Wine Country Dining
By Emeri Krawczyk
If you love wine country cuisine, now is an ideal time to visit places that offer delicious food in beautiful settings.
The majestic roaring falls, cheesy souvenirs, goofy Clifton Hill attractions… all part of the Niagara Falls experience. But Buffalo Magazine wondered: Could hungry guys and gals tired from a day of touring get a great Ontario wine country dinner amid all this touristy stuff?
The answer is “yes” at the restaurant named AG Inspired Cuisine located in the Sterling Inn and Spa on Magdalen Avenue.
It’s really not a stretch to think that eventually Niagara’s wine country dining – more associated with Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Twenty Valley – would find its way to the city of Niagara Falls.
To that end, it appears to have arrived full force via AG’s chef Cory Linkson. Like many good men of the stove, Linkson gathered his experience at restaurants across the North American map before returning to his Niagara roots and settling in as executive chef at AG.
As most of us know, one of the biggest changes in the modern culinary landscape is just that – the “land” – knowing where our food comes from and eating with the earth’s natural cycles, not against them. To that end, “regional-seasonal” has become the buzz-word of today’s chefs, including Linkson.
While cooking seasonally sounds good in theory, what about chefs like Linkson, who cook in cold climates? Is it a challenge to secure local ingredients? Linkson says his suppliers and ingredients may change, but that only provides his diners with a brand new outlook.
“It’s not a constraint at all,” says Linkson. “Every season gives you an opportunity to create using a clean template of new flavors. Seasons come and go, and so do the items. It is actually quite refreshing and inspiring.”
Linkson says he never uses an ingredient out of season.
“It’s a new restaurant menu week-to-week and sometimes day-today. I enjoy being surprised by each trip to the farm. What will the farmer have for me? What will I get to make for my guests tonight?”
During the year Linkson scours the Niagara region for seasonal ingredients, utilizing specific items in everything from appetizers to desserts.
For example, St. Catharines Lakeland Farm duck breast is used to create a symphony of cold-weather flavors on a plate that includes a caramelized onion croquette and red sovereign grape gastrique.
Quebec’s Fromagerie La Detour goats’ milk cheese shows up in, of all things, a bruleé on the appetizer menu, which highlights the complex flavors of caramelized goats’ milk in vegetable ash, served with a cinnamon squash salad, apple preserves and an apple allspice vinaigrette.
Finding farms, growers and products is part of the challenge.
“It’s a crude science. You have to be out there every day. I am always finding new suppliers by accident, word of mouth or by driving past the farm and stopping in. Now that the restaurant has a reputation, I occasionally have a farmer show up at my door with samples and treats.”
Eating seasonally both at home and restaurants just makes sense. Those of us living in the north are actually lucky with our four seasons. We can follow our cravings from sweet potatoes and tart apples in fall to delicate asparagus in the spring to juicy peaches in the summer.
“At its core this is the proper way to eat,” said Linkson. “It just feels right to be eating farm fresh products at the right season. It reminds me of my Nana’s garden. The garden follows the season. Asparagus and strawberries lead to beans and zucchini, which lead to corn, tomato and peppers. Picking fresh for dinner and preserving what you can’t eat. Isn’t this the way it always was done?”
It would follow that cooking regionally might best be left in the hands of a chef from that same region, like Linkson, who works with familiar items. Linkson says you will never find him cooking white asparagus in January just because it’s been flown in special from Guatemala.
His maturation as a chef also runs parallel with the development of his seasonal approach.
“When you first start out you over-think and over-complicate every component of the dish. You are just fired up to be creating food that will be a part of people’s lives. When you gain some confidence you use restraint and a delicate hand to focus in on the primary flavors and develop techniques that allow the flavor of the farm to jump out off of the plate.”
His classical French training serves him well in a seasonal kitchen.
“The techniques I use really flow with the season. In the fall and winter I braise meats for hours and hours at low temperatures until it is ‘fall off the bone’ tender. It imparts a deep flavor profile and gives your brain that soft, unctuous mouth-feel that satisfies on a cold night.”
As the snow begins to melt, Linksons’s techniques change. “In the spring I like to lighten things up by poaching and changing heavy sauces to vinaigrettes. Tender young spring vegetables need a careful touch so as not to cook away their spring brightness. During the summer months it’s grilling with a lot of dry rubs.”
Linkson stays true to the Niagara style of cooking as much as possible, but occasionally will incorporate flavors from different cuisines.
“From time-to-time I sneak in a little Asian or Italian. This keeps things fresh. A little splash of sesame or saffron or truffle never hurt anyone. However, I always try to keep the focus of the dish regional and use the extras just as an accent.”
But is there too much of a good thing? When summer is at its hottest, tourists fill tables and fruits and vegetables are peaking, things happen.
“Although I change items on the menu weekly to reflect what is coming out of the farms, sometimes you miss something altogether. For example, early in the season I was throwing around some ideas for a melon dish or two. I was excited and couldn’t wait for the melons to come. You know the ones that I am talking about – so sweet and juicy like liquid candy. Well, as we rolled through the season it became so busy that I totally missed the melons. The regret comes when you realize it will be another year until you get to work with them again. That is probably the biggest stress of cooking by season.”
Ah, diners will just have to wait until this summer. Until then, Linkson is ready for the short fiddlehead season, but laments, “three weeks of fun is about all you get.”.
Grab your forks, folks.