Special to Ontario Discoveries Magazine
The age-old call, “What’s for dinner?” echoes daily in most kitchens. But that familiar plea takes on a new ring during the holidays when carloads of hungry inlaws, long lost cousins and friends come knocking at your door.
Since my taste buds enjoy a culinary ride (and whose doesn’t), I hightailed it to some favorite winter hotspots to see what was cooking for the holidays. For this sneak peek, I rounded up one of the season’s best sources, my mom who over the years has stuffed countless birds as well as whipped up her famous Hungarian Christmas Eve dinners. So together we took our appetites in search of a few new twists on holiday fare.
Here’s the skinny on the season’s favorite menus:
Ste. Anne’s Country Inn and Spa rests in the rolling Northumberland Hills near Grafton, Ontario. Situated in the former Massey family cottage, this whimsical stone castle was nicknamed Ste Anne’s after Quebec’s own Ste. Anne de Beaupré, synonymous for its own brand of healing qualities.
For our holiday introduction, Executive Chef Christopher Ennew inquires about food allergies and recommends his succulent nuggets of salmon over a five-bean salad drizzled in a coconut curry soup. Who could resist?
Known for giving their guests star treatment, the wardrobe of the day is ultra “cazh” as white robed and slippered patrons indulge in the airy dining room. Suddenly holiday dining has new meaning. That’s how Jennifer Goheen, Marketing Manager, described the dining phenomenon here. “Although we’re more of a family restaurant, we try to be comfortable. People feel like they are coming home and they can just be themselves. Yet the quality is a four-diamond service,” she notes of the continuous prestigious rating awarded by CAA since 1995.
Recently back from the World Culinary Olympics, Chef Chris and his Team Ontario won three medals including two golds. He shares some of his prized kernels on where holiday cuisine is heading.
“For the holidays you get to go back to the basics of cooking. People want something substantial.” he says and adds, “Holiday cuisine I see is going back to the family. The circle is coming around again.”
For this downtown Toronto born, bred and schooled chef, holidays were special events when families brought over potluck. These days Chef Chris’s holiday fixings feature a seven-course dinner event dubbed “Festival of Life” for New Year’s Eve.
Using such ingredients as rhea, a fowl similar to ostrich and emu with a stronger taste resembling pheasant, and lamb tenderloin, these main courses are pared with light sauces rich in local maple syrup, tangy cranberries or zesty citruses.
Hillcrest Inn and Spa
Over in Port Hope, an antique Waterford chandelier illuminates the spruce garlands wrapped around the century-old banisters of the hillcreast Inn.
Innkeeper and chef extraordinaire Therese DeGrace examines the last minute details to her New Year’s Eve menu. “It’s all about intimacy. We’re having some light music, a guitarist will perform as we bring in the New Year.”
Don’t be surprised if you see some Italian touches from this up and coming young chef whose last stint was working in Ireland’s prestigious K Club, just outside Dublin, a Michelin Star restaurant where Sean Connery and the Spice Girls have been known to frequent.
As a Toronto youngster, Therese loved the time she spent with her Italian Nonna, creating cerviche for the big family nine-course meal.
Like most chefs, Therese emphasizes the importance of fresh local produce. Known as a great forager, she harvests her own fiddleheads in spring and wild herbs and mushrooms and edible flowers from the wooded property. Therese notes that holiday cuisine centers on comfort food. Always has and always will she concludes.
Upon arriving at this brasserie there is an Elvis look-alike orchestrating a ballad of steaks, seafood and soups in an open galley kitchen.
With a flambé heating up the evening, Copper Blues Bar and Grill is part of Blue Mountain’s upscale Tyrolean Village. This local eatery in the heart of ski country is perfect for families, couples and snow bunnies. Open all year Chef Terry Prince prepares a traditional holiday menu with all the fixings. “It’s all about comfort food. People see the rare delicacies on the menu but always seem to order turkey especially during the holidays,” says the chef who is known to strum his guitar and sing a few of the King’s ballads.
