My annual year-end column that re-chews my favourite dishes of the year begins with a monstrous hunk of expensive meat at a glam new downtown steakhouse and ends with an almond cake at a new creperie in a little Valley town.
I deliver these bites with the usual caveats. I haven’t returned to any of these restaurants since the month I reviewed them, so the dish mentioned may be long gone (though possibly replaced with something even more delicious). And some dishes that gave me pleasure came from restaurants I cannot recommend without reservation, while others, of course, were served in places I strongly encourage you to visit.
Though a carnivore to the marrow, I’ve never been a fan of the steakhouse model. Plush but generally pretty dull food, easier to swallow if someone else is footing the bill. I wasn’t a fan of the whole hog here, but the bone-in ribeye at the opulent new Shore Club ticked every box – flavour, juice, chew, crust, seasoning – bang-on. It cost $50 before the sides and add-ons.
For $2.25 I had a completely satisfying sandwich in Chinatown. Cô Châm is run by the affable Cuong Nguyen and family, and the queue – always a queue – is made up mostly of backpack-toting boys, waiting for a custom-made bánh mì. Mine was a length of baguette filled with Vietnamese sausage, pork belly and skin, pickled carrots and daikon, sprigs of cilantro and (“spicy OK?”) slivers of bird’s eye chilli peppers. For a toonie and a quarter, it ticked every box too.
Most pizza in this town is a bland board covered with lap-staining sludge and a rubbery roof of something masquerading as cheese. Tennessy Willems‘ pizzas are slender-crusted beauts, puffy, burbled and sooted from a Hadean-hot brick oven. My favourite was topped with a sage pesto, wild boar sausage, apples, and sharp white cheddar.
The lemon tart at Jak’s Kitchen won my heart, served with a marmalade-coconut macaroon and an elegant raspberry sauce.
Tricky to pluck out just one standout dish from an early spring dinner at The Courtyard Restaurant. Chef Michael Hay and his team are producing some very pretty plates, dishes with striking flavours and well-judged textures. But if I must, the sous vide short ribs. A smear of roasted cauliflower purée was a creamy bed for ribbons of coffee-stained spaetzle, meaty mushrooms and rapini, and then a blanket of the dark-edged beef, boneless, pink-fleshed and exceptionally tender. The plate was finished with gem-dots of basil and cranberry gelée.
I was charmed by the tacos at the new Sidedoor. There’s a mountain of flavours and considerate textures on these saucer-sized, made-to-order corn tortillas. But my favourite dish was a soft hunk of lamb shoulder, invisibly spiced but beautifully judged in a tamarind strong curry with ginger and chilli. It was fragrant of basil and Kaffir lime, and with contrasting textures of roasted peanut and Brussels sprout – though the fried tofu in red curry was pretty good too.
It took one bite of a jicama roll at Huong’s Vietnamese Bistro to know I was in for a good lunch. It was perfectly judged – salty and sweet, hot and cold, crunch and soft, plus shots of summer freshness in the green herbs and some fire at the centre. Even more delicious because $3.50 bought me two.
In a region once plump with rewarding French bistros, there is now Bistro St-Jacques. Cold-smoked bison carpaccio was fantastic, with arugula and shavings of Parmigiano, and with what looked very much like peppercorns, but were in fact molecular pearls of fig and balsamic vinegar that burst with sweet-tart juice.
Chef Amos Jarbeau has a winning way with soup. His French onion at the Main Street Cellar in Manotick was superior – a splendid broth, flavoured with tarragon and furnished with aged cheddar.
The Korean classic bibimbap tends to need the sweetly grilled meat for textural interest, but the vegan version at Café My House draws upon bundles of deep-fried nori for crackle and nutty brown rice for chew. A pile of neatly sectioned colours anchored with the blackgreen of nori and the stark white of daikon, this was a deep bowl of good things, including carrot and zucchini, scallion and sprouts, mushroom, eggplant and greens, with the warm flavour of roasted sesame oil standing tall.
Devoted to local, seasonal, unhurried cooking, Chef Scott Adams, in his 10th year at Benny’s Bistro, uses impeccably sourced artisanal product in lively ways, making his lunches among the finest in town. My favourite June plate was a couple of summer rolls, plump bundles of house-pickled vegetables and soy-braised pork belly, perched on a salad of shaved radish, cucumber, and fennel, finished with a chiffonade of lime leaves. Perched on top of the rolls and salad were five grilled B.C. spot prawns in perfect condition. Have a local strawberry tart for dessert. The day Benny’s decides to open for dinner I’m popping the cork.
Bulgalbi is brilliant at Alirang. The beef short ribs are sawed thin, marinated in soy, ginger, garlic, sugar and crushed sesame and roasted to bronzed crisp treats, tender and affordable.
I had some marvellous taro dumplings at Palais Imperial, newly twinned with Royal Thai Dining Lounge, a moist core of pork and shrimp covered with cooked, mashed taro, the outer layer crisp, wispy, fried to just the right degree of greasiness.
There aren’t many restaurants in this city for which reservations are required on a Monday. Chef Arup Jana’s Allium is an exception. I had an exceptional foie gras dish – the pink, wobbly liver on grilled, oiled toast, served simply with an apple compote and a sprinkle of Maldon salt.
Everyone tends to go on about the ribs, but I was a bigger fan of the jerk pork at the new SmoQue Shack. The meat was moist, just fatty enough, beautifully perfumed with jerk spices, and balanced with the fire of Scotch Bonnets.
I’ve found a reason to climb the black stairs of Discoteka Exotica a few times. Around 9, this place is a nightclub. Before that, it’s the home of Los tacos de Mauro. I thought the tacos were tasty, but my favourite dish was the carnitas Michoacanstyle, cooked for hours and hours until the meat collapses into soft strings, stuffed in a bun with avocado and refried beans.
Perhaps most impressive among the many good dishes I was handed at the new Back Lane Café was the Fisherman’s Stew. Brimming with bouncy market fish and seafood, vegetables and fingerlings, the classic sauce rouille on garlic toast was mellowed with sweet potato.
October kept on giving. Best Roast Chicken of 2011 goes to Black Cat Bistro‘s deeply bronzed bird – lemoned, truffled and garlicked, moist fleshed and crisp-skinned, surrounded with exactly what you want around your bird: potatoes, mushrooms, corn, carrots, green beans. Firing-squad-at-dawn dinner.
I had to return to an old favourite to get something decent to eat in November. Best Daily Special on a Budget Award goes to Piz’za-za: a light, satisfying vegetable soup, followed with a rich pizza spread with béchamel, topped with roasted garlic, mushrooms, arugula and olives. Cost: $14.45
Chez Fatima‘s pastilla (or bastilla, bisteeya, b’stilla -) was a plump package of sweet and savoury, the phyllo shell all crisp and crumbling, the chicken inside moist, the almonds crushed into a paste, the onions caramelized, the seasoning bang on and the cinnamon sugar dusting restrained. Thank you.
Et finalement, crêpes, and a drive to pretty Almonte. The Mill Street Crêpe Company with Chef Theo Yeaman in the open kitchen is flipping out some delicious crepe preparations. A particularly good one wraps braised short ribs, with leeks, overnight tomato and roasted parsnip. But delicious too is a darling little almond cake with house-made ice cream, berries and mint.
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