Carben Food + Drink — 1100 Wellington St. W.
While diners can watch passersby on Wellington Street West from Carben’s windowed facade, it’s more likely that their eyes will be drawn to the artfully plated dishes placed in front of them.
Since the 2015 opening of Carben, chef Kevin Benes and pastry chef Caroline Ngo have impressed with their sense of imagination. Inventiveness is evident in Benes’ menu: the five starters and five mains on offer include such non-traditional elements as duck sausage and cuttlefish. The stunning plates arrive with colourful components — smears of glazes, dots of gels, delicate foams. But nothing is superfluous. The kind of molecular gastronomy that Benes and Ngo are serving is approachable, the wait staff offering tableside descriptions without pretension.
One of their most popular appetizers features wood ear and eryngii mushrooms served on a miso glaze, with baby bok choy, edamame, shiso, and vibrant dots of turmeric aïoli. Each mouthful is a delicious umami bomb.
Perfectly golden scallops come with pork belly as well as a bright carrot-ginger purée and red pepper-tomato cream; the vegetables — confit fingerlings, leeks — are cut into rounds emulating the shape of the scallops. I’m still dreaming about it.
Ngo’s desserts are equally complex. The Morning Fog features a honey and orange-blossom cruller with little kisses of lavender meringue, fragrant Earl Grey ice cream, lavender gel, and bee pollen. If you’re only looking for a sweet morsel to accompany your digestif, don’t miss the bonbons in flavours such as dark chocolate and peanut butter ganache.
An interesting collection of books and art creates a space that is, like the food, dazzling but also approachable.
Absinthe — 1208 Wellington St. W.
Absinthe Café is a stalwart in the Wellington West community, serving classic French bistro food since 2003 and successfully finding the balance between fine dining and hearty comfort food. Chef and co-owner Patrick Garland notes that one of his most formative jobs was as an apprentice in Switzerland, where he honed his French techniques — and learned about absinthe, which was popular in the early 20th century, especially in Europe. (The restaurant’s namesake is welded in a beautiful sculpture behind the bar alongside its partner in crime, the absinthe spoon.)
As you’d expect from French cuisine, plates are well constructed, rich, and saucy — the Mariposa Farm duck breast comes with a Le Coprin mushroom ragout and Madeira sauce. Dishes are created from local seasonal ingredients, a passion of Garland’s, and treated to traditional French techniques: a bearnaise mayo, which accompanies the beef tartare, and a foie gras ganache on chicken-fried quail. Likewise, Absinthe executes classic French desserts well: good luck deciding between the choux pastry profiteroles and the crème brûlée.
And lest you think Garland’s shelves of beautiful caquelons are just for show, be sure to visit on a Monday night in cooler weather, when the kitchen offers fondue featuring cheeses from the region — it’s convivial and retro in all the right ways, just like Absinthe Café.
Supply and Demand — 1335 Wellington St. W.
Since opening in 2013, this restaurant has taken surf and turf in a delightfully modern direction. Among the first to put raw foods front and centre, Supply and Demand also offers an upscale ambience — with its stylish wallpaper, classic floor tile, tufted banquettes, and open kitchen, it’s a space where you’ll want to linger. The team of chef Steve Wall and general manager Jenn Wall have created a winning combination of respect for ingredients and friendly, knowledgeable service.
The menu is divided into succinct sections: a selection of small plates, raw and marinated seafood, a few fresh pastas, and two meaty mains. It’s an approach that works for those who like to share as well as for others who like the traditional starter-and-main experience. Start with freshly shucked oysters or a zingy scallop crudo before diving into the pillowy bread rolls served with whipped bacon butter. Vegetables shine in umami-filled small plates: a kale salad is downright rich thanks to an impressive manchego-cheese-to-kale ratio. The squid-ink rigatoni makes it easy to see why folks sign up for pasta classes with Steve.
Drinks include a nice selection of wine (bubbly pairs well with the bivalves) and beer, along with changing cocktails. A towering Eton mess in summertime and a flaming baked Alaska in wintertime are dramatic sweet finishes.
Aside from seasonal variations, the menu doesn’t change often, but there’s comfort in knowing these offerings will knock it out of the park every time.
Stofa — 1356 Wellington St. W.
Chef Jason Sawision opened Stofa — a Norse word meaning “hearth” or “gathering spot” — just over a year ago, and the restaurant already looks to have become a favourite in the neighbourhood.
