Neither the middling nor the vile will be re-chewed here. This is the December column I plump up with the happiest bites of the year that was. And there were a number of them.
Two thousand and eight was a banner year for good new restaurants in the Capital Region. The ones that gave me most pleasure (in order of tasting) were Napo, Fraser Café, Murray Street, Big Easy’s, Navarra, and b’Side Kitchen and Wine. Out of town, new treats included The Branch Restaurant in Kemptville, Harvest in Picton, and Olivea in Kingston. Also opened late this year, but not yet visited by this critic, Atelier on Rochester, the Black Cat in its new home in Little Italy, and Farb’s Kitchen and Wine on Beechwood.
What distinguishes this harvest of new restaurants from past years’ crops is not just the number of them, but that most of these new places are chef-run. In past years, it seemed every new restaurant in this city was another big, loud, modern eatery that had more to do with the designer’s vision than the cook’s. But not this year; chef-run restaurants start in the kitchen.
So here they are (with the caveat that I have not returned for another taste since the month in which these reviews appeared, so diner beware) the plates from restaurants, both new and old, that I most enjoyed in 2008.
It’s deeply cold out there, and though the ambience at Caribbean Flavours new Carling Avenue home might not warm the cockles, Chef Frederick White’s fiery cod cakes will.
I also had a dynamite rare roast beef sandwich at The Local Bar, on Art-is-In pumpernickel bread, with seedy mustard, Gruyere cheese and deeply caramelized onion.
Mint infused pasta pouches filled with pulled lamb, ricotta cheese and sweetly braised carrots was a winning dish at the Black Cat Café, my first meal at its second location before it changed its perch to Preston Street for its third life. Stay tuned.
I rediscovered the pleasures of The Capital Dining Room in the Delta Hotel early in March, in the depths of a bowl of Chef Kenton Leier’s duck broth filled in with Maitake mushrooms, scented with lemongrass, and bobbing with peppery wontons stuffed with duck confit.
There are fewer comforts in this northern existence of ours greater than a good roast chicken and Carmen’s Veranda nailed it. The meat was moist, the skin crisp, and the juicy flesh infused through and through with cardamom.
New to Whalesbone Oyster House, chef Steve Wall dished up a lobster bisque of stunning flavour. Berskshire pork gave the bisque a rich, smoky joy, while tobiko added pop and salt.
Maybe I wouldn’t drive all the way to Barrhaven for a bowl of it, but if it were close to home, I’d be a regular junkie for Pho Thi Fusion’s fully loaded beef noodle soup.
This was also a year where tasting plates/ small dishes/ tapas (whatever you chose to call them) continued to exert their might on menus. The Buzz chef Jishnu Sreenivasan served us a small plate of polenta, two crisp disks of the soft cornmeal cakes, rich with ricotta and sharpened with parmesan cheese, sandwiching well roasted red peppers – simple, delicious and almost a meal for $6.
L’Echelle de Jacob in Aylmer is a family-run, décor-be-damned, unrepentantly old-school French restaurant of nostalgic plates, caring service and gentle prices. My favourite dish was a starter of light, creamy pike quenelles, rising out of a gentle lobster sauce.
The menu’s number 38 includes two hunks of fried trout, topped with shredded green mango, grape tomatoes, roasted cashews and shrimp, united in a balanced dressing, particularly good with a mound of sticky rice. That was the dish I’d return to the Thai Lanna for – a tiny, tidy, sister-run restaurant in a mini mall on Bank Street south.
Tom Trinh and An Tran are the team behind Fuschian, a 10-table restaurant on Somerset, in the space where Cam Kong used to be. The house ‘special rice’ is a remarkably tasty mess of sticky rice, Chinese sausages, lightly cooked egg, shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp and crushed peanuts.
Grilled bread, olive oil, arugula, char-grilled squid, long, sliced caper berries and blobs of black olive tapenade pack a punch of flavours and elevate the peasant salad called panzanella to something quite special at NAPO, a cosy little keeper in Ottawa South.
If you have yet to experience what happens when a lamb has lied down with a preserved lemon for a few hours, Chez Fatima offers a tasty introduction. Her lamb tagine with green olives, mushrooms and squash, perfumed with that pungent lemon and with coriander seed, was excellent. Note Fatima’s new address below. I assume her tagine travels well.
The Fraser boys – Ross and Simon – of the new Fraser Café on Putman, served a wild-caught striped bass on a bed of snow crab, boosted with a smoky sauce of charred tomato with paprika as the evening’s ‘blind’ dish. It was clearly the standout of a summer meal in this small, cramped and endearingly cluttered space.
Chef Che Chartrand, late of Par-fyum and Beckta, left the city behind to run Chez Eric, a country restaurant in Wakefield (home ot a fish called Eric.) We had some great fish and chips, but it was duck that stood out. Chartrand cures, smokes, roasts, and he served the ruby pink slices with a dried cherry sauce and a mound of puy lentils strewn with black trumpet mushrooms.
