By Michael Lowe
If you’re like me — open-minded about food and always up for a refreshing new dining experience — The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette Winery may just be the perfect fit for you.
There is but one landmark at the entrance to the Pearl Morissette property on Jordan Road in Niagara, a vibrant, steel sculpture of a cardinal (photo above), which stands guard at the driveway. The bright, symmetrically designed restaurant, (photo below) located on the second floor of the black renovated barn seats a modest 30 or so diners. Windows on either side frame the surrounding farmland where Galloway cattle graze and Berkshire hogs laze in the early evening sunshine.
Don’t expect to see a menu at the restaurant — at least not until you get a copy as a memento at the end of your meal. And, are you ready for this? Don’t expect to pay gratuities – that’s included in the price. What you can expect is to savour a multi-course array of dishes that emphasize sustainable, seasonal and ever-changing ingredients based on availability. The team of Chef Eric Robertson and Daniel Hadida (left to right, photo below) are putting together dishes that showcase creativity and sensibility, dishes that enlighten the senses. The restaurant’s website indicates that dinner consists of five plus courses, ours turns out to be eight, making the $78 price seem like a steal.
Each dish, including the crusty, multigrain farmhouse style bread and house-cultured butter (photo below), is presented by one of the chefs, something that is not the norm at Niagara restaurants. It’s a personal touch that I welcome and one that gives you a chance to meet the geniuses behind the food.
The chefs quietly visit table after table describing each dish before silently retreating to the open door kitchen. We begin with a sea scallop warmed over a peach wood fire paired with prickly ash. Next come dishes of charcoal roasted beet with dried plum and lamb fat infused yogurt and oyster served in the brine with fennel oil and elderflower (left to right- photo below). The delicacy of the oyster, with the hint of anise is an interesting contrast to the richness of the yogurt and sweetness of the beet.
Peach wood smoked eel follows served with potato foam and seaweed dust (photo below). The smoky, oily character of the eel is a lovely match with the acidity and texture of the almost bone-dry Cuvée Black Ball Riesling.
One of my favourite dishes — and it’s hard to pick one — is the halibut. Chef mentions that the fish was line-caught the day before service, cured and then steamed. It is served with ribbons of tender-crisp white turnip and winter spinach (photo below) and topped with crisp, brown butter bread crumbs. Sauced with a richly flavoured fume made from the fish bones and trimmings, the dish is nothing short of spectacular.
I went for the optional wine pairing for an additional $60, something I highly recommend, and notably enhances the experience. Such is the case with the wine selection for the halibut, Morissette’s 2012 Cuvée Dix Neuvieme Chardonnay.
The next creation is a dish of dry-aged Muscovy duck — breast and leg meat. Served alongside the duck is charred kale, black oyster mushroom and wild black raspberries (photo above). It is a wondrous match with the structure and layered flavours of Francois Morissette’s California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here’s an unusual, yet delicious match — ice-cream with aronia berries paired with the most enticing sweet vermouth I’ve ever tasted (photo above). Willem’s Wormoed vermouth, made in Amsterdam, with its spicy dried fruit and slightly bitter finish works beautifully with the berries.
We conclude the meal with apple cake and sour cream dusted with rosehip while discussing where on our list of dining experiences to place this one. After a few minutes of deliberation, we agree that this rates at the top of the list for a couple of reasons.
The food, without a doubt, is sensational. What strikes me is the uniqueness of this restaurant — it embodies the connection between the farm, the cooks, and the dishes they create and serve. The ambience is one of serenity where diners feel like a welcome extension of the kitchen, not insulated by excessive service staff and disconnected from the heart of the restaurant.
During a short chat with the chefs after dinner I am asked where I am from. My answer, St. Catharines, yields a response from chef, “we don’t get many people from St. Catharines.” I can’t help but think what a shame it is that more locals have not yet discovered this gem.
When booking, food allergies are noted so the kitchen can accommodate your needs. Aside from that, discard any expectations of what you may think of as a ‘typical’ dining experience, throw caution to the wind and just enjoy what this place has to offer. It truly is something special.
NOTE: The restaurant is not barrier-free accessible. Check the website here for more information.