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COUNTRY FORMAL <br> CHARLES INN COMBINES REGIONAL WINES WITH RARE CHEESES

"Simply put, I believe a carrot should taste like a carrot!"

Well, I'll drink to that. In fact, I did. The quotation above is credited to chef de cuisine William Brunyansky and appears on the menu in the Charles Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where the wine list is loaded with vintages from the area. We enjoyed a 2001 Pinot Noir ($24) from the Creekside Estate winery outside the village of Jordan.

And that wine was poured with ceremony into the proper red-wine glass, what is more. The smaller white-wine goblet was efficiently replaced as soon as our order was in. That's typical of the service in this restaurant. Cutlery is replaced with every course. The napkins are large and starched. It's a much more formal arrangement than many diners are accustomed to.

I could adjust pretty easily, though, and, by the way, the dining room in this 1832-vintage Georgian mansion is formal, too. It has deep red walls with white woodwork, comfortable chairs and booths, high ceilings and not one but two fireplaces, both burning bright on a crisp autumn evening.

Even though the chef's quote seems to indicate complete devotion to simplicity, the Charles' menu has plenty of interesting touches. My appetizer, Loin of Rabbit ($11, all prices in Canadian funds), was pan-seared and served with cauliflower puree and mixed greens. The meat, in bite-size pieces, was just a tad dry, perhaps, but the dish was enjoyable anyway.

The Companion's appetizer, Pan-Seared Scallops with Citrus-Marinated Vegetables and Cilantro Cream ($16) was a delight. Here, the sea scallops were perfectly cooked. They were moist and tender.

Onward to the entrees. Pan-Seared Pickerel ($18) seemed a good idea, especially since our knowledgeable server told us that the fish was locally caught. The fish was served on a bed of wilted greens with a side of ratatouille. Caper butter added the final touch and an interesting hint of piquancy.

Grilled Loin of Lamb ($26) was presented similarly with the addition of basil pan juices. It was served medium rare as it was ordered.

Other entree choices included a Cider-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with port-braised turnip ($21) and Pot Roasted Guinea Hen with Beggars Purses filled with caramelized shallots ($25).

An unusual aspect of the Charles' menu is an extensive menu of farmhouse cheeses. Among the choices: Petit Livarot or Fourme d'Ambret, French raw milk cheeses both almost impossible to find in the United States; aged English white cheddar; and Oka, a semihard Canadian cheese.

The cheeses can be served anytime during the meal and run $4 or $5 apiece. Any three of the cheeses along with a wine pairing run $19.

Stick with the cheeses. Desserts run $9 or $19 if you want them paired with wine, and they could be better. We tried the Creme Brulee, served in a parfait glass in this restaurant -- that might be cute, but it's a big mistake. Why? You don't get as much crisp topping.

And we went for a Fresh Raspberry Lemon Meringue Pie, too -- not enough raspberries here. Two other dessert options are Strawberry Cheesecake and a Chocolate Amaretto concoction.

THE CHARLES INN ***

WHERE: 209 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (866-556-8883). A very formal dining room that occupies the first floor of a handsome bed and breakfast inn. Many local wines on the list and an interesting menu. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Pan-Seared Scallops with Citrus-Marinated Vegetables

NEEDS WORK: Desserts

PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $17 (Canadian funds) include vegetables.

SERVICE: Excellent

NOISE LEVEL: Low

HOURS: Lunch and dinner daily until about 8:30.

HEALTHY CHOICES: Pan-Seared Pickerel; Pot Roasted Guinea Hen

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Difficult

PARKING: In the back lot

KID APPEAL: Well-behaved children only

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com