The idea was deceptively simple, but easier said than done—usually the case with most brilliant ideas. What if instead of bringing the wine and the winemaker to a great restaurant, you brought the a great restaurant to the winery?
It sounds like a bit of an intriguing, but still manageable, twist on a winemaker's dinner, right? But what if the restaurant happens to be located on other end of the country? Sounds like an insanely great, but insanely ambitious idea. That's exactly what Stratus successfully pulled-off with its Coast to Coast dinner series this year.
The series began earlier this summer with Vikram Vij of his eponymous Vancouver restaurant and concluded with the Atlantic coast last month when chef Jeremy Charles and manager/sommelier Jeremy Bonia of Raymonds in St. John's, Newfoundland visited the winery for a dinner I was invited to attend.
Arguably no Canadian restaurant has quite risen to fame in such a short period as Raymonds. In a couple of years Bonia and Charles, who met at the seafood-focused Atlantica, have created what's not only the most exciting restaurant on the east coast, but one of the most exciting in the entire country. The critics and culinary community have taken notice; it won enRoute Magazine's best new restaurant title last year and Charles earned a silver at the Canadian Culinary Championships' Gold Medal Plates.
Fresh Atlantic seafood plays a role, it's by no means the menu's sole focus. Charles likes to describe Raymonds' food as a seasonally-inspired and modern interpretation of Newfoundland's rustic hunter-gather cuisine—emphasis on the hunter-gather. Charles and Bonia take great pleasure and go to great lengths to showcase the top-quality local produce and game that are staples of the island's cuisine. While the ingredients and inspiration may be traditional and rustic, the flavours and presentation are all modern.
After some time to mingle over canapés that included: smoked moose heart and crispy-fried cod sounds (the fish's swim bladder used skillfully with a waste nothing credo), dinner began with an introduction by Stratus' marketing and sales head Charles Baker followed by a Q&A hosted by Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store. Some insight into the dedication Bonia and Charles have for sourcing the best local ingredients really spoke to their core philosophy and sparked the conversation. After cooking at a special Canadian dinner at the James Beard House in New York, the two Jeremys drove to Montreal so they could get out of the path of Hurricane Sandy and catch a flight home. They got there just in time to hunt and forage for some special ingredients like: moose, partridge and chanterelles, before hopping back on a plane for this dinner. Although they understandably looked a little tired from the experience, their passion for Newfoundland and its food came through very clearly all through the evening. Charles, who is normally a bit soft-spoken and shyly gazes at his feet when his accolades are mentioned, lights up and speaks a little louder when he's asked to talk about Newfoundland and its bounty. He speaks fondly of the indispensable cosmopolitan experience he gained in Montreal, Chicago and L.A., but for him being able to come back home and spend time with family, friends and in the ruggedly beautiful land he loves, is a dream come true. He told the audience that the most exciting time of the year to visit the province is between late August and November when late-summer and autumn produce is fresh, the Atlantic seafood is beginning to reach its best and it's prime season for wild game. Bonia also spoke to a timely topic in the Canadian wine world— more freedom for interprovincial wine trade. He finds regulations often make it frustratingly difficult to showcase wines from Ontario and B.C. in comparison to imported wines. That's something that needs to change if Canada is to build a dynamic country-wide culinary culture where chefs are free to showcase the best Canadian cuisine alongside the best of its wines.
Dinner was set-up in the winery's modern and minimalist tasting room, but the Stratus and Raymonds teams used touches like the provincial flag and centerpieces featuring small pieces of genuine Newfoundland wilderness, to transport guests to the Rock. The long tables were a great format to sit with friends and meet new ones over the five-course dinner. It was also intimate enough for guests to hear some insight on the dishes and pairings courtesy of Bonia and Stratus winemaker J-L Groux. Bonia is a firm believer that food comes first so when he, Groux and the Stratus team were collaborating they worked on pairings that allowed the dishes to shine brightest.
Some bread and butter waiting at the table was a harbinger of good things to come. Presented like alabaster ski-tracks, the butter had an exceptional depth of flavour and a beautiful creaminess that was amongst the best I've tried and I rarely turn down the opportunity to try butter. It turns out the butter, brought by the Raymonds team, comes from a small farmer in Newfoundland with three Jersey cows who is committed to producing top-quality dairy. He's quite the character as well, according to Bonia, sending invoices on the back of old Christmas cards much to the chagrin of the Raymonds accountant. If your butter alone is good enough to warrant a trip to Newfoundland (and it is), you've more than earned earned the right to a few quirks, as far as I'm concerned.
