A little orange farmhouse on the outskirts of Vancouver Island’s Nanaimo, is an unlikely place for a great restaurant. But since 1983, customers have been flocking to Mahle House in the little country suburb of Cedar for dishes like beef tenderloin with Madeira sauce and portabello mushroom and rack of lamb with garlic confit and herb crust. Now, Chef Stephen Wilson and his wife, Tara, are carrying on the Mahale House’s tradition of excellence while breathing a new freshness into its offerings.
When we pulled into the parking lot at Mahle, we found Chef Stephen in the restaurant’s late summer garden picking green beans, multi-colored chard, and red and yellow tomatoes for our dinner. He learned his way around restaurant kitchens in a variety of impressive venues, including Sooke Harbour House. His wife’s family owned and operated Mahle House and, after the Stephen and Tara had a couple of children, they decided Cedar might not be a bad place to raise them. Two and a half years ago, they joined Tara’s mom running the place.
“It’s not everyone who gets to work with their wife and their mother-in-law,” says Stephen, grinning good-naturedly. “We were really lucky to have this opportunity.”
Stephen is aware of the legacy he’s inherited with Mahale and tempers his desire to make changes too quickly. “There are some things on the menu that customers have been coming here to eat for 20 years,” he says. “They probably won’t ever come off the menu.”
However, Stephen is making his mark. Fresh and local is important to him, and, in addition to the vegetables, herbs, and fruits they grow on the restaurant’s property, he buys meats, cheeses, and vegetables from small, local producers like the man just across the street that raises heritage pigs.
He’s also introduced a three- or four-course tasting menu that allows customers to select something from the garden, from the water, and from the land. “I’m really excited about the tasting menu,” he says. “It’s very much my style of cooking.”
Over time, the chef will make other changes, including paring down some of the entrees on the very large menu and continuing to add more local vendors and producers.
Our meal at Mahle started with a delicious appetizer of two butternut squash ravioli served with hazelnut brown butter cream. The pasta was a perfect al dente and the butternut squash silky. The brown butter lent a richness and the hazelnuts contributed a nice, nutty contrast.
The tomato stack came as alternating layers of heavenly red and yellow tomatoes that Chef had just harvested. They were dressed with smoky bacon vinaigrette, blue cheese crumbles, and a basil and parmesan crisp on top.
Next came two ocean-sweet scallops with the perfect crispy sear on the outside served over a vegetable succotash (tiny pieces of carrot, green beans, and basil). It was dressed with a sweet lemon mint vinaigrette that lifted and lightened the entire dish.
The tuna nicoise, the least successful of the dishes in this reviewer’s opinion, came as several slices of rare tuna served with little new potatoes, housemade olive tampanade, green beans, a half a hard cooked quail egg, fried capers, and a roasted tomato. While the vegetable portion of the dish were perfect, the tuna came off a bit dry.
The housemade buttery rabbit liver pate, served with ultra-thin pieces of toasted bread, more than made up for the tuna. It was served with walnut pieces and thick apple butter made from Gravenstein apples grown right outside the window. The pate’s earthy flavor was lightened by the sweet contrast of the apple butter and the walnuts added a nice crunch. Another in-house accompaniment for the thin toast was a rich terrine made from confit lamb shoulder and served with a slightly sweet pomegranate reduction.
The wild sockeye salmon, fresh and perfectly cooked, came with a ricotta, Swiss chard and squash cannelloni with saffron cream sauce. It was served with garden fresh small carrots and green beans.
This was an outstanding meal, but perhaps our favorite course was fork tender braised lamb shoulder served over a rich, earthy, and comforting pancetta and white bean cassoulet. It was topped with candied lemon that added just the right citrusy element to the beans and was served with carrots and green beans. For us, this is the perfect fall dish.
Real Bottom Line: Next time you’re on Vancouver Island, Mahle House is worth a short drive into the country. The setting is peaceful, but the food is exciting. www.mahlehouse.ca
– Review by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor