Whalesbone continues to stand out. Of all of Ottawa\’s expensive, popular restaurants, few are so free of chic and so seemingly content to shamble along in tiny digs, unconcerned about redesign or expansion, or any of those things other wildly popular places in tiny digs tend to think about.
Whalesbone has always marched to its own music (vinyl, in this case), defied strict categorization (yes, it\’s a seafood restaurant, but not one of those seafood restaurants …) and despite its popularity, soldiers on in its madcap, out-of-the-way spot on torn-up Bank Street with next to no street presence, and with seats for about 40 cheek-to-jowlers on hard chairs and bar stools.
And yet, you\’d be hard pressed to find a more filled or more fun neighbourhood joint with as accomplished a cuisine. If Whalesbone were in my \’hood, it would be my Cheers. With the added perk of pristine oysters as bar snacks.
It seems every year I am coming out of my corner for another round at Whalesbone. This report is my fourth since 2005. But Whalesbone has a new restaurant chef (at least its fourth) so here I am again, keen to check out Charlotte Langley\’s contribution to this quirky place.
Langley comes to Whalesbone via stints at Moonroom, The Wellington Gastropub, Beckta, and on-air with the TV show Road Grill. She\’s in biker shorts and flip-flops. We know this because she leaves her galley kitchen every so often to grab a handful of oysters at the bar. We can just make out her ponytails over the hillock of heirloom tomatoes that lines the kitchen ledge. Every few minutes, a hand reaches out and grabs one of those tomatoes for a salad, a garnish, a burst of citrus sweetness for a fish soup.
Her soup is our first taste of what she brings to Whalesbone. And what a soup! Laden with fish, clams, mussels, oysters, with potatoes, leeks, and fresh basil in a lightly creamed, heavenly garlicked tomato broth of grand sea flavour. If a fish restaurant\’s chowder is a barometer for its overall goodness, Whalesbone nails it every time. But it\’s interesting to note the price point of its fish soup. In 2006, it was $6. During the year of Vardy (chef Steve Vardy, formerly of Beckta, now of Black Cat, dropped anchor at Whalesbone in 2007) it peaked at an uncomfortable $15. Langley\’s version is $10, and with a few slices of the delicious brown bread that keeps on coming, might make a meal on its own.
Her scallops are sublimely good. Plump, darkly crusted, beautifully textured, these are lightly seasoned beauties from Qualicum Beach, B.C. They come paired with a risotto ripe with Fifth Town goat cheese (of Prince Edward County), charred corn on the cob, local chanterelle mushrooms and grilled zucchini.
Caramelized garlic, chopped basil, a light balsamic glaze and a dribble of truffle oil bring out the late-summer perfection in a colour-charged salad of backyard heirloom tomatoes.
Of the six main dishes, one is vegetarian and one is chicken and ribs. The latter turns out to be the weakest of the bunch, with a too-sweet barbecue sauce and a side of mac and cheese that arrives too dry.
The fish offerings are a round of hits. Albacore tuna, seared, rare, perfectly seasoned, is supported with a warm NiÃ§oise arrangement of beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and olives, with a perfectly poached egg on a bitter bed of kale, the whole treated with an anchovy vinaigrette. Lovely.
Wild B.C. salmon is laced with bourbon butter and comes with grilled peaches and a corn and white bean succotash, threaded with roasted yellow peppers. Langley\’s approach to fish seems to be to keep things simple, and her flavours are clean and uncluttered.
Until dessert, that is, when they get deliciously muddled. Can only Whalesbone pull off a sundae bar? On a small form and with a golf pencil, you are invited to choose a sauce (blueberry Limoncello, dark chocolate, boozy strawberry, say) and two toppings (peppermint patties anyone?) for one, two or three scoops of Pascale\’s vanilla ice cream. (Pascale Berthiaume\’s ice creams are swooningly good.) Extra toppings will put you back a buck. Order \”fruit\” as one of the toppings and you get blackberries, fresh figs, and peaches. Pair it with boozy strawberry sauce and your cup, literally, runneth over.
Chefs may come and go, but Whalesbone remains a wonderful dash of flavour in this town. If Langley stays put, I won\’t need to be back for a while. Though, as Mae West reminds me: \”Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.\”
Reservations are essential.