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Classy cuisine Old Winery offers quality patio fare at affordable prices

Continuing with our Summer 2007 Great Patio Search, here's one that has theatrical aspirations.

Chef Tony de Luca is a well-known figure in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where he owns and runs the posh dining room of the Oban Inn. It's an elegant establishment that is gorgeous to look at and serves elaborate, challenging cuisine.

The Oban is certainly well worth a visit, but should you be in the mood for something more casual, something less time consuming, and certainly something less expensive, you should know about de Luca's debuting Old Winery, a couple of miles or so from the center of town.

Yes, from the road it resembles a mall, but don't let that stop you. Inside, the decor is sleek and attractive. The great glory of a patio overlooks a grove of trees and a creek; umbrella tables provide the necessary shade.

But here's the important thing: Just because a place is informal, doesn't mean that the cuisine isn't worthy. Not, at least, when you have someone like de Luca at the helm. I'm still dreaming abut my recent chilled asparagus appetizer ($6.95; all prices Canadian), with the most perfect tiny spears (all equal in size to the very centimeter) carefully arranged on a plate. The vegetables were cooked to the exactly right, slightly chewy doneness and topped lightly with truffle oil.

Another appetizer, the ever-ubiquitous bruschetta ($4.95) was also fine, with the zesty topping was applied quite generously. Field greens with cucumbers and balsamic vinaigrette ($4.25) get an A as well.

The menu here is short but sweet. A section called "noodles" (that's what we used to call pasta many years ago, remember?), another called "wood-fired pizza" (with cute names) and "open-flame cooking." As far as desserts go, note that the Old Winery has its own pastry chef, Wes Lesco -- always a good sign.

A guest ordered gnocchi with mushrooms, arugula and prosciutto ($8.50 for the smaller plate, $13.50 for the larger), and it was light as air. The smaller serving was quite enough for her. One quibble: The peas described on the menu were among the missing. But the said sweet peas, according to the menu, also fill ravioli along with ricotta, olive oil and basil ($12/$14).

Another temptation in this section is Black and White Linguine with shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams in pepper cream sauce ($9.50/$14.50).

I went for more filling food: the Brick Half Chicken ($18.50). Chicken prepared in this manner is one of the big trends of this grilling year. It's an old Italian idea: The chicken is marinated and grilled with a brick atop so that it contacts the grill evenly, ensuring even browning and thorough cooking. At the Winery, the good-tasting bird, with its assertive flavor of rosemary, was a wondrous thing.

Beef Tenderloin, served with balsamic vinegar and green pepper sauce with roast potatoes and vegetables ($23.50), provided few surprises -- but it was so toothsome, none were needed. This is probably the most filling item on the menu.

About those pizzas: They are made with a four-cheese blend (fontina, asiago, mozzarella and parmesan) and come straight from the oven prominently situated behind the bar. The "Star" is cheese and pepperoni; the "Dancer" has zucchini and yellow squash, tomatoes and fresh basil; the "Athlete" is topped with chicken, mushrooms, peppers, onion and peperoncino oil; and the "Intellectual" features Buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula and white truffle oil. Prices run from $9.25 to $13.50.

As for those desserts, there's hazelnut/chocolate-topped cake; a cute little lemon tart with the crust balanced atop it so it looks like a mushroom; and mixed flavors of house-made gelato, too. All are lovely.

The wine list offers several choices by the glass or bottle. Skip the harder booze; the bar is not well stocked or staffed to deal with it. Which is, of course, as it should be.

This restaurant features both the drinkable and edible stuff that originates right down the road.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

***

OLD WINERY

3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

WHERE: 2228 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont. (905-468-8900). New restaurant opened by popular chef Tony DeLuca, who also runs the dining room at in the Oban Inn. This one is informal, located on the outskirts of the village, and the patio overlooks a creek. Credit Cards: American Express, Master Card, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Brick Half Chicken

NEEDS WORK: Food is of high quality.

PRICE RANGE: Pizzas from $9.25; entrees from $18.50, Canadian.

SERVICE: Still learning.

HOURS: Noon to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Patio could be difficult.

PARKING: In the lot.

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost -- with greatest weight given to quality of the food.

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