Twenty-four hours in Prince Edward County is a surprisingly effective getaway – at least it was this weekend, with dazzling blue skies and bright sunshine belying the sub-zero temperatures. The roads and the beaches were empty, the meadows and copses free of the snow that we left behind in Toronto but still poised in winter’s palette of orange and grey. There was ice on the ponds though the ever-present lake glittered temptingly blue, the water as clear as glass. I had driven down to check out two wineries – Sandbanks and Grange of Prince Edward – for an article for Food & Drink magazine. That meant spending the night and that meant having dinner. I’ve been hoping to eat at East & Main in Wellington since it opened two years ago. Here at last was an opportunity.
Wellington is all charm, a village right on the water with enough lovingly restored Victorian houses to satisfy any need for the picturesque. There is one traffic light on Main street and East & Main is close by, a former bulk food store bought, renovated and run by Kimberly Humby and her husband David O’Connor. Kimberly was the gifted sommelier and chef de service at the Fifth in its early days, talents that subsequently took her to YYZ, Fat Cat, Far Niente and Langdon Hall; David is also a sommelier and wine consultant. Moving down to the County and becoming part of the adventure of a nascent wine and food destination has been a long-held dream of them both. The chef is Lili Sullivan who was chef at Peter Oliver’s short-lived Chapeau in the ’90s and then at the Rebel House where she cooked the best pub food in Toronto for seven years before moving down to the County.
So – a talented line-up! And the space is lovely. The old wooden floor has a certain undulation, though not enough to cause the wooden tables to wobble. The bar is right in the middle of the room and one can see into the kitchen at the rear so there is always a visible, lively bustle to energize the ambience. Gourmet treats and local delicacies in jars and bottles are on sale, temptingly arrayed on shelves made of repurposed barn boards; the colour scheme is mostly a mellow grey-green, the consciously rural décor offset by a number of fancy chandeliers. We didn’t know it, but this weekend is Countylicious and the place was packed with locals eager to try the generous $30 prix-fixe menu. The kitchen offered to put together a tasting menu for the two of us, with Kimberly matching the dishes to local wines. The idea was irresistible.
We began with a flute of Hinterland’s 2007 sparkling rosé, a fine bubbly the colour of peach glass and full of the refreshingly lean County acidity and an intriguing minerality on the finish. East & Main’s wine list (David O’Connor’s on-going project) is a thing of beauty with over 100 wines, of which more than half proudly carry the local acronym PEC VQA. The mark-up is notably low, offering a fine opportunity to explore the tastes of the region and hard-to-find vintages such as 2007.
Our first dish needed no wine – would have killed one, in fact. It was a delicate mushroom consommé containing three drowned gnocchi that had first been pan-fried to give their light, fluffy surface a browned suggestion of crispness. The miniature bowls were set down before us then Kimberly poured on flaming brandy from a tiny jug. It was a dramatic coup de service but my gasp of admiration blew out the brandy prematurely which left a lot in the consommé and masked some of its mushroomy nuances.
The next dish was right off the menu, and part of the Countylicious offering for those fortunate bargain-hunters – a jumble of perfectly seared sweetbreads, local mushrooms and crispy parsnip ribbons piled high on a disc of maple-roasted sweet potato. A rich meaty port reduction was the unctuous sauce. Kimberly paired it with an off-dry 2009 Riesling from Sandbanks – a huge contrast to the deep, dark flavours of the dish but a triumph in the end.
Onwards to three impeccably tender ravioli filled with creamy, very flavourful duck confit. The little squares were outlined from beneath by a red wine-mushroom reduction and topped with buttery oyster mushrooms seasoned with pepper and sprinkled with a little chopped parsley. This time the wine match was more conventional – Trumpour’s Mill 2007 Pinot Noir made by the Grange of Prince Edward, a delicious, beautifully knit Pinot with a more intense flavour than the nose would suggest.
Juicy pickerel fillets from the Bay of Quinte were the next act on the program, hidden beneath thin “scales” of potato like pommes Anna. Under the fish was a jumble of ribbons cut from multi-coloured carrots that had survived the winter in the field and were as sweet as they were crunchy. With this we drank Casa Dea’s limpid, spicy Pinot Gris.
Our main course was a lean, exceptionally tender fillet of horse meat wrapped in cawl fat that pressed a brunoise of mushroom against the muscle. With this came potato rösti and green beans and another saucy reduction. Fieldstone vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc was exactly the right wine to bring out the taste of the meat.
Dessert was a raisin butter tart that contained an unexpected surprise – little flecks of maple-smoked bacon. It’s a dish I will have to return to some day when I haven’t eaten quite so much…
I’m delighted to add East & Main to the ever-growing list of County treasures. We walked back to the little inn where we were staying and couldn’t help but notice the breathtaking blaze of stars in the moonless sky. Such a cold night made them sparkle more brightly than I have ever seen in my life, on any of the six continents I have visited. No wonder so many people are drawn to this enchanted almost-island. East & Main is at 270 Main Street, Wellington, Prince Edward County. 613-399-5420. www.eastandmain.ca.