Our restaurant critic, Anne DesBrisay, has been eating her way across the city. Here, she dishes on her most memorable plates of 2015.
They may be on menu, they may be off, or they may have been tweaked a bit. Treat the Dish List as you would a trusted guidebook, one that takes you by the hand and steers you in the right direction but, once there, reminds you that stuff happens. Star plates can be fixed pleasures on a menu, or they can be fleeting ones, created to express the season and the chef’s whim. If you see this dish on the menu, we suggest you nab it. If not, try something else.
This year’s list reflects the abundance of options we have to find great plates of food in this region — fine-dining temples, a wee café that seats 13, a food truck, a hotel with a non-hotel-y restaurant (that’s a compliment), a pizza joint, a restaurant that’s celebrating 16 years, and one that’s six months old. Lots of good, sustainable fish on the list, vegetable-based plates that stand tall over many of their meatier mates, and a good old tart, with an unlikely starring ingredient.
Tortaletti with Braised Rabbit
North & Navy
Or bunny pasta, if that’s easier. It’s a common shape in the north of Italy, tortaletti, and should not be confused with the Milanese tortellini, the North & Navy people tell me. They look a bit like dolls’ thrones, with high-sculpted backs, rounded arms, and poofy, pillowy seats. Chef Adam Vettorel filled the seats with braised rabbit (from Maison du Gibier in Quebec) bound in a light, fresh tomato sauce sharpened with a heroic amount of grated Parmesan. Cooked perfectly, the packages still with bite, they came paddling in a polished butter sauce. Their richness was interrupted by thin wedges of sour plums and with pink shallots, pickled in red wine and wine vinegar. A flourish of fennel flowers lent a touch of anise. The effect of the raw plums and the acidic onion was marvellous. This was a fall dish, inspired by the quail, rabbit, and wild boar season in northern Italy, which coincides with the stone-fruit harvest.
North & Navy, 226 Nepean St., 613-232-6289
Tuna Crudo with Beet Popcorn
The Albion Rooms
Until Stephen LaSalle set me straight, I figured beet dust was the result of a terrible mistake. Some poor sod in The Albion Rooms kitchen likely left a tray of roasting beets in the oven 10 hours too long. So the sod figured he’d take those now dried-up prune-beets and pulverize them to dust. And then, lo and behold, someone was popping corn for some reason and that someone thought to sprinkle beet dust on the popcorn. (Why not? Corn and beets are natural friends.) But then they decided to take that (now pink-speckled) popcorn and drop it over slices of impeccably fresh raw tuna. And then serve it with house-made lemon ricotta for creamy balance, sections of pink grapefruit and verjus-marinated fennel fronds for an acid kick, burnt fennel for a charred effect, and a basil chiffonade for freshness. To end, a drizzle of olive oil, some Maldon sea salt, and two shakes of orange bitters. And voila! A great dish is born from a booboo. Naturally, I am quite wrong. No mistakes are ever made at The Albion Rooms, and the beet dust was planned all along.
The Albion Rooms, 33 Nicholas St., 613-760-4771
Soca Kitchen & Pub
So often, roasted cauliflower ordered in a restaurant is a lumpy mess of runaway florets all higgledy-piggledy on the plate, covered with some sauce. It can be delicious. But it’s pub grub. This wasn’t that. This dish, enjoyed in the fall, was a thick, neat slab cut from the head into cauli steaks, cored but with all the pretty cross-sectioned branches intact. Soca chef Daniela Manrique rubbed it first with smoky Spanish spices. It gets nutty and sweet in the roasting and extra flavour oomph from a bit of edgy char. Beneath the steak was a roasted red pepper coulis fragrant with sherry, honey, and smoked paprika. On top of the steak, was a vibrant gremolata with crunchy brown pine nuts and a drizzle of spiced lemon oil, the green herbiness and citrus lending grand balance to the dish. It was a simple, clean, meatless steak with rare flavour.
