Three Niagara Surprises

I am always thrilled to discover new things. You know, those serendipitous things that you stumble across by chance. In other words, pleasant surprises.

Pleasant surprises really make me happy. Perhaps it’s the jaded, cynical city-girl thing, but these were kind of rare when I lived in Toronto. Actually, my last couple of years there had a few too many bad surprises. And we all don’t like those, no matter where we live.

But as I am becoming more Niagarafied, I find that my new life can be full of surprises. And I’ve had mostly good ones so far.

So this brings me to some of my latest Niagara adventures. The things I’m going to share with you today are pleasant, everyday, unexpected kind of surprises. A really great burger. A delicious wine that I totally expected to dislike. And a restaurant that had been so highly praised to me that I didn’t think it could possibly live up to its glowing reviews. But it did.

Without further ado, I give you:

A Really Great Burger

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Ken and I stopped for lunch in Beamsville en route to Dillon’s Distillery. We were looking for a quick, casual bite and stopped at The Butcher and Banker Pub.

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This was such a charming and friendly local pub, and we totally stumbled upon it by chance that day. It seemed to be full of friendly folks who thought of the B&B as their local. Lots of hugs, laughter and catching up was going on. Honestly, though it sounds new agey, there was a really welcoming vibe here. The repeat customers are proof of that.

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With one look at the menu, I knew what I had to have. Nachos and a burger. This was a cheat day from my fitness regime, so diet-obsessiveness was out the window.

The Butcher and Banker has several types of nachos and burgers to choose from. I started with vegetarian Bankers Nachos with cheese, lettuce, diced tomato and onion. I could have had them with chili, grilled steak or chicken. I was also eyeing their World Famous Nachos, with a grilled chicken breast, grilled steak, melted cheddar and mozzarella cheese, bruschetta mix, lettuce and green onion. A meal in itself. My waitress even warned me about the Bankers Nachos, saying it was a large platter, but I threw caution to the wind and ordered it anyway.

Wow. Look at this.

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Nacho Lovers, run to the Butcher and Banker. Crisp – not soggy – tortillas, plenty of cheese and caloric badness. Heaven. Next time I will get the World Famous Nachos for sure.

And the burgers! I had the Blue Cheese Burger – Angus ground chuck topped with blue cheese, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Ken opted for the Butcher’s Burger, which was the same ground Angus smothered with red ale BBQ sauce, topped with peameal bacon and cheddar.

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Think really good summer barbecue at your house. Squishy buns, slightly toasted, your favourite condiments slathered in perfect abundance, and that char-grilled taste. Perfection. All that was missing was the heat of the sun.

Great burgers and nachos in a warm and inviting atmosphere. They have all kinds of tempting things on their menu, and lots of classic British pub fare, made from scratch.

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When you are in Beamsville, you must go. Here is their website again.

So, onto my second surprise discovery

Peach Wine 

I have mentioned before how much I love Konzelmann Estate Winery. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever sampled a wine from them that I didn’t like. However, I am not partial to fruit based wine (yes, I know grapes are a fruit too). Once again, it’s that sweetness factor. I have had over-the-top sweet fruit wine in the past and it is so totally not my thing. Because of this I even steered clear of the peach wine at my beloved Konzelmann

But on St. Patrick’s Day they were offering free tours. As I had never done a tour there – shocking, I know – I decided to pop over for the daily 3 pm tour.

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We had a fun-filled, informative tour with Gus

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And then got down to serious tasting business, starting off with a refresher of proper tasting technique.

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And proceeded to taste four wines, one of which was the peach.

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I was totally shocked. This just might become my new summer patio standard. Full of fresh peach flavour, with no syrupy, sugary taste. Gus suggested it in a sangria, and he also suggested it for use in a pancake recipe. I won’t share the details here though, you will need to come to Highbrook to try it. But it sure sounds delicious.

After the tour, I roamed around the winery and took some more shots. There were quite a few people at the tasting bar, partaking of the green sparkling wine sample. It was St. Patrick’s Day, after all.

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Yes, Peach wine. Try it and thank me later. Summer will never be the same.

And onto my last serendipitous treat

Zest Restaurant

You already know how fond I am of Fonthill, and the whole Pelham region. So when I heard that they were Hosting a Tastes of Spring event, I knew I had to get back up there and try some of the restaurants. For this event, restaurants were offering three course lunch or dinner menus for between 25 and 35 dollars. I love these events as it is a great incentive to finally get out to all those restaurants you’ve been meaning to try but somehow never got around to.

Zest was one such restaurant for me. It had been recommended to me for quite some time, but I just never got up there. It’s sister restaurant though – The Garrison House – is right up the street from me, and I’ve been there several times.

Now you may be saying “Jo, this is not a surprise. You had heard good things about Zest, and love the Garrison House, so how does this fit in with the “Surprise” theme of this post?”

Frankly, I am always pleasantly surprised when a restaurant that has been so highly recommended to me lives up to its expectations. You know what it’s like….sometimes when you look so forward to something, or expect something to be amazing, it somehow falls short a little.

Zest absolutely did not fall short.

The restaurant has just been renovated, and I love what they have done. It is contemporary and relaxed, with a warm welcome when you arrive. There is an open kitchen with bar seating, which adds to the vibe. Open kitchens can be tricky – some people love them, some people hate them. I actually like them, and have huge respect for the chefs that work in these conditions. I can’t stand working when people are watching me, so I guess an “Open blogging” concept is not a good idea. Chefs in an open kitchen have double the work – creating great meals, and yet still being a part of the entertainment.

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And the food? Incredible.

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I started with the Zest “Classic” Fried Calamari with Sriracha dipping sauce

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Friends, this was probably the best calamari I have ever had in my life. I’m serious. Look at that coating….just a little bit of breading to make it a bit crispy. And usually I avoid the baby calamari. Badly done calamari consists of large baby calamari,that are ropey, stringy, overcooked and really just gross. I usually stick to calamari rings. But these were delicious, tender and just popped in your mouth. Beautifully done. The Sriracha dipping sauce added a touch of glorious heat. I’m all about spicy, these days.

Ken started with the Cured Ham Croquettes

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And my Mummy had the Chicken Liver Pate. I adore chicken liver pate, so she kindly shared with me. Do you see what’s left in this ramekin?

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I so desperately wanted to lick this ramekin clean, that’s how good this pate was. But I restrained myself, and proper restaurant decorum reigned.

For the second course, my Mother had the Braised Chicken Coq au Riesling. Ken and I both had the Marinated Flat Iron Steak and Frites, done to medium rare (but closer to rare) beauty. This was topped with a scrumptious Black Lager Onion Jam. I am crazy for caramelized onions on anything, and this Onion Jam added lovely flavour.

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We sampled both of the offered desserts, but I think the Dolce de Leche Banana Bread was the favourite.

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Truly an incredible meal.

And the pleasant surprise? I think Zest surpassed my expectations, which were pretty high to begin with. I haven’t really mentioned the service yet but our server was wonderful – friendly, warm, and efficient.

So you have to go to Fonthill and try it for yourself. And while you are there, make a day of it by going to some of the other places I mentioned in my two Pelham posts.

Keep those pleasant surprises coming, Niagara. I could really get used to them.