Visible from the dining room is a kitchen busily putting forth such globally inspired creations as (complimentary) garlic-and-sage focaccia with purple ube spread, addictive shishito peppers with ponzu and sesame, and fried mushrooms with miso mayonnaise. Mains get a similar treatment: wild boar is artfully plated on vivid splatters of pequillo and poblano pepper sauces, with touches of acid from pickled vegetables and earthiness from roasted carrots and Thai eggplant. The buckwheat-and-mushroom tart, a vegetarian main, is presented on a more minimalistic plate but with the same finesse of balanced flavours.
In terms of having a signature dish, Stofa’s seafood tower is making waves. Like a high-tea platter, the tower arrives at the table crackling over dry ice and features two tiers of imaginative seafood treats accompanied by a myriad of accoutrements that offer a plethora of tastes and textures.
Stofa’s other signature dish is a made-to-order seasonal soufflé: ours is a sour-cherry creation served with a scoop of dark chocolate ice cream on cookie crumbs — truly the cherry on top of a memorable meal.
With a menu that employs unfamiliar ingredients, it’s a must to have friendly servers who can guide you through the dishes, something Stofa has in spades. While elements of molecular gastronomy hint at Sawision’s time as chef de cuisine at Atelier, he has opted here to present a fine-dining menu that is slightly more casual though no less creative.
The Wellington Gastropub — 1325 Wellington St. W.
Fine dining made casual or casual made fine-dining? Either way you look at it, the Wellington Gastropub has been — and continues to be — a pioneer in Ottawa’s gastropub scene, pairing an impressive beer list with refined cuisine. (It was also a pioneer in the craft-beer industry — it’s the initial home of Stock Pot Ales, a fine stovetop nanobrewery that grew into Stalwart Brewing.) For over a decade, chef Chris Deraiche has innovated around a changing menu, always with a seasonal focus. Expect local meat and produce to get star treatment, whether it’s in a dish like beef tartare, a summery risotto, or a juicy ribeye.
For example, a roasted duck breast was as succulent as could be, neatly sliced atop creamy polenta with julienned napa cabbage and sweet roasted apple in a puddle of veal jus. A vegetarian main, a broccoli-and-cheddar risotto topped with toasted bread crumbs, leeks, and fresh pea shoots, was pure comfort food.
Co-owner Shane Waldron runs a smooth and affable front of house. The team also happen to be music aficionados, so you can count on a good soundtrack during your visit. Don’t miss ice cream put forth by pastry chef Adriana Babineau. (Didn’t save room for dessert? Order a pint to go.)
Having helped to evolve the average pub-goer’s palate, The Wellie has earned a special place in the ’hood — and in the city.
Allium — 87 Holland Ave.
Being located around the corner from the Parkdale Market has proved useful for chef Arup Jana. Open since 2004, Allium’s farm-to-table philosophy supports local farmers by incorporating fresh ingredients in surprising ways. An order of Things on Toast, for example, comes out as an octopus-and-shrimp tartine, the crispy lemon-scented French toast topped with braised and fried octopus, lemon, and thyme-marinated shrimp.
Seasonal ingredients also take centre stage in the popular mystery dishes: the Surprise Side and Surprise Main. As the names suggest, they truly are a mystery until they arrive at the table. My mystery starter is smoked tequila-cured salmon with thyme and compressed pear, a great combo of flavours and textures (silky-smooth salmon and a little crunch from the pear).
As you would expect from a kitchen that is based more or less on the seasons, the menu items change regularly, with the exception of their much beloved banoffee pie — a banana, toffee, and cream pie that screams excess and has gained such renown that it has secured a permanent place on the menu.
Not content with its dynamic seasonal menu or its Surprise offerings, Allium also reserves Monday nights for contemporary Canadian versions of tapas. Clearly Allium is restless, and yet through personable service, dim lighting, and dark wood accents, it presents a relaxed, even intimate atmosphere. Much like its namesake, the genus that includes onions and garlic, Allium has a lot of layers.
THE BYWARD MARKET
Sidedoor, Eighteen, Oz Kafe, Play Food & Wine and Das Lokal
Fairouz, Riviera, Clover, Town & Union 613
Erling’s Variety & The Rowan
Two Six Ate, Atelier, Mati Crudo + Charcoal & MeNa
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