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Technique, verve and hard work: Why Langdon Hall (and its new chef) is still great

Marinated albacore tuna at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., on May 15 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Name
Langdon Hall
Location
1 Langdon Drive, Cambridge, Ontario
Phone
519-740-2100
Website
langdonhall.ca
Price
Appetizers, $20 to $23; entrees, $29 to $46; eight course tasting menu, $125.
Drinks
The wine and spirits lists are among Ontario’s best, with a few good affordable bottles; prices climb rapidly. Pricey, poorly made cocktails.
Atmosphere
Three formal but exquisite dining rooms in the 120-year-old main house of a sprawling country estate.
Additional Info
Best bets: Warm poached scallop, marinated tuna, toasted barley and sweet onion pudding, ling cod, lamb sirloin, strawberry chiboust, cheese; menu changes frequently; NB: Jackets are recommended at dinner

My dinner mates' minds were blown, and we hadn't yet even pulled into the parking lot. As the car turned past the waterfall at Langdon Hall's front gate and up the 75-acre, hilltop estate's winding, wooded driveway, we drove through pine and maple groves filled with ivory-petaled narcissi.

"Oh. My. God," one of my friends whispered.

There were more exclamations, not all of them printable, as the property's imposing main building, a 120-year-old federal revival mansion, appeared across a sun-dappled lawn.

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Out back, behind the Cambridge, Ont., resort's cloisters and stables (they are now guest rooms), the apple orchard was on the cusp of flowering. Blissed-out spa guests in their terry robes sipped apricot juleps, sunken into chairs around the lily pond. Even I was feeling giddy now.

The restaurant inside has always been one of Langdon Hall's main attractions; it is one of the finest in Eastern Canada. To get to the resort's three dining rooms, you have to first walk past a grand piano and tables stacked with rare whisky and an enormous silver trolley that heaves with meticulously aged cheese.

Jonathan Gushue, the restaurant's talented but mercurial star chef, left last fall after eight years. His successor, Jason Bangerter, made his name at midtown's Auberge du Pommier. He is impeccably trained, in Toronto by the chef John Higgins, and in Europe by the respected chef Anton Mosimann.

Langdon Hall's kitchen has its own gardener. The cooks here use tiny wild strawberries, painstakingly gathered from the forest's edge and preserved through winter, as an everyday springtime garnish. This restaurant is the cooking assignment of a lifetime.

Is Mr. Bangerter up to it? Like Mr. Gushue before him, the new guy has a few tricks.

When the first wave of dishes arrived on that sunny evening earlier this month, my friends gasped at first and then broke into disbelieving laughter. There were plates of burrata cheese dressed as if for a costume ball with candy cane beets and local heart nuts; another was an edible still-life of lobster claws and dots of verdant green purée, tempura wild leeks and jiggly lobster jelly.

A cured tuna number played translucent ivory hunks of albacore against a carrot vinaigrette and the deepest orange carrot purée imaginable – sweet, sour, maritime and root vegetable richness; the plate next to it balanced duck confit and foie gras against fried sage leaves and toasted barley grains.

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The flavours in each one of those compositions were clean and distilled, the textures calibrated, the colours and plating exquisite. But there was more to it than technical mastery: This was cooking with verve and personality. And those appetizers were only the start.

An entrée of lamb sirloin built up from a brooding, almost plummy purée of fermented black garlic, layering over it a fat, delicious hunk of rare-cooked lamb and turnip tops and a cippoline onion to cut sharp and sweet into the richness. It came with a lamb's tongue that had been pickled, braised and then seared so that it sliced as easily as butter. That lamb was the antithesis of what most people think when they think of hotel food. It was an absolutely killer dish.

Better yet was the ling cod: a softball-sized fist of opalescent flesh over perfect du Puy lentils, parsnips and a meaty, caramel-coloured jus spiked with vanilla. Nothing about it was flashy: five or six ingredients only, every one of them coaxed to their ideal state.

Another night's standouts included a milk-poached veal loin more soft and mild and creamy than I'd ever thought possible, and a carrots and rabbit assembly that came in a wickedly flavourful root vegetable broth.

Mr. Bangerter is still new to the restaurant, though, and especially to its seasonal rhythms. His kitchen fumbled a few times more than it should.

An amuse that began Langdon Hall's $125 tasting menu one night tasted sharp and hot, like raw diced shallots – a flavour that endured in our mouths through the next three courses.

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The tempura on that same evening's Humboldt squid wasn't light enough or crisp enough and slipped too easily from the flesh. Sure, it's a minor thing, but it's also the difference between a dish that's ethereal and unforgettable and one that's merely pretty good.

A gnocchi dish tasted so strongly of the herb savoury that it wasn't entirely pleasant.

And I am not sure why Mr. Bangerter is serving an amuse called "edible garden" – it's a plate of tiny carrot, parsnip and turnip tops sticking out of a soil made from almonds and olives – without crediting the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, which pioneered that presentation a decade ago.

In all fairness, this was early spring, the absolute hardest time of the year to be a locavore chef, particularly when it's your first early spring in the gig. Also, the dish was unarguably delicious; I sincerely doubt that most diners care about its provenance. But Langdon shouldn't follow, especially not without giving the proper credit. A restaurant of this ambition should lead.

The service also varied sharply. Smart and pitch-perfect one night, it was stretched far too thin on another, when an entire dining room had been taken up by a conference of lawyers. It took nearly 25 minutes to get a first glass of wine that evening, and 45 for our amuse bouches to arrive. This is not at all what you expect when dinner can easily top $250 a head.

And if any house bitters-crafting, moustache wax-loving mixologists are reading this, Langdon Hall needs you desperately. The cocktails here cost between $18 and $22. I tasted four of them before giving up. They're just not all that good.

I expect, though, that Mr. Bangerter's kitchen will improve considerably with a bit more time and experience; it is not at all far from being a four-star enterprise. As annoying as that slow service was, I am told by friends who've been recently that it is not the norm. As for those cocktails, at least the wine service is excellent.

And that cheese trolley could make a person forgive anything. It's the greatest I've seen in a couple of years.

Better still are the desserts here, executed by pastry chef Rachel Nicholson.

Have some cheese and a vintage Port or a Scotch or a glass of Champagne and the light-as-a-spring-evening strawberry chiboust. Have the sweet pea and custard bavarois, or the chocolate and hazelnut ganache if you are one of those types. (Who isn't?) These are some of the most incredible dessert dishes anywhere right now.

Is an afternoon or evening here worth the drive to Cambridge? You'd better believe it. I can think of no greater, more luxurious, more completely transportive escape just an hour and fifteen minutes from downtown.

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