Langdon Hall – Five Star Dining

langdon hall chef jason bangerter fine dining stephanie dickison.JPG

Why isn’t it on The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list? Why hasnt it been lauded with Michelin stars?

This is what you’ll ask yourself after dining at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa, under the creative direction and impeccable execution of prodigious chef Jason Bangerter.

In order to comprehend the level of fine dining here, you must first understand his fierce passion, drive and hyper-focus that go back decades.

At an early age

As a kid, Bangerter spent summers at his grandparent’s homes in Nova Scotia and Parry Sound. Much of this time was spent at the shore – meeting lobster fisherman, digging for clams, slurping them up right on the beach. At the age of 12, he harvested wild blueberries. Since his father’s side was into hunting and fishing, they’d catch pickerel and bass, eat venison and other game stews, and tap maple.

That, paired with an aunt who was “quite the gourmand," he says, and introduced him to escargot - his first foray into the fine dining world - gave him an outstanding foundation. He'd already learned what many chefs don't experience until years into their studies or careeers.

Though he learned to cook as he got older, “I never saw it as a career choice. I did it for fun,” he says.

School days

After finishing high school at the age of 19, Bangerter realized it was something he should investigate further. “I looked at the best schools, but it was too late to enroll,” he says.

In what would soon become a hallmark of his personality and work ethic, not content to just sit back and wait around, “I wrote a letter to the Dean, saying ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Needless to say, George Brown College made an exception. Then, “It took a month trying to get in to see Higgins,” he says.

The name he utters with immense affection and reverence is Chef John Higgins, the proud Scotsman and Canadian who has cooked for the Royal family on numerous occasions, was chef at the Four Seasons in Canada and the U.S., and is now director of George Brown Chef School. At the time – the late ’80s – Higgins was executive chef of Toronto’s prestigious King Edward Hotel.

Bangerter describes the meeting, “like a scene from Ratatouille in his office.” Sitting and talking for an hour, “we didn’t talk about being a chef.” He ended the conversation telling Higgins, “I want to be the best, like you.” Higgins said he could work in the staff cafeteria of the hotel on weekends, while going to school across the street.

Bangerter worked for the Pepsi Taste Patrol that summer, while going to school full-time and working at the renowned hotel on the weekend. Despite the intense pace and workload, “I had so much fun,” he says.

Leaps and bounds

Always striving to do more, he asked the pastry chef in the cafeteria if he could help out. Then he expanded to working garde manger and in banquets. He says, “I had a long list from different departments.” Instead of feeling bogged down by the responsibility and relentless demands and hours, he was buoyed by it – a trait he still holds today.

Up at 6 am for class, when the one-hour lunch break arrived, he’d “run across the street in my whites, land anywhere, and run back,” he recalls.

He did that for an entire year.

“I was there, sucking it in like a sponge,” he says.

Soon he was leagues ahead of his classmates, already upholding the professionalism required,  even the polished shoes, “like the military,” he recounts. “It was a great place to learn discipline, organization, and trade skills.” At the hotel, he learned “the true essence of the brigade system,” and earned the respect of his colleagues with his determination, dedication and talent.

Higgins, Captain of Team Canada, couldn’t go to Saskatoon that year, so he sent Bangerter to represent him, even though he was still just an apprentice. The team came home victorious.

London calling

Bangerter soon went abroad to expand his knowledge. After a stint at Paris’ Hotel Le Meridian Montparnasse, Bangerter “got the bug.” Joining the brigade at Mosimann’s in London, it wasn’t long before he was teaching at the Mosimann Academy. Stages at esteemed restaurants in the city including: Marco Pierre White’s DronesTerence Conran’s the Orrery, Jean George’s Vong and Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire, followed.

A few more stints across Europe – the  Swissôtel Berlin in Germany, and later Château Mosimann in Olten, Switzerland – and it was time to come home; he’d invested in a house in Milton, Ontario.

Home again

Soon after, in February 2002, he took over the kitchen at Auberge du Pommier, where he “fell in love” with European, French and old-world fine dining methods. Bangerter dreamed up dishes with cloches that when removed, revealed billowing smoke. Plates swathed with foams and foraged ingredients are all now part of mainstream dining, but back in 2002, this, along with his cappuccino of truffle soup and pine beer sourced from Quebec, was far beyond the current landscape. His ability to think outside of what Toronto restaurants were serving, and impeccable execution, blew diners away.

