Small town offers big flavours!
Being away from home on a road trip is about the only time I’m happy to take a break from cooking for a couple of days. I love preparing healthy, delicious food so much that it is a big part of my daily routine and I genuinely miss cooking if I’m away for any length of time. As a result, most of our longer vacations are focused around finding accommodations that allow me to ‘live like a local’ just a little – having access to a kitchen, shopping at small markets, selecting what’s fresh and appealing, then creating a meal that will anchor the location in my memories for a long time. Having said that, it was a true delight to hang up my apron for a few days on our recent visit to Carleton Place. For a small town, it’s punching way above its weight class in terms of its culinary and beverage offerings, in addition to offering loads of great activities to enjoy during a visit.
Gastronomic delights at the Grand Hotel
Chef Jordan Forester has been at the historic Grand Hotel since it reopened in the fall of 2017 and his impressive skill in the kitchen is a big part of the reason the hotel has quickly become extremely popular for weddings, meetings and other events. We had the chance to meet this talented chef and sample a tasting menu he prepared for us in the hotel’s cozy Smith & Barrel pub. Attractively decorated in the style of an old English pub, the Smith & Barrel space was once called the Sample Room as travelling salesmen who arrived at the nearby train station would stay at the hotel and use the space to display their samples for customers to peruse.
Our delicious four-course lunch started with a velvety smooth, rich tasting cream of cauliflower soup enhanced with the inclusion of local Back Forty Madawaska cheese (similar to gruyere) and a scallion oil drizzle. Next up was an organic green salad with salt-roasted beets, candied pecans, crumbled Back Forty blue cheese, house-smoked bacon and a smoked shallot and maple syrup dressing. Our entrée featured supremely tender, flavourful locally-raised bison flank steak with a reduction made from forest berries, veal stock, local honey and sherry plus a potato galette and roasted vegetables. The sweet finishes included crème brulée made with Lanark county maple syrup and chocolate espresso terrine made with Hummingbird chocolate from Almonte, both served with cardamom-scented lace cookies. Jordan set the bar high for our subsequent food experiences in Carleton Place and I look forward to enjoying more of his delicious fare once the Smith & Barrel’s spacious outdoor patio opens for the season.
Stalwart Brewing forging a loyal customer base
For a town of just over 11,000, it’s pretty impressive that Carleton place has two microbreweries. The first to open, Stalwart Brewing has a great backstory, having started out as Stockpot Ales in the kitchen of Ottawa’s Wellington Gastropub. Co-founder Adam Newlands and a couple of his co-workers began small-batch brewing as a sideline. Their brews became so popular that he, Nathan Corey and Ed McKinley decided to transform their little passion project into a full-time operation. Stalwart Brewing opened in December 2015; their brewpub regularly draws visitors from all over the region. What makes Stalwart special is the kind of beer they choose to create. They are craft brews in the truest sense of the word, with unique profiles and bold flavours unlike anything else I’ve tasted that’s currently being produced in Eastern Ontario.
Their daring approach has clearly been worthwhile, as Stalwart is now stocked at select LCBO and Beer Store locations, plus it is available on tap at over 50 bars and restaurants in Carleton Place the Ottawa Valley, Eastern Ontario and throughout the nation’s capital. We sampled a number of different beers; my favourite was the Snake Oil IPA (aka Dr. Feelgood IPA – the naming controversy sparked by the LCBO garnered a lot of good, free publicity for the brewery). It’s a robust IPA with a citrusy-coriander zing that makes it complex and interesting, with a great smooth finish. Spending time in Stalwart’s comfortable taproom, I could easily see why it’s become a favourite hangout for locals while also drawing dedicated fans who regularly drive or cycle from Ottawa to sip and shop here. Next time, I plan to stay long enough to play a game or two of pool.
Black Tartan Kitchen
Chef Ian Carswell left the Ottawa restaurant scene two years ago to open Black Tartan Kitchen and it’s easy to see the move has been a good one, particularly for the townspeople who have eagerly embraced his inventive, delicious cuisine. His small restaurant – offering about two dozen seats – is frequently filled to capacity. The minimalist décor is pleasingly enhanced with a series of colourized vintage photographs of Carleton Place as it appeared over 100 years ago.
Black Tartan’s typical menu is packed with dishes that would be right at home in a French bistro, including escargots, steak frites, onion soup and more, but we were fortunate to luck into a special event – the restaurant’s first ever Supper Club. Ian invited Brian Hamilton, winemaker at nearby KIN Vineyards in Carp and sommelier Rene Wallis to supply thoughtful wine pairings and interesting commentary throughout the four-course, prix-fixe meal.
