Dining Out

Photographs by Pat McGrath

Mike Houle and Sarah Swan, co-owners of The Village House, present their short rib main course and apple tart dessert. (Photo: Pat McGrath)

The Village House

Address: 759 Riverside Dr., Wakefield, 819-459-1445, thevillagehouse759.com

Open: Wednesday and Thursday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 2 to 9 p.m.

Mains: $21-24, appetizers $8-14

Accessibility: no steps

The days were growing shorter. Grey skies too often banished the sun. Worst of all, about 200 kilograms of leaves blanketed my front lawn, waiting to be bagged.

Not even a month into autumn, I would have come down with an early case of seasonal affective disorder were it not for the restorative powers of one thing: gravy. My late October spirits are high, thanks to a place that nailed the cleanly flavoured and concentrated puddles on its plates, which were almost as much of a treat as the succulent, slow-cooked meats that received top billing.

I’m talking about the Village House, a small, warm and homey restaurant in Wakefield owned and run by a young and impressively credentialed husband-and-wife team. Getting there is a bit of trek from Ottawa, but the drive is worth it, thanks to chef Mike Houle (former chef de cuisine at Murray Street and Bistro 115) and front-of-house boss/amiable server Sarah Swan (former manager of the Wakefield Mill and Navarra).

Since April, they have dedicated themselves to serving elevated and reasonably priced comfort food in their 26-seater (the former Soupcon Bistro on Wakefield’s main drag).

There, diners immediately spy an open kitchen before settling into one of two cosy rooms lit by tea candles and faux-old chandeliers. The surroundings include blond wood, brick walls, tree-themed art and music that has some twang to it. Especially in autumn, the Village House seems rustic, spare and discerning — quintessentially Wakefield.

The apple tart dessert received high marks.

We went last Friday, nudged by some good word of mouth. Those words included “pig cheek” and “gnocchi.” From the Village House’s most recent and compact menu, we can add to the honour roll “beef short rib,” “pan-roasted chicken breast,” “lamb poutine” and “apple pecan butter tart.” The best dishes at our table prompted raves and helped induce food comas.

The most disappointed diner was he who elected to go vegetarian. He found the squash soup too simple and underwhelming and thought the smoked tomato jam that accompanied his lentil and chickpea “tourtière” too sweet.

Second opinion: For the Québécoise at our table, the jam was fine and the vegetarian entree registered as laudably meaty, although tasted too much of cloves.

But as you would expect from a Murray Street vet, Houle makes animal protein shine.

The pig cheek appetizer featured three slices of crispy-fatty meat, each paired with one of Houle’s gnocchi concoctions (this one was boosted with cheese and parsley), braised cabbage and an apple-infused demi-glace.

Heartier was the kitchen’s version of poutine, which subbed in pleasantly crisp-and-then-yielding roesti for the usual fries, and added toothsome braised lamb leg, meaty shards of mushrooms, curds (of course) and a generous pour of gravy. It turned out that you can dress up poutine without losing its essence — the gravy was to be sopped and devoured with more of Houle’s pillowy bread.

The Village House’s most recent and compact menu offers' the beef short rib dish.

Houle’s beef short rib was a bigger version of the same experience. The gigantic cube of meat was fall-apart tender and delicious. It sat on a mound of carrots, sautéed kale, more mushrooms and more gnocchi. The dish’s components were nestled in a jus of winning complexity — beefy, or course, but also seasoned, herbed and even sweetened (but not cloyingly so) with maple syrup.

Lighter was a cut-above, expertly pan-roasted chicken breast from Ferme aux Saveurs des Monts in Ripon farm. Fancying the bird were more kale and carrots, a cranberry, raisin and sour cherry compote and a potato dauphinoise that even contained a layer of chicken confit.

Lightest of all — but far from unsubstantial — was a pasta and seafood dish that united pickerel, two whole Quebec crayfish and some clams with wide noodles, a spicy tomato sauce and the bracing hit of an olive, onion and pickled eggplant tapenade.

The two attractive desserts that we tried were less about delivering sweetness and more about presenting multiple flavours through personalized classics.

The fruit and pastry of the apple pecan butter tart received high marks, as did Houle’s caramel ice cream. The bacon lardons on the plate struck us as gratuitous. But nothing jarred alongside the fine chocolate fondant, which came with a brandy and espresso crème anglaise, candied nuts and a berry reduction.

The restaurant satisfies the kid-sized appetites with chicken fingers and fries or more of Houle’s gnocchi.

On Sundays, the house bets on small plates, serving its appetizers and less massive specials from 2 till 9 p.m.

I don’t know if Houle’s downsized dishes will be as effective against the November blues as his more robust and amply sauced items, but the vividness and finesse of his food makes me optimistic.

When the giant maple tree in my backyard lets loose its leaves next month, I might just have to make another trip to the Village House.

phum@ottawacitizen.com

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