Author Archive

DESBRISAY DINES: Ace Mercado

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

 

Scallop ceviche. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Scallop ceviche. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

“There Goes the Neighbourhood” was the opening slogan of Ace Mercado, punctuated with cartoon dynamite booms. There went my ear drums that first visit. And the next. The volume of the music played at Ace has waxed and waned a bit over my three meals here, but is generally at ear ringing level by eight o’clock. We move to the back room and find we can just hear each other if we holler.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Do I like this? Nope. But maybe I’m just out of touch with the way the cool kids want to eat out these days.

Ace Mercado is loud in other ways. The wall graffiti makes a statement, the Day of the Dead decor is edgy, the service is almost aggressively casual, and the open bar scene can bully the room.

But none of these grumblings of mine should take away from the food at Ace, which is mostly very good. Or the drinks program, which attempts to take frat-boy tequila shots to a much higher plane, dispensed from a centre-of-the-action bar, crowded with premium spirits, house infusions, and handsome young mixologists.

The food menu, created by Navarra chef (and Top Chef Canada 2014 champ) René Rodriguez (executed by chef de cuisine Trish Donaldson) has evolved since that first visit. It’s a bit longer, and seems more focused on sides, sharing plates, tacos, and less on main dishes.

If you only order tacos here — we liked the braised lamb with queso fresco most and the bland and fishy red snapper least — you will miss the best bits. Sophisticated dishes like the scallop ceviche with passion fruit seeds and smoked hibiscus salt. Yes, a very pretty plate, but it was the balance of tart-sweet, soft-crunch, and chili-rev that was so beautifully judged.

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ANNE’S PICKS: Kothu Rotti

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Kothu Rotti. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kothu Rotti. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

There are a few stools for perching at a counter, and one small round table, but most people use Kothu Rotti — probably with good reason — for take away or delivery. I’ve passed this one-year-old Dalhousie Street hole-in-the-wall many times, but this was the first time I noticed Kothu Rotti’s subtitle: ‘by Ceylonta Restaurant.’

We all know Ceylonta. It’s the long-serving Sri Lankan restaurant on Somerset West (with a second location in a little yellow house on Carling Avenue) that serves affordable, flavourful south Indian food and proffers a popular lunch buffet.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Soif

Anne DesBrisay has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years. She is the author of three bestselling books on dining out, is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine as well as a senior editor at Taste & Travel Magazine. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

If you want to watch a nail-biter bit of YouTube video, check out Véronique Rivest’s final exam at the 2013 World’s Best Sommelier Competition. It will give you an inkling of what a brilliant Canadian treasure we have in our midst. (And it really is edge of the seat stuff.)

Having secured wins at the Best Sommelier of Quebec competition in 2006, the national sommelier contest and the “Best Sommelier of the Americas” in 2012, Véronique Rivest, from Restaurant Les Fougères in Wakefield, Quebec, headed to Tokyo for the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, a competition held every three years. It was her third attempt at the big one, and this time was the charm. Rivest made it to the finals, the only woman ever to reach that level, and ended up placing an unprecedented second.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Fauna

Anne DesBrisay has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years. She is the author of three bestselling books on dining out, is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine as well as a senior editor at Taste & Travel Magazine. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

So it’s happened. The highly anticipated new restaurant, Fauna, is finally feeding folk. It’s taken two years — and they don’t sound like pleasant ones — but enough ink has been spilt on Fauna’s struggles that I won’t bore you with a recap. Suffice to say, the window wit (‘Opening … Slowly’) is now down, the Bank Street doors are unlocked and we all want to discover if the interminable wait was worth it.

All of which must put considerable pressure on executive chef Jon Svazas. And perhaps on the restaurant critic as well. How can you kick a guy (if a kicking is required) who’s already been getting a licking for two years?

No need. The Bank Street former shoe shop has morphed into a solidly good place to eat. The room’s a beauty, taken back to its handsome brick bones and filled in with wood, metal, statement lighting, a zinc covered bar, and just enough visual drama such that the space seems confidently modern, rather than gimmicky. It’s a room with a great vibe and energy, packed on both our nights. Service was smooth, confident, and friendly.