Our dinner began with seafood charcuterie, paired with a 2017 Carp Ridge Chardonnay. The plate featured scallops, which were cured, smoked and cooked sous vide plus salmon confit, shrimp chorizo, a slaw made of green apple, kohlrabi and fennel, topped with lemon air. Every mouthful was sublime.
Next up was gorgeous and delectable plate of Trillium Meadows venison carpaccio, accompanied by a sunchoke puree, toasted buckwheat, fried parsnips, heritage greens and a mixed berry puree. The wine was KIN’s 2017 Pinot Noir and it was a perfect pairing.
Four our third course, Ian served up rabbit confit, brined and cooked in duck fat, accompanied by scalloped potato gratin, perfectly-cooked mixed vegetables (of the sort a rabbit would eat, he explained) and a cranberry and juniper sauce. This course was supremely satisfying in flavour, texture and presentation. The 2017 Civil Grit Gamay with which it was paired was an ideal match.
By the time our fourth course arrived I wasn’t sure I could eat another bite, yet the sight of what Ian called ‘chocolate and bubbles’ was just too tempting. It featured a citrus-scented madeleine cake topped with blueberry mousse in a chocolate shell, accompanied by blood orange sorbet and foam. The 2017 KINdling Sparkling Vidal, which is not too sweet, offered the perfect, refreshing contrast to the rich dessert.
Ian took obvious delight in speaking with everyone in the restaurant at the conclusion of the dinner; many were regulars whom he greeted by name. He told us that going forward, the Supper Club will be held on a monthly basis, with lamb and cheese from Smiths Falls’ Milkhouse Dairy as featured ingredients at the next event on March 26. It’s a great opportunity – in addition to Black Tartan’s tasting menus, available on Fridays and Saturdays only – to experience the tasty creativity of this talented chef whose restaurant consistently garners rave reviews, and for plenty of good reasons.
The Good Food Company Café
We were determined to sample as many different menus as possible during our time in Carleton Place, so the next morning saw us walking down Bridge Street in search of breakfast. We found the Good Food Company Café just steps from the Grand Hotel, where we received both a warm welcome and hearty, delicious meals.
It’s a charming little spot and clearly a local favourite, given how busy it was that weekday morning. Service was efficient and friendly; perfectly-brewed tea arrived in moments and our food orders were not far behind. While we waited ever so briefly, we enjoyed looking at the food-related wares for sale in the cafe’s boutique. We also admired the original tin ceiling in the lofty space, once home to a pharmacy.
My husband thoroughly enjoyed their take on a classic diner eggs and sausage breakfast, while I devoured my Belgian waffles with whipped cream, warm fruit sauce and Lanark County maple syrup. It was the perfect fuel for the busy day ahead.
Braumeister Brewing Co.
Opened just six months ago, Braumeister Brewing Co. is a Bavarian-inspired craft brewery that brings an authentic taste of Europe to Carleton Place. The founder, Rohit Gupta, lived in Salzburg, Austria and became enamoured with the styles of beer he discovered there. A keen homebrewer, upon his return to Ottawa, he decided to start producing the beers he loved and found Sheldon Scrivner, a German-trained brewmaster, to help him launch Braumeister.
While we were happily tasting the four beers currently on offer, all of which were exceptionally good, Rohit explained to us that he felt Carleton Place was the perfect location to introduce people to the welcoming beer culture he had fallen in love with while abroad.
Our favourite beer at Braumeister was the Route 21 Märzen, named for the bus route Rohit travelled in Salzburg. It is a coppery-coloured brew that is reminiscent of a Vienna lager but with more depth and flavour. Although I’m not typically a fan of darker beers, I also really enjoyed the Krampusnacht, a schwarzbier (black beer); it is smooth with a pleasing, gentle touch of bitterness. Rohit delighted in telling us that the dark beer is named in honour of the demonic Krampus who appears on December 5 to chase those who have misbehaved (prior to the arrival of Saint Nicholas on December 6 to reward those who have been good), and proceeded to pull up an image of Krampus on his phone to illustrate his tale. Excellent beer, great stories and some delicious locally-made pretzels made it quite easy to pass an hour in his company. We were glad to have a tour of the brewery then purchase some cans to take home and are eager to visit again, to taste some of the new seasonal beers Rohit and Sheldon have planned, including a spring Irish red and a Czech pilsner.
The Olde Towne Bakery
Sometimes the best food spots are those that rely solely on word-of-mouth advertising. Such is the case with the Olde Town Bakery, which I learned of thanks to a Regional Contact segment on CTV Ottawa. Renowned for its pies, cookies, soups and heavenly loaves of bread, I’d also heard they make wonderful, enormous sandwiches and I can confirm that this is true! In summertime, a stop at the bakery would be perfect before a picnic at nearby Riverside Park; we enjoyed our freshly made sandwiches in our comfortable suite at the Grand Hotel instead. We were especially glad to beat the lunch rush which brought dozens of customers from the high school just down the street as we were leaving. You know a spot is really good when it’s a favourite with teenagers and grownups alike.
