LOCAL FLAVOUR: Lake House Restaurant

In Vineland at the entrance to Niagara's wine region sits a homestead by the lake alongside the highway. Since its construction in the late 1860s, many a meal has been served there ““ including to those seeking refuge as a stop along the Underground Railroad. For the last ten years it's been a stop for both tourists and locals seeking familiarity and a good meal. Welcome to Lake House Restaurant.

Owners Joseph Nahman and Hanne Olesen-Nahman happened upon the location when the current restaurateurs of Plain and Fancy were looking for consultants. The couple instead chose to make them an offer to revive business and the Lake House was formed in April 2002. “The place has an energy,” says Joseph. “You can feel that the building has its own soul. It really has a positive vibration.”

Every dining area overlooks the lake: the patio (of course), the sunroom, the fireplace room, the Lincoln room and the lounge. For meetings and special events, there is a private room with a custom oak table and flat screen TV upstairs for up to 20 guests.

The Lake House has a sister restaurant in Burlington: Stone House, and with the energy that's required to oversee two locations, thankfully Joseph has the experience to handle it all, with some help from Hanne. Joseph began working in the restaurant industry at age 13, bussing tables at a restaurant in his home of Oostend, Belgium where his father worked as a cook. He also spent his time attending Ecole Hoteliere. Intensive training and work at the restaurant helped shape his culinary career. He has trained as Demi Chef de Rang, Chef de Rang and Maí®tre D'.

Working his way through the ranks has given him an extreme appreciation for what's involved in creating an ideal restaurant experience. “I did it all, as a busser, as a dishwasher, as a cook,” he explains. “I know all the positions in a restaurant. When I go into the kitchen I can see what the guys are doing in there and I know exactly what they're going through because I've been there.”

He also obtained experience working in Paris, New York, Honolulu and Bermuda. Bermuda was the first experience Joseph had working strictly in English. “That was the turning point in my life where I really lived in English ““ before that I only spoke French. Bermuda was the first job that I had where I could only speak English,” he says.

Having trained extensively in European cuisine, it's safe to say Joseph carries some old school traditions. “I come from the old school. Everything was the real thing. You don't cut corners, the chef is a real-trained chef,” he explains. Joseph has also observed that in Europe the professions, whether it's a server or a cook, are a real profession where as sometimes in North America they are seen as secondary. “We take it much more seriously. To become a chef in Belgium is really big because you know you have to become an associate first, a Chef de Parti, you go through all of that. When you get the title of Chef, we know that you know how to run a kitchen,” he adds.

Running a kitchen and keeping the front of the house operating smoothly all require “Quality, quality, quality,” which is Joseph's philosophy. “Quality is the most important thing you can have in a restaurant,” he explains. “We go through everything in the kitchen to make sure the quality is there, the freshness is there. We also try to work with local ingredients as much as we can.”

Hanne herself has solidified her passion for the restaurant industry over her 30-plus years of experience. Today she oversees four Ruth's Chris steakhouse locations: Mississauga and Toronto, as well as two in San Antonio, Texas. “That's my full-time job,” says Hanne. While Joseph is the full-time operator for both Lake House and Stone House she's definitely involved, if not behind the scenes. Since they're both involved in the business they can use one another as soundboards for ideas and any issues that might arise. “We understand each other, we help each other a lot,” explains Hanne. “We're able to match our schedules because family is a priority for us. We're lucky. We complement each other.”

The menu has evolved over the years but favourite dishes remain. “We do change some items and the chef does have creativity with the daily specials (such as the catch of the day or appetizers) but our core menu remains the same,” explains Hanne. “We want people to come back and be able to enjoy a menu item that they love.”

The restaurant also serves the best Mediterranean. “Some people are a bit confused with the meaning of Mediterranean food,” states Joseph. “In North America, when you say Mediterranean cuisine, people think Lebanese or Middle Eastern. It is one of them, but not all. It's (also) Italian, Greek.” The menu includes dishes such as Osso Bucco, veal shanks, calamari and gourmet thin crust pizzas. During weekends, prime rib is offered. It's Certified Angus, slow-cooked and melts in your mouth. “Our menu is diverse, we have a taste for everybody ““ even the kids,” he says. Many local wineries are featured on the wine list. Two popular desserts are the Ile Flottante (Floating Island) and Crí¨me Brulee. The Ile Flottante is a soft meringue floating in crí¨me Anglaise drizzled with caramel and almonds.

The menu price point is well balanced and caters to different tastes. “You can enjoy a gourmet pizza and a glass of wine and not spend a lot of money, or you can order a steak or rack of lamb and enjoy a high end bottle of wine,” says Hanne. “We did that on purpose. We're right off the highway so we're catering to a wide market. It can get tricky sometimes where you need to offer something that's going to appeal to a lot of people.”

Before summer passes you by, head “south” and partake in a meal on the patio. “I have to say, it's one of the best patios in the Niagara region,” Joseph boasts rightfully. “It's right on the lake and you can see the Toronto skyline on a clear day. When you're out there on the patio you feel like you're in Italy.” Let's say Lake Como, perhaps?

RECIPE: Ile Flottante
RECIPE: Escargot with Crispy Prosciutto