DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: La Terrasse

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.

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La Terrasse slider trio. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Ottawa summers are short and options for dining outside – though many – aren’t all splendid. For every geranium-trimmed terrace, there’s a cafe with al fresco tables next to rubbish bins. The gentle season is far too precious to waste our evenings on shabby patios.

La Terrasse at the Chateau is one of the good ones. Sure, if you’re looking for action, head to Clarence Street, but for peaceful dining, on above average food, with a very fine outlook, it really can’t be beat. Sheltered from the busy-ness of the capital, it affords truly lovely views of it – and of the sun lowering over the Gatineau Hills.

It’s not perfect. There are no bookings; it’s first come first served. And you’re paying hotel prices for booze – and perhaps a hefty evening parking fee if you aren’t up for further-afield parking options.

But the menu comes from the Wilfrid’s kitchen and it’s a thoughtful, family friendly, summery assembly of dishes, starting with a grazing section of Ontario and Quebec cheeses and charcuterie (some house made, most from artisanal producers like Seed to Sausage and Niagara Foods). The balance of the menu offers a strong selection of fish and seafood dishes, meal-sized salads, and fun stuff like gourmet sliders and Chateau ice creams.

A first course Caesar boasted a lemony dressing, a fine anchovy flavour, delicious bacon, and benefitted from a light grilling, such that the tips of the romaine wedge had begun to wilt, but the core remained crunchy. A main course Lobster Cobb salad with avocado, hard cooked egg, bacon lardon and grilled corn came together just fine with hunks of Bleu Ermite cheese and a dill flecked dressing crunchy with mustard seed.

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Spicy tuna tartar. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The crab cakes were slightly on the salty side, but lightly packed and fish-dense, moistened with a caper-lemon-dill aioli. A trio of sliders seemed a good deal at 20 bucks. We chose the elk burger with pickled red onion and Glengarry’s Celtic Blue Reserve, the cod burger (battered, crunchy-soft fish, very nice) with an apple fennel slaw and a caper mayo, and the curried lobster and shrimp salad slider, which had no shortage of flavour. The buns were soft, sweet, and fresh. The spicy tuna tartar arrived missing the promised salmon roe, but not missing the promised spicy-heat, served with herbed crostini.

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La Terrasse pickerel plate. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

A flaccid skin is my only complaint with an otherwise splendid plate of pickerel, the fish very fresh tasting, moist and well-seasoned, served atop a Panzanella (bread) salad, which turned out to be something of a reworked Salade Nicoise, with crisp haricots verts, semi-dried tomatoes (to concentrate flavour) caramelized onion and the umami pleasure of black olives and anchovies. The bread bit was focaccia, grilled squares of day old, infused deliciously with garlicked oil. This plate was the star of the mains. Seared trout suffered from an onslaught of surface salt, while the peas in the overcooked risotto were cooked to grey mush.

We liked very much the panna cotta with July berries, tart with buttermilk in the mix, the light pudding enhanced with an ice wine glaze above and a grape gelée below. Full marks.

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Perfect panna cotta. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

For a more kid-pleasing dessert, look to the strawberry shortcake with house made strawberry ice cream, whipped cream and strawberries tucked in and around a scone.

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Sunset at La Terrasse. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Part of La Terrasse is fully shaded beneath a canopy, and the other part, closest to the stone railing, is exposed to the sun and wind. Hold on to your hats… and to your fifty-dollar bills. (We felt your pain, dear neighbours, as your money went sailing out over the Rideau locks.)

We stayed to watch the sun set, it was a good one.

Mains, $19 to $42
Open daily, July and August only from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., weather permitting.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier, 1 Rideau Street,
613-241-1414

DESBRISAY DINES: Carben Food & Drink

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.

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Not your basic beet salad — Carben Food & Drink. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Let’s start with dessert. Why not? It’s summer and we can break some rules. And boy, do we like dessert here. A lot.

