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DESBRISAY DINES: Chef James Bratsberg proves his skill at MēNa

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Mena-Ottawa

MēNa delivers on its sensibly short menu with such dishes as this sunchoke salad (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

The last time I saw James Bratsberg, he was handing me a puck of salmon tartare and a platter of citrus dusted B.C. oysters. That was sometime in early 2013, when Bratsberg was the chef in charge of the raw bar at Restaurant E18hteen. He looked about 12. But the kid could clearly plate some fetching uncooked food. So it was nice to see him resurface at MēNa, a new spot on Preston Street place, to learn that he can work with fire as well as the fridge.

MēNa opened in January without much hooplah. It’s one of a number of newish non-Italian places on the Preston Street strip, done up in cool tones with warm lights. White-washed barn boards brighten the grey and black, while dozens of hanging filament bulbs and mod chandelier give the L-shaped room and long bar a lovely glow. Fresh flowers in glass jars and starched white serviettes on shiny black tables make it feel loved.

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LUNCH PICK: Erling’s Variety takes name change in stride

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Erlings-Variety

From Earl’s Variety to Erling’s Variety, the process of changing names takes some time (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

The name on the picture window announces this new Glebe arrival as “Erling’s.” But the sign above the bar reads “Earl’s.” So does the website.

Once the page is open, the name change is explained: restaurant chain Earls (with roots in western Canada) came a-calling. Lawyers representing Earls suggested to this little Glebe whippersnapper (in so uncertain terms) that the name was Not On. And if it wasn’t changed tout de suite, there would be trouble with a capital T. So they renamed Earl’s Variety to Erling’s Variety. Owner Liam Vainola’s grandfather’s nickname was Earl, but his real name was Erling. A much more distinguished moniker anyway…

But it can’t be cheap to change a brand. There’s paperwork, no doubt, and the cost of physical and electronic re-signage. But the unexpected gift of a great David and Goliath tale — small new restaurant taken to task by 64-outlet strong North American restaurant chain for name calling — picked up in the media and widely published, had to have been pretty sweet. And that’s what happened to Erling’s Variety, tucked out of sight off Bank Street in the northern bit of the Glebe.

You might say David’s pebble still hit the target, if the target is free publicity.

Erlings-Variety

Erling’s Variety creates a great rendition of butternut squash soup (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

I dropped in for lunch last week. The menu’s a bit dull — much of the same sort of fare you find in lots of places, including ye old beet salad with goat cheese and arugula. I sat at the the bar and had a bowl of soup and a meatball sub. Sure, it was the ubiquitous butternut squash on offer, but it was a great rendition, with roasted pears, pureed to smooth, perfumed with cinnamon and nutmeg and shot through with chili heat. A pretty swirl of crème fraîche on the surface, a drizzle of oil. Nothing to make the heart go pitter patter, but a well-executed version of a typically over-executed soup.

Meatball sub next, with fries and salad. So nice when that’s an option. Great fries, nice salad, good meatball sub — flavourful, fresh. Not much else to say. I enjoyed my lunch at the new Erling’s Variety, and I liked very much the handsome room. But here’s hoping the spring menu is a bit more dynamic. I’m looking forward to returning to check it out.

Soup, $8; sub with fries and salad, $15

Erling’s Variety, 225 Strathcona Ave., 613-231-8484, earlsvariety.com (for now)

DESBRISAY DINES: Wellington Gastropub continues its winning ways with a daily menu of rich offerings

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Cobia fish served sashimi style with slow roasted tomatoes and a corn relish. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

I first wrote about ‘The Wellie’ in 2006 when the restaurant was pretty new and the neighbours were either scratching a head or tripping over the surname ‘Gastropub.’

Eight years later, this pub with good grub (hence ‘gastropub’ based on the UK term for these sorts of places) seems to be going strong. For one thing, it’s packed at my every visit.

And for another, seems to be delving into interesting new projects — one of which is brewing beer.

