I figure five restaurants have called 18 Beechwood Avenue home over the past two decades. For me, it was known as the Michael restaurant: operated, since 1997, by a string of them. Trattoria Zingaro (chef Michael Cummings), Ambiente (chef Michael Guy), Farbs Kitchen and Wine Bar (chef Michael Farber), and now, finally, by a Harriet. Though co-owned by a Michelle!
Clunie comes to the Beechwood Gastropub via the Lowertown restaurant Das Lokal. Before that, she was chef de cuisine at Navarra. Most lately I’ve tasted her food at the Poor Chefs’ Competition in support of Operation Come Home, when her frugal dish (the budget is $3.15) of brown rice, roasted squash, a poached egg, and a buck’s worth of harissa spices secured her the Poor Chefs’ cup and a year of free sharpening by KnifeWear Ottawa.
Were those sharp knives being put to good use at her new restaurant? I thought I’d find out. My first taste was a bit mixed. Some dishes delighted, others didn’t. But I learned that night that she was poised to buy the business, and that both she and her menu (and possibly her attention) were in a transition phase. So I let it be for two months, then returned for a much better meal, during which I learned that the restaurant was closing down for a short time to paint and reupholster.
At my final visit (the one where I learn the menu is about to change from its small plates format to a more traditional starter-main style) the food was uniformly sound, and the place had just reopened after its spit and polish. (If you loved the turquoise accents, you’ll find them gone.) The wine list has also been revamped, which is also welcome news.
For now, the one page small plates dinner menu comes with enough ‘daily’ this and ‘daily’ that, to allow for plenty of seasonal treats. Indeed, the salad of the day has been a highlight at every visit (asparagus, two ways, with pickled ramps, cucumber and cucumber yogurt, radish, sorrel, toasted pepitas, and a panko crusted soft boiled egg), as has the grilled radicchio salad filled in with fennel and pickled rhubarb, its sour-bitter notes balanced with sweet pears, candied pecans, and blobs of the house ricotta. There’s a daily dip that comes with olives and apple crisps. And a daily pasta – the kitchen makes orecchiette and tosses the small ear-shaped pasta with different mates every day – steamed mussels, spinach and chewy pancetta in a luscious cream sauce, or spiced up in a stout puttanesca, the tomato-reddened ears cradling capers.
In a pleasant change from calamari and shrimp, Clunie crusts and fries up oysters and mussels, serves them perched on a little kale-cabbage slaw, lubricated with a preserved lemon mayo. The lamb carpaccio was a highlight of an April visit, the ruby rounds of raw meat piled on with blanched radish, pickled shallots, mustard seed and pea shoots. So was the Arctic char with roasted Jerusalem artichoke and a kohlrabi slaw. For a small plate portion, it fed me up. The steak didn’t – it was so bang on delicious, its ruby-rare slices set on a red wine jus, dark and drinkable, greened with chimichurri, I wanted three more slabs of it. This, I gather, from my server, is what the BG’s neighbours also want. Hence the progression away from small plates.
Desserts are unfussy and sound – panna cotta infused with star anise, topped with a blueberry compote and crowned with candied hazelnuts and torn up mint; meringue nests filled with a lemon-pumpkin curd; and house ice creams, three bucks a scoop, or three scoops for eight.
During all those Michael years, this address had something of a guy-vibe. I recall a UFC fight on the tube over the bar during one tenure, male servers flicking towels at each other behind it. Today’s Beechwood Gastropub has an altogether different feel. There’s a schmaltzy black and white film playing as bar entertainment during one visit. Candles grace tables. Service is provided almost entirely by warm and friendly women. And on every red chair on the front deck is a blanket. Pretty neighbourly, that.