The comfort Canadiana that Jon Svazas was dishing up at Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar is evident on the plates, though with various Asian inflections and modernist moments.  He’s chosen a small plates formula (nothing more than $19) of no particular culinary core. Sort of Nouveau Canadian cuisine with bits of this and that — French, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese — applied to quality local ingredients. Flavours are well-balanced and dishes are pretty on the plate.

Elk Carpaccio. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Elk Carpaccio. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

If I had a quibble, it would be with the chemistry — some of it was welcome, other bits felt contrived and irrelevant.

The opening menu had been tweaked a bit between visits, and I think I’ve worked my way through a good chunk of it. We begin with a winner of a pumpkin soup with warming Thai flavours. And then a dish of elk carpaccio, presented as a log might be found on the forest floor, with pickled mushrooms growing beside, the plate garnished with dots of a pungent black garlic aioli, and a sweet sticky miso reduction. More raw protein with the tuna plate, the cool and fatty-rich crudo left in log-like segments, set on a coconut-kaffir cream, and paired with sections of pink grapefruit dusted with black sesame seed. Also on the plate, a powdered chili oil — which added whimsy as well as heat — and a few wilted scallions and bitter greens.

Sablefish (Black cod) was the star of the second column. The filet had a strong flavour-charged black crust, while the white flesh fell in wet petals when poked, its cooking perfectly judged. It came propped up on a striking ‘hummus’ of black lentils. Roasted blue fingerlings came with the fish, along with a welcome tang of pickled elements (carrots and daikon).

Few places get quail right. These were succulent little bird bits, lightly bronzed but with lots of juicy meat to pick away at, set on a silky smooth puree of parsnip, which was perfumed fairly headily with vanilla. Pear added some sweet and some sour, Brussels sprout leaves a bitter crunch. Here, the piles of dehydrated bacon wasn’t a trick that worked, at least not for me. Give me chewy, salty lardons with these birds, any day.

We finished with the squash sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce, caramel ice cream, apple compote, and gingerbread dust. Terribly good and refreshingly not icky-sweet.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Squash sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce, caramel ice cream, apple compote, and gingerbread dust. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The wine list seemed to me well chosen, with decent choice by the glass. Local craft beer, of course, and a slew of expensive, fancy cocktails.

Some might find the noise at Fauna a bit troubling. There are sections — the northeast corner, say, and tip end of the bar — that are sheltered a bit from the centre of the action. Ask for those if volume bother you. Else come early. By about nine, Fauna is deservedly buzzing.

Small plates, $8 to $19

Open Monday to Friday for lunch, daily for dinner (till midnight, Thursday-Saturday).

425 Bank St., 613-563-2862, faunaottawa.ca

 

LUNCH PICK: Holland’s Cake and Shake

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Beef in a Bun. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Tucking into the brown bag lunch at Holland’s Cake and Shake was like a chomp back to childhood, to the days when summer sandwiches came with a side of Humpty Dumpties. I’d pry open the sandwich — any sandwich, PB&J, bologna and ketchup, ham and cheese — and insert the chips. It drove my Manners Matter mother mad, but I loved the crunch and the added salt it delivered. So what fun to find potato chips (clearly of a higher quality than my HD’s) in my Beef in a Bun at Holland’s.

Located directly across the street from the Parkdale Market on Armstrong Avenue, this is a new business for former Atelier pastry chef Michael Holland. It concentrates on soft ice cream and dramatic mini cakes. On most weekdays, there’s a bagged lunch deal, with or without ice cream and mini cakes. I chose with.

Chips weren’t the only source of crunch in the construct. A relish of sweet peppers and onions also delivered acidic tang to the roasted-to-pink, thinly-sliced beef. The moisture came with a generous smear of housemade ‘cheez whiz’ and the guts of the matter were held together in Holland’s beer bread — a dark, malty, seedy bun made with neighbouring ‘Beyond the Pale’s ‘Darkness Beer.’