Soca Kitchen & Pub, 93 Holland Ave., 613-695-9190
Ottawa Streat Gourmet
Options for good curbside eating in this city have exploded in the past two years, and this option, run by a three-time Gold Medal Plates podium placer, was early out the meals-on-wheels gate. In fact, the day the city approved 16 new street vendor licenses, Baird was in the queue. And the short daily menu of modern Canadian cuisine he had been plating for a dozen years at his bricks-and-mortar restaurant, The Urban Pear, is now a short daily menu of street food — delivered on a stick, in a bowl, on a bun, in a box. World flavours applied to Canadian ingredients. Like his Mariposa Farm duck burger I tucked into this past summer. Inside a soft kaiser (from Second Avenue Sweets) was a first-class duck-leg confit, the boned meat tender and rich with a pleasing fat layer beneath crisp, well-seasoned skin. Under the meat, a beet and pickled onion relish and a celery root remoulade and, above it, greens. It came with a generous salad — bouncy leaves with herbs and vegetables, tossed in a lively vinaigrette. The butterscotch pudding with blueberries and shortbread cookies was reward for eating it all.
Ottawa Streat Gourmet, location — here and there around town, but weekdays at the corner of Albert and O’Connor, @streatgourmet
Scallops, Corn, and Bacon
The Wellington Gastropub
Ah, yes, seared scallops with bacon and corn — that old chestnut, oft repeated, particularly during corn season. But oft repeated because the flavours and textures, the soft and sweet, the brine and bacon are team players. They work to win. At The Wellie, chef Chris Deraiche and his team grill the corn with the husks on to give the kernels chew and crunch and smoky intensity. To my scallop dish, they added shavings of fennel, lightly pickled, a few tomatoes cooked slow-low to focus those flavours, and, along with the lardons, they made a bacon jam — sticky, chewy, sweet like candy. The scallops were top-quality, seared hot and hard and fast on one side only. On a menu that’s been changing every day for all the years The Wellington Gastropub has served this ’hood, sea scallops are a constant. A different treatment every night, inspired by the season, by the markets, by the mood. Exactly what you’ll get, nobody knows. Best just to order and know you’re in good hands.
The Wellington Gastropub, 1325 Wellington St. W., 613-729-1315
Carben Food + Drink
He gives credit to his chef de cuisine, Jamie McMinn, for this dish. Inspired by the sights, the smells, the sounds of a wander in the woods. That’s what Carben chef Kevin Benes tells me about a wood ear mushroom salad I fell hard for last June. It began with a grinning swish of miso glaze. Above it, an artfully arranged salad starred seared king eryngii mushrooms and lightly smoked wood ears. Among these were the briny branches of sea beans, or sea asparagus, mingling with chili-oiled edamame. Dots of an aioli yellowed with turmeric and sprigs of purple shiso finished the plate. It was very pretty, making it so tough to do what had to be done: muss it up a bit to get in every lovely bite the smoke, the acid, the ocean, the forest floor, the richness of the mayonnaise, the pungent spice, and the prick of heat.
Carben Food + Drink, 1100 Wellington St. W., 613-792-4000
Branzino with Hot-and-Sour Mushroom Broth
Branzino (or branzini or loup de mer or European sea bass …) is a Mediterranean fish that’s usually sourced from Greece, but Social chef Kyrn Stein imports his from Nova Scotia, where it’s farmed sustainably. Stein leaves the scales on — a little trick for giving the skin that nice robust crunch when it hits a hot pan. Crispy skin to balance the moist, juicy flesh makes all the difference. Skilled cooking helps too. The fish arrived in a sherry-mushroom broth infused with the warm, sharp flavours of lemongrass, ginger, lime leaf, and soy. Rings of red finger chilies lent some heat. Providing the island for the beached fish was produce from Juniper Farm: baby bok choy, mizuna, leaves of Thai basil. It was a lovely, lively main dish from the spring menu at the beautifully redesigned Social, now in its 16th year of service on Sussex.
