I’ve returned to the increasingly-gentrified Hintonburg this week, to another new restaurant, this one just across the street from the new Back Lane Café reviewed two weeks ago (see October 13 column.) Burnt Butter has moved into the corner space where the Chinese-Cambodian restaurant Phnom Penh used to be.
The proprietors are Steve Wallace and Gen Lamorie, husband and wife. Wallace is the chef, and according to his bio, hails most recently from Anthony’s on Elgin (formerly the Ritz Elgin) and before that, from various management posts at Ritz restaurants.
According to the Burnt Butter blog, Wallace and Lamorie have done most of the reno work themselves. And they’ve done a fine job. A long, slender space, favouring the street, the walls a sunny yellow, floor, ceiling, chairs and trim are black, tables glow. Sunlight floods the room through a long bank of windows. At night, candles provide an inviting blush. On the walls are big chalkboard menus, along with black and whites of Hintonburg hydrants and an assortment of neighbourhood landmarks.
The Burnt Butter kitchen has a large “Pass”, visible from the centre tables. These are mixed blessings. Opening the kitchen up can contribute to a relaxed atmosphere, and they can provide some fun theatre (though my view is of the dishwasher) but you need a pretty smooth running (or at least the appearance of a smooth running) kitchen to pull them off and open kitchens sure add to the overall noise level. One lunch the persistent whacking (flattening veal?) is annoying. A server suggests the pounder pause, given there are still lunchers in the dining room – but he doesn’t and we suffer through.
I would love to trumpet this new place, but I’m afraid there’s too much to suffer through. These are early days for Burnt Butter and – who knows – it may become one of Ottawa’s great restaurants, but based on my four visits, it has a ways to go.
The best thing I ate here, came at the end. A good slice of pie – pecan one night, walnut another – better if you scraped off the canned whipped cream.
For a place called Burnt Butter, the pale whipped butter gives the first inkling that things won’t wow. If you call yourself Burnt Butter, give me deeply caramelized spoon-right-into-the-mouth-able butter. But this was the tell. Flavours overall were tepid, presentations were stark, and some combinations simply didn’t work.
The warm Caesar wasn’t bad, though neither was it memorable. The calamari was greasier than ideal, and more batter than fish, though we quite liked the citrus dip. Mushroom soup was salty but otherwise pleasant, though it’s a big wide bowl of grey – a dollop or a squiggle of something bright? It needed something to pretty it up. There are “sides” on offer which are sometimes delivered with the main dish, and sometimes as a starter. A daily fritter, mushroom at two visits, lost beneath the onslaught of oily batter. The gnudi were yummy set in a pool of greened oil. A side of asparagus was thin, reedy, flavourless – and asparagus shouldn’t be a permanent side dish in October.
The menu is half pasta, but the dishes seem more designed for showing off than for my comfort. Why do I want to eat lime-flavoured pasta pouches stuffed with crunchy zucchini and flaked snapper napped with a spicy tomato sauce that obliterates any delicacy I might have found (but didn’t) within the plump triangoli with the raw seams? And gnocchi with crushed amaretti cookies in them was unpleasantly sweet, while the veal on top was tough. Odd too the lemongrass cappelletti – stuffed with chicken and leek in a ginger cream sauce, particularly alarming when the server offered to sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. (I grabbed his hand too viciously before he let loose the spoonful and am still feeling badly about that.) The greened with chard agnolotti in an eggplant broth read more interestingly than it tasted, though this was the best pasta I tried. The sage fettucine with peas and prosciutto featured gummy noodles, the ham too thickly assertive, the peas weary, the sage flavour wan.
Of the main dishes, I’ve liked best the chicken stuffed with caramelized onion. Others were weak. Shrimp and scallops with white bean compote was disappointing – the fish overdone, the beans underdone, the plate drab looking. The dollop of ricotta and pesto on top of a slightly overcooked pork chop was fridge cold, the roast potatoes were too assertively spiced and peppered.
Best dessert was the walnut pie. A crème brûlée fashioned with coconut milk was too liquid, too sweet. And I would suggest the short wine list should offer more affordable options. There isn’t a glass of wine under $10, and markups are un-neighbourly.
From the street, Burnt Butter is a fine addition to the neighbourhood. Warm, sleek and a natural destination for folks hungry for something new. But my sense is of a kitchen that is overreaching, overcomplicating things, missing the mark on the basics.