I upgraded from brown bag sandwich-with-a-cookie to sandwich-with-cake: Cherry Pistachio. And while I waited, was treated to a sample of the two ice creams on offer. Cinnamon and Chocolate, both soft serve and really quite exceptionally good, particularly when muddled together.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Cherry pistachio mini cake. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Holland’s mini-cakes are darling looking, designed to delight, particularly if you’re pint sized. I wouldn’t call them dainty, nor overly girly. But they are certainly one of a kind: layered,  about four inches high, with piping that looks like tiny turrets on a castle tower, dusted with unexpected surprises. They are also very sweet treats. Nothing ‘-free’ about them. And eminently shareable. Fortunately, I was alone.

Brown Bag lunch with cookie/brownie or drink $8.50 (upgrade to cake for $2 more)

Open Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

229 Armstrong St., 613-695-3311, cakeandshake.ca

DESBRISAY DINES: Segue

By ANNE DESBRISAY

 

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Fried chicken. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 

One of the best restaurants to open this year is one that’s slated to shut down (Can’t remember when exactly — sometime this winter) to renovate.

The name of this new place might tip you off that it’s an ephemeral affair. Segue, it’s called (written with the gimmick of braces around the word.) Its tagline is “a kitchen in transition.” Which might suggest a chef that’s still working things out. Not, I would offer, a good message to send the paying public. Nor, as it turns out, an accurate one.

Two meals at Segue confirm that both the front and back of house are very good at their jobs. Service has been strong and charming, and the food delicious. The wine list is well chosen to match the dishes, thanks likely to Beckta’s former service manager (and “Cheese Whiz”) Steve Whittaker. As for the look of the place, I imagine the Segue folk are keen to be rid of the Fratelli feel. This used to be the original Glebe location of the once five strong — now two, for now — Italian chain, but the place, as is, is fully functional, warm, and inviting.

The Segue principals all have strong bonafides. There’s former Beckta chef Rich Wilson, former Fraser Cafe server Lindsay Gordon, and restaurateur Ion Aimers, who used to own The Works, and now holds a chain of ZaZaZa pizza eateries, along with interests in Fraser Cafe, Table 40, and Wilf & Ada’s.

The menu is a nice, manageable length. The opening move could be oysters, served with grated horseradish, a lively mignonette, and a spicy-thick ketchup. An elegant salad of yellow tomatoes in perfect September condition arrive supported with knobs of creamy burrata cheese, dressed with olives and buried with a rough chop of parsley and arugula nicely dressed. A softball-sized serving of fried chicken is soft and moist within a thick, crisp coat, anchored to the plate with a buttery cauliflower puree and (presumably to trick us into believing the decadent dish was healthy), a pile of wilted kale.

The puck of steak tartare, though well seasoned and classically served with an egg yolk topper, would have benefitted from a finer chop — its chunkiness made for too much chew.

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.to

A backyard smoker is put to good use. Pillows of gnocchi, baby beets, and lengths of pickled fennel bring an earthy, tart balance to a smoked mackerel, while the assertiveness of the fish is tamed with a vinaigrette enriched with beurre noisette. A salsa verde, based on house-smoked tomatillos is fine on a lovely piece of trout, propped up on a cake of kohlrabi. Another night, a loin of pork is the star, the meat luscious, well cooked to pink, sliced and fanned on a smooth puree of squash, with purple cauliflower, pink beets, beans and shiitakes, and, to remind us that winter is coming, a pile of pickled red cabbage. And full marks for the vegetarian entry: scored and roasted King Eryngii mushrooms with blobs of goat cheese melting beneath, plus pickled, smoked and grilled elements — zucchini, yellow beans, broccoli, tomatoes, and gingered kale — each contributing mightily. Roasted filberts lend a crunch.

Smoked mackerel. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Smoked mackerel. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Lined with a tart lime curd and a buttery-good shortcrust, the tart on offer was lovely, but for the raw, under-ripe peaches. Salted caramel ice cream on a chocolate stout cake is so good we order it twice.

Get yourself to Segue before they close. (Then go again when they reopen.)

