The Review / Backhouse
Photos by kc kratt
242 Mary Street
289-272-1242 or www.backhouse.xyz
With its eye-popping plantings and quaint shops and cafes, the main drag of Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake is a tourist magnet. But cool kids know that the real excitement sits a few blocks west in an unassuming shopping plaza. With a self-deprecating name more descriptive of its location than its offerings, Backhouse is a destination restaurant. Many need an excuse like the Shaw Festival or vineyard touring to cross the border, but savvy diners make the trip just for a whiff of the fragrant wood smoke that fills the Backhouse dining room.
Smoke and fire is the show at Backhouse. Upon arrival, visitors are enveloped by the comforting aroma of burning logs, emanating from the brightly blazing open hearth. It’s an impression that recalls a rustic lakeside cabin in the Great White North, complete with campfire. The décor, consisting of impressionistic wilderness scenes, and a wall projection of a slowly progressing moonlit night sky completes the illusion. In such conditions, a barrel-aged spirit seems right, and the drink menu lists a perfect bourbon Manhattan. Perfect is a strong word, but the mellow oak notes of this Manhattan live up to its billing.
The majority of the cooking at Backhouse is done over an open fire or roasted in a wood oven.
The bound drink menu consists of a dozen pages of wines, mostly sourced from the surrounding vineyards. (A wine pairing option that runs alongside the tasting menus is a good guide to assist decision making.) In addition to house cocktails mixed with house crafted shrubs and syrups, the bar features several beer and cider taps. I was particularly impressed by a sour from an Ontario nanobrewery, Bench Brewing Company, which is dry hopped with Simcoe. Its gentle tartness and fruity hops combine for an enjoyably juicy beer.
The husband and wife team of Chef Ryan Crawford and general manager Bev Hotchkiss has built the Backhouse team into a total package. Accordingly, much of the menu is made in-house, from rustic breads and young cheeses to long-aged charcuterie, and many of the ingredients, including produce and pork, come from their own farm. The majority of the cooking is done over an open fire or roasted in a wood oven, all of which is visible from bar seating in the middle of the dining room. Service is impeccable with multiple servers assisting with each course transition. Share plates are provided without prompting, allowing tablemates to join in on courses that aren’t on their tasting menus.
To get the full Backhouse experience, grab one of the bar seats in front of the fire and order a multicourse tasting menu. Three different tastings are offered nightly, varying by number of courses and prices. Some courses are offered a la carte, at slightly larger portion sizes, but the tasting offerings are the best value in terms of selection and variety. Be prepared to enjoy a leisurely meal; the multicourse meals can take some time when the house is full.
Clockwise from top, left: breads, interior views, house-cured prosciutto, icewine float, and egg mousse with salmon caviar
Our meal began with an amuse-bouche of a choux pastry puff filled with velvety chicken liver mousse, accented by a smidge of blueberry preserve. The first bite was followed by a bowl of curds and whey. The warm curds taste of fresh milk with a pleasant lactic tang and are lightly dressed with “forest syrup,” a blend of maple and black walnut, for a touch of sweetness mellowed by a hint of tannic astringency. An airy egg mousse was next, punctuated with firm and smoky salmon caviar, served in the shell and accompanied by a baton of charred brioche for dipping.
The French onion soup course should be appreciated by anyone who struggles to break up the topping of soggy bread and a rubbery slab of melted cheese. Here, clear and clean beef broth is doubly fortified with both roasted as well as bracingly fresh onions, and topped with cheese foam and assertive rye crumbles that successfully hold onto their crunch. It’s just as satisfying, minus the hassle.
House-cured proscuitto was presented next. The aged ham is salty and nutty and given a creamy foil of feta and tart plum caramel with subtle hints of chocolate. You can feel the Backhouse team planting their flag with this heady, complex mix of flavors. Combining farm freshness with slow-developing nuances is typical of the Backhouse approach.
Cheese (with wine pairings) is a possible meal finale.
About halfway into the tasting menu, diners are hit with the full force of the grill. Carrots, roasted for maximum sweetness, share a plate with peppery arugula, onion purée, black garlic, and bread crumbs. Assertively walnut-smoked trout is served in shallow pool of whey consommé. Oyster mushrooms and a buttery hunk of lamb belly are tamed by a tart ragu of charred tomatoes and onions. The medallions of grilled pork tenderloin are cooked with impeccable precision, only achievable through the one-two punch of a low-temp water bath and a quick sear on the grill. Set on top of spicy and funky n’duja and white bean cassoulet, the tenderloin finishes off the savory part of the menu with a bang.
The transition from savory to sweet begins with an icewine float. Green apple sorbet is presented in a champagne coupe. Icewine is dispensed tableside from a cream whipper for a delightfully fizzy experience. Our next dessert brings back the savory side with a potato mousse, sweetened up by rhubarb sauce and crisp bits of meringue. The pièce de résistance is a homemade marshmallow, lightly toasted on a stick as if it was roasted over my imaginary campfire. After this final salute to open-fire, it’s hard not to smile at the conclusion of a perfect meal.
Jeff Biesinger is Spree's fine dining reviewer.