Chestnuts & Cabbage at Clover
I ate this in the last gasps of last December, too late to include in my roundup of good plates of 2016, so it’s being squeezed into this one. There aren’t many chefs who can dream up a vegan dish with such complexity of flavours and textures, and plate, just as well, a kick-ass, fully-loaded beef burger. West de Castro of Clover is that chef. Nothing like the cabbage roll of my childhood, hers was bright green and beautifully veined, sided with a nutty chestnut purée, and surrounded with hard-roasted eryngii mushrooms, caramelized shallots and puffed wild rice for extra crunch. An herb oil lent a little more chlorophyll. It was one of the most pleasurable, interesting dishes of the year.
155 Bank Street, 613-680-8803
The Wild Boar Pizza with Apples & Sage Oil at Tennessy Willems
Puffy, burbled, crisp and soft, dotted with char and tasting of summer campfires — such are the pies at Hintonburg’s TW. The tomato sauce is thick with flavour, the cheese blend is in fine balance, and the toppings tend toward the modern, though still within the sensible range. The pizza that most caught my attention last January was one covered with wild boar sausage, caramelized apple slices, nippy-sharp cheddar and a runny sage pesto. A lick of the house chili oil lifted its impact even more.
1082 Wellington Street West, 613-722-0000
The Octopus Starter at Feast + Revel
The chef responsible for putting the Novotel Hotel on the culinary map with the stylish pub food in The Albion Rooms, moved kitchens last year. At the Andaz Hotel’s Feast + Revel, Stephen LaSalle plated Pacific octopus, slow braised and superbly soft, then burnished and crisped on the grill. It came propped up on florets of romanesco roasted in dulse oil, blotched green with an anchovy gremolata and dusted lightly with dulse powder. The dish was an umami bomb.
325 Dalhousie Street, 613-321-1234
Poached Eggs for a Good Cause & for Asparagus, at Beechwood Gastropub
Chef Harriet Clunie was the winner at the 2017 “Poor Chefs Competition” in support of Operation Come Home. She fed the judges a perfectly timed poached egg on brown rice with squash tarted up with Bulk Barn spices. It was simple and yummy and it cost $3.15 to make 6 plates. Wanting another egg (with more expensive ingredients), I headed to her Beechwood Gastropub. There she made a soft-boiled egg, panko-crusted and plunged in the fryer. It sat on a bed of May asparagus, most roasted, some lightly pickled. The spears were topped with sheep feta, pickled ramps, and toasted pumpkin seeds, and moistened with a cucumber yogurt. When the crunchy brown ball was pierced, it oozed molten yolk over everything, making us very happy indeed.
18 Beechwood Ave., 613-744-6509
Carrots at Citizen
If you know the food at Town, you’ll recognize the same focus on big flavours, eccentric combinations, and gorgeous plates at its 2017-born sibling restaurant, Citizen. Marc Doiron trained as a pastry chef, and his pleasure in detail, colour and form is clear. It was a plate of carrots that stood out for me. Roasted heirlooms, set in a goat cheese sauce, ringed with an acidic swirl of pesto and dotted with scarlet dobs of tobiko (Japanese flying fish roe). Bright segments of preserved mandarin, leggy branches of dill and shards of a black sesame brittle made their own charming contributions.
207 Gilmour St., 613-422-6505
Mini Elk Burgers with Blue Cheese at Supply & Demand
Eaten at Supply & Demand, but cooked by teenagers. The S&D team – chef Steve Wall and his wife Jennifer – had handed over their kitchen last spring to the culinary students at Longfields Davidson Heights Secondary School and their instructor, chef Kent Van Dyke. Working recipes from a new Canadian cookbook called Feast, with dinner proceeds directed to the Parkdale Food Centre, the kids won my heart with their fabulous elk sliders. The lightly pink meat from The Elk Ranch came topped with Bleu d’Elizabeth cheese, arugula and caramelized onion, tucked into baby brioche buns. I might have had three.
1335 Wellington St. W., 613-680-2949
Halloumi with Treats on a Mezze Monday at Fairouz
The brilliant Middle Eastern restaurant, Fairouz, started mezze nights last spring — a short list of small plates with titan flavours. The halloumi stood out, a lanky tranche of the wonderful sheep’s milk cheese from Montforte Dairy fried to brown and crisp; soft and oozy inside. On our night, the cheese was topped with fresh green almonds, a candied-apricot compote, shiny dobs of date purée and a scattering of house-grown microgreens. There were other treats that Monday night – the rabbit kibbeh, say, with rhubarb labneh – but this was the dish that stopped conversation among chatty friends.
343 Somerset St. W., 613-422-7700
Fish & Chips with Mushy Peas at Le Resto
It had been six long years and I was overdue for fish and chips, Le Resto-style. Still found in the Chelsea Plaza on Route 105, the homey café delivered two filets of cod, the fish flaky and juicy, the batter almost delicate. They came with fat English chippies, crisp on the outside, soft on the in, a pot of tartare sauce and a spoon of minted peas, roughly smashed. I ate both my spoonful and my husband’s, who still eats like a five-year-old when faced with peas.
528 Route 105, Chelsea, 819-827-5559
Shrimp Mango Moilee at the revamped Coconut Lagoon
A champion of the cooking of Kerala, a south Indian state on the Malabar Coast, Chef Joe Thottungal’s curries typically pack a punch of flavour and some heat, but this one – his Shrimp Moilee – is delicate, mild and wildly rich. It’s the (new-to-me) addition of green mango that cuts some of that lovely fat, as does the bite from ginger left in long julienne slices. Yellow with turmeric, mellow with coconut milk, fragrant of curry leaves and cardamom, and with a hint of green chili heat, it’s the final squeeze of lime that lifts it all up. You’ll want an extra order of flaky paratha to mop up every drib of sauce.