On offer one night, under the ‘Stock Pot Ales’ banner, was the Eddie Double D IPA, a dark, frothy-headed beer served really cold. Once warmed up a bit its smell was full and malty, the taste bitter but with a pleasantly sweet linger. It went really well with the ribeye, and every guy in the place — there was an inordinately large number of guys — seemed to have ordered the combo.

My final visit I came alone. And the place was packed with groups of guys.

“I’ll put you on the quiet side,” my server suggested and I was led to the left, away from the main dining room, to where a smaller lounge area shares space with fewer tables. Two more foursomes of fellas there, but nothing I couldn’t handle. “Can I bring you today’s Globe and Mail?” I declined the offer, but it was a kind one, and thoughtful, and that sums up service here, led by the charming Shane Waldron.

The kitchen is helmed by co-owner Chris Deraiche. Deraiche opened The Wellington Gastropub with a commitment to changing its menu daily, and it carries on with that duty, which makes The Wellie something of a rare bird in this town. Not many places take on the creative freedom (and rigours) of a daily menu, or do so with as much success.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Chef Kyrn Stein creates sophisticated, accomplished dishes at Social

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Kyrn-Stein-Social-Ottawa

The duck with rutabaga purée is one of the highlights at Social (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

Social has a new restaurant chef. Kyrn Stein is an Ottawa lad who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and gained experience in Toronto, including a couple of Jamie Kennedy’s places, the modernist (and now closed) Colborne Lane, and Mark McEwan’s ONE Restaurant where he was executive sous chef.

Stein has now come “home” to plump his CV further at Social — one of the capital city’s signature restaurants. He fills the gap created by long-time executive chef Matthew Carmichael (and restaurant chef Jordan Holley) when they left to pursue other projects, including Carmichael’s buzz-worthy restaurant El Camino on Elgin Street.

Social is a beauty. It always has been, still is. This restaurant/lounge is blessed with good bones, in a primo location, and aging well. Maybe the secret is change. Over the years of writing about it  — through its Derek Benitz era (remember him?), then René Rodriguez (now, Navarra), followed with Steve Mitton (Murray Street), Carmichael (El Camino and counting), Holley — it’s had some ups and downs. At times Social has felt more like a hotspot nightclub than a serious restaurant. But not lately. And with these last few visits, even the choice and volume of the music suggest the kitchen is taking the dinner hours seriously.

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LUNCH PICK: A great deal at Fraser Café

By ANNE DESBRISAY

fraser-cafe-ottawa

Freshly made fettuccine topped with cherry tomatoes, toasted walnuts, roasted garlic, and more at Fraser Café (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. and Fraser Café in New Edinburgh is packed. There’s a mum and her young, (uniformed) daughter sprung from school at one table. A pair of elderly gents in tweed jackets are at another. A group of well-coiffed ladies who lunch are in the side room, and then there’s the three guys in power suits talking unintelligibly about matters high tech. Their table is closest to mine. And the only time they make any sense to me at all is when the bill arrives, presented — as the bill has always been presented at Fraser’s — in a McKenzie seed packet. Shasta daisies. Empty other than for the invoice. They are hugely disappointed that it didn’t come complete with seeds. “What a rip off!”

Actually, lunch at Fraser strikes me as a pretty good deal.

fraser-cafe-ottawa

Fraser Café churns their own ice cream. Seen here: a scoop of pear and a scoop of walnut (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

What did I have? Fraser fettuccine (freshly made) filled in with cherry tomatoes, roasted cauliflower, roasted garlic, toasted walnuts, and fresh sage, all paddling in a creamy garlic sauce with lots of nice chive snips and a tumbled mound of parmesan shards. Micro greens were the toupé on the top. And then, to get rid of the garlic, ice cream. Fraser churns its own, so pretty tough to say no to that. Walnut was one scoop, pear the other, good on their own, great together.

Daily pasta dish, $15; ice cream/sorbet, $2.50 per scoop

Fraser Café, 7 Springfield Rd., 613-749-1444, frasercafe.ca

LUNCH PICK: Absinthe’s superb three-course lunch

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Ottawa-Absinthe

Classic crème brulée, part of Absinthe’s three-course meal (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

Une Petite Soupe (a broccoli “velouté”) was course one of Absinthe’s three course lunch special. A classic crème brulée in mini ramequin came last, and in between, a main course of Taco de Poulet Tikka with Kachumber.

