By ANNE DESBRISAY
There’s a spartan look about Clover. High school chairs, bare benches, caged industrial lights, walls of open brick and plywood (sanded and varnished, but still plywood) are either indications of a work in progress, or the carefully considered props for the homespun look this new Bank Street restaurant seeks. It makes the warming touches — the pots of sage on the tables, the white linen napkins, the amber glassware — all the more appreciated. Come winter, the addition of some visual drama, some colour, (and certainly some padding, ahem), might help.
But the frugal decor and the bum-aching-bench whinging evaporate once the food starts to arrive. This restaurant is taking interesting culinary risks. And the pleasure of Clover is that the risks taste very good indeed.
Clover chef West de Castro — bee keeper, honey farmer, and most recently sous chef of Zen Kitchen — chose to work with smelts as her fish. Sourced from The Whalesbone, these were big (boned, floured, and fried) guys, and they were absolute champs. She set them on a warm salad of tomatoes, zucchini, shaved fennel, leeks, and cucumber, with black olives, fennel fronds, and a marvellous avocado aioli. A big hunk of grilled sourdough bread finished the plate.
After smelts we had a puffball. Have you ever seen puffball featured on an Ottawa menu? Neither had I. Paired with grilled broccoli and roasted fingerlings, the outer bits of the big white mushroom find had been cleaned and diced and fried up. These were meaty textured. The inner bits were surprisingly soft and creamy, almost custard like. Beneath the mushroom was a pea purée, and strewn overtop bacon, almonds, fresh sage.
Some dishes were less out there and no less pleasing. The corn chowder was gossamer, a great rendition of the classic late summer soup, with chewy lardons of smoked bacon bumping up the pleasure factor. A gazpacho was like slurping up the September-garden. It arrived properly chilled, with good acidic balance and well seasoned. Having drunk up an assertive marinade, bison flank steak was grilled to rare, sliced in thick chewy strips and set on wilted greens. It came with a hunk of very commendable corn bread.
Lovage is an unloved herb. I can’t recall the last time I saw it on a menu, or tasted its distinct flavour. But there it was, featured in Clover’s daily soup at lunchtime: fresh pea and lovage. It was a regal green, with a pretty swirl of creme fraiche and a bump of snipped chives. The flavour of fresh peas was clear and bright, but so too was the parsley-like, celery-ish and slightly anise flavour of the herb. A panini that featured zucchini was more on the dull side, and though there were parts of the grilled romaine Caesar we enjoyed (the egg mimosa, say, and the terrific dressing), the unwieldy hunk of grilled baguette and the bitterness of the wilted lettuce meant this dish was less of a thrill.
But we were grinning again by dessert time. De Castro’s panna cotta infused with thyme and lemon, and topped with stewed peaches and rhubarb was simply gorgeous, with edible flowers, fresh raspberries, and chopped pistachio crowning the glistening custard.
At my visits the restaurant had been largely empty, but this will surely change.
Wines are all Ontario VQA (Niagara and PEC) and beer on tap is from Beau’s, Kichesippi, and Covered Bridge in Stittsville.
Clover is open weekday lunches but only Fridays and Saturdays for dinner.
Lunch mains, $8 to $15; dinner mains, $18 to $23
Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
155 Bank Street, 613-680-8803, cloverottawa.ca