Saturday, April 14, 2018

Bunch in Niagara, in style!

I'm digressing from music & arts reporting again this weekend, but as the saying goes, "if music be the food of love, play on!"  So play on we will, and apologies to esteemed Eating Niagara writer Tiffany Mayer for treading on her tasty territory just a little bit this weekend.

In spite of what my far better half would have you believe, I enjoy good food, artfully presented in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere that shows a lot of care and attention to detail.  So I have been doing a little poking around Niagara the last few months trying out some new and new-to-me venues that have caught my interest, many of which Tiffany has written about in her regular columns.

This weekend I'll look at three small, intimate establishments that are off the beaten track, locally owned and operated, and who pride themselves on creating a memorable brunch experience.  These are not the traditional eggs & bacon mom & pop places with large portions for a small amount of money.  That's not the crowd they are going after.  They are aimed at people looking for something more, something a cut above the average breakfast place.

Niagara, of course, has no shortage of great lunch and dinner destinations, many tied to the burgeoning wine industry.  But I've always found brunch to often be the forgotten child, as it were, save for the large big-ticket brunch offerings at some of Niagara's finer hotels.

No more, I am happy to report.  In the past couple of months we've visited two small brunch havens in St. Catharines and one in Vineland, all three relatively new and all three successfully carving out their own little niche in a growing marketplace.  I'm also happy to report they are all very, very good.

First up, just a short walk from our house in central St. Catharines is "a peculiar little bistro called:  mirepoix...breakfast, lunch, mostly brunch" as their simple website proclaims.  It's located at 64 Court Street, just across from the Midtown Plaza on Welland Avenue.  I visited this particular location in former incarnations as a purveyor of Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and an Indian restaurant, both good in their own right but somehow not able to survive all that long.

Mirepoix is operated by Maddy, formerly of the famed Bleu Turtle Breakfast Bistro on St. Paul Street West, and Chef Warren, who state their goal is to "reclaim fancy breakfast in St. Catharines."  They do that with a bright, airy yet cozy location with simple seating and an open kitchen.  The menu, which changes regularly, is posted on a huge blackboard on one wall.  Items are all made fresh, in-house, local, seasonal and organic, whenever possible.  Yes, there are options for those who prefer to eat vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free.

The menu at present includes avocado toast with smoked salmon, lobster eggs benedict, pork belly eggs benedict, steak and eggs, omelettes, burgers and more.  I have eaten there twice so far, the first time enjoying the apple pie french toast, served with local apples, maple syrup and oats.  The second visit saw me opt for the vegetable skillet, made up of roasted potatoes and veggies in a cast-iron skillet served piping hot to your table.

Prices are all around the $15 range and the servings, while not huge, are more than ample.  Service was efficient in spite of a full house while we visited, and reservations are highly recommended.

Mirepoix, which the website states refers to the "starting point to many a rad recipe", is open from 8 am to 2 pm Wednesday to Sunday.  For reservations call 289-968-8772.

Next up is the Revalee Brunch Cafe on Victoria Avenue in Vineland.  We drove by one Sunday afternoon just after they closed at 3, and one look at the menu posted in the window convinced us to get an earlier start the next weekend.  The bright, modern yet small cafe is tucked away in the corner unit of a modern plaza complex fronting a townhouse development about midway between Regional Road 81 and the QEW.  You'll find it at a set of lights, on the west side of Victoria Avenue.

The Revalee website states they want the food "to be forward-looking, modern takes on classic dishes...familiar and innovative all at once."  The simple menu features a common price for all dishes, with one side presenting "omni" dishes while the other presents vegan dishes.  No matter which side of the menu you prefer, the food is beautifully presented and abundant.

The omni menu ranges from the so-called Revalee Classic, scrambled eggs with double-smoked bacon to huevos rancheros, smoked trout, a Scandinavian brunch featuring pickled herring along with a host of other ingredients, and The Full Monte for the larger appetites.  I chose the French toast, thick challah bread laden with spiced pears, granola, creme fraiche and mulled spice wine.

The vegan menu includes rosti, vegan french toast, vegan rancheros, carrot "gravlax" and Holy Sproat! among other offerings.  The latter blends micros with curried beat hummus, hemp hearts, seeds, radish and a host of other items.  My wife opted for the rosti, featuring a potato, carrot and onion latke with beet hummus, cucumber, mint and tomato fattoush and tahini cashew creme.

Revalee is paired with a delivery business called Box Lunch Brigade, specializing in healthy and inventive box lunches delivered to your home, place of business or school.  The cafe is open seven days a week from 8 am to 3 pm, and reservations are recommended during peak times.  Call 905-562-4101.

Finally, back in St. Catharines we come to the most intriguing of all, the Yellow Pear Kitchen, which I had the pleasure of visiting just this morning, in fact.  Billed on their website as the restaurant that Niagara built, it is run by Jason and Nicole Sawatsky, the people behind the familiar Yellow Pear Food Truck you see around town at summertime events.  The menu changes often and reflects, as they put it, "our love for what we do through the best products Ontario has to offer."

Yellow Pear Kitchen is located at 526 Lake Street in a strip plaza, flanked on one side by a pizza joint and on the other by The Frosted Cupcake.  But it can be a little difficult to pinpoint, as the red sign out front still promotes a long-gone Korean restaurant proclaiming hot pot in their native language.  The sign, if nothing else, is a conversation starter for sure.  Thankfully, Yellow Pear is emblazoned on the large window out front so you know you're at the right place.

