This Hintonburg newcomer will fit in fine with the mood of a neighbourhood that’s flowering with new dining-out options. Most have a flop-into-them, linen-free, post-skating, long-johns-and-tuque-head-are-perfectly-fine feel.
My husband is delighted with these come-as-ye-be-and-wolf-down-some-macky-cheese sorts of places. I applaud too (the cheese tends to be local), but maybe with a bit less verve. The Le Métro/Chez Jean Pierres of Ottawa’s past are all being replaced with gastropubs or “soul” cafés, restos that give themselves “kitchen” as surname, put their bars front and centre and dish up endless plates of comfort food.
But I digress. This place isn’t trying to be anything but a (nother) neighbourhood watering hole with a focus on good food and drink, and in that it’s succeeding.
(Another trend I applaud is the lack of televisions in these new places. It’s a scourge that’s infected downtown and Westboro: no matter where you sit yourself there’s no escaping the flat screens. None of that for these Hintonburg trailblazers. Full marks.)
In its look, the HPH reminds me a bit of the new Back Lane Café — thoroughly modern in its garage-sale fittings. The wide plank floor is progressively repurposed wood, the hodgepodge chairs and tables come similarly pre-loved.
Shades of brown and white dominate the long room, with one rogue bit of turquoise behind the bar. Crockery here has been borrowed from granny’s china cabinet; cutlery is church bazaar; candles are nestled in Mason jars; bills are dispatched on little silver trays. The bar is long and wide and looks like it’s been there forever.
There is good energy in the room, but it comes less from the staff than from the patrons. And there’s no shortage of those.
Most are eating fish and chips or burgers and chips. Both are good choices. The Hintonburg Public House’s chef is Kris Kshonze, late of the Whalesbone Oyster House, which likely explains why the seafood dishes are so solid. His rendition of the great British pub grub starts with fat hunks of fresh cod dunked in a bitter-beer batter and fried up brown and crunchy, served with fries and a curried mayo. Not a huge portion. Just right at $14. The burger is tasty, moist, and comes with a slick of old Cheddar, topped with house pickles and a perky onion mayo. The lamb sandwich is delicious. I thought the grilled flatbread was superb, mostly for its spread of white bean hummus, topped with soft mushrooms and kale, pickled onion, and dollops of thick tangy yogurt. It comes with a bouncy salad and for $14 seemed a perfect, light supper.
You get more mileage out of the potted whole chicken livers ($6), pink and pungent, sweetened with an onion jam and green apples, or from the sausage starter ($6, with homemade mustard and Art-is-in crostini) than you do out of a small wedge of le Noble cheese with sumac jelly — same price, cheese in nice condition, but there’s not much of it.
There were a few things amiss: the pastry was tough in the squash galette, though the flavours, enhanced with orange zest, were easy to like; and if the malt vinaigrette on the trout starter were drizzled with less enthusiasm, I would like it better. The fish itself was rich and delicious and its mates — briny beets, crushed capers, little bitter leaves of Brussels sprout — very nice. The only big letdowns were the flabby chicken wings — the skin in need of a trim and some serious crisping — and the pastry in the apple curd tart needing some serious de-crisping. The crust was completely impassable.
Until they get that bit right, better to order the gorgeous blood-orange-cranberry frozen yogurt for dessert, or the luscious chocolate pudding cake with candied orange marmalade and cream.
For the beer drinker, there’s a solid craft lineup — including six locals on tap — and there’s a short, decent enough wine list here, with 12 options available by the glass/half litre/bottle.
The loos are curiously in the middle of the room, unmarked and next to the office, also unmarked, the latter sometimes opened in error by those looking for the ladies room. May I suggest a sign above these three doors so Hintonburg Pub owner Summer Baird (once co-chef/owner of the Urban Pear) is less frequently disturbed? Including by me. Though one does wonder what she’s doing in her office, door closed, on a busy Thursday night.
Which brings me to what I think is my only problem with this new place.
I like the menu — lots of interesting, no-nonsense pub stuff on it, fairly priced — and the food is tasty and for the most part well prepared. But for a pub, the bit that seems missing is the cheer. “Sit where you like” is a lazy greeting, and the servers can be a preoccupied lot. The atmosphere of a neighbourhood local is created by the people who own it, and the folk behind the bar and on the floor.
At none of my visits did I feel embraced by this place. And I want that in my pub.