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.
Let’s start with dessert. Why not? It’s summer and we can break some rules. And boy, do we like dessert here. A lot.
Created by Carben co-owner and pastry chef Caroline Ngo, the sweet endings at this new Hintonburg restaurant speak of a chef unafraid of mining the sweet potential of vegetables and herbs. Or playing around with “shabby chic.”
Take the dessert called Cinnamon Toast Crunch: it stars a splendid sphere of bitter chocolate set in a shallow bowl. Beside the round is a dozen squares of the kid-cereal and some modernist pearls (agar agar jellied pebbles) of strawberry.
And then the still life delivered gets wrecked tableside — a jug of warmed almond milk is poured over top, melting the chocolate and trickling down to reach the cereal. This has two affects: the top of the ball retreats such that you may peer into its guts, and the dry cereal becomes breakfast! Inside the chocolate sphere is a blob of cinnamon crunch ice cream, a salted caramel sauce, a cinnamon streusel topping and hunks of a spiced almond cake. Once you’ve devoured that, you can enjoy the cereal in milk topped with ‘strawberries,’ or at least their concentrated essence. Very clever. Very yummy. And considering the work involved, remarkably priced at $10 bucks.
And then there’s the dessert that studies green flavours on a black plate ($9) — a scoop of chunky cucumber ice cream, melon-balls of compressed (marinated) honeydew, cubes of pickled cucumber (sweet and lightly sour), torn vanilla sponge-coral cake infused with matcha tea and shards of green meringue flavoured with mint. A splendid summer dessert, cool and un-sweet, created by a clearly gifted pastry chef.
These were the fine endings to two very good meals at the one-month-old Carben Food + Drink. The only boo boo was an overeager hand on the salt grinder in the lamb roulade (a clever play on a bacon wrapped tournedos that ate like a sophisticated (though salty) meatloaf.
The kitchen is led by chef/owner Kevin Benes, husband of chef/owner Caroline (hence the name ‘Carben’ ). Benes is a former member of the kitchen brigade at Arup Jana’s Allium restaurant on Holland and before that, was chefing in Vancouver. In addition to having a spanking new restaurant, he and Caroline have a brand new son we learn. Which somehow makes her careful desserts all the more impressive…
The dinner menu is nine items long, four dishes to lead, five to continue. The very best plates were the starters.
One began with a smiley face swish of miso glaze and set above it, a composed salad starring mushrooms — smoked eryngii and lightly pickled wood ears. Among these were briny branches of sea beans (aka sea asparagus or samphire greens), plus chili oiled edamame and crunchy-soft bok choy. Dots of an aioli yellowed with turmeric and sprigs of purple shiso finished a plate of winning flavours and textures.
We liked as well the Salmon Carpaccio, the cured fish rolled in leek ‘ash’ (charred, dried, ground to a powder) served with an avocado mousse and nori chips.
And then the endlessly satisfying marriage of crisped pork belly with seared scallops, their richness balanced with a vibrant chimichurri, softened apple wedges compressed with tequila, and a shredded salad of mango with the underloved tuber jicama.
A duo of beets was stunning on a blue plate – a pile of raw candy canes julienned, wedges of goldens, lightly pickled. They shared the stage with just-so steamed peas put back in their pods, dots of a lovely sheep milk yogurt and zig-zags of a watermelon mint purée. There were patches of puffed quinoa mixed with a sweet pistachio brittle and pickled petals of pearl onion. Something with heat here and there — a chili oil drizzle I think. Not your basic beet salad.
Among the mains, Mariposa Duck was bang on, as was the Veal Cheek with bacon foam and a wildly peppery red onion jam.
But the star was the Hake, a member of the cod family rarely seen on Ottawa menus. (And replaced with halibut at my second visit since the kitchen’s discovery of its questionable sustainability status.)
Sorry to report that the hake you may or may not be able to have here, was terrific. It arrived, firm, juicy, poised on a crunchy cake of arancini, topped with shaved and pickled heirloom carrots, and surrounded with baby bok choy and sweet little enoki mushrooms, all ringed with duelling sauces — a squid ink butter sauce and a lemony sabayon.
The room, by One80 Design, has built on what was here before (Burnt Butter) and taken it up a notch. The feel is clean and uncluttered, achieved with a modern palette of greys, mixed with shiny white tile, Danish low-back chairs and stools (from neighbouring A Modern Space), pale wooden shelves and tables, caged industrial lights. A scattering of homey touches warms the long narrow room – book shelves, eclectic curios, framed maps, photographs. Random yellow chairs add pops of colour. And though there’s no outdoor seating, on a fine summer night the street wall of windows opens and you are dining al fresco, protected with a roof overhead.
In keeping with the ultra-local concept, the handsome crockery here is all from Loam Clay Studio on Hamilton at Armstrong.
Service standards are high, the cocktail list is fussed over, at least two local beers are available on tap and the thin wine list is a work in progress. Having the food down pat, let’s hope they work on plumping it soon.
I’m excited by Carben. It feels a bit like a western Fauna, minus the party scene. I encourage you to book a table. It’s been far too quiet at my visits.
Mains, $24 to $28
Open daily from 5:30pm (late night hours Thurs. to Sat.) and for weekend brunch, 10:30am to 2pm.
1100 Wellington Street West, 613- 792-4000