Ottawa Visit: Dinners at Beckta and Whalebone Oyster House
I had heard of Beckta from watching an episode of Opening Soon on the Food TV Network but had occasion to be in Ottawa. I was in Ottawa for three days last week and decided to try it out.
On my first night, I was cold and wind blown having walked up Kent to Nepean from my hotel. I was warmly greeted by the hostess Adrienne and was taken to their bar where I had requested to be seated rather than taking up a table since I was dining solo.
I started with a glass of "Steve's Blend", a riesling chosen by sommelier/owner Stephen Beckta from wines produced by Cave Springs who are my favourite Canadian producer of this varietal.
My appetizer was an open face ravioli of braised oxtail and escargot with sundried tomatoes, a fine dice of sauteed pears and Ermite blue cheese [from the monastery in Ste Benoit-du-Lac in Quebec's Eastern Townships] fondue. They call it, perhaps not surprisingly, "Snail and Tails".
It initially seemed like a "curious" combination but was delicious. The crisp pieces of pear really added to the texture and taste. The only quibble I might have is that the ravioli was not as tender as I might prefer. I think gyoza wrappers may have been used rather than pasta.
For my main I was leaning toward the salmon or sablefish but then got "talked into" the chicken by Mark who was bartending while "putting up" with me.
I usually do not order chicken in a restaurant but this course reminded me that chicken done simply and well can be outstanding. Mind you, this was not particularly "simple". Pan roasted air-chilled chicken breast served with shaved black truffles over an oyster mushroom and squash risotto. The chicken was just done and the truffles were "intoxicating".
With the chicken I had quite a good Russian River pinot noir from the Crane Canyon Vineyard.
I really enjoyed my meal. The room itself is quite nice and early on was fairly busy for a Monday night. The staff were very friendly and accomodating in a casual but professional way.
On my last night I decided to return. I had not made a reservation but again was seated up at the bar. This time I was served by Lisa.
I decided on their house hot smoked salmon served with leeks, pea shoots, pesto and shaved bottarga over gnocchi. I did not know what bottarga was but Lisa explained it to me. Dried salted fish roe. It was quite nice and the dish itself rich. The gnocchi were nice soft "pillows" and the salmon very good.
The glass chenin blanc I had ordered, again from Cave Springs, was delicious with the salmon.
Even though I am heading out to Vancouver and Victoria next week-end I opted for the braised Pacific sablefish.
It arrived in a delicious braising liquid complemented by pitted Kalamata olives, diced preserved lemon [this was a real nice addition], red onion and saffron over what was originally a crispy lentil cake. I say originally because it softened up and became more flavourful as it absorbed the liquid. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, moist, flaking easily with its customary gentle flavour.
Vancouver's C or Victoria's Brasserie L'Ecole or Cafe Brio will be hard pressed to better Ottawa's Beckta when it comes to this fish.
This evening I decided to treat myself and had their cheese course along with a glass of dessert wine, chenin blanc from Vouvray and then some nice, nutty Madeira.
I will definitely be returning to Beckta if I am back in the Ottawa area.
The other night of my visit, tried Whalebone Oyster House up on Bank Street. Where Beckta was all soft colours and clean hardwood floors, Whalebone is positively "industrial". Lots of wood and red brick. Quite small with an open kitchen.
I sat up at its bar and chatted with the owner Josh, who I undersand used to be at Toronto's Rodneys before returning home to Ottawa.
I started with a half dozen good oysters from the east coast that were served on ice with lemon and a tray of various condiments including a first for me, a vinegar like shaker of Chivas Regal. There were also a number of west coast oysters but I prefer the flinty, salty taste and texture of those from the Atlantic.
Their menu [in paper and on the chalkboard] consists of some raw offerings of salmon and tuna, five or six small plates and four or five big plates.
I started with the salmon tartare which was delicious and rather than go the big plate route, opted for fried halibut cheeks and nice green salad with chevre. The other courses I saw go to other diners looked equally good. Fresh seafood with an Asian accent.
A decent wine list with a number of good ones by the glass. I started with a Sancerre and finished off with some Chardonnay Musque from Cave Springs. This visit should have been sponsored by Cave Springs.
Three good meals all in all.
Thanks for the review Bob Mac. I've been a big fan of Beckta since my first visit, and am glad to see you appreciated its charms. Stephen Beckta has put together a superb resto, and not just "for Ottawa." I've brought out-of-towners from Europe who would rank the experience in their top 10. I think a big part of the appeal is the warm, attentive but not smothering service, and the knowledgeabilty of the staff, from Stephen right down to the servers and even the "bread boy" about the wine and food they serve. Michael Moffat's cooking is definitely worth going back a second time!
As you may know, Steven Vardy was the opening chef at Beckta before recently moving to Whalesbone. There is a bit of the celebrity chef taint to him, but his food at Beckta made that restaurant one of my top spots. I've yet to try Whalesbone under his tutelage, not least because a recent review mused that the menu seemed a tad overpriced. Any other Ottawa 'houds care to share their 2 cents?
You have summarized my impressions of Beckta very well.
I complemented one of the servers and she mentioned that they all like to work there.
Same as you say with the staff and their knowledge about the menu and offerings. No question Stephen was "training/educating" my bar servers on the go with regard to what they might offer. I got quite a "kick" out of him because he was a "whirling dervish" rearranging tables, speaking to guests, instructing servers, etc. Good restaurant owner in my books.
You mentioned the bread . Their mulit-grain baguette with fennel accompanied by carmelized butter was supberb....I had to tell the bread guy to go away because I could have easily filled up on that bread and butter alone.
Thank you, yes it is Steven Vardy's name that I was trying to remember.
Overpriced? Not in regard to what I had. Mind you I selected from their raw bar and small plates although I was tempted by one of their "big plates", the "raw" pan grilled Pacific salmon. The "big plates" were definitely more expensive.
The "big plates" were not cheap but their focus is fish and seafood so it is usually going to be expensive