KINGSTON, Ontario We were amazed when we found out that the River Mill restaurant has been in business for 30 years.
Its located a little way out of the downtown hub, so its off the radar of visitors who confine their Kingston experience to the Princess Street/Brock Street/Montreal Street grid where there is a number of fine restaurants.
It takes up the waterside portion of an attractive, renovated late-19th century factory building called the Woolen Mill. The restaurant has a fine waterfront view of the Cataraqui River.
We arrived at the River Mill for dinner at 6 oclock on a recent Saturday and were immediately impressed by the classy look of the old place: a red-brick exterior with a well-lit and welcoming entrance.
The dining room is softly lit; there are numerous candles in glass holders, and their reflections make the glassware sparkle on the tables, which are doubly covered in white damask linen cloths. Live music from the grand piano was provided.
The room is elegantly painted in warm beiges, and the window openings are huge, with noticeably deep sills. The windows themselves are all new, and even though it was well below freezing outside, we were very comfortable.
The only nod to an industrial past was the tastefully painted exposed ductwork suspended from the ceiling. All in all, the place gave off an expensive aura.
Where the downtown restaurants tend to be trendy, the River Mill seems old school in both its look and its menu offerings. French onion soup. Baked Brie. Charcuterie platter. Tableside Caesar salad. Braised lamb shank. Stuffed pork loin. Bacon-wrapped scallops. Grilled beef tenderloin.
Although our reservation was early for a Saturday and the place wasnt jammed, there was a certain amount of controlled chaos going on. The host was busy with a large party at the front door. Friends meeting me had to avoid that mess and find their own way to my table.
We waited and waited for our server, who finally rushed by and dropped off menus. We had to ask for a wine list. We probably should have asked for bread as well, because none ever made it to our table like it did the others.
There was a nice selection of wines by the bottle and glass, but not much available for the beer drinker in our foursome. Sure, the place is old-fashioned in style, but youd think the owners would realize that beer has become an acceptable alternative to wine to pair with good food.
There was a large selection of interesting appetizers. We decided on baked Brie ($13), Creole shrimp ($15) and the charcuterie for two ($24).
The Brie was very good, paired with maple pecan butter, red onion marmalade, apple slices and toast points none of that goofy sauce you sometimes get that makes you feel like youre eating dessert first. The Brie was baked to just the right point soft and spreadable without running all over the plate when you cut into the wheel.
Creole shrimp was nicely executed, five impressively large sustainable shrimp from the Sea of Cortez. I dont know what the big deal is about shrimp from the Sea of Cortez, or even where it is, for that matter. (A quick Google search tells me its the body of water that separates the Baja California peninsula from the Mexican mainland.)
Back to the shrimp perfectly cooked with a nice snap to them. The Creole sauce, made with tomatoes, shallots and roasted garlic, was mighty tasty and not overly spicy.
The charcuterie consisted of house-cured meats and local cheeses. It arrived on two plates, one with pickled carrot and cuke slices on a bed of arugula surrounded by three piles of meat.
We recognized one of the meats as prosciutto, but the others were harder to identify a dark shredded meat with the flavor of cumin, the other more like pot roast in aspic. Alongside were selections of blue cheese and cheddar, slices of apple and some delicious grilled buttered bread. A cup of smooth chutney brought it all together.
On the second plate was more cheese, apples and bread.
We had polished off most of what was on the plates when our waiter dashed by with yet another plate, mumbling something about having not had enough room for the whole thing on the other two plates. Plate No. 3 included more bread, another cup of a different sauce, this one more of an Asian flavor, and more veggies and cheese.
As he rushed off we asked what the meats were, and he said he would write it down for us. (Maybe if he told us hed have to kill us?) Soon he returned with a slip of paper on which he had written: boar carpaccio and pulled pork. Hmm. He didnt happen to mention which was which, nor did he talk about the cheeses or the condiments.
But aside from the odd presentation and lack of information, this was an absolutely delicious starter, highly flavorful and thoughtfully assembled.
Our entrees were skillfully prepared, with attention to detail and interesting flavors.
A generous portion of locally raised pork ($25) was stuffed with red onion and roasted garlic, plated with a cassoulet of white beans, roasted shallots, carrots and golden beets with the addition of maple brown butter cream sauce. The beans were slightly underdone, but other than that overall the dish worked well.
When theres venison on a menu, its got my name on it. The River Mills venison tenderloin ($32) was really, really good. The meat was grilled to my call of medium-rare, maybe even a little to the rare side, which is fine with me. It was tender as can be and was served with roasted potatoes, a tasty mushroom ragout and a thyme/ginger demi-glace.
The menu description of the scallop preparation ($27) tantalized us: House-cured bacon-wrapped orange and ginger-glazed scallops dusted with hazelnuts and Parmesan served over shiitake mushroom risotto.
Four enormous, juicy sea scallops arrived wrapped in thick, meaty, slightly sweet bacon. The glazed scallops were served on a bed of cooked spinach and set around a mound of delicious risotto. The sweetness and saltiness of the scallops, the earthiness of the risotto and the tartness of the spinach were fabulous together. Truly a swoon-worthy dish.
The River Mills vegetarian dish, billed simply as Veggie ($20), consisted of a pan-seared portobello steak on butternut squash risotto served with salsa cruda.
We expected one large mushroom but it came cut into chunks and sautéed. The diced squash in the risotto had a slight crunch that contrasted nicely with the creaminess of the rice. Salsa cruda is a very simple mixture of tomatoes, onions, chiles and cilantro. Overall, a nice combination of subtle and strong flavors.
Our waiter was obviously having an off night. He was ready to push us out the door, but we inquired about dessert and were handed menus with a half dozen or more selections as well as specialty coffees and other beverages. These, like the main dishes, showed the same attention to preparation and presentation.
The Black Forest semifreddo ($9) looked like a Japanese pagoda, a little cylinder of frozen chocolate mousse topped with a thin, rectangular slab of chocolate, like a roof. The plate was decorated with swirls of cherry coulis and white chocolate ganache.
Poached pear ($9) was beautiful and delicious a peeled and cored pear slowly poached in red wine and sugar to a deep, dark red color, served on a swirl of raspberry coulis and vanilla sauce. The plate was completed with two little dark chocolate hazelnut nougats.
Lemon meringue ($8) was a winner, a rich and tart lemon dessert topped with browned meringue. It was served in a vanilla cookie bowl that had the texture of biscotti. Totally refreshing.
Dinner for four came to $210.41 before tip but did include nearly $24 in Canadian taxes.
Overall, we enjoyed superior food and a somewhat inventive menu that still offers solidly prepared traditional dishes. We love the ambiance.
But the service, while friendly, was weird. Our server was out of sync the entire evening. He acted like a hummingbird at a feeder, never really landing at our table long enough to complete a conversation.
Aside from the puzzling service, it was a memorable dinner from start to finish. Well certainly be back.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The River Mill
2 Cataraqui St.
Located a little way out of the downtown hub, the River Mill offers superior food in a comfortable, historical setting.
HOURS: Dinner begins at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
APPETIZER PICKS: Creole shrimp, charcuterie for two
ENTRÉE PICKS: venison tenderloin, bacon-wrapped scallops
DESSERT PICKS: lemon meringue, Black Forest semifreddo, poached pear