Hotel restaurants are often overlooked in a catalogue of a city’s top eateries. We’re programmed to favour – generally with very good reason – chef-owned restaurants, where the dining experience tends to be more intimate. Or at least more stamped with personality.
With their layers of bureaucracy, their financial and behavioural obligations to a distant mother ship, and with their guest-based mandate to please all, hotel dining rooms don’t generally measure highly on the gastronomic excitement meter. The food can taste industrial, as though it’s been cooked by a committee. And a while ago.
But I have to tell you I had a flawless dinner at Wilfrid’s last week.
So as I sat in my spacious armchair at my white-draped, well-spaced table in this elegant dining room overlooking the East Block of Parliament Hill and, as plate after plate of very good food was delivered by a woman of grace and good humour, it did strike me that as hotel dining rooms go, this one should not go unnoticed. It serves food that far outshines that at most chain hotels. Food that can compete with many fine freestanding restaurants, and food that has an admirable local content.
A new-to-me local boy, executive chef Geoffrey Morden, has relocated to the Fairmont ChÃ¢teau Laurier from Winnipeg and, before that, from Lake Louise. A Stratford Chef School graduate (I’m always impressed with its alumni), Morden continues the ChÃ¢teau’s tradition of looking in its neighbourhood as much as possible for supplies of food and wine and, lately, trumpeting sustainable seafood. The Ocean Wise stamp (recommended by the Vancouver Aquarium as an ocean-friendly seafood choice) appears beside half the dishes.
And the stuff is well cooked too. The Dungeness crab cake is dense of crab and swanky flavoured, enhanced with a crunchy fennel-jicama slaw. Pretty pink polka dots of chili oil colour the surface and punch the flavour of a lobster broth, the rich soup enhanced with Kaffir lime leaf and roasted corn. In its middle, you bob for delicious nuggets of lobster meat.
Roasted yellow peppers, avocado and apple chips invigorate a carefully chopped tartare of Ahi tuna, dressed sweetly with a sticky reduction of maple, cider and sesame oil.
And yet more seafood: in a wide bowl, lobster, shrimp, and scallop – each juicy, buttery, really quite perfect specimens – nestled on whipped potatoes, served with a bundle of vegetables, tied with a scallion stem and moistened with a gentle tomato broth perfumed with tarragon.
Lest you think Wilfrid’s has turned completely fishy, there is also a section – though we didn’t go there – for prime rib and steaks.
And there’s boar. Which was, at dinner No. 2, the boring bit. The meat was tough, served too rare, without a nice crusty crust, and largely unseasoned. So we ate instead the hefty cake of chunky potato, thyme and leek (dynamite) and more of those perfectly correct vegetables. Though for $45, one does wish for more than damn good taters.
Also at that second dinner, clearly not as flawless as the first (and revealing some slips in service standards, with long and lonely waits between courses), carpaccio, the thin leaves of meat blackened with peppery edges, the raw flesh melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
A Canadian twist – chunks of local goat cheese feta in place of the usual parmigiano shavings – worked well, as did the arugula, but the dish missed an acid component, and could have used some moistening too. The advertised horseradish cream was no more than a drib, and the capers were missing.
A lunch burger was fine – a bit dry, a bit dull – but OK enough.
Desserts are all made in house and are beauties, and Wilfrid’s wine list is impressive in both its Canadian content and its international entries. Those wishing to splurge will have plenty of choice.
Wilfrid’s is pricey. This is a hotel dining room, let us not forget. Most mains are priced in the 30s and 40s. Seems to me, if it wants to compete with first-rate free-standing restaurants, and attract more Ottawa locals, it should drop its prices. It might fill more seats – at none of my three visits have there been more than 20 diners.
And the $16 bill for an evening of parking (street parking can be a problem here) contributes to the hefty bottom line.