NIPAWIN - Surrounded by lakes, golf courses and the beauty of Mother Nature, Nipawin is a charming town in northeastern Saskatchewan and the perfect place to unwind and explore.
It’s also home to the globally inspired cuisine at the Mabel Hill Farm Kitchen and Market Place.
A love of food took Michael Brownlee, owner and executive chef of Mabel Hill, from his family home in the small Saskatchewan community of Carrot River to graduating from the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, P.E.I.Along the path between graduating and today, he has worked at The Inn at Bay Fortune in eastern P.E.I., a boutique-style, high-end restaurant; a pop-up at Saskatchewan’s northwest Pasquia Regional Park; and at Saskatoon’s Ayden Kitchen and Bar.
After experiencing a variety of kitchens and a short stint working on his grandparents’ 20-acre market garden, in June 2018 at the age of 26, Brownlee took a leap and purchased a farmyard minutes east of Nipawin with aspirations of turning it into his own restaurant.
Perched on a hill known as Mabel Hill, the property included 28 acres of yard, a house and a traditional-styled, hip-roofed barn along with a smattering of old, small outbuildings.
Brownlee, his parents, grandparents, friends, and contractors rolled up their sleeves and began the transformation. They designed, bulldozed, dug, poured, plowed, planted, hammered, assembled and quickly changed the sparse hilltop farmyard into a year-round culinary destination.
In the span of six months, they built a 75-seat rustic, farm-style restaurant with a modern twist. They also designed and created a four-acre vegetable garden that includes 14 types of edible flowers, a variety of herbs, heirloom vegetables and traditional root vegetables.
Evidently, they did not have enough to do so they expanded their plan to include an orchard with about 400 trees. In addition to Saskatoon berries and tart cherries, they planted a variety of plum, pear, apple, haskap, highbush cranberries and currants. They added about 300 raspberry bushes of four varieties and close to 500 strawberry plants. This was all done in six months with the plan to welcome their first restaurant guests on Dec. 18, 2018.
Brownlee aspired to create a dining experience where he could build relationships with his customers. He wants his culinary talents to attract visitors, from near and far, who will support other local merchants along with enjoying a dining experience at Mabel Hill.
His vision appears to be unfolding according to plan. It didn’t take long for word to get around about this new culinary destination. And, after many requests to host weddings, conferences and celebrations, Brownlee and crew built a pavilion that serves up to 250 guests, and a unique gazebo for visitors to enjoy.
The grounds, restaurant and pavilion were designed and furnished with meaning. The pine used for the buildings and heavy beams was sourced locally as was the pine Brownlee and his dad used to hand-build each dining room table.
Most of the dishes and flatware were formerly used by past generations at what once was the community hall. The one-of-a-kind wagon wheel lights are eye-catchers Brownlee found hidden in a bush on the property. He reclaimed and repurposed them to complement the rustic atmosphere.
The restaurant is a bright and open design, enabling guests to watch the talents at work in the kitchen. Those who choose to relax and enjoy the posh, wrap-around deck will overlook the beautifully landscaped yard and meticulously tended garden. Others may enjoy sipping on an original Mabel Hill cocktail in the bar area.
Brownlee takes in creating a variety of memorable experiences for guests. Whether serving a four-course meal to a table for two in the restaurant, whipping up a unique cocktail or catering to an outdoor celebration, the pride, creativity and enthusiasm of Brownlee, his family and staff are indisputable.
A new menu is offered every few months to reflect what is grown locally and align with the growing season.
While I have yet to visit, when looking at their spring and summer menu, I know I will have a tough time selecting as the offerings are varied and sound mouthwatering.
As a devotee of seafood, I look forward to trying the baked prawn cocktail served with chef-inspired cocktail sauce, made from a blend of kitchen-made Worcestershire gel and Mabel Hill’s tomatoes, celery, basil, caper berries and freshly grated horseradish. Though this is featured as an appetizer, my intuition tells me I may be tempted to have a double order.
Brownlee’s pastas are all made in-house and have piqued my curiosity. I will try the beet and ricotta mezzaluna, which is fresh pasta with a brown butter and poppy seed glaze. It sounds too delectable to pass up. Brownlee laminates whole mint leaves between the sheets of pasta to create a distinct floral leaf-looking pasta dough and add a subtle mint flavour to the dish.
Why stop there? One of Mabel Hill’s most popular dessert items is the bourbon brown butter cake with a hot sour cream, dulce de leche glaze and sour cherry topping. The dulce de leche (a thick, creamy, caramel-like spread) is carefully concocted resulting in a perfect heavenly base for the locally grown cherry topping.
If you don’t have time to dine-in, you can pick up an order. You can also stop by and choose something special from their market, which features seasonal produce, a variety of artisanal preserves, homemade perogies, cabbage rolls, fruit pies and pastas.
Thinking about a future road trip to Mabel Hill, I am going to make sure I pack my golf clubs, an appetite and a cooler.