06/12 NOTE TO READERS: Matt Carmichael has left 18 to pursue his own endeavour
Once you’ve opened the big front door that rises majestically from the street, it’s pretty clear E18hteen is the city’s most beautiful restaurant. Entering its 10th year, it has also become, after some years of finding its stride, a first-class eating place, complete with service that delivers the goods with considerable grace.
It began in 2001, a striking new restaurant, but with food that didn’t manage to match the room and service that was uneven in delivery. Today, Restaurant E18hteen is a solidly reliable choice for fine dining in Ottawa, up there with the best of the best.
It can play the timelessly elegant cliche pretty well. It helps, of course, that the bones of this place are so compelling, that the ceiling soars, but within the frame of solid stone wall and grand height is a modern design that has stood the test of time. It continues to impress. The use of curtains — some wispy, some heavy — to create private spaces, block sound and create texture, is new (at least to me) and inspired. They notch up the drama.
Helmed for four years now by Matthew Carmichael, E18hteen’s kitchen is very strong. His autumn menu is a nice length and the food I’ve been served tastes of delicate flavours, sharp contrasts of texture, and top-quality ingredients.
A late September tomato salad is elevated by its heirloom varieties. The knobs of rich goat cheese from Floralpe Farm make an intensely creamy condiment, and the black olive tapenade lends a bright, salty balance to this striking arrangement of greens, cheese and fruit.
In October, every restaurant I visited had a beet salad on its menu, and I guess I’ve pretty much sampled a dozen, being a beet freak, but none was as compelling as this one. A plate of striking textural contrast, the beet varieties — Bull’s blood, golden and the candy cane chioggia beets (all perfectly cooked) — were paired with bursts of sweet juiciness in pink cubes of sous vide melon, the line of beet and fruit threaded with crunchy pine nuts and finished with a sharp cheddar foam.
Chicken isn’t something I tend to order unless I’m pretty sure the bland clucker will taste of more than whatever happens to be on top of it. But we order E18hteen’s (from Mariposa Farms) mostly to get its side of perfect gnocchi, and are rewarded with a handsomely browned, juicy fleshed, and full flavoured bird. Tasting of a contented life and of the rosemary with which it is roasted, the chicken and gnocchi were enhanced with Le Coprin’s meatiest mushrooms. This was hefty, vibrant autumn food.
There’s much focus on sustainable seafood on the menu, along with dishes that have become signatures for Carmichael. B.C. black cod has a delicate but clear marine flavour, lacquered with honey, lemon and ginger, paired with a coconut-carrot puree and snappy green sugar peas. Spot prawns from B.C. are as meaty and fresh-tasting as though plucked from the waters in season and on this plate you find them prepared two ways — raw and anointed with oil, and coaxed into delicately steamed dumplings.
The creme brulÃ©e is impeccable. A chocolate dessert called “broken truffle” a wonder.
E18hteen’s wine list is long and strong.
Yes, you will pay a price for this food. Most main dishes are $30 and up. But when every element of a good dinner out works as well as it does here, I don’t begrudge the bill.