We dined in domes, tents, and old Victorian houses. We had five dinners but we only left two tips (and we don’t suck). In between, we walked, we wined, we saw some art.
Blog title courtesy of Jean, who was determined to have some time off after not getting any at Christmas time (beyond the statutory days). We didn’t venture too far from home—Beamsville, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Toronto, Kleinburg, which are all within a two hours’ drive. And it wasn’t, per se, designed as a culinary tour. But it did turn out that way!
Because, you see, I’m still making some efforts to avoid catching Covid. And when it came to selecting restaurants, well, it wasn’t your Mom and Pop fish’n’chips places that offered space. And clean air. Those only came packaged as “dining experiences”. Covid safe(r), it turns out, is kind of delicious.
We left home mid-morning, headed to an appointment at Commisso Estate Winery in Beamsville. Their website promised wine tastings in a “fun, safe, private” environment. I didn’t necessarily trust the promise—so many places just didn’t bother to remove their Covid protocols page once they stopped following it—but I figured a smaller winery in February wouldn’t be that crowded. I optimistically (and pragmatically, given that dinner wasn’t til 7) also ordered a charcuterie board.
It worked out. We ended up being their only customers at this time. Not only that, but their tastings are conducted in a tent that was plenty warm, thanks to gas heaters. After we were seated, we got the history of the place, and overview of the wines.
Commisso Winery is relatively new, and run by two women. It opened in 2020, a good year for Ontario grapes, but a bad year to be trying to a build a business. The portfolio is a mix of lighter-style whites and heavier reds, that benefit from some aging.
We got our charcuterie board right away, then we picked six wines to try. Jean also ordered a burger. All the food was quite good. The wines were all fine, but we especially enjoyed the light and lively Riesling and the delicious 2017 Syrah, which are the two we purchased. (I thought we’d also picked up a bottle of their rose, but cannot find any such bottle now, so I guess not.)
We had another wine tasting booked at 2:30, and though I expected they might be able to accommodate us early, I wanted a little break in between. So Jean found us a trail and we did a little woodland walk (that was a more slippery than expected, especially for Jean, who hadn’t switched to his hiking boots).
That 5 k out of the way, we were ready for our visit at Villa Romana Estate Winery, “a taste of Italy in Ontario.” They hadn’t promised safety and privacy, but again, with it being a small winery on a February Sunday, seemed worth a gamble. We didn’t end up fighting off the hordes. There was one other couple there besides us (who finished before we did), and then we had the barn complex to ourselves, along with the owner and our server. (The CO2 measured 666, which may be the number of beast, but it’s also indicative of clean air.)
So it was a fun, relaxed visit, in which we started with their nice Prosecco-style sparkling. We learned that the owner immigrated to Canada from Rome, Italy as a teenager, and went into the wine business (following the example of his Italian family) upon retirement. This was another place that opened around 2020 and continued to deal with the challenges of that timing, including supply chain issues that have delayed building the complex he envisions. But what they have is still pretty nice.
They were quite generous in letting us try different options. We really liked their Riesling (and bought a couple bottles), so he also had us try their sparkling Riesling (got one of those, too). We were going to go with the 2021 Pinot rose we’d tried, but he said no, the 2020 was better—and he only had seven bottles left. We tried that, and yeah, it was better! And then he had five bottles left.
We then drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake and checked into our accommodations at Habour House. We’d stayed there before, and very much liked it again. It’s a little older but still charming and luxurious-feeling, with bathrobes on offer, a pretty good-sized room and, we noticed, three bottles of Chateaux des Charmes sparkling wine. One per night? We resolved to ask about that one point.
For dinner that night, we’d booked Snow Globe dining at Trius Winery. It appealed to me because it meant that Jean and I basically had a little building to ourselves—along with servers, of course (a main one, but a few others who brought out dishes at times). Snow Globe dining was only offered on weekends, and it was a set deal: a five-course meal, with wine pairings, at 7:00 pm, for 2 to 4 people, prepaid, service and taxes included.
It looked super-cool, though—see the photo above! And it was plenty warm in the dome, thanks to some heaters. Also, the tulips are real.
