Herewith, dear readers, my year-end column plump with memories of happy bites from the year-that-was. This year’s wrap-up launches with a Korean restaurant in Little Italy and closes with a solid “10” in a restaurant called e18hteen.I rechew them here with a couple of caveats: First, I have not returned to any of these restaurants since the month in which the reviews appeared; and, second, I remind you that these were dishes that stood out in 2010, and weren’t necessarily enjoyed in restaurants I can recommend without equivocation.
The opening of Le Kim Chi where Angelina’s Ristorante used to operate was but another example of the shifting gastronomy of Little Italy. It may be standard Korean fare, but the traditional hot pot called bibimbap was a sizzler. “May I stir for you?” We nodded, and the still life of rice, meat, vegetables, pickles and egg disassembled into a scrumptious mess.
The end of January found me in the newly reorganized dining room of Le Cordon Bleu (now called Le Cordon Bleu Bistro at Signatures) tucking into a maroon mound of hand-chopped raw beef. If you and steak tartare are rare friends, this is the place to come. Perfectly piqued, this particular heap was sandwiched with pommes gaufrettes, served with a soft-boiled quail egg and dots of an apple-sweetened mustard sauce. Lots of places do egg with tartare. But lightly breading a quail’s egg after poaching it, and dunking it in hot oil gave the dish an extra, and welcome, texture.
My late evening encounter with a Queensway of fan-filled cars inching out of a Sens game did little to disturb the high spirits of a good meal in Almonte. The Heirloom Café is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Kletnieks and Brandy Nieto, both graduates of Le Cordon Bleu. Nieto is a pastry chef, and her spiced orange and sour cherry cheesecake with a ginger crust was a standout.
Kiko Sushi Bar opened in late 2009, in the new Preston Square Building. The big-flavoured roll-up called Cherry Blossom (featuring raw salmon and ripe avocado draped with sheets of albacore tuna, topped with crunchy tobiki on a dark bed of chewy wakame) was so rewarding that I ordered another round.
Le Café’s menu was thoroughly shaken up with the arrival of Michael Blackie in 2009. My first tastes of ‘MB Cuisine’ were mixed, but a dish called Blackie ‘squared’ was a triumph. Roasted black cod came crusted with crumbled cote cchino and porcini mushroom dust, perched on a gritty mound of white bean ‘hash’ surrounded with a deeply flavoured mushroom broth. In the pool were scattered pebbles of edamame, and the whole was roofed with a thatch of fried leek.
A meaty salad of fava beans, arugula, mushrooms and lengths of grilled sausage doused in a mustard vinaigrette made a happy late winter lunch at the tucked-away Tavola on Merivale Road.
Boar stew with mushrooms, heirloom carrots, gnocchi and leeks in a rich, rounded gravy made a perfect bistro supper at Petit Bill’s Bistro in West Wellington.
A solo lunch at the Arc Lounge spent eavesdropping on conversations about Rahim Jaffer was sweetened further with a delicate mushroom consommé and a big juicy burger. Perfectly moist and tasting of quality cow, it was heaped high with caramelized onion and a spiced-up cream cheese tucked in a soft bun and sided with a tower of quality greens.
In a converted corner store just off Carling, Rupinder and Jasvir Pal dish up all manner of good north Indian dishes at Aahar, but it was a starter of paneer pakora, squares of house-made cheese dredged in fired-up gram flour, fried to brown and set in a yogurt sauce sparkling with mint that I most enjoyed.
Dessert of the year goes to a pink pie in a mostly organic, vegan and raw food restaurant called La Belle Verte in Old Hull. Concocted with a mixed nut and seed crust, agave nectar, date juice, coconut cashew “butter,” puréed strawberries and raw cacao nibs, this strawberry cream chocolate tart was shockingly good.
Samorn Pedthong comes to her maison from 10 years cooking on the Thai side of the Mandarin Ogilvie’s menu and a bunch of years cooking at various Thai embassies. She now runs La Maison Samorn with her daughters, and her lab kai is a pungent salad of steamed chicken with lime, onions, and toasted rice powder, brightened with fresh mint and a toss of red chilies.
They were not your mother’s meatballs. Chef Chris Deraiche of the Wellington Gastropub fashioned these out of duck and if you can get away with describing meatballs as light, these were splendidly that. Seasoned just right, topped with strips of smoked pork hock and set on a bed of spaetzle piqued with mustard, these duckballs were surrounded with a whack of colour and flavour — wilted spinach, roasted shallots, toasted corn, oven-dried tomatoes, shavings of Grana Padano — and finished with an oomphy duck jus.
More duck on a memorable lunch salad at Absinthe. The skin crisp, the fat thin (but still there) and the flesh rosy and succulent. The thickish slabs came propped on good things — crisp spears of asparagus in a lemon thyme vinaigrette, soft marbles of superior goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes in summery form, all on a mound of dressed-up baby arugula.
A generous, well-priced trio of raw proteins — chopped beef, salmon and wafer slices of scallop — was the memorable dish at Gy, a then one-year-old restaurant run by Gyno and Nathalie Lefrançois, that looks over rue Laval from its second-floor dining room.
Beneath its crusty skin, chef Stephen Wall’s pickerel was pale and soft, shored up on a bed of butter beans. Alongside, pink grapefruit, sweet mussels and chunks of sharp chorizo. Circling fish and fruit was a light fish broth enriched with Parmesan.
It was a splendid dish from a splendid new comer called town, an Elgin Street restaurant that serves refined but unfussy dishes.
Splendid too, but an old-timer on Elgin, The Manx Pub, smoked some cheddar and plopped it on a great burger piled with Le Coprin mushrooms. It didn’t charge me too much for it either, and so there was money left for soup — lentil with roasted corn and toasted cumin was a pleasure.
At Taylor’s Genuine Food and Wine Bar, the hanger steak was good enough to halt conversation, while commitment to sourcing the finest product was obvious on the charcuterie platters.
A duo of monkfish was a winner at Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar for two reasons. Half the dish involved batter in a deep fryer, and the other delivered a smoky ratatouille pillow for a hunk of the fish poached in a low-temperature olive-oil bath. Same fish, two treatments, made for one memorable plate.
My first taste of the new Dolsot Café was its haemul pajeon, a meaty pancake served in a cast-iron skillet, all crispy edged and soft within, studded with sweet strips of shredded scallion and lumpy with shrimp, squid and octopus.
Restaurant chef Dirk McCabe’s chilled pumpkin custard was a serious study in cool — delicately scented, wobbly, and tied with a belt of green onion. It came as a freebie, a first taste of Beckta Dining and Wine in the post-Play era (Stephen Beckta’s second restaurant in the ByWard Market) and it lifted spirits.
I have yet to exhaust my search for the best fish and chips in the region, but this one, at Le Resto in Chelsea, certainly gets best of 2010, the cod fresh and firm beneath a brown crunchy batter, the chips humdingers and the dollop of mushy peas lumpy and lurid green, cheery with mint.
Tricky to pick just one dish at Restaurant E18hteen — they were all pretty impressive — but if I must, I’ll go for the impeccable crème brûlée. Seems only right to close the year-end piece on a sweet note.