The Twisted Lemon

A chef and his family live and cook successfully under one roof in Ontario.
Photo credit: Laura Watilo Blake

It’s a busy Saturday night at the Twisted Lemon, an award-winning restaurant in the picturesque town of Cayuga, Ontario. All burners are ablaze. Chef Dan Megna and his staff are putting the finishing touches on a stuffed rack of lamb when a young boy runs in. Dan stops what he’s doing to pick up the child, plants a big kiss on his cheek and says goodnight.

“It doesn’t matter how busy we are. I am so grateful for that moment,” Dan says the next day, when the restaurant is closed and he gets to play full-time dad. “Knowing that as hard as we work and as stressful as it gets, the kids are here. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Passion and love of family are what drive Dan and his wife, Laurie Lilliman. An uncompromised commitment to fresh local cuisine is what’s made their restaurant a success. And it’s the Twisted Lemon’s very unusual location that allows both the restaurant and the family to thrive.

The couple — both with extensive experience in the hospitality industry — was operating a fast-growing catering business out of the home they share with their son, Rion, 3, and Laurie’s two daughters, Jaclyn, 12, and Rawny, 14. After they had to turn down a big function, they decided it was time to take the next step. Over a glass of wine, they made the decision to open a restaurant — in their living room.

“We knew if we were going to do this, we’d have to do it our way and go forward with 100 percent conviction,” Laurie says.

It was just a matter of getting everyone else in the family comfortable with the idea. “We sat down with the girls and said, ‘OK, fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be very unusual, and it’s going to get messy.’”

As Jaclyn recalls: “At first, I thought, ‘It’s just a restaurant — they’re just going to be over there working and then come back home and stuff.’ Boy, was I wrong! But after awhile, we kind of got used to it, and we made it work.”

Making it work meant renovating the entire home, a former church on a corner lot two blocks from the mighty Grand River. They divided the new restaurant from their private living quarters and converted Rawny’s bedroom into a living room, all while Laurie and Dan were caring for a newborn. “We didn’t sleep,” says Laurie.

If that wasn’t stressful enough, the family had a film crew from the Food Network Canada show “The Opener” filming their every move in the days leading up to the moment they made their first dollar as a restaurant. Host David Adjey, a former personal chef for Dan Aykroyd and competitor on “Iron Chef America,” ultimately pushed them in the right direction, encouraging them to be “militant about being local.”

“He made us own our dream,” says Laurie. “By day three or four, you can see Dan’s attitude change to ‘this is our home and our dream, and this is who we are.’ And I am so grateful for the advertising and exposure we got.”

With its emphasis on fresh local ingredients and a commitment to quality cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere, the Twisted Lemon has quickly attracted a following from as far away as Toronto and the United States. The locavore concept firmly put small-town Cayuga on the culinary map, shining a spotlight on the area’s bounty, from the local lamb to the basil, rosemary, dill and peppermint grown in Dan’s own garden.

It’s not to say the path to their success has been easy, especially at the beginning. “It was one of the craziest things we ever imagined,” Dan says. “But we all came out holding hands. It was a really cool scenario.”

The key was keeping an eye on what Laurie calls the crystal ball. She pauses while setting the dinner table in the family’s small eat-in kitchen. Over the sound of kitchen appliances whirring, phones ringing, the girls singing and Rion playing with his trucks on the floor, she explains.

“Everyone, regardless of what they do, has their own balls in the air. Everybody’s juggling rubber balls, and then there’s that crystal ball — your health, your family, your close friends, the stuff that is the most important to focus on. The other balls will bounce, but the crystal ball won’t. If you lose your job, you can get another one. If this whole thing falls apart, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. We’ll be together as a family.”

And on this Sunday afternoon, the restaurant on the other side of the wall is quiet, giving the entire family an opportunity to gather around their own table for a meal together and enjoy each other’s company.

Family Dinner at the Twisted Lemon

The Menu:
Greek Salad
Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Citrus Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

The reality of running a restaurant means few home-cooked meals together for chef Dan Megna and the rest of his family. “Eating together at the table seven days a week is just not our life,” says Dan. “But if we’re all home on Sunday, we will cook together. I am the biggest fan of simple, home-cooked food.”

On a recent Sunday, the family made its favorite meal together. Three-year-old Rion helped his father make sweet potato gnocchi, while Jaclyn made her signature cupcakes. (She’s the baker in the family.)

Meanwhile, Rawny recreated her version of the Greek salad she first ate on the island of Zakynthos on the night of her 13th birthday. (When her children were born, Laurie began saving $1 a day for each of them to go anywhere in the world to celebrate their 13th birthdays.)

Rawny’s Greek Salad

(All vegetables are rough chopped. Amounts of each can vary.)

Cucumber, with skin on
Red onion
Black olives
Red, yellow and orange peppers
Feta cheese
Fresh oregano
White or red wine vinegar
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked pepper

Toss together all vegetables and olives and top with feta cheese and oregano. Serve the salad naked and set out salt and pepper and bottles of wine vinegar and olive oil for dinner guests to dress the salad themselves. »

Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Wild Mushroom Sage Cream Sauce

(Serves 6)

3 medium-sized sweet potatoes
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
1-2 large eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of nutmeg
Olive oil

Cream Sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 cup of wild mushrooms
1/4 cup of dry white wine
1 1/2 cups of 35 percent cream
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
6-8 fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place sweet potatoes on a baking sheet, and roast for approximately 30 minutes or until soft in the center. Place Yukon Gold potatoes in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer until skins crack, and potatoes are cooked through. Place Yukon Gold potatoes on a baking sheet, and put into preheated 350-degree oven to dry out for approximately 15 minutes. Scrape both potatoes into a ricer, and press through fine disc into a large bowl. Depending on moisture, add 1 to 2 eggs. Add nutmeg, and gradually add flour, a little at a time, until dough is soft with just a little bounce back. Cut dough into 6 equal pieces, and roll each into long, thin strips about ½- to ¾-inch thick. Cut strips on a bias, making 2-inch long pieces. Blanch gnocchi in salted boiling water until they float. Remove from water, and place onto an oiled tray until cooled. Pan fry with olive oil on medium heat until golden crisp on outside. Serve with wild mushroom sage cream sauce (recipe below.)

Wild Mushroom Sage Cream Sauce

Heat frying pan with olive oil over medium heat. Sweat shallot and minced garlic until translucent. Add wild mushrooms, and sauté until mushrooms soften. Deglaze with white wine, and reduce by half, then add cream and reduce by one quarter. Add parmesan, sage and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine and melt cheese. Top gnocchi and enjoy.

Jaclyn’s Rainbow Citrus Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

(Makes two dozen cupcakes)


2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
1-1 ½ cups white sugar
1/2 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 8-ounce package cream cheese
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 orange
1 lemon
1 lime

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut in shortening until fine crumbs are formed. Add eggs, milk and vanilla extract. Blend on low speed for one minute, then on a higher speed for two minutes. Pour into prepared cupcake pan. Bake in pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

Beat together cream cheese, vanilla extract and butter until fluffy. Slowly add powdered sugar 1 to 2 cups at a time, until frosting is the right thickness. Refrigerate. Carefully zest lemon, orange and lime until outer peel is gone. Sprinkle zest onto frosted cupcakes.

Info to Go:
Twisted Lemon
3 Norton St. West
Cayuga, Ontario