At Viamede Resort in Ontario’s Kawarthas, owner Ben Sâmaan’s advertising slogans are ‘Boldly Different’ and ‘Worth the Drive’, and nothing exemplifies those two sentiments more than Executive Chef Kevin McKenna’s 9-course tasting menu at Mount Julian Restaurant. And since Chef Kevin switches the menu up often to reflect what the region and the season have to offer, you’ll definitely want to make more than one visit here.
Chef McKenna’s inspiration starts with a Farm-to-Table philosophy that he takes very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that Viamede operates their own farm on the property’s 165 acres. Here, everything from free-range turkeys to ducks to quail provide eggs and protein for Mount Julian’s menus, as well as heritage-breed pigs that are raised on the premises.
What Viamede doesn’t raise itself, it sources from other local farms and suppliers, including dairy products from the region’s famous Kawartha Dairy (known province-wide for its ice cream especially), honey from Herb Guy’s Honey House in nearby Buckhorn, and fruits, vegetables and more from Castanea Collective Farms, an organic farm collective. There’s even an Ontario craft brewery, Churchkey Brewing Company, who supplies one-of-a-kind brews for Viamede, especially when they host their seasonal feasts known as The Gathering. (Last year’s family-style sit down dinner featured a whole roasted hog and Church Key provided a limited edition ‘Whole Hog’ Ale they brewed to accompany it.)
With all those acres of land surrounding Mount Julian, Chef McKenna has the opportunity to do more than just raid the resort’s farm for goodies: he also forages in the property’s own forest (at least, if he can harvest its bounty before the deer get there first.) Depending on what’s growing that week, and how far afield Chef McKenna strays, you might find wild mushrooms, wild leeks, fiddleheads, or berries as part of that week’s menu.
Now, let’s eat. And eat. And eat!
Although all the items on Mount Julian’s menu are made using only these fresh and locally-sourced ingredients, the 5, 7 and 9-course tasting menus are where Chef McKenna really gets to show off his creativity and prowess in the kitchen. We were invited to enjoy his 9-course menu, which I was a little worried might be too much for me. But it turned out to be an absolute showstopper of a meal with more than enough variety to satisfy both Henk and my tastes, without overstuffing us to the point of discomfort. And of course, I opted for the flight of wines to accompany the dishes, because, well, because wine.
Our leisurely 3-hour meal began with a sampling of canapés to flex our palate and warm it up for what was to come: house-made lardon on crostini, wild boar pâté with balsamic vinegar ‘pearls’ (those tiny little translucent beads) and a rib eye curl served on delicate leafy ‘spoons’.
Acts 1 – 3
Following these rich appetizers came the soup course: a wild mushroom Ribollita with, kale, beans and a delicate sliver of guanciale – served first with the ingredients plated in the bowl, and broth then poured over them (I love it when they make soup into performance art!). The wine of choice: an Italian pecorino white wine, foreshadowing more Italian-inspired goodies to come.
Next came a punch of robust flavour with the Crostini toscani, a crunchy finger of toasted bread spread with chicken pâté divided be wild boar salumi slices balanced beautifully on frisée greens, and balanced equally well with a sparkling off-dry Riesling from Prince Edward County. Did I mention the ‘sumac dust’ that was sprinkled around the plate?
Washing down these intense flavours with the Riesling, I prepared my palate for the next plate, a threesome of fresh water Ontario fish: rose-coloured Manitoulin Trout, a delicious mouthful of delicate pickerel, and fried smelts, all served in an heirloom carrot and vegetable reduction. (I now know why pickerel is so prized, especially when it’s prepared this deliciously!) Rose Hall Chardonnay was the white wine that accompanied these subtle flavours, and even though I’m not usually a fan of Chardonnays, this buttery beauty worked perfectly.
Acts 4 – 6
Eschewing olive oil, Chef McKenna prefers to use spruce oil in his pappardelle alla Boscaiola instead, along with yellow foot and porcini mushrooms to add earthy flavour to the house-made duck egg pasta, with local sheep’s cheese as the topper. This is a hearty pasta perfectly suited for a winter menu, but the portion was wisely kept small enough to allow for more courses yet to come. The wine pairing for this past: Niagara’s Redstone Winery’s Rose.
We return to Italy for the next wine pairing, with a glass of Grignano Chianti to accompany wild boar loin medallions on soft polenta scented with more dust – this time with a fennel flavouring – and garnished with roast pumpkin, and a little more kale.
Bistecca is always a favourite on an Italian menu, and our menu included a tender ribeye on the bone, perfectly grilled and served with organic beans and slivered salad. Which meant it was time for another Italian red, this time a Pian di Nova Il Borro.
Even after 7 courses, there’s always room for dessert when it’s as light and delicious as these three: delicate maple ‘angel wings’ with some kind of sweet, creamy deliciousness for dipping, apple cake with Frangelico Foam, and a melt-in-your-mouth honeyed meringue. This kind of sweetness called for a late harvest Riesling with a sweetness of its own.
Staying with the Italian-but-local theme of the menu, a Tuscan-inspired local artisan cheese followed, served with a delicate quinoa wafer, toasted pumpkin seeds, a dollop of honey and bee pollen. (I had never had this ‘super food’ before, so this was a definite first!)
Encore! (i.e. wait, there’s more!)
Just when I thought the last taste to linger in my mouth would be the sweetness of the ten-year-old port that came with the previous cheese course, the ‘real’ dessert arrived, a trail of goodies lined up on the plate, with alternating white and dark chocolates garnished with pistachio snow, goat’s milk gelato and crystalline sugar. There was no way I was leaving any of that on the plate, as finishing it off seemed like the proper thing to do after a a meal this decadent.
Naturally, after 10 courses of this calibre (I’m counting the canapés as a course, of course!), gratitude was in order, so I asked if I could pop into the kitchen to say hello to the chef and personally thank him. Chef McKenna was not only accommodating, but modest and gracious as he accepted my compliments on a brilliant meal that I assured him I wouldn’t be forgetting anytime soon. (In fact, the last time Henk and I had a meal similar to this one, we got engaged. Unfortunately, no jewels came at the end of this meal – other than the hidden gem that is Mount Julian itself.)
I’m not sure which came first at Viamede Resort: the “Boldly Different”, #Worth the Drive slogans, or Chef McKenna and his culinary talents. In any case, after the extraordinary meal that we enjoyed at Mount Julian Restaurant, even the skeptical advertiser in me was impressed: this was as fine a dining experience as you’ll find in Toronto, or anywhere else, and one that more than lived up to its advertising promises.
TIP: Because Chef McKenna always use seasonal ingredients and items that are available locally, menus at Mount Julian Restaurant change frequently, but they all reflect this same standard of excellence. (Check out Dream Travel Magazine’s review of a different tasting menu and the Toronto Star’s review. For hours, reservations and directions to Mount Julian Restaurant, check the Viamede Resort website.
Special thanks to Viamede Resort for hosting our stay, and to Chef McKenna and his staff for a superb dining experience.