Once upon a time this place was the home of Absinthe CafÃ©, which is now found on Wellington Street. Before that, it was an auto shop. Canvas is about two years old now, and at my first visit in late 2007 I found it pretty uneven. Some bits worked well, some didn’t, and prices seemed high for a restaurant still finding its groove.
And I guess I still find it a bit that way, except that now more works than doesn’t. And this time the dishes that missed weren’t sending up red flags (for reasons of dubious raw materials, say).
The dishes missed because Canvas takes interesting risks and sometimes risks don’t eat perfectly well. But you can commend the restaurant for taking them. In fact, I find Canvas, with new-to-me chef Mike Moskal in the tiny kitchen, a plucky little place.
Pluck is on display in a number of Canvas’s choices. At one visit, on its short menu of five main dishes, mackerel was the featured dish. It may be a fashionably sustainable choice and possess life-giving oils, but it is not a million-selling menu item. Nor is it, I discovered, a fish any self-respecting Cape Bretonner would ever pay 25 bucks for in a fancy restaurant. (She, who used to bait her father’s hooks with mackerel, is still laughing at me: “Tell me again what they charged you for a plate of cod bait?”)
Canvas has also been targeted by the foie gras protesters, fresh from their bullying of some select ByWard Market restaurants. (Taking aim at a small private enterprise that offers a carefully sourced menu of artisanal products rather than picketing the fast food chains, which force-feed millions of us empty, fatty calories and support factory farming on a global level, strikes me as absurd.)
But never mind; Canvas politely pulled its curtains and foie gras remains on its menu.
Surely there is no opposition anywhere to the well-chosen bread and the irresistible caramelized butter spread that comes with it. And full marks for the house soups, an apple and parsnip, in particular. In fact, at each of my three Canvas meals it was the starters that impressed most.
Lamb carpaccio was delightful, fanned out on a long plate ornamented with bits and pieces of flavour – a green olive tapenade, a pile of feta cheese, slices of orange, and a tzatziki sauce featuring preserved lemon. Three meaty, snappy shrimp arrived wrapped in shredded phyllo, crisp and brown and slightly spicy, served with couscous and some dried fruit. Chewy-good duck prosciutto, luscious foie gras with a sprinkling of crunchy salt, a dollop of grainy mustard, gherkins and good crackers comprised the Canvas charcuterie plate. Puy lentils and golden beets were the escorts for three spotless scallops.
Sweetbreads have been crunchy treats. A lobster salad was fresh and fine.
The cut of cow for the steak frites changes daily and is priced per cut, but at all three of my visits it happened to be filet mignon priced at $31. Though the frites were great, the steak was pretty dull and under-seasoned.
An elk dish (from Nunavut, we were told) was a flop, the meat inedibly tough. (It was substituted and the complaint handled with grace.) And though the mackerel was clearly very fresh (because it didn’t taste like mackerel), the beurre blanc wasn’t assertive enough for the fish.
The dish I enjoyed twice, and one of the better vegetarian entrÃ©es I’ve had in a long time, was the gnocchi – the potato dumplings light, greened with fiddleheads, moistened with an arugula-lemon pesto and browned butter. Meaty mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, crunchy pine nuts and shards of parmesan added to the pleasure.
Desserts included a lovely pecan pie, and a delicious lemon and strawberry cheesecake.
Canvas’s wine list is well written and fairly priced, with a decent selection by the glass and half-litre, and comes with a staff trained to navigate food matches.