Steak on plates in Carleton Place was no shocker. Powdered foie gras — that was more of a surprise. But there it was, like a little mound of white snow atop a terrific pork terrine on a charcuterie board, impressive enough to have made the 42-minute drive to Carleton Place most worthwhile.
Open since March, the Black Tartan Kitchen is Ian Carswell’s first restaurant. His last cooking job was with KW Catering, where he was executive chef at the National Gallery of Canada. He’s worked in Toronto and Europe, and though home is now Ottawa, he decided to feed the townsfolk of Carleton Place. And aren’t they lucky. This is a terrific little kitchen.
The Black Tartan is two small rooms of perhaps 20 seats, painted pale grey, with white tile floors, black tables, and a three-stooled granite bar. Were it not for the enlarged and charmingly coloured vintage photographs of Carleton Place streets and landmarks, circa 1880s, and the dizzying wall of black and white tile, arranged tartan-pattern, it would be too austere. Votive candles help warm the space. We wander the room between courses to learn more of the history of this mill town, and to work off the charcuterie board and escargots we’ve managed to polish off ahead of the main dishes.
Other than the modern molecular bit of foie ‘snow’, the food at Black Tartan is classic French bistro fare – onion soup, escargots, steak-frites, duck magret, rabbit confit, crème brulée – well executed and handsomely plated. You will pay a toonie for the house-made sourdough bread, with proceeds to the Y’s Owl Maclure across the street, a cooperative centre that supports young adults with developmental challenges.
That excellent bread also showed up on the charcuterie board. Other than the moist, chunky slice of terrine, there were disks of peppery pork sausage, a wedge of rich and fibrous rillettes with a cap of soft fat, and a lovely boozy chicken liver parfait swirled into a ramequin. With these came house pickles and mustards, and a terrific chutney that delivered tart-sweet fruit to the rich meat. It was the best board I’ve had in a while, and generously served. Only those with serious appetites need to progress much further.
But we have those, so on we went. How to resist escargots in vol au vent? Such a retro dish, usually done very badly. Not here. These were fat and juicy snails, suspended in a demi-glace with oyster mushrooms, little roasted cipollinis, drizzled with an herb emulsion and crowned with a toupé of puff pastry. We polished it off in 30 seconds, running our finger through the dark dribs of sauce left on the plate.
“Most people order the steak-frites,” our server told us, helpfully. But the rabbit leapt off the page for me. So often dry and tasteless, this was a confit of the cured leg, slow-cooked and teamed up with an excellent potato gratin and a bright orange carrot sauce, which seemed exactly right for the rabbit.
My Carleton Place buddy – the one who had badgered me for months to check this place out, and now feeling quite pleased with herself – had the duck breast. It came crisp-skinned and rosy-fleshed, sliced and resting on a mound of whipped potatoes. Crisp carrots, zucchini, cauliflower and roasted Brussels made their own contributions, as did a duo of berry sauces. The black speckles on the plate was porcini dust, the mushroom dried and ground to powder, lending a terrific earthy, umami finish.
Carswell’s desserts follow the bistro theme. We found the crème brulée a bit stiff, and a bit too sweet, but had no issue whatsoever with the exemplary chocolate pave, on a chocolate biscuit crust, served with coulis and ice cream.
Service is casual and friendly, the wine list short but with enough choice by the glass that work with the food. Chef Carswell came out for a chat after service. And to leave us a paper announcement of “Another Great Evening of Beer & Food Pairings.” Apparently, there are many such nights. Check the website.
132 Bridge St., Carleton Place, 613-492-0860
Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner
Dinner mains, $21 to $30