After stints at Black Cat Bistro and Pelican Grill, chef Trisha Donaldson has settled Almonte Riverside Kitchen, wooing guests with her gorgeous gnocchi and poached pears (among other fine dishes)
By Anne DesBrisay
Perched on the Mississippi River, the mighty tributary that once powered the town’s woollen mills, this new Almonte inn has a 130-year history of housing prominent citizens (even when it wasn’t functioning as a home).
There have been other residents: the Almonte Armouries, for one, which turned the living room into a drill hall and the bedrooms into bars. And before construction of the Diefenbunker, this Queen Anne-style mansion acted as a repository for communications and transmission equipment in the event of nuclear war, its double stone foundation designated as the fallout shelter of choice for the PM and his people.
Yes, indeed, 81 Queen Street has had a fascinating life of service. And it continues to serve. Since opening last December, the Almonte Riverside Boutique Inn, in addition to offering some lovely rooms, has added a dinner service. But though the Riverside Kitchen may be new, its chef is a familiar face.
Last time I dined off a Trisha Donaldson plate, it was 2009 and I was tucking into her king salmon at the Pelican Grill. But I first met Donaldson at the Black Cat Bistro (back when the Cat was on Murray Street and its surname was Café). I still remember her “home-game wings,” buxom beauts transformed by duck fat and aromatic tea. I lost track of Donaldson for a few years. She went West, apparently. But she has returned to these parts, has settled in Almonte, and is working with innkeeper Rob Prior in a pretty little back kitchen known as ARK.
You could always count on Donaldson to deliver great bread. This time she has cleverly outsourced, turning to her former Black Cat sous-chef Natali Harea for delivery of her spectacular sourdoughs. Bread arrives with the day’s soup, a refined sweet potato and blood orange brew with caramelized shallots and chive oil.
In the mood for root vegetables, we turn to a topsy-turvy tower of warm beets layered with more of those blood oranges, sandwiched with chèvre, and scattered with radicchio, microgreens, and candied pecans. This turns out to be more picturesque than perfect, because the texture of the construct suffers from over-boiled beets.
Back to form with duck. Braised Belgian endive, sweet carrots, and mashed potatoes are the bird’s lumpy bedding, the ruby-red breast slices perfectly medium-rare.
And Donaldson’s gnocchi are simply gorgeous. One never knows with gnocchi. It is a dish that usually requires a leap of faith and disappoints more often than not. But these little darlings proclaim the virtues of the Parisienne style of dumpling, quite different from the traditional spud variety, fashioned by gently poaching small droppings of pâte à choux in broth. The resulting alchemy is herbed and cheesy pillows, soft but with some bite from the Red Fife wheat Donaldson uses. They arrive blanketed with a ragout of mushrooms, zucchini, tomato, and olives. If this sounds far too vegetarian, you can opt for a further topper of grilled sirloin. We did just that, and the entire dish, beast and all, was a huge success.
Donaldson does not neglect desserts. And what a treat to find poached pears — such a French classic and so rarely seen on restaurant menus — beautifully perfumed and served with quality ice cream and more of those candied nuts.
Soon enough the inn’s kitchen gardens will be in full bloom and the scenic riverside patio open for business. I, for one, am already making plans to be on it. Not accessible. Mains $20-$27. 81 Queen St., Almonte, 613-909-1281.