The Rosseau Grill at Windermere House in Muskoka

I visited The Rosseau Grill during my stay at Windermere House on Lake Rosseau Muskoka. This was my first dinner upon arriving at the resort and I was among good company. The restaurant is managed by Toronto’s Oliver & Bonacini restaurant group who operate some of the cities favorite restaurants: Luma, Canteen, Bannock and The Cafe Grill.

I graduated from Guelph Universities Hotel and Food program in 2007. O&B have a strong connection to this program as they hire a lot of top students each year to help manage their always expanding culinary empire. My final project at school was actually a massive case study dedicated to sourcing where O&B should build their next location. I’ve eaten at many of their restaurants, even enjoying my graduation dinner at Biffs Bistro on Front Street. In the past O&B has been considered the culinary king of Toronto with several of their restaurants often appearing on Toronto Life’s top restaurant list.

For Torontonians O&B represents an experience, an urban culinary adventure with excellent service and charming interiors. I was looking forward to reviewing their Rosseau Grill fine dining concept at Windermere House. I honestly couldn’t wait to see how they had transformed a menu to connect itself to the cottage country landscape.

I stepped into the restaurant and was greeted by a massive stone fireplace which stands in the centre of the dining room. The most stunning feature of the Rosseau Grill are its ceiling to floor windows which offer breathtaking views of everyone’s favorite cottage country landscape. The restaurant is romantic and warm, staff are friendly and exactly what you would expect from O&B downtown.

It was the food that really had me scratching my head. Nothing on the menu resonated at all with the Muskoka landscape. The menu offers run of the mill fare such as Caesar salad and the quintessential steak and gnocchi dishes. If I had eaten the meal blindfolded I swear I could have been anywhere from Burlington to Kitchener. So what exactly is going on here? What were my expectations and why did I feel so let down?

As a food writer and culinary tourism advocate I seek to find culinary gems and masters in the kitchen that are doing their best to showcase the bounty of local producers as well as “a sense of place” on the table. I was hoping to see the menu dotted with local producers, even wild blueberries grown down the road or cranberry reductions made by Muskoka Lakes Winery in Bala. While the idea of local was void it was the total lack of creative Muskoka flare that I was most disappointed by. I attribute these feelings to my recent press trip to Scandinavia where I ate at over 60 restaurants at some of Europe’s top restaurants.

Sweden, Finland and the Baltics are very much the European siblings to Canadian cottage country. I have often mentioned that traveling from Riga to Tallinn or Stockholm to Helsinki immediately reminds me of fresh water lake spotted Canadian timber towns. With a pretty much identical landscape, the top restaurant menus from Stockholm to Tallinn showcase what it feels like to BE THERE. Tallinn’s acclaimed Neh restaurant features stunning dishes such as pickled root vegetables smoked in hay which arrive in a glass jar as well as a dessert that features in season rhubarb fool on cedar plank and local moss. Stockholm’s much celebrated 1 Michelin Star Lux creates a similar experience for those looking to really smell, taste and feel the essence of Sweden. Their “eat local” philosophy was displayed on a map at the very front of the restaurant which showcased every farm across the country sourced by their kitchen. Unforgettable memories included birch smoked reindeer with wild spring leaves and fir tree smoked lamb brought to the table in a massive glass bowl.

So after dinner I sat wide awake staring at the ceilling, mulling over in my mind what exactly didn’t feel right. I realized The Rosseau Grill has a serious disconnect. The food is not harmonious with the countryside. I feel as though the kitchen needs to go out on a pine cone forage, try smoking a few cuts of meat with the cedar and birch that lines the property and adorn plates with the edible flowers, wild mushrooms and cutesy moss which grows proudly across the Canadian shield.

To be clear, it’s not that the food at Rosseau Grill isn’t good. I was just disappointed to see such potential fall to the way side. Muskoka is a world class travel destination. Windermere House is a world class, iconic and historical property. Simply put Muskoka deserves better, especially from a restaurant company that so many laud as the creme de la creme! It’s as if the chef’s here created the menu in downtown Toronto and didn’t even take the time to head up north, paddle along the lake and sit by a crackling fire. Cottage country inspirations were mute. A missed connection worthy of craigslist: “I was at the cottage, stunning views but I could barely recognize you.”

We sampled:

Salmon Gravlax

green apple, fennel and cucumber slaw, micro-greens, crispy potatoes

Baby Arugula and Romaine Heart

walnuts, fuji apple, goat cheese, cranberries and citrus vinaigrette

Bacon and Eggs

double smoked maple bacon, baby spinach, deviled egg, ripened tomato, croutons and ranch dressing

Caesar Salad

maple bacon, balsamic croutons tossed in creamy garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano dressing

Buffalo Mozzarella and Tomato Salad

arugula, quick pickled onions, aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil

Surf and Turf  Noodle Salad

grilled 7oz top sirloin, jumbo tempura shrimp, long noodles, mango, crushed peanuts, cilantro Thai red curry vinaigrette

Prosciutto Wrapped Halibut

pan seared sea scallops, ciopino, buttered red skin potatoes, julienne fennel slaw

Potato Gnocchi

bison, Italian sausage and roasted squash ragu, Parmigiano-Reggiano

Poached Jail Island Salmon and Prairie Grain Salad

served chilled, tomato, butter lettuce, lemon, seedling greens and tahini

Warm Butter Tart

maple walnut ice cream

Peaches and Cream

peach upside down cake, vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce

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