Destination diningPublished on April 28, 2008

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  • Fitzgerald's mahi mahi with grilled pineapple and red curry coconut sauce. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Nick Diak and Brent Pattee, owners and chefs. Photo by Darren Brown

  • L'Orée du Bois' herbed mushroom tulips. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Guy Blain, owner and chef, L'Orée du Bois. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Castlegarth's asparagus with poached duck eggs. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Jennifer and Matthew Brearley, co-owners and chefs, Castlegarth Fine Regional Food. Photo by Darren Brown

With longer days and warm weather on our doorstep, what better time to take to the highway and discover some of the wonderful culinary destinations near Ottawa?

We've found three restaurants located within an hour from the city core that are well worth the drive. Read on to find out how each destination represents a fine dining experience in a relaxed, casual atmosphere that encourages you to linger and savour your journey into the countryside.

Fitzgerald's

Standing outside the Victoria Woolen Mill in Almonte, home to Fitzgerald's, you're likely to feel a fine mist of spray from the nearby falls tickling your face. It's a gentle reminder that in terms of atmosphere, you're far from the city, and that's a big part of the experience. Inside the historic, 1840s stone building, admire the rough-hewn wooden beams and two-foot thick walls, with light streaming through the many windows. The air will likely be fragrant with appealing aromas from the open kitchen, and just beyond the seating area, you'll see a gallery space bedecked with a variety of intriguing artworks. Don't let the youthfulness of Fitzgerald's co-owners and chefs, Nick Diak and Brent Pattee, fool you. Their success in Almonte follows years of hard work, including attending Algonquin College's culinary arts program. Now in their late twenties, Nick and Brent actually met at pre-school, which might explain their penchant for finishing each other's sentences. "Knowing each other so well gives us a real groove together in the kitchen," says Nick. "We know exactly how to support each other and handle the ebb and flow of the business." Young and brave with nothing to lose is how they describe themselves when they launched Fitzgerald's seven years ago, barely into their twenties. Nick was well-acquainted with the area, Almonte having been the halfway ice-cream stop on journeys from Ottawa to the family cottage. The building previously housed a restaurant, but the space, particularly the kitchen, required a makeover worthy of a reality television show, to enable Nick and Brent to capitalize on their plans. Nick believes that Fitzgerald's is worth the drive because of the attention to detail and the quality of the food they deliver. "We absolutely will not compromise on anything," adds Brent. "This building reminds us that traditional food can be very interesting and delicious, very high quality, without being pretentious. As a result, Fitzgerald's dishes reflect not only the season, but also the environment in which they are served." The menu pays homage to traditional French influences, but is broadly interpreted. Lunch possibilities include a delectable smoked salmon, apple and celery root salad, while weekend brunch might include poached eggs on crab cakes with a chili-tomato salsa or omelettes that have been described by famed chef Michael Smith as "perfect." Brent and Nick add that building up a network of local suppliers has been an interesting process. "After we'd been open for a while, all of a sudden people from the area started to drop by with bags of fresh produce for us, things like fiddleheads, scapes and more," says Nick. "Sometimes they wanted us to buy it; other times they were literally giving it away because they had too much and knew we'd make good use of it. Many of these same people have become regular sources for us now, and they're also inspiring me to try my hand at gardening on a piece of land I have nearby. We feel like we are not only bringing people out to Almonte, we have also become a part of the fabric of this community."

Fitzgerald's mahi mahi with grilled pineapple and red curry coconut sauce

This tasty dish serves four as a main course and could be served with basmati rice, or a rice pilaf, and your favourite seasonal vegetable. Red Curry-Coconut Milk Sauce 2 each onions, carrots and celery stalks 4 cloves garlic peeled 1 tbsp. red curry paste (or to taste) 20 raw shrimp, shells on 1 cup (250 ml.) white wine 1 inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled 1 stalk lemongrass 1 bunch cilantro stalks (leaves removed and set aside) 5 white peppercorns 2 kafir lime leaves 2 cups (500 ml.) coconut milk 1/3 cup (150 ml.) heavy cream Peel shrimp and reserve shells. Peel and medium dice onions, carrots, celery and put into a pot over medium-high heat with curry paste and garlic. After 3 minutes, add wine, ginger, shrimp shells, cilantro stalks, lemongrass, peppercorns and lime leaves. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add milk and cream and return to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, strain through a sieve and return to medium-high heat, watching constantly until it is slightly reduced and thickened. Add desired amount of chopped cilantro and remove from heat. Mahi mahi Purchase a two pound (900 g.) side of mahi mahi or other firm-fleshed fish. Remove skin from fillet and portion into four servings. Dust lightly with fine sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and place fish, bone side down first, in pan. Brown both sides and place pan in the oven for 2 minutes. Grilled pineapple Using either a grill pan or barbecue, brown pineapple slices on both sides and place in oven for 2 minutes. You can also do this to the shrimp you have set aside from earlier peeling and serve them on top of the fish or as an appetizer while you wait. Toss the shrimp in oil, salt and pepper before grilling. To serve, arrange on four warmed plates and drizzle fish generously with sauce.