Upon entering you are struck by the clean, modern lines and cozy ambience, augmented by a built-in gas fireplace in the centre of the room.  The cafe only seats 28 so you simply have to make a reservation at most times.  I got lucky this morning, wandering in unannounced about 10:30 when a stool at the small counter became available.

Nicole was my server this morning and was amazing, even asking if the music was too loud at one point, since I was closest to the stereo system.  I don't ever recall anyone asking me that before!

On the walls you'll find an intriguing collection of art, presumably by local artists, and all of it is priced and for sale if you are interested.

The menu changes very frequently so it is not really useful to list items here, although the eggs benny is pretty much a mainstay on the menu.  I opted for the buttermilk waffle, heaped with sliced peaches, bananas and strawberries, drizzled with maple syrup.  A single apple-sage breakfast sausage adorned the plate on the side.

Of the three, Yellow Pear is slightly more expensive than the rest, but still very reasonable.  The quality and ambience is exceptional, and the servings are very ample.  As with all three restaurants, vegan options are handled easily should you choose that option.

The Yellow Pear also recently won a Diner's Choice Award for Best Overall Restaurant in Toronto/Ontario and Niagara from Opentable diners.  Pretty impressive considering the number of new and interesting dining establishments there are out there.  You can read more and even book a table through Opentable.com.

Hours are 9:30 am to 2 pm, and Yellow Pear is only open Friday to Monday, but it is well worth the visit almost any weekend.  Just make sure to call ahead to make a reservation so you're not disappointed.  The number is 289-213-4240.

So in addition to great dining options in Niagara, we can now most assuredly included wonderful brunches as well.  All three places are destinations in their own right, and certainly able to satisfy even the most discriminating palate.

Bon appetite!

April 14th, 2018.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Season winds down for Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts

Since I was on vacation the past week I took a walk down to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre for the weekly Tuesday RBC Foundation Music@Noon student recital in the Cairns Recital Hall.  It is a weekly event during the school year, with the final one of the season scheduled for this Tuesday, April 3rd featuring piano & guitar students.

Last Tuesday's recital was primarily devoted to voice students in the Department of Music, but several instrumentalists were also featured.  Voice students included Awura-Adwoa Bonsu, mezzo-soprano, Emily Stockwell, soprano and William Sadler, tenor.  Instrumentalists included Gavin Oresta on guitar, and Divya Iyer, Ruth Jones and Nayla Nicole Whipple on piano.

The students are from the studios of Deborah Linton (voice), Timothy Phelan (guitar) and Erika Reiman (piano).  All have achieved a remarkable level of achievement already in their chosen studies, and will only get better as time and experience increases.  How many will ultimately pursue professional careers is certainly open to conjecture, but based on last week's recital more than a few have promising musical careers in their collective futures.

The standouts for me included pianist Michele Braun, playing the Brahms Intermezzo in E major, Op. 116, No. 4 and soprano Emily Stockwell, who performed two vocal selections, Silent Noon by Vaughan Williams and Brahms' Immer lieser wird mein Schlummer, Op. 105 No. 2.  Stockwell especially displayed a radiant voice with lovely tone, plus a nice stage presence.

To be sure, all of the students are exceptional but as is always the case with these recitals some are more advanced than others.  But that is not to discourage those still in the earlier stages of their studies.

Once again the Cairns Recital Hall was well-filled for the performance, including a number of students from Sir Winston Churchill School, who got to engage in a Q&A with performers outside of the actual performance.

As mentioned the final student recital takes place at noon tomorrow, so if you don't have plans over the lunch hour why not head to the PAC for an hour?  Best part of all, the recitals are totally free of charge.

Elsewhere with the Department of Music as the season winds down, there is a student solo recital this evening at 7:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring pianist Luis Molina, once again with free admission.  Tomorrow evening a must-attend concert will feature The University Wind Ensemble directed by Zoltan Kalman in the larger Partridge Hall.

Kalman, who is Principle Clarinet with the Niagara Symphony and also on the faculty at the Department of Music brings together both high school and university students as well as members of the Niagara musical community for a varied programme from the wind band repertoire.  It can get a little noisy sometimes, but that's part of the fun!  Tickets are just $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Meantime the University String Orchestra performs at the Cairns Recital Hall Wednesday evening at 7:30 with George Cleland conducting.  This is the Department of Music's newest ensemble, featuring university students and community members.  They perform standard repertory as well as more obscure gems waiting to be rediscovered.  Once again, tickets are only $12 and available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

Finally, the Brock University Choirs wrap up their season Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Cairns Recital Hall featuring Brock's student choral ensembles (men's, women's and mixed choruses) under the direction of conductor Rachel Rensink-Hoff.  They perform a wide variety from the choral repertoire both well known and not so well known.  Tickets are $15 and again, available from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office.

I always enjoy attending the events scheduled by the Department of Music at Brock University's Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.  The talent is there and the price is extremely affordable.  And now that we have such a great performance venue right in the heart of St. Catharines, why not take advantage of the opportunity whenever you can?

Happy Easter!

April 2nd, 2018.