Created by Carben co-owner and pastry chef Caroline Ngo, the sweet endings at this new Hintonburg restaurant speak of a chef unafraid of mining the sweet potential of vegetables and herbs. Or playing around with “shabby chic.”

Take the dessert called Cinnamon Toast Crunch: it stars a splendid sphere of bitter chocolate set in a shallow bowl. Beside the round is a dozen squares of the kid-cereal and some modernist pearls (agar agar jellied pebbles) of strawberry.

And then the still life delivered gets wrecked tableside — a jug of warmed almond milk is poured over top, melting the chocolate and trickling down to reach the cereal. This has two affects: the top of the ball retreats such that you may peer into its guts, and the dry cereal becomes breakfast! Inside the chocolate sphere is a blob of cinnamon crunch ice cream, a salted caramel sauce, a cinnamon streusel topping and hunks of a spiced almond cake. Once you’ve devoured that, you can enjoy the cereal in milk topped with ‘strawberries,’ or at least their concentrated essence. Very clever. Very yummy. And considering the work involved, remarkably priced at $10 bucks.

And then there’s the dessert that studies green flavours on a black plate ($9) — a scoop of chunky cucumber ice cream, melon-balls of compressed (marinated) honeydew, cubes of pickled cucumber (sweet and lightly sour), torn vanilla sponge-coral cake infused with matcha tea and shards of green meringue flavoured with mint. A splendid summer dessert, cool and un-sweet, created by a clearly gifted pastry chef.

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Scallops and pork belly. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

These were the fine endings to two very good meals at the one-month-old Carben Food + Drink. The only boo boo was an overeager hand on the salt grinder in the lamb roulade (a clever play on a bacon wrapped tournedos that ate like a sophisticated (though salty) meatloaf.

The kitchen is led by chef/owner Kevin Benes, husband of chef/owner Caroline (hence the name ‘Carben’ ). Benes is a former member of the kitchen brigade at Arup Jana’s Allium restaurant on Holland and before that, was chefing in Vancouver. In addition to having a spanking new restaurant, he and Caroline have a brand new son we learn. Which somehow makes her careful desserts all the more impressive…

The dinner menu is nine items long, four dishes to lead, five to continue. The very best plates were the starters.

Carben's mushroom salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Carben’s mushroom salad. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

One began with a smiley face swish of miso glaze and set above it, a composed salad starring mushrooms — smoked eryngii and lightly pickled wood ears. Among these were briny branches of sea beans (aka sea asparagus or samphire greens), plus chili oiled edamame and crunchy-soft bok choy. Dots of an aioli yellowed with turmeric and sprigs of purple shiso finished a plate of winning flavours and textures.

We liked as well the Salmon Carpaccio, the cured fish rolled in leek ‘ash’ (charred, dried, ground to a powder) served with an avocado mousse and nori chips.

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Carben’s Salmon Carpaccio. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

And then the endlessly satisfying marriage of crisped pork belly with seared scallops, their richness balanced with a vibrant chimichurri, softened apple wedges compressed with tequila, and a shredded salad of mango with the underloved tuber jicama.

A duo of beets was stunning on a blue plate – a pile of raw candy canes julienned, wedges of goldens, lightly pickled. They shared the stage with just-so steamed peas put back in their pods, dots of a lovely sheep milk yogurt and zig-zags of a watermelon mint purée. There were patches of puffed quinoa mixed with a sweet pistachio brittle and pickled petals of pearl onion. Something with heat here and there — a chili oil drizzle I think. Not your basic beet salad.

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Carben’s star — the Hake. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Among the mains, Mariposa Duck was bang on, as was the Veal Cheek with bacon foam and a wildly peppery red onion jam.

But the star was the Hake, a member of the cod family rarely seen on Ottawa menus. (And replaced with halibut at my second visit since the kitchen’s discovery of its questionable sustainability status.)

