I canvassed Niagara happily, putting my stomach to work to compile a short list of Niagara’s must-try dishes
Niagarans love to eat. In fact, we are fiercely loyal to the pleasures of the palate and we love nothing more than to debate the merits of our favourite dishes.
I know we’re all inspired by the really great food that grows all around us; we’re impressed with celebrity chefs that dazzle us with spectacular dishes and are so very thankful for the common sense chefs who are extreme about making ordinary food taste extraordinary. Some say it’s the influence of our fine-dining scene that sets the bar high for good food, while others say the casual eateries for family dining are as slick as they get.
No matter what the reason, Niagara has plenty to brag about, so with the combined efforts of our contributors and Today Magazine staff, we canvassed Niagara happily putting our stomachs to work to compile a menu of Niagara’s must-try dishes from Fort Erie to Grimsby.
The following is a list of the best in each category. If you want to see the “runners-up” that are also brag-worthy, check out my blog at www.lynnogryzlo.com.
Best Burger: Most votes for Niagara’s best burger goes to the Bleu Turtle, 215 St. Paul Street West, in St Catharines. Gourmet chef, Rob Berry opened this small diner in the fall of 2007, and it remains a destination restaurant for gourmet breakfasts laced with truffles, crab, and thick slabs of bacon. Berry’s signature burger is super thick and made with Triple A beef, truffle mayo, brie cheese, and caramelized onions. The secret, confesses Rob, is his secret mix of beef and oats, “the oats really soak up the juices and hold them in for a really juicy and flavourful mouthful.” While his loyal customers aren’t really hung up on how he makes his burger, their excitement comes from the right combination of flavours stroking the palate and satisfaction in every bite.
Best Fish & Chips: I would make the drive to Port Colborne any day for a plate of Minor Fisheries lightly dusted Lake Erie perch and chips. The fish is caught each morning and you get to eat it for lunch or dinner – that’s fresh! Each mouthful of fresh fish has the essence of icy cold spring water. Fisherman Rob Minor can’t bring himself to mask the delicate flavours of Lake Erie perch with a thick batter, so this is coated with a light dusting of seasoned breadcrumbs. The “fish shack” is not pretty and your order comes in a box, but the price is right and you can eat canal-side.
Best Steak: Mike and Linda Sloat own one of Port Colborne’s most popular restaurants, @27 Restaurant at 27 Main Street, and our contributors want you to know that it’s a destination for die-hard beef eaters. Head chef Linda goes to great lengths to ensure their beef is top notch. “It starts with a great cut of beef,” says Linda, who explains her steaks are Triple A, 28-day aged (never frozen), centre-cut steaks. The menu includes five different fork-tender steaks, and on the weekends, they offer a special steak feature, often paired with seafood. The most popular is their bacon-wrapped filet, but my favourite is the large Rib Eye with crunchy onion frits – yum!
Best Sushi: Who would have ever thought we’d be crazy about cold rice? But wrap it with seaweed and we just can’t resist! East Sushi Restaurant on 129 King St in St Catharines got most votes for best sushi in Niagara. Asian-born Peng Ioi and his team of sushi chefs are experts with years of experience, mixing the vinegar-laced rice with the perfect combination of flavours to please the palate. What sets this sushi apart from the rest is the lightness of the rice and overall freshness of the ingredients. The restaurant is an all-you-can-eat establishment, so you can try a wide variety of sushi from summer, refreshing Mango Shrimp Rolls to Spicy Tuna Rolls. They even have a Strawberry Cheese Roll for dessert!
Best Pizza: From thick crust to deep dish and thin-crust, everyone has a different destination for the best pizza. So, for this category we are only looking at thin-crust pizza. For all of those pizza lovers who stand in line for an hour for their thin-crust pizza at Commisso’s Fresh Foods on Thorold Stone Road in Niagara Falls, know it is worth every second you wait. Pizziola Michael Commisso learned his trade in Italy, and when he returned, he brought back his favourite pizza oven and expert pizza knowledge. The crust is ultra thin and with your choice of toppings, it holds firm from the edges to the middle. Gluten-free crusts are available by pre-ordering, and if you don’t see your topping at the pizza station, shop the grocery store and they’ll make a delicious pizza from ingredients you find on their store shelves or in the produce department. The sky is the limit with Commisso’s authentic Italian-style pizzas.
Best Donuts: Chef Kyle Paton of Rise Above, a trendy vegan restaurant in downtown St. Catharines, wins hands down for the best donuts. You’ll find swarms of people on Thursdays picking up their fresh-from-the-oven donuts (only baked on Thursdays). Paton’s donuts are made without any animal fat, and according the chef, “we throw in some healthy ingredients like flax meal and no one notices,” smiles Paton. Lighter in calories than traditional donuts with a heavenly texture, it’s the decadent flavours like chocolate and Oreos or vanilla and coconut that customers get excited about. My favourite is the simple Maple Glazed donut. It doesn’t give you the traditional over-the-top, artificial maple flavour; instead it is a beautiful kiss of fresh maple syrup with no artificial aftertaste. Pity they’re only baked on Thursdays.
Best Cupcakes: Cupcakes are incredibly popular, but not all cupcakes are baked alike.
Above and Beyond Cupcakes, 591 King St, in Welland sets the bar high with their moist cupcakes that fill your mouth with rich, dreamy flavour. Fine-dining chef Stacey Clare and partner Ryan Hegedus opened Above and Beyond in the spring of last year, and since then they have won first place in cupcake competitions from Niagara through to Toronto. They use all-natural ingredients, local fruit, traditional recipes, and of course, thick buttercream frosting. The cupcake menu includes 115 flavours that you can order ahead, or pick from their 10 daily-featured cupcakes. Try their signature, moist Blueberry Icewine cupcake. It’s a not-too-sweet blueberry cupcake stuffed with blueberry icewine jelly and topped with icewine buttercream frosting. Drop by and eat in their brand new café.
Best Butter Tarts: I tried my best to come up with a winner in this difficult category, but the best I could do is offer a tie that you’re going to have to break yourself. Interesting that both of these butter tarts come from farm bake shops. The best butter tarts can be found at Whitty Farm Market on Fourth Avenue in St Catharines and The Fruit Shack on Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Whitty’s tarts have a bit of a sticky crunch from the caramelized sugar that spills over when baked, and they have a firmer centre inside the ultra flaky pastry. The Fruit Shack butter tarts have loads of buttery pastry, holding in a runny centre that is simultaneously sticky and caramelly. Two different styles, two amazing butter tarts. I don’t know, you decide and let me know.
Best Cappuccino: Everyone knows the best cup of coffee in the world can be found in Italy, so it’s no surprise that most votes for the top cappuccino went to an Italian coffee shop, Espresso Passion at 22 Facer Street in St Catharines. The place is like a coffee shop straight out of Rome with sleek, modern décor, and a coffee bar that many cozy up to while they enjoy their cappuccino, espresso, or any of the other 12 different coffees Nadia Vergalito has on her coffee menu. Of course, it’s Italian coffee with a rich, delicious flavour, smooth finish and creamy mid-palate – worth the drive for a cup of warm satisfaction.
This is the end of the story but not the end of the best dishes in Niagara. A simple eight categories just doesn’t do Niagara justice, but it’s a great start. What’s your favourite dish in Niagara? Let me know at www.facebook.com/lynn.ogryzlo, and we’ll keep this list growing.
[box type=”shadow”]Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer and international award-winning author of Niagara Cooks cookbook series and The Ontario Table. You can reach Lynn for questions or commets through www.lynnogryzlo.com. [/box]