He stayed on until 2010, leaving to open Luma at the TIFF Lightbox Building. The frenetic pace included serving hundreds of guests a night (it seats 200) including celebrities such as Rachel McAdams. That of course didn’t slow him down a bit. While at Luma, he created the wildly popular “Food on Film” series, celebrating its fifth year in 2018. Culinary films are shown, followed by a discussion led by leading food and film experts.

The great Hall

All roads led him here, to Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa – a place unlike any other – a grand home and estate that exudes equal parts country club airs and old country charm. The manicured grounds feature an apple orchard, extensive garden and outdoor pool. Sixty luxurious guest suites, an event centre, a full-service spa, and a five-diamond award-winning restaurant complete the luxe experience.

And even though Langdon Hall isn’t his per se, current owners William (Bill) Bennett and Mary Beaton let him run the dining program as if it were.

Burgers and brews

Bangerter, who can enjoy everyday fare, such as perfect pasta with fresh stewed tomatoes and basil (“I love the simplicity”), proves he cando casual fare with great finesse in the onsite tavern, Wilks’ Bar. Everything from a Burger ($28) made with chuck and wagyu brisket to Fish ’n’ Chips ($26), in addition to lunch and Sunday brunch offerings, demonstrate Langdon Hall is much more accessible than you might think based on its grandiose appearance.

Note: you do not have to be a guest of the hotel to dine at anytime.

The finest dining

You absolutely must, however, make dinner reservations. And whatever you do, get the tasting menu ($165; wine pairings additional $115).

At first glance, the price might seem out of reach. But take a closer look. For what he’s creating, including regular dinner menu items (Hay Baked Lamb, $48, with roasted parsley root, pickled garlic cream, toasted hay jus; and Spring Vegetable, $36, with foraged ramp spätzle, wild flower tea), it’s on par with the cost of dinner in Toronto’s higher-end restaurants.

Here though, you are witnessing a chef at the uppermost echelon. Using the property as inspiration, his menu is a rollicking ride of absolute infinitesimal tastes, textures and profiles.

Bangerter’s decades of experience come together on a single plate. Where his dedication to terroir creates a seasonal symphony.

His Albacore Tuna Canapé, for instance, is served on a mammoth tuna skeleton. In anyone else’s hands it would look like something out of “The Strain,” but here, it’s elegant and dramatic. Dusted in sugar herbs, and served with fragrant citronella from the garden, it's unlike anything you've ever seen or tasted.

Dessert of Terroir Au Lait contains a 40 per cent milk chocolate hazelnut bomb made with his own divine custom chocolate, Terroir, created in partnership with Langdon Hall’s pastry chef Rachel Nicholson at the Or Noir Lab in Paris, France – a culmination of trials and tastings over 20 hours to finalize the recipes. The chocolate bomb, covered in raw sunflowers, is served on a giant fresh sunflower just picked from the garden. Fromcreative presentation to execution of ingredients, it’s dizzying – a sensory overload in the best possible way.

Even simple ingredients are resplendent: you’ll think about the handmade, hand-churned butter and crunchy sourdough days later.

And wait ’til you see the plateware he serves it all on.

Par excellence

Here’s the thing: no matter what you know beforehand – from the bucolic setting to Langdon Hall’s prestigious Relais & Châteaux designation since 1991, and Bangerter, one of only two recipients from the entire Relais & Chateaux family of properties throughout the world selected as 2015 Rising Chef – it will not prepare you for what you are about to experience.

No matter how much I extol the exquisite talent, passion and drive of Bangerter and his team, it cannot ready you for the odyssey you’re about to embark on. All you can do is go, and go as often as time and money permits.

Because this is what you’ve been waiting for. Fine dining that’s captivating, yet isn’t molecular and somehow still approachable. It’s real food where each ingredient has been carefully curated and prepared. Nothing gets lost in anything else. It all stands out on its own. There’s no trickery here – no fried egg that’s actually sorbet. Bangerter’s character is apparent in everything he touches, everything he cooks. Bronze fennel is used with the same care and respect as caviar.

It’s perfection without the least bit of pretence. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s utterly spellbinding.

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Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa (1 Langdon Dr.) in Cambridge is open year round.

Note: For reservations in the main dining room, no denim, sportswear or shorts are to be worn.

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