The Niagara Blog:
Lunch with Chef de Cuisine, Steve Sperling, at Niagara on the Lake's Charles Inn
It's a sunny, intoxicatingly warm day in Niagara on the Lake, and The Charles Inn, a refurbished, luxurious 1832 Manor House is well equipped to take advantage of the dazzling, welcome weather. I sit with Chef de Cuisine, Steve Sperling, in the wonderful window-panelled front veranda that transmits nature to our very table, as we watch people saunter along NOTL's main drag, Queen Street.
The Charles Inn backs on to the
Niagara on the Lake Golf Club, North America's oldest golf course which is also a public course. Nearby, Lake Ontario at its juncture with the Niagara River provides nautical opportunities for sailors.
The back veranda, not quite open yet, will soon be as serene and inviting. We are within easy walking distance to dozens of specialty shops, art galleries and the
Shaw Festival. Cyclists and walkers enjoy the nearby
Niagara River Recreation Trail, a scenic path along the waterway.
The Charles Inn is a member of Ontario's Finest Inns. The Dining Room is located in the old parlour and features the original crystal chandeliers. It's quite inviting, painted a warm persimmon colour, and it is equipped with comfortable upholstered banquettes and wing back chairs along with the more traditional dining chair.
I start with a glass of Niagara Pino Grigio; Steve demurs as he is on duty tonight. The wine list features many of Niagara's best vintages. We both opt for the Jerusalem artichoke soup with parsley oil served by an efficient, friendly server.
Steve is from Kitchener, and he trained at
Niagara College, so he brings a Germanic flair to his French cooking essence. Only 31, this is his first major post which he has remarkably held for 10 years.
I order the roasted beet salad with baby greens, goat cheese, vinaigrette, and candied hazelnuts. Steve selects the parmesan & truffle "Mac & Cheese," elbow macaroni, rich parmesan cream, caramelized onions and baby spinach with double smoked bacon lardons, panko bread crumbs and truffle oil.
In the summer, his workload easily climbs to 75 hours per week with an average of 50. The 30-minute drive in from his home in Niagara Falls provides him with great respite but also business opportunities in that he usually "meanders along concessions and lines in search of fresh produce." One farmer, Rick Jackson, on East-West Line, has become a regular provider of seasonal vegetables.
I pass up the wonderful sounding crisp skin Atlantic salmon with a sauté of fingerling potatoes & baby spinach, buttered baby vegetables with white wine cream which a fellow patron enthusiastically lauds, but I cannot dismiss fresh coffee along with Steve's recommended and quite delicious Crème Brûlée. "I'm fond of custard," I rationalize,
thinking, there goes the diet!
We discuss the pervasive effect of social media such as
Trip Advisor and
YELP on restaurants and food service. He and his sommelier, Ray Bateman, split up the duties, and they try to reply to each posting.
With a beautiful garden setting and veranda at the rear, Steve caters to several weddings and special events throughout the year. He supervises a staff of 6 with two Sous Chefs, Beining Zhang and Ryan Gobits, and he enjoys a mentorship role in the kitchen. "I like seeing the growth of the cooks who work with me and how their skills improve and are fine tuned over time."
Despite sporting graphically-detailed tattoos emblazoned on each arm, he admits to being shy, but is quick to appear at tables as he realizes a certain "show-biz" aspect for dining. With 12 tables in the lounge, 40 in the dining room, 20 in the front veranda and 20 more located in the back veranda, 90-100 settings per day is Steve's goal.
The dining room is open seven days a week.