Briana Kim has been watching mushrooms break down. This, in the fermenting chamber at her restaurant, Alice, newly opened in the little house on Adeline Street that used to host The Rex, and then, briefly, Marc Kitchen. Kim’s been fascinated, she tells us as she delivers course 5 of 8 (‘Mushroom & Potato’), to taste what happens to their flavours in that chamber. “I’ve been checking the mushrooms every day, as they ferment,” she says, “and they’re becoming… buttery, creamy, even floral…”
They sure tasted bigger on the plate — richer, more muscular, their natural umami flavour ramped up. In fact, much of the dairy-free cuisine at Alice seems unctuously buttery. This trickery has much to do with fermentation, a weapon in meat-free cuisine that Alice wields with spectacular results.
Alice is chef Briana Kim’s latest project. She closed her five-year-old Hintonburg restaurant, Cafe My House, this past winter, in favour of a fresh start with Alice. It would be a new concept for the city, offering a ‘blind,’ tasting menu of entirely plant-based food. Her timing seems bang on: the penchant for vegan cuisine (for some a health matter, for others a more philosophical and environmental choice), has never been more keenly felt.
Kim’s been a chef to watch for a few years now. I’ve enjoyed seeing her cuisine evolve, her skill set widen as she studied new technique, seeking advice and mentorship from other chefs. As her confidence grew, the inventiveness in her cuisine of choice blossomed. Indeed, she was the first competitor in the history of the Canadian Culinary Championships to win a regional competition on the strength of a plant-based dish. Shortly before Cafe My House closed, Kim was awarded a coveted stage (trainee) position at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that topped “World’s 50 Best” list in 2017. It was an experience, she told me, that gave her firm direction in opening Alice.
These are early days, but, to my mind, Alice is a brilliant addition to Ottawa’s fine dining scene. A refuge for vegetarians looking for high-end dining, and a revelation for the rest of us of just how the spectrum of tastes and textures we enjoy can be mined meat-lessly. And delivered with style. I’ll be back. So will my meat-loving husband. Watching his game-face light up as he approached the dark cube at the end of the golden skewer (described as “fermented, dehydrated, coal-grilled celeriac) was a revelation.
This skewered treat was course 1 of 8. It came with a crisp and buttery tart, the foundation of which was sunflower seed, filled with a brunoise of compressed green apples livened with jalapeno (and pictured above.)
Cultured almond milk spiked with curry oil and lime leaf was the pour over a soft custard rich with toasted pine nuts, scattered with chewy dehydrated raisins. Two tissue-thin, vivid circles that turned out to be conjured from fermented grape jelly and Sambucca-compressed pear, had their sweetness balanced with torn bits of radicchio.
Another course of seaweed marinated eggplant topped with puffed rice noodle, nori salt and nasturtium, was finished with a lightly chilled kombu dashi broth that was absolutely sublime.
A dish that looked like a brain, was a frozen sesame dome which, once cracked, revealed hidden treasures: charred asparagus, housemade silken tofu, a puree of lemon and lavender, shiso and radish. “Wait 20 seconds,” Kim told us: “As the dome melts, it will dress the salad.” And it did, very nicely. The final savoury course featured smoked potato, potato stuffed morels over a mushroom gravy so dark and rich you’d swear (Ok, I’d swear) it contained reduced meat stock. This dish had a tuile roof — a crisp sheet of potato that looked like a gate, greened with moss. That moss was the ‘funk’ dust of (foraged, fermented, dried and powdered) garlic mustard and ramp tops and it lifted the dish to lovely heights.
Desserts were delicious and inventive, one featuring lacto-fermented chunks of rhubarb with a rhubarb granita, sweetened with lilac sugar, spooned over a tonka bean cream and cashew crumble, topped with bright green nasturtium leaves and petals of mauve lilac. The second, a lovely nubbly pudding of sorts, starring black walnuts and the Korean sparkling rice wine called Makgeolli.
The eight course tasting menu costs $95/pp. There’s an optional wine matching for $60 and ‘Alternative Pairing’ (non-alcoholic drinks, all inspired – highly recommend) for $50.
Find Alice at 40 Adeline Street. @alice.restaurant
Open: Tuesday to Saturday for dinner