I re-read a 2011 foodieprints interview with chef Michael Blackie with other day. Near the end of the conversation with Don Chow he lamented the end of the tasting menu “trend”. People just weren’t into committing to that kind of two-plus hours of multi-course dining, he explained. So ordering the tasting menu at Blackie’s NeXT last week surely proves he’s come back to its pleasures.
NeXT is a three-year-old, 11,000 square-foot restaurant, catering operation and event space in Stittsville and the ‘next’ venture for Blackie following his four-year stint as kitchen boss at the National Arts Centre. (Before that, he was opening chef of Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel and Perspectives restaurant. And before that, his career as a chef took him to Toronto, Acapulco, Hong Kong and Bali.)
Truth is, I’m delighted to commit two-plus hours to multiple-course fine dining if the dining is indeed fine. (Two-plus hours of mouth disappointments is another story.) But I do think Blackie was correct: tasting menus are on the out. Though not for the reason he suggests.
Tasting menus (particularly blind ones) suit a shrinking breed: those of us who eat everything — no allergies, no intolerances, no food ‘issues’ — and who are, in equal measure, fond of being surprised and weary of making decisions. With a tasting menu, we know the deal, we know the price, we just want the chef to cook for us and the drinks guy to chose some pairings. Our job is to sit back and let it happen. No idea what’s not to like about that.
Blackie’s tasting menu, like many of Blackie’s endeavours, follows no traditional course, plucked as it is from his one-page sharing plates menu divided into sections called Nibbly Bits, Tasty Stuff and Dirty Stuffs. Dishes come when dishes come. Some feed two. Some seem more suited for a crowd. They are served in no particular order or with no particular rhyme or reason. Surprises within surprises, you might say. Though I will reassure you that the chocolate-peanut confection came at the end. And I will caution you it is best to approach your eight-course meal with a monstrous appetite: it’s a wildly generous serving, much of which came home with us for breakfast. (‘General Blackie’s Chicken’ is surprisingly delicious at 6 a.m., the rice darkened with crunchy bits and infused with the sweetly pungent sauce.)
It was all very tasty, very pretty, deeply flavourful food. My quibble is that the sum of what landed on our table was relentlessly rich. Too many fried dishes, meaty dishes, creamy dishes. It needed balance — more fish than beef, say. Even our server, who was attentive and friendly, seemed surprised at the weightiness of the plates. Had my sons been dining at NeXT, they would have been delighted. For two of a certain age it was a bit much.
From Nibbly Bits, we had the toasty olive oil baguette: a few generous tranches of oil-soused bread, grilled, served with a generous smear of house labneh (thick, full-fat yogurt, strained of its whey), lightly jazzed up with garlic confit, fried capers, a chiffonade of sage and good oil. Then from Tasty Stuff, an arugula salad sitting tall and jazzed up with smoked feta cheese, turmeric-stained pickled onions, fried kale leaves and juicy chunks of ginger-compressed watermelon. Lovely.
Tuna pizza next, the raw fish seared tataki-style and settled on a sushi rice fritter, sandwiched with a round of pickled daikon and moistened with wasabi mayo. A bit of warm crunch in the rice cake next to the cool slabs of fish took nigiri sushi to a playful place.
Back to Nibbly Bits for the tempura-fried cheese curds, which were served with a dipping sauce sweetened with maple and kicked with Sriracha. Then a splendid version of Tom Kha Gai soup, with its chilli kick and coconut balm providing beautiful balance between hot and sour and salty and sweet.
And on it went, to Dirty Stuff, and General Blackie’s Chicken — a riff on General Tso’s, which stars hoisin, ginger and kecap manis: the sweet, spicy chicken pieces soft within their sticky, crunchy, rice flour coats, served on basmati rice with cilantro.
Short ribs are darkened and sweetened with a molasses balsamic glaze, and melt off the bones onto a tasty potato hash. They come crowned with a sunny-fried egg.
The three desserts truly undid us: a parfait glass of chocolate-chilli mousse layered with peanut and meringue; a classic crème brûlée crowned with blueberries; and house waffles, spread with marmalade, sandwiched with ice cream and topped with candied pecans.
NeXT’s eight-course, wildly generous Blind Sharing Menu costs $63 per person (minimum guest count is two). Option of the four-wine flight will run you another $32.