Since the much-missed ZenKitchen closed, Ottawa has been left in the lurch in terms of upscale vegan dining. This may not be keeping all of you up at night. But for a committed vegan (or a dabbling one) looking to be inspired with innovative plant-based cooking in a casual fine-dining setting (with polished service and a wine list) I would say Café My House comes closest to filling that post-Zen gap. It’s not there, but it’s not far off either.
About three years ago, Café My House moved from its little place on Bank Street south to a bigger home in Hintonburg. I had been a fan of the food in its first location (mostly veggie, but with bacon privileges), though my first tastes of the new spot were mostly disappointing. The food was very pretty, very creative, but the flavours were wan and the textures troubled. I also found the room oppressively dark.
And then I went to a pop-up event last winter at Union Local 613, where Café My House chef Briana Kim had teamed up with chef Marc Lepine of atelier. The vegan dishes were impressive. Then I heard Kim was offering a five- or a nine-course tasting menu and that intrigued me as well. Besides, it was summer and I figured Café My House’s back patio would be open – a brighter option on a fine summery day than the dim dining room.
The amuse amused: sprouting from a flowerpot were pickled carrots and wispy kale chips anchored in a ‘soil’ of olive and walnut paste flavoured with cumin, fennel and sesame seeds, along with a good amount of salt. Fun and tasty. On another night, the kitchen added rosemary scented popcorn. Fun and tasty too.
The fun stopped, fleetingly, with the first of the five course menu. Called ‘Scallop Crudo’ because the rounds of assertively pickled Eryngii mushrooms might pass for raw scallops. Topped with red pepper ‘caviar’, it did look very pretty, but the dish was all soft, all-acerbic. It lacked a textural balance and some creamy element.
Course two delivered perfect potato croquettes set in two sauces – a roasted garlic purée and a mojo verde (a spicy Portuguese sauce piqued with lime) – flanked with a ‘pepperoni’ crumble (the house ‘sausages’ where legumes and/or nuts fill in for meat) seasoned with apple and sage, then dehydrated and crumbled. (I think.) Whatever, it was a very nice plate.
Also in the very nice plate department: smoked sage-wheatberry meatballs. These were served with pickled cherry tomatoes, a charred leek roll-up, and two ways with rutabaga – in tempura-ed tendrils and as a rough mousse the size of a ping-pong ball. Cashew based ‘whipped goat cheese’ (which tasted of coconut) shared the plate with a darker tomato-based sauce splashed with vodka.
Cradled in a Chinese soup spoon was the palate cleanser: a pink sphere of watermelon and tequila. Down the hatch. And then a curry dish of cauliflower cocooned in potato strings moistened with a cumin ‘sour cream,’ the fried treats served with Puy lentils and a pesto fragrant with curry leaves. Strips of green ‘leather’ turned out to have some chili heat.
At another visit, with friends, we order the charcuterie board. It’s beautifully assembled. It’s also $39 and, yes, contains no oozy cheeses or aged salamis. And it requires, as does much of the menu, a lot of explaining if you don’t know how words like ‘calamari’, ‘eggs’ and ‘sausages’ translate into vegan reality.
Turns out the calamari is a pile of sesame-crusted, besan-floured enoki mushrooms, set in a maple miso sauce. Very tasty stuff. Devilled eggs are carrot juice orb ‘yolks’, nestled in cashew cream cheese ‘whites’, holding their eggy shapes with help from agar agar – very clever, but less tasty. There are ‘sausages’, which we quite enjoy, fashioned with beans and sage, apple and nuts. Or so I believe. There’s one mason jar of popcorn, another of pickled vegetables. There’s a beet salad, and some dulce and coconut spread for smearing on toast.
No doubt the amount of work involved in a vegan charcuterie board is hours longer than the sliced meats and unwrapped cheeses of the ‘usual’ version. Still, I have less reluctance paying $39 for a vegan charcuterie board of some cunning and much care, than I do a $9 non-alcoholic cocktail. That I struggle with, Café My House.
Vegan desserts rarely move me, and these I admired more than enjoyed: a raspberry vegan cheesecake, a coconut pineapple cake, dark chocolate walnut fudge with banana cream, raspberries and plops of sponge toffee made with agave. As a vegan seeking a sweet ending, I’m sure they’d be fine. I have the disadvantage of knowing I can eat anything.
Service one night is delightful and knowledgeable, and a second night a lone waiter struggles to keep up with the demands of bar-keeping and table service. Waiting 20 minutes for expensive cocktails makes the cost more cutting.
That aside, there is much promise in My House, and I find chef Kim’s cuisine has come far and in winning directions. For the vegan, desperate for a dining experience more thoughtful than a black bean quesadilla, I commend it.