Social, 537 Sussex Dr., 613-789-7355
It must be a condition for working at Chez Edgar that you have a Zen-like ability to cope with chaos. And be skinny. Anyone who has ever been to brunch here will understand what I’m talking about. I counted five lean bodies in that teensy kitchen, plus four wait staff. That’s nine. And Edgar? It seats 13. Another 20 on the front patio during patio season. But on any given Sunday, it churns out 160 brunches, give or take. The dish was called Maïs, an ode to corn. Green tomatoes were the anchors, fried with a herbed panko crust, juicy and tart within their crunchy coats. On top, potato-ham-corn hash and two perfectly poached eggs with Swiss chard from the Edgar garden. Corn again in a sweet, thick, chowder-like sauce with leeks and yet again folded into a chive-flecked scone. Also in that scone, some zaniness — dill pickle potato chips and crispy bits of chicken skin — spread with sharp pimento cheese. A long charred scallion lay over top like a ribbon on a gift. I could have leaned over and offered my neighbour in the queue a bite of it. But I didn’t.
Chez Edgar, 60, rue Bégin, Gatineau, 819-205-1110
Sea Buckthorn Curd Tart with White Chocolate
Chef de cuisine Katie Brown Ardington with pastry chef Vu Duong
They could have called it the Hippophae Rhamnoides Curd Tart, I suppose. Or the Sallow Thorn Curd Tart … but it might not have sold as well. A pretty orange berry with a number of less tasty-sounding names, sea buckthorn grows on tall thorny shrubs, generally found in coastal areas. Beckta’s berries were sourced from Quebec, growing along the St. Lawrence River. About the size of a wild blueberry, but tart-tart-tart, sea buckthorn is packed with vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants, we are told. Its salubrious properties might be whittled down a bit when combined with butter, yolks, sugar, and cream, but you don’t order dessert to live forever. You order dessert to make life worth living. And this tart did that. Pastry chef Vu Duong added blood orange cooked in a dark caramel to intensify colour and add some sweetness, fluffy meringue with drops of cranberry bitters to tame that sweetness, and to the graham crust, she brought the forest, with toasted juniper needles. Served with squares of white chocolate and pomegranate seeds, it was part of chef Katie Brown Ardington’s tasting menu at my first visit to the new Beckta. Simply stunning.
Beckta, 150 Elgin St., 613-238-7063
I’ve sampled a lot of pizzas in this town, and of all that I’ve sampled over the years, this one, named for the late Roberto Valente at the restaurant named in his honour, was up there with the best. Great pizza starts with two critical things: a chewy-charred crust and a Hadean-hot oven. It also helps to have a pizzaiola from Rome who knows his stuff and pays attention. Ivano Tascioni works at a blue-tiled wood-burning oven in a small kitchen space. Not paying attention would have immediate impact on the 30-seat room. As it happened, the room was full, and so I ate my pizza on a picnic table in the Preston Street alley that runs between the restaurant and a barber shop, surrounded by a beautifully coiffed team of young soccer players still in dirt-streaked uniforms. All those pleasures might have helped the flavour. You won’t find tomato sauce on this dough. Rather, béchamel infused with truffle oil and a layer of duxelles — finely chopped mushrooms cooked with shallots — before a generous application of shaved porcini and cremini mushrooms hit it, with crisped pancetta and blobs of gooey fresh mozzarella. The truffle oil was judiciously applied. That matters too.
Roberto Pizza, 348 Preston St., 613-230-3111
The Whalesbone Oyster House
Mackerel is a fish lover’s fish — assertively flavoured, rich, oily, and full of those fatty acids we need to live long and be super clever. It has character in spades, this fish, though most home cooks don’t buy it. (Guilty as charged.) So whenever I see it on a restaurant menu, if I trust the fish is fresh and the chef knows how to source it and cook it, I order it. And this chef, this restaurant — they know fish like nobody’s business. Michael Radford was cooking fish before he learned how to grill a steak. Having spent childhood summers in Campbell River, British Columbia, fishing with his grandparents, and a good chunk of his youth in the Caribbean, he has always felt an affinity for what comes out of water. His mackerel escabeche is an ode to the time he spent in Barbados, where no Sunday lunch was complete without soused fish — fish that’s been lightly pickled. Radford cures the fish first, then sears it for seconds to get a char. It goes in its bath next, the brine infused with all those warm Caribbean spices — allspice, cinnamon, cloves, thyme — and with Scotch bonnets for kick. He adds cauliflower, carrot rounds, and red onions, all lightly pickled in the same brine, and serves the fish and veg with sprigs of dill and broken crackers. I’m getting smarter just thinking about it.
The Whalesbone Oyster House, 430 Bank St., 613-231-8569