Novotel Hotel, Ottawa
At my final visit to the Novotel Hotel’s new Trio Restaurant (replacing CafÃ© Nicole) my server announced that plans were afoot to relocate it to some other part of the hotel. Given this bit of news, I’ll just tell you that, for now, Trio is a long room of two levels, somewhat dim despite the tall, elegant windows. The tables are black and bare, seats and benches are beige and black. Flatware comes rolled in a white linen napkin, bound with a paper collar sporting the new Trio logo. Wine glasses are similarly etched. The blue walls have some gold etching and are covered with many, many flat screen televisions playing an endless loop of the same silent video commercial for the hotel in which you are dining, the logic or aesthetic of which escapes me.
The next puzzling bit is the menu’s daft statement that Trio (subtitle, “Wine, Food, Pleasure”) is “reinventing the concept of dining” by offering tasting-sized plates. I could have sworn the tapas-theme bandwagon upon which Trio is clambering was actually ‘invented’ quite a while ago. And despite its commendable all-Canadian wine list, the only unique arrangement at play here is Trio’s collaboration with The Savvy Grapes: Ottawa sommelier Debbie Trenholm’s company has assembled the VQA wine list and created the food pairings.
The menu uses a colour-coding scheme. Grape varieties are each given a shade – canary yellow for Chardonnay, Kelly green for Merlot, mauve for Pinot Noir, and so on. Each plate on the two menus (‘Food’ and ‘Pleasure’) is flanked with a duo of coloured dots denoting two suggested wines. You trace the dots back to the wine list with its corresponding coloured bars and make your selection.
There’s no doubt it makes for a bright document and, one could argue, an educational one. But I find the look infantile, in a paint-by-numbers sort of way. In addition to the bars and dots of colour, on this menu, there are boxes announcing flights, add-ons, and ‘MÃ©nage Ã trois’ combinations with the Pleasure plates.
But we listen nicely to our server’s bullet points on ‘how the menu works’ and then order a bit from the Food page (“Tried and true classics”) a bit from the Pleasure page (“dishes sized for sharing”) and follow the links to the Wine page (Colio Estate Wines are the featured trio, and the balance of the all-VQA list is available by the glass, carafe and bottle).
Then the plates begin to arrive.
From the tried and true classics I have been roundly disappointed. The Butternut squash soup tastes watered down, its flavour appallingly wan. The Caesar salad may be slightly modernized with its parmesan wafer and pancetta crisp, but the dressing has the saccharine chemical taste of commercial mayonnaise, the cheese tastes old and the meat tastes ‘crisped’ a while ago.
The grilled salmon is absolutely desiccated, its risotto not a risotto at all but creamed rice, its asparagus side limp and grey. The steak tastes of nothing at all, the fries taste sullen and pre-frozen. The carbonara is mostly cream, raw garlic and chalky Parmesan with bits of overcooked ground pork, and the apple Calvados sauce on the chicken Normand is thick and cloying.
Of the small plates, I ranged far and wide across the menu and found three things I might eat again. A racy falafel is moist and has a nice smoky sauce; the “Cool chicken” stuffed with herbed goat cheese is flavourful, its bed of grated zucchini provides a nice crisp contrast; and the grilled beef curry with a Puy lentil cushion isn’t bad. But there were more disappointments than pleasures. The quail needs a good crisping (the skin is grey and flabby) and the mashed purple potatoes arrive cold. The slivered scallop is bland atop a dried out sweet potato flan heavily doused with cumin, and with a desiccated proscuitto crisp; the tuna is overcooked and under-seasoned on a bed of fridge-cold, waterlogged tabbouleh. The “Mediterrian (sic) mystery” features ground lamb, cooked way too long in a soggy strudel.
You can order sides with these. Golden beets are boiled, watery, bitter and unseasoned. Mushrooms too are unseasoned, and the chef’s risotto tastes of mushy rice. And, yes, asparagus from South America may now be a grocery store staple, but no restaurant touting itself as seasonal and local should feature the spring stems on an October menu.
There are four tasting size desserts. We try the crÃ¨me brulÃ©e, the lemon mousse and the chocolate pot de crÃ¨me (3 for $8) and find them all too sweet – though admire the chaste vanilla bean flavour of the brulÃ©e, torched tableside.
Trio feels like a corporate-created construction, the food from which would be tolerable if the kitchen were up to it. It isn’t.