To suggest that, from time to time, Patrick Garland and his team of cracker jack French bistro cookers pitter patter over to give some Indian-Mexican fusion thing a go seems fair. (I ate the proof.) And it was delicious in a disjointed sort of way.

Good, adult soup — which is to say soup with a pleasing lemony bitterness about it, and a sharp and salty roundedness from Parmesan cheese. Then came the tacos: these were superb, the soft shells warm, made in house, smeared with a mint and cilantro chutney and topped with very moist grilled chicken drenched in a spicy cardamom-strong curry, cooled with a yogurt raita.

Ottawa-Absinthe

Chicken tacos at Absinthe, smeared with mint and cilantro chutney (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

There was crunch — as there must be in a good taco — in the Kachumber salad, of cucumber, tomato and onion that topped the construct. The side of mixed greens was tossed in a mustard-creamy dressing that featured fresh thyme leaves and lots of lemon zest and brought me to Paris with its forceful flavours. A really good plate of food.

What else to follow a tikka taco but vanilla bean crème brulée? The real stuff, four spoonfuls-worth, well-executed. I could have four more.

Three-course lunch special, $20

Absinthe, 1208 Wellington St. W., 613-761-1138, absinthecafe.ca

DESBRISAY DINES: Seductive French cuisine at Le Baccara

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Le-Baccara-Lac-Leamy

Le Baccara wows with such dishes as this rich tuna rillette refreshed with a green apple and cucumber salad (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

I can’t think of a single open kitchen in this region where the view is of chefs in a monogrammed white jacket and traditional hundred pleat toque. Most everywhere, if you do get a peek into the back, the worker bees are in tees. A skull cap keeps the locks in place. Maybe a bandana.

Not a bit of that at Le Baccara. The fine dining restaurant of the Casino du Lac-Leamy is now in a class of its own. All the others of its haute French ilk have disappeared.

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LUNCH PICK: Thoughtful decor leads the way at Das Lokal

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Das-Lokal

Das Lokal reinvents their space on Dalhousie Street, where a KFC once stood (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

There’s a woman’s touch at work here, at the new Das Lokal in Lowertown. Much thoughtfulness and whimsy in the decor.

There’s also very little of the KFC this Dalhousie Street building used to be. A pale yellow piano occupies one wall. Giant red plastic pendants light up the bar, and pillar candles line all the ledges. The table tops are fashioned with wide, rough, whitewashed planks, except where they become soapstone surfaced, found on the raised banquettes that fill the back of the room. To warm winter bottoms, the metal chairs all have fuzzy white faux-sheepskin throws on their seats. A garland of gingham — great granny’s dresses, torn into strips? — runs the diagonal of the room and, tucked into the corner close to the bar, is a wee shelving unit lined with wooden toys and Noah’s animals. In case the kids come.

My first taste of the new Das Lokal was at noon. I started with the day’s soup (butternut squash) served with Nat’s great bread, and then chose the “tartelette du jour” with a green salad and roasted vegetables. Other than the texture of the soup — puréed to baby food smooth — the flavour was intensely squashy, perfumed with nutmeg and slightly sweetened with a dollop of maple flavoured crème fraiche.

Das-Lokal

Das Lokal’s deconstructed pot pie with salad and roasted vegetables (Photo: Anne DesBrisay)

The best part about the chicken pot pie tartelette was the salad — very bouncy-fresh and tossed in a memorable sherry vinaigrette. The ‘pie’ was a deconstructed affair, with a square of browned puff pastry beneath a ladle full of what was really creamed potato, with a bit of carrot and squash. I counted three tiny bits of meat (guinea hen, apparently, in place of chicken). It could have used more flavour as well — herbs might have helped, along with a whole lot less potato and a bit more meat. The pastry was fine, though to call this a pot pie — even a partitioned one — was a stretch. The vegetables (roasted fennel, red onion, squash) were nicely grill marked but still a bit crunchy for my liking and all underseasoned.

