Fine dining in cottage country -- Kawarthas
Over the last couple of months, my partner and I have eaten at two restaurants in cottage country that certainly break the stereotype of burger, ribs and wings joints that usually come to mind when thinking of this area. The two restaurants under review here are 1) Riverhouse in Lakefield and 2) Inn at Mount Julian at Viamede Resourt in Woodview. Both claim to offer innovative, fresh cuisine highlighting local food sources; both are in the ‘splurge’ price range for most people (with entrées hovering in the $30 range). Both are housed in charming, renovated older houses near the water (in Mount Julian’s case, with lovely views of the water), and they both have a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Neither are air-conditioned, so dress appropriately if visiting either during a hot spell. As I detail below, both produce very good food, but there’s a clear winner in the comparison.
First, Riverhouse. This is a restaurant that deserves the favourable reviews it has earned elsewhere on Chowhound. We have eaten here a number of times, and every meal has been no less than excellent. On our last visit, we each had an appetizer, main and dessert. Standouts included the scallops appetizer, the black cod main, and the chocolate soufflé dessert, though everything was really good (including the sides for the mains – amazing crispy potatoes alongside the lamb!). The co-owner was our server, so service was efficient and good wine suggestions were made. The other co-owner and chef visited the dining room several times – to chat with diners, and sometimes to deliver a dish. The atmosphere was really nice, relaxed and friendly. With two bottles of moderately priced wine, our total dinner before tax and tip was around $200, and we took a doggy bag home that did one of us for lunch the next day.
Next, Mount Julian. This was our second visit to the Inn at Mount Julian, and the second time we’ve enjoyed the meal but were not wowed by the value for money. Most recently, we had the 7-course tasting menu. The very pleasant server gave us an opportunity to note any aversions or allergies, and the rest was up to the chef. No suggestions were made for wine pairings, so we just ordered a bottle of red we were familiar with. We had a succession of interesting and tasty dishes. Standouts here were a paper thin slice of raw marlin with mango ‘caviar’, a pasta carbonara and the duck breast with truffle sauce. Less successful were the watermelon and cucumber gazpacho and the banana panna cotta. Our major complaint with the tasting menu was that the servings were very small, and we were by no means full at the end of the evening. Most were a mouthful or two – including a roasted beet salad that I struggled to find 2 tiny, paper-thin slices of beet in under a handful of arugula and sprinkle of goat cheese.. Even the ‘main’ – the duck breast – was really just the sliced duck breast with a garnish of 2 asparagus spears and a slice each of carrot and pepper. And since when is asparagus ‘local’ in August?? The local markets are overflowing with gorgeous beans, heritage carrots and other vegetables – haven’t seen asparagus since late June. At no point did the chef come out to visit the dining room when we were there, even though it was not busy (only 2 other tables). We had only one bottle of wine, but the bill, before tax and tip, was about $250 – substantially more than Riverhouse for less food and half the wine. We’ve done tasting menus elsewhere, and while their very nature calls for small servings in each course, we’ve never left one feeling that we could eat another course or two, nor have we ever not been offered wine pairings or not had at least a brief visit from the chef. If you want to charge those kinds of prices, then you need to provide the full experience.
So, it won’t be much of a decision the next time we want to splash out on a nice dinner – Riverhouse wins hands-down.