A secret garden, a rising star chef and an historic estate. Could small town Cambridge Ontario be home to Canada’s own Downton Abbey?
It begins with a warm embrace – a silky, earthy chicken mousse with a backdrop of brandy and long crisp parsnip chips that transform the act of double dipping from taboo to must-do.
I’m dining at the restaurant at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa, lead by Executive Chef Jason Bangerter whose impressive resume includes work at Auberge du Pommier, Hotel Le Meridian Montparnasse, Jean-Georges Vongerichten Vong, and many years with renowned Swiss chef Anton Mosimann in Europe. His tenure at Langdon Hall began in 2013, and in the intervening years, the restaurant has garnered much acclaim.
The summer home of Eugene Langdon Wilks, a wealthy American real estate and fur trade heir, and his wife Pauline Kingsmill, Langdon Hall could be Canada’s answer to Downton Abbey with odes to both Britain and American Federal Revival styles. The 75 acre property is situated in Cambridge, Ontario, a small city an hour’s drive (with no traffic) from Toronto. The main house comes into view suddenly along a meandering driveway. The warm cast of a golden sunset on the brick and brilliant white façade speaks to old world elegance, but the surrounding woods are assuredly Canadian.
There are old servant bells hidden in a present day coat room, an antique bar and several formal private dining rooms with unique décor. Each corner of the property beckons to be explored, from the dozen kilometres of woodland trails surrounding the hotel, to the chic pool and elaborate gardens. “You have to really want to be here – there’s not much around,” adds Bangerter of the property so quietly tucked away from the road, that it is difficult to guess that there’s a whole world behind here. Most of the staff hails from the surrounding areas of Cambridge and Milton and there is a deep sense of pride, and true service. When I visit the spa for a facial, my attendant recalls her time growing up in the town with fondness, as does a waiter at dinner, who moved back home, after working in the fast pace of Toronto for years.
My loft suite, one of 52 rooms and suites on the property, has subtle equestrian touches, a comfortable feather bed, warm fireplace and spacious living area with a pull-out day bed. My classic black and white bathroom is cozy and relaxing, with a deep soaking tub and walk-in shower with a decent size wardrobe. Undergoing an expansion set to be completed in early 2016, Langdon Hall will soon include several additional rooms, a state-of-the-art spa, and additional event space.
As dinner continues in the rotunda shaped dining room that overlook the grounds, several tables fill with regular guests, business executives and Relais & Châteaux members from abroad. The tasting menu is a slowly building progression. It begins with delicate compressed cucumber marinated with citrusy marigold, and an herb puree followed by a salad of foraged herbs found on the premises – bold punches of flavour from what are otherwise innocuous looking plants – hints of anise, pepper, bitter notes, and citrus, are rounded out with a creamy buttermilk sorbet hidden below interlocking leaves.
Perhaps it’s Bangerter’s rustic Canadian childhood in Milton, Ontario that brought out his passion for food. “My family has always been great cooks. My mom’s side of the family is from the East coast, so every summer we would spend on the beach. My dad’s side of the family is from Parry Sound, Ontario and did a lot of hunting and fishing. Those things end up on the plate.”
There is thought behind each dish, cleverly crafted through a clear understanding of flavour, without a need to be trend driven, and confidently plated without an incongruous use of modernist techniques. A crab dish is topped with shaved frozen foie gras torchon to add richness, and dusted with a hint of mouth puckering sumac for acidity, while lamb tartare mimics the flavours of a cooked loin, through the use of a bold jus and pops of peppery mustard seeds, black radish and lamb aioli. The cheese course? Local Monforte blue cheese is plated alongside duck fat fried sourdough, maple sugar, candied walnut and paired with a cold glass of (what else?), Canadian maple water.
“Coming here was a way to reinvent myself – it was important to think outside the box,” explains Bangerter who received the 2015 Relais & Châteaux rising chef trophy. “We want to make [Langdon Hall] a destination experience.” This experiential approach has a lot to do with gathering ingredients from the Langdon Hall property. Bangerter pulls out his phone with a photo of an enormous powder puff mushroom that he found by the pool the previous summer. “This place is magical – I swear all of the best stuff comes from on property,” Bangerter boasts with an energetic enthusiasm that makes it easy to ride along – culinary shotgun style.
So the following day, I tag along, foraging for nearly one hour, spotting wild ramps, bright red raspberries, brilliant blue borage flowers and marigold leaves along the way, each ingredient an opportunity for the chef to recite a new recipe idea. Finally, Bangerter takes me inside the piece de resistance – the garden. Inside, a kaleidoscopic dream of heirloom vegetables, herbs and even a small orchard unfold in front of my eyes.
It’s easy to recall how bountiful Langdon Hall is as I sit in the conservatory for afternoon tea. Pastry Chef Rachel Nicholson and her team deliver evocative bites inspired by the seasons – like the gently spiced pumpkin cheesecake, juicy turkey rillette on pumpernickel crostini and delicate heritage egg salad served on a buttery croissant.
As I sip the last drop of tea, I think, Langdon Hall is the sort of hidden treasure that I’d like to guard for myself. The problem is that it’s simply too good not to be shared. That’s more in keeping with its Canadian soul, after all.
What did we eat at The Restaurant? This original article initially appeared in the Winter 2015/16 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.