Author Archive

DESBRISAY DINES: Les Vilains Garçons

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.

Les Vilains Garcons. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Les Vilains Garcons. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

They are indeed vilains, these boys.

I was dotting the last i on a review of the one-year-old Hull restaurant, when the friend with whom I had just lunched sent me a link to Les Vilains Garçons’ Facebook page. On it, co-owners Cyril Lauer and Romain Riva wrote that they were closing. After much soul searching, the post read, they were so sorry to have to say this, but they were shutting their doors. Their final day would be in June. Merci beaucoup, etc…

With a heavy heart, I hit delete. The review was now moot.  And as sad as I was for them, I was sad for me too: back to the blank page, needing to book another table somewhere else to fill this space.

The few people I told in the restaurant industry that evening were shocked and saddened. They no doubt told others. Word spread of yet another failed restaurant.

The next day — April 2nd as it happens — ha ha hee hee ho ho. They weren’t really closing. It was their poisson d’avril, the trick they played on April first (to a hook-lined restaurant critic among others).

So call me a pooper but I wasn’t giggling. There’s been too much grief about shuttered restaurants, and I don’t find much funny about ‘news’ of one more.

I retrieved the review from the trash bin. ‘Naughty and Nice’ had been the general theme. It seemed pretty bang on now.

The last time I tasted Romain Riva’s cuisine was at The Wakefield Mill Inn, where he had worked his way up to executive chef. Before that, he had apprenticed at Oncle Tom in Hull. The boys opened Les Vilains Garcons in early 2014, in the upstairs space vacated by Gy Resto when it moved to rue St Jacques.

They’ve done a nice job with the interior – tables have been plastered with wine labels, walls covered with chalkboards, and splashes of red add drama. The atmosphere is buzzy, welcoming, and service has been uniformly kind. The food, however, has been inconsistent.

For every dish I’ve liked — and there have been a few — the next two have been troubled.

 

Paella. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Paella. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Presentation is one key problem. It’s fussed over, to be sure, and there’s no shortage of playfulness on the plate, but the look is contrived, flavours and textures don’t always add up, or else they collide in the mouth.

I’ve liked some things: the steak tartare with puffed mustard seed, charred toast and a minted pea salad (served in an enormous stainless mixing bowl.) The calamari was fresh tasting and very tender, though its batter was unseasoned. Oysters have been luscious. A ratatouille (of sorts) was fine.

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

These dishes have been part of the pintxos selection — bar snacks from the Basque region — that lead the blackboard menu. (The menus are all on the wall, which typically requires leaving your table to wander over for a read and a think, and then returning to your chair to wait for your server and then trying to remember what you thought you wanted when he arrives. And then getting up again to read the wine list. Bring a notebook.)

Pinxtos. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pinxtos. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

One night the 3-pintxos-for-$15 deal arrives on a three-tiered cake stand, Oysters on top. One is fine, one is gritty. A scallop crudo with avocado cream is on tier two. It tastes better than it looks, and it looks inexpertly hacked up. Mackerel sashimi with torn sheets of nori and a pretty pedestrian wakame salad anchor the bottom.

Octopus arrives dangling like socks on a clothesline, cooler than ideal and a bit rubbery. An unseasoned, bone-in tempura frog’s leg hangs next to it, along with plantain crisps that taste like they were crisped quite a while ago. Beneath the stringed up food is a treatment of beets, including a Pepto-Bismol coloured beet purée (mixed with mascarpone) which tastes okay but looks like it ought to be icing a cupcake. That same pink anchors a whole sardine on another plate of pintxos, its flesh unpleasantly mushy.

Salmon tartare with an avocado cream and tempura fried onion is marred by an over generosity of cheap-tasting red caviar. One night the paella special is a bust — the seafood overcooked, the pea-dotted rice tasting very ordinary and saffron-free. Much better is a main dish of braised ris d’agneau (lamb sweetbreads) served with a mustard sauce and grilled zucchini, and with sweet potato crisps adding colour and crunch.  I could have done without the avocado purée on the bottom. One element too many.

