GANANOQUE, Ontario — It's always endearing to see immigrants embracing their new homeland. A perfect example: the Czech-born owners of a Canadian restaurant that specializes in flavors of their native land have named their restaurant — what else? — the Maple Leaf.
Drive past the glitzy casino and the McDonald's and the Tim Hortons to the old part of town and you'll find the Maple Leaf, a fitting location for this old world-style restaurant. The interior has a bit of a homemade appearance, including some funky "old world" wooden seats affixed to the diner-like booths, but it fits right in with the homemade cuisine and down-home service.
While the menu includes a smattering of standard fare (chicken fingers, burgers, onion rings) and upscale diner-ish things like liver and onions, penne with tomato sauce and breaded scallops, our interest was in the Czech/Austro-German section — the schnitzel, spaetzle, goulash, paprikash, sausages, dumplings and sauerbraten.
But first, beverages were in order. The ladies each enjoyed a glass of wine. Nothing wrong with house pour of B&G from France or Black Prince from a nearby local winery. The guys had Czech beer, Pilsner Urquell — on tap and served in 500 ml glasses (a half-liter). We were perfectly satisfied with the frothy head and the light, crisp taste, and of course, the manly serving size.
Pavel was our engaging waiter and genial host and very much a part of the family business. His folks were out of town the night we were there, leaving Pavel to wait tables, tend bar and help in the kitchen. In the face of adversity, Pavel remained unfazed. A true professional.
For appetizers, we tried marinated herring with sour cream ($5.99) and salmon dill paté with rye bread ($5.99).
When I was growing up, we had supermarket marinated herring from a jar and I thought it tasted like fish jello in formaldehyde. I've come to enjoy it properly prepared, and the Maple Leaf did it up right: pieces of pickled herring and sliced onions in a punchy, vinegary sweet-tart brine, finished with a dollop of sour cream.
Salmon paté was more like salmon salad (think tuna salad) with dill and sweet pickle relish, held together with a little sour cream — very nice. It came with slices of dark seedless rye bread, perfect for spreading the paté on. Worked well with the herring, too.
The two soups we tried were each great in their own right. Soup of the day ($3.29) was carrot-ginger — zingy and zippy, rich and luscious. If I were a regular, I'd want it on the menu every day.
The borsch ($3.99 ) — the Czech spelling — was more like beet and cabbage stew than soup, a bowl filled with julienned beets and cabbage in a vegetable stock, lavished with sour cream and tasting as good as you would expect. This was wonderful!
We liked it so much, we jokingly asked Pavel for the recipe. Without hesitation, he supplied us with a detailed explanation, given with a charming, slight Czech accent. His obvious enthusiasm encouraged us to ask question after question as the evening went on, all answered just as quickly and cheerfully.
Did someone say schnitzel? Schnitzel is the German word for "cutlet," usually describing meat that is dipped in egg, then breaded and fried. There's chicken schnitzel, pork schnitzel, rahm schnitzel (pork with mushroom sauce), Toscana (pork with mozzarella and prosciutto) schnitzel, Prague (bacon and fried egg), gypsy (ginger lemon chutney), Holstein (egg, onions, capers) and beef schnitzel.
All are priced within a dollar of $16.99; all come with your choice of roasted potatoes or spaetzle (tiny dumplings made with flour and eggs and usually nutmeg).
We wanted to try every one of them, but narrowed it down to two, Rahm schnitzel and Holstein schnitzel.
Rahm schnitzel is a great place to start if you've never had schnitzel before. It's the classic pork schnitzel with a touch of creamy mushroom sauce. The cutlet was perfectly seasoned and lightly fried with a crispy, non-greasy crust. Homemade spaetzle was the perfect accompaniment. When was the last time you saw spaetzle on a restaurant menu?
The Holstein was a classic pork schnitzel topped with sautéed onions, a fried egg and capers. Again, the breading was crisp and not at all greasy, the pork was succulent, and the onions and egg added a richness that was cut in turn by the capers. The spaetzle was somewhat bland, but perhaps intentionally so to not compete with the up-front flavors of the main event, and the tasty, vinegary homemade cole slaw.
Pork paprikash ($16.99) offered fork-tender chunks of pork in a dark, paprika-laden gravy. Alongside were slices of boiled, bread-like dumplings, about the size of baguette slices. These were intentionally bland, Pavel explained to us, meant to be a starchy way to soak up the sauce.
This was true comfort food, perfect for snowy, Alpine winters and, well, winters in Northern New York or southern Ontario, too.
Sauerbraten, described as "roast beef sauerbraten, Czech style" ($17.99), was an ample portion of well-cooked slices of beef served in a thick, creamy beef sauce with a hint of spiciness, topped with cranberry sauce. If nothing else, the cranberry sauce added a pleasant sweetness to a dish that was short on flavor, especially compared to the other entrées on the table. If you're used to the vinegar/red wine/clove/gingersnap kick associated with sauerbraten, you'll probably be disappointed.
There were those intriguingly unique dumplings again, with their appearance of crustless, soft white bread. Czech matzoh balls was our best description.
Did we need dessert? Not really, but two of us took advantage of one of Maple Leaf's specials that included homemade dessert — so what the heck?
Apple strudel was a right-sized portion, puff pastry with a filling of sliced apples, cinnamon and raisins. The filling was a little on the gloppy corn-starchy side for our liking, but maybe that's how they do it in Czechoslovakia. It was tasty nonetheless.
The blueberry tart was a special the evening we were there, and nicely done. Again, a perfect portion, just enough to satisfy the sweet tooth after a filling meal.
Dinner for four, excluding drinks, came to just under $90. With Canadian taxes added in, the total was $101.59, translating to just about the same in U.S .funds with the exchange.
One meal deal we took advantage of was the four-course "Chef's Table."
In our case, we paired the carrot-ginger soup, the salmon paté, the rahm schnitzel and the blueberry tart for a total of $25.95.
And we must give extra praise to our engaging waiter, Pavel, who despite wearing many hats the night we visited, kept his cool and his friendly, unpretentious demeanor.
Homey, inviting and serious about serving authentic old-country food, the Maple Leaf is unusual and just plain good. I suggest that if you go, however, don't choose the booth with the wooden seats. After a couple of hours in them, you might need a Czech massage.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maple Leaf Restaurant
65 King St. E.
1 (613) 382-7666
An old world-style restaurant serving schnitzel, spaetzle, goulash, paprikash, sausages, dumplings and sauerbraten.
HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Closing for the winter months on Dec. 19, reopening in late April
APPETIZER PICKS: marinated herring, salmon dill paté, borsch
ENTRÉE PICKS: rahm schnitzel, Holstein schnitzel, pork paprikash
DESSERT PICK: apple strudel