Turn the clock back six years and I was happier than a sustainably raised heritage breed pig in you-know-what that I got a job in St. Catharines.
Why? Because it meant I would be living close to Niagara Falls. It was my happy place, a favourite day trip destination. A novelty.
Then I moved here. And every time someone would visit, they only wanted to do one thing: go to Niagara Falls. The novelty wore off in a traffic jam on Lundy’s Lane one hot July day in 2005 during what was one of many jaunts in close succession to the tourist mecca to meet friends from Toronto.
But worse than languishing in a line-up of sputtering vehicles filled with increasingly frazzled tourists to meet people who thought the stretch between Toronto’s borders and that of the Cataract City was but a wasteland was eating in Niagara Falls.
With no shortage of big name chains to choose from — and ones that mailed it in at best because of a captive audience — Niagara Falls seemed to be a dining netherworld to this transplant.
The last few years have seen some fantastic additions to the city’s dining scene that have elevated it from Generica. And on Tuesday, at the media launch of the new Windows by Jamie Kennedy restaurant, I got to stick my fork in some mighty fine dishes that raise the bar even higher for uncompromising diners, tourists or locals.
That was the point of having this celebrity chef set up kitchen on the 14th floor of the Sheraton on the Falls hotel, which is flanked by chain restaurants with virtually indiscernible menus.
“This is being done to bring gastronomy to Niagara in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Kennedy said about his venture, which has been open for business since February.
If the wall of wine — a collection chosen by wine guru Tony Aspler — that greets you when walking off the elevator doesn’t catch your eye, the ever-familiar but always sensational view will. The postcard-like scene playing out through floor-to-ceiling windows was stunning and paired perfectly with Kennedy’s signature “terroir-based gastronomy” that promises to prominently feature Niagara’s bounty.
Windows by Jamie Kennedy is meant to be “the ultimate Niagara or Canadian dining experience… presented in an approachable style,” said Doug Birrell, president of Canadian Niagara Hotels, the Sheraton’s parent company.
And it is. Fresh and simple describe each plate that was placed in front of us, prepared by Kennedy and Ross Midgley, chef de cuisine and the man at the helm of the kitchen when Kennedy isn’t there.
“Ross, he’s a man who’s as fully engaged in the local food movement as I am so the relationship was easy to break into,” Kennedy said. ‘To have Ross here to oversee the brain trust… is hugely important.”
Be it the spring green salad of Soiled Reputation Greens with Easter radishes and sorrel vinaigrette, the spring minestrone soup with braised rabbit (or the vegetarian version I had without) and herb pesto, or the Lake Erie perch served atop fingerling potatoes, pea shoots and with a beet reduction, I swear I could taste every ingredient in every dish, each one a star in its own right. Yet somehow they all managed to work together without any one dominating. Each plate was uncomplicated, the way food is meant to be, and paired with its liquid soulmate, Ontario wine.
There will be international wines available, Aspler told us, given Niagara Falls is a beacon for people from all corners of the globe. But about two-thirds of the tipple will be local.
“These are the best wines Ontario produces,” he said. “(The wine list) will be dynamic, it will change with the seasons and reflect the best Ontario will produce.”
So will the menu. Right now, it’s all things spring, with entrees ranging from $21 for the toasted southwestern Ontario omelette on crisp brioche with house-made ham and Ontario tomato salsa to $38 for a 180-gram rib eye steak with sauteed mushrooms and green garlic butter.
It’s a lovely read. The only thing missing is a seasonal vegetarian option.
Still, overlooking the falls high above the hordes of tourists and those cookie-cutter feeding stations, dining purgatory feels a long way off at Windows, and as eater, you can’t help but feel just a little closer to heaven.