Note to readers: chef Michael Hay left the Courtyard in June, 2012, and has moved into the kitchens at Back Lane Cafe. Sous chef Murray Wilson has taken over.
Hey! He’s made it look like a caterpillar today!”
I might not have put it quite that way. Generally best to avoid bug-like evocations when describing food. But our server’s enthusiasm was endearing, and the curved and lumpy line of beets made fuzzy with frisée and oozing an intense lime gelée could well be construed as caterpillar-like. The smeared green bits made me think of encounters with summer bikes.
The plate was delicious, though -the roasted beets competing with the sharpness of pickled ones, the citrus concentration of the lime vibrating against the fresh tang of earthy goat cheese, the crunch provided by sweetly toasted nuts.
I’ve had a couple of terrific meals at The Courtyard since it reopened after a summer fire took out its kitchen. Michael Hay has been in charge since late 2007, and in this historic building with its shiny new kitchen, chef Hay and his talented team are plating adventurous food, imbued with striking flavours and textures, arranged in satisfying combinations and with tremendous visual appeal.
The wintry dishes I’ve happily forked into have been brightened with such flights of fancy, such intense bursts of taste and smack, they’ve made my heart sing.
But I’ve been singing in an empty room these past few weeks. Where are the warm bodies? Perhaps I picked a couple of cold days in traditionally quiet months to visit. Or it could be the 30-year-old Courtyard Restaurant is still trying to shake off the chicken Kyev image of its “continental cuisine” past.
But I will also say this: without the benefit of a vibrant patio life and tucked away from the street, The Courtyard in winter seems comatose. The downstairs entry is uninvitingly lifeless. One is “greeted” at the door with a plasma screen, arrowing you to the left (private dining room) or up the stairs (restaurant). Once you’ve reached the upstairs room you may wait a bit before you’re noticed. (Once you’re noticed, service is smooth and sharp and very kind. Fully briefed and fully enthused -full marks.)
I understand it’s expensive to keep a warm body in the cold foyer. But a screen greeting is hardly hospitable; nor does it say “fine dining.” And this is indeed that -as fine as I’ve had all year.
A starter of foie gras was a brilliant performance. Slow poached at low temperature, the buttery chunks of pale pink liver were artfully arranged on a plate-canvas with buttery croutons of toasted brioche, crumbled candied walnuts, crowned with crisped leaves of dark sage. The fruit-with-foie theme came in the form of juicy melon balls of “compressed” green apple infused with a suggestion of vanilla and cider. Fish cakes of ling cod, smoked salmon and scallops were stunningly good, served with a bacon mayonnaise, delicate celery leaves and fronds of dill. A sweet potato soup was a smooth, piquant pleasure.
Of the main dishes I’ve ordered, there was only one mild disappointment. Scallops were meaty and flavourful, but a bit dry, their texture too dense. Still, we love the sunchokes with them -a smear of purée and some left in knobby chunks -the wrinkled maitake mushrooms and good, chewy lardons of bacon. The crisped leaves of brussels sprouts, roasted golden beets and parsnips were the perfectly turnedout mates for perfectly roasted Pacific ling cod. But the dish I can’t stop thinking about began with a thick teardrop of roasted cauliflower purée painting the plate, making a creamy bed for many good things: ribbons of spaetzle infused with coffee, meaty King Eryngii mushrooms and soft oysters, and dark-edged slabs of short rib. Boneless, pinkfleshed and gorgeously tender, the meat was finished with a Madeiraspiked jus and flavourful cranberry and basil jelly.
There are none of the usual suspects on pastry chef Quinn Davis’s dessert list -no chocolate brownie, lemon tart, crème brûlée. Instead, we tuck into a dark log of panna cotta, milky-light and yet deeply chocolate, served with a ball of praline ice cream and a pretty mess of smashed bits of this and that. (Brownie? Cookie? Whatever. It was all delicious.) And then something called “citrus soda pop,” which turned out to be a rather rude-looking plate of pastel-coloured tubes and noodles, pebbles and smears, each bursting with the intense citrus flavours of Japanese lemons, mandarin oranges, pale green pomelo, in curd and mousse and jelly, with chewy tapioca pearls, coconut and vanilla ice creams, and some cunningly concealed explosion of pop and fizz.
With the bill came a few fingers of Ovation chocolates in factorywrapped paper; one final echo of the Courtyard’s banquet-cooking days. Chef Hay has put those days behind this new, old Ottawa restaurant. You really should go.