A decade ago, Prince Edward County was well off the radar of Toronto foodies. A two-hour drive east of the GTA, the county was better known for the family-friendly Sandbanks Provincial Park than as a locale for wine and culinary delights. No more, as the rapid establishment of a now sizeable, scenic and credible wine trail has spawned bistros and encouraged culinary upgrades in some of the area’s well-established country inns.
A good way to sample the new and improved County fare is to check out its Countylicious festival, held every March and November. This month features 11 of the County’s premier restaurants. Following the now common ’Licious format, three-course prix fixe dinners are on offer, all at $30 or $35. Local and seasonal products are showcased — deservedly so, given the area’s fine agricultural land and growing number of organic farms.
The festival hub is the County’s largest town, Picton, though some participants are located in the pretty towns of Wellington and Bloomfield. These are increasingly popular locales for Torontonians fleeing the rat race, including some of our city’s top chefs.
Arguably the prettiest spot for a Countylicious dinner is the Gazebo Restaurant at Waupoos Estates. Set amidst the vines and facing south to Lake Ontario just 200 yards away, here you can watch the sun go down while sipping a riesling and debating whether to opt for the rare breast of duck or glazed pot roast with sunchoke and potato gratin.
We’ve heard good things about The Bloomfield Carriage House Restaurant and chef Scott Kapitan. Certainly, the red wine–braised elk osso bucco with gnocchi à la Roma sounds delicious. Kapitan paid his dues in top T.O. boites Sassafrazz, Herbs and Crush Wine Bar, before opening Bloomfield. An eloquent advocate for the County, he notes, “There is a developing food community here: farms, wineries and restaurants, working together in a wholesome way.”
A comparative newcomer creating a buzz in Toronto (including a positive Toronto Life review) is East & Main Bistro, on the main drag in Wellington. I can personally vouch for its quality, based on last year’s Countylicious. Right now, we like the sound of the drunken waupoos blueberries as part of their charcuterie app.
With a Countylicious dinner (or two) as a focal point, we highly recommend a weekend getaway to PEC. Some of the restaurants are in country inns, and special accommodation package offers run during the festival. The popular Waring House Inn features a spa and cooking school as well as lodging and Amelia’s Garden Restaurant. Their one-night package includes a hot breakfast, Countylicious Amelia’s dinner and optional cooking class. A tough mains call between the potato- and basil-crusted Ontario pickerel or house-smoked Ontario pork tenderloin.
Also offering lodging and pampering is Claramount Inn & Spa. Their restaurant, Clara’s, features a classic Coq au Vin: pinot noir–braised free range chicken leg, lardons, wild mushrooms, ricotta dumplings, and au jus. For a Countylicious dinner at a winery, check out Huff Estates Winery and Inn. Love the sound of a starter of Fifth Town chèvre tart with roasted cherry tomato and arugula.
Many of the wineries still boast better views than vino, as the initial hype about the region being perfect for pinot noir was overblown. Still, their products have been steadily improving. Those we can recommend include Huff, The Grange of Prince Edward, By Chadsey’s Cairns, Closson Chase (co-owned by actress Sonja Smits), Rosehall Run, and Norman Hardie Winery.
Cheese lovers may have to queue up for the high-end artisanal offerings at the much-hyped Fifth Town (take the road east from Waupoos), but there’s a less-frenzied atmosphere (and some superb and reasonably priced aged cheddars) at Black River. Founded in 1901, it is in Milford, south of Picton.
When planning a Countylicious getaway, keep in mind that most of these restaurants are closed early in the week and have shorter dinner hours than urbanites are used to. Advance reservations are advised. A full menu list is online at Countylicious.ca.
Image courtesy of East and Main Bistro.