At first I thought we must have the wrong place but someone spotted the small sign perched above the ditch-side mailbox – a happy face sun and beneath it, simply, Picone. We’ve arrived at Mark Picone’s Culinary Studio in Vineland.
By the time we zigzag along the flagstone path through an edible garden of purple-flowered chives, kale and healthy clumps of other familiar herbs, Chef Picone is standing at the opened French doors. His smile is warm and immediately welcoming, and it never faltered during the three hour lunch we were about to enjoy.
The Studio is an annex to Picone’s home, but the term is misleading. Those French doors are actually a portal to a re-creation of a Tuscan villa and once we step through them, Niagara is left behind. The room is large, yet cosy at the same time. Its imposing table, sideboard and cabinet – handcrafted in white oak in 1901 and purchased from an Alsace refectory – don’t overpower but add to the illusion of old Europe. Another set of wide French doors at the opposite end of the room lead to a terrace and beyond, vineyards cascading to Lake Ontario, a thin blue line on the horizon. The view is unfettered and breath-taking.
Eventually we turn away from the vista. We’ve come- after all- for the food, drawn by Chef Picone’s reputation in the region as a pioneer of the locavore movement in Niagara and our own fantasy of dining elegantly, yet privately, in unique surroundings. We gather round the Italian granite counter running parallel to Picone’s compact work station and the platter of charcuterie from the Pingue brothers of Niagara Food Specialties. Sourdough breads from de la terre and small dishes of assorted pickles and condiments preserved by Picone round out the selections. Chef Mark – he doesn’t stand on formality and his friendly graciousness set the tone for the day, opens the wine we brought – Charles Baker Riesling 2008 from Picone’s own vineyards. The wine is crisp and slightly fruity, the perfect accompaniment to our starters.
While we nibble, Chef finishes his preparations for our lunch. We watch him work, deft and minimal hand movements honed from his years in a variety of professional kitchens. He chats as he worked but doesn’t intrude on our own on-going conversation, skillfully balancing his role as host and chef. When he removes the appetizer remains, we know lunch is about to be served.
The salad is a blend of exotic local greens, heritage tomatoes from Tree & Twig and squares of perfectly grilled Haloumi cheese from Monforte is a blast of summer. Lightly dressed with Minus 8 vinegar, the salad is a perfect combination of sweet, salt and sour – that universally magical whammy to taste buds. We beg Chef for chunks of bread to mop up the traces of dressing and although he’s ready to serve the next course, he laughingly complies.
The next course is duck. Slices of breast, crisp-skinned and pomegranate red flesh, resting on a splash of reduced verjus, a slightly acidic grape must that complements the rich sweetness of duck. Chef Picone clears the dishes himself, though when he caters to a larger group, he works with sommeliers that are graduates from Niagara College where he teaches in the culinary program. His hospitality and genuine warmth make us feel at ease and I suspect that this calm demeanour fails to fluster even when he’s catering to a wedding reception or cocktail party. I take a quick washroom break between courses and note the same understated decor in the small bathroom a discreet distance from the annex. Pieces of Picone’s family china heirlooms decorate the room, along with baskets of freshly-laundered, white hand towels and scented soaps.
When I return, Chef begins to serve the main course. He has waited for me – another of the many considerations of thought and etiquette that we encountered that day. We eye the plates of braised veal cheeks, lapped against their own reduced jus, and sided by new potatoes from Tom Neufeld. The veal is fork-tender and melts on the palate. The potatoes, crunchy on the outside and fluffiness in, soak up the rich jus. Our inhibitions have gone now. We moan, audibly.
Dessert is an assortment of Niagara fruit with accent flavours of Earl Grey, a subtle infusion of orange and bergamot. Chef prepares cappuccinos all around, accompanied by baby-fingers of his homemade biscotti.
The drive back to Toronto – and the real world – is spent languidly recapping the highlights of a lunch beyond any other. Lunch! We can hardly wait to make dinner reservations.
Mark Picone Culinary Studio is currently accepting lunch and dinner reservations for the passionate epicurian. Book an Engagement online today.
Phone: (905) 562 9648