Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue was on superb form last weekend for the annual VISA Infinite Dining Series gala at Langdon Hall. The two-day affair, brilliantly organized by the IDMG team, was blessed with perfect weather and guests made merry throughout the great hotel and its splendid gardens. Several people remarked to me that they felt we were living out an episode of Downton Abbey, but without any of the show’s attendant melodrama.
We began on Saturday evening with cocktails, bubbly and delectable canapés on the croquet lawn then moved indoors to the dining room for the first five courses. Gushue’s food has always been extraordinarily refined and delicate but these days it seems even more ethereal, inspired by the fresh produce of Langdon Hall’s garden and grounds and the early harvest of farmers and growers in the vicinity. “It hasn’t really been a conscious decision towards lighter and fresher food,” the chef explained to me, “so much as a natural process based on my own tastes. I’m more interested in working with vegetables and fish and I find I just can’t look at another piece of chicken-fried bacon or something foolish like that. I was part of an event at Norm Hardie’s place in Prince Edward County earlier this year. There were 23 chefs there and 21 of them cooked a meat dish. Some of them were amazing, but I’ve been on a bit of mission ever since.”
This light touch has always suited Langdon Hall where so many of the guests are planning a romantic stay. Gushue has received dozens of hand-written letters over the years from guests who appreciated being able to enjoy a six- or seven-course dinner without feeling exhausted at the end of the meal. Too much rich, heavy food can sometimes snuff out the pilot light of passion.
The amuse offered a perfect illustration of Gushue’s philosophy – perfect peas, freshly picked and popped from their pods, served raw, as Nature intended, with some of their dear little tendrilly leaves and a trace of fresh mint. He posed them beside a spoonful of pea purée to give another viewpoint onto the vegetable and paired them with a dab of ricotta. Not just any ricotta. This was the 2013 Grand Champion from the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, voted the best cheese in Canada. It’s made from sweet whole milk by Quality Cheese in Vaughan and it’s wonderful. The other element of the dish was a lemon verbena water. The herb grows all over the property and Gushue uses it frequently. This time he made it into an infusion that he chilled and thickened until it reached a point somewhere between a liquid and a jelly – a subtle suggestion of flavour to complement the ricotta. The 2010 sparkling brut rosé from Hinterland in Prince Edward County was a perfect accompaniment, introduced, as were all the wines, by Langdon Hall’s assistant sommelier, Melissa Marynissen.
Gushue’s second dish was another masterful understatement. He started with beautiful little gem lettuces sourced from Deerfield Nurseries in Hagersville, briefly brining the leaves to give them a slightly marinated feel but leaving them still, essentially, raw. On top of them he perched a plump Digby scallop that he had warmed in the oven, not really cooking it, just basically bringing it up to room temperature, barely seizing its sweet, sticky juices. To this he brought the lightest sauce imaginable, made by thickening milk with a dash of puréed scallop, adding a thinner second sauce of lettuce juice. So light and fine! But the finishing touch was like sprinkling gold dust on the bedsheets. He brined and then dry-cured egg yolks for 12 weeks until they ended up looking like golden, semi-translucent glass but with a strange pliant texture that Gushue described as “like cutting into a gummy bear.” He grated the yolks and scattered them over the lettuce like pollen gilding a lilly. The yolky flavour was as rich, in its way, as the scallop, and a fine contrast for the pristine lettuces. A 2011 Loimer Grüner Veltliner was wine enough to match the scallop and egg but fine enough not to bully the leaves.
By now, our palates were becoming calibrated to the vegetable-seafood-dairy world of Gushue’s imagination. The third course pursued the theme further – a dish of Deerfield Nurseries asparagus tips moistened with cold-pressed canola oil and roasted for a moment in the oven. “That asparagus is so good I like to leave it to its own devices,” said Gushue, but of course he added some subtle enhancements. The base of his sauce was tomato water – the pale, sweet but tangy juice that drips all night from a muslin bag filled with chopped raw tomatoes. Gushue infused it with marigolds from the garden then finished it by adding a little of the sheep’s milk yoghurt they make in the kitchen. Nothing shows off the taste of asparagus like nutty ingredients and Chef brought in three elements from that section of the gastronomic orchestra: a drop or two more of the cold-pressed canola oil with its unique, faintly nutty taste; some powdered hazelnuts; and some red quinoa, a particular type of quinoa that holds its crunch even when cooked and has an unusual walnut-like flavour. To finish, a little squeeze of lemon juice over the asparagus and a final garnish of chive tops. Gushue told me once that if he could only have one garnish on Earth it would be chive tops – not just because of the gorgeous mauve colour but because they have real flavour and a honey-sweet finish behind the oniony allium aroma. I would have reached for a Sauvignon Blanc with this dish but Marynissen chose a red, the 2008 Mercurey 1er Cru Les Champ Martins from Domaine Michel Juillot, and it worked admirably, picking out the nutty flavours perfectly.
