Malcolm Jolley spends a day and a night at Langdon Hall.
Every amateur sleuth knows that means, motive and opportunity are the three crucial elements to perpetration of a crime. They are also the three crucial elements that, on occasion, combine to get me to my favourite gettaway, Langdon Hall, near Cambridge, Ontario. Or at least two are, since motive is pretty much a given (see below). Finding the means every once and a while is doable, and the sacrifices made to cover the stay are always justified in the experience. So, it’s opportunity that’s the kicker, and when one presents itself, I do my best to take it.
Opportunity appeared last week in the form of my father-in-law, over on a visit from the U.K. to see his Canadian grandchildren while they were on their March break. He was pleased to have the kids to himself for a night, and my wife and I were pleased to make that happen. The question of where we would go had been settled at Christmas when I gave her as a present a Langdon Hall Spa package. It was an inspired present, I think. I had gone to a lunch at Langdon Hall in December and received a tour of the newly built spa facility from my old friend Braden Bennett, who has become active in the affairs of the hotel his father, Bill and step-mother Mary Beaton began in 1987. The new spa looked really good, and I could come to this opinion honestly as the first and only spa experience was at Langdon more than a decade ago. On the drive home that afternoon I was struck by a bright light of Christmas cheer: my wife, Apple, would love an afternoon at the new spa, and if I gave her one I’d probably get to go back to Langdon sooner than later.
The day that worked best for Apple and I was the Monday. The plan was to leave the city in the late morning to travel the 100 kilometres to Langdon in time for lunch at Wilk’s Bar. That was the day of (we hope) the last big winter storm of the year: we left clear skies in Toronto, saw the first flakes fall around the airport and were driving through a blizzard by the time we ascended the Escarpment at Milton. By the time we rounded the corner of Langdon Hall’s driveway the great lawn in front of the magnificent old house was already covered in snow. The forecasters had said that the storm would last about 24 hours, which was more or less exactly how much time we had to make the most of our stay. This how we spent the time.
Monday, 1:30 PM – Lunch
We checked-in and quickly dumped our bags in our room, an attic suite tucked into a corner of the third floor of the old house. I’ve stayed in each of the buildings at Langdon and they’re all nice but my favourite is the old house. I think I just like to indulge the fantasy that it’s my house when I descend for a meal or climb the stairs from he billiard room to go to bed. Anyway, it was short trip through the house to Wilk’s Bar to restore ourselves from our journey. Did we have reservations? we were asked by the server who received us. Uh oh. Wilk’s Bar is a smallish room with a bar (of course), windows facing the back courtyard and pond, and a big fireplace. The word cozy does not do it justice, and on this snowy day it was full with a mix (by my guess) of hotel guests, day trip spa goers and lunching locals, including local hotel proprietor Mary Beaton who interrupted her working lunch to say hello. The bar was packed, but the conservatory next door had seating, with it’s own window views and big fireplace. Here we were placed long enough to order a glass of wine each (Pearce-Predhomme Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc) and look over the menu. Soon after we moved back into the bar to a table by the fireplace and were enjoying a lunch of parsnip soup, trout rillettes and Fogo Island cod fish and chips.
Our lunch, it’s worth noting, came from Chef Jason Bangerter’s almost new kitchen next to Langdon’s dining room, and while pâté and fish and chips might sound typical bar food, these weren’t. They were on an altogether different and higher plane, because of the quality and freshness of the ingredients and their experienced execution. What they were not was fancy. Bangerter can certainly do fancy, but he keeps it comfortable at the bar; it’s a wonderful balance between elevated and straight forward. The dining room at Langdon Hall is also open for lunch and features another, more elegant, menu. We stuck to the bar because we were headed to the dining room that evening.
Monday 3 PM – Afternoon Activities
What with the raging snow storm outside, we were glad to restrict our afternoon activities to the confines of Langdon Hall’s great indoors. Apple took the underground tunnel to the new spa area to take her treatments. I was told later by my glowing and very relaxed looking wife they were a stunning success. I took my own treatments. First, I stayed in my seat and had another glass of wine, this time with Bennett père et fils, Bill and Braden, to catch up and chat. Chef Bangerter also dropped by to discuss various plans in store for the Relais & Château property in the coming months. It was off the record, of course, but watch GFR this spring and summer to see what they’re up to.
When it was time for those actually participating in their work day to leave the bar, I proceeded to my afternoon activity plan: do nothing. Actually, I did more than nothing. First, I turned off my phone. Then, I lit a wood fire in my room’s fireplace (they all have them), positioned myself prostrate on the couch in front of it so I could with a mere tilt of my head either look at the flames or outside the window at the falling snow. Then, I read about half a chapter of my book before nodding off into blissful nap.
