We carried on, in 2014, stuffing ourselves silly on tacos and slurping sillier on craft cocktails. It was certainly the year bar snacks were thought through, we saw a peck of pickled things, kale probably edged out beets in the salad section, and beer options expanded. So much terrific craft beer in this city…
It was a year we said goodbye to some gems — notably Domus Café, Zen Kitchen, and Juniper — and welcomed upstarts, a whole host of them, some of which I predict will be glittering stars on the National Capital restaurant scene for years to come.
Was it the year fine dining officially went belly-up in Ottawa? Or was that last year? Or was it just the year we talked endlessly about its demise? And while we wrestle with that, we note the rejuvenation of Beckta, a fine-dining restaurant moved to a fine new home…
I predict a delicious new year. I hope you book many tables. And just for the fun of it, here’s a rechew of some the top plates of the year that was, roughly in the order in which I enjoyed them.
The lamb at Back Lane was an impeccably judged plate of food, precisely what I wanted to be eating on a brutally cold January night. A slow braised lamb shank, incredibly tender and wickedly rich, the meat mingled with mates that elevated it. The lamb came on a bed of chewy freekeh (roasted green wheat) with smokey, juicy chunks of roasted eggplant and soft, sweet red peppers, plus toasted pistachios, marinated apricots, dried figs, and charming bursts of juicy pomegranate seeds. It all danced so well. I didn’t want it to end.
Social on Sussex snagged a new chef de cuisine. Kyrn Stein‘s dishes were roundly accomplished, but probably the star of the mains was the duo of lamb, the loin rubbed with Vadouvan (Indian masala with some French meddling) and the belly meat pulled, soft and weighty in a cardamom-strong lentil curry.
‘Spasti Kota’ didn’t sound particularly scrumptious, and neither did the english translation (‘chopped chicken’) but the whole bird at Evoo Greek Kitchen was memorable for its simple rightness. Bathed in oil, spiked with lemon and smeared with garlic, it came sectioned (chopped you might say), served on the bone and dripping with char-grilled flavour.
A whole lot less simple — course one: the poached lobster, on Le Grand Menu Degustation at Le Baccara. The meat was juicy and yielding, scented with lemongrass and smeared lightly with a ginger paste. It came supported with beet-stained rounds of daikon and a julienned salad of radish, green papaya, carrot and snow peas. Providing some salty pop, BC’s Northern Divine caviar was spooned on a taro root chip. The quivering mound of white on the plate, topped with a green chiffonade of nori, turned out to be a coconut milk foam, while intensely orange dobs of a yuzu and ginger gelée delivered a brilliant flavour bomb to the dish.
To the west for a moment… It may not sound like high praise, but when you are judging your 19th competition plate featuring cherries as one of the mandatory components, to have the praise of the entire table of judges (“this was hand’s down the finest use of those cherries”) is indeed noteworthy. Chez Edgar chef Marysol Foucault nailed her Black Box dish at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna last February. She worked wonders with the other items in the box: the Lion’s Mane mushrooms and chickens, the parsnips, honey butter and a whole trout. But it was the spectacular gastrique starring those cherries that stood out: peppery, perfumed with mint, and shot through with ginger. We asked for teaspoons. Every judge lapped it up.
And here’s a shout out to Ottawa chef Patrick Garland of Absinthe, who will compete at the CCC in Kelowna next month and who delivered the best creme brulée of the year, a wee pot of the cool custard with crackling caramel veneer – six small perfect spoonful – at the end of a lovely April lunch.
Brothers Beer Bistro has a fourteen dollar (still!) weekday lunch and I popped last spring to check it out. As you might expect from a beer bistro run by ‘brothers’, there was a burger, a ham sandwich and a steak-frites on offer. But then there was this little number: Chestnut-stuffed ravioli with currants, pine nuts, lemon zest, and cinnamon cap mushrooms. Beer’s in the butter sauce (‘cause “beer’s in everything”) but it was remarkably light and elegant. The stuffing had great flavour and that meaty, nubbly texture of roasted, pureed chestnuts. The mushrooms continued the woodsy chestnut theme, the pine nuts gave crunch, the currants a bit of sticky-sweet, parmesan lent umami, and the lemon zest lifted the dish. A half pint of the beer featured in the sauce, and lunch at BBB was a full-on pleasure.