The first course didn't falter on that high bar. It featured cod, roasted beautifully so it accentuated the fish's delicately flaky texture while also managing a crispy top. It worked wonderfully against the bright green flavour of the pea pudding agnolotti, while the pork hock provided a nice smoky-salty flourish. Both those elements melded beautifully with the 2009 Stratus Meritage. The near 50-50 combination of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc was aged on its lees in French oak (mostly second-fill and older barrels) providing a creamy texture and smoky note that comes through on the finish. Lively layers of honeydew, citrus and fennel really jump out of the glass. The electric acidity from that cool vintage is beautifully balanced against the wonderfully satisfying weighty texture. It's definitely a white to try on your next visit.
As good as that was, my favourite pairing of the evening came in the next course—rabbit and Cabernet Franc. The rabbit was actually wild arctic hare, which has a flavour that's somewhere between a pasture-raised chicken and duck. It was incredibly tender and flavourful for such a lean meat. The combination of that slightly earthy and gamey taste as well as the subtle spice and raisin in the crispy ravioli, really made a perfect dance partner for the 2005 Cabernet Franc brought out from the library. Anyone with a bottle in the cellar will be glad to know it's in a nice spot with mature flavours of dried black currant and black raspberry as well as the alluring signature cool-climate Cabernet Franc notes of: fresh pencil shavings, spice and earth. If you enjoy your wine with brighter flavours and have a bottle, drink it sooner rather than later.
The next course had the wine of the night for me: the 2009 Gamay, which sold out during the summer to autumn transition and was brought out of the library for this event. Stratus doesn't make a straight Gamay often (2002 & 2007 were the previous vintages), but when it does, it makes a very pretty one. This vintage in particular stands out as a compelling argument that Gamay should be one of Niagara's signature grapes. Aged for about 21.5 months in mainly second-fill French oak barrels, this is a Gamay that has the tannin and structure to change perceptions that the grape is only capable of thin, light wine of little substance. But despite the added weight, it also retains much of the elegance and lithe character that Gamay lovers crave. Beautifully aromatic, it's like a cross of a wild berry bush after a sunshower and a garden of violets in full bloom. Take a sip and you'll be greeted by lush black currants and blackberries as well as an intriguing spice and slate note that sits underneath the fruit and comes through on the finish. The most interesting part though is the texture. Like mercury on glass it manages to be impossibly smooth and slippery, yet it has a substantial enough presence to captivate. It stood up nicely to moose ravioli and smoked moose tongue (which has a hearty, slightly-gamey flavour not unlike beef heart) it was served alongside.
The meal ended as nicely as it opened with a wild blueberry sorbet dessert. The 2011 Red Icewine was able to pick-up on the berry flavour and add its own complementary cherry, raspberry and strawberry notes. It was a fitting accompaniment to the airy custard and played well against the subtle savoury thyme and Labrador tea notes in it. Post dinner guests chatted with Bonia and Charles sharing stories about Newfoundland, talking future trip plans, and giving their compliments on a fine dinner. Guests also shared their gratitude filling-up a jeroboam, Stratus staff gave Charles and Bonia as a thank you gift, with salutations.
Although this was the last meal of the season for Coast to Coast @ Stratus, it won't be the last ever. Consultant Elena Galey-Pride of Winestains, who has been instrumental in helping Stratus with these dinners, told me they have already started lining-up some very exciting chefs to continue the series next year. We'll have to wait until things are finalised before the line-up is revealed, but the one hint that was shared was the winery covered the two coasts this year, but didn't really get a chance to feature the vast area in between. So if you're placing bets that probably means visits from some of the exciting restaurants in Alberta and Quebec are almost certain. Ottawa restauranteur Stephen Beckta and his team were originally scheduled to participate this year, but the opening of his third restaurant Gezellig meant the timing just didn't work out. Given that, you can probably count Beckta, chef Michael Moffatt and their team in for next year as well. Whatever the final line-up ends up being, the one sure thing is guests of the 2013 Coast to Coast @ Stratus series are in for one of the most insightful, memorable and exciting dining experiences in Ontario wine country.
2009 Stratus Meritage
2011 Stratus Red Icewine
Price: $39.85 for 200 mL