Sunday, February 3, 2013

Culinary series evokes vegetarian gratitude

Risotto alla Tartufo Bianco (white truffle risotto) with 13th Street Winery's
2011 Pinot Gris at Massimo Capra's Rainbow Room in Niagara Falls. 


Food and wine are keys to good international relations.

That was proven recently when moustachioed master meal maker Massimo Capra took to the stove at his Rainbow Room in Niagara Falls and winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas brought some tipple from his cellar at 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines for the occasion.

Together, the Italian Capra and the French-born Colas teamed up to host the first in a series of Niagara culinary experiences, evenings of food and wine parings with celebrity chefs and local wine producers put on by Canadian Niagara Hotels, operators of the Falls Avenue Resort.

The hotel complex is home to Capra's Niagara abode and also features the fine-dining haunt, Windows by Jamie Kennedy. The series is a chance to show off the culinary heavyweights and their friends in the vineyard to more than just tourists.

The Italian Capra and French Colas matched six courses of food and wine for a room of more than 120 people, who, in addition to eating and drinking well, took in one of the most beautiful views in the region. We noshed overlooking the Rainbow Falls to the east while the flashing lights and amusement park din beckoned our eyes to the the south.



Still, it was Capra, with his unrivalled facial hair, and Colas, with a warm smile to be heard in his heavily accented voice, who were the real sight to behold as the self-proclaimed "crazy Italian and crazy French man," fed diners with stories of the "Beautiful, crazy Italian food" and Niagara wines they paired together.

I don't have much in the way of pairing prowess (think deciding to go with a dry versus off-dry Riesling or really getting crazy and changing things up with a Pinot blanc) but what this evening confirmed for me was how much food and wine really are soul mates, bringing out the best in each other and turning a good meal into something superb and memorable.

Take the matching of Colas's 2011 Pinot gris, "a new and marginal variety for us," with Capra's creamy  white truffle risotto. Each were good on their own but together, look out tastebuds. The risotto was garlicky, cheesy and creamy — a consistency that eludes me in my own kitchen. But it wasn't until a sip of the Pinot Gris was added that the truffle popped and stole the show.

Perfect, really.

Pesce Spada "Acquapazza." Swordfish with wilted
winter greens and Sicilian relish.
Next up was the insalata, grilled porcini and artichoke salad with shaved parmesan, celery hearts and arugula. That's a lot of flavour on one plate and 13th Street's 2010 Sauvignon blanc had them all working together harmoniously, like our food and wine's creators were at the podium when introducing each dish.

Sauvignon blanc is a hit or miss wine for me. Too much cat pee and I'm reaching for the water instead. But this one delivered a gooseberry punch on the nose and walloped the tastebuds when combined with each bite of salad, especially the artichoke. More than a week later, I can still taste the earthiness that grilling added to the tender hearts and how they became stars with that wine. I know this will lead to cravings, even weeks from now.

There was pasta with rabbit confit, fish and lamb for the omnivores. And, despite being a meat heavy menu, my (apologetic) vegetarian ways were accommodated. This, to me, is the true test of a chef's mettle, really. Are they just as creative with meat-free meals or are we herbivores an after-thought, assumed to not appreciate food because we opt out of dabbling in one of the four food groups?

This is where I was sold on what Capra's got cooking in his kitchen with Chef John Casciato at the Rainbow Room. While Steve, husband and dining partner extraordinaire, worked away on a massive lamb shank atop a bed of gorgonzola risotto, I was presented with a morsel that could easily be called a work of art.

It was yam cannelloni with mushroom, wrapped in paper-thin potato rather than pasta, dappled with mint pesto and polenta.

Yam cannelloni, wrapped in potato and topped with mint
pesto and Gorgonzola polenta.
Served with 2010 Meritage reserve, made warm and comforting like a favourite sweater with its blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, and Merlot, I was oozing nothing but gratitude for the goodness given to me.

And that, right there, was the moment that made the evening something to behold. When a kitchen crew has 120 people to feed and they can take that kind of care with just one person, that's something about which to sing loud praises. That is what sets chefs apart from mere cooks or machines thoughtlessly churning out the plates for the masses.

Not only was the kick-off to this series, which continues this month with Jamie Kennedy working his culinary magic on Feb. 15, good for international relations, it was also good for local ones, too.

(Editor's note: Sorry about the Instagram images. My flash on my DSLR is kaput at the moment, and I didn't want to use my pop-up because a blue sheen and big shadows are rarely appetizing. Are grainy, yellow-tinged ones? You be the judge).

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