The year 2016 was a banner year for new restaurants. I wrote about the best of them for Ottawa Magazine’s annual restaurant issue, which you are welcome to take a peek at here. To snag a spot on that list, it had to be about more than the food. The welcome, the service, the general mood of the place all needed to measure up too.
This list is about the best plates of the year. Of course, a lot of the restaurants below do have the whole package, but I’m talking about those individual dishes that really stood out.
Here, then, presented in the order in which I tasted them, are the 2016 plates that gave me the most pleasure:
The new year started with a delicious dose of Omega 3s at the new Pomeroy House. A fresh, firm slab of mackerel was first smoked to a golden hue, then seared and set in a creamy-rich salsify purée, ringed with a sharp Poblano vinaigrette. Surrounding the filet were pickled elements – radish and onion – and beneath, a lumpy bed of gnocchi, the soft nuggets poached then shown a hot pan of brown butter. 749 Bank Street, 613-237-1658
From the one-year-old Pomeroy House I moved to the 41-year-old C’est Japon a Suisha, and to a memorable plate of uni at the bar. Asking for ‘chef’s choice’ from sushi chef Shu San, I rediscovered the pleasures of this longstanding restaurant. At the end of a parade of small, delicate plates came nigiri sushi of sea urchin, the gonads (yes, the edible bits of the urchin are the sex glands!) resting on perfectly calibrated, body temperature rice, ringed with nori and crowned with a little ginger paste. Eaten with a hint of soy sauce, they melted in the mouth, sweet and creamy and tasting wonderfully of the sea. 208 Slater Street, 613-236-9602
This 2015 addition to the Elgin Street dining-out scene dished up many treats — the first being the joy of snagging a table without much of a wait. One of my favourite dishes at a February dinner featured mushrooms — oyster, eryngii, shiitake, and velvet foot — interrupted with crisp snow peas and microgreens, bathed in a mushroom broth spiked with soy, yuzu, fish sauce, and black vinegar. It was a stunner. 380 Elgin Street, 613-422-2800
Marc Lepine’s CCC-winning dish
In the black box at this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C., were ground elk, whole squid, ox-eye daisy capers, black salsify, Ontario peanuts, and Hana Tsunomato (sea vegetables from Nova Scotia). So what would you do when confronted with that? Well, Ottawa chef Marc Lepine, who won the championship handily (for a second time), made a peanut sauce that acted as a tasty glue for two elk meatballs painted with a sweet-and-sour glaze, and for one small lentil fritter spiked with the caper’s pickling juice. He and Atelier sous chef Jason Sawision piped cooked salsify onto the plate, and with the hole punch in his knife kit, made 10 crisp, perforated ribbons with the rest, leaving the salsify unpeeled to show off its striking black skin. The Atelier team added a sharp salsa verde, a caper gastrique, and a seaweed salad with squid sashimi. Cilantro leaves and fronds of seaweed finished the plate. (So that’s what you do!) Atelier, 540 Rochester Street, 613-321-3537
Soif owner Véronique Rivest chose flutes of Crémant de Bourgogne to balance chef Jamie Stunt’s salt cod fritters, and the bubbles worked off the fat and salt like they never happened. The fritters themselves were terrific — the fish milked of its preserve, smoothed with potato, all puffy and soft within their brown panko wrappers. They came with a mayo punched up with chorizo and, for acidic relief, a citrus-spiked parsley salad, studded with chewy bits of bacon and strands of pickled onion. 88 rue Montcalm, Gatineau, 819-600-7643
From the little Preston Street charmer run by Emily Lenzi and chef Steve Harris came a dish showing off the May mushroom hunt: a sauté of morels paired with pickled ramps and curls of cavatelli, dolloped with pesto and crowned with a sunny fried egg. It was a splendid plate of spring — the pasta house-made and perfectly cooked, and the yolk, once pierced, enriched every pleasure it touched. 268 Preston Street, 613-695-8200
From a five-course vegan tasting menu offered by chef Briana Kim, I think I liked best the ‘meatballs’. Fashioned with wheatberries perfumed with sage, Kim had smoked them, then piled on pickled cherry tomatoes, a charred leek roll-up, and two ways with rutabaga (tempura-ed tendrils and a rough mousse the size of a ping-pong ball). Cashew based ‘whipped goat cheese’ was the hit of white on the plate, and the darker sauce, tomato based, was splashed with vodka. Not your everyday sort of meatball. 1015 Wellington Street West, 613-733-0707
