UPDATE: b’SIDE BISTRO HAS CLOSED
The husband and wife team of Derek Benitz and Meghan McManus have expanded their family business and opened a second restaurant adjacent to their first, the one-and-a-half year old Benitz Bistro. The coyly name b’Side Wine and Small Plates, is now four months old. Two restaurant births in two years is pretty impressive, but Benitz is an able chef and though I have yet to figure out how to eat at both places simultaneously, I doubt that one will suffer for the other’s needs.
Despite being a new project, I find few hiccups at b’Side. It actually gives the impression of being long established. The pace of the meal is bang on, the service smooth and thoughtful, and the western wall of opaque glass panels and appliquÃ© squares of silver leaf (with recessed lights and mirror b’hind) actually looks a bit scratched-up in spots. This must surely be a relief. Like the first dent in a new car frees you up to just relax and enjoy the vehicle. (At least, so says my seventeen year old.)
I find myself surprisingly calm in this bravely black space. While thoroughly modern, it doesn’t feel too forcefully designery. Clever lighting, a wall of booze and another of mirror and glass stands in for art. Other walls, plus ceiling, tables, sofas, servers, and sommelier are all in black. White and silver are used in crisp contrast – on chairs, in filmy curtains that soften and separate spaces, and in the squared serving dishes. Tasting plates are perfectly red.
If your mood is black, a small bowl of Benitz French onion soup will go a long way to lifting it. It is not a big bowl, which is as it should be, and which allows you to graze your way through other smallish offerings.
On the b’Side menu are small plates and pastas, some conventional (the apparently obligatory calamari, crab cakes, bruschetta and ribs) and some more interesting (arrancini, rabbit rillette, wild boar meat balls, lamb sweetbreads). Dinner here can be involved or simple, leisurely or fast, safe or a bit bold.
If I were to return, and I will, I’d steer away from the more pedestrian offerings. While the baby back ribs are ably cooked – the flesh does indeed tumble off the bone – the flavour is weak. And though the crab cakes are generously served and admirably meaty, and the calamari is as fresh and yielding as any you’ll find, these are still just crab cakes and fried, battered squid, two starters you find EVERYwhere.
I’d rather graze my way to a full tummy on the more interesting fare.
Top of that list is the arrancini, crisp spheres of saffron rice stuffed with a supple bison stew, on a puddle of goat cheese sauce. Lovely too is the rich and rustic rabbit rillette with caramelized pear. Seared and milky soft sweetbreads are set next to a few links of North African Merguez sausage, spicy with harissa. The mash served with the bangers is a luscious celery root purÃ©e. A trio of free-roaming boar meatballs, crowned with a deep fried coin of parmesan, come with a tomato ‘jam’.
These are unfussy, unpretentious dishes, of big flavours and winning combinations.
The second part of the b’Side menu is a small pasta section, each preparation available in ‘solo’ and ‘sharing’ portions. At dinner, two winners – a rich venison stew with porcini mushrooms, fresh basil and roasted red peppers on the wide pappardelle noodles; and ratatouille, goat cheese, pesto and fresh basil tumbled with pinched farfalle (bow ties). At lunch, the linguine vongole – clams and spinach in a winey cream sauce – is a great comfort.
There are wines to pair with all of this, or wines to sip with just a little of this, carefully chosen, interesting picks, and available in 3oz and 6oz pours.
CrÃ¨me brulÃ©e is the classic, with the black specks of a vanilla bean flavouring the cool custard and caramelized cap. The plum crumble is also good, with vanilla gelato. A tarte tatin takes a short cut and though the apples are soft, they are not the bittersweet and sticky caramelized apples we want, and I don’t find the assertive mango ice cream right with them.
If you’d rather end with cheese, Benitz’ assembly and display of Quebec craft cheeses is splendid.
Both Derek and Meghan’s bistros are comfortable, classy spots where you eat, drink and are treated well. Ottawa is b’holden to them.