Nobody visiting Soif would ever wonder what kind of place it is, given that the room is entirely framed in cork and the walls are plastered with maps of wine regions.
Since my first tastes of sommelier Véronique Rivest’s bar a vin on rue Montcalm in late 2014, the kitchen has steadied under a new boss — Jamie Stunt.
Best known for the eight years he worked in the pint-sized kitchen at Oz Kafé, Jamie Stunt’s approach to food at Oz was to take humble (or out there) ingredients (yak, for example) and make them hum. His dishes were an eclectic bunch, but all with seasonal interest and with proper ballsy flavours.
But I wouldn’t suggest any of his dishes were designed with a wine list in mind. And I would think beer was more his drink (he paired his Gold Medal Plates winning dish with an Ashton Brewing Company libation) and during the Canadian Culinary Championship of 2013, he admitted his wine knowledge was wobbly. (Though it didn’t stop him from securing second place.) So I did wonder how well Stunt and Soif would get-along.
Brilliantly, as it turns out. His food shows a mature restraint, devised to allow the wine to work alongside. And though the dishes have no shortage of flavour and texture and interesting nuances, they aren’t bullying.
The menu offers a dozen small plates, plus three sharing boards – charcuterie, vegetables, cheese – and a couple of yummy things on good grilled bread (the Soif smoked trout, lubricated with a smear of crème fraiche and topped with fried capers, is excellent.) These are not the usual suspect small plates: beets come fried with a sauce Gribiche or in a salad brightened with yogurt, mint and the sweet burst of pomegranate seeds; poutine gets smothered with boudin noir and fried sage; duck hearts are grilled and brushed with a sweet-spicy punch; a rice wrap comes with an anchovy dip; grilled broccoli with a gouda cheese sauce; oysters are a constant.
We began with a lovely Crémant de Bourgogne and a plate of salt cod fritters, the bubbles working off the fat and the salt like they never happened. The fritters were terrific – the fish milked of its saltiness, smoothed with potato, puffy and soft within their brown panko wrappers. They came with a mayo, punched up with chorizo, and, for acidic relief, a citrus-sparkly parsley salad studded with chewy bits of bacon and strands of pickled onion. On another night, we repeated the theme — the fritters replaced with fried perch sticks, served with a celery root rémoulade.
Boudin noir (black pudding/blood sausage) came in a dark tart, the forceful flavours softened with an earthy celery root purée and sweet onions cooked down so long and slow they’ve become a deeply delicious paste. A cranberry relish lends some fruity-tart, and a watercress salad some green relief. This could have been diner for me — and a steal at $15.
Again, from the small plates side of the menu, the bison tartare was a loosely packed puck of well seasoned, lightly chewy, clean-tasting meat, and the winter salad arrived as a haystack of raw, cooked and marinated vegetables, studded with lardons and chunks of feta.
During another visit, we worked our way pleasurably through the vegetable board, a black slate covered with raw chips, pickled beets and radish, grilled squash, tempura-ed Brussels, served with a black garlic mayonnaise. And then feeling virtuous, we ordered the hanger steak, the meat chewy and rare, sliced on a bed of roasted mushrooms and potatoes, moistened with a dark, clean jus and served with a generous smear of caramelized onion jam.
I didn’t take a shine to a couple of the wines I was offered at my visit, but I liked very much two things about the experience of not liking them. The first is that I had the choice not to like them, given that samples are always offered before a decision is made. Secondly, the wine server was thoughtful about the wines, but didn’t make me feel — in any way — pressured to like her recommendations. Her mission was to find me one I did.
My husband — a far less complicated creature — was delighted with his Petit Trio, three 2-oz pours of South American reds. He committed to the 2014 De Martino Viejas Tinajas Cinsault, a light Chilean wine, which took him happily through his meal.
There were two desserts on offer, including a maple pie — the sweetness cut with blue cheese — and a dark chocolate and salted caramel mouse topped with brioche crisps that’s extremely edible. During another visit, stuffed with boudin and bison, we opted for the deconstructed citrus tart, its base a bar of buttery shortcrust, topped with curd and cream, candied orange and a chiffonade of mint. Lovely.
I find the prices at Soif kind. You could dine very well and fully here for not much.
Small plates, $3 to $21. Monday to Friday, lunch through dinner; Saturday/Sunday from 4pm.
88 rue Montcalm, Gatineau, 819-600-7643