Saturday, March 31, 2012

Oh Canada!

Last weekend my husband whisked me away on mini-vacation.  He works long hours at two jobs, and understandably misses our kids a lot.  Whenever he has time off, he wants to be with them, so we almost always make our weekend plans to include them.  I am home with the kids all the time, though, so I get very little "adult time."

To give me a break, my husband planned the whole trip himself, and kept the details a surprise.  I knew we were going and when, but nothing else -- not where, or how, or what we would do once we arrived. 

Take note, fellas, girls really like this. 

We have been married nearly 9 years, but I felt like a new girlfriend again!  Not only did my husband spend precious free time thinking about me and what I would like in a vacation, but now we would have some time together, just us, hopefully doing some of the things I like best -- eating late multi-course dinners at nice restaurants, enjoying a glass of wine or two afterwards, and then sleeping-in -- most of which have disappeared from my everyday life, now full of quick and dirty early dinners and insistent awakenings.

I was so excited.  We renewed our passports, and were on our way.

I figured we were flying, but when we drove right past the international departure gates at the airport, I began to wonder where we were headed.  I kept my eyes averted from the details on the boarding passes as we checked-in and went through security.  This took tremendous will power, though not as much as I figured because I was enjoying the surprise so much.

I knew when we arrived at the gate that I could easily look at the sign indicating where we were headed.  As we rounded the corner, I eagerly searched for the city name next to the gangway door.

"Buffalo, NY."

Ummm, Buffalo, New York?! 

I'm sure Buffalo is lovely in the dead of winter, but with all the great cities in all of the world, why Buffalo?!  My husband saw the thinly veiled look of surprise on my face and reminded me gently that I had said I would be happy going anywhere as long it was just us. When I sheepishly admitted this was true and tried to regroup and figure out what the heck we were going to do all weekend in Buffalo, he laughed and explained that Niagara Falls and Canada were just a short 30 minute drive from the Buffalo airport.

He had booked us a gorgeous hotel room on the 34th floor with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the Canadian and American falls. 

On our way to Canada, we walked around the national park on the American side of the falls and watched endless gallons of water plunge down into the Niagara River.

American side of the falls and Rainbow bridge

Both the American and Canadian falls

Mist created by the water descending the Canadian falls, with our hotel in the background

After crossing the Canadian border via the Rainbow bridge, we checked into our hotel and got ready for dinner.  The area around Niagara Falls has become pretty touristy, but along with many chain restaurants, it also has upscale restaurants overlooking the falls.  A little after dusk each night the falls are lit with white lights and then alternating colors before they finally fall dark about an hour later.  The fancier restaurants boast windows that take advantage of the show, along with menus created by celebrity Canadian chefs.

On the first night we went to Windows by Jamie Kennedy.  Not the goofy actor from Scream -- this guy:

Image Detail

While most of his restaurants are in Toronto, he recently opened his Niagara restaurant, applying his devotion to local, sustainable, and seasonal food.  Beside the regular menu, there was a daily "Some of My Favorite Things" menu which listed two four-course Prix Fix menus with wine pairings.  To me it was obvious what had to be done: we would order one of each set menu and share it all.

Our first courses were an amazing Great Lakes Fish Chowder, whose creamy chunky goodness was gone before a snapped a picture of it, and this beautiful Root Vegetable Salad.

It was a gorgeous stack of multi-colored thinly sliced beets, carrots, and jicama.  It was all raw, which made it tart, crunchy and refreshing, but I can't help but wonder how wonderful it would have been if the vegetables had been roasted and the natural sweetness enhanced.  It would have been soft, but I think I would have preferred it that way.

My second course was Pickerel out of Lake Erie. The fish was light and flaky, and served over a mayonnaise based potato salad.

The Saltimbocca was classically prepared with veal medallions, cheese, prosciutto, and sage. It was pretty good, but the braised greens underneath stood above the rest.  My husband's Beer Braised Short Ribs had mushrooms, and since I am allergic I only took the tiniest of bites. It was hearty and tender, and he liked it.

Our meal ended with a rich and creamy chocolate pot au creme and a tart apple Tarte Tatin.

The next day was rainy and foggy, making the falls nearly invisible.  It was still beautiful watching the mist from the water mix with the low lying clouds and waft slowly down river.  We decided to drive to Toronto for the day (about 90 minutes around Lake Ontario from Niagara Falls) and en route found this great website listing the fifty best restaurants in Toronto.  We wanted French food and, at random, picked Le Kensington Bistro in the Kensington Market area of the city. 

It was amazing, the best meal of the weekend.  So good I spent all my time savoring and didn't take any pictures.  We both started with a thyme-y version of French Onion Soup, and then my husband ordered the Duck Confit, which fell off the bone and was served with the best brussel sprouts I have ever eaten.  They were sauteed in duck fat, charred, smokey and hearty.  He offered me a few, and I fished out a few more when he wasn't looking.

I ordered the steak tartar, and borrowed this picture from Le Kensington Bistro's website for your viewing pleasure.  That is a quail egg seated on top.  Peppery and deliciously raw, I loved every bite.

On our way back to Niagara Falls we passed what seemed like hundreds of wineries.  Each exit on the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way -- the main highway between Niagara and Toronto) listed four or five within 5km.  Since the area is well know for its cold varieties and ice wine, I wanted to stop somewhere and pick up a bottle to drink before dinner.  Again at random (isn't the spontaneity of travelling without kids amazing?!), we picked an exit and went to the closest winery.

This gorgeous place is called Peninsula Ridge Estates.  The house and barn where the wine shop was date to the late 1885.  We bought a bottle of Riesling ice wine and headed back to enjoy in front of our window overlooking the falls.

Ice wine is made from grapes that are frozen. According to the folks at Peninsula Ridge, they are harvested by hand between 10pm and 6am, and each grape gives off about a drop of juice, resulting in a rich golden wine with a heavy mouth feel.  Meant to be a dessert wine, we drank a little as an aperitif instead and then caught a cab to dinner.

The second night we dined at the Rainbow Room courtesy of Massimo Capra.  Apparently he is very popular and on Food Network Canada and seems quite a showman if the mini-movie in the elevator on our ascent to the restaurant is any indication.  There was lots of mustache twirling, in a campy villainous style.

Massimo Capra

It was so foggy when we arrived that we could barely see the falls at all from our window seat.  Our waitress assured us that the fog would probably lift once it got dark.  This sounded like faulty science to us, but sure enough, once the sun went down we could see the American falls pretty well.  We even got to see the light show.

I started dinner with a Caesar salad, and then we both moved on to pasta dishes -- the Bolognese for me, and a chicken carbonara for my husband.  Both were tasty, but didn't knock our socks off.  My homemade fettuccine and the very meaty sauce was quite filling, and though I ordered a dessert of berries in a brandy snap basket, I couldn't eat much of it.

All in all, it was an amazing weekend in Canada.  And my favorite part?  My husband agreed to do it again next year, only this time, I will do all the surprise planning.  I can't wait.