The charming brick, gingerbread-style home in Manotick evokes times past, with a wooden slat ceiling, deep window sills and wobbly pine floors. Yet at Main Street Cellar you’ll also find plush leather armchairs, a modern gas fireplace, and – for about a year now – a full service menu. Along with a bunch of well chosen, reasonably priced wines. Beer too – Mill Street on tap and some interesting choice in bottles.
Since they opened the venue in June 2009, owners Paul Paton and Kim Burns have succeeded in converting a former dress shop into something pretty cosy, and packed with neighbours at both my visits. Two principal rooms of this old house offer seating and perching at and around the bar and hearth, and then beyond the bar is an intimate dining room that seats about 40.
They’ve sponged the walls a sort of coarse grey, suggesting a cavelike setting. Which of course makes some sense, but on this bright May evening, I found the effect a bit gloomy. Part of the trouble may be that the windows in this room are frosted, and don’t let in an outlook, or much light. And the room could use some more of that.
Service warms it. We are treated very well at our visits.
In the kitchen is chef Amos Jarbeau. I don’t know if he is responsible for the bread, but it’s fantastic stuff. Squares of crumbly cornbread have great flavour (though a bit dry) and share the basket with slabs of country bread, which have a thick, crackling crust and a fabulous sourdough flavour. By the time we’ve used this stuff to sop up the last dribs of the soup du jour, a very good cream of celery with crumblings of blue cheese, we wish we’d shown a modicum of restraint.
Jarbeau has a way with soup. In fact, the soups here have been my favourite parts of the meal. A French onion has a splendid broth, perfectly seasoned, flavoured with tarragon, and furnished with an aged cheddar (from Prince Edward Island, we are told). Cheese is a feature. There’s a full page of artisanal options, mostly regional, served with bread and preserves.
You can use Main Street Cellar as a place to drink and nibble, or you can go for a full meal. I’ve gone the latter route, and the results have been mixed. Some dishes were terrific, and others less so.
From a list of a dozen starters, we like best the ostrich tartare. Yes, I said ostrich. Treated in much the same way as a classic beef tartare – the red meat chopped, flavoured with shallots, capers, moulded into a disc, with a quail egg nestled in a declivity, and served with cornichons, Dijon mustard and crostini. We also like the sautéed mushrooms splashed with port and grilled on house-made flatbread with a rich layer of brie.
The smoked salmon stack is a generous puck of the fish, layered with an avocado and tomato salsa and what we were told was a rösti pancake, but turned out to be plain grated potato, still somewhat raw. Garlic is far too bossy in the shrimp appetizer – though the shrimp are large and crunchy. And scallops are flavourless, in a mango sauce that’s unpleasantly acerbic.
Best of the main dishes is the five-spice duck paired with a salsa featuring papaya, and a pile of gingery basmati rice. The roast chicken could use a crisper skin, but the flesh is juicy thanks to a roasted red pepper and artichoke stuffing. It comes with fragrant jasmine rice and perfect green beans. The vegetarian chickpea pancake is nothing to look at, but the flavours and textures (including a nice pile of Israeli couscous) work pretty well.
Less enjoyable is the bison rib-eye, which lacks a good sear and is a decidedly mixed chew. Some bites are melt-in-the-mouth, but others are riddled with sinew and chew-forever fat. It comes covered indelicately with a very potent blue cheese, which contributes to the general saltiness of the meat. Too much salt on the rapini and too much grainy mustard in the potato salad make for too many domineering flavours that duke it out rather unsuccessfully. And the salmon is overcooked, a bit dry, beneath a crushed black sesame coat that lends texture, but not much else.
A brownie is dark and moist, but lacks chocolate flavour and the ice cream blob on top is pretty ordinary stuff. We like the strawberry cheesecake better. And the cheese plate.
Lovely too, though not quite ready for us, is the backyard patio. Maybe in June.