It is getting to the point where a drunkenly thrown wine bottle in Niagara is bound to hit a winery producing very good wine. Outside of top-dollar places like Treadwell, Inn on the Twenty, Hillebrand, and Peller it is much more difficult to find good food. Happily, the people behind the Ravine Deli and Bakery are stepping in to fill this void.
On our whirlwind tour of Niagara two weekends ago we made sure to stop in for lunch. I was there in December 2008 when chefs Michael and Anna Olson were still at the helm and the deli was called Olson Foods at Ravine. Since then Paul Harber (middle son of the family who operates the winery) has returned with his impressive resume to the kitchen at Ravine. Chef Harber trained at the Culinary Institute of America, apprenticed under Daniel Boulud at Cafe Boulud, and worked for Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm. After Eigensinn he went to Germany to work under Stadtlander’s mentor Vincent Klink. The rest of the kitchen team at Ravine carries an impressively diverse array of experience in some of Niagara’s best kitchens.
Our lunch started with the flat bread plate generously sent out by the kitchen. Hummus often contains cumin but here there is more of a Keller-esque and subtle use of the broader spectrum of curry powder flavours. The chickpea spread also gave my table-mates an opportunity to correct my horrible pronunciation.
The roasted chicken club is really good and I particularly like that avocado supplies its silky richness. I can detect a bit of that leftover chicken-fridge taste that I think I’m oddly sensitive to–just as some taste soap when they are fed cilantro. But it’s a minor point and I’m quickly distracted because I can’t find enough good words to describe this sandwich’s brioche-like bread. Someone less set against the abuse the English language receives in this medium might even resort to calling it “gastrorgasmic”. It’s buttery and flaky without being overly-rich or greasy.
The merlot-braised short ribs on ciabatta is also a winner but here it is the perfectly-braised meat that shines most. Like with the chicken club the cheese in this sandwich is well-chosen (applewood smoked cheddar) so that it complements without dominating. I didn’t get a chance to try it but the pulled pork sandwich received good reviews from the far side of the table.
Sides are not at all after thoughts. The roasted beet salad maintains the bright purple colour and sweet earthy flavour of the beets and peanuts provide an unusual but intriguing element. The german potato salad is constructed to let the flavour of potato shine (shocking, I know) and avoids the tendency to watery dressings.
The menu employs some no-brainer local ingredients like Pingue prosciutto but also others that are under-used and I think some diners would be surprised at how local they are. One good example of this are the black walnuts on the grilled pear and Geai Bleu pizza.
The food is delicious at the Ravine Deli but once I had balanced my out-sized wine consumption from that morning I found my gaze roaming to the no bullshit masonry bread oven that sits solidly between the deli and the rows of grape vines. When I noticed that Chef Harber had slipped out of the kitchen to prod the fire I quickly abandoned our table to pepper him with questions. Their in-house baker Erin Turcke manages this behemoth’s production–it can handle sixty-four loaves at once–and puts out some really great bread like the aforementioned brioche and the excellent fig and fennel seed boule that I couldn’t resist taking home. Best news of all is that they plan on adding an outdoor bar where they’ll serve oysters and pizza straight from the oven. Chef Harber seems confident that it will be open for service by May.
Obviously, the wine at Ravine also deserves attention. Youngest son, Alex Harber, took us on a tour of the winery’s more intoxicating products. For me, the stand-outs were the two red blends, the meritage and the Redcoat, and also the merlots that exhibit a definite terroir-based, flinty minerality. More about the food and wine at Ravine can be found on My Daily Bread and What’s on My Plate.
With sandwiches topping out in the fifteen dollar range Ravine is Niagara’s best-kept lunch secret. Secret for now, at least. Twitter buzz had Toronto Life’s James Chatto at Ravine the day after we were there and I’m sure warmer weather and an outdoor pizza bar will bring the crowds to St. David’s.
Ravine Vineyard, 1366 York Road, St. David’s, Ontario, 905-262-8463