And, the food was quite good. It started with a sharing plate, the highlight of which was baked brie and truffled mushrooms. That was served with Trius sparkling Brut (not quite as good as the Villa Romana sparkling, but good). The roasted carrots with feta, prosciutto, walnuts, manchego, etc. that followed was a true highlight, as was the delicious Riesling served with it.
Mains were the only course where we each had choices of different items. I went with the sweet potato ravioli with sage, kale, feta, etc., which was outstanding. Jean, unusually, selected the beef striploin and beef short rib in birch syrup. The latter was amazing; he was less impressed with the former. I got a 2020 Pinot Noir with my dish, and Jean the 2019 Merlot. We were both a little underwhelmed with the reds (I suspect they’ll improve with some aging).
Can’t go wrong with Cabernet Franc ice wine, though, which was served with dessert. And said dessert was raspberry panna cotta with olive oil cake. It was quite lovely.
For the finale, they brought us hot chocolate with a side of Wayne Gretzky (the winery, though it is associated with the hockey player) cream liqueur, and a house-made marshmallow. They lit a fire for us outside the dome where we could toast our marshmallow, then enjoy the whole mix. I was a bit dubious reading about this part in advance, but in fact, it was fun, and really good!
Harbour House offered a “European-style breakfast buffet” included with our room. While they were a bit bemused that we (OK me, but Jean went along with it) wanted to take our food and eat it in our room, they were fine with us doing so, providing trays and cutlery. They had a great selection! Particularly appreciated were the delicious quiche and baked French toast style items that lent themselves well to buffet serving.
A storm was predicted for later on Monday, but the morning was pretty decent out, so we started with a river walk. We then drove into Niagara-on-the-Lake downtown for a little perusal at the shops and a quick bite (we were only the patrons, and we sat by the open door), then ambled off for yet another walk, making for a pretty good km count for the day.
Our winery visit this day was at PondView at Bella Terra Vineyard. Again it was not exactly bursting at the rafters with people; there was one other couple when we arrived, who left before we did. And it was another very fun time, where they let us taste quite a few of their fairly extensive collection, and we learned about the history of the place—it was more established than the last two we had visited—and met the vintner.
Among the wines we found especially striking were the Chardonnay that I described as “liquid butter”, the very interesting wild ferment Riesling (this was quite the Riesling vacation), and the big 2020 Merlot that kind of blew us away, though we’re not generally Merlot people. (CO2 was 929, a little high.)
Our dinner was at the Peller Estate Winery Restaurant, booked for 4:30 on the assumption—correct, as it turns out—that it would not be very busy then. (CO2 687, which is good.) Given the early hour, we opted to not go with the five-course tasting menu, but instead a three-course a la carte. This doesn’t allow the kitchen to shine at its brightest, but it was still a good meal. The oysters were particularly outstanding, and the waitress was helpful at guiding us to appropriately matching wines, all of which we enjoyed.
The storm started just as we were driving back to the hotel. It wasn’t as bad in Niagara as I heard it was in Waterloo, just some light blowing snow.
After breakfast, we headed to Niagara Falls. We parked just above the falls, and as we walked along the upper falls, noted that it was probably the first time we had seen that part of the falls. And it’s really cool! And of course, the Falls themselves remain impressive.
We then took a little tour up Clifton Hill, where all the fun and tacky attractions are.
We drove back to the hotel for a pause, and finally asked about the bottles of sparkling wine. Apparently Jean had booked us the “romance” package which, indeed, included a bottle of sparkling per day. There you go!
The winery we then drove to visit—it’s a fair distance away—was Niagara College Teaching Winery. (It was all new wineries for us this trip.) This one I’d selected because they offered a fireside ice wine tasting experience—the outside/fireside aspect being the bigger draw for me than the ice wine part. When we got there, though, we were informed that it was just too windy to serve outside. But it was uncrowded enough that I was OK with the pivot to indoor tasting.
With this tasting we got a Vidal (white) ice wine, Cabernet Sauvignon (red) ice wine, and a dry sparkling with a bit of ice wine in it. There was also some food, so we could see how that matched: savoury cookies, chocolate, and pieces of cheese.
It is indeed a teaching college, so we were left in the care of a second year student, whom Jean in particular enjoyed interrogating. She was originally from India, and pursued wine-making not out of love for wine, but chemistry. She loved chemistry, but wanted to apply it to something tangible and useful. And, she said, that’s mainly what wine-making is: chemistry. She is also learning to appreciate drinking wine!