The soul of the new Murray Street is meat. Chef Steve Mitton and manager Paddy Whelan, both formerly of Social, have transformed the once pink and laced premises of the departed Bistro 115 into a buff dining room of manly appeal. One warm evening, on the back patio, a dinner foraged from the charcuterie bar yielded ambrosial duck liver mousse, slices of elk Kielbasa, 7-year cheddar from Pine River Farm, house smoked salmon, and a luscious terrine wrapped in pliant cabbage, of goat cheese thick with mushrooms and raisins, layered with a grated vegetable salad. It all came with fresh and toasted bread from Art-is-In Bakery and a collection of house preserves and condiments.
At Big Easy’s, Val Belcher’s New Orleans-style seafood and steak house, I had a big fat ribeye that was bang on. But I also had squid – fresh, tender, chargrilled tubes, smeared with an arugula pesto and a mound of wilted greens- very easy to like.
Tricky to name just one dish that wowed at Rene Rodriguez’ new Basque-style restaurant, Navarra, but if I must choose, it would be the steak tartare. The beef was hand chopped, beautifully seasoned, formed into a hockey puck and covered with a green blanket of snipped chives perked with ground espelette pepper. On a high wire, suspended above the meat, a crisp slice of Serrano ham, honey brushed and coated with crushed macadamia nuts and pulverized popcorn.
In an awkward location that’s a known restaurant slayer, Pookie’s sprouted in the spring, and in this end unit of a Carling Avenue mini mall, created an immaculate little Thai restaurant with a high level of cooking. Wedges of Asian eggplant, soft at their seeded centre but still with chew closer to their purple skins, were surrounded with bamboo shoots and soft lengths of chicken in a lightly sweet green chilli with coconut curry. This was the dish I ordered three times. Just to be sure.
Tomme de Gaston and Bleu de Sophie are two handcrafted sheep’s milk cheeses from the Oxford Mills Creamery that graced the ‘Aunty’s Platter’ at The Branch Restaurant (a buzzy bar-cum-gastropub-cum-art gallery-cum-music hall housed in a circa-1860 stone building in Kemptville). Aunty fleshed out the plate with a wedge of Harmony Organic brie, brown bread and artisan crackers, rolls of house cured prosciutto, Branch-made mustard and fruit chutney, a little pot of marinated olives, a few nuts, a small bunch of Concord grapes and the last five raspberries of the season, dark and small and deeply concentrated.
Of the unfussy, unpretentious dishes of big flavours and winning combinations on Derek Benitz’ menu at his second restaurant b’Side Wine and Small Plates, the standout were the Sicilian snacks called arrancini, crisp spheres of creamy saffron rice stuffed with a supple bison stew, set on a goat cheese sauce.
The veal sweetbreads were the winners at Harvest in Picton, served with sweet, crunchy shrimp, on a crusty cake of grated celery root, moistened with a gentle seafood reduction.
The chicken al mattone (under brick) was spectacular at Olivea, a new Kingston restaurant with a view of the open air skating rink at Market Square. Rubbed with oil, garlic, lemon, herbs and red chillies, cooked under the weight of a brick, the skin arrived bronzed, spitting flavour and some chilli fire, and the flesh was juicy as all get out. Have it with the house risotto.
Caribbean Flavours, 1659 Carling Ave., 613-237-9981
The Local Bar, 1227 Wellington St. W., 613-263-5196, ext.315
Black Cat, now at 428 Preston Street, 613-569-9998
The Capital Dining Room, 361 Queen St., 613-238-2582
Carmen’s Veranda, 1169 Bank St., 613-730-9829
The Whalesbone Oyster House, 430 Bank St., 613-231-8569
Pho Thi Fusion, 129 Riocan Ave., Barrhaven, 613-825-3325
The Buzz, 374 Bank St., 613-565-9595
L’Echelle de Jacob, 27 boulevard Lucerne, Gatineau, 819-684-1040
Thai Lanna, 2401 Bank St., 613-249-9524
Fuschian, 726 Somerset St. W., 613-230-6815
NAPO, Farm to Table Italian Cuisine, 1542 Bank St., 613-523-9595
Chez Fatima, 85 Promenade du Portage, Gatineau, 819-771-7568
Murray Street, 110 Murray St., 613-562-7244
Big Easy’s, 228 Preston St., 613-565-3279
Navarra, 93 Murray St., 613-241-5500
The Branch Restaurant, 15 Clothier St. E., 613-258-3737
b’Side Wine and Small Plates, 323 Somerset St., 613-567-8100
Harvest, 106 Bridge St., Picton, 1-613-476-6763
Olivea, 39 Brock St., Kingston, 1-613-547-5483