Historic Almonte, where you'll find Fitzgerald's -www.fitzgeraldsrestaurant.ca -, offers plenty of attractions for visitors, according to Nick Diak and Brent Pattee. Their recommendations include:

- the many sugar shacks in the area - Almonte's Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, a national historic site - a walk by the Mississippi River and its waterfalls - the Naismith Museum and Hall of Fame to explore the roots of basketball - hike through the nearby Mill of Kintail Conservation Area

L'Orée du Bois

Despite 30 years at the helm of L'Orée du Bois, a little gem on the edge of Gatineau Park in Chelsea, Que., Guy Blain is still pleasantly surprised with his decision to make Canada his home. "Really, the time has gone by so quickly," says the chef, who is originally from France and trained at the famous Clermont-Ferrand hotel school. "I came to Canada because I simply had to see the place that inspired the songs of Félix Leclerc, and as I fell in love wit the country, I met my wife and knew I would stay here," he says with a smile. Tucked into a stand of mature trees just moments from Gatineau Park's visitors centre, L'Orée du Bois occupies an early 20th-century farm house, its doorways tinted with the traditional rusty colour of the oxblood paints popular at the time. The interior of the restaurant is cozy and warm, with a series of small, interconnected rooms each decorated on a different theme with reproduction paintings and genuine French lace curtains. Long considered one of the region's most romantic restaurants, L'Orée du Bois has provided the first fine dining experience for many young couples over the past three decades. Guy believes that the atmosphere is a key element that sets L'Orée du Bois apart and makes it well worth the drive. Despite the traditional French food and gracious service, don't expect a hushed, serious mood at L'Orée du Bois. Guy's wife, Manon, is very down to earth and makes it her mission to ensure patrons are happy and enjoying themselves. "We want our customers to feel welcomed and at ease. Dining should be fun and relaxed," says Guy. Their formula must be working - they are now proud to be serving the children of patrons who first came to L'Orée du Bois when they were themselves just children. Guy's culinary heritage as well the natural beauty of the area are reflected in equal measures in L'Orée du Bois' menu, which shifts to adapt to the best each season has to offer, thanks to his longstanding relationships with area food producers. "I am very loyal to these suppliers as it assures consistency," he explains, adding the set menu, accented by a table d'hôte that changes daily, features venison, wild boar, duck, seafood, beef and lamb. "My emphasis is on taste above all else. Presentation is important, but taste comes first." A hallmark of Guy's cooking is his abundant use of fresh herbs. "I like some of the old fashioned seasonings, like chervil, lovage and hyssop, which not too many chefs use today." His herbs also find their way into pestos, syrups and tisanes. In fact, take note of all the elements in a meal at L'Orée du Bois and you'll find that the majority of them will have been carefully prepared in-house. Fish, poultry and meat are slowly smoked over a maplewood fire; sorbets, truffles and other decadent chocolate dishes are made on the premises as well. For spring, Guy is looking forward to once again letting the season rule the kitchen. Lamb and rabbit will be featured in spring; he'll also lighten up the sauces, favouring coulis and olive oil drizzles. "We'll start with fiddleheads, then asparagus, then strawberries and on it goes," he says. "Spring arrives so fast in Canada compared to France. It's a marvellous time for a chef."

L'Orée du Bois' Herbed Mushroom Tulips

The tulip-shaped pastry cups made for this recipe are equally delicious with sweet or savoury fillings. Spring roll pastry can be found in the frozen section at Asian grocery stores. These wheat-based sheets are thicker and crispier than rice paper wrappers; leftover pastry can be refrozen. This recipe serves four as an appetizer. 1 package small spring roll pastry, thawed 2 tbsp melted butter 1 tbsp butter 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1 clove garlic, chopped 1/2 cup white wine 1/2 cup chicken stock 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 tbsp. olive oil 1 1/4 lbs. mushrooms (oyster and button), coarsely chopped 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice 1 tbsp. chopped fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives etc.) To make the tulips, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay one spring roll wrapper on the counter and brush one side very lightly with melted butter. Drape into one section of a medium-sized muffin tin. Repeat with three more wrappers. Press each piece down so that it takes the form of the mould, then weight each wrapper down with a tablespoon or so of dried beans so it doesn't collapse while baking. Bake until tulips are golden in colour, about 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, carefully remove beans and place each tulip on a plate. For the filling, in a saucepan over low heat melt 1 tbsp of butter, then sweat the onion and garlic for 5 minutes. Add white wine, turn up the heat to medium and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the chicken stock and the cream, heat gently and keep warm. In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and add chopped mushrooms and the lemon juice. Cook until juice has evaporated. Add cream sauce and simmer until slightly thickened. Remove from heat; add chopped herbs and carefully spoon mixture into tulips. Serve immediately.

