THIS IS scenic country dining, but please understand that we are not talking down-on-the-farm. The dining room at the Vineyard Estates Winery is a rustic structure in the very midst of the vines, an absolute knockout of a site. Staggering, in fact. Breathe deeply and you can smell the grapes; look out and you can see Lake Ontario.
When the weather is warm, the windows of the dining room open to the air (and occasionally the flies). There's a beautiful deck built around a big tree right outside the door. Plates are adorned with flowers; napkins are tied with vine cuttings. Ah, wilderness!
And nobody could accuse the menu of being pedestrian.
Frankly, the menu may even be a little too far out for some. Much is made of locally raised ingredients, in some cases things you (and I) have never heard of. This is Canadian Foodstuffs 101, and I missed several questions on the quiz.
All the ingredients are carefully labeled as to origin, which is great. But sometimes there are just too many of them.
Example: risotto with cardamom infused carrot jus, bioharvest oyster mushrooms, Medjool dates and grilled jumbo scallops ($14) is a mouthful in more ways than one.
Let me make a statement here. Vineyard Estates is not the place for someone craving Minute Rice Casserole.
Appetizers are distinctive -- I ordered Smoked Eel with sweet rice, galangel ginger and ketjap manis (a thick syrupy Indonesian sauce) for $10. It was a sushi preparation -- the intensely flavored fish rolled with the rice. I loved it, but then, I am very fond of strong Far Eastern flavors.
The Companion opted for House Smoked Northern Splake, something neither of us was familiar with. Splake is a sort of trout, we learned, and it was served in thick pink slices on mixed greens with caper pepperonade and basil vinaigrette. Even better than the Smoked Eel, this dish. It was piquant and satisfying.
There are more conventional starters. Our friends wimped out and went for the Sweet Bell Pepper Bisque -- two colors in the bowl because part of the soup was made from red and part from yellow peppers ($8). Nice. The soup was garnished with a mushroom creme fraiche and what the menu described as "Pelee Island Treasures" (turned out this is white caviar).
Well, there weren't a lot of treasures, but the soup was still enjoyable.
To the main courses: Excellent Beef Tenderloin, served rare with a nice hunk of horseradish mashed potatoes ($28) and, according to the menu, "dried cherry and Screech drippings." (I was afraid to ask about that one.)
And fine roast lamb served with crisp chevre rosti potatoes and roasted garlic/thyme sauce ($25).
And an unusual and tasty idea: Chickpea Crusted Halibut ($19). The fish was well-cooked and served on a tasty bed of French lentils. Extremely good in a sort of intellectual way. Not comfort food; not soothing.
And saffroned rigatoncini pasta with grilled chicken, arugula, oven-roasted tomatoes and feta cheese ($14). By the way, the winery's own Pinot Noir was a fine accompaniment.
Other main-course ideas are even more unusual. But then, Muscovy Duck Breast cured with coarse sugar and juniper berries with a candied wild ginger and blueberry glaze ($20) sounds pretty good. As does Sumac Rubbed Salmon steamed over thyme-flavored riesling with cracked wheat, pistachios and honey.
Of course, there are some simpler items, too. Free Range Chicken with lemon-flavored basmati rice and maple berry pan juices ($22), and grilled Veal Tenderloin with polenta, mushrooms and smoked tomato sauce, are examples of the more basic track.
Actually, come to think of it, our dessert was on the simple side -- though, of course, it had a twist. Angel Food Cake ($8) was made with poppy seeds, and those tiny seeds added a pleasant little crunch and zip to what is normally a pretty bland cake.
For the adventurous, this is an interesting destination restaurant.
K. Gallagher's ***(Sept. 26)
K. Gallagher's, 73 Allen St. (882-3550). Everything from a sandwich to Cajun blackened haddock in this charmingly furnished tavern/grill. Food has a definite contemporary slant.
North Park Cafe ***(Sept. 19)
North Park Cafe, 1434 Hertel Ave. (836-6684). Informal restaurant specializes in homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods. The food is very fresh, quite original and carefully prepared.
Harry's Harbour Place Grille *** 1/2 * (Sept. 12)
Harry's Harbour Place Grille, 2192 Niagara St. (874-5400). Great big and gorgeous, this newly opened steak and seafood restaurant has beautiful views, classy furnishings and a sophisticated menu.
Tapestries ***(Sept. 5)
Tapestries, 209 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (905-468-4588.) In the Kiely Inn, this Victorian-looking restaurant serves contemporary food. Beautiful gardens.
* Indicates restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.
** Indicates rating based on the Early Bird special.
VINELAND ESTATES ***
3620 Moyer Road, Vineland, Ont. (905-562-7088). Canada's own Napa Valley! This pleasant restaurant sits smack dab in the middle of the Vineland Estates vineyard. On a nice day you can sit on the deck under an impressive tree. Serving very elaborately constructed food made from unique ingredients. Reservations necessary. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express.
BEST DISH: Beef Tenderloin.
NEEDS WORK: Everything is of good quality.
PRICE RANGE: Dinners from $19 Canadian, include vegetables. Pastas from $14.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Lunch and dinner seven days year-round until about 8 p.m.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Steamed Salmon, Chickpea Crusted Haddock, many others.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Difficult.
PARKING: In the lot.
KID APPEAL: Menu too sophisticated for most.
KEY: *FAIR, **GOOD, ***VERY GOOD, ****EXCELLENT, *****EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.