”

Hmmm…now how would I add one of those winky faces?

Pie on Urbanspoon