Sorry to report that the hake you may or may not be able to have here, was terrific. It arrived, firm, juicy, poised on a crunchy cake of arancini, topped with shaved and pickled heirloom carrots, and surrounded with baby bok choy and sweet little enoki mushrooms, all ringed with duelling sauces — a squid ink butter sauce and a lemony sabayon.

The room, by One80 Design, has built on what was here before (Burnt Butter) and taken it up a notch. The feel is clean and uncluttered, achieved with a modern palette of greys, mixed with shiny white tile, Danish low-back chairs and stools (from neighbouring A Modern Space), pale wooden shelves and tables, caged industrial lights. A scattering of homey touches warms the long narrow room – book shelves, eclectic curios, framed maps, photographs. Random yellow chairs add pops of colour. And though there’s no outdoor seating, on a fine summer night the street wall of windows opens and you are dining al fresco, protected with a roof overhead.

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Dining area of Carben. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

In keeping with the ultra-local concept, the handsome crockery here is all from Loam Clay Studio on Hamilton at Armstrong.

Service standards are high, the cocktail list is fussed over, at least two local beers are available on tap and the thin wine list is a work in progress. Having the food down pat, let’s hope they work on plumping it soon.

I’m excited by Carben. It feels a bit like a western Fauna, minus the party scene. I encourage you to book a table. It’s been far too quiet at my visits.

Mains, $24 to $28
Open daily from 5:30pm (late night hours Thurs. to Sat.) and for weekend brunch, 10:30am to 2pm.
1100 Wellington Street West, 613- 792-4000  

DESBRISAY DINES: Petit Peru

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.

Petit Peru on Somerset West. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Petit Peru on Somerset West. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

You used to have to climb a flight of stairs and dine beneath a mirror ball, skedaddling once the room began to fill with dancers. That was on Dalhousie Street, when Petit Peru shared space with the Discoteka nightclub. Today you find it in Chinatown. At least the Petit Peru on this side of the river. There is a small Petit Peru in Hull, the ‘Epicerie des Ameriques’ that was established three years ago by Jorge Bahamonde. And now this second one, relocated.

Jorge tells me, as he delivers my long thin plate of stuffed mussel shells, that this new location is about to have a new neighbour. It will be a Latin market. Soon, the Peruvian products he currently sources further afield, will be found just next door, to the east, on Somerset West. He seems pretty pumped about that.

Petit Peru's tamale. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Petit Peru’s tamale. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

It was a good lunch, though I could have used a friend to help me eat it. The ‘appetizer’ of warm tamale followed with a cold dish of steamed mussels presented on the half shell and piled on with good, tart crunchy stuff was plenty of food for a solo diner.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Mussels “a la Chalaca”. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Cornmeal dough stuffed with soft chicken spiced with cumin, garlic, pepper and Peru’s brilliant yellow aji marillo chili, arrived on the bananaleaf in which it had steamed, served with pickled red onion. And then the mussels: cooked, chilled, piled on with red onion, tomato, and with choclo, the pale yellow giant corn kernels with a winning chewy texture and nutty taste.

The menu is long, and I’ve mined only a titch of it. I’m looking forward to a return visit — with friends — to taste more of Petit Peru. And soon to shop at its neighbour.

792 Somerset St. W., 613-229-2868 

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Tomo

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.

Tomo interior. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Tomo interior. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Clarence Street is where people tend to go when they don’t care so much what they eat, so long as there’s a party vibe. We wander the street to soak up the atmosphere, gawk at the bikers and the beauties, then walk a block to Murray Street to dine well.

Clarence also has a long history of having a hard time getting eateries to stick. Lots and lots of turnover. But now there’s Tomo, which means ‘long time friend’ in Japanese, and for it we wish for some long time-ness. The food hits some high notes here and there. The room is a real beauty. And I’ve been hugely impressed with the friendliness of the service, led by part-owner Mark Ngo. What’s more, there’s no grating music to ruin my dinner.

