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.
“There Goes the Neighbourhood” was the opening slogan of Ace Mercado, punctuated with cartoon dynamite booms. There went my ear drums that first visit. And the next. The volume of the music played at Ace has waxed and waned a bit over my three meals here, but is generally at ear ringing level by eight o’clock. We move to the back room and find we can just hear each other if we holler.Photo by Anne DesBrisay
Do I like this? Nope. But maybe I’m just out of touch with the way the cool kids want to eat out these days.
Ace Mercado is loud in other ways. The wall graffiti makes a statement, the Day of the Dead decor is edgy, the service is almost aggressively casual, and the open bar scene can bully the room.
But none of these grumblings of mine should take away from the food at Ace, which is mostly very good. Or the drinks program, which attempts to take frat-boy tequila shots to a much higher plane, dispensed from a centre-of-the-action bar, crowded with premium spirits, house infusions, and handsome young mixologists.
The food menu, created by Navarra chef (and Top Chef Canada 2014 champ) René Rodriguez (executed by chef de cuisine Trish Donaldson) has evolved since that first visit. It’s a bit longer, and seems more focused on sides, sharing plates, tacos, and less on main dishes.
If you only order tacos here — we liked the braised lamb with queso fresco most and the bland and fishy red snapper least — you will miss the best bits. Sophisticated dishes like the scallop ceviche with passion fruit seeds and smoked hibiscus salt. Yes, a very pretty plate, but it was the balance of tart-sweet, soft-crunch, and chili-rev that was so beautifully judged.
Homier dishes pleased as well, like the cast-iron cornmeal arepas, buttery-rich, served with a cap of fresh mozzarella, moistened with a fruity red salsa and scattered with spiced up peanuts. Or the pig cheek, the meat soft, rich and nicely crispy, on a bed of ‘dirty rice’ with chorizo sausages for good measure and pickled cabbage for some tart relief.
A black bean mash was zesty and invigorating beneath the tamales de pollo. These packages wrapped in corn husk had good kick, and the sliced chicken beneath was moist and fragrant.
Grilled beef tenderloin arrived med-rare as requested, with a pat of oozing chimichurri-flavoured compound butter, served with glazed carrots.
The dish that let us down was duck. The roasted to rare breast had a stewed flavour about it, while the pulled leg meat enchilada was too salty, the broccoli spear on the side overcooked. Twice we’ve ordered the ‘Ocean Wise Sustainable Fish’ (MP) and twice it’s been ‘unavailable.’
Devilled mushrooms in a red chile butter sauce arrived topped with a fried sunny egg and had good flavour, but could have been less flabby. The Brussels sprouts were perfectly cooked, but uncomfortably sweet. Not a thing wrong with the Mexican fries, though.
Space for churros with coconut caramel sauce should be considered. My friend and I ate ours quickly, paid, and went out for a quiet coffee, leaving the new Ace Mercado and its acoustics to the demographic it clearly seeks.
Mains $24 to $29.
Open daily from 5 p.m. to late.
121 Clarence St., 613-627-2353, acemercado.com