The restaurant that used to look down on Parliament Hill from 29 floors up, called Merlot (and way back when, La Ronde), has been rechristened Summit, now a “revolving event space” available for private functions. The business of daily dining and drinking at Ottawa’s Marriott Hotel has sunk to ground level, in a renovated, well- windowed, cheery-coloured lobby space called “spin” kitchen and bar.
It’s a clever sort of name: a nod to its revolving restaurant past, as well as a recognition that it’s located a stone’s throw from all the action on The Hill. “spin” wants to be the go-to eating and drinking place for the politically engaged. To that end, there is no shortage of TVs dotted about, tuned to news (and sports) stations. The “spin” website has weekly political polls, pulse checks, links to CBC News stories, and provocative opinion pieces from various Ottawa journalists. There are even invitations to jot down thoughts as we eat and drink, and lines have been drawn on cocktail napkins to facilitate this.
But “spin” eats like a theme restaurant that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be. It has partnered with Savour Ottawa to come up with a table d’hote of local food, and with the hot bakery Art-is-in, for its pizzas. (Both are honourable ideas, to be sure, but a table d’hote is meant to be a revolving thing, and good dough shouldn’t be debased with pedestrian toppings.) I’ve been to “spin” four times over three months and from December to March, it’s the same darn table d’hote, right down to the spiced apple cake dessert. For a restaurant that’s meant to be about what’s new and happening, you’d think its menu might turn over from time to time.
And while it’s never a bad idea to buy Kevin Mathieson’s Art-is-in bakery pizza dough, it shouldn’t be topped with oily cheese, dried-out chicken and boring cold cuts. Staff should also know what “Art-is-in” is. A server reacted to a question about the pizza with “Art what?” before telling me the pizza is called Art-is-in because it looks very artistic on the plate.
Ahem. Spin me another one.
It wasn’t all bad. I liked the lamb burger, which was juicy and had good lamb flavour, and I liked very much the rare red deer from La Maison du Gibier, served with a yummy sweet potato gratin. But that’s been about it, I’m sad to report.
The red pepper soup had a washed-out flavour, an unpleasant slick of oil on its surface, carelessly sided with stale croutons. (I asked for bread with my soup, thinking I’d be getting Art-is-in treats, and was told dinner rolls were only available at dinner.) Truffle oil was an overbearing bully in the apple butternut squash bisque. The rice wrap trio tasted old, the bundles too cold, the wrapping “paper” tough, the filling missing the burst of fresh herbs that make rice paper rolls interesting. Crab cakes arrived tumbling apart on the plate, indelicately fishy tasting, with a dill sauce that was spit-out bad.
From the regional table d’hote, the trout was overcooked and the pork tenderloin terribly dry. A lunch of skewered halibut (catch of the day) was parched chunks of fish on overcooked basmati rice. The risotto with the “Town of Ashton” rainbow trout tasted of mushy Arborio with too much cream. The carrots wore a candy-like coat from an exuberant glazing. And how is asparagus in January local?
My best meal at “spin” was my first one, shortly after it opened.
Since then, the food seems to have spun backward.
I don’t know what’s wrong – a restrictive budget, cooks who aren’t up to the challenge, servers who haven’t read the talking points – but the gulf between spin’s declared aspirations and its execution on the plate is pretty gaping.