Down in Niagara and in need of lunch, I ended up at the restaurant at Peninsula Ridge winery on the Beamsville Bench. You can’t miss the house, a handsome, turreted, red-brick Victorian home set high on a hill with the winery buildings and carriage house behind it. The place was built in 1885 by prominent local doctor William D. Kitchen and meticulously restored by the winery’s proprietor, Norm Beal, when he bought the property in 2000. He opened up the rooms both upstairs and down but left the gorgeous original woodwork (including a fine cherrywood staircase).
I first visited in 2001, very soon after the restaurant opened. Ned Bell was the chef – a celebrity appointment following his critical successes at Accolade and Senses – and the meal he cooked for me was exceptionally good. Alas, Ned had moved on before my review had even appeared. Several chefs followed, including Niagara’s talented Ross Midgely for a couple of years. The current incumbent arrived in 2012 – a Quebec City native called Pierre Bourget who had been sous chef at the wonderful Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island before coming back east.
The restaurant was very much as I remembered it – even the same warbling, upbeat jazz playing slightly too loudly (though my chair was right underneath the speaker). Two local couples and a matched pair of businessmen shared the dining room with me. The friendly young woman who served us was surprised when I sat with my back to the window and the stunning vista down the rolling benchlands to the lake and distant Toronto on the blue horizon. Old habits die hard. I still instinctively choose a chair that lets me see the restaurant not the view.
Chef Bourget’s menu read well – there was plenty to tempt. The wine list sticks to Peninsula Ridge’s own wines with 18 offered by the glass, including the limpid, aromatic, mineraly Wismer vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. I began with a hearty dish of tender, juicy Manila clams steamed in a rich saffron broth with little chunks of peppery chorizo. Espalette pepper added sweet capsicum flavours while a concassé of fresh tomato lightened the overall weight. Chef had sprinkled pea sprouts and chopped chives over the top and finished the dish with a slice of toasted multigrain baguette as a crouton spread with pungent Kalamata olive tapenade – a nice bitter counterpoint to the spicy sweetness of the broth.
A notably tender fillet of arctic char, sweetened with a marinade of maple syrup and grainy mustard, was served on a cedar plank. Flanking the fish on one side was a mound of fingerling potatoes, lightly smoked then roasted off in duck fat until they were soft inside, crispy on the surface – quite the yummiest potatoes I’ve had in ages. On the other side was a cornucopia of vegetables – three spears of crunchy white asparagus, a muddle of soft red pepper strips like a sweet peperonata, a noble stalk of green kale. A garnish of purple basil leaves made their own aromatic contribution.
Both dishes were served piping hot, which is always attractive, and though there was nothing unconventional about the ideas, execution was pretty much flawless. Ditto dessert. There were five to choose from and I ended up with sticky toffee fig pudding – a dense cakey puck that really did taste of figs glazed with a toffee sauce. Crumbled sponge toffee and a scattering of berries shared the plate, along with a serving of walnut praline ice cream.
All in all, most satisfactory. The Restaurant at Peninsula Ridge is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday and for Sunday brunch. 5600 King St. W., Beamsville, 905-563-0995.