DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Hot chocolate at Truffle Treasures

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

Actually, DesBrisay Doesn’t Dine. At least not this week. For as long as I’ve done this job, I have resolved that pre-Christmas reviews must be charitable. They must be gifts. And about the places I’ve been lately I am nothing but grumpy: An Italian restaurant of long standing with graceless service, phoning it in and charging a big bill; a west end Indian restaurant where the flavour and fragrance are lacking; and a new place I’ll return to in a few  weeks, hopeful the kinks will have been worked out.

And so I’ll tell you instead about chocolate. Liquid chocolate to be precise. Belgium Callebaut dark chocolate bars — imagine it — melted into steamed milk that’s been infused with fresh ginger and orange zest, served in a big blue mug, straight up. Unadorned with cream. (I’ve never liked the peaks of cold whipped cream chilling the upper lip, undoing the effects of the warm creamy molten chocolate beneath.) There were other options for infusions — Aztec, with chilies and cinnamon; hazelnut; caramel; mocha; pumpkin; peppermint. And there was hot chocolate unembellished, milk, dark or intensely bittersweet.

Truffle Treasures is now owned by Céline Levo, of the great (Calgary-based) company, Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut and the newer Cococo Chocolatiers (of the ‘Good Clean Fun’ brand of bars and biscuits).

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Levo, it seems to me, after downing my hot chocolate and treating myself to a box of six truffles (for the walk home) has continued to honour the impeccably high standards of Truffle Treasures’ founder, Lara Vaarré, who opened her flagship Westboro business in 2002, and its sister location on Bank Street in 2007.

Lara died, far too young, on Boxing Day 2012. But I’d like to think she’d be pleased with the caring hands still crafting the exceptional TT chocolates, and pouring the sort of luxurious hot chocolate that makes you very jolly indeed.

Hot chocolate, $5.50
Truffle Treasures
314 Richmond Road, 613-761-3859
and 769 Bank Street, 613-230-3859
truffletreasures.com

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Juniper Farm’s smashing sauerkraut

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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Juniper Farm’s sauerkraut. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Kale is so yesterday. At least that’s what the smarty-pants people who purport to know these things are telling us.

The it vegetable of last year is losing its lustre. It’s worn us down with its perfect properties. I grow weary of seeing a kale salad (often requiring 68 chews per forkful) on every restaurant menu. With any luck it’s taken its toll on chefs as well…

We are supposed to be ditching kale, apparently, in favour of its cousin. Cabbage is the new sexy veg.

My grandmother would be laughing her head off. She grew many heads every year and dutifully put down the cabbage crop in brine.

But did she ever think to mix it with beets? Or fennel? Or with salted shrimp and fish sauce and menacing little red chilis? If she had, I might have eaten it.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Asian Alley

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 DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

Here’s to the curative powers of a steaming bowl of fragrant pho. The head throb eases, the throat is soothed, the spirit lifted, and the wallet lightened (but just a little).

The trick is finding good pho. The sort that doesn’t lift the spirits temporarily and then keeps you up all night, jittering and guzzling buckets of water —  nor the kind that requires many squirts of hoisin and hot sauce to find flavour. Last week, deflated and defeated, post-Christmas shopping for man-boys, bags bulging with athletic socks, I discovered Asian Alley on ByWard Market Square. I plunked down at one of its three communal tables, ordered rolls and beef noodle soup, and within minutes I was a new woman.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

It’s mostly Vietnamese on offer at Asian Alley, but they toss in a pad Thai (plus something they call a pad Thai summer roll), to be competitive, I suppose. Must. Have. Pad Thai. It’s the sweet noodle plate that is to south east Asian restaurants what butter chicken is to all Indian. The star player, the blue plate special, the must-have-for-the-occidentals dish. Why? I have no idea. But Asian Alley distinguishes itself from all other Asian fusion type places in this city by what it doesn’t offer — specifically, a seven page menu — and by the uncommon depth of flavour in its pho.

And I suppose, by its penny floor. One hundred and fifty thousand now-useless pennies, repurposed, laid out by hand, beneath a shiny lacquer, surrounded by a commissioned graffiti skyline by local artist Sssnakeboooy and friends. (Check out this post on the Ottawa Mag Facebook page for a peek at the mural.) “I gave them free rein,” owner Hoang tells me. The long, narrow room vibrates with colour and edgy-charm.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

A steaming cup of Genmaicha tea (green tea with roasted rice) arrives with the grilled pork and chicken rice wraps. Clearly made to order, the meat is fragrant and warm (makes all the difference) within the soft packages. Lettuce gives them crunch, green herbs (basil and cilantro) lend perfume, and the peanut sauce is more savoury than sweet, clearly not made from the usual Skippy jar.

The food on the one page menu (hurrah!) was good enough to bring me back for dinner — Bun cha ca and lemongrass pork, firecracker shrimp, and vegetarian spring rolls. Plus another bowl of pho, the dark broth brimming with those warming spices, the chunks of meat from the flank clearly a cut above, the big blue bowl filled in with al dente rice noodles, shredded cabbage, carrot, bok choy, and Thai basil, served with a  side of chili oil. Full marks.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

We like the housemade fish cakes — thin medallions of minced fish and shrimp, flavoured with dill and chili oil — soft but with bouncy chew, though the shrimp within their over-sized crackling covers were small and tough.

The grilled meats had marvellous flavour. Boned and flattened, with big grand hits of lemongrass, ginger and garlic, the pork and chicken both had good char, and came with rice, salad and a bowl of nuoc mam.

