They were meatballs. Yes, that’s right, meatballs. But my God, they were good.
Fashioned out of duck — and if meatballs can be light, these were splendidly that. Seasoned just right, paired with soft strips of smoked pork hock and spÃ¤etzle piqued with mustard. Also, wilted spinach, roasted shallots, roasted corn, gently oven-roasted tomatoes, shards of Grana Padano cheese. A full-bodied veal jus finished the dish. Paired with a Beau’s beer, and my husband declared it the best dinner he’d had in years.
It’s been four years since I did a proper review of The Wellington Gastropub. I wrote a happy discovery piece about it in 2006, when it was pretty new and terribly good, and when the general hue and cry from Ottawa diners was ‘a what pub?’
I mentioned it again in my end-of-the-decade muse. Not a review, just a mention. But I suggested The Wellington Gastropub — along with Atelier restaurant and the new ZenKitchen — was one of the region’s pivotal restaurants of the double-naught decade.
My prediction of Dec. 31, 2009 was that this city would start to see more of these sorts of places, so popular in London and New York. These come-as-ye-be neighbourhood drinking establishments (that would be the pub part) where the quality of the food is paramount, and complements the booze proffered (that’s where ‘gastro’ from ‘gastronomy’ enters the name). I suggested that the example of the now four-year-old, packed-every-night Wellington Gastropub would become irresistible.
And, by golly, by the time you read this Ottawa’s second gastropub, Town, will be open. (Do stay tuned.)
So this is the Canada Day Ode to Ale issue. My assignment is to find the best pub in the city and this one, for now, is it. Yes, you’ll pay restauranty prices for dishes at this ‘pub,’ but for the pleasure they give the value is sound.
Chef Chris Deraiche and his open kitchen brigade offer a short, daily list of sturdy, exuberant dishes that speak clearly of the quality of the provisioning. Steak tartare is the best in the city. Tuna tataki (seared, flesh raw) is fantastic, the cool fish littered with crunchy bits of spicy tempura, a restrained sprinkle of sea salt, served with rounds of pickled radish and fat little bok choy lightly doused in sesame oil.
A parfait of goat cheese whipped with honey served in cool, luscious slices is paired with the season’s first spears of asparagus, drizzled with a lemon-truffle oil vinaigrette and served with house-pickled ramps. Mushroom dumplings are devourable.
Scallops are deeply bronzed and still trembling. One night they arrive bedded on a silken purÃ©e of celery root and pear and scattered with Nagano bacon, crunchy shallots and crowns of roasted cauliflower, the plate edged with an emerald green river of arugula pesto.
Nagano pork medallions are cider brined and fantastically moist. A rough mash of rutabaga sweetened with maple syrup is their bed and lardons of crisp pork belly, roasted carrots and beets their mates. A grainy mustard jus piques them up.
A chocolate terrine with peanut butter sauce is worth whatever dietary agony it might cost. Ice creams are made in-house and arrive in a trio sandwiched with shortbread cookies, which keep the flavours from fighting too much. Espresso is thick and dark and very good.
The beer and wine list is obviously put together by somebody who likes to drink well.
Be warned, it can be very loud. And the noise level is what turns some friends of mine away. Don’t know what’s to be done about it — the kitchen is open, the neighbourhood brings their kids, the food is so good that the mood tends to be pretty jolly and the place fills up every night.
But it is the Wellington’s only issue. For food this tasty in an atmosphere as convivial, I’m prepared to have to shout a bit.