The pleasures began early at Fairouz with a pretty pink cocktail, a basket of the house pita, and a trio of luscious dips. But if the Turkish style ‘spoon salad’ is still on offer, you ought to order it up. It was August, and the raw summery flavours of a good gazpacho, the vegetables cut in textbook brunoise, teamed up in thrilling fashion with pomelo and pomegranate, Aleppo peppers, and the sweet tang of sumac. Salad of 2016. 343 Somerset Street West, 613-422-7700
To the unknowing, it’s just Japanese noodle-soup. Stock plus noodle plus toppings equals ramen — but the strength of the broth, the type of noodle, the layering balance of what finishes the bowl, these are all pressing issues for the ramen buff. For those who care deeply, there’s an obsession to get it right, and here, at this young Toronto-import, you can taste how deeply they care in a bowl of the tonkotsu. I like it with a side of black garlic sauce. 153 Bank Street, 613-695-1718
Discovering it was dim sum night at the Belmont in Old Ottawa South, we went to town on basket steamers: shrimp-stuffed eggplant with a black bean sauce, served with Asian greens and roasted peanuts; and duck siu mai featuring pulled duck confit with crunchy bits of water chestnut, garlic, ginger, and cilantro. The pork dumplings with kimchi and chives were so good we ordered another round. 1169 Bank Street, 613-979-3663
When Les Fougères reopened after a renovation project, it did more than look and feel rejuvenated: it offered choices. Still the option to commit to chef Charlie Part’s full-on tasting menu, but now you can opt to perch at the new bar for a beer and a pizza. One of the most satisfying dishes at a noon visit was a burger: local lamb, lightly pink and smoky-flavoured, tucked in a house-made kaiser, topped with baby kale, red onion, and nasturtium petals for a peppery lift, served with a stunning salad from the gardens in their summer glory. 783 Route 105, Chelsea, Quebec, 819-827-8942
The family that used to run the likeable Korean restaurant Miga at this Bank Street address now runs Social Thai — and they do a good job of it. At an early fall dinner there was a fried tilapia dish that was almost too pretty to eat, the crunchy fish loaded down with onion, glistening peppers, flash-fried basil leaves, and stems of green peppercorns. But we managed. 399 Bank Street, 613-265-7373
There was just absolutely nothing but perfection in a bowl of Whalesbone chowder, from the firmness of the spuds, to the delicacy of the fish, to the creamy-rich-smoky-herby fabulousness of the broth. A bowl of it, and a few slices of the house bread, made a memorable fall lunch at this newest and biggest Whalesbone restaurant. 231 Elgin Street, 613-505-4300
The most ambitious project delivered by the Matthew Carmichael-Jordan Holley team had many smart takes on modern French dishes and old-time American-diner favourites. If I had to choose one, I’d go for the retro prawn cocktail, presented on monogrammed diner-style Royal Doulton plates, the crunchy lettuce head halved and hollowed to hold a pond full of sweet Nordic shrimp. These were topped with a confetti of hard cooked egg, crisped bacon, and with bagna cauda — a buttery-oily anchovy mayo blend — with a boat load of garlic providing the luscious lubricant.
62 Sparks Street. 613-233-6262
Yes, there’s a prized pig on display at the bar (jamón ibérico de bellota, aged 42 months), but vegetables also play a starring role at Bar Laurel, a 2016 addition to the Hintonburg restaurant row. Of particular note, a study of carrots — some roasted, some pickled, some compressed, all bursting with autumnal flavour. They came with other pleasures: crisp shards of fried manchego cheese, blobs of a goat cheese crema, golden raisins plumped with sherry, and a smear of the fiery, aromatic North African paste called harissa. 1087 Wellington Street West, 613-695-5559
With honourable mention to the beer-doused French onion soup, it was the 70-day house-aged, bone-in rib eye that really stood out at the dining room of the Hilton Lac Leamy. With dry aging, moisture is drawn out of the meat, microbes begin to break down tissue and muscle, and flavours concentrate and intensify. The dry-aged steak was a superb piece of meat, less juicy than usual but with massive flavour. It came lightly seasoned, perfectly grilled, and left largely alone to show off its age marks. Hilton Lac Leamy, 3 boulevard du Casino, 819-790-6410