Social has a new restaurant chef. Kyrn Stein is an Ottawa lad who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and gained experience in Toronto, including a couple of Jamie Kennedy’s places, the modernist (and now closed) Colborne Lane, and Mark McEwan’s ONE Restaurant where he was executive sous chef.
Stein has now come “home” to plump his CV further at Social — one of the capital city’s signature restaurants. He fills the gap created by long-time executive chef Matthew Carmichael (and restaurant chef Jordan Holley) when they left to pursue other projects, including Carmichael’s buzz-worthy restaurant El Camino on Elgin Street.
Social is a beauty. It always has been, still is. This restaurant/lounge is blessed with good bones, in a primo location, and aging well. Maybe the secret is change. Over the years of writing about it — through its Derek Benitz era (remember him?), then René Rodriguez (now, Navarra), followed with Steve Mitton (Murray Street), Carmichael (El Camino and counting), Holley — it’s had some ups and downs. At times Social has felt more like a hotspot nightclub than a serious restaurant. But not lately. And with these last few visits, even the choice and volume of the music suggest the kitchen is taking the dinner hours seriously.
I found the dishes emerging from a Stein-led kitchen sophisticated and accomplished, with a high degree of attention paid to detail and presentation. Beginning with the sharing plate: The highlights from it included a plump slab of crisped squid, the flesh lovely and tender, refreshed with a pool of cucumber “caviar” spheres, and with zingy pickled cucumber balls. There was rich creaminess on the plate in a dollop of labneh, and the crisp came in two cracker curls, black with squid ink.
We ordered the torched tuna to get at the yuzu coconut ice cream, but found the white pearls of coconut milk, built up like the wall of a mini snow fort, lent much of the pop and pleasure to the dish. Full marks to the beef tartar — the meat luscious, its seasoning well-judged, served with capers, pickled shallots and rounds of radish.
The only bit of so-what on the plate were the bland tasting mushrooms on toasted brioche. Other than that, no dish failed to please. There were modern moments where modern moments were called for, and restraint shown right where you want it (the superb short rib was cooked sous vide, but served with a horseradish-zinged jus, mashed potatoes, crispy shallots, carrots, and peas — nothing chi chi about it. And the beet salad was simple and flavourful, the lightly pickled beets surrounded with arugula, Puy lentils and housemade goat milk ricotta.)
Star of the main dishes for me? Probably the duo of lamb — the loin rubbed with Vadouvan (Indian masala with some French meddling) and the belly meat pulled and weighty in a cardamom-strong lentil curry. Though the duck was mighty fine too. Stein set the meat and veg, greens, and roasted apple to one side — the dramatic presentation allowed the roasted, puréed rutabaga to be the golden star of its wide corner.
Desserts were deconstructed beauties, though going frou frou with pecan pie is just plain wrong. Keep the brown butter ice cream though…
Service showed an impressive knowledge of the dishes and the Social wine list is thick and well curated.
First published for ‘DesBrisay Dines’ column at OttawaMagazine.com