As you likely know, if you follow these things, Matthew Carmichael, once executive chef of restaurants e18hteen, Social and Sidedoor, left the trio last June. It’s possible we were a bit taken aback. Though gifted chefs – and Carmichael is that – looking for a new challenge is hardly a shocker.
Carmichael hasn’t been utterly away. He’s popped up here and there, fed his fans at various plain Jane places (far cries from the splendours of his past restaurants) and seems to be having some fun travelling and making pea soup. (See Ron Eade’s post of Jan 31.) Wherever he lands, we do hope it’s in Ottawa. It would be a darn shame to loose his considerable talent to more congested markets.
In any event, Restaurant e18hteen promoted its sous chef Walid El-Tawel. My first taste, three months after Carmichael left, was ripe with disappointments. Too many things wrong with too many plates – I thought they were overcrowded, a bit dull, and there were temperature troubles. Given the prices e18hteen commands, this was tough to swallow.
But my last, recent visit was so much happier.
It’s a lovely looking place. One of the city’s most handsome, in my opinion. Tables on the lower level by the fireplace are favoured this time of year for obvious reasons, but I guess I’ve plunked myself pretty much everywhere in this big place, including at the bar and the private-ish room at the back, over the years I’ve been following it – through its early John Leung days, the two years Chris Deraiche was executive chef (now at the Wellington Gastropub), the six years Carmichael ran the show, and now the months under Walid El Tawel. There simply isn’t a bad seat in the house.
One dish didn’t work, so let’s get that out of the way. Grilled octopus was the rubber element in a plate that united the over charred tentacle with chorizo and a delicious charred tomato-almond romesco sauce. But the balance of the evening charmed us, particularly the lobster consommé. Soft sweet morsels of BC Dungeness crab, chopped tomato, strips of Belgian endive, a bit of Thai chilli zip, and supple little enoki mushrooms arrived in a bowl. Over these elements was poured, tableside, a bright and sophisticated lobster consommé.
The year Carmichael won the top prize at Gold Medal Plates, it was with a dish that is now a mainstay on the menu. It remains a dish to order: Lacquered BC black cod has a crisp, caramelized coat but a soft, moist middle. The fish falls in petals onto a well flavoured carrot-coconut puree. Tucked beneath, some snap peas heirloom carrots and brussels sprouts.
Lamb and eggplant are magic together and the Morrocan flavours of the charred eggplant that anchored four fat, perfectly pink lamb chops made the dish.
Cheeses are all Canadian, and include the deliciously smoky Vlimeux from Fromagerie Le Mouton Blanc in Bas Saint-Laurent. But if it’s a sweetie you want, pastry chef Vu Duong offers some whimsical options, including flights of Olivia chocolates, a very odd sounding crème brulée with root beer syrup, a peanut butter cheesecake (with fruit punch compote) and a sort of deconstructed pumpkin pie. We had this, and loved best the pear and balsamic ice cream with oatcake and the luscious pumpkin custard.