Used to be we’d lace up skates here. Now we can eat and drink here – sometimes very well, and sometimes not so well.
But on balance, and given that this newish place on the main floor of the Dow’s Lake Pavilion is attempting to carve out a Canadian-cuisine identity in a tourist hub – for Ottawa, a new formula – we applaud the arrival of Lago Bar/Grill/View. Not unreservedly, perhaps, but we applaud nonetheless, with the hope that the bits that don’t work get fixed.
What doesn’t need fixing is the view. It’s Ottawa. In the spring there are the tulips, in the summer, the Dow’s lago (Italian for lake). In the fall, the harvest moon. And, in the winter, the world’s once-longest rink and all the celebrations of our iciness that get fired up at Dow’s Lake. Until recently, all this was
only viewable by those willing to endure a chain restaurant experience, or for those lacing up skates.
I had a first solo Lago lunch early in the spring, with middling results. I shelved my research for a time, planning a revisit on a warm summer night, which meant waiting until early August. That night, from my perch on the Lago deck, surrounded by boats and boat people and with a spectacular view of a rising moon and not a single annoying thing either buzzing in the air or floundering on the plate, I had a truly lovely evening.
Returning for a confirmation meal, I tasted a series of disappointments and was left with no clear picture of what Lago had to offer. So back I went for a fourth meal and can now report on a mix of fine and less fine.
Here’s what was awfully nice: The calamari was tender squid, jauntily spiced. I tasted cumin, cinnamon and a good hit of chili heat, with a black bean aioli as a fine complement. There was a refreshingly limey gazpacho of yellow tomatoes, with a garnish of avocado, tomatillo and cilantro. And the pork medallions with their prosciutto blanket and fresh sage sheets were the highlight of the main dishes, the meaty tenderloin paired with roasted fingerling potatoes.
I was also impressed with the silky fazzoletti, the handkerchief sheets of pasta wrapping a full-flavoured purÃ©e of butternut squash with goat cheese set in a brown butter sauce fragrant with fresh sage and dotted pleasantly with toasted pine nuts.
Here’s what was nice enough: The “rare ahi tuna” starter was more seared than I would like, with a thicker band of grey around a heart of pink, and the fish could have used some seasoning beyond a drizzle of syrupy balsamic, but it came with a ratatouille of sorts that gave it pizzazz. The “Rideau slammers” are a fun idea. Their $2.74 burger price tag (though odd) is kind, but the buns are essentially a meat delivery system and the ratio of bread to meat is unbalanced.
Here’s what needs work: fish. The halibut had a mushy texture. The “Pier 39 fish stew” was mostly overdone fish – mussels, shrimp, tuna, salmon, calamari, with fennel and peppers – in a sauce that tasted of tinned tomato soup minus the salt. A starter shrimp cocktail was three cooked, unseasoned shrimp (dull, dull, dull) and the “cilantro key lime sauce” was surely nothing more than icky-sweet jarred cocktail sauce with a squirt of lime. This, for $15, smarted.
To accompany the food, there’s a fine wine list with strong Canadian content.
So Lago is uneven. But still, there is enough to like and enough to support.
I’ve long thought this spot deserved better than chain eateries, and Dow’s Lake Pavilion seemed a natural place for strong Canadian content. Lago may well be the answer – once it has found its stride.