Perhaps it was the shock of discovering a really good bowl of clam chowder in a Japanese restaurant that added to the pleasure… Served up at Oyster Bay on Merivale Road were fat clams, firm potatoes, onion, celery, carrots in a perfect brunoise cut, and fresh herbs — cilantro, basil, thyme — paddling in a thick, clean-flavoured broth enriched with cream. A textbook perfect rendition. To chase the clam chowder, we had the sushi and sashimi platter, which was a cut above as well.
The potato soup at the new Preston Street restaurant MeNa was pure genius. Poured tableside, it revealed crackly potato skins, chunks of yellow potato, snipped rounds of garlic chives and soft rounds of buttered leek. It was rich, with a sly chili heat and textured treats in every other slurp.
Have you ever seen puffball featured on an Ottawa menu? Neither had I. Paired with grilled broccoli and roasted finge-6rlings, the outer bits of the big white fungus chef West de Castro of Clover Food & Drink foraged on a neighbour’s lawn, had been cleaned and diced and fried up. These were meaty textured. The inner bits were surprisingly soft and creamy, almost custard like. Beneath the mushroom was a vibrant pea purée, and strewn over top were bacon lardons, almonds and crispy bits of fresh sage. Loved it. Loved her gorgeous panna cotta too…
One of the finest meals I had in Ottawa last year was at a brand new place now closed for renovations. Pillows of gnocchi, baby beets, and lengths of pickled fennel brought an earthy, tart balance to a house-smoked mackerel at Segue, while the assertiveness of the fish was tamed with a vinaigrette enriched with beurre noisette. The restaurant claims it will “see us in 2015”. Looking forward to that…
I’m a sucker for a good crab cake, and the one eaten on the summer patio at Rosie’s Southern Kitchen was a terrific rendition, the meat left in large, lightly-packed chunks, beautifully seasoned, lightly fried, and sided with a potent chimichurri sauce starring cilantro.
Chef de cuisine Matthew Shepheard has been at Mariposa Farm since 2012.His terrine of chicken sliced with pale ribbons of foie gras, berries, and hazelnuts came with the prettiest still life of pickled vegetables, herbs, and petals, but it was probably the ragout of Mariposa pork that stood out most. An homage to his grandmother, with noodle-dumplings, wilted spinach, and crunchy corn, the soft meat was perfumed with rosemary and sweetened with pear. It was sensational.
A carpaccio of local elk (from the Van Eeghen family’s Elk Ranch) was a first grand taste of the new restaurant Fauna. It was presented as a log might be found on the forest floor, with pickled enoki mushrooms sprouting beside, the square plate garnished with dots of a pungent black garlic aioli, and a sweet and sticky miso reduction.
At Veronique Rivest’s terrific new wine bar Soif, flavours are clean and uncomplicated on the plates, designed around the impressive wine list. It was the kitchen’s boudin noir that I loved most. Served as a dark slab, pudding-like in texture and peppery on the palate. It arrived on a puddle of celery root purée scented with juniper berry and sported a toupé of green apple slaw that sliced through the fat and the rich of the blood sausage so beautifully well.
The poached-then-fried gnocchi were crusty without and softly-perfect within at the brand new Beechwood Gastropub. You had to pass through a fine pile of wilted kale and shaved parmesan to find them, but well worth the effort. Bathed in a luscious lemon emulsion, with roasted cauliflower adding sweet-earthy flavour, with softened kale tasting happily of butter and onions, and a snowy dusting of shaved parmesan to finish — this was a treat of a dish.
The best dish of 2015 thus far? Found at the new SoCa Kitchen & Pub on Holland. Stay tuned!