Octopus and frog's leg on a line. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Octopus and frog’s leg on a line. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

There are some things to like in this upstairs lair — atmosphere, service led by the affable Lauer, and the price point is pretty reasonable. But I’d like to see these Vilains Garcons reign themselves in a bit. Get rid of the gimmicks, and favour simplicity over theatrics.

And I’m not joking about that.

Les Vilains Garcons

39A rue Laval, Gatineau, 819-205-5855 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DESBRISAY DINE: Lunch at Tante Carole

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. 

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Found in the Chelsea space where the former vegetarian restaurant Café Soup’Herbe used to be, Tante Carole (so named in honour of an invented auntie) isn’t operating at full tilt yet. It awaits its liquor licence — at which point dinner service will begin. My visit was for an abstemious mid week lunch and this post is a report on it, with a promise for a more filling review in due course.

So for now, I’ll just tell you the kitchen team of Jonathan Harris and Suyeon Myeong are plating some promising plates. And I’m raising a (water) glass for two of them — the smelt Caesar salad and the sweet potato pierogies. Both terrific.

Smelt caesar. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Smelt Caesar salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Moistened with a fennel cream sauce and toped with a pickled beet salad, the browned pouches of well-seasoned sweet potato were perfectly cooked, elevated by what was beneath and above them. And I can’t remember when I last ordered a Caesar. But I have a real soft spot for smelts, and these guys were big fellas, crispy-fried, flaky-fleshed, clean-flavoured. They topped crunchy greens, cheese and croutons tossed in a vibrant dressing.

Sweet potato pierogies. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Sweet potato pierogies. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We were two at lunch, and made it clear we’d be sharing. Without any muss or fuss, both the Caesar and pierogi orders arrived on two plates. Nice. The photographs reflect half orders, though its possible they were over generous with those smelts.

Apple pie still warm from the oven was on offer. How to refuse that? It came with soft peaks of cream and two forks.

I’m looking forward to returning…

Tante Carole

168 Chemin Old Chelsea, 819-866-3149

 

DESBRISAY DINES: North & Navy’s simple pleasures not ‘that kind of Italian’

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

North and Navy

Cicheti — Venetian tapas — features sardines and other small fish. Just one of many little treasures on offer at North & Navy. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Cichèti are pronounced chi-ket-ee.. I had to look that up. In fact, I had to look up a few things before visit one to North & Navy, unacquainted as I was with the tradition of bar-snacking in Venice. Still, there were questions required of our server before we felt ready to make our cicheti choices. And in the end, we just ordered them all.

Read the rest of this entry »

DESBRISAY DINES: Great British Pasty & Pie Co.

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.

Grant. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Matt Grant of The Great British Pastry Company. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

He was quite right. I went home and Googled it. The Cornish Pasty, like Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, has its own special designation, protected by the European Union as a special regional food. I hadn’t really believed him, but there it was.

“I didn’t much like pasties growing up,”  Matt Grant, owner of The Great British Pasty Company also told me. “They were made with minced meat, you see, not cubed steak like they’re supposed to be.”

But he likes them now. At least the ones he’s making. I like them too, particularly after learning more about their storied history.

Created out of necessity by thirteenth century Cornwall tin miners (or, more likely, by their wives) who needed hand-held lunch on-the-go for their deep dark work. And so the pasty was born. Essentially leftovers — cuts of meat, onion, potato, swedes (rutabagas) — wrapped up in a pastry casing that served as both container and handle.

Traditional British pastries are bought frozen and cooked for about 20 minutes. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Traditional British pasties are bought frozen and cooked for about 20 minutes. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Grant’s gone beyond the traditional Cornish Pasty, taking delicious liberties, making Steak and Guinness pasties (from his mum’s recipe), Sophie’s Cottage Pasties (Sophie’s his sister), and Pulled Pork pasties, which are particularly good. He even has a sweet apple pasty, though I didn’t try it.

“There’s no rubbish in our stuff,” he tells me. The vegetables come from Needham’s Market Garden, the meat is Alberta’s finest, the pastry is his mum’s secret recipe.

The Great British Pasty & Pie Co truck was parked at The Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne Park this past Sunday. You buy the pasties frozen and bake them off at 350 for about 20 minutes.