This casual dining spot offers live entertainment and is buzzing the night I arrive. The slopes of Blue Mountain are packed and the temperature outside is –28 Celsius. Who could ask for a more satisfying meal than the Prince’s popular Surf and Turf? A plateful of shrimp, lobster and scallops, it is the perfect end to a day on the slopes.
No doubt, Niagara’s wine country has recently produced some stellar vintages. But how does it look on the culinary front? Being a Niagara born girl myself, I am very familiar with the bounty of the Niagara’s fruit belt. For family outings, we picked strawberries, grapes and loaded up on peaches. In winter Dad’s spicy sausage made its way to our table with a glass of his own signature wine.
With the Niagara Escarpment blanketed in snow the Riverbend Inn emerges as a grand Georgian mansion. Formerly known as the Afrukhteh Niagara Fine Art Gallery, the Riverbend Inn has been reborn as Niagara’s first country inn that opened last April. The historic landmark was sold to hotel maverick John Wiens, the former owner of the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Local chef Chris Smythe created the inn’s first foray into holiday dining last Christmas. “There were sleigh rides, carols and later mulled wine by the fireside,” chimes Chris.
Knowing turkey is still the number one holiday request, Chef Chris pared this comfort food with cornbread, sage and pecan stuffing. The pièce de la resistance was dessert: baked rum, toffee and pecan bread pudding.
“I try to use a sense of the southern here using lots of pecans,” he notes reflecting how he tries to marry the sumptuous cuisine with the Georgian style inn.
In the heart of wine country Hillebrand Estates Winery Restaurant is where Chef Tony De Luca pares the estate’s wines with his culinary festival called, “Tour of Niagara.”
Our lunch tour started with a puréed grilled vegetable soup topped with a dollop of cream followed by an artistic platter of proscuitto wrapped quail, scallops over chilled apricot, pinenut and green cabbage slaw and seared pork medallion on a spicy chorizo sausage. “What a symphony of food,” declares Mom while toasting with one of the three flights of Hillebrand’s finest.
Venturing into the heart of fruitland the scenic road leading us to Jordan Valley is draped in a ribbon of snow. Inn On The Twenty made famous by former chef Michael Olsen offers a panoramic view of the valley below with its snowcapped trees and the frozen creek.
Today, Chef Roberto Fracchioni says, “We’ll take basic ingredients but make it more polished.” For the local chef Christmas was always a grand occasion that united his large Italian family. “I was never allowed in the kitchen, maybe to stir the risotto which was a long laborious job,” he chuckles. Nowadays this dynamo chef’s main course has been a special holiday request at the Fracchioni household.
As we ventured into the basement of the former canning factory, a vast catacomb of wine cellars appeared. And then there was the smell of cheese. “See this, it’s Parmesan, we’ll have this in a few months. This here, I have four wheels left. It’s the rare Montasio cheese you could only get from a local lady who I swear I have to beg every time. But boy is it worth it.”
Okay, so now Roberto’s got us feeling more than peckish. We climb upstairs to the restaurant, a Roman grotto fit for Bacchus. While Chef Rob admits the staple around the holidays is turkey, he will add a holiday twist paring the seasonal bird with toasted nuts, pistachios, pinenuts, chestnuts and cashews. He calls it the “Nut Crusted Turkey Tenderloin.” With a smooth sweet potato mash loaded with Parmesan, the delicacy is served with a glass of Cave Spring Cellar’s best.
Another favorite among repeat customers is his newly introduced blind tasting menu. “You have to be quite adventurous as each course is something different off the menu,” he says of the five, seven or nine courses partnered with wine at every course.
Our parade of plates began with a Consommé of Duck Ravioli followed by Sesame Crusted Scallops in Plum sauce. All the fixings made this turkey stuffed but somehow I managed to leave room for dessert, a chocolate torte with a dollop of hazelnut ice cream in a berry sauce. Decadently Delicious! Mom approved. Happy Yuletide Dining!
photos: Stephen Smith
Hillcrest Inn and Spa
Ste. Anne’s Country Inn & Spa
Inn On the Twenty
Hillebrand Estates Winery Restaurant
Riverbend Inn & Vineyard
Copper Blues Bar & Grill
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