Sunday, November 10, 2013

Restaurant Review: Couples Resort

This review covers the restaurant that my wife and I dined during our summer vacation. The review of the resort is here but since this is largely a food and beer blog, I felt the dining experience needed its own post.

Each meal is a five course meal where the first is set by the kitchen and the rest are chosen by the diners. The dessert course is always available for taking back to your room.

The first course could be considered a bread and amuse course. We receive bruschetta and some slices of sun dried tomato bread served with sauces – hummus, small shaped butter and oil and vinegar. The shaped plates mimic some of the best type of settings seen in Toronto restaurants. Knock offs of these type of plates are often served at dinner parties where cheaper versions can bought from Bowring. This mandatory course was the only real letdown of the meal on the first night. 

I feared that this place would turn out to be a refined version of Lumina. We choose two more appetizers and a main from the menu plus the features, or in the phrasing of the maître d’, you will choose two appetizers from the menu. He had some kind of authoritarian cant that made you feel you could not refuse. 

The salad was mixed greens with strawberries, kiwi, blue cheese with a citrus vinaigarette. Mixed green salads continue to get a bad rap due to the bagged greens labelled mesclun mix or arugula and others that are ready made at the grocery store. Partially because they are pedestrian and partially that is shows lack of thinking about a dish. This salad was definitely composed with few leaves of butter, red oak, and other chosen greens. It was artfully arranged like all of our dishes in a contemporary style borrowing from French and Japanese and headed towards the new Scandinavian naturalist movement (might be making shit up but I hoped that I was seeing some of these influences because I believe that there is a lot that a destination eatery in the Madawaska and Muskoka area could take from Noma). 

Another dish was a slice of cold boar that had been tequila glazed was served on some apple puree and fresh pea shoots. I wonder what could be taken from the area that might have brought some extra and surprising pop – juniper berry jus, pickled spruce tips, maybe this is just a missed opportunity. Soup – smoked boar and potato – arancini showing the Italian influence. Crisp, slightly brown interior with creamy rice and stuffing centre accented with two sauces.

I selected an Algonquin martini to go with my first two choices where the pineapple juice played off the pork. The beer list while listing a local brewery in rural terms first, had little more than a small curated list. It seems that this is another missed opportunity. Fine dining and beer can and should go together. With a continental menu such as this, it would be good to put some bier de garde, champagne beer, Italian artisanal beer and some Belgian stalwarts on the menu. If you want to go with local and make some creations around it to play up the area. River Walker from Lake of Bays only 50 minutes away, has ginger and lemon as the main notes, the mocha porter has rich coffee notes that would work great with a rich stew that the upcoming season could bring. Venison and chocolate could work quite well.

The mains included a pork tenderloin from a named farmer served with coconut rice (basically a risotto). The pork was cooked in the medium category but could have been cooked a little less  in the medium rare category. Given the mix of clientele, we were told that some patrons were distrustful of a rarer pork. There was a little bleeding meaning that it had been inadequately rested but it was delicious. I had a whiskey sour with bitters added. It worked well but I could have used a biere de garde spiced strongly with black pepper or tinged with apple.

My wife’s beef tenderloin came with a warning to all guests that it would not be cooked past medium rare as it would ruin the meat. This was only one of a handful of notes given to the diners to help educate or bemuse depending on their eating history. It was an interesting dynamic to see the servers navigate this territory of being too pedantic or causing anxiety in the diner. They did a good job overall of making the guests at ease. The tenderloin was presented in a tower style that many foodies consider passé but it can still be done with charm. This tower did not overreach and worked well with interleaving polenta rounds. The polenta was seasoned with something that my wife doesn’t normally like but it provided a moreish quality to the beef that made it non offensive to my wife. It was served with a ratatouille. The ratatouille was a slight false note as all the elements appeared to be in a tiff and not talking to each other but swimming in the same demi-glace. That is a stupid way of saying that the flavours hadn’t melded together and each element tasted like the vegetable they were and a little too al dente. If they hadn’t been described as ratatouille, it would have been a lovely vegetable accompaniment to the meal.

Desserts: peach cake – lived up to the description but compared to the rest of the meal needed a little extra – garnish, spiced with cardamom. Something else to make it sing. While my wife went for the sweets, I went for the savory with a cheese plate. It included smoked gouda, bleu, and something else that didn't make it into my notes. There was fruit but it was superfluous. Crackers were flavoured with cheese that didn’t work well with the chosen cheese or port.

The bar of being a five star resort is what made these picky picks noticeable. I would love to have this meal again. Sure, some tweaks would make it better but the location, the event and the work that went into making this meal made it special.

Breakfast (not required to dress up)

Served by an older staff set, food matched our clothes. Casual and more or less tasteful depending on the diner. Included Muesli, Eggs Benedict with dill cake and tomato salad. The frittata came with an explanation of what a frittata was. Solid meal.
Night #2

The amuse was a gazpacho shooter that had a bit of spice at the end. It was a basic gazpacho where the cucumber was clear and most of the solids had been either strained out or pulverized. I had a White Owl with that and it worked well. Kind of like a bloody Caesar works.

Our salad course was noteable for the Caesar that my wife had. The Caesar was a different beast from the overdressed bottled dressing tasting mess at Lumina. In this case, the dressing was homemade and the anchovies were present and clear. It was a good salad.

For the appetizer, I had difficulty with choosing between frog legs and baked brie with a raisin sauce. Ended up choosing the brie. For these three courses of salad, brie and my main, I had a Mad Tom IPA. The beer would have worked better with the frog legs and pineapple. The sweetness in the sauce contrasted with the hoppiness of the beer in a slightly unpleasant way but this was my mistake.

For the main, my wife had the salmon with crisp skin, cooked perfectly and served with lemon aioli and thyme scented rice. I swear I could taste a hint of licorice but that may have been my expectations messing with my head. I tried the pasta with chicken and shrimp and chipotle cream sauce. The chipotle was too subtle for this almost Cajun take. The beer was okay but needed the heat. It provided a tongue scrapper to break through the fat in the cream.

For dessert, I ordered the Canadian coffee with rye and maple syrup. My wife had the tower of chocolate which is described inadequately on menu. I had the apple and blueberry strudel with a spiced coulis. The pastry could have used a little work or to be accurate a little less work and the filling was too spiced. When a place uses such a deft hand in spicing in the whole meal but doesn`t let the ingredients work the same way in the desserts, it suggests that the chef`s expertise is not pastry and desserts. The first bite and last bite are two of the most important parts of the menu. Hence, the use of an amuse. It may be that most couples staying at the resort do not eat the dessert in the dining room but take it back for later and so the last bite at the restaurant is the main but even so a little more refinement on the dessert could really put this over the top.

I would go to this resort for the food alone. It is pleasant to see the gardens along the back of the property and what a joy it would be to go and eat, knowing that some of your food is just steps away. 

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