How cold was it at Langdon Hall this week? Not quite cold enough to keep my wife off the little skating rink they have flooded on the basketball court. I watched her do her elegant thing for a while until the wind chill drove us indoors to the soothing heat of the spa. Not cold enough, either, to keep the heroic construction crew from their ongoing outdoor work expanding the dining room and kitchen. Some beneficent sprite must have blessed the infant Jason Bangerter at his christening with a particularly chefly gift – that whenever he took on a new job, the owners would give him a new kitchen in which to play. It happened at Auberge du Pommier and then again at Luma. Now at Langdon Hall he will have 50 percent more space in which to perform his art than Jonathan Gushue ever did, along with the very latest generation of induction stoves. If he now seems as quietly excited as a well-mannered kid in a candy store, just wait until the summer when he gets his hands on the produce from the garden and the wild things from the woods…
But his good fortune is also ours, of course – as we tasted on Tuesday night. It was a busy evening for Chef and his brigade – the first Wine Maker Dinner was also taking place in a private dining room, organized by the hotel’s new General Manager, Christophe le Chatton. Langdon Hall has three stellar sommeliers (known as the three musketeers). Le Chatton must be their D’Artagnan, then, for he, in his day, was Toronto’s finest. Langdon’s lead sommelier, Katy moore, was kind enough to invite us to the dinner (a spectacular array of Domaine Faiveley Burgundies with five courses and no doubt innumerable intermezzi) but we were determined to see what Bangerter was up to on the à la carte, so we ate in the main dining room with its views of the nocturnal garden (fairy lights glinting from the snow) and of the new 30-seat extension, where the steps down to the lawn used to be. We ordered conservatively, but many other little sample dishes were sent out. They spoil you rotten at Langdon Hall.
So we shared a lobster salad – perfectly timed pieces of tail and claw, juicy and quivering but poached long enough to taste of lobster without losing any of their natural tenderness. There were cubes of firm lobster-court-bouillon jelly and a streak of pink lobster roe across the plate. Chef had chosen leek as the crustacean’s date for the night – leek turned into crisp tempura wands, into moistly poached, crunchy little drums, into drops of silky purée, even into a dusting of pleasantly bitter leek ash. Garnished with fennel fronds, the whole plate looked like a Joan Miro painting and was gone in a trice.
Wendy started with slices of marinated albacore tuna (see above) that came close to the textural place where fish becomes meaty but kept their discreet marine flavour. Carrots were the supporting cast this time – bias-cut coins, shaved ribbons, some lightly pickled, others roasted to tenderness, still others minced into a brunoise and turned into a sweet-tart relish. As a sort of dressing, a ginger and perilla purée brought in a fresh spectrum of flavours. The presentation reminded me of a display cabinet at the Pitt-Rivers museum – comprehensive, dramatic, surreal… Charles Baker’s 2011 Ivan vineyard riesling was brilliant with it.
My appetizer was billed as a toasted barley and sweet onion pudding – a rich, rustic Canadian cousin to a risotto with moist strands of duck confit stirred in. It was topped with generous hunks of melt-in-the-mouth pan-seared foie gras and startled by moments of tart preserved wild strawberry around the plate. Softly fried sage leaves brought a vegetal note and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Gewurztraminer caressed the dish like a louche and loving courtesan.
“You must try this,” said Chef, as a dish of Humboldt squid appeared. One can only imagine the size of the creature in life! He had cut its body into cubes fully an inch and a half across, some poached, others battered and fried. How do you flatter a Humboldt squid? With a hank of the crunchy green lichen they’re calling “caribou moss” and a tangerine aïoli and some dabs of sea buckthorn for acidity, and a sauce of squid ink that was as black as the squid itself was white.
Are you getting the picture? I was strongly reminded of the way Bangerter used to cook at Auberge, where his European, Mosimann-trained roots were always showing. He’s Canadian, lives in Milton, started out with John Higgins at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, but spent three or four very formative years on the other side of the water. His food these days is so refined – not as ethereal as Jonathan Gushue’s, but discreetly substantial and with all sorts of subtle surprises.
Wendy had ling cod as a main course, the fish bronzed and parting into moist petals. A bed of lentils provided bottom (as we English say), and salsify appeared three ways, as crisp ribbons, as a soft purée and as oiled and roasted chips. A parsnip-vanilla jus linked all the flavours together and an unexpectedly firm, crunchy white cippolino onion, masquerading as a baby turnip, also made a contribution. Our sommelier chose Vasse Felix 2011 chardonnay from Margaret River as a complement.
Me, I had the venison – two cylinders of tenderloin that showed all the gradations from seared surface to a rare ruby-coloured heart. There was a spicy confit of red cabbage turned into a purée, big blocks of butternut squash scented with pine from the property, some delicate Brussels sprout leaves and a peppercorn-game jus by way of a sauce. La Spinetta’s 2009 “Pin,” a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, hit just the right note.
Langdon’s ace pastry chef, Sarah Villamere, departed with Jonathan Gushue, leaving big shoes to fill. Rachel Nicholson seems up to the task. She made a stiff custard of citrus and coconut milk and encased it in a square of saffron-coriander gelée, topped with a gossamer ricepaper tuille.
It only remained to polish off a confection of picobello cheese that had been transformed into custard, then torched and served over crumbled chicken skin and huckleberry compote, and we were ready for bed.
I’ve seen many chefs come and go at Langdon Hall in the 25 years since it has been open. Jason Bangerter certainly belongs in their (mostly) mighty company. He is having enormous fun, working wickedly hard and is filled with excitement at the possibilities that await him in the months to come.