Scott Selland may be serving his guests the tastes of Louisiana Cajun, South Carolina Lowcountry and Nova Scotia Acadian food at his new Toronto eatery, Acadia, but it’s a made-in-Muskoka approach to hospitality that he brings to the Clinton Street establishment that he and chef Matt Blondin partnered together to open in July.
Selland, 27, is a new father and first-time restaurant owner after a prestigious career in front-of-house management at establishments such as the Four Seasons, Origin, Splendido and Colborne Lane, where he met Blondin.
The two had hoped to work together again, and when Selland pitched the concept that became Acadia to Blondin – who had by then moved west, working in Whistler, B.C. – Blondin pulled up stakes and came back to Ontario.
“When I talked to him originally, it wasn’t as refined as it is now; it’s taken a lot of work to polish it down to a really focused concept,” Selland says of Acadia. “I knew when I approached him that I wanted to do some sort of contemporary take on Lowcountry cuisine, and we knew that in order to pull it off and make it applicable to Toronto and Ontario that we needed to tie in some sort of Canadian element.”
The pair has done so by tracing both the cultural origins of Cajun food as well as ingredients and influences back up the east coast to the Acadian people of Nova Scotia, producing a menu that is adventurous, educational and fresh.
What may be less obvious is the Muskoka connection, but Selland brings all the experience of a youth spent working in some of Muskoka’s finest establishments as well as a family background in the cottage country service industry to his approach.
Born in Huntsville and raised in Bracebridge, one of Selland’s very first jobs was washing dishes in the kitchen at Patterson-Kaye Lodge, and when he was 15, he worked in the kitchen at Riverwalk Restaurant in Bracebridge. His first front of house experience came a couple of summers later, when he worked at the historic Clevelands House on Lake Rosseau.
“My father was actually the general manager at Clevelands House when he was younger, and my mom worked there as well, so that got me tied into it,” Selland explains, adding that working with a Muskoka hospitality industry legend like Clevelands House owner Bob Cornell helped shape his own professional ideals.
“It’s probably had more of an effect on me than I’ve ever really sat down to think about. I think that my general attitude and philosophy of hospitality probably started at Clevelands House, because they’re so adamant about that.”
Selland’s management style balances his guests’ needs and expectations with those of the heart of his establishments: the kitchen.
“My front of house management is based on a strong respect for the kitchen and everything that they do,” he says. Selland ensures his front of house team always understand not only what the kitchen needs from them to work at peak efficiency, but that they know the product intimately as well.
“I bring in people that are enthusiastic about food, and that can convey that to the guest and get them excited as well. That makes the kitchen’s job much easier.”
At Acadia, chef Blondin and his staff use contemporary techniques to present traditional Cajun and Acadian ingredients – and some unexpected new ones – in fresh ways, such as the red grouper with Sea Island red peas, Gulf prawn étoufée, and andouille sausage, which is served with a chlorophyll reduction, or the whipped buttermilk dressing on their Chesapeake Bay Crab, which is aerated using a nitrous oxide canister.
“Matt uses different methods than the traditional way to put things on a plate,” Selland says. The results have been drawing rave reviews from the notoriously picky Toronto food scene critics who have awarded top marks in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, and named the restaurant one of Canada’s best new establishments in Gourmet Magazine and Sharp.
Selland loves educating his guests on new ingredients and savours their enjoyment. “It’s really exciting. Part of our original mandate was that we wanted to do something that no one else was doing and a lot of that was using ingredients that no one else was presenting,” he says.
“We don’t dilute the ingredients at all. We want to present them in an interesting form, but in no way do we try to trick people into eating something by making it taste like something it’s not.”
Nonetheless, Selland and Blondin do not attempt National Geographic-style fidelity to the various locales and traditions of the food they serve. “By no means do we limit ourselves by saying that this dish is going to be from New Orleans and this dish is going to be from Nova Scotia; we intermix those ingredients quite a bit.”
The final factor in their menu’s success is their insistence that those ingredients represent the absolute best of their kind available, as they scrupulously select the finest flavours to combine.
“I think the dish that embodies that the most would be the grits that we serve,” Selland says. While most Ontarians probably only know the creamy, polenta-like grits familiar in various southern U.S chain-style restaurants, Selland and Blondin bring their raw grits in from Anson Mills in South Carolina. It is an artisan mill that hand-produces grits from heirloom varieties of corn and that are widely recognized as the cream of the crop in grits.
Presented at Acadia with shrimp, oyster mushrooms, pimento cheese in a ham-hock consommé, Selland admits that while grits may not sound like much, their version deceptively hides one of the biggest wow factors on their menu. “The taste and the texture make it quite a spectacular dish. It really is a simple ingredient - it’s corn - it’s just presented in a way that they’ve never had it before.”
The menu at Acadia is not set in stone, and diners may want to check out what’s new on the restaurant’s website and blog at www.acadiarestaurant.com when planning a visit.
“Matt and I are ones for constant change and improvement, so our menu is always turning over,” Selland says. “Yes, the seasons contribute to it, but we’ve spent so much time building this restaurant up that we have a ton of ideas that we just want to get out there and experiment with.”
Acadia opened on July 20 with no advance buildup. “We just quietly opened our doors and let people show up,” Selland says, crediting social media such as Twitter and Facebook with the explosive spread of positive comments on their restaurant.
Selling out nights for weeks in a row by September, Selland hasn’t had much chance to relax since the opening, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People have asked me what else I would do if I wasn’t doing this, and quite honestly I’ve never done anything but restaurants, so I have no basis for comparison,” Selland says. “Restaurants are full of adrenaline and passion and excitement level that you don’t find in a lot of other places. Your variables are always changing – every single day you come in something has changed. It’s hard to be stale.”
YOUR GUIDE TO FINE DINING IN MUSKOKA
Teca is the spot for “simply Italian” cuisine at The Rosseau, A JW Marriott Resort & Spa in the heart of the Muskoka Lakes. It begins with the delightful option to valet park the car. Once inside this cozy little bistro, the atmosphere is at once lively and relaxing, as guests are welcomed to a total experience for the senses. Diners hear the banter of chefs while watching them throw pizza dough made from imported Italian flour – catch the scent of fresh basil coming from the woodstone oven – and feel a wonderful sense of anticipation as the risotto is presented in a copper bowl, or the antipasto is served on a board, for sharing. Desserts made from the resort bakeshop, including gelatos, tiramisu and tiny cookies complete the evening.