There is a woeful gap in the growing gastronomy of this great Capital City of ours. The missed-opportunity sort of gap and one I long to see filled.
I refer to the dearth of a decent dining room in any of our National Museums. Other cities are way ahead of us in this regard. They’ve moved past the notion that eating options in museums – places that nourish the soul, that create culture and community and national identity, that provide signature tourism experiences – should be limited to cellophaned sandwiches in basement cafeterias. These museums have created food that compliments the experience of their institution. They’ve hired top-rated chefs and together with visionary directors, they’ve watched their restaurants become as much a destination as the world class exhibits around them. Danny Meyer at MoMa. Chef Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, FRANK at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the C5 Restaurant at the ROM, L’Arrivage and Café des Beaux Arts in Montreal. And countless other examples around the world.
But not in Ottawa, home inarguably to some of the finest museums in the country. The Café du Musee at the Museum of Civilization has the loveliest views of any restaurant in the region, utterly wasted on a lunch-only service, and last I checked still managing to be shades of dreary. The National Gallery of Canada has a cafeteria, but also has Café L’Entrée, a sit down, impermanent restaurant located in The Great Hall. It too has a superb view, open for lunch and for afternoon tea service, but only during visiting hours and only when the Hall isn’t being used for private functions.
Still, when I learned that John Leung (a top-rated chef in my books) had left the British High Commission and accepted the job of executive chef at KW (Kurt Waldele) Catering last summer, I was thrilled. KW runs the food operations at the Gallery and Leung is a masterful chef. He put Restaurant Eighteen on the map eight years ago, and during his time at the (late) Par-fyum restaurant in Hull, it was a gem of a place. Finally, I thought, his food would be publicly accessible again. Surely, I thought, the restaurant at the magnificent National Gallery of Canada would begin to matter.
Well it doesn’t matter. It is, in fact, an embarrassment.
A plastic flower floats upside down in a pool of water on our cold, bald aluminium table. We are seated on frigidly cold matching chairs in the chilly Great Hall of the Gallery, surrounded by magnificent architecture and a view that makes us smile, but the food space itself is laughably austere. No colour, no art, not even a poster or print, just some potted plants and plastic flowers.
The joke continues. “Created by our Executive Chef John Leung” reads the menu. With the exception of a pleasant enough mackerel rillette and a passable salad, food and service are pretty grim. Herbed rolls are fresh but dusty-flavoured, butter comes in plastic packets, napkins are paper, tables are bare, servers may dress nice but their service is appallingly unpolished. Plates and bowls are banquet quality. So was the seafood chowder with its glutinous broth and mush vegetables. A potato and leek soup ate more like baby food apple sauce. Flavourless carpaccio, still slightly frozen, is rescued somewhat by a truffled mayonnaise. Do you want to hear about the flaccid-skinned duck confit? The dessicated tranche of poached salmon surrounded with mushy brown lentils and more mushy bits of veg? The so-called “Croque Monsieur” with the grated cheese still cold, the ham forgettable, the “bruléed” béchamel barely warm? An apple and almond tart was shockingly stale. And don’t get me started on the wine list at the National Gallery of Canada…
Or the service. Shortly after two o’clock, we were told the room would be closing for a private function. “But I thought you were open until 4?” Not today. And could we kindly pay our bill as our server was going on his lunch break. He left us with a plastic bag and container to pack up our cheeses (too cold, none from the region, though he wasn’t sure what they were). We drank our coffee while the roadies removed the furnishings.
But however dreary was lunch at the Gallery, the afternoon tea service was disgraceful. I’ve had better sandwiches at funeral homes: Sticky white commercial bread, dusty flavoured, stale tasting buns and curling-at-the-edges pumpernickel. Fillings tasted like the mayonnaise had gone off, the cucumber was soggy, the watercress mia. Industrial pastry shells. Hardtack pastry cream. With the exception of my great aunt Jay’s, these were the worst scones I’ve ever eaten. The clotted cream and raspberry jam were crammed into the same small cup.
Oh. Wait. The tea. Hot water from a coffee Thermos poured over a bag of Lipton. Tea options – presented in a wooden case like we ought to be impressed – are all Lipton.
Dear National Gallery of Canada: if you cannot serve (or are unwilling to serve) a proper afternoon tea, don’t offer it. The service for two is over $50 with taxes. I won’t repeat what the English couple beside us had to say.
The irony is that you have to reserve a table to get the tea service. The double irony (is there such a thing?) is that the phone service is almost impossible to navigate, making reservations painful.
I commented to our server how cold the chairs are – perhaps a pillow? These chairs cost hundreds of dollars each, he tells us, as if the dollar value would somehow bring warmth to my numb cheeks.
Might I suggest a chair be sold to buy some decent tea?