I had the pleasure of judging final examination dishes of culinary students at Le Cordon Bleu (Ottawa campus) last month. Had the crÃ¨me brulÃ©e from The Swan at Carp been submitted for appraisal that day it would have earned top marks. The custard was wickedly smooth, yet still slightly wobbly, perfumed with vanilla bean and with a vague suggestion of maple syrup. Its sugar cap was thin and crackling. Two spoons dueled for last licks.
Good grades too would have been given for The Swan’s chocolate hazelnut crunch cake, the maple pecan pie and the chocolate mousse cake with its glistening ganache glaze.
Responsible for the sweets at the Swan is Cordon Bleu trained pastry chef Sunna Na. For another round of her treats, I’d make the trek to Carp. Were I a beer fan, I’d return for the remarkable list of brews. Thirteen on tap, and eight blackboards-full of other offerings. Maybe 70 in total, maybe more. I lost count and our server just rolled her eyes and laughed when asked for a number. “We have a LOT!” Indeed they do.
They also have a lot on the dinner menu. And I’m gloomy to report I wouldn’t rush back for much of what I sampled from it. I’m sad, and a bit baffled, for I so enjoyed this place in 2005.
I had reviewed the Swan at Carp five years ago, hearing good things about this young couple, Sunna and her husband chef Joseph Thompson, who had bought an old brick parsonage set on a hill in Carp with the intent of putting their own stamp on the existing pub. They wisely kept some of the pubby favourites (chicken pot pie, roast beef dip, pulled pork sandwich) updated some others (the burger is now fashioned with ‘mixed game’ and topped with gruyere, the fish and chips are panko-sesame crusted tilapia with a wasabi tartar sauce) and added some Asian dishes (Korean BBQ pork, spicy Asian soup). They now have a crepe menu (both savoury and sweet), a kid’s menu, as well as a number of French dishes (duck rillettes, venison tenderloin with mousse de foie gras, bacon wrapped quail, braised rabbit.) They do take-away business, and they have cakes and truffles for sale in a refrigerated case. On one of our nights they had a beer tasting group arriving as we were leaving.
My 2010 Carp excursions were meant to be ‘all’s-still-well’ sort of pleasure trips, a check-up on a possible valley restaurant to feature in the Canada Day ‘Ode to Ale’ issue. But this kitchen seems taxed, trying to be too many things, its menu too ambitious, and the result – with the exception of the sweet endings – didn’t eat very well.
Though there were two starters we did enjoy. The duck rillettes with apples, grainy mustard and fresh baguette was a generous, tasty plate. And the lobster bisque was perfectly passable. Not bad as well, the elk schnitzel, the meat tender beneath a crisp panko crust, though both the elk and its coat could have used some seasoning. The cafeteria scoop of dismally dry mashed potatoes had the dusty taste of a seasoning mix, while the vegetables – peppers, tops-on carrots, snap peas, steamed parsnips – were trying to be fine, but none was cooked right, and the lot seemed an after-thought, unseasoned and unloved.
The artichoke dip was icy cold and wretchedly bland, served with a silly mountain of grilled pita wedges that at first were warm and fresh-tasting, but became rock hard within minutes. Vegetarian spring rolls featured a mushy, tasteless filling within tough, greasy wrappers, their presentation lacking. A butternut squash soup was thin tasting, with a lingering chemical after-bite.
The quail was dry, the chicken in the pot pie also dry, and while the rabbit leg was moist enough, it was missing flavour. The roasted garlic cloves that hung about the sauce were near-raw.
The steak and asparagus crepe wasn’t memorable. Help for this dish would include a better bÃ©arnaise sauce, cooking the onions (these were warm, but raw) leaving the asparagus whole rather than chopped up bits, and thinner pieces of rarer steak (these were fat strips of grey meat). The Caesar side salad tasted of bottled dressing. Even the Korean pork dish, one I so enjoyed at my last visit, featured tough meat and an acrid, wildly spicy sauce.
So come for chocolate and crÃ¨me brulÃ©e and a beer. (The wine list is no great draw, and some bottles are unfairly marked up.)
The Swan is capable of much better. A shorter menu would be my first suggestion.