When Toronto introduced Summerlicious (then Winterlicious) back in 2003, even non-foodies got excited and the result was a major p.r. success in terms of consumers attracted. That said, the bloom has gone from that rose for many of us. These events more often than not prove the adage that you get what you pay for. In this case, restricted and dumbed-down menu choices, indifferent or poor service, and the sense you’re viewed as a number, not a valued individual customer. Yes, mediocre service can be partly blamed on those customers who drink only water and leave lousy tips, but those of us who do neither of those things shouldn’t have to suffer for their misdeeds.
Happily, we can report that the value of the original concept has been retained outside the city. Seeing the response in the GTA, some tourist-friendly rural areas of Ontario have boarded the bandwagon, hosting similar events with slightly different names. This scribe has attended programs in Prince Edward County and the Hills of Headwaters, with pleasing results.
Outside the big smog, you’ll discover small-town customer service and hospitality that makes a nice change from the hipster haughtiness of so many T.O. boîtes, while the oft-scenic rural settings just seem to make food taste better. Participating restaurants in these food fests may not be threatening to grab a Michelin star, but you’re liable to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food offered. Rural eating no longer just means pie — shepherd’s or apple. Chefs have begun to realize the potential of and demand for locally-sourced edibles and are integrating them into their menus in pleasing ways.
Check it out for yourself: Explore SummerFeast 2011 (site includes menus and reservations). Sponsored by the Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association, it features 11 participating restaurants and runs from August 16 to September 4. The approach is identical to that of Summerlicious in that these restaurants offer a dinner and, in many cases, a lunch menu at prix fixe rates. Pricings generally parallel those of Toronto restaurants, with rates of $15 or $20 for lunch, $25 or $35 for dinner. Advance reservations are required.
The Hills of Headwaters is a somewhat amorphous name for a region that encompasses the communities of Caledon, Erin, Orangeville and Dufferin County. It takes its title from the fact that the region is the birthplace of four major river systems, the Nottawasaga, the Credit, the Humber, and the Grand. The area features rolling hills and prime horse-rearing terrain; it includes portions of the scenic Niagara Escarpment and borders the Oak Ridges Moraine. The drive northwest from Toronto (Highway 401 west, to hwy 10 north) takes under an hour.
We suggest you make a real day of it. Take a leisurely drive on the sideroads, drop in somewhere for lunch, do some rural exploration, then choose a different locale for dinner. If you’re a golf nut, work up an appetite with 18 holes at the Caledon Country Club. They’re participating in SummerFeast, and they offer fare a distinct cut above the hot dogs and wings standard at many clubs.
The club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and it is a fully public facility (yours truly has happily hacked his way around a few times). They offer a lunch and dinner SummerFeast menu. Tempting choices at lunch ($20) include tagliatelle, braised short rib ragout with Grana Padano or the asparagus and leek frittata, while dinner ($35) options include an appetiser of baby arugula with sundried blueberries in an ice wine vinaigrette, a main of bacon wrapped medallions of pork tenderloin, with apple butter and cornbread croutons, and a rhubarb crême brulée to finish.
The Millcroft Inn & Spa is definitely one of the region’s best-known destinations. Maybe you’ve been to a wedding there? It boasts a 130-year history and a genuinely pretty vista that overlooks the Credit River Falls. Word is that under Chef Jill St. Amour it has upgraded its culinary component. The international cuisine offered in the timbered dining room can be sampled at SummerFeast at both lunch ($20) and dinner ($35). At lunch, it may be a tough call between the pan-seared arctic char with preserve lemon and micro greens from Caledon Farms or the organic grain-fed chicken with grape and brie risotto and Deerfield wilted greens. Deerfield greens accompany artisan Ontario goat cheese, macerated strawberries and pepper vinaigrette in a tempting dinner starter, while the grilled Ontario lamb sirloin, confit potato medallions and chimichurri sauce would likely be our chosen main course. Note that lunch (12 to 2.30 p.m.) is served Monday through Saturday, while dinner (6 to 9 p.m.) is served Sunday to Friday only.
Toronto foodies (and City Bites magazine) have gotten excited about recent changes on the food front at Hockley Valley Resort. Under the guidance of president/general manager John Paul Adamo, the resort now features three restaurants, Babbo, Restaurant 85, and Tavola. Restaurant 85 is a SummerFeast participant, and their $35 dinner menu (described as Mediterranean-influenced dishes inspired by locally grown ingredients) shows real promise. The fresh garden salad appetizer features heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and root vegetables in extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, while baked organic chicken (from Beretta Farms) is sided with roasted garlic potatoes and Hockley Garden vegetables. Suggested wine pairings come in 3 and 5 oz. servings.
Bistro Riviere may have a name un peu pretentious for rural Ontario, but it has an attractive location on the main street of Erin. It is next to Holtom’s Bakery, a stop we can wholeheartedly recommend. The Bistro’s starter of Bartlett Pear and Stilton salad with pecans over baby arugula sounds tasty, as does a main course of pan-seared beef tenderloin topped with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes, served with Yukon frites and seasonal vegetables. For dessert, there’s sugar-dusted chocolate-and-banana filled wontons, which sounds like a sweetly wanton treat. Dinner only here ($35).
Village Bistro is a family-run restaurant located in Caledon Village. It offers Mediterranean and Italian dishes on its $35 dinner menu. Fungi fanatics will want to start with the wild mushroom risotto, featuring oyster, shiitake, portobello and porcini (what, no magic?), with mascarpone cream. For a local main, go for the Ontario farm-raised leg of venison with port wine au jus, or, if you’re geographically incorrect, there’s the Chilean seabass baked with a pistachio crust.
One of “downtown” Orangeville’s leading dinner destinations is The White Truffle Restaurant. Described as offering French International cuisine, they have $20 lunch and $35 dinner menus at SummerFeast. The pan-seared wild trout looks like the best lunch option, while dinner choices include a warm Woolwich goat cheese tart appetizer and a pan-seared wild white fish with mini roasted potatoes as a good main bet. The suggested pairings of Ontario wines is a nice touch.
We’re a mite disappointed that former SummerFeast fave the Belfountain Inn is not participating this year. It remains a good choice for a relaxing pint if you’re driving through the always lovely Forks of the Credit area.
Still, to paraphrase another popular regional advertising slogan, SummerFeast would be well worth the drive to Erin. Bon appétit and safe driving!
Image courtesy of Jen.