December, 2012 note to readers: Michael Blackie has left the National Arts Centre
For as many years as I’ve been writing about Ottawa restaurants, I have found the food at the National Arts Centre’s dining room pretty so-what-ish, hobbled by a pre-performance menu apparently set in aspic. It seemed to me a restaurant stubbornly determined not to outshine the shows going on above its head.
Then, a year ago, the Centre hired Michael Blackie to run the kitchen. And shortly thereafter, MB Cuisine was launched with some hoopla at Le CafÃ©.
Like the NAC, Blackie is something of an institution in this town (though a little newer to the scene). If you knew his menu at Perspectives in the Brookstreet Hotel, you know he is fond of flights of lexical fancy. His menus tend to be dashing documents, with lots of slashes and gimmicky exponential notations. His headings can be baffling: ‘Fluid’ means soup; ‘Excite’ means appetizers, and ‘PlÃ©nitude’ is the French word used for a main dish, though it was a head-scratcher for a number of my francophone friends. A ‘lick’ is a dressing. Or is it a glaze? Whatever.
Producing dinner before a show imposes greater demands on a theatre restaurant than merely dishing up a good meal. Large numbers of guests tend to arrive and leave at the same time, all wanting to be fed well and quickly. A restaurant needs to be creative and highly organized, but not so “creative” that the patrons spend too much time trying to decipher a menu full of babblespeak, and your servers waste it further trying to put things into plain words. (If I find Le CafÃ©’s menu intimidating, imagine how my elderly dining neighbours felt on symphony night, trying to make sense out of “B.A. beef tartare / jasmine and shiso rice bomb / ume plum paint / crystallized ginger.”)
But if the new menu reads oddly, it doesn’t eat that way. The food hasn’t been entirely without disappointment, but mostly it’s been terrific.
Dinner begins with a small gift from the kitchen, and then a trio of spread options for a trio of buns – unsalted butter with a side of sea salt, a pumpkin-seed pesto, a roasted red pepper spread. A lobster bisque soup is luxurious. The mushroom “macchiato” (soup with a toupÃ© of cheesy foam) has a wet-woodsy flavour and a quiet pepper-heat. Blackie’s steak salad at lunch is a simple triumph, while the tuna salad is an artful play on the classic NiÃ§oise.
The beef tartare is a pretty dish: a log of raw meat, juicy and generously seasoned, dressed with three buttons of something like arancini (rice balls) next to a salad topped with paper thin rounds of radish. The rice was all but impossible to detect inside the deep fried tempura batter, and tasted a bit too much of the oil in which it was browned, but still, the combination of the soft raw meat below and the crunch above was quite fine.
A main dish of scallops is slightly overcooked, missing a rare heart, and arrives only vaguely warm. But connecting the scallops is a well-dressed spinach and wild mushroom salad crowned with a confetti of deep-fried carrot shavings for chomp.
Blackie “squared” turns out to be a layered presentation of roasted black cod and a triumph of textures. The juicy fish is crusted with crumbled cotecchino (a fairly mild Italian sausage) and dried mushrooms, then topped with a crusty jumble of leek strands. Beneath the fish is a gritty mound of white bean “hash,” and lapping the edges of fish, hash and braised bok choy is a low moat of a deep-flavoured liquid. Scattered edamame (soy beans) are the green pebbles in the dark pond. This is a lovely dish. So is the rib-eye, its delicious meat expertly grilled. And though it could be argued a trio of shrimp is doused too exuberantly with a fiery rub for the shy veal served with it, still we devour them happily. We devour the asparagus too, white and green with May flavour.
Desserts disappoint. The profiteroles fail – a fine chocolate sauce, but pastries that were shockingly soggy and still frozen. A bread pudding is stodgy, and crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e would have been perfectly fine if whoever decided to add a tablespoon of raw sugar crystals to the caramelized surface had been apprehended before the crime.
The wine list is a great length, has admirable Canadian content, and is obviously expertly assembled, though priced for profit.
Service is adept. It can even be charming, but it needs to be much better disciplined and more consistent. I have yet to get the sense of anyone in charge of this room, and it could use that strong presence. Case in point: my first taste of MB Cuisine on a non-event evening in a resoundingly empty dining room of perhaps five tables. We had a reservation and had left a contact number. We had been greeted, seated and allowed to order $250 worth of food and wine before politely, but firmly, and despite our spirited objections, being told we had an hour and 15 minutes in which to enjoy it before “scheduled maintenance.” I am, several months and three meals later, still reeling. (There are times I fantasize about abandoning my anonymity in some dramatic fashion. That night was one of them.)
My final word is about the room itself. It has certainly been refreshed, but – despite the new colours and elegant touches like white orchids on every white linen table – it remains a long-limbed, bunker-like room with low ceilings and a goofy labyrinthine entrance. (It’s the curse of the NAC: navigating its endless twisted corridors reminds me of the last time I was sent to X-ray.)
Granted, much of this is out of Michael Blackie’s control. His first job is the food, and he has significantly raised the bar. But if the dining room of Canada’s National Arts Centre is to be more than incidental, if it ever seeks to be the performance, rather than just a convenient place to eat before the main event upstairs, it will need more than just good food. It needs to be a great room, with everyone in it singing from the same sheet, in harmony, under the guidance of a strong conductor. And some of those elements are still missing. It will take time.
That it’s tastier than ever is a very good start.