What a soup. Sipped in at noon in late February, it’s the best I’ve had all winter. A thick, hot purÃ©e of roasted parsnip and apple, served in a deep, oval bowl, its brownish surface patterned with an oily circle of brilliant apple-green. At its centre, mounded on a crostini, a warm, nubbly chop of walnuts, blue cheese, apricots and roasted garlic. This soup, along with the thick hunk of pickerel in a shrimp sauce that followed it, and the sumac-stained crÃ¨me brulÃ©e that came after, served to remind me that The Urban Pear, now in its eighth year, lunch or dinner, remains a treat.
Though you have to know where it is. Off Bank Street, on Second Avenue in the Glebe, at the end of a short row of shops just before the street becomes wholly residential, The Urban Pear is a discrete little place (about 40 seats in winter in a narrow, stretched pistachio-coloured, local-art-gallery space; twenty more under umbrellas, when the sidewalks open).
The neighbours must know about it, but one wonders where they are? Both my late week dinners were taken in near empty conditions – a curious experience for a place that beats the neighbourhood competition handily.
Mind you, it’s the priciest in the neighbourhood. (There may be the rub.) The Urban Pear, like other restaurants with main dishes mostly in the mid-thirties, might need to consider innovative (i.e. price slashing) ways of getting bums back in seats without, of course, compromising quality. More gnocchi, less venison?
It would be good to see this place filled to capacity,. There is much to like on chef/owner Ben Baird’s satisfyingly short menu.
The king of the starters is the robust and elegant apple and parsnip soup. Another visit, we tuck into the house beef tartar, served with a delicate roasted garlic custard, lightly torched. Baird is a master with scallops, always with a triumphant texture and delicate taste, these ones scattered with shiitake mushrooms, paired with bittersweet Blood orange compote, and finished with a sprinkling of spiced orange zest. Thick slices of Albacore tuna have a raw centre and a dark crust. The long swath down the length of the long plate is a puree of blue cheese and horseradish, which perks up the tuna beautifully. A thinner line of cranberry gastrique provides the sweet-tart contrast. Red and golden beets and sun choke chips finish the plate.
Baird seems to be in a spring roll phase. With my pork loin, he stuffs the rice paper with double smoked bacon and red quinoa. With my perfectly cooked pickerel, a crisp roll of house-smoked salmon chunks and mashed potato, zinged with lemon confit — which may sound odd, but was actually quite good, perched in a shallow pink bath of shrimp sauce, deeply flavoured, deeply rich.
I’ve had a faultless beef tenderloin with roasted shallots and King Eryngii mushrooms, in a well balanced sauce, and a yummy vegetarian dish of gnocchi darkened with morels.
To close, the house crÃ¨me brulÃ©e stained scarlet with sumac, lightened with yogurt and lemon zest, comes with a Blood orange sorbet and a homemade shortbread cookie. A dark chocolate cake with house made sour cream ice cream and a caramel sauce is another way to go.
The wine list has a strong Canadian content.
Other than the patrons over three visits, what I find missing at The Urban Pear is a strong presence on the floor. While the servers are pleasant enough, there isn’t the comforting sense of someone really in charge in this room. For a neighbourhood restaurant, small and intimate, with its owner tucked away in the back kitchen, the one who greets, seats and plays the benevolent host, can make all the difference, drawing you back time after time. For now, it’s the food that does that. In spades.