Once home to two businesses (Wonton Mamma and a place called Spoon Frozen Yogurt Lounge) Tomo takes over both. A custom mural vibrates off one wall, a playful installation of sake barrels suspends off another, nautical ropes droop over the back booths. Harvested from the recycle, sake bottles are refitted into chandeliers. The room has a democratic seating arrangement that meets a bunch of needs — an inviting bar in the middle, high tops at the front, communal tables of polished wood that seat eight, and cosy back booths hidden from the patio action.

Salmon bites. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Salmon bites. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The Tomo menu is split in half — cold snacks from the sushi bar down the left side, stuff from the kitchen down the right. If you’re in the market for seasonal delicacies with complex layers of flavour and texture, you’re out of luck. This isn’t that sort of sushi. But for the usual suspects — lead by salmon, tuna, crab stick — the well-calibrated vinegared rice at room temperature with cool, fresh slabs of well-cut fish fit the bill. And the presentation goes beyond fake fernery and curly parsley. Golden beet chips, say, and some tiny pickled tomato lend eye-pop to everything.

Nigiri suishi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Nigiri suishi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Perhaps in the fullness of time the sushi and sashimi offerings will become more interesting. For now, the rice snacks and specialty rolls are adapted to Clarence Street palates.

We did find some treats among the appetizers. Edamame, the beer nuts of Japan (soy beans steamed in their pods) arrive lightly salted and go remarkably well with the Cool Cucumber cocktail the barman hands me — gin, aperol, cilantro, cucumber, lemon juice, falernum, yuzu, and lemon bitters … lovely! Then pinched and pan-fried gyoza, some stuffed with well-seasoned chicken, some with vegetable. Skewers of tender duck arrive dusted with shichimi togarashi (a peppery, citrusy Japanese spice mix). A dish called ‘salmon bites’ is pretty straight forward — sushi grade nuggets of fish cooked tataki style just to crisp them up, the flesh still rare and wobbly, dressed with a pleasant teriyaki sauce.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Soif — for lunch

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Mixed Marineau mushrooms (from Le Coprin farm) on toasted baguette. Served with a side of well dressed greens in bouncy condition. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

We add this one to The List of ‘Splendid Summer Patios on which to Drink and Dine Well’. It’s not a long list, so best take note.

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Soif’s back patio. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Soif is the Gatineau wine bar opened late last year by superstar sommelier Véronique Rivest, now with chef Jamie Stunt in charge of the kitchen.

You will remember Stunt from his days at Oz Kafe on Elgin Street. Seven years he laboured in that teensy space, putting Oz on the national stage when he and his team won the regional Gold Medal Plates competition in 2012, and then went on to win silver at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna the following year.

He also put Tibetan yak on the Canadian culinary map (from Rosemary Kralik’s Tiraislin Farm), and proved how well the Ashton Brewing Company can create a craft beer to match that exotic meat.

But those are stories for another column.

My first taste of Stunt at Soif was at a soup and salad lunch on that lovely back deck, shaded at noon with mature trees and with a view of some rooftop container gardening. Always a welcomed sight.

Stunt gave spring tomatoes some serious smack by smoking them before pureeing them into a rich red soup. It arrived seasoned well, lightly creamed, lightly oiled, topped with chives. Very nice.

And then mixed Marineau mushrooms (from Le Coprin farm) on toasted baguette. Garlic, onion, mushrooms, wine, dobs of ricotta and snippets of chive piled on good bread, then under the broiler until browned and burbly, served with a side of well dressed greens in bouncy condition. Does it get more perfect?

A wine was chosen to match by a charming server. Can’t for the life of me remember which one. But I do remember three ounces didn’t seem enough.

88 rue Montcalm, Gatineau, 819-600-7643, soifbaravin.ca

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Ola Cocina

BY ANNE DESBRISAY
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Ola Cocina’s plat campesino with pulled pork and a parking ticket. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Now, well into its second year, Ola Cocina has constructed a ‘tortilla tent’ so neither snow nor rain nor beating sun might slow down the business of al fresco pressing and grilling.

