My last visit to the Wakefield Mill Inn’s fine dining room was during chef Georges Laurier’s tenure (who next moved to the Museum of Civilization, before retiring from active stove duty). It seemed I was due for a return, to check out the work of new-to-me chef Romain Riva, in charge since 2009.
So there I was, on a warm August night at a table overlooking the deck. I had tried to dine on that deck earlier in the summer but the cascading noise required a bit more shouting that I was up for. We were moved inside to a table that, while not affording a view of the water when seated, does surround you with a green forest canopy, is quiet and air-conditioned.
The menu we were handed was reassuringly filled with references to quality local purveyors and preparations certainly seemed adventurous. Too much so, as it turned out, for what was essentially banquet-style cooking.
Our first inkling that this wasn’t going to go well was the icebox taste of the amuse-bouche. On a Chinese spoon so cold we could barely hold the handle were soggy bits of reconstituted mushroom (chanterelle, I think – the server didn’t know) on a bed of microgreens obliterated with espelette powder. This was bitter and spicy and if it was meant to impress, it missed the mark.
The gyoza sounded cool – filled with smoked vegetables and escargots, the description read – but these were deep-fried wonton wrappers with wildly garlicked escargot inside their crunchy, oily shells, and a small, mushy pile of zucchini and peppers on the side. Drizzled on one of the gyoza was a garlic sauce that was too strong and too bitter. The “ESB 1821 beer sauce” finished the dish, but other than contributing to the bitterness, further soggying the vegetables and leaching oil from the wontons, its presence puzzled me. (Don’t blame the beer; the 1821 that came in a frosty glass, from Les Brasseurs du Temps, was yummy.)
A goat cheese starter – two cheeses, one panko-crusted ball and an herbed mousse – would be better were it offered with something other than candy-sweet pickled cucumber (some crostini perhaps?) and were it not missing the promised mizuna salad. And here too was the espelette powdering our plate with spicy orange dust. (It re-surfaced throughout our meal, often with drizzles of honey where honey needn’t be.) And where, we wondered, was the watercress salad that was supposed to come with the wild boar rillette? The rillette was a generous portion, but more dry than ideal, and it would have benefited from some bitter greens to cut the salt. The soggy beet chips and lumpy clouded jelly (made of melon and mint, we were told, though it tasted like apple sauce to us) failed to impress.
It’s never a good sign when you have to dare your dinner companion to taste something. Our “palate cleanser” was a shot glass of apple juice, pineapple juice, Galliano and vodka. We asked our server to repeat the ingredients twice, just to be sure we had heard right. It tasted like boozy cream soda. Our palates remained troubled.
Main dishes were pretty much the same sad story. Scallops three ways was a messy, silly assembly of combative flavours – including a hearts-of-palm chutney that tasted mostly of the tin, beneath a tempura scallop – complete (again!) with espelette powder. All-consuming too, was the stuff that came with an otherwise perfectly cooked pickerel. We ended up trying to scrape off the potent relish that coated the fish and the side of commanding feta that didn’t belong. A pork tenderloin reached us fatally done to grey with a lobster tail beside it that was fishy and tainted with iodine.
Another visit, crab claws were overcooked and watery, beside rubber rings of calamari. This came with a prosciutto crisp that chewed like something out of a saddlebag, a dollop of guacamole, a smear of saffron aioli with manchego cheese, plus a side cup of corn and tomato “gazpacho” topped with goat cheese and a yuzu lemon tobiko crÃ¨me fraÃ®che. It was nuts. There was a good filet of trout – from Cedar Creek Farm – but so much else on the plate to detract from its goodness, including a scattering of teeth-cracking lardon in a spicy yogurt sauce that had curdled on a Hadean hot plate. “I needed four napkins to deliver this to you!” laughed our server.
We liked the “lemon pie” which was more a lemon cream piped onto a coconut-cookie base, and other than the raspberry champagne sorbet arriving as a puddle rather than an ice, it was a nice little ending. It was better than the “discovery” of seasonal berries, which included a shot glass of pear liqueur with rum and coconut that tasted of suntan lotion, and much, much better than the passion fruit cheesecake that had curdled in a pool of lychee liquid. Cheeses were in good condition, served with a bit of fig jam and a beer jelly.
There is a gaping gulf between the aspirations of this menu, and its achievements on the plates (each of which is brought by servers who are, by and large, kind and capable). But this setting, a natural spot for naturally good food, deserves a stronger offering of dishes. Chef Riva is clearly ambitious; his plates seem to be challenging us. But after three visits, I don’t think his kitchen is up to it, and I’m not particularly interested in the struggle.