To all the awards that chef Michael Stadtlander’s idiosyncratic Haisai restaurant has won in its four-year existence – and it has won many, including enRoute magazine’s best new Canadian restaurant – I would like to add another: Canada’s most perennially reincarnated.
When Mr. Stadtlander and his wife, Nobuyo, first announced the restaurant, which is set in Singhampton, a potato-belt hamlet atop the rolling hills of the Niagara Escarpment, they intended that their son Jonas, who is a chef, would run it. Jonas had other ideas, however, and left before the 28-seat room could open.
And so Michael and Nobuyo, whose nearby, 16-seat, $300-a-head (plus tax, drinks not included) Eigensinn Farm is considered one of Canada’s greatest restaurants, decided to open Haisai themselves, with Michael cooking. Though some may quibble, let’s call that the first incarnation. Haisai’s 12-course, $150-per-person tasting menu was unmistakably Mr. Stadtlander’s — the cooking was singularly gorgeous to look at, the flavours clean and deceptively simple, the underlying ethos resolutely local and natural.
There was his signature ham made from pigs that the chef had raised and butchered himself, which had been cold-smoked for six long months in the smokehouse he’d built with his own hands. It was served on sourdough that he’d baked in his brick oven. He served lake trout from nearby Georgian Bay on plates the chef and his many apprentices had formed with clay from the Stadtlanders’ pond and fired in an artist-friend’s kiln.
Small wonder the awards rolled in. Though its dining room was larger and less intimate-feeling than the one at Eigensinn, though the restaurant was set in a town instead of just past the pig run, and through the mud room of a middle-of-nowhere working farm, Haisai was still a lot like Eigensinn, at half the price.
Yet just eight months after its launch, once the restaurant’s reputation had been made, Mr. Stadtlander closed Haisai to focus on Eigensinn once again.
Haisai’s second incarnation came in the summer of 2011 when it reopened as a place for simple lunches and baked goods, but without dinner service.
The third began in August of that year when Mr. Stadtlander put a pair of guest chefs from Stuttgart, Germany, in charge. That lasted until September of 2012, when the guest chefs left and the restaurant closed, remaining shuttered throughout the winter.
When Haisai finally reopened this past May – still with me? – 21-year-old former Stadtlander apprentice Min Young Lee was now cooking. Yet in spite of all the changes, Haisai hasn’t been reviewed anywhere credible since the fall of 2009, when it was still on its first life. This seemed a good time to check back in.
The room, with its curvy clay walls and ceiling inlaid with cow’s horns and deer antlers, as well as conch shells, long, knotty silver maple branches and mosaics made from bottle glass, is as one-of-a-kind and gorgeously ramshackle as ever. You may grimace or giggle for a minute when you enter, but that usually gives way to amazement.
Mr. Stadtlader built much of the furniture himself with wood from the surrounding forests; though your chair might not push in (the armrests are in many cases higher than the table bottoms), there’s a good chance its backrest will be draped with a sheep’s or fawn’s hide. Haisai has easily one of the most charming dining rooms anywhere. If Gaudi had had a hillbilly stoner phase, this is where he might have lived.
Mr. Lee’s cooking also thrills in spots, particularly the dishes that seem most influenced by his boss. I haven’t eaten a more rustic-looking salad than the one I was served as part of Haisai’s tasting menu on a Saturday evening in July. There was a jumble of leaves and herbs, some grown in the gardens around Eigensinn and some foraged, few of them recognizable: fat, dark succulents; jade-coloured stems; juicy cresses; shiny, broadly scalloped leaves the shade of dinosaur kale; pungent flowers that tasted of garlic and chlorophyll gum. They were dressed lightly, just enough; though Mr. Lee is just 21, his palate will take him far.
The leaves came in a carved wooden basket with a knurled handle. The salad’s flavours were odd yet exquisite: vegetal sweets, sours and faintly medicinal bitters, along with mouth-refreshing crunch and gentle, puckery tannins. On a night last month, the dim sum menu included a dish called “beet and potato cake.” It was scalloped potatoes, roughly — rich ivory from stacked, sliced tubers and gooey from aged white cheddar cheese, and also crimson from shaved beets, and bright tasting and simultaneously earthy. It was the prettiest potato dish that I’d seen in eons, the red beets bleeding to light pink wherever they met starch or cheesy fat.
Mr. Stadtlander’s six-month cold-smoked ham, done over beech wood, melted into nutty, fragrant bread and thick, salted butter so it was impossible to know where ham ended and butter began.
I ate terrific ravioli stuffed with almond, cream and stinging nettles, and a memorably wobbly hunk of suckling pig with a shard of crackling and dark-roasted onion. But Haisai at its best is much like that rustic-tasting salad: It is singular and exquisite, something you need to tell your friends about.Too much else was merely good: the ratatouille that included hunks of potatoes and carrots and tasted more of vegetable soup than Provence’s ratatouille (it was Joy of Cooking fine); the too-firm, sake-braised beef tongue; the average pork gyoza, the bland vegetable and tofu ones. The tasting menu’s trout, which came wrapped in speck, was under-seasoned. The strawberry shortcake tasted like leftovers; it was mushy and stale, not what you want from a $75 tasting menu. (Another evening’s hazelnut, chocolate and Limoncello construction was mind-blowingly delicious. Go figure.)
The service can also vary enormously: On that evening in July, when 20-year-old manager Hermann Stadtlander, who is Michael’s youngest son, was running the show, a lugubrious trombone ballad played on the stereo and an almost comically meek trainee server introduced dishes in a whisper. I don’t blame Hermann here. He is a 20-year-old working hard in an exceedingly tough position. But the room felt like a mausoleum.
On a subsequent visit, when Nobuyo was in charge (she spends most of her time at Eigensinn Farm), the mood was warm, light and infinitely hospitable. It was as if the place had been reborn as a different restaurant.
For what it’s worth, beginning in December, Mr. Stadtlander plans to recommit himself to Haisai’s kitchen, where he will cook alongside Mr. Lee, Hermann Stadtlander said on the phone this week. Nobuyo Stadtlander will work Haisai’s floor.
I’m hoping that will mark the restaurant’s fifth (or is it the sixth?) incarnation. With luck the restaurant will be transformed from an interesting and sometimes exquisite but ultimately skippable two-star place back into a bona fide four-star hit.