One of Carleton Place’s newest establishments is Boulton House, a casual fine dining restaurant which opened in December 2018. Named for 19th century entrepreneur Hugh Boulton, it occupies the same heritage building as Boulton’s grist mill, built in the 1820s on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Co-owned by Janice Mathers and Rod Scribner, Boulton House boasts an elegant interior, with a bar area on one level and a separate cozy dining room. Large windows offer beautiful views of the rushing river and rapids. Rod explained that they have applied to expand the waterside patio developed by previous restaurateurs. Their plans include couches, fire pits and more; it will surely be one of the most coveted spots for summertime relaxation in Carleton Place.
Acclaimed executive chef Nick Dompierre (who competed on Chopped Canada when he was just 22 years old) oversees the kitchen and for our visit, General Manager Chris Vachon delivered knowledgeable, polished service. The eclectic menu offers a range of choices, with an emphasis on Italian fare, but not exclusively so.
We opted to start by sharing a salad of baby greens with Kalamata olives, crispy potatoes, sweet pickled celery, blistered tomatoes and sautéed artichokes. Beautifully plated, it came lightly dressed with a tasty house-made vinaigrette that had a nice sweet-sour balance and we felt all the components of the salad worked really well together. For our mains, I selected one of the evening’s specials, which included perfectly-cooked Wyse Bay Seared scallops with apple-braised pork belly and sweet pea-pancetta risotto, accompanied by a lemon tarragon beurre blanc and roasted winter vegetables. Each bite offered a fantastic blend of flavours and textures. My husband thoroughly enjoyed his grain-fed veal chop on house made barley-mushroom risotto with a red wine reduction and roasted winter vegetables. We both found our portions to be extremely generous, particularly in light of the reasonable prices. Having spied desserts being delivered to another table, we decided to indulge, enjoying the house-made tiramisu with caramel drizzle and the strawberry panna cotta with a shortbread cookie. We walked back towards the hotel in a gentle snowfall feeling very well-fed and relaxed thanks to the team effort that is clearly working well at Boulton House.
The Thirsty Moose
We couldn’t resist popping into the local watering hole, The Thirsty Moose Pub and Eatery, for a nightcap after dinner. It was a lively spot with a relaxed, fun atmosphere. Judging by the impressive quantity of food we observed being ordered and delivered, it’s clearly a popular spot for more than just drinks.
Under Pressure Coffee House
We were delighted to discover this lovely coffee shop, named in equal parts for the David Bowie/Queen song and the pressurized aspects of making coffee and steamed milk. I enjoyed an interesting discussion with the friendly owner, Cara Lewis, about all the nuances of the name, such as the function of coffee as a pressure reliever and the role of a friendly encounter as a de-stressor for someone under pressure.
Cara noted that shops like hers are called coffee houses for good reason, which is that you are supposed to feel at home there, and we certainly did at her establishment. Opened two and half years ago, Under Pressure is a very popular spot among locals, due in large part to the delicious food and drink, but also to the warm service. The shop has a clean, bright, modern decor with the walls serving as a gallery of local art for sale.
We took Cara’s recommendation and enjoyed her breakfast sandwiches, along with probably the best London Fogs we have ever tasted. I was wishing I had room to try other things, including her enormous cheese scones, muffins, cookies and smoothies. And, as you might expect from someone who names her business after a song title, the playlist at Under Pressure was terrific as well.
As we discovered, there is a lot of deliciousness happening in Carleton Place. The town is likely to become increasingly more diverse and interesting, given that 1500 new homes are scheduled to be built there over the next 10 years. It’s well worth the very short drive past the big box stores on the highway to get to the heart of Carleton Place and discover all there is to enjoy in this welcoming community, including an impressive range of eateries and unique boutiques. I look forward to going back and participating in a tasty walking tour with The Good Food Tour, operating out of Carleton Place and Almonte. In 2019, Carleton Place is celebrating 200 years of settlement and there are loads of special events planned including the first ever Sam Bat adult mixed slow pitch tourney tournament, an old homestead week and much more. I also plan to make time for kayaking on the Mississippi River, shopping at the Carleton Place Farmers’ Market and exploring the many walking and cycling trails in and around town. It’s going to be fun to get to know this town even better.
Note: We were invited to visit Carleton Place as guests of Lanark County Tourism and the Carleton Place & District Chamber of Commerce. Opinions, as always, are my own.