Hydration (for now?) is restricted to juices, pop, and tea.

Soups, rice and vermicelli plates, $11 to $14

8 ByWard Market Square, 613-860-9889 www.asianalley.ca

DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Dumpling Bowl

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 Bubblicity Tea Shop on Somerset West once cornered the market on bubble teas. “But then everyone started doing them, and we began to lose business,” the young guy who delivers my lychee shake with squishy tapioca pearls tells me.

Don't worry, you can still get your bubble tea fix at Dumpling Bowl. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Don’t worry, you can still get your bubble tea fix at Dumpling Bowl. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

So the owner, I was told, munched his way through Montreal, came home deciding to change direction, and hired a dumpling maker for his shop.

Last fall, the Bubblicity Tea Shop reopened as Dumpling Bowl, with a food menu. Bubble tea lovers need not despair — customizable teas and smoothies remain on offer — but you can now pair your drink (nothing stronger than tea here) with nine varieties of handmade dumplings, served boiled or pan-fried.

We’ve scarfed down pork and cabbage potstickers (fried on one side), chives and shrimp (also fried), and ones filled in with zucchini, mushroom, and mung bean (boiled). The sauces provided may be housemade, but they could use some work: the peanut sauce is icky-sweet, the spicy mayonnaise nothing special. We splash on the black vinegar provided on the table and find it the best match with these doughy-treats.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Beef broth with ginger, Shanghai noodles, scallions, chiles, bok choy, and beef brisket. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We follow these with the house special soup, an aromatic beef broth filled in with chunks of ginger, fresh, chewy Shanghai noodles, scallions, chiles, bok choy, and marvellously tender beef brisket. Full marks.

Dumpling Bowl earns pretty high marks for ambience, too. Service is pleasant and food arrives quickly.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Dumplings, $6 to $7.50 for 10; $8 to $10 for 15.

Open daily from 11 a.m.

730 Somerset St. W., 613-845-0880, dumplingbowl.com

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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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

 

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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: Clover Food and Drink

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Clover's corn chowder. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Clover’s corn chowder. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

There’s a spartan look about Clover. High school chairs, bare benches, caged industrial lights, walls of open brick and plywood (sanded and varnished, but still plywood) are either indications of a work in progress, or the carefully considered props for the homespun look this new Bank Street restaurant seeks. It makes the warming touches — the pots of sage on the tables, the white linen napkins, the amber glassware — all the more appreciated. Come winter, the addition of some visual drama, some colour, (and certainly some padding, ahem), might help.

But the frugal decor and the bum-aching-bench whinging evaporate once the food starts to arrive. This restaurant is taking interesting culinary risks. And the pleasure of Clover is that the risks taste very good indeed.

Clover chef West de Castro — bee keeper, honey farmer, and most recently sous chef of Zen Kitchen — chose to work with smelts as her fish. Sourced from The Whalesbone, these were big (boned, floured, and fried) guys, and they were absolute champs. She set them on a warm salad of tomatoes, zucchini, shaved fennel, leeks, and cucumber, with black olives, fennel fronds, and a marvellous avocado aioli. A big hunk of grilled sourdough bread finished the plate.

After smelts we had a puffball. Have you ever seen puffball featured on an Ottawa menu? Neither had I. Paired with grilled broccoli and roasted fingerlings, the outer bits of the big white mushroom find had been cleaned and diced and fried up. These were meaty textured. The inner bits were surprisingly soft and creamy, almost custard like. Beneath the mushroom was a pea purée, and strewn overtop bacon, almonds, fresh sage.

Some dishes were less out there and no less pleasing. The corn chowder was gossamer, a great rendition of the classic late summer soup, with chewy lardons of smoked bacon bumping up the pleasure factor. A gazpacho was like slurping up the September-garden. It arrived properly chilled, with good acidic balance and well seasoned. Having drunk up an assertive marinade, bison flank steak was grilled to rare, sliced in thick chewy strips and set on wilted greens. It came with a hunk of very commendable corn bread.

Pea and lovage soup

Pea and lovage soup. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Lovage is an unloved herb. I can’t recall the last time I saw it on a menu, or tasted its distinct flavour. But there it was, featured in Clover’s daily soup at lunchtime: fresh pea and lovage. It was a regal green, with a pretty swirl of creme fraiche and a bump of snipped chives. The flavour of fresh peas was clear and bright, but so too was the parsley-like, celery-ish and slightly anise flavour of the herb. A panini that featured zucchini was more on the dull side, and though there were parts of the grilled romaine Caesar we enjoyed (the egg mimosa, say, and the terrific dressing), the unwieldy hunk of grilled baguette and the bitterness of the wilted lettuce meant this dish was less of a thrill.

But we were grinning again by dessert time. De Castro’s panna cotta infused with thyme and lemon, and topped with stewed peaches and rhubarb was simply gorgeous, with edible flowers, fresh raspberries, and chopped pistachio crowning the glistening custard.

At my visits the restaurant had been largely empty, but this will surely change.

Panna cotta. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Panna cotta. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Wines are all Ontario VQA (Niagara and PEC) and beer on tap is from Beau’s, Kichesippi, and Covered Bridge in Stittsville.

Clover is open weekday lunches but only Fridays and Saturdays for dinner.

Lunch mains, $8 to $15; dinner mains, $18 to $23

Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

155 Bank Street, 613-680-8803, cloverottawa.ca

DesBrisay Dines