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Ola Cocina — Donna Chevrier’s little corner taqueria in Vanier. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Donna Chevrier’s little corner taqueria in Vanier continues to plate up two handed flavour bombs: tacos, enchiladas, tortas, tamales, cheese stuffed house pickled jalapeños, plus All Day Mexican Breakfast. Inside or outside. Rain or shine.

Particularly tasty was lunch last week, including Al Pastor tacos, the marinated pork cooked on a trompo, coloured red with achiote, soft, piquant, and tangy with pineapple. Quite a different animal than the pulled pork, with its creamier, richer taco mates and the gentle kick of the house jalapeño crema.

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Ola Cocina’s tacos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Duck confit and tandoori chicken tacos are a bit irreverent, but turn out to be winners. The duck comes with house pickled golden beets, dobs of goat cheese, and a cranberry coffee maple sauce that adds a sweet balance to the sour beets and bitter arugula.

The Alambre Plato is a heaped plate of steak — marinated meat, spiced up, grilled to medium rare with peppers and onions, bacon, mushrooms and house queso. It comes with rice, beans and guacamole. Tortillas arrive on the side, along with salsa verde.

On another visit — Ola Cocina’s Plato Campesino (rojo rice, black beans, mango salsa, pico de gallo, sour cream, pulled pork, jalapeno crema, pickled jalapenos, and a side of chips) is a well-balanced jumble of flavour and texture. I take it to go and eat it in the car, in the rain. It softens the blow of the Beechwood parking ticket.

Tacos, $4 each, mains, $12-$17
Closed Monday
62 Barrette Street, 613-746-6222
www.olacocina.ca

 

DESBRISAY DINES: The Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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The Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Yes, indeed, there were grumblings.

In late 2012 when news broke that The Whalesbone Oyster House group had bought the 1934 Elmdale Tavern, the bah humbugs about further gentrification of the Hintonburg neighbourhood and the muzzling of live music were loud and clear.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Mellos — still the same, but with better food

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Mellos’ Singapore Noodles with tofu — presented like the queen had ordered it. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

The last time I plopped down on a brown vinyl bench at Mellos it was for a Matthew Carmichael pop-up dinner. Before that, it was for bacon and eggs with some son-or-other’s soccer team — the full breakfast works, fabulously greasy, with a bottomless cup of thin black coffee, served with clucky no-nonsense charm by long time waitress (and manager) Leisa Bell (RIP).

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Mellos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

That was ages ago — back when Mellos didn’t serve things like the thing I had for lunch: Singapore Noodles, with tofu, presented like the queen had ordered it. All arranged just so.

Wide rice noodles — still with bite — carrots, daikon, bok choy, cilantro in a coconut-galangal-lime leaf-lemongrass broth with some chilli spirit, logs of fried tofu laid on top with a wedge of lime for some extra zing.

Very nice. I read my book while I slurped and gave silent thanks for the eclectic face of the modern diner, still gnarly, still nostalgic, still serving all sorts, meeting all kinds of needs, but now with better food.

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Mellos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Mellos has always been and continues to be found at 290 Dalhousie Street. It’s open every day from 8am till 9pm, 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. It has no website. 613-241-1909

DESBRISAY DINES: Share Freehouse

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.

Share Freehouse. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Share Freehouse. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Share Freehouse opened two months ago in a space that’s seen its share of turnover.

Three-two-seven Somerset was the long-time second home of the long-running French restaurant Le Metro. Then of the excellent-but shuttered-in-a-hurry Benitz Bistro. There were other attempts to fill it, but most lately, it’s where 327 Wine Bar used to be.

Share is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Thomas and Maeve McVeigh.

In the kitchen is Danny Mongeon, formerly of the (now-former) Gatineau restaurant, Brut Cantina, and the Rideau Street restaurant Hooch Bourbon House. At least he was in the kitchen for my first two tastes. At my final visit, just as dessert arrived, I learned he had left. About a week ago, maybe two, our server said.

