I have celebrated this restaurant, in columns and in books, a few times over its eight years. You might think that (surely) the charms of Beckta aren’t exactly unknown. You might also ask what purpose a fresh look?
This is a review of a city’s signature restaurant well past its initial hype. But mostly it’s a taste of Beckta post-Play.
I have not returned here since Stephen Beckta and executive chef Michael Moffatt birthed a sibling restaurant — Play Food and Wine, a much bigger Byward Market small plates operation — in 2009. I haven’t been back, in fact, since 2007, shortly after Moffatt was promoted to head chef.
But I’m chiefly here for two reasons: to sample how Beckta chef de cuisine Dirk McCabe cooks in Moffatt’s style, and to sniff around for any signs, any wee cracks, that would suggest Play has siphoned off some of its big brother’s energy.
To discover, you might say, if Play’s now the thing.
Eight years ago, when Beckta Dining and Wine opened, there were other worthy restaurants in this region. But it pretty much instantly rocketed to the top of the heap. It managed this largely on the merits of opening chef Steve Vardy’s serious chops, combined with a well-crafted wine list, superior service, and the compelling story of “Hometown Sommelier-Boy Beckta Returns from Big Apple to Win Girl and Open Restaurant.” The press loves that stuff.
In the years since Beckta became a favourite, the fine dining scene in Ottawa has exploded. There are now many more solidly good choices, such that proclaiming with any confidence “the best in the city” is deliciously problematic.
But I’ve been eating like a maniac these past months, and I’ve hit up every top restaurant in Ottawa, across the river, down the Valley, in preparation to launch a third edition of my guidebook, Capital Dining. And what seems quite clear to me is that Stephen Beckta understands profoundly well the art (and work) of providing hospitality; and he hires better than anyone else in the city.
A dinner here this fall confirmed that this trailblazing restaurant’s ability to please and prosper endures. And if it edges out other worthy places where the food is just as wonderful — and there are those — it’s because Beckta is staffed with reliably good people. You are served here by nice kids who not only have the answers to your questions, but those answers seem neither rehearsed nor off the cuff. They know the line between attentive and overbearing, and they skate around the room with professional warmth.
In other words, you like them. But not so much that you want them to join you. Which, for me, is about perfect.
But good grief, how about a word on the food?
McCabe’s chilled pumpkin custard was ethereal — delicately scented, tied with a belt of green onion. The grease smudges on my notes indicate I really liked the starter of spot prawns, all soft and crunch in their panko coats, paired with a poached pear and puddle of pear gastrique. The strength of a trio of lamb was the pink loin, though we liked too the delectable roulade, the duck fat spuds, the smoked tomato relish and lovely fall vegetables. Sockeye salmon was beautifully cooked, set on a white bean purÃ©e with yellowfoot chanterelles and a tart, pungent lemon caper vinaigrette.
Some itsy mistakes. The intermezzo of elderflower sparkling water poured over a tomato granitÃ©e seemed oddly contrived. And though we’re mad about the clear flavour of the duck consommÃ© poured over slow cooked goose and delicate squash flan (with roasted pistachios lending welcome crunch) the failure here is with temperature — the soup is quickly tepid once it hits the cool custard.
For dessert, a refreshing tart of Saskatoon berries, with yogourt-lightened pastry cream and lacey almond cookies. More mignardises come with the bill.
Beckta’s good looking enough, but it’s not what you’d call a great beauty, and it’s sure not in a happening ‘hood.
But you can absolutely count on it to provide the full-package deal, and in that, this food- and wine-lover’s restaurant remains tops.