A long delayed roundup of Ottawa Dining...Petit Bills, Atelier, Murray Street Kitchen, and more.
All apologies for the long delay, but in an effort to give some feedback to those who helped me dine quite well in Canada's Capital city here are my thoughts:
The Gist: http://www.petitbillsbistro.com/
The Why: Knowing that I would be dining at Atelier that evening while my mother and aunt got some needed rest I decided to accompany them for their dinner before mine. Having presented them with a number of Ottawa options it was Petit Bill’s Bistro that caught their fancy.
The Reservation: Opentable.com, and all things being equal a reservation is probably a good idea as they seemed quite full throughout the night with many large parties.
The Space: The location could have just as easily been a home as a restaurant with small separate rooms, low ceilings, and dim (but not dark) lighting. Dominated in earth tones and a lot of red, including tablecloths, the lighting was certainly not ideal for photography – particularly as we got tucked into a dark corner…the worst seat in a place without many “good” seats to begin with. With walls decorated nicely by local artists and works for sale the restaurant was notably loud but certainly not ‘deafening’ – though after listening to the table next to us chat on their cell phones for >10 minutes I rather wished for deafness in my left ear.
The Service: Aside from the halfhearted greeting at the door everything went nicely in terms of meeting the restaurant’s proprietor who led us to our table and the service from a pair of young ladies who performed the perfunctory duties of refilling water, delivering plates with minimal description, and picking them up with total disregard for whether we had enjoyed what we just ate or not.
The Food: Complimentary bread and butter, 3 appetizers, 3 mains, 2 desserts.
Tomato, Parsley, Dijon Butter with House Baguette: Warm but soft throughout the baguette was more like a cross between a breadstick and a baguette and the butter, while light, was simply too mustard for myself – something my aunt enjoyed, particularly with the tinge of tomato.
Little Bill’s Crab Cakes: Ordered by my aunt these were described on the menu as “Two Crab Cakes lightly breaded & seared accompanied by a roasted garlic aoli & fresh tomato salsa” but with far too much filler and February ‘fresh’ tomatoes used to compose the salsa the flavor of this dish was really quite meager aside from the garlic and old bay used to season the crab-tinged dumplings.
Cod Tongue Croquettes: Fairing much better than the crab cakes my appetizer selection of 3 muscular and tender cod tongue croquettes served with spicy almond & roasted red pepper romesco would turn out to be a rather well crafted dish with a light salad serving to balance the acid and heat of the romenso while the batter on the croquettes was flavorful, though a touch oily.
Lobster Poutine: Without a doubt the best savory of the meal the only thing Petit Bill’s really had to nail in order to make this dish shine was the frites and that is precisely what they did – the crispy spuds holding up admirably to a rich mixture of chunked and shredded lobster, shellfish butter, and mascarpone. Crispy and creamy, sweet yet savory – it wasn’t traditional poutine, but it was delicious.
Sea Scallops: My mother’s main course arrived on a lengthy plate and featuring three pan seared scallops in a slick of Chelsea Quebec maple syrup & house smoked bacon I’d be lying if I said it did not taste delicious – it was sweet and savory with a touch of the sea – but with that said, with the scallops overcooked and essentially lost in the other potent ingredients I really did not get the ‘point’ of this dish at all. Adding a touch of levity with an almond spinach salad dressed in citrus vinaigrette I will say that the acid helped somewhat, but honestly this was just a bunch of disjointed ingredients on that plate that appealed to me the same way bacon and maple syrup would if it was served with something as simple as bread or scrambled eggs.
Lobster Pot Pie: My Aunt’s selection was a dish that SHOULD have been an easy success given its constituents of fresh lobster, winter vegetables, and fingerling potatoes…and yet it wasn’t. Marred by a combination of far too much potato and carrot, watery flavorless gravy, and an undercooked and doughy pastry top the only thing that really shined about this dish was the lobster – perhaps a single small carapace or a couple of small claws’ worth perhaps 1/3 of the pot pie’s actual pricetag.
