Young parents Michael and Sarah run a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Wakefield restaurant that will blow your mind
Sarah Swan and Michael Houle understand what a treat it is to go on a kid-free date or a fun family outing. Especially if the destination is Wakefield, the postcard-pretty village on the shore of the Gatineau River. As parents of a toddler, two-year-old Cooper, they get it. As a couple juggling the demands of a hospitality business, they know free time is precious.
Maybe that’s why so many people say a meal at their restaurant, The Village House, is an unforgettable pleasure. Reviews on TripAdvisor are superlative. “We have eaten all over the world and Village House is ‘up there,’” mentions a commenter from Perth, Australia, who visited in January. “Wow, just wow,” declares another. “Fantastic dining experience,” reads a third. There are 105 reviews and they’re full of kudos.
Four years ago when Sarah and Michael, two of Ottawa’s top restaurant stars, opened the doors here at 759 Riverside Drive, they cooked up a destination to rave about. “We like to treat our guests as if we’re welcoming them into our own home,” Sarah explains. “It is our home away from home.” She graciously answers questions about the family venture and memorable place that’s 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa.
How would you describe The Village House?
The restaurant is representative of what I believe Wakefield is all about. It’s woodsy with an antiques-filled décor, friendly warm service, an open kitchen and an intimate country setting including a river view. Regulars usually line the bar, chatting up the chef and welcoming newcomers. We describe our food as refined upscale comfort food. Since we are spoiled with farms in the area, we use mostly seasonal organic produce and local proteins. There’s a small wine list with my personal favourites, along with a simple yet refreshing cocktail list.
Wakefield is a great destination for everyone. There is so much to see and do. You can hike, bike, canoe, swim and ski. Thanks to the Black Sheep Inn two doors down and our local dive, Kaffe 1870, there is no shortage of evening entertainment. During the day you can visit the farmers’ market, check out the local arts scene and shop at the boutiques. We get lots of families joining us who are cottaging nearby or who are here for a day trip. Most frequently, though, we welcome parents who are escaping for a date night. Since there are many lovely B&Bs and we are so close to Ottawa, this is a great destination for a night away from the kids.
Is there a good time to bring the kids to The Village House?
Sunday is our most popular day for families. We do a small plate menu from noon to 8 p.m. It usually includes casual items like gourmet tacos and local chicken wings along with some of our more upscale appys. Even the pickiest eaters enjoy the hand-cut fries, the Saveur des Monts chicken fingers (from a local free range chicken farm) and our house-made fresh pasta.
What’s it like, with a young son, running a destination restaurant?
It’s busy. There’s a lot of “Hi honey, here’s the baby, bye honey.” We trade off quite a bit. We have family close by who pitch in with childcare, and our staff members really help take some of the pressure off. Although people sometimes question our limited hours, that schedule preserves our sanity and the family time that is important to us. It’s not always easy for couples to work together, so we work the business around our lives instead of working our lives around the business.
What were you doing before this?
Mike and I met when he was chef de cuisine at Murray Street and I was managing Navarra in Ottawa. Prior to that he worked at Bistro 115 and at a restaurant called Pana in Sault Ste. Marie, his hometown. I worked at Social, Black Cat, Navarra and at The Wakefield Mill before we dove into our own venture. Although we weren’t looking for a place, when fellow restaurateur Luigi Melambrio brought this location to our attention, it was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. It had been a restaurant called Soupçon and the place was perfect: location, size, open kitchen and a patio to boot! The timing felt right and it was a smooth transition to make it our own restaurant. Since then we’ve become one of the community’s favourite spots.
The restaurant has been described as a “delicious discovery.”
I think many people are pleasantly surprised at what we offer. The menu is exceptional, but the building is tiny with a humble exterior; if you blink you’d miss us. We’re very much a word-of-mouth kind of place. Our reputation on Trip Advisor is how most tourists find out about us. Wakefield’s businesses, B&Bs and locals have also given us tremendous support. This is not a typical tourist town. Wakefield’s a caring community that welcomes tourists.
What are your most popular dishes?
Maple Herb Braised Beef Short Rib is probably the most popular item. Very tender, it’s served with fresh pasta and the sauce is swipe-worthy. For foodies, Confit Pig Cheek is the winner. Drizzled with apple demi and served with braised cabbage and pan-fried cheddar parsley gnocchi, it’s rich and delectable. Since poutine is a must in Quebec, ours is served with braised lamb, potato roesti and cheese curds.
During the spring and summer months, our potato wrapped shrimp is not to be missed. It’s accompanied by in-house smoked tomato jam we sell by the jar now because there’s so much demand.
A scrumptious way to finish off a meal here is with our famous apple walnut butter tart. It comes with homemade caramel ice cream and bacon lardon that will be featured in a cookbook this fall.
What do you enjoy about welcoming people to The Village House?
We love what we do. I’m incredibly proud to serve my husband’s food; it’s a secret pleasure of mine to watch people enjoy his food for the first time. The Village House turned out to be a great name for us, since people describe the experience here as like being in our home.
How does Cooper factor into the family business?
He absolutely loves to be in the kitchen cooking with us and insists on helping. He’s a real foodie in the making, and his favourite word in the world right now is “delicious.”