I doubt Mary McConnell Conroy (1816-1887) would have enjoyed the seductive art now hanging on the stone walls of her former family home. Or the news that the house was, at one point, a strip club. In the mid-1800s, 61, rue Principale was the residence of lumber baron, hotelier, and Aylmer politician Robert Conroy. Most recently, it housed the restaurant and pub Le Bostaurus. The new occupants of the heritage mansion have scrubbed a few layers of grunge off the walls, and named their stylish new restaurant in honour of those who came before.
It’s a stately room with peaked ceilings, dark wood floors, velvet drapes, and boudoir chandeliers. The art on the rocky walls is less stately. These are the bold works of Ottawa makeup artist Meredith Lyman. Her sultry portraits of lips and eyes and furtive faces brighten what might otherwise have been a demure space.
The kitchen is run by chef Kyle Mortimer-Proulx. His CV includes the Brookstreet Hotel, the vegan restaurant ZenKitchen and the big, lively Lowertown Brewery on York Street. To La Maison Conroy across the river, he brings a smorgasbord of experience. He also brings two sous chefs from his Zen days, where they would likely not have learned to whip butter with bone marrow. This bit of lusciousness arrives with the excellent house bread, and sets the stage for a few wintry meals of meaty pleasures.
These are early days for La Maison Conroy and my January visits have been largely lonely ones. But this new Aylmer restaurant deserves to be packed to its peaked roof. The food is very good, the service – including wine service – is professional and charming, and the ambience is lovely.
One night we begin with beef tartare. It comes loose and chunky, moist and well seasoned, given an umami kick with dobs of a black garlic aioli and with cured egg, grated over top in fluffy yellow flakes. That good bread gets toasted and served alongside.
Scallops arrive glistening with the fat in which they are poached. The dish is called ‘Confused Bivalve’ and the muddle for the fish is that it’s cooked in beef fat. But also confusing, to those of us accustomed to scallops presented with bronzed crusts, is to see them as snow-white treats, all soft and wobbly. The crunch comes in the tidy squares of fried chicken skin. The soft bed for the bivalves is a purée of celery root with a bit of chili-heat, topped with a tangy mélange of pickled shallots and mushrooms, strips of fermented celery root and bitter bites of charred radicchio. No confusion in telling you this is a spectacular plate.
Another visit starts with a chef’s choice of charcuterie. (More opportunity for buttered bread.) On the board are two Quebec cheeses in excellent condition, and a moist terrine of pork, chunky with duck, rabbit, and pistachio. It nails that tricky balance of meat/liver/fat to maximum flavour. Accompaniments include the house mustard and pickled vegetables, nuts and a perky chutney. We follow this with pickerel. The fish is buttery, beautifully cooked, propped up on a vibrant green swoosh of creamed kale beneath rings of roasted spaghetti squash. Around the fish are dobs of a tangy squash purée and next to it, an ugly lentil fritter that tastes wonderful.
The only dish where the principal elements are solid but don’t seem to speak to each other, is the one called Pig Meats Fish. It features a caramelized puck of pork belly, a filet of mackerel, and beneath fish and pork a creamy stew of haricot beans and lentils, studded with pickled mussels and more of that charred radicchio, all piqued with horseradish. The fishiness of mackerel and mussels might have played more with the meat, I thought, and a few other things embedded in the dish to interrupt the unrelenting richness would have been welcome.
The dish that manages to interrupt the rich parade is the one vegetarian-friendly dish and it’s terrific. Roasted carrots of many hues are paired with torched ricotta, braised fennel, nuts, seeds, and pickled onion. Two sauces – a sweet carrot ‘caramel’ and a tangy dill yogurt – compete for attention.
I’ve tried one dessert, of which I could manage three bites. No, four. Wildly decadent, it stars a log of peanut butter semi freddo coated with dark chocolate, mired in the mud of an excellent salted caramel, scattered with candied peanuts, crumbs of dehydrated chocolate cake and served with a white chocolate drenched pretzel.
Wine, beer and cocktail lists have all been thoroughly fussed over, and wine service is delightfully old school.
I wish I could tell you that reservations are essential. At the moment, they don’t appear to be. Let’s hope that changes.
Small plates, $15 to $25. Open Tuesday to Saturday for dinner.
61 rue Principale, Aylmer