For the first restaurant review of 2012, I visit an old place newly freed from the fetters of roadwork.
The Urban Pear was not the only restaurant on Bank Street to feel the pain of months of heavy machinery occupation, but it is the finest one. And I thought deserving of re-examination as it enters its 11th year of service to its Glebe neighbours.
Open in 2002, under the direction of chef/owner Ben Baird, the Pear is tucked just off the main artery on the edge of residential Second Avenue. Yes, it’s still an expensive little place. My last visits were three years ago. I suggested then, given the dearth of bums in seats at my stopovers, that Baird consider lowering his prices to draw in a more regular crowd.
He clearly ignored me. Which is exactly as it should be. My job is to be descriptive not prescriptive, and Baird knows his business. The Pear perseveres, laying on local ingredients and dishing out delicious food, in the same long and narrow, bright and art filled space. Its only drawback is that it looks over a parking lot. Though I must say, that lot came in handy during the torn-up road days.
If you’re looking for surprises here, you look to the menu. It changes every day, and is one of only a handful of Ottawa menus that does that. We are a city that produces far too many leather-bound tomes and plastic-coated posters filled with dishes that move on and off them at the rate of revisions to the King James. The left column is apparently carved in stone, while the right adjusts with inflation.
The Urban Pear is a farm-to-table restaurant that has always offered a short, daily menu. These are mixed blessings. The chef gains the freedom to buy what’s brightest and freshest and most readily available, can cut down on waste, and set a fair price for a dish. But the continual novelties also demand constant creativity and a front-of-house staff with an extraordinary memory bank.
Two things you tend to be able to count on at an Urban Pear dinner is somewhere, at some point, a pear will feature very nicely, and scallops are a bastion item.
Baird is a sea scallop master – nailing their cooking (dark crusty surface, soft milky guts) every time. At a December dinner, he plopped them on a silky purÃ©e of sweet potato perked with chipotle, and paired them with crisp fritters of sweet potato and leek drizzled with an apple syrup, and a mound of fennel and green apple slaw finished with toasted fennel seed. It was a plate of many flavours and textures, but they all worked as a tasty team.
Other first dishes included a distinguished bowl of clam chowder, tomato-based, with a classic saffron-garlic rouille and a tangled thatch of crispy leeks; and an excellent green salad with pepitas, apples, bacon lardons, sharpened with a grainy mustard vinaigrette.
Trout and pork came next. The latter was superb. Baird brines the loin, which seriously kicks up its juiciness, and it comes in thick, pink, well-seasoned slices with caramelized grill stripes. These are not your mother’s pork chops. Around the meat are yummy brownish things – meaty good mushrooms, braised turnips and shallots, and soft gnocchi of sweet potato perfumed with sage, crisped in a pan with a bit of smoky ham. And beneath it all, a pile of wilted kale and a dark, sweet, porky jus. A perfect wintry dish.
Unlike the monochrome pork, a plate of rainbow trout was bright with colour. Beneath the perfectly cooked fish were ribbons of spaetzle greened with peas and mint, some roasted ruby beets, a jumble of leek, bacon, Brussels sprout leaves and pears, and at the very bottom a rough purÃ©e of corn sweetened with maple syrup.
These are generous plates. You could skip the starter and feel quite satisfied with a main dish. And then there would be reason to order dessert – pear, cranberry and apple crumble scented with rosemary, with a scoop of old cheddar ice cream, or a chocolate tart infused with hibiscus and summer raspberries.
Here’s to another decade!