Good grief.

It explained a lot — the long wait for food and well-off-the-mark pacing (they were also down one server, leaving a single hard-working, admirably unflappable man to manage the room and patio). But here’s the thing: once the food did come, it was still very good, with Mongeon or without Mongeon.

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

At Share Freehouse, everything on the menu is up for sharing, from cheese and charcuterie to soup and salad, steak and pie. Over the years of sampling this direction in restaurants, I’ve decided sharing – with the exception of places like Table 40 with a family-style set menu — works better as a warm and fuzzy idea than it does in practical application. Sharing at a restaurant table is more natural with a life partner than with the boss. It suits twenty-six year old women more than it does sixty-two year old men. It’s easier to share a plate of cheese than a bowl of soup. And at most places with standard-sized tables, over-sized platters simply don’t fit well.

And then there’s the matter of sharing the bill. At Share Freehouse, the pricing is a bit confusing. The first price listed, closest to the dish description, is ‘For Two’. The next number is called ‘Plus One’. Single portions are available, though no price is given. So if you’re a table of six say, and three of you want to share the duck (For Two, add Plus One) and one wants a single sliders order (price of that is unclear, but turns out to be half of For Two, plus a few bucks) and all want Brussels sprouts (For Two, times 3?) how exactly that computes makes my head spin.

In fact, just seeing $32 next to ‘Cauliflower’ is a bit jarring. Granted, it’s supposed to be enough for two, but Share is asking for a serious leap of faith; it had better be the best damn platter of roasted cauliflower on the planet. Ditto for the investment in forty-two dollars worth of duck. What if it is overcooked?

In the end, we elected to share some starters and asked for individual mains and veg, which I noticed some tables around me were also doing.

But here’s the good news about the food: it’s really good. It started with a board of ‘Preserved and Cured’ — pungently smoked duck prosciutto, richly flavoured pots of duck rillette and Mariposa Farm pork creton, served with mustards, pickles and a sweet onion marmalade. House-made cranberry crisps were provided to ferry meat to mouth.

Charcuterie. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Charcuterie. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Then a beautifully balanced bison tartare. Beneath layers of crisped shallots and a rough chop of herbs was the puck of well seasoned, very lean raw meat, carefully cubed. Over this was a toupé of sunny yellow curls – grated, cured egg yolk, which added a salty, rich, eggy pop (and much more fun than parmesan). Boston lettuce leaves were provided for scooping.

A salad of ancient grains with puffed wild rice and beets was fresh, balanced, with yogurt lending a nice tang. The roasted cauliflower gratin ‘soubise’ (with a creamy onion sauce pooling beneath) came with steel cut oats, puffed wild rice, tart cranberries, and the same dill-parsley salad we had on the tartare.

Duck. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Duck with wheat berries, mushrooms, sour cherries, and jus. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 

Individual mains were an impeccably fresh and precise piece of trout and juicy slabs of ruby duck. The fish shared the plate with heirloom potatoes and fiddleheads; the duck with braised wheat berries, king eryngii mushrooms, pickled sour cherries, and a polished jus.

A dessert called lemon cherry curd arrived deconstructed on the plate — hunks of spongecake, a scoop of buttermilk ice cream, coral coloured blobs of lemon-cherry curd, dots of cherry coulis, and meringue in crisp, torn sheets. Very nice.

We didn’t try a cocktail — the bar was already taxed — but the bitters, cordials, syrups, and such are house made, and you’ll find quite the whiskey list here. There’s a good selection of craft beer, on tap and in bottles, and the wine list has enough variety to please, at prices that are neither kind nor overly unreasonable.

They were down the chef, a server, and a bartender on our final night, so service was a bit of a mess. Still, we ate well. If Share keeps that part working, perhaps the rest will follow.

Share Freehouse
327 Somerset St. W. 613-680-4000 sharefreehouse.ca
Daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.

 

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 Dines