May, 2012 update: Matt Carmichael has left Sidedoor, Social and Restaurant Eighteen to branch out on his own. Stay tuned!
The trouble with Asian food in this city is a dreary lack of distinctive flair. Sushi is sushi is sushi. Siu mai is standard and pho is pho. So many Indian restaurants seem to photocopy each other’s menus and slap their own label at the top.
As for authentic or inventive Mexican, Ottawa is not exactly a hot tamale. We long for some daring, some imagination, someone to toss out the script.
Enter Sidedoor, in the space where Foundation used to be. Refreshingly unlike anything else in Ottawa, Sidedoor is about small, Mexican and Asian-inspired, produce-driven sharing plates. Takes on tacos, Indian and Thai curries, Chinese dumplings, and inventive twists on Japanese favourites, all delivered by an unlikely source. One doesn’t tend to think “curry” when one thinks “Carmichael.”
But that’ll change. Executive chef of Restaurant E18hteen and Social, Matthew Carmichael now adds Sidedoor to his charges, each kitchen cleverly within spitting distance of the others. He has installed Jonathan Korecki (sous chef at E18hteen and -like Carmichael -a student of celebrated Toronto chef Susur Lee) as restaurant chef.
As for the look of Sidedoor, here still are the descending tiers of Foundation, with its darker, subterranean bottom bits. Upstairs, you feel the sun. Mirror, glass and clever lighting (including some inspired chandeliers) have opened the modern space, and its reworking and clean colours allow the magnificent stonework to take centre stage. The bar/lounge and drinks menu remain focal points, but you sense that the business of eating is now a more serious consideration at 20 York St.
Certainly the menu is a serious consideration. What to order when it all appeals? Tacos, certainly, right off the top. There is a hill of flavours and textures on these soft, made-to-order, saucer-sized masa tortillas. Of the six from which to choose, we’ve managed five. Nothing beats the Chinese BBQ pork taco -though the crispy Bajanstyle fish taco’s pretty more-ish, too. Keep the napkins handy -they are messy treats.
A simple toss of Le Coprin mushrooms takes on new character in a sparkling sauce of sweet sherry, soy and a hint of truffle oil. A green papaya and mango salad wears a thatch of taro, while the aromatic slivers of kaffir lime and the saltysour scarlet of purÃ©ed umeboshi (pickled Japanese Ume plum) really catch your attention. I haven’t had a tofu dish as good as Sidedoor’s fried tofu in red curry since my last ZenKitchen visit. Shrimp dumplings are delicious.
Other small dishes to recommend: the salt and pepper calamari; the panko-crusted, deep-fried “son-in-law” eggs with their soft yellow centres and spiky shards of ginger that ooze into a fragrant and fired-up chili jam; and the Eryngii mushroom spring rolls.
From the “meat” section, a soft hunk of pink lamb from the shoulder is a knockout dish: braised in a piquant curry strong of tamarind, ginger and chili, fragrant of basil and lime leaves, and with contrasting textures of roasted peanut and chunks of Brussels sprouts. Fantastic too is the pork belly, crispyskinned and spoon-tender, with mango. We love the burnished brown, Peking-style chicken leg -the flesh so incredibly juicy, the skin so crisp, set in a golden sauce murmuring with absorbed spices, adorned with a spray of green onion and red chilies.
These are dishes that blend regional recipes and some traditional ingredients from India, China and Thailand, with local content, modern techniques and lush presentations.
What else to finish off such a romp of a meal but with doughnuts? Mini ones, dipped in Olivia chocolate (from Gatineau) or dredged with cinnamon sugar. Or you can have ice cream -housemade, the real thing, and in a wealth of flavours.
There are some quibbles. Menu sections are called “vegetables,” “seafood” and “meat,” but attached prices start at $6 and climb to $28 without suggestion of the size of the plate, or how many can share it.
Is the lamb curry ($28) more a main dish? Is the fried tofu curry really $16 when dishes above and below it are $6 and $4? And yes, it needs rice, as our waiter points out, but it seems a bit cheeky to then deliver three bowls of rice at $4 each. And there are many dishes that come in threes -all the tacos, the shrimp dishes, the doughnuts -but we are four at this table. Is there an option to order a fourth? It may seem generous to say, “I’ll bring you some ice cream to share,” but we didn’t give our blessing to $16 worth (good as it is).
And while we give our full attention to these tasty, pretty plates, we don’t always feel we’re getting the same from the staff.
But Sidedoor is new, and things will no doubt get tweaked. What isn’t in doubt is what a splendid addition it is to Ottawa dining.