So not a super duper lunch, but still, I enjoyed the feel of the place, and look forward to mining the dinner menu soon.

Soup, $8; tartelette, $13

Das Lokal, 190 Dalhousie Street, 613-695-1688, twitter.com/DasLokal

DESBRISAY DINES: EVOO Greek Kitchen

By Anne DesBrisay

Octopus . Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Octopus at EVOO is slow-cooked and flame-charred. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

After 22 years of working in his family’s restaurant — Rockwell’s on Merivale — Elias Theodossiou and his wife April Miller decided it was time for his own place. They found the venue for the restaurant on Preston Street — in the space where Dunn’s Famous Deli was famous for about six months. And before that, 438 (and a half) Preston Street was shared by the Italian restaurant Leonardo’s, and a strange little place called Bombay Bollywood.

Theodossiou wanted his new restaurant to serve authentic Greek comfort food — like mama makes, but on fancier plates. Ottawa doesn’t have many ‘fine dining’ Greek restaurants, he tells us, and when you stop to think about it, he’s about right. There is a smattering of family eateries and fast food Greek-ish places. And there’s the long running Papagus on Kent, that renovated and became Mystiko Greek Kitchen six years back. And Theo’s on Richmond that became Oreks Souvlaki. And there were Aroma Meze’s attempts to bring Mediterranean small plates to West Wellington (and then a new name and family dining concept when that effort didn’t work). But it moved out, Supply and Demand shifted in and things have looked up.

The interior of EVOO is modern and warm. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

The interior of EVOO is modern and warm. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

But I hope Evoo sticks. Notwithstanding some concerns with the unevenness of the food, there is much promise here. For one, the place has avoided the classic clichés of ‘this is a Greek restaurant’ (nothing blue, not an ionic  column in sight) and for that we are grateful. The space is inviting, comfortable, in shades of beige and black, with modern angles and edges, softened with raw timber, Edison lights, tufted banquettes. There’s a handsome bar, where family and friends seem to be  perched, and where hangs a TV, and though I do hate those things in restaurants, this one’s not particularly intrusive.

 

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DESBRISAY DINES: The 2014 Canadian Culinary Championship edition

By Anne DesBrisay 

It may not sound like high praise, but when you are judging your nineteenth Black Box competition plate featuring cherries as one of the mandatory components, to have the praise of the entire table of judges (“this was hand’s down the finest use of those cherries”) is indeed noteworthy.

We were at the Canadian Culinary Championship 2014, held for the fourth year now in Kelowna, B.C. Eleven chefs were duking it out for the medals. Gatineau chef Marysol Foucault (of Chez Edgar) took those cherries — one of the six mystery ingredients in the black box — and fashioned a gorgeous gastrique. It was quite peppery, perfumed with mint and shot through with ginger. Every judge lapped it up.  Her proficiency with Champignons Le Coprin products was clearly evident too.  Christophe Marineau and Marie-Elise Trottier shipped the exotic fungi  — the gorgeous Lion’s Mane mushroom, which look like cheerleader’s white pom poms — to Kelowna from their farm in Farrelton, Quebec, to be tucked into the Black Box as the Ottawa-Gatineau contribution. Some chefs had worked with these mushrooms. Others had not. Marysol seemed utterly at home with them.

Marysol Foucault's final plate was a reprise of her delicious pork belly and rabbit pressé, with chestnut puree. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Marysol Foucault’s final plate was a reprise of her delicious pork belly and rabbit pressé, with chestnut puree. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

In addition to those cherries, which were sourced from Saskatchewan’s Over The Hill Orchards, there were Black Box ingredients from the Okanagan (organic parsnips and Sterling Springs whole chickens), Nova Scotia (honey butter), Fort Langley, B.C. (West Creek Farms whole trout),  and our own Le Coprin mushrooms.

The Black Box is the crack of dawn challenge number two. Chefs have ten minutes to study the ingredients and declare the two dishes they plan to create for the national panel of  judges, and a further fifty minutes to make and plate.

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