Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
In the past Navarra’s tapas menus sometimes confused me: $9 olives next to $24 ‘Macaroni Carbonara’; $22 ‘Rioja Potatoes’ and $29 for a bigger portion of beef tartare. Granted, it was all pretty delicious stuff, but what to order, how much to order, and the unpredictable size of the final bill all made me nervous.
So may I just say how totally delighted I am about Navarra’s decision to ditch its small plates menu in favour of a tasting menu. Two menus, in fact. One is more Mexican, the other Spanish leaning. One is four course, the other five. Snacking at Navarra’s bar is still an option if you can’t commit to the whole enchilada. But I think you should commit.
Rene Rodriguez’ food has always been avant-garde, sophisticated and technique driven. It deserves the choreography a tasting menu offers. It allows for a parade of plates that have links, a meal that has an arc to it, that explores flavour and texture, and has a logical beginning, a few middles and an end.
That’s how tasting menus ought to work. The worst make you feel like the prisoner of a misunderstood genius who delivers plate after plate of exhaustingly show-offy dishes, more about the chef’s pleasure than yours.
This didn’t feel like that.
Rodriguez started us off with an amuse to stimulate the palate. A snowy-white, mouth-chilling granité of lime and coconut, with blobs of a spiced pineapple gel. Somewhere in that cup were pop rocks that ricocheted around the mouth and made me feel six again. Nothing wrong with that.
Then came his signature steak tartare. A puck of impeccable meat, left in soft chunks with a green roof of chives and a sly heat from powdered piquillo peppers. Toasted Catalan tomato bread was the vehicle provided to ferry meat to mouth, while a few chicharron lent an oily crunch. A spoon of gritty romesco sauce, with the added depth of smoked almonds and some ancho chile was the bitter-rich finish to the dish.
Aguachile of octopus next. Tender carpaccio-petals of marinated, braised octopus with mango, grapefruit, rings of jalapeño, and cubes of something white. Horchata, as it turned out, the Mexican drink of almond milk, rice milk, sugar and cinnamon, jellified into soft, wobbly squares that acted as milky balm to the acid and the heat in the bowl.
If I had to pick a least-favourite, it would be dish three. It featured a dashi-poached egg (perfectly executed), a bit of sunchoke kimchi, some shaved parmesan, bits of smoked pig cheek, all propped up on torn up croissant. Felt too much like brunch to me.Navarra pig cheek. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.
Back to form with some duck-fat roasted fingerlings and an impeccable piece of trout presented on a round of black slate. Pooled beneath was a tarragon mayo. Pickled shallots delivered pucker, duck-fat smeared and toasted ‘Wonder’ bread (really?) lent texture, while a square of ‘beet candy’ crowned the top like sweet fruit leather.
And then meaty lumps of pork cheek confit, smoked and glistening with a dark, spicy glaze, paired with a relish of celery root scented with cumin, at once sweet and sour, refreshed with vibrant dobs of green apple gel.
What the heck was dessert? I had stopped writing by then, but the menu says it was steamed carrot cake with a lime and sour cream icing. I do remember it came in a jar, with a blob of Guinness ice cream, and that it was very moist, nicely unsweet, and with a bitter edge from the dark stout.
Rodriguez’ tasting menu struck me as a deal and a half. The six course was $75. The five course, $65. I don’t begrudge a penny.
Open for lunch, Tuesday to Friday; nightly for dinner; Sunday brunch
93 Murray St., 613-241-5500 www.navarrarestaurant.com