Mains $25 to $32

Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

749 Bank St., 613-237-1658 segueottawa.com

DESBRISAY DINES: Mariposa Farm lunch required for local food devotees

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Terrine of chicken, served with pickled vegetables and crostini. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Some meals should be required eating: a learning lunch on a working farm, complete with a lesson on sustainable farming practices and a viewing of days old piglets.

Think that sounds too much like a school trip? To that i say, how many of those begin with foie gras and end with panna cotta?

This is the property that Ian Walker bought and built up when he was barely out of his teens. That was over 30 years ago. Today, Mariposa Farm co-owners Walker and his wife Suzanne Lavoie raise Barbarie ducks, Embden geese, and crossbred pigs on their pretty Plantagenet property. They keep chickens and a dairy cow, and have a thriving commercial vegetable garden. They used to raise wild boar, but quit that. They were, apparently, a “pain in the ass.”

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DESBRISAY DINES: Che Chartrand takes Muse Restaurant at Wakefield Mill Inn to the next level

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

King mackerel sashimi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Scoring a table at the Muse Restaurant in the Wakefield Mill Inn this summer had proven tricky. And sure enough, when one was found (“we could seat you at 6 or 8:45”) we arrived to a packed room, both on the more sought-after solarium side of the restaurant, the bit that juts out over the MacLaren Falls, and in the dining room proper. Every table was filled, staff was scrambling.

“We have a new chef,” our server explained to justify the full house. “He used to own Chez Eric and he had many fans. They’re coming here now.”  She was referring to the wee village restaurant on Wakefield’s Valley Drive.

Two years ago, Che Chartrand left Chez Eric and landed the job of chef de cuisine at the new Gezellig Restaurant in Westboro. But last February he moved back home, accepting the top job at The Wakefield Mill Inn and reducing his commute to three minutes. Six months later, Chartrand’s mark on the menu eats very well indeed.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Fresh pea and watercress soup. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Beginning with the bold amuse of garlic scape kimchi paired with a cool square of pickerel mousse, dribbled with herb oil and scattered with micro-greens. And then a marvellous summer soup — fresh pea and watercress, the bullying bitterness of the cress tempered with rich nuggets of local chèvre.

A salad of “jeunes pousses” proved to be a highlight. The greens seemed more days old than weeks, and yet had such grand flavour, caught in a ribbon of cucumber, scattered with crunchy wisps of shallot and dressed smartly in a classic honey-mustard vinaigrette sweet with raisins.  The “ Chef’s choice of sashimi” was King Mackerel – a bold choice, though its oily fishy flavour was cleverly tempered with creamy elements (an avocado mousse) with a rousing wakame salad and with dobs of a sweet carrot purée.

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Lunch Pick: Moscow serves up great brews and terrific pierogies

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

Pierogies, photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pierogies, photo by Anne DesBrisay

The day was glorious and the Moscow Tea Room was barren — inside, anyway. The lavishly decorated, grand cafe room, which I imagine bustles with the Beautiful and the Young at night, did have patrons, but they were all on the patio. I walked through the room — admiring its many assets — and found their courtyard humming with a decidedly middle-aged crowd, plus a couple of exhausted mommies-with-babies. (It all made the server stand out as someone more suited to the nightlife at the cafe than during their midday service.)

The lunch had its moments, but was mostly mediocre. My tea choice — Kimicha’s Jin Jui Mei — was, however, splendid. I also loved the pierogies, which I believe are house made.

Much of what the Moscow Tea Room serves seems more assembled than cooked, brought in from elsewhere — I was told — and plated up. In this category goes the cheeses, charcuterie, smoked fish, baked goods, pastries, scones, and cakes.

photo by Anne DesBrisay

Borscht, photo by Anne DesBrisay

There was borscht, which was pretty thin on flavour, and then a salad for which the smoked sturgeon was the standout. I’ve had this product before (from New Brunswick’s Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar), but what a treat to see it again.

IMG_9674

Salad, photo by Anne DesBrisay

The salad was generous, a nicoise of sorts, with boxed greens, potato, onion, grated beet in a vodka dressing. It would improve with fewer dull greens, more guts, and less fridge cold.