Or order them direct from Grant, 613-222-5121

 

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Wandee Thai

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.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 The Wandee Thai queue snakes along the woody side of the open kitchen and out the door on this mid-week noon hour. The sleet has let up, so that’s nice for the hungry hopefuls.

We have done two clever things: chosen to eat in and showed up at 11:30. Other than a table of construction workers (pad Thai and Cokes for all!) we have our choice of the five tables. There’s space for about a dozen to dine in, on benches and chairs, but given there is no table service, water is only available in plastic bottles, food arrives in take-away containers, and the only tea served is in a cold can from the beverage fridge, it’s pretty clear Wandee works better for take away.

What’s also clear, once we start tucking in, is that the food is very fresh, very good, and generously served. The queue is more understandable.

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Wandee moved in here back in late March, taking over the former location of the (short-lived) Beechbone Luncheonette (the fried-fish-in-a-bun, sandwich/burger shop run by The Whalesbone/Elmdale Oyster House folk.)

We over-order, as we do everywhere, and we like it all, as we rarely do anywhere: The freshly rolled, generously stuffed rice paper wraps with a peanut sauce of some depth; a first rate Pad Kee Mau, or ‘drunken noodles,’ which knocks any pad Thai out of the park; a garlicky stir fry of vegetables — lots of them — and firm tofu in a slightly sweet (but not too much) lightly fired up sauce. We like the snappy long beans and eggplant in the green curry but it’s probably the least memorable dish.

Pad kee mau or 'drunken noodles'. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pad kee mau or ‘drunken noodles’. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The queue seems a bit chaotic from my vantage. The three women in the kitchen are juggling many demands. There is an option to pre-order for pick up, and this may be the way to go — particularly if April keeps raining ice pellets.

Welcome Wandee! Let’s hope she does well in a space that seems to suffer a bit from its tucked away location.

Lunch mains $8.50 to $8.75, combos $13.95

Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Delivery hours ($2 charge, waived if over $50) Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

40 Beech St., 613-237-1641

www.wandeethai.com

 

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Back with familiar ‘pow’, Flavours of the Caribbean

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.

Caribbean snapper. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Caribbean snapper. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

IMG_1192

Inside Flavours of the Carribean. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

He’s back folks! Chef Frederick White, who started his Caribbean Flavours restaurant in a little house on Somerset West more than a decade ago (then moved it, for a short while, to Carling Avenue after a 2006 fire ravaged the Chinatown location), has resurfaced after a hiatus from storefront cooking. He’s set himself up on on York Street in Lowertown, with a familiar menu and a back-to-front name.

The original Caribbean Flavours is now Flavours of the Caribbean! The corner restaurant is homey, cluttered, brightly lit, with a cobbled-together, bits and pieces sort of feel. The requisite Bob Marley poster and reggae tunes are here (do we ever get tired of “Buffalo Soldier”?) and so are the colours of the Jamaican flag on walls and counter. There’s also a roll of paper towel on every table, which you will find useful.

Read the rest of this entry »

DESBRISAY DINES: Treats at Taqueria Kukulkan

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.

 Taqueria Kukulkan Churros. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Taqueria Kukulkan Churros. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Churros are as good as they are bad for you. And I’ve found some good ones at Taqueria Kulkulakan on Montreal Road.

Churros are Mexican/Spanish-style donuts, long, tubular, and ridged, deep fried and sugar dusted, typically served with a sauce of some sort. They are as ubiquitous to a Latino sweet at the end of the meal as creme brûlée is to a French meal.

They are also a good test of a Mexican kitchen’s prowess. I’ve had gorgeous looking churros that crunched right, only to reveal oozy dough in the centre. I’ve had tough churros, cakey churros, limp churros, soggy churros, and ones where the ratio of dough to sauce was off — some deluged, others thirsting for more. But a great churro with a great sauce is a rare treat, one found at the new Mexican restaurant Taqueria Kulkulkan.

You can have them with the ubiquitous chocolate sauce, or drizzled with the more interesting capeta, a Mexican caramel made with goat milk. If I had a complaint it would be for more of that. A pot of it, in fact, for dunking.

