I knew Santé Restaurant had been around a while, but was astonished to learn it’s well into its third decade. Despite its longevity, its connection to the Holtz spa, its primo upper perch on the corner of Rideau and Sussex, it’s not been much on my radar. In 20 years of writing on restaurants, I’ve only been to Santé with a pen once, and that was at least a decade ago.
But it fed me again – not memorably – after a birthday buffing gift found me lunching here post-spa, in a bright room filled with women.
Santé’s space is well-windowed, with cheery walls filled with a rotating collection of art and photography. It has a solid wine list, with good Canadian and local content, and with prices that are generously fair. And service at both visits has been warm and prompt.
But the ho-hum food confirmed why Santé needn’t be on my radar. It calls itself an Asian fusion restaurant, and dishes like Djakarta shrimp, pad Thai, and chicken satay have long been mainstays on its menu. But the little cup of fruit tea that arrives as we are seated suggests this is meant to be spa cuisine. The general lack of freshness, liveliness, and the amount of things deep-fried and over-salted suggests otherwise. Some plates have been “Not Bad At All,” others “Oh Dear, What Have We Here.” Most were just indifferently disappointing.
Not bad is the callaloo soup, tingling with lime and a bit of heat. Bits of crab at the bottom of the green pool add texture, but not much more. The chicken satay is three skewers of juicy, well-seasoned meat, furnished with a chunky peanut sauce. The fish of the day (stuffed sole at both visits) is pleasant, the fish moist and the shallot stuffing lending flavour, though we wish the vegetables were less dreary, and that the garnishes (arid raw carrot and cucumber, orange twist) be removed in favour of something we want to eat. Rings of squid are tender enough beneath a boring, unseasoned batter.
The vegetarian spring rolls taste too much of tinned bamboo shoots and not enough of the promised wild mushrooms. And I’ve had better tom yum soup in Thai restaurants.
Pad Thai is moist, with a pleasant heat, but without much contrast of texture or nuance of flavour. Where’s the crunch of scallion and peanut, the pungency of fish sauce, the freshness of cilantro leaves?
A lunch salad of baby spinach is past its prime, and generally tasteless, the leaves topped with chunks of watery crab, unseasoned, along with strips of mango, bits of deep fried-garlic and strips of wonton wrappers tied in knots, which seem odd. It’s not awful, this salad – just a far cry from interesting.
Awful is the “Exotic Mushroom Stir Fry,” which, for $22, is a truly grim plate of common store mushrooms and reconstituted Chinese shiitakes in a wildly salty black bean sauce with overcooked rice and forgettable veg. I managed three bites. A meatier disappointment was the $28 pork tenderloin – this was so dry and overcooked as to be inedible.
No return to form with desserts: the crème brûlée is more vanilla pudding than custard, and the soggy apple-cranberry crumble is forgettable, served with canned-tasting cream.
Let’s hope the fare rises to meet the view in Santé’s fourth decade. This pretty corner deserves better.