After having the ice wine, we were welcome to try anything else, and my! They certainly have an interesting and varied selection, including options not often seen in Ontario: muscat, malbec (!), semillon-sauvignon… But this was a “later in the day” tasting, and we didn’t want to have too much wine. So we’ll have to go back sometime to try more.
What Jean did sample this visit was a Botrytis affected Chardonnay (after I’d mocked him that for asking about a Sauternes-style wine, they totally had one). I tried the Gastronomy Shiraz. We liked both of those and got a bottle of each.
On the drive back we stopped in at Wayne` Gretzky Estates. Quite a nice complex! We didn’t do any tasting here, though; just picked up a bottle of the cream whisky.
We drove back to the hotel and walked to dinner that night for our 5:45 pm reservation at Treadwell Cuisine. We had selected to eat on their tented patio (of course we had) and while they helpfully pointed out that there was room for us inside, we were like, are you willing to serve us on the patio? They agreed, putting us in a corner and turning on the heaters beside and above us. We had it to ourselves!
The only option for dinner at Treadwell is their four-course meal for $95. You have a choice of four items at each course. They also have wine pairings, if you want. Which we did.
It was a wonderful experience, from start to finish. Each course was creative and delicious, as were the wine pairing selections. We went for different options for each course, except the main, where we both wanted the roasted muscovy duck. Here, though we both got Niagara Pinot Noir (not all wines were local, should note), they were two different Pinot Noir, from two different wineries. Isn’t that fun?
Jean for this first course had the confit duck terrine with foie gras, brioche, and blackberry jam.
I went with the Marc’s Mushrooms “on Toast”, Poached Egg, Soy & Truffle—which was extraordinary. Then the duck main—lovely—and finally chocolate tart for me…
Wednesday we decamped from Niagara to Toronto. We’d booked to stay at the Chelsea Hotel downtown. There’s a bit of a story there, in that after Jean had made this vacation booking for us, he booked himself a room there for when he went to Toronto for work. His room was stifling hot, and he couldn’t adjust the temperature. Fortunately, the room had a window, and since it was January, he managed to make it tolerable by leaving that partly open.
His coworker wasn’t as lucky, as his equally stifling room had no window. He asked to change rooms. Twice.
After that, Jean requested to cancel our Chelsea booking. They asked why, and noted that we wouldn’t get refunded for the first night of our two-night stay. Jean wrote back explaining what the issue had been, and we decided to keep the first night, and rebook for the second (though that’s a pain).
Fortunately, the temperature of our Chelsea room was fine. And it was fine in general—except, we discovered the next morning, the shower didn’t work particularly well. Could barely get water from the tap up to the shower head. But, that was all. And to make up for his last experience, we got a voucher for a deluxe breakfast, which was really good.
Anyway. Check-in and whatnot sorted, we decided to walk to the Royal Ontario Museum, where we wanted to see the Wildlife Photography of the Year exhibit. Photos were stunning as usual, but Jean pointed it out that it does inevitably make you feel bad about being human, since it touches on habitat loss, animal exploitation, pollution effects…
Wednesday’s dinner was at Richmond Station, a restaurant we’d previously really liked, but hadn’t been to in years. It was the dinner I was most nervous about, as this restaurant is always pretty darn crowded. We booked for 4:30 pm, so it did start out somewhat less crowded (and with a CO2 reading of 829). And we selected a table facing the kitchen, so we were close to the exhaust fans (and at least a couple of the kitchen staff were masked).
Having done that (and used Enovid, the “COVID-busting nasal spray”, and brought a personal air purifier), there was nothing to do but hope for the best, and enjoy the experience. We went for the a la carte menu instead of the prix fixe. They don’t do wine pairings with a la carte, and don’t have that many wines by the glass, so we had the wine of the day, which was a really nice red from the Languedoc region of France.
These years later, Richmond Station still has great service and excellent food. After the brie, Jean had a beet salad, followed by Muscovy duck; I had a lovely mushroom soup followed by Berkshire pork with Brussels sprouts and apples. We shared caramel moelleux for dessert.