It was time for something more substantial and now Gushue turned to his Halifax fish suppliers, Fisherfolk, for some superb Atlantic halibut. Fisherfolk is a family firm and most of its members are fishermen themselves so there’s no need for a middle man. Seafood comes from the cold Atlantic to Langdon Hall’s dining room within hours not days – something Gushue hadn’t experienced since he was at The Wedgwood hotel in Vancouver. He roasted the halibut very simply, just gilding its surface with a white wine glaze. Alongside it he served black salsify – the last of last year’s crop from Anthony John at Soiled Reputation – slowly braised in a warm bath of Chardonnay, fish stock and shallots. As a second vegetable he heated the same braising liquid to boiling point and used it to blanch chunks of peeled cucumber. It ended up with the texture of vegetable marrow and nearly stole the show. Sprinkled over the vegetables was crumbled, very crunchy chicken skin that had been roasted until it gave up all its fat, quickly seasoned with salt and pepper and then crushed to dust. He used the rendered schmaltz to make a mayonnaise, a very tiny amount of which went into the sauce that finished the dish – a light stock spiked with wild herbs from Langdon Hall’s woods. The Chardonnay was an assertive, perfectly balanced beauty – Bachelder’s 2010 Wismer Vineyard from Niagara.
There had been no starch whatsoever in the meal to date – and no meat, either. But now the carnivores were rewarded for their patience. Grandview Farms wagyu beef sirloin is grass-fed so that famous wagyu marbling isn’t nearly as pronounced. It’s leaner and lighter than corn-fed beef and it doesn’t exhaust your palate the way a big slab of USDA Prime does (awesome for the first three bites, then a burdensome duty after that). Gushue has a bone to pick with modern beef-lovers who measure the quality of their meat by how soft it is. “There’s a difference between tender and soft,” he says. “I like a little toothsome crunch to my beef – I don’t want it to cut like liver.” It didn’t. And it tasted divine. Beside it, Gushue set scallions, simply grilled and brushed with Langdon Hall butter, and a medley of pink and golden beets. The sauce was a shallot broth made by roasting shallots at 450 degrees for an hour until one side of them is almost charred black then moving them into a new pan and cooking them down at 225 degrees for 16 hours. They give up all their sweet, golden juices but there’s also an intriguingly sour, bitter note from the preliminary blackening that brings the broth to life. A 2010 Springfield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon did its vinous duty by the beef.
And then it was time to move on to the conservatory for a spectacular array of Canadian cheeses, all of them prize winners at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix and introduced by Debbie Levy of Dairy Farmers of Canada. Behind the cheeses were desserts created by Langdon hall’s brilliant pastry chef, Sarah Villamere. There was pansy and rhubarb mousse, intense bite-sized chocolate and lovage tartlets and scrumptious white-chocolate-strawberry-hazelnut cake.
But the evening didn’t end there. Out in the candlelit darkness by the reflecting pool, Gushue had set up a firepit and was melting raclette cheese, to be eaten with marinated onion and prosciutto. Or for those who needed something sweeter, Villamere had made cheesecakes in little glass jars. Someone played guitar and the starlit sky promised a clear sunrise.
Sunday morning on these weekends means a spectacular brunch and this time Gushue and his tireless staff set up the party around the swimming pool. There were dozens of dishes to taste and Sarah Villamere was front and centre with a bakery’s worth of cookies and scones, praline brioche with honey butter, Danish cheese tarts, croissants and pain au chocolat, cookies and miniature pots of blueberry-basil crème brûlée topped with crème fraiche.
I can’t list everything but I can’t forget the pizza-like dandelion tart flecked with pancetta, cheddar and marinated raisins. Or the eggs en cocotte cooked with cream and Bleu d’Elizabeth cheese and walnuts. Or the salads – one of tart sea buckthorn berries, green grapes and pear, another tumbling strawberries, feta and celery, still another of melon, grilled apricots and marmalade.
It was a perfect day and Wendy and I lingered deep into the afternoon, long after brunch had been cleared and the guests had driven away.
My sincere thanks to Ksenija Hotic who took these beautiful photographs. www.ksenijahoticphotography.com.