GANANOQUE, Ont. – I’ve been looking for a compelling reason to eat in this town again.
Casa Bella used to draw me off the highway pretty regularly, but since it closed in 2007 (its chef-owners Stev George and Deanna Harrington moved to Kingston, opening an Italian restaurant called Olivea in 2008) Gananoque’s gastronomy hasn’t really beckoned.
Yes, there’s good eating in Kingston and in Prince Edward County, but Gananoque has always appealed for practical reasons. It has the great advantage of being reachable in a matter of minutes. No great detour is required to pop off the fast food 401 and head south for a real meal. Indeed, take exit 645 off the highway and, if the lights are co-operating, you’re in Gananoque’s city centre in three minutes. Turn right at the water and seconds later, you’ll see the Athlone Inn, a Victorian mansion constructed in 1870, operated as an inn since the 1950s.
It sits pretty much across the street from the truly spectacular Victoria Rose Inn, which operates as a bed and breakfast. Though the smaller and less architecturally imposing Athlone Inn pales a bit in comparison, it has the great advantage of a top-notch dining room.
It had been my plan to explore the good eats in the Thousand Islands region this summer, when many restaurants come out of a winter hibernation. But a chance e-mail from an Athlone fan had me veering off the highway on a homeward bound trip from Toronto, seeking sustenance on a 34-below evening.
Miranda McMillan’s welcome was warm. She and her husband, Jason, have done a splendid job of refurbishing the old house, highlighting the height and depth of its mature bones, while resisting the all-too-common urge to doily-up the old place or paint it all dusty rose with floral print trim.
The restaurant is spread over two rooms. Elegantly dressed and formally appointed, its tan walls display the address’s original architectural drawings, its tables are set with tulips.
Chef Jason McMillan, who trained at the Jasper Park Lodge and in restaurants and inns on Vancouver Island, shows equal restraint with the menu. French in focus, it relies on time-worn classic dishes, quality ingredients and beautiful presentations.
It was a night for French onion soup with a cap of crostini and GruyÃ¨re cheese. The onions were soft, but still had some bite, and the beef broth was deep, dark and boozy. A shell of puff pastry, buttery and fresh, supported an abundance of well-garlicked snails, in a stew of lardons, browned pearl onions and woodsy mushrooms. Its sauce had a voluptuous body. The first-rate house bread mopped it up nicely.
Two main dishes to report on – both meaty, both worthy. A filet mignon of rare beef on a bed of mashed potatoes and buttered green beans was escorted with a triumphant sauce bordelaise fragrant with tarragon. You may add a side of woodland mushrooms and I recommend you do that. You will receive a generous variety paddling happily in more of that anise-scented sauce.
A nubbly coating of hazelnuts, grated parmesan, and chopped mint clung to a hunk of lamb with a glue of grainy mustard. It was roasted to a desired medium rare, perched on minted fingerling potatoes and served with vine tomatoes of remarkable tomato flavour.
For dessert, house-made ice cream topping a lovely almond and rhubarb cake overlaid with a strawberry compote did the trick.
In the summer, my sources tell me, there is a patio for al fresco dining. Once the snow’s off it, I’d like to be on it.