90 Burnstown Rd., White Lake 613-623-3472, castlegarth.ca
For me, everything you need to know about Castlegarth is in a bowl of its pappa al pomodoro. This classic Italian comfort dish is nothing more than simmered tomatoes and stale country bread with a healthy glug of extra-virgin olive oil and torn basil. It’s peasant food of the highest order. Nothing could more readily transport you to the hills of the Tuscan countryside. Chef-owner Matthew Brearley is almost embarrassed to describe the recipe, it’s so simple. What makes it so good? First of all, it’s the heirloom tomatoes grown in astonishing variety up the road on his family’s farm (all told, Castlegarth has 500 acres of gardens, grain fields, pastures, and woodlands), the source of the lion’s share of the restaurant’s ingredients. Still warm from the sun, those tomatoes never knew the inside of a refrigerator. Farm-fresh ingredients are one thing, but what Castlegarth offers is the increasingly rare opportunity to taste familiar ingredients as if for the first time. Perhaps that is what entices Ottawa diners to make the hour-long drive to White Lake to eat in a simple converted post office off the highway: there is nothing quite like it. Matt’s wife, Jennifer, a fellow Stratford-trained chef, runs the front of house with charm and genuine graciousness. The night of the life-affirming soup she later emerged from the kitchen with a basket brimful of funky fresh mushrooms — cauliflower, lobster, and puffballs — that Matt had foraged that afternoon. “It’s what you get from an only child who had the run of hundreds of acres during his childhood,” she remarks. Sautéed with a bit of cream and piled high on a thick wedge of grilled bread, the fungi flanked a Flintstonesque wild boar chop bursting with rich, meaty flavour teetering atop a mound of silky sweet roasted pumpkin (the very first of the season) and garlicky swiss chard. Matthew purrs when he talks about pork belly; he pores over books to learn the art of making prosciutto. He waxes poetic about the time he travelled to Tuscany and picked lemons from a tree, stuffing them inside a fresh chicken along with handfuls of rosemary that cascaded off the plant. This is what you can taste in a bowl of pappa al pomodoro at Castlegarth.