Trust John Taylor to deliver cold-pressed canola oil and house-made plum vinegar with his daily bread. It has been the nature of Domus CafÃ© to tout Canadian since the get-go. And though it’s increasingly fashionable for Ottawa restaurants to do, few cook the mantra with such quiet zeal. Most still give the extra virgin olive oil and Italian balsamic dipper before they bring a bison burger.
Now in its 14th year under John and Sylvia Taylor, Domus Café (now called John Taylor at Domus Café) produces solidly good food with impeccably sourced raw materials. It has always been a superior place to eat. But since the opening of their second restaurant – Taylor’s Genuine Food and Wine Bar in Old Ottawa South – I was curious to see how the new baby had affected the teenager, the parents now having to divide their time between the two.
Well, a recent lunch was the finest, most together, most thought-through meal I’ve had all year.
It began with squash soup, lightweight but deeply flavoured, its silky smooth texture interrupted with a matchstick crown of crunchy-tart apples. A beet salad was simply stunning. Tucked among the scarlet leaves of baby beet tops – one of the many “greens” on this plate – was a variety of roasted beets, along with pears and luscious knobs of Floralpe Farm goat cheese. The pile was topped with a confetti of radish. There is no shortage of flavour in the quail and yet the stout smoked tomato chutney that elevates the delicate bird doesn’t overwhelm it. Crisp skinned and juicy fleshed, it arrives perched on soupy polenta perked with Berkshire chorizo and strewn with Chanterelle and Eryngii mushrooms. And, finally, a hunk of pickerel, perfectly cooked, on a pillow of cauliflower purée, with mustard pickled pearl onions and wilted beet greens leaching their yellow and scarlet juices into puddles of green oil. Quite a painting, this pretty plate. The only issue was the service, which seemed distracted, low on the warmth meter.
A dinner at Domus a few weeks later was not without some disappointment. Though the tomato jam and poached quail’s egg are delicious sides, the lobe of foie gras is sinewy, and requires some tiptoeing through. A seafood chowder is superb, but it costs $20 for a rather shallow pool of it and it’s more potato than fish, with the only obvious bit of swimmer being salmon. It’s yummy, but not $20 yummy.
We order the Kerr Farms steak on the menu, and the steak special arrives instead. The server is instantly apologetic and we tell her it’s fine. She delivers a side of free frites, and though we know this happens, still the room is hardly busy, and we can’t help but wonder if the magazine she keeps picking up is partly to blame. The steak is first class. Luscious meat, with a crunch in its crust, perched on a bed of haricots verts and crispy wisps of Swiss chard, it’s served with a lovely smoked tomato jam. The wild rice dotted with roasted cauliflower, carrots and parsnip beneath the most fantastic hunk of salmon, has lovely flavour and crunch, but I wish the bed were warmer.
These are not big misses. They are small irritants in what is otherwise very good food with a pedigree you can taste. But when you are paying as much as you are for this fine food, you do want it all pretty darn perfect. And you want service to match. Service that doesn’t need to read the specials from a notebook.
What I find missing here are the Taylors. Or at least a sense of someone with a watchful eye.
We end on a high note with a stellar creme brulée, and a moist and lovely carrot cake with cream cheese drizzle, goat cheese ice cream and sweet and salty pumpkin seeds. We do wonder why no one offers us coffee.
Small matters, but this is a big restaurant.