We struck up a conversation with the couple seated beside us, who were just back from seeing Hamilton (they enjoyed it, but felt it should have addressed the slavery issue). Then we also talked travel, and heat pumps, and electric cars, and whatnot. He was a (retired) United Church minister with, it turned out, something of a connection to one of Jean’s coworkers. Small world.
As a meal finale, we got four absolutely delicious chocolate truffles on a “happy birthday” plate. Apparently I had mentioned something about my pending birthday when reserving!
Still, we didn’t leave a tip. Not because we suck. Because Richmond Station is a “hospitality included” restaurant where the prices include service, all employees are paid a living wage, and tipping is discouraged. It was one of the first things we were told after we were seated, and we thought it was very cool.
We dawdled a bit checking out of the Chelsea, to increase our odds of being able to check in at the Marriott, Toronto hotel #2. Though the two hotels weren’t far apart, driving from one to the other was a challenge, partly because driving in downtown Toronto is always a challenge, but also because there are two Marriotts in the vicinity, and we weren’t sure, at first, which one we were heading to.
At any rate, we got there, we were able to check in, and this room was also fine. Overall it was a less “bustling” hotel than the Chelsea.
Then it was off on foot to the Art Gallery of Ontario. We decided to sign up for out of town memberships, then headed off to peruse the European exhibits. Which were really wonderful!
We then paused for some lunch. The AGO has excellent air (better for the art!), but I still found the bistro looked a bit crowded. So we went to the cafe, and cobbled together a lunch by ordering smoothies, rhubarb tart, and sweet-salty popcorn, and a latte. It did the trick!
Next, we spent some time in the Canadian galleries, before heading to the Leonard Cohen exhibit. That was of more interest to me than Jean; it really was geared more to fans. A lot of samples of his writings, photographs, some visual art work he did, along with some video footage of his concerts (he being Leonard Cohen, not Jean).
Dinner 5 (at 6:00 pm) was at Avelo Restaurant. I’d found them in a list of “Best Restaurants in Toronto” from Gourmet magazine (or such like), but what really sealed the deal for me was their Covid safety plan, which laid out how they’d arranged their restaurants to minimize shared air, and had installed strategically placed HEPA filters, and still kept their tables spaced apart. Awesome.
I informed Jean a couple hours before we left that it was a vegan restaurant. He had time to get used to the idea.
The restaurant is housed in this beautiful, Victorian-style building. We were seated upstairs.
The menu is as shown in the photo below. It’s $70. That’s all they serve. Your only choices, therefore, are in the beverage department. We went for the $45 wine pairings.
I apparently also told this restaurant about my pending birthday (why have just one birthday dinner if you can have two, or indeed, five?), so they started us off with a glass of French sparkling Chardonnay. And then the food items started coming.
The waiter / owner explained all the items as we got them. Like that the Kojified carrot of the first course took two weeks to make. That ended up tasting so much like smoked salmon! Hence the serving it on a mini bagel with macadamia cheese.
We were already so impressed.
Next was a squash soup (served with the sparkling) that gained interest through the various items floating in it (spicy, sweet, crunchy…). And the potato galette was a yowza. As was the kofta. And the red cabbage. And the wine pairings (though I can no longer remember them all) were slightly off-beat but worked.
The main course was a beluga lentil tempeh, which was meat-like, and so delicious!
And then there was a cascade of lovely desserts! Much like birthday dinners, why have one when you can have three…
When I paid, I got a bit alarmed that I seemed to have missed the tip option. Only to find out that this was another “hospitality included” restaurant, and this one paid even better than a living wage! Cool, cool.
Instead of driving straight home from Toronto, we headed to Kleinberg to visit the McMichael Gallery, a collection of Canadian art. Their current exhibition is called Conversations, and what they’ve tried to do is juxtapose different artists in the same room to highlight the similarities and differences of how they take on a similar area, such as winter. Or landscapes. Etc. It was quite interesting.
They have a great Group of Seven collection there, and a lot of Native and Inuit art. We hadn’t been in quite a while, and it was good to see it again, even if it’s hard for it to compete with the breadth of the AGO.
We arrived home plenty before the storm started that night. I’d never seen a “snowthunder” like that before! Wild!
March 5, 2023 at 8:05 pm
You are such a lovely partner to give Jean time to warm up to the idea of a Vegan meal. (don’t want a scene at the table… PLEASE!