Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the hottest restaurant to open in the past 12 months wasn’t some million-dollar ByWard Market behemoth but rather a petite venture with hefty ambition, found, if you’re crafty (there is no sign), on the edges of Little Italy.
Marc Lepine, formerly of the Courtyard Restaurant, took over the small house vacated by the Thai restaurant Chaba, and just before Christmas ’08 opened his 22-seat Atelier. From a stove-less kitchen that has the austere look of an operating theatre, Lepine and his sous chefs prepare 12-course tasting-menu-only dinners, based on the Barcelona model of chef as both craftsman and chemist.
Granted, there were many tasty bites in 2009 (and I’m about to tell you a bit about them), but none wowed me quite as much my sixth course at Atelier. Or was it my seventh? Bother.
Read on. But take note: I have not returned to any of these restaurants listed below since the month in which these reviews appeared. And these bites were not necessarily enjoyed in eateries I can recommend without equivocation. It’s the dishes I greedily rechew by memory, not necessarily the entire meal.
Next to a dejected parking lot, inside an unmarked building of no particular curb appeal, is what enRoute magazine considers the fourth best new restaurant in Canada. You won’t hear any argument from me.
Although the soup course — a spicy butternut squash with “noodles” of crab apple suspended in liquid nitrogen (complete with a test tube of roasted pine nuts and bacon) — was inspired and delicious, it was the crisp chunk of sous vide venison with its eye-popping plate-mates of vegetables, powders and purées, precision-lined on a crimson swath of beet, that was outstanding. Best bite of the year.
From new age food back to the century-old Nantua sauce. (Haven’t had one of those in decades.) But there it was, its gentle sea flavour and pale peach colour mined from crushed and simmered crayfish shells. Poured over two snowy white, soft-edged pike quenelles, it was a nap-inducing starter, prepared and sweetly served by the students of Le Cordon Bleu at their Ottawa teaching restaurant, Le Bistro Cordon Bleu.
What a treat to have chef Steve Vardy move back to Ottawa from Newfoundland, and helm the kitchen at the 30-year-old Black Cat Bistro, also recently relocated to Preston Street. The fit is quite fine. My favourite dish from a Vardy meal at the Cat was perfect triangles of lightly seared B.C. Albacore tuna, dressed with a disciplined garnish of halved grapes sporting jalapeno hats and scattered with crispy bits of shallot.
At the Urban Pear (poised to enter its ninth year in the Glebe), the king of the starters was soup.A thick purée of roasted parsnip was sweetened with apple and refreshed with pretty swirls of apple-green oil on its surface. Floating on a slowly sinking garlicked crostini was a warmed chop of walnuts, blue cheese and apricots.
Play Food and Wine fed me a small plate (as is its habit) of splendid pickerel. A thick chunk of the freshwater fish, snowy white but with bronzed surface crunch, was served playfully with carrot chips. Beneath the fish, spinach provided the green refreshment, and on top, a brightening mix of mushrooms and a confit of lemon.
Farm-made pickled onions cut the luscious fat of the duck foie gras served at the start of my Mariposa Farms Sunday lunch, and homemade fennel bread warm from the wood stove brought it happily to my mouth.
It’s a ways to go for exceptional crème brulée, but if you plan to be within 100 kilometres of Messines, I suggest you book a table well in advance at Maison La Cremaillere for Andrée Dompierre’s classic French cuisine, saving a shred of appetite for her berry-stained custard with its pretty toupée of spun sugar.
What pleasure is a well-made French onion soup! At Arôme in the Hilton Lac Leamy, it was given a citrus kick with Blanche de Chambly beer. The Art-is-in toast and Gruyere cheese were in fine balance with the rich, sweet broth.
Still in June, Molto is what became of Euro Bistro, a popular lunch spot on busy Promenade du Portage, though my plate of gnocchi bathed in a Marinara sauce that sparkled with fresh basil, was a dinnertime pleasure.
The Moonroom calls itself a lounge, and yes, its drink list is five times longer than its food menu. If there’s steak tartare on that flexible blackboard list, snag it. Hand-chopped filet, well seasoned and sharpened with capers and onion, it comes with Art-is-in toasties, gherkins and such. Delicious stuff.
Local asparagus, oiled, grilled and topped with a perfectly timed poached egg, was tarted up with bacon and shaved black truffles and made a lovely lunch on the patio of the Courtyard Restaurant.
Lamb carpaccio, fanned on a plate with many elements — among them, a green olive tapenade, a pile of feta cheese, a tzatziki sauce sharpened with preserved lemon — was my favourite starter at Canvas Resto-Bar.
With its base of a thyme-scented duxelle topped with mixed mushrooms and patchy brown topping of buffalo milk mozzarella, the funghi pizza at the Grand had a lovely woodsy flavour, its thin-ish crust gently blistered from the wood-fired oven.
Tough to pick just one dish from the new ZenKitchen, but chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii had the most spectacular chanterelle mushrooms on her September menu, which she coated in a tempura-style batter fashioned with brown rice and gram flours, tossed with black sesame seeds and served the fragrant pile with a duo of sparkling sauces.
If you think of a fish restaurant chef’s chowder as a barometer for her overall accomplishments, Charlotte Langley’s version measures highly. At the Whalesbone Oyster House, in her bowl are the usual suspects — fish and seafood, potatoes and leeks in a lightweight tomato bouillon, heady with basil — but the whole is perfectly sublime.
The best of the starters at the relocated-to-Springfield-Road Fraser Café was a late fall beet salad — perfectly cooked heirloom beets, teamed with thin slices of radish, toasted pecans, a pile of wild rice, a mound of herbed cottage cheese and for a smoky, crunchy finish, bacon.
Savana Café’s new chef Michael Radford aced a reinvented dish of the Caribbean classic salt fish and ackee. The cod, perfectly milked of its saltiness, was fashioned into panko-crusted croquettes. Once pierced, their molten centres leaked into a yolk-coloured ackee purée, while the saucy sides — a tomato sofrito and a limey aioli — brought some clever balance.
Atelier, 540 Rochester St., 613-321-3537, atelierrestaurant.ca
Bistro Cordon Bleu (which recently reopened as Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @Signatures) 453 Laurier Ave. E., 613-236-2499, restaurantsignatures.com
Black Cat Bistro, 428 Preston St., 613-569-9998, blackcatbistro.ca
The Urban Pear, 151 Second Ave., 613-569-9305, theurbanpear.com
Play Food and Wine, 1 York St., 613-667-9207, playfood.ca
Mariposa Farms, 6488 County Rd. 17, Plantagenet, ON, 613-673-5881, mariposa-duck.on.ca
Maison la Cremaillere, 24 Chemin de la Montagne, Messines, QC, 819-465-2202, lacremaillere.qc.ca
Arôme, Hilton Lac Leamy, 3 boul. Du Casino, Gatineau, 819-790-6410
Molto, 131 Promenade du Portage, Gatineau, 819-777-9344
The Moonroom. 442 Preston St., 613-231-2525
The Courtyard Restaurant, 21 George St., 613-241-1516, courtyardrestaurant.com
Canvas Resto-Bar, 65 Holland Ave., 613-729-1991, canvasrestobar.ca
The Grand, 74 George St., 613-244-9995, thegrandpizzeria.com
ZenKitchen, 634 Somerset St. W., 613-233-6404, zenkitchen.ca
The Whalesbone Oyster House, 430 Bank St., 613-231-8569, thewhalesbone.com
Fraser Café, 7 Springfield Rd., 613-749-1444, frasercafe.ca
Savana Café, 431 Gilmour St., 613-233-9159, savanacafe.com