Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Valley Inn

In keeping with the weather program of summer 2009, The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival was, for us, a big wet mess. This past Saturday, I found myself in Montebello Park, St.Catharines gripping an umbrella in the freezing Fall atmosphere, clumsily attempting to sample local wines without diluting the wine with rain water. After about half an hour, puddles were starting to come together and this was my cue to exit. Consequently, I couldn't even finish my coins, which – if you have been to Grape and Wine – you know this is unthinkable.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in dive bars snacking on mozzarella triangles and drinking beer.

This is not how the weekend is supposed to go.

Enter The Valley Inn, 93 Arthur Street in the lakeside town of St. Catharine’s. To my companions and I, it was the day saver, the piece de resistance, the light at the end of the tunnel. We walked and I couldn't help but smile. It may be 2009, but it’s still 1988 at The Valley Inn. The small bungalow style eatery featured two dining rooms and a small oak bar with brass trim and stain glass decor, not unlike something you'd see in your childhood memories of Nono's basement. This dimly lit space produced the kind of atmosphere that makes you feel warm, fuzzy, perhaps ready for a glass of red wine. Red table cloths with matching napkins, butter cups, chilli pepper and cheese shakers, “leather” bound menus, banquet style glass ware, we all remember these types of 'nice' places. Although I may normally turn up my nose at such an establishment, it has kitsch, it has history and I embraced it.

The menu is homely, but comfortable. No confusing ingredients, no ‘hard to say’ words, only the simple Italian fare that made the cuisine a favourite a few decades ago.

To start, the baked goat cheese salad ($8.95) had a huge disk of the warm and creamy cheese on top of romaine, radicchio and endive and was drizzled with a honey Dijon vinaigrette. The sweetness of the dressing served the sharpness of the cheese without a glitch.

The Valley Inn offers a humble selection of starters, but unless we are in Sweden, I’m not entirely sure as to how one selects meatballs ($5.95) as an appetizer. The bruschetta ($5.95) made much more sense. Thick pieces of toasty white bread were smeared with tomato sauce and topped with fresh tomato, basil and a light dusting of Parmigiano cheese. The sweet tang of the sauce was a nice juxtaposition to the subtle taste of fresh tomato while the cheese brought in the salty component. It was both baked and served in a skillet which served two purposes: it helped crisp up the bottom of the bread and added a nice presentation.

For the pasta, first choose your noodle (penne, fettuccine, spaghetti – no “new” pappardelle or orrechiette here) then you choose your sauce (cheese and butter, meat, meatballs, marinara, clam, Alfredo). This is the same order in which the kitchen prepares your dish. The chef boils the pasta then pours the sauce on top. It is a style of ordering and presenting that is very 80’s. Personally, I prefer the pasta be sautéed in the sauce before being served, but I can graciously forgive them for this sentimentality. For as old school as this restaurant is, the Village Inn receives big bonus points for offering something so very 2010 – gluten free pasta.

For $12.95, I get to dig into a big plate of corn pasta with their clam marinara sauce. I mix, I dig in, I add all the cheese I want (remember the shaker?) and I am thrilled. The sauce is light, requiring a bit more olive oil and salt, but like the bruschetta, the fresh taste of the tomatoes shine through. Loads of little clams dot the sauce with a slight fishiness that is characteristic of this dish.

Not a fan of seafood? Then, you can have any ‘Parmigiana’ you wish – eggplant, chicken or veal ($16.95). Like Donna, who is in the midst of a wildly emotional affair with chicken parm, I generally opt for the poulet version of this dish. She politely asks our server to sub a ceaser for the spaghetti (she does this every time) and is too content when the plate is dropped in front of her. A soft and tender chicken breast sits in a pool of sauce covered in a blanket of melted cheeses. The chicken is baked, not fried, but still manages to maintain it's juiciness. Not to be outdone by the meat, the side ceaser is served in a hearty wooden bowl and "amazing". The romaine lettuce is crisp and battered with the perfect amount of creamy garlic dressing. It is classic and tastes like the kind that old waiters in bow ties used to make table side at steak houses.

The service was accommodating and sweet. It is the kind of place where "the customer is always right".

The dessert options are like childhood favourites: parfaits, sundaes and spumoni ice cream. Again, the kitschiness is cute but full stomachs, an empty bottle of wine and the warm and fuzzies were making pajamas seem like a fantastic idea.

For me, the biggest indicator of a great meal is whether or not it is the first thing on my mind when I wake up the next morning. Like opening your eyes and imagining the face of the one you love, I wanted that pasta for breakfast.