I’m taking you back to the Glebe this week, to a restaurant around the corner from the one I reported on last week. It was the bitter discovery on a recent Tuesday that Makita Kitchen Bar was closed that sent me to Erling’s as a substitute. I was hungry, it was cold, my car was parked eight blocks away, and there it was. Besides, the pretty lights were beckoning. What’s more, I reasoned, there had been a changing of the kitchen guard, which made it due for a revisit. The last time I supped here the chef was Jeff Bradfield (now at Social), and I was keen to check out the new guy. So I walked a few paces south from the darkened Makita, and turned the corner at Strathcona Avenue to the bright lights of Erling’s Variety.
First, a refresher: Erling’s is owned by first-time restaurateur and musician Liam Vainola. He named his new place in honour of his grocer grandfather, opening Earl’s Variety in late 2013. In early 2014, the big guns at the Vancouver-based chain of Earls eateries came calling: the name ‘Earls’ was theirs and if this little Glebe upstart didn’t change its ‘Earl’s’, there would be big time expensive trouble. So Earl’s became Erling’s (the nickname changed to the birth name), Vainola making the sensible decision to spend his money on new signage and web design instead of lawyers. (Not to mention the free press on the David and Goliath story Earl’s/Erling’s earned in the process.)
In the past three-plus years since Erling’s launched, the Glebe/Old Ottawa South dining scene has changed dramatically. Gone are Carmen’s Veranda, The Urban Pear, John Taylor’s Genuine, and a number of Indian restaurants, including the New Nupur and Glebe Indian Cuisine. The neighbourhood has welcomed Belmont, The Rowan, The Pomeroy House (formerly Segue), and Makita. (And Antipazzo is soon to open in the Taylor’s space). The big box chain eateries at the Lansdowne complex have had an enormous impact as well.
But it’s steady as she goes at Erling’s. Now into its fourth year of service, and notwithstanding changes in its open kitchen, winter visits indicate that Erling’s Variety continues to be a restaurant of relaxed pleasures. The ambience is lovely, the service caring, the wine list terrific, and the food wonderful.
Now in charge of the kitchen is Justin Way, late of MeNa restaurant (currently closed for renovations). The refined cuisine and striking presentations he practiced on Preston Street (with MeNa chef James Bratsberg) are now on Erling’s plates.
Also finding their way to Erling’s plates are vegetables. Indeed, every starter on the latest menu is vegetable-rich and delicious. The tendency to toss in bacon to the usual suspects – cauliflower, Brussels, kale – isn’t practiced here. And not missed one bit.
Way takes a wintery mix of sautéed mushrooms and piles them on a smooth bed of polenta lightened with whipped potato and enriched with smoked cheddar. He tops the pile with a thicket of matchstick apples and a few fried sage leaves. Goat cheese whipped with a touch – just a touch, thank you – of truffle oil perked with ancho chilies takes the dish to another level. Equally impressive is a plate of roasted Brussels sprouts paired with the luscious Tomme du Kamouraska cheese and topped with a softly poached egg.
A squash purée is the base for three perfectly cooked ravioli, the pouches filled with goat cheese, lightly sweet with maple syrup, piqued with jalapeno. Roasted hazelnuts tossed over top give crunch, sautéed chard a bit of bitter, and crumbled sage perfumes the lot.
Salads at Erling’s are thoroughly fussed over, the mixed greens ripe with flavour, loaded up with things pickled, fried, candied, smoked, and roasted.
There’s a tofu dish that eats better than it reads or looks. Cubes of brined tofu are smoked and seared and resting on crunchy-fried cakes, the tofu whipped with mushrooms, miso, and shallots, and moistened with a mad splatter of squash purée — the messy crime scene-splatter-look is one I’d be just as happy to see the back of, though that’s just me. The dish is finished with edamame, radish, and sections of mandarin orange.
And finally, we eat some meat. Way serves a full flavoured venison tartare with a yogurt whip, sweetened with date and nubbly with walnut. The fruit-with-game rule is obeyed with a blueberry-blackberry sauce, hot with habanero and softened with oranges, ginger, and honey. Crispy shallots, dill fronds, pickled shallots, and a pile of potato/sweet potato chips round out the plate.
Cooked meat next. A short rib of beef is soft, intensely perfumed, propped up on a root vegetable latke and surrounded with pale green squiggles of a mango-cilantro sauce. The white flakes on the black plate are not horseradish – as I had assumed – but grated chestnut, which gave the dish a sweet, nutty finish.
And fish: seared sea scallops with roasted and pureed cauliflower, topped with commas of roasted apple, petals of blanched Brussels, and puffed wild rice for texture.
Doughnuts to end – hurrah! – dredged in cinnamon-cardamom sugar and served, Mexican style, with a cold cup of horchata for dunking (or guzzling).
Erling’s may have had a rocky start, losing its name at birth, but like its smart new name it’s a restaurant that’s matured well, now hitting its stride in delightful and delicious ways.