Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Eating Our Way Through North West Ontario

There were two main themes to eating on our road trip  - local white fish, especially pickerel, and for Rich - the search for the best butter tart.

The best fish dinners were the ones on English Island where the mighty English family fishermen and women caught the pickerel from the falls that morning.  Not only did this assure us the freshest of fish, but there is also some pride and satisfaction from eating the fish that we caught ourselves.

Since there was no guarantee that we would catch any fish at the island, Rich and I hedged our bets by eating local fish en route, settling for white fish but looking for pickerel or walleye as some places call it. The best pickerel turned out to be a small roadside stand called K.A. Foods in tiny Spanish, Ontario that we found on the way up to Sioux Lookout.  Thick chunks of sweet fish were lightly coated in a delicious breading.  It was so good that we tried to stop by again on the way back to have some more and rushed to get there before the stand closed for the day.  We made it in time but were disappointed to find they had run out of fish for the day!!  We found a different stand closer to Sudbury but the thin, dry, overcooked fillets just did not measure up.

A distant second (but at least it was pickerel) was to be found in the much fancier and pricier Riverside Inn restaurant in Dryden, Ontario.  Two large fillets were also breaded and served with roast potatoes and grilled vegetables.  Part of the disappointment in Dryden stemmed from the stories Rich told of the "mound" of fish he was served on a past trip.  Since then, the mound has been reduced to the two fillets - still plenty to eat, but it's all in the setting of expectations.

When we couldn't find pickerel, we ate local Ontario white fish instead.  The best meal was the battered white fish chunks in South Baymouth's Island Fish & Chips.  They look like they would be heavy and greasy but this not the case at all.  Instead the thin layer of flavourful batter covered flakey chunks of fish that were nicely complemented by crispy homemade potato chips.  This was also where Rich found the best butter tart of the trip.

Coming in close second was the fish sandwich in Tobermory from Sharky's Grill that came with a refreshing salad cranberry coleslaw salad instead of fries.  In addition to the filet of breaded fish, the sandwich was garnished with tomato, cucumber, red onion and mayo.  Also very good were the white fish chunks from Vierling's Restaurant in Marquette Michigan that served crisply battered fish strips with a delicious homemade tartar sauce.

After multiple consecutive days of eating fish, sometimes several times per day, we were finally sated by the time we reached Thunder Bay.  That night we really enjoyed our caesar salad, steak with peppercorn sauce, grilled veggies and garlic mashed potato from The Keg.

For breakfast the next day, Rich went to a Finnish restaurant called Hoto which has been in business since 1918 and used to cater to Finnish loggers.  They specialized in thin pancakes that were closer to crepes.  Served with a poached egg, bacon and sausage, this heart attack breakfast was more than I could face, so I stayed in the motel and ate leftovers from my Keg dinner.  Some of the local clientele spoke Finnish at Hotos and both the wait staff and customers were extremely friendly and chatty.  A big weigh scale is positioned at the exit so you can evaluate what the damage was from the meal!

In the little community of Wabigoon, Ontario, we experienced some authentic Native Indian cuisine at the Short Stop.  We had a cheese burger made with Indian pan-fried bannock bread for the bun and possibly buffalo for the meat. We also ordered an Indian taco, expecting it to be the same size as the tacos we get in Toronto.  This one filled a huge styrofoam container and consisted of ground meat, shredded cheese, tomato, green pepper, onion, olives on a large taco shell.  Served with sour cream and salsa, it was more like a large serving of natchos without the chips.  For dessert we bought a butter tart (what else!) that ranked quite highly as well as a slice of wild blueberry pie.

Everything from the decor to the waitress to the patrons sitting in the restaurant was a testament to the authenticity of the meal we were going to eat.  This was the real deal, compared to what is being served at the Bannock restaurant in Toronto, which has more of a western spin.

In Marathon, Ontario, the dining options were extremely limited.  Our online research had pointed us to one restaurant, but when we arrived the place was empty - usually not a good sign.  However the parking lot of the Chinese restaurant next door was packed.  Although I've always sworn not to eat "Canadian Chinese food",  we didn't have much choice.  As expected, our curry chicken & vegetables and noodle dish were mediocre at best and our calamari (a risky choice) was tough and overcooked.  Too bad we had not discovered the town of Rossport with the white fish dinner until the next day.

Of all the "value" motels in the many small towns which we stayed at on this driving trip, the Super 8 in Fort Frances, Ontario really stood out.  In addition to the standard free WIFI, it provided a guest computer for those without, featured a swimming pool and coin operated washer/dryers (which was a godsend for us after being on the road for 2 weeks).  For breakfast, there was French Vanilla coffee, cereals, fruit, yogurt, toast and a waffle griddle and batter dispenser that made fresh hot waffles.

In addition to lots of white fish, we had two other memorable dining experiences in Marquette, Michigan.  First was the "pasty" which weighs about a pound and is made with thick pastry dough containing various fillings.  The signature pasty at Jean Kay Pasties includes steak with or without rutabagas.  Apparently this question is so popular that "With or Without" shows up on souvenir T-Shirts.  The other option is the veggie pasty containing broccoli, cauliflower, celery, onions, green peppers, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, rutabagas (no option), cheddar cheese and cream cheese.

Still in Marquette, Babycakes Muffins Shop make the juiciest, most flavourful fruit muffins that I've ever tasted.  The large moist muffins have a nice crunchy top as do most muffins, but when you dig into the body, you meet a delicious explosion of fruit with just the right mix of sweet vs tartness to make it interesting.  We went back for these two days in a row.

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