Monday 7 PM – Cocktails and Canapés
Once Apple and I had recovered from our respective afternoon activities, we freshened up and dressed for dinner. We’d hoped to meet Braden in the bar, but he was called away on a family matter and instead we met Chef Bangerter in front of the grand fireplace in the conservatory for a glass of Champagne and some very delicious snacks, not least more Fogo Island cod: this time the cheeks, deep fried (but ever so lightly) with Acadian caviar from the intrepid Dr. Cornel Ceapa. I have known Jason Bangerter since he was chef at Auberge de Pommier and was involved in the Terroir Symposium, and Apple has also got to know him from a few visits over the years, so it was very much a friendly meeting, where he regaled with tales form his recent guest chef stint at the Inn at Fogo Island. It was an insightful preview of what was going to happen soon in the dining, especially the sturgeon’s skin form which we ate our hors d’oeuvres. One of Bangerter’s signatures is interesting tableware, as we discovered over his many course tasting menu.
Monday 8 PM – Dinner!
There are lots of good reasons to come to Langdon Hall, but dinner must be very close to the top if not on it. From my perspective, Langdon Hall is a kind of giant machine designed to create superlative fine dining. Consider the location: it’s close enough to the city and airport to procure whatever Chef Bangerter needs, but it’s also far enough into Southwestern Ontario farm country to find things Chef’s city cousins can’t. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Bangerter is from around and lives in these parts.) Langdon also regularly collaborates with their suppliers to create special products, like beers and wine, or get an exclusive line on something rare and in limited supply, including from international suppliers who cater to the Relais & Château community. Then, of course, there’s Langdon Hall itself which supplies its kitchen through it’s gardens, orchards and greenhouses. Finally, add to that its extensive wine cellar, built up over three decades, and one has all the components for a great meal ready to be handed over to a talented chef with a big and dedicated crew in a custom built state of the art kitchen. We were excited to eat and drink!
I might have been a little too excited, because I went straight to the big Langdon Hall wine list to order a bottle of white to begin with, forgetting that the tasting menu would include a wine pairing option. Langdon’s large wine list is not unusual for a top-end fine dining restaurant, and it has its fair share of four figure bottles and hedge fund manager-ready Grands Crus. It also has some great finds well under $100. We started with a recent vintage Roero Arneis from the renown Barolo house Vietti and carried things on with beautiful 2012 Valpolicella Classico from Marinella Camerani’s Corte Sant’Alda.
In the past few years I have heard, and may even (I will sheepishly admit) have participated in, grumblings about tasting menus. Too many plates, too much going on, too much about the chef, too much food, too much theater; basically too much, too much. It’s all wrong. There is actually nothing more fun that well planned and executed tasting menu put out by a kitchen that is good enough to have fun with what they do. Chef Bangerter has one of these kitchens and grazing our way through his tasting was the epitome of a good time. One of his suppliers, who I heard from another chef, comes through the Relais & Chateau connection, presents him with the most amazing truffles from Puglia, in the south of Italy. They are amazing because they somehow retained their full flavour (or something very close to it) on their journey over the Atlantic. I had stopped expecting anything from truffles on this side of the world a long time ago; maybe a feint whiff of earthiness. Bangerter’s chicken liver parfait dish, served in a funny chicken foot egg holder, changed my mind. Just as the succession of small dishes, full of flavour, changed my mind about tasting menus.
Monday 11 PM – Back to the Bar
As it happened, sitting a few tables away from us at dinner was a couple we recognized as our neighbours in the city. As dinner wound down we said hello and agreed to meet for a nightcap and compare notes. This seemed to me to be a good excuse to order another bottle of the Corte Sant’Alda, which I did. “Sir,” said our sommelier, when he returned from the cellar, “I am afraid there is a problem.” Only it was a very good kind of problem. He explained that we had consumed their last bottle of 2012 Ca’Fiui, but on the shelves he had found a bottle of the 2008, and he would be happy to open it for us at the same price as the 2012 and take it to us in the bar. We accepted the offer and lingered over the wine at the bar until slowly climbed the stairs to our bed.
Tuesday 9:30 AM – Breakfast
Don’t miss breakfast at Langdon Hall. It’s held in a brightly lit by windows room that leads to the back courtyard. There is a short menu of à la carte dishes, but the best part is the table one passes by on one’s way to be seated, that is groaning with delicious things, from house made cured meats and fishes, to granolas and yogurts, mixed fruits with subtle but exotic dressings, and pastries and Langdon Hall’s signature breads and homemade butter. It’s glorious, but short lived for late risers: at 11 o’clock it ends as the dining room switches over for lunch.
Tuesday 11:30 – Outdoor Activities
After breakfast we packed up, checked out and put our bags in the car. And then we went for a much needed walk. First, we went back inside the Langdon complex to check out their new events space, including a second kitchen to service the large rooms that is also set up for cooking classes and demonstrations. Then, we went back out to a new covered outdoor pavilion built for barbecues or weddings, or whatever anyone likes. From there we checked out the famous Victorian gardens, and poked our heads into the greenhouses: one full of planters of things to be once again laid around the grounds in warmer weather and the other with a big table on which sat trays of micro-greens ready to snipped and sent to the kitchen. On we went, past the pool, to the beginings of Langdon Hall’s network of trails, that crisscross the 40 acres of the estate. We chose one that was a few kilometres long and spent the better part of an hour walking in the snowy woods before the trail brought us to our car and it was time to leave Langdon and take the road back to reality.
Follow more of my adventures in food and wine on Twitter at @malcolmjolley.