853 St. Laurent Blvd., 613-742-4444
Cheeky lunch at Les Fougeres
They looked a bit like monster scallops, but these were milky white halibut cheeks, poached gently in olive oil, then anointed with a peppery nasturtium pesto broth. They shared the plate with a mix of Juniper Farms summer beans and Red Kitten spinach leaves, sprinkled with dukkah, an Egyptian blend of toasted hazelnuts, seeds and spices. The salad was dressed with an apple aioli, and garnished with thin slices of apples from Les Fougères trees. While we ate our lunch cheeks, we watched chef de cuisine Yannick LaSalle picking herbs for dinner service in the splendid gardens of this splendid restaurant.
783 Quebec Route 105, Chelsea, 819-827-8942
A Board of Vegetables at Meat Press
Meat Press chef Étienne Cuerrier is a wizard with all things flesh, bone and fat, and though we swooned over a plate of his duck three ways – pastrami-style, rillettes, and a confit of the gizzards – it was his vegetable board I recall most fondly; particularly the Brussels on it — such blooming marvels, their leaves curled and charred and salted, their insides soft. Three forks fought over seven of them. Lightly pickled zucchini rounds, blanched sugar snap peas, shrivelled nuggets of well-roasted eggplant, a pile of yielding fingerlings, and pickled ramps all added to the pleasure.
45 Armstrong Rd., 613-695-7737
Gazpacho at MeNa
An opening move in the seven-course tasting menu at the newly reopened MeNa was a soup so good I had it twice. An autumn gazpacho, poured tableside in a dramatic curl around a loose puck of crabmeat, was crowned with petals and Northern Divine caviar. So pretty and poised looking, it was tempting to approach it daintily, keeping its elements separate. But we learn, on second tasting, it works much better all muddled together. So we do that, with some regret, and with delightful results.
276 Preston Street, 613-233-6462
Nagano at the new Oz Kafe
You won’t find a resurrection of past hits at the re-located Oz Kafe. Chef Kristine Hartling has put her own stamp on the menu. We loved her smoked beef and a plate of summer squash, tempura fried, but the pork rib chop was the real knock out. Not sure I’ve ever had better; the surface crunchy and caramelized, the meat beneath juicy and pale, perfectly seasoned and served with fall corn two ways: chewy-sweet kernels roasted, and as a rich corn custard. A pile of stewed peppers crowned the meat. All of it delectably indulgent.
10 York St., 613-234-0907
Briana Kim’s Vegan Dish at Gold Medal Plates
Chef Briana Kim of Café My House won Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates in November this year, with a vegan dish that out-muscled the meatier competition. Hers was a dish of mushrooms — not fancy ones, just the humble cremini — with which she made a dense little cake. She added smoked mushrooms, dots of citrus honey, bits of charred cabbage, a length of blistered shishito pepper, and petals of pearl onion. Kim then poured an umami-rich broth into the bowl, scented with kombu and charred onion. Resting on the lip of the bowl: a brown rice cracker, speckled with fennel and coriander seeds. Micro greens brightened the surface. It was humble dish, but complex in flavour and beautifully balanced. At the national culinary competition this February, Kim will make history as the first vegan chef to vie for the title. She will also be, as it happens, the only woman competitor. The city is terrifically proud of her!
1015 Wellington St. W., 613-733-0707
The Terrific Tower at Stofa
Seafood towers are show-offy things, pricey, excessive and typically more pomp than pleasure. They also tend to be predictable: ya got yer oysters, yer shrimp, yer King crab legs… Not so here. Like most everything about chef Jason Sawision’s new restaurant, Stofa, the tower is exciting, different, and fun. For one, it arrives trailing a thin plume of nitro-ice fog. And it’s not all raw. And it comes with popcorn! Plus, potted trout, mini lobster rolls, generously stuffed, a pile of calamari fritti and nori chips. On the cold side, oysters, shrimp, mussels escabeche, a little pot of scallop ceviche, along with various potions for dunking and drizzling. Priced per person, but perfect for many hands.
1356 Wellington St. W., 613-722-6555
Bunny at The Black Tartan
“Most people order the steak-frites” our server told us, helpfully, as we examined the menu at this new Carleton Place kitchen. But it was the rabbit that leapt off the page. So often dry and tasteless, chef Ian Carswell had cured and confited the leg, then slow-cooked it to slightly sweet, lightly gamey tenderness. Around the rabbit was a bright orange carrot sauce and next to it, an excellent potato gratin, creamy-rich and cheesy, with a crisp golden crust. Just the thing for a wintry night, and a long drive home.
132 Bridge St., Carleton Place, 613-492-0860
The sweet ending at a six-chefs, six-course collaborative dinner came from Atelier host chef, Marc Lepine, and drew the gasps his plates are wont to. This was a December event in honour of chef Trevor Ritchie, our Canadian candidate for the world’s most prestigious cooking competition, the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon. A life-ring of dehydrated chocolate was the focus, wafer thin, but supporting the weight of its delicious passengers: a passion fruit orb, wobbly timbales of raspberry curd, piped dots of tonka bean meringue, melt-in-the-mouth tears of matcha cake, hyssop leaves and a raspberry or two. You could treat the construct like a game of Jenga, carefully plucking off the bits on top and trying to maintain some balance, or you could do as my husband did: crack it with the back of a spoon into chewy chocolate shards and muddle it all up in the bottom of the bowl. Either way, you win.
540 Rochester St., 613-321-3537