There’s much more to this new restaurant than churros, and I intend to return. But I started with dessert, this visit, and will work backwards soon enough.

1730 Montreal Rd., 613-680-5055

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Quan Viet Fusion

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.

Quan Viet Fusion's House made sausage. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Quan Viet Fusion’s House made sausage. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

I quite liked ThaiPas, the restaurant/lounge/nightclub that used to call this address home. But I quite like its replacement, Quan Viet Fusion, too. Still with a clubby vibe about it — dark walls, dark tables, matching wooden benches and stools, a pink-lit bar, racy red bar chairs — though the ‘tapas’ formula of Thaipas has been replaced with an appetizer heavy, grazing-friendly, pan-Asian menu. More Vietnamese dishes, on balance, but the menu also delivers popular Chinese (salt and pepper squid), Japanese (sushi, sashimi, teriyaki salmon), Korean (bulgogi), and Thai (pad Thai) plates as well.

Salt and pepper shrimp from Quan Viet Fusion. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Salt and pepper shrimp from Quan Viet Fusion. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Lunch was a filling pleasure and something of a bargain (at $12) given the shareable quantity of food. We ordered the Quan Viet Special — pho and rice rolls — and though the rare beef wasn’t rare, it was very tender and heavily scented with ginger. The pale broth tasted clean and meaty, perfumed with cinnamon and star anise. Rice noodles were firm. A plate of the usual stuff — bean sprouts, basil, lime wedges, bird’s eye chilis — added bulk and options. All lunch specials at Quan Viet Fusion are packaged with a choice of fryer spring rolls or fresh rice rolls, both impressive.

Read the rest of this entry »

DESBRISAY DINES: Dim Sum at Hung Sum

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.

Hung Sum Steamed green onion ginger beef dumplings. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Hung Sum Steamed green onion ginger beef dumplings. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The dozen tables are glass topped and dressed in pink linen. The walls are robin egg blue. Hung Sum is a small, plain room that bears the bumps and bruises of a hard-working space. But we aren’t here for the ambience, we’re here for dim sum, and nobody does it better.  At least not in this town.

Read the rest of this entry »

DESBRISAY DINES: Kouign Amann at Macarons et Madeleines

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.

Kouign Amann. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kouign Amann. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kouign Amann … found at last, at Macarons et Madeleines.

I was going to write about éclairs — about the forgotten pleasures of bronzed choux pastry filled with pastry cream and iced with chocolate. And then I saw it, at Macarons et Madeleines, minding its own business in a basket next to the ubiquitous pain au chocolat, two away from the tray of éclairs.

When you haven’t tasted (nor even seen or thought about) in thirty-some years, a once favourite pastry, discovering it in a new-to-the ‘hood patisserie… well, you gasp. And you order it stat. And you wait for it to be warmed up and you sit in your parka in the sunshine and feel twenty again.

Macarons et Madeleines new shop on Wellington. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Macarons et Madeleines new shop on Wellington. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

And because it doesn’t look quite like you remember it looking, you ask if it’s the genuine article.

Is this really Kouign Amann, you ask the young woman behind the counter at (the newly relocated) Macarons et Madeleines?

Yes, she says, indulgently. We just roll it a bit differently.

It’s sort of pronounced ‘queen-a-mon’. In the Breton language, kouign means cake and amann means butter. Not sure what the Breton word for sugar is, but there’s no doubt that it’s part of the package too. This is a pastry-bread-cake thing that’s been around since the mid 1800s, apparently, and in some parts of North America, I’m told it’s seeing a revival.

A yeast-risen dough layered, puff pastry style, with salted butter and sugar and baked such that the butter puffs the dough, and the sugar in the folds oozes out, caramelizing the top and sides and bottom. At Macarons et Madeleines, it’s baked in spiral rings, a bit like a sticky bun.

Éclairs also available at Macarons et Madeleines. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Éclairs also available at Macarons et Madeleines. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

It arrives gooey and bronzed, crisp and oozing butter, served with a knife and fork. A big cake, eminently shareable. So bring a friend. And leave with an éclair for later.

$8 for a more-than-single-serving Kouign Amann. 

Macarons et Madeleines, 1323 Wellington St. W.
613-680-7887