But the pierogies were terrific and generously served for six bucks. Stuffed with cheese and potato, boiled then fried, topped with clean tasting sour cream, snipped chives, and roasted red onions. Bacon lardons would have made them even better, as bacon tends to do. But so be it. This was the best of the few things I ate.

I don’t know where they get their desserts (“a Market bakery”), but they should consider another source. The chocolate mousse cake tasted like an edible oil product, lacking in chocolate flavour with a too-sweet fake tasting cream. I didn’t want to finish it. (An occupational hazard, averted. Thank you.) Instead, I ordered more hot water for that great tea.

Pierogies, $6, Salad, $10.50; Soup, $5.50
577 Sussex Street, 613-723-6216
moscowtearoom.com

photo by Anne DesBrisay

Chocolate mousse cake, photo by Anne DesBrisay

DESBRISAY DINES: Rosie’s Southern Kitchen & Raw Bar

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Scallop ceviche salad: raw scallops served in fat juicy disks and plopped on a bed of superior greens, with rings of jalapeño and radish, and carefully sectioned lime Photo: Anne DesBrisay

After what seemed to me to be a rocky start, culinarily speaking, Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar, which opened in December 2013, appears to have settled comfortably in the southern bit of the Glebe.

The restaurant (its sister is the Big Easy on Preston) has positioned itself, pretty cleverly, just north of the massive Lansdowne Park development in the former home of the original Mexicali Rosa’s (from 1979). Where there used to be parking, is now a likeable outdoor patio, complete with a come-hither fireplace, thoughtful wind blocks, funky vintage-y fans, and great lights. It’s a great place to be on a fine night. Inside, the room is dominated with wood, tables are both high and low top, while most of the visual drama takes place above our heads, with chandeliers of clustered jars stuffed with Edison bulbs. The oyster/booze bar is zinc-topped, leggy, and lovely. During my visits, the room was loud and full, and while there are TV screens, they didn’t dominate.

When it opened, and upon my first visits back then, the food was largely unimpressive. Didn’t seem right to complain about a fun new neighbourhood place with southern comfort cooking, but the dishes I tackled — with the exception of the raw oysters and fried calamari — were decidedly mediocre. I gave it a few months and returned.

Quel difference! The menu has shrunk considerably, and the food has risen a considerable notch. Dishes were more daringly plated and southern flavours decidedly more pronounced.

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Crab cake: beautifully seasoned, lightly fried, and served with a powerfully green chimichurri featuring cilantro. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Diners should be aware there’s some serious heat in the scallop ceviche salad. Here the raw scallops are served in fat juicy disks rather than the usual thin slices, and plopped on a bed of superior greens, with rings of jalapeño and radish, and carefully sectioned lime. The crab cake was a terrific rendition, the meat untainted with iodine, left in large, lightly-packed chunks, beautifully seasoned, lightly fried, and served with a powerfully green chimichurri featuring cilantro. Full marks.

A small salad of heirloom tomatoes and cucumber dressed well and served with a likeable guacamole felt a tad overpriced at $12 bucks, but still, it was pretty on the plate and lovely to eat, and if the quantity were bumped up a bit, the salad would make a fine lunch.

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Blackened catfish properly spicy and cooked, topped with juicy disks of chorizo, a few unseasoned shrimp, and served with well seasoned Mexican rice Photo: By Anne DesBrisay

Ribs were tender and meaty; the blackened catfish properly spicy and cooked, topped with juicy disks of chorizo, a few unseasoned shrimp, and served with well seasoned Mexican rice.

The only real disappointment was with the pork chop. It arrived overcooked, grimly grey, though supported with a fine Bourbon apple sauce, chunky and perfumed with thyme and cinnamon. We loved the fried potato dumplings, though the pile of vegetables — heirloom carrots, green beans, braised radish, baby kale — looked more promising than they ate, injured by a heavy hand with (what I suspect is jarred) garlic.

The chocolate pecan pie was perfect, though the whipped cream was icky sweet… but so what. At Rosie’s, there’s much more right than wrong now.

Mains, $20 to $43. Open for lunch, brunch, and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. 895 Bank Street, 613-234-7674 www.rosiesonbank.ca