Lobster & Pickerel Raclette: A $28 dish for which I had high expectations this was without doubt the best of the main courses yet even at that it still fell far short of its potential. Described on the menu as “Pickerel & Lobster quenelle topped with a white wine & clam buerre blanc served atop an Arctic surf clam potato rosti & topped with Pied de Vent Cheese” the highlight of this dish was actually the rosti – a savory concoction with notes of sweetness and the sea perfectly cooked like a hash...it would have gone great with breakfast but worked equally well at dinner. Moving on to the featured quenelles – they were dense, overcooked, and almost ‘chewy’ – nothing like the life altering version at Michel Rostang and despite the supposed use of lobster the flavor was pure pike plus the slight tang of the Quebecoise bleu.
Traditional Newfoundland Pound Cake soaked in authentic Newfoundland Screech: Where the mains failed the desserts certainly did not and although the portion was small, this dense buttercake soaked in rum with a small ball of rich cream at its side was the picture of balance. Boozy and buttery, dense but crumbly, and toothsome but mellowed by the cream I’ve no doubt one could make this at home without too much trouble but that didn’t detract from it one bit – I’d have gladly eaten a loaf (and likely ended up quite drunk.)
Bread Pudding with cranberry-raisins, white chocolate & crème anglais: If the Pound Cake was good, this was superlative. Measuring perhaps 1.5” x 4.0” x 7.0” but rich, dense, warm, and drenched in thick vanilla crème it was as simple as the previous dessert but an entirely different flavor profile, texture, and temperature – the pair together slight in portion but enormous in flavor.
The Verdict: While I’m not sure it is possible to go into a place you know little about with expectations that are “too high,” we all walked out of Petit Bill’s disappointed. From the lousy seats to the perfunctory service there was really nothing harkening the “down-home hospitality” proposed in their mission statement and while I guess the food was decent enough ‘homestyle’ food, the prices suggested the majority of the dishes should have been executed much better than they were – particularly as some were overcooked, some undercooked, and others simply poorly conceptualized or balanced. I’d go back for dessert, maybe, but considering the other meals we enjoyed in and around Ottawa it would have to be on someone else’s dime.
Murray Street Kitchen:
The Gist: http://murraystreet.ca/
The Why: …the comparisons to APdC, the fact that they are open on Sundays when the rest of Ottawa seems to button up, a strong focus on Canadian comfort foods, and an ethos focusing on local produce, cheese, meats…and a charcuterie program raved by pretty much everyone who has been there.
The Reservation: Opentable. No issues. The restaurant was ~1/3 full throughout our visit.
The Space: Think “Pub,” like the sort with a bar up front but add a lot of reclaimed wood, comfortable leather seats, exposed brick, and a decidedly porcine theme plus maple leaves and wicker taxidermy. Moody but not dark, heavy but whimsical, and rustic with a few industrial touches I liked the feel of Murray Street Kitchen a lot (though I will say the heavily inebriated party of three to the right of us left something to be desired.)
The Service: Hip but helpful, friendly and efficient…I’m pretty sure the bartender was the only server on duty that day and although plates came slow from the kitchen delivery was always precise with a great description of the dish including notes about sourcing and preparation as necessary. As a bonus, perhaps because he gathered we were Americans, our choice of the charcuterie board led to a few gifts from the kitchen to highlight the ‘best of what we didn’t order.’
The Food: 2 Drinks, House Bread and Local Butter, Charcuterie Board, 3 Apps, 1 Main, 3 Desserts.
House Bread and Butter: Served in a burlap bag and much like Petite Bills and Atelier a slightly spongy baguette with a good crumb and whipped butter, though I admittedly prefer more crunch to my baguette.
Charcuterie Plate: Opting for the 4 choice board we were instead served a half dozen items including Hunter’s Salami with Venison/Boar/Elk, Aged Niagara Prosciutto, Duck Liver Mousse, Elk Terrine, and Tomme de Haute plus Souer Angele. Paired nicely with the bread but also with Cornichons, Pickled Carrots and Cauliflower, Apple Compote, Blackberry Preserves, Red Pepper Marmalade, and Spicy Mustard all of the meats aside from the ham were made or aged in house and while both of the creamy Quebec cheeses were excellent neither could hold a candle to the rich mousse or the gamy terrine in my opinion while my mother and aunt raved the prosciutto – and much to my surprise the blood tinged salami.
“Ptit Dejeuner”: With my aunt an unabashed picky eater claiming ‘nothing’ on the menu sounded good she eventually settled on this appetizer and…well…as good as everything was that night at Murray Street this thing stole the show. Featuring pillow-soft potato pancakes topped with smoked confit pork belly and ashton harvest brown ale on top of “xo cheddar fondue” and garlic-infused maple syrup this au pied de cochon inspired concoction was sweet and savory, crispy atop creamy, and entirely over the top. A riff on breakfast both in name and concept with flavor to spare this was the sort of dish I’d expected when I made the reservation at Murray Street and for those not wanting to make the trip to Quebec I’ll simply say it was ALMOST as good as the best of what Picard is doing at APdC.
“Hearts and Bones”: Our second appetizer, my choice, was funky – almost too funky. Offalcentric to say the least and featuring pan-crisped gnocchi, roast bone marrow butter, capers, parsley, Elk heart, and Glengarry’s 22-month aged Lankaster Gouda (complete with rind) this was not a dish about balancing flavors but rather one about pungency in varying degrees using the three dumplings as a sort of anchor to keep the various elements from overwhelming one another and the diner – a goal only partially accomplished largely due to the oomph of the lactate emanating from the cheese. A good dish, particularly with regard to the crunchy-gives-way-to-creamy gnocchi and the smoky sapor of the elk heart the capers were simply too much and had to be left behind.
“Poutine”: At this point expecting nothing to be quite as it seemed this pasta dish arrived with fresh hand cut spatzle, shredded duck leg confit, ‘beast’ gravy, and Glengarry “Fen Squeaks” cheese curds...more mac n’ cheese than poutine, but I don’t think anyone complained one bit because from the buttery noodles and briny curds to the crispy meat and funky gravy this was decadent and delicious even despite the false advertising.
“Ian’s Pork”: The only item from the mains that we opted to try and although good, the weakest dish of the evening in my opinion. Beginning with a glazed and roasted shoulder of Mariposa Borreal Suckling Pig along with cured pork and Lugtread kielbassa I had no complaints about the quality of the proteins and was actually impressed how each came through with its own characteristic notes – what did not work for me was the accoutrements; a one-too-many-flavors amalgam of house made Hall’s Apple Jelly, yellow mustard, scalloped potatoes, smoked trotter broth, and Brussels sprouts. Understanding that the chef wanted to the flavors to pop and generally not one to favor mustard I really wish I could pinpoint this as what did not work, but really it was the whole thing – a fructose sweetness at first quickly muffled by brine and leaving behind a sort of acrid taste on the palate (though for the record I was the only one who noted this, and as the dish was ordered by my mother I was glad she enjoyed it and left me the sprouts.)
“‘Smores”: Our server had me at ‘kind of like a budino’ and true to his word this composition of Dark Chocolate Espresso Pudding, Graham Cookies, and Murray Street Toasted Marshmallow topping was lovely. Rich and thick enough to nearly resemble a cake in the chocolate layer and lightening up to an airy whip at the top each flavor including a bit of char came through with aplomb while the grainy notes of the graham layer – a sort of bread pudding – reminded me favorably of the budino at Vetri’s Osteria (high praise indeed.)
“Hall’s Apple”: As good as the budino was it did not stand a chance against this – a dessert that may have been the best of our trip through Canada. Featuring what was described as an Apple Pecan butter tart at its base this dense bread pudding was rife with both apples and butter plus loads of cinnamon and pecans and delicious even before someone decided to top it with Mike’s Caramel Ice Cream, Apple Cider Reduction, and Smoked Bacon. Generally easily sold on most things apple and anything bread pudding but not so much on the nonchalant use of bacon I will simply say that this was a case where the bacon worked – adding smoke, salt, and crunch to tame the otherwise intense sweetness.
“Carrot Cake”: Dense, moist, and seemingly flourless with equal parts nuts, carrots, and butter plus Cream Cheese Icing and Caramel sauce this was – well – really good carrot cake, no more and no less. Good, but certainly not as memorable as the other two desserts.
The Verdict: A great space with a great vibe and service befitting places far more fancy (and pricy) I would absolutely recommend checking out Murray Street Kitchen to anyone visiting Ottawa with a few words of advice: First – order the charcuterie and save room for dessert. Second – if a dish sounds too complicated or has too many ingredients perhaps think twice and order something else. Third – if the Ptit Dejeuner is on the menu, get it. And fourth, if you’re doing APdC and Joe Beef on the same trip make sure you go to Murray Street Kitchen first - otherwise I feel it might become a touch derivative even if, on the whole, it is still quite good.
The Gist: http://www.atelierrestaurant.ca/
The Why: A trained Sommelier who later transitioned to cooking only to work under the tutelage of Grant Achatz, Marc Lepine’s Atelier was the primary reason for a brief stop in Ottawa en route to Montreal from Toronto. With Lepine fresh off being named Canadian Culinary Champion after winning gold in Kelowna just a month prior I’d heard mixed about Atelier from people I respect and though I’ve generally found ‘mg’ to be rather hit and miss outside of Chicago the <$100 twelve course menu simply seemed too good to be true – the sort of thing I had to experience for myself.
The Reservation: With a dining room no larger than the average living room and tables well spaced so that a total of less than 30 diners can enjoy Lepine’s cuisine at any one time reservations are a must. I made mine by opentable.com over a month in advance for this particular Saturday and the only time available was 9:00pm, a late start for a 3+ hour meal – particularly after a drive from Toronto.
The Space: Sturdy wood tables, well polished and without tablecloths, plush seating and overhead spotlighting, crayon drawings on the wall, and a gleaming kitchen in the back – think wd~50 but smaller, Alinea but less serious – cozy but not at all stuffy.
The Service: Considering Lepine’s elaborate compositions I was absolutely stunned by the quality of dish presentations – not only from my primary server, a smiling young woman named Jamie – but also by two additional male servers and the Sommelier. Rapid but not rushed and clever without pretense I thoroughly enjoyed all of the servers and the tongue-in-cheek mannerisms that played into the evening’s theater.
The Food: Complimentary Bread and Popcorn, $95 12-course tasting, plus $30 9-course half-pour wine pairing by request ($60 9-course full-pour pairing also available.)
Bread with Tube Butter and Black Truffle Popcorn: The whimsy started quickly as a soft loaf of sliced bread arrived with a tube of what appeared to be Acrylic paint – or aerated butter in a tube. With a pliable crust and spongy crumb I can’t say the bread was anything to brag about, but the butter was clever – gently sweet – and with a touch of salt. For the gluten intolerant, popcorn dusted with black truffle imbued salt was offered and after finishing the loaf I requested that instead as the table of regulars next to me raved it and, well…yeah, black truffles + butter + salt = best popcorn ever.
The Citrus Beet: With the menu served as a collection of clever titles but no further descriptors the onus is on the server to keep the diner informed, and that is exactly what Jamie and all of her colleagues did. For my first course, and a sign of the complexities to come, I was served Seared Tuna with Togarashi crust amongst a bed of beets, citrus, and spice including a compressed beet sheet, tangerine imbued with saffron, pomello cells, blood orange slices, Fuscia flowers, jicama, mellon, and beet balls, a yellow beet string, and a small Hazelnut “clump.” Inevitably a salad course but obviously much more texturally and visually appealing once you got past the presentation this was simply an excellent salad with good balance of earth and sweet plus a touch of heat from the togarashi and a mellow cooling effect from what I’m guessing to have been a goat cheese holding together the hazelnuts.
The Codfather: Continuing the clever titles (and showing a fascination with cinema that would recur through the night) this dish would be one of the standouts of the evening as Sous-Vide Salt Cod was presented in a bed of Asian ingredients including a soy/mirin Reduction, lotus root baked in brown sugar, a crisp of Chinese Five-Spice, soy ‘paper,’ shredded aged tofu, and whole edamame, snap peas, cilantro, wasabi greens, scallions, and ginger. Another salad of sorts, but this time far more savory than sweet each bite was a different experience from the last and save for one particularly briny bite of the soy paper everything worked nicely together, the salt cod acting as an anchor to various tastes and textures.
2007 Domaines Schlumberger Grand Cru Kessler Riesling (Alsace, France) – Generally thinking of Riesling as sweet I was surprised how much I liked this. Lemony at first and rich without much sugar at all I really enjoyed liked how the acid balanced out the salty aspects of the dish.
Liver Let Die: How do you get chicken liver to be as smooth and creamy as foie gras? Apparently you take chicken liver, make it into a mousse, then freeze it and crush it. Take that composition, now room temperature, and place it next to a pair of purees - mustard and “chicken pot pie” then add in some buckwheat brioche, fermented garlic, plum and rhubarb cooked in Grenadine, julienned apples, and finally some chives and what do you get? A big, fussy, overly complicated plate of delicious…something that could certainly have been accomplished with far fewer steps (and perhaps a few fewer ingredients) but the kind of dish where the variety itself acted to make each bite as compelling as the last.
2007 Cave de Turckheim Grand Cru Hengst Gewürztraminer (Alsace, France) – a touch sweeter than the Riesling and a lot more smoky this was another great pairing with the fruit tones acting to compliment the liver while the more subtle earthy notes worked well with the fruits. Another really excellent pairing that somehow managed to work with a rather diverse plate.
Crabby Caesar: …and then there was this, when the complication became almost obscuring. Described as a deconstructed Caesar salad…with half of a soft shell crab that was deep fried and dusted in celery salt…the rest of the plate consisted of tobasco habanero meringue, clamato gel, anchovy mayonnaise, Israeli cous cous with Worcestershire, fried capers, olives, lemon and black pepper cookie crumbles, Meyer lemon marmalade, house made cocktail sauce, pickled celery, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, artichoke chips, opal basil, hummus, and finally smoked paprika taihini. Generally capable of teasing out the finer points of a plate this was a case where there was simply too much going on – sure the overall taste was good there simply was no way to appreciate everything going on, except perhaps the crab; perfectly crisp on the exterior giving way to a sweet, nearly melting interior.
2008 Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling (Niagara, Canada) – Bringing the sweetness up a peg this local Riesling from what was reported to be the oldest vines in Canada was probably my favorite wine of the evening, a rich dry flavor with a lot of fruit and a bit of mineral. Trying to refresh my palate between bites of the crab (in order to perhaps appreciate the nuances more) I finished my half-pour quite quickly and was replenished without request – a nice touch.
Lego: For course 5 a dish previously called the “Tomatrix” was delivered and while the concept was certainly a novel one I have to say the execution was the worst of the night. Essentially a construction project with a goal of building up to a total of 100 ingredients by adding one on each day I happened to be there on Day 9 and as such received a gazpacho sphere with jicama disc, spruce tip, yellow pepper puree, cucumber, tomato, purple basil, cilantro, celery salt. Tasting like a bloody Mary minus the booze but with a bit of pine there was nothing here that really fit my palate even if the idea itself was an interesting one.
#ccc2012 Culinary Championship: At the midway point I’d see Chef Lepine’s award winning dish, a superlative “surf and turf” consisting of a seared sea scallop juxtaposing a deep fried Chorizo meatball served over truffled pommes puree, and topped with bacon powder and bacon bits, fennel pollen and dehydrated fennel, plus lemon-thyme shallot sauce, lovage, and a compressed celery sheet. Complicated, but not simply for the sake of complication I particularly loved how the aromatic potatoes melded the sweetness of the scallop and the spice of the pork while the aromatics of the fennel and shallots hid in the background lingering on the finish.
2009 Hidden Bench Chardonnay (Niagara, Canada) – Light but a bit ‘oaky’ for my palate this was my least favorite white of the evening yet considering the savoriness of the course with which it was paired the flavor certainly was not ‘bad,’ particularly as it related to the meatball.
Marrakesh Express: Probably my favorite course of the meal this presentation of sous vide leg of lamb in ‘Moroccan spice sauce’ along with goats cheese, chickpea croquettes, pistachio eggplant puree, green garlic foam, garlic confit, and pureed date was essentially a modernist take on the traditional tagine. At times sweet and at others spicy but at all times aromatic and texturally compelling I particularly loved the croquettes – crunchy bites of chickpeas with a nearly liquid center making the bites of lamb all the more flavorful when taken in succession.
St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout (Quebec, Canada) – I tried. I swear I did. I just can’t drink beer – especially Stouts – and one sip was enough to confirm that I didn’t want to ruin the rest of the meal. I’m sure in some circles this makes me less a man, but I guess I can live with that. For what it’s worth, the fella at the table next to me had nothing but raves.
The Boar Identity: Moving on to the first of two locally sourced wild-game courses, another outstanding presentation would arrive featuring wild boar belly from Mariposa Farms (a place we’d visit < 12 hours later,) alongside white bean and tomato cumin puree, pickled shallots and purple cabbage, caraway seed ‘gel,’ diced potatoes, jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro, and a deep fried plantain. Complex and unexpected in many ways with the protein itself almost acting as savory seasoning to the fruits and vegetables on the plate I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the pickled components and the sweet plantain plus the aromatic puree – the cumin particularly rising to the palate and working particularly well with the smokiness of its wine pairing…
2009 Cave Spring Dolomite Pinot Noir (Niagara, Canada) – The best pairing of the evening, in my opinion, this was perhaps the best red I’ve had since Paris – a rich and fruity Pinot with a lot of richness in the mouth that dazzled with the diversity flavor profiles from the aggressively flavored plate with which it was paired.
Elka Seltzer: The final savory of the evening, course nine, would show Lepine’s fondness for the immersion circulator again – this time with an intensely mineral and earth presentation of blood-red elk tenderloin rolled in black trumpet mushroom crust. Fork tender and full of flavor with an accompaniment of trumpet, maitake, and hedgehog mushrooms plus celery root puree and chicken stock enriched with dark chocolate this was the sort of dish where each bite teetered on the edge of ‘too rich’ only to be pulled back temporarily by pearl onions rendered in red wine vinegar and figs, both adding much needed levity.
2008 FitaPreta Tinto (Alentejo, Portugal) – Smooth and aromatic with a distinct earthiness and a sort of coffee undertone that worked beautifully with the chocolate stock and minerality of the elk this was another great pairing but having now been eating for the better part of six hours and drinking quite a bit more than usual I have to say this glass weighed quite heavily on me, both in the belly and the brain.
Parsnip Cake: Assuming nothing ordinary of the desserts I was surprised by the lack of clever title, but with a dense coffee cake made from mashed parsnips as its base this certainly was not a typical dessert. Semi-sweet but more so buttery and savory the cake was garnished with dehydrated parsnip chips and crumble parsnip cookie for texture plus brown butter powder, caramel, pineapples poached in vanilla, birch sugar ice cream, and finally the zest of Keffir lime to form an almost tropical flavor profile. Interesting and far more delicious than other vegetable cakes I’ve had at Schwa and Ko I particularly liked the ice cream here – a light mint that worked well with both the heft of the cake and particularly the lime.
2007 Villabella Fiordilej Passito (Veneto, Italy) – A sweet white poured sparingly this was an interesting wine as it was certainly a ‘dessert wine’ but far less sweet than the one that would follow, a sort of honey flavor at first but then a flavor that sort of reminded me of peanut butter.
What Lies Beneath: Anticipating another fruit-based dessert for course 11 I was partially correct when this one arrived featuring a “frozen passionfruit noodle cage” but also somewhat surprised when it was served over top of frozen chocolate ganache crumble, dark chocolate cookie crumble, Jack Daniels meringue, tonka bean yogurt, buttermilk, and spicy almonds. Apparently formed into a gel and frozen with a liquid nitrogen stream as it was piped the ‘cage’ was intensely tangy and slowly melting while the amalgam below of dark chocolate was made rendered even more bitter than usual by the whisky-laced puffs. Toying with both extremes of the taste spectrum while using the smooth yogurt and peppered almonds as a sort of bridge the final surprise of this dessert was the inclusion of pop-rocks – an unannounced guest that left everyone in the room smiling. All things being equal I can’t say this was the best dessert I’ve ever tasted, but it was definitely one of the most unique.
2008 Konrad Wines Noble Two (Marlborough, New Zealand) – With a dessert so wide ranging it seemed logical for the sommelier to go over-the-top sweet with the pairing and while I think an ice wine would have been more appropriate (being in Canada and all) this tropically flavored Riesling blend certainly did not lack in the expected sweetness or smooth mouth feel, plus it brought the added perk of a sort of oaky finish that worked nicely with the spice from the almonds.
Mental Menthol: The final bite of the evening, this presentation of icy menthol in a white chocolate sphere was paired with raspberry sauce, individual raspberry ‘kernels,’ and dehydrated lemon meringue was a breath mint to rule all others – both the flavor and the temperature numbing to the mouth and leaving behind the faint linger of a lemonhead candy.
The Verdict: Obviously a shock n’ awe sort of restaurant, Atelier did an admirable job of offering both food and fun with a service staff that fit Chef Lepine’s whimsical sense of humor to a t. Seemingly out of place in a Canadian landscape where molecular cuisine is not nearly as widely embraced as in the United States or Europe I think Atelier fills an important gap in the local food scene and while some dishes were seemingly complicated simply for the sake of being complicated most of them offered something delicious while all of them at least brought some interesting technique to the table. Certainly not the ‘destination’ restaurant that many of world’s best ‘mg’ restaurants have become I particularly appreciated the half-pour wine pairings, an educational opportunity for someone with quite a low tolerance featuring some things I’d have never opted to try otherwise and I would definitely return if I should ever find myself back in Ottawa.
Beavertails, SuzyQ, Art-Is-In, Stella Luna, The French Baker:
While obviously not the dining destination that is Montreal, two and a half days in Ottawa would find my mother, aunt, and I nicely sated by a pair of the capital’s best restaurants as well as some of the finest bakeries in town. Never one to shy away from sweets, whether for breakfast or for snacks each of the five stops was pre-planned based on the recommendation of friends and ‘foodies’ alike and whether an effect of modest expectations or the fact that each stop was truly quite good I have to say we came away quite impressed with each.
Beginning first with the famous, a stop at Beavertails seemed essential to the trip and after some discussion as to which location (and which Beavertail) was best we opted for the Byward Market location where a single coffee and a “La Quebecoise” with Maple Butter were ordered, prepped, served, and consumed in less than 10 minutes. Stretched and fried, crunchy on the outside and pliable within, sweet and large enough to share the overall experience was really no different than an elephant ear at the fair but the addition of the Maple Butter and eating at the original location are definitely something I’d recommend – though I cannot say the same for the coffee which was acidic and thin, like Tim Horton’s but slightly less bitter.
Moving next to more fried dough – and perhaps the most surprising stop on our brief stay – a spot called SuzyQ Donuts was recommended to me by a fellow gourmand and with the warning of “don’t let the outside dissuade you” I put the small shop on my list. Open at 9:00am W-Su and told that arriving early was a good idea since the best items sell out quick we did as suggested and arrived at 9:05 – the third group to enter the shop where familiar bakery smells wafted through the air and a friendly young man greeted us and told us which of baker/owner’s Susan Hamer’s decadent treats were on the menu for the day.
At $2 each or a half-dozen for $10 the decision for six was obvious but with such a variety of yeasted treats available the decision became which of the nine daily options sounded *least* good – a challenge that left scratching our heads for a while before making our choices, paying the modest tab, and making our way to the door with a bounty of Maple Bacon, Caramel Gravel Road with Pecans, Hibiscus Rose, Salty Caramel, Vanilla Bean Glazed, and Chocolate with Caramelized Fritos.
Obviously focused on less than traditional toppings but using a traditional European yeasted dough with plethoric rise yielding a delicate texture each donut was largely the same in texture thus leaving the toppings as the deciding factor and although I generally fancy a cake donut over the raised and glazed variety I will simply say that short of Doughnut Vault in Chicago and *perhaps* Dun-Well in Brooklyn these were some of the best leavened donuts I’ve ever had – the four sweet meets savory juxtapositions all showing a degree of balance oft reserved for more ‘refined’ desserts while the flavors of the vanilla and floral options were subtle, allowing the quality of the ingredients to shine. Unabashed in my love for salty caramel I will say that overall I probably enjoyed the Gravel Road the most of the group but at the same time, it would be hard for me to deny that the dense chocolate ganache flecked with Fritos that tasted as if they’d been crossed with Corn Pops was also ridiculously good. Sure some would say that a trip to Ottawa without Beavertails is a crime, but honestly if I could only have one fried treat during a trip to Canada’s Capital I’d be visiting 991 Wellington Street five times out of seven (and that’s only because SuzyQ isn’t open Monday or Tuesday.)
Moving on to the most well