L'Orée du Bois - www.oreeduboisrestaurant.com - is located on the very edge of Gatineau Park, one of our region's most beautiful natural areas. Guy Blain offers the following possibilities to round out your visit to the area:

- a relaxing and luxurious afternoon at Le Nordik nature spa - hiking, biking, snowshoeing or skiing along the many trails in the area - touring through the art, craft and gift shops in Chelsea - the buildings, gardens, trails and ruins of Kingsmere, the former estate of Prime Minister Mackenzie King - the Outdoor Market in Old Chelsea on Saturdays from June to October

Castlegarth Fine Regional Food

Perched at the side of a country road, the building that is now home to Castlegarth Fine Regional Food is surrounded by lush farmland. Built in the 1860s, it has also variously served as a residence, post office and general store. Passing through the doorway is to step back in time; while the building has been gently renovated, its original character and charm have remained. The distressed wood floors are a testament to Castlegarth's rich history, and the simple furnishings serve as a perfect complement. Co-owner and chef Matthew Brearley grew up in the White Lake area; today his parents' nearby farm supply the restaurant with most of its vegetables and beef. His wife Jennifer, who, like Matthew, graduated from the prestigious Stratford Chefs School in southwestern Ontario, is a transplanted city girl who has come to love country life and the joys of raising two children there. Together, they are warm, welcoming and radiate excitement when talking about food. Patrons frequently comment that Castlegarth's heritage setting enhances the dining experience, says Jennifer. "They tell us they feel really comfortable, as though they are dining in someone's old country home. One night really stands out in my mind, when a local farmer in his overalls was seated at one table, and at the next was a woman in a mink coat from the city. I guess that sums up what Castlegarth is all about," she says. Jennifer believes that what makes the restaurant well worth the drive from Ottawa is its ability to deliver food that epitomizes freshness and simplicity. "It's very honest food," agrees Matthew, adding that, "a few quality ingredients can speak volumes in a dish." Jennifer notes that her experience as a chef enables her to provide a better front-of-the-house experience, in that she can explain the food with depth and passion. She concedes that she really doesn't miss being at the stove, just as Matthew admits he's happier in the kitchen, having run the front of the house for a time while Jennifer was on maternity leave. As equally enthusiastic about farming as he is about cooking, Matthew's intense connection to the land seems to have shaped him as a chef, in that his commitment to what's fresh and seasonal includes not just what his local organic suppliers can offer, but also what he chooses to plant as well. "Growing food is an important dimension for us. We believe that quite simply, you can't get beautiful food unless you love all aspects of what you do," explains Jennifer. Access to abundant local produce enables Matthew to offer tremendous variety. One day you might be lured by a wild mushroom risotto, the next it could be seared scallops with crispy pancetta or homemade ravioli with beet greens and chèvre. Jennifer and Matthew take particular pride in serving only their own homemade breads, pasta, smoked meats and fish, ice creams and desserts. The pair admit that Castlegarth's clientele and its tastes have evolved since the restaurant opened six years ago. "Initially we had a lot of people coming from Ottawa in search of a fancy, Stratford-trained chef experience," says Jennifer. "At the same time the locals wanted meat and potatoes. It was a little hard to balance at first. Now, all our customers are pushing us to be ever more creative, which is exciting." The delights of spring at Castlegarth will include lighter menu preparations, such as rhubarb, fava beans, wild leeks, morels and asparagus. Watch for special events as well, such as a foraging menu and a 40-kilometre dinner, defined by the geographical source of every ingredient for that night's menu. Best of all, by late May, the restaurant will be open seven nights a week for the first time.

Castlegarth's asparagus with poached duck eggs

This dish serves four, either as an appetizer or a light lunch. Duck eggs have a richer yolk than chicken eggs, but free-range chicken eggs are a good substitute. 2 lbs. asparagus (early, thick stalks) 4 tbsp. unsalted butter ½ lemon, sliced across the grain 4 duck or free-range chicken eggs 2 tbsp. white vinegar 80 g Parmesan (Padano or Reggiano) cheese 4 thick slices of country-style bread Sea salt & fresh ground pepper Rinse asparagus well to remove any grit. Drop into salted boiling water and cook for 3-5 minutes until tender. With tongs, remove asparagus (reserving cooking water) to a bowl and add butter and lemon juice to taste. Toss well and top with a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce the heat on the water in which asparagus was cooked until the surface is just shimmering and add the vinegar. Gently stir the water, crack the eggs open, and add one at a time to the pot. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a clean kitchen towel to drain. The eggs will be quite soft. Grill (toast) the bread on both sides. Place a slice of toasted bread on each plate, top with several stalks of asparagus, then a poached egg. Shave the block of cheese over each plate with a vegetable peeler and drizzle any liquid remaining in asparagus bowl on top of each serving.

Visitors to Castlegarth - www.castlegarth.ca - wishing to explore other delights in the area can check out some of Matthew and Jennifer Brearley's suggestions:

- the art galleries in nearby Burnstown - the gardens at the Waba Cottage Museum - a stroll by White Lake - the Gallery Gift Shop in Arnprior - a leisurely drive back to Ottawa through Pakenham or following Highway 508 between Calabogie and the 417 as it winds along the Madawaska River Written by Paula Roy




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