Tavern is a gritty word. It evokes raucous drinking, rough behaviour, and inexpensive lodging. However, The Clarendon Tavern in the ByWard Market evinces none of these.
The Clarendon, located at George Street and Sussex Drive in the former Black Tomato space, is a bright restaurant with a sophisticated ambience. Its eclectic menu — created by David Godsoe, who also handles the kitchen at Eighteen Restaurant nearby — features plenty of comfort food.
Nestled in a cozy corner on a cold night, my guest and I feel the need for comfort and, apparently, fried food. The three starters we order hit the mark. Fried halloumi slices are crispy and robustly seasoned. They arrive on a slightly messy plate, sprinkled with pine nuts, pink grapefruit segments, and blobs of za’atar mayo. The flavours work well, the grapefruit offering a good contrast to the squeaky saltiness of the cheese.
K.F. Cauliflower is also well seasoned, crisp, and spicy, served on a large smear of cashew cheese with a fresh raita dip. The tuna crudo is a little disappointing, lacking acidity and seasoning, but the fish is good quality and the crunchy puffed quinoa brings a lovely contrasting texture.
The main courses disappoint. My guest, who is from the East Coast, orders ling cod and chips. Though she finds the cod to be fresh and the batter crisp, if under-seasoned, the chips get the big thumbs-down. They are mealy — fuzzy in the mouth and not worth the calories. My own lamb kafta is also a letdown. A couple of dry skewers of minced lamb atop a bed of what’s called turmeric rice with hummus, tzatziki, and pickled beets. But if there is turmeric in that recipe, it is well hidden — no hint of yellow, no telltale aroma. And it doesn’t matter how many dips and sauces you add alongside if the meat is dry. Pickled beets save the dish, offering a good acidic punch.
On a lunch visit, everything I order is a delight. A classic French onion soup arrives in a traditional bowl with a handle, and it tastes deeply rich and satisfying, with plenty of soft onions floating about in the liquid. Croutons coated with rich melted cheese are nice and crispy, and the whole dish packs a peppery punch. At first glance, the Buddha bowl looks small. But it turns out to be loaded with layers of secret goodies, including roasted sweet potato cubes, lentils, quinoa, crispy chickpeas, beetroot, avocado slices, pea shoots, and colourful pickled vegetables.
This time, I must try dessert, but even with a small sweets section, the choice is difficult. Do I go for the brownie with dulce de leche and vanilla bean ice cream, apple crumble with ice cream, or cheesecake with lemon curd and blueberries?
I opt for the cheesecake, which arrives on top of a pile of crumbs, deeply creamy and slightly lemony, with generous dots of lemon curd and blueberry compote on top. It is the perfect finish to an excellent lunch.
Though prices have risen slightly since the opening in late May of 2018, every dish except the trout and the steak frites is priced under $25. The drinks menu offers a wide selection of local beers and cider, and the wines are well priced. Cocktails are creative, and there are even a couple of non-alcoholic ones. The English Rose, with Split Tree grapefruit cordial, rose water, and soda, arrives looking like a work of art with the palest pink liquid hanging at the bottom of the glass and a yellow pansy floating at the top — and it tastes like a breath of summer air.
Friendly service combined with reasonable pricing gives The Clarendon room for error. The space has a luscious, layered decor, with upholstered booths and leather bar stools. While our two dinner main courses were disappointing, they weren’t bad enough to put me off going back for more.
11 George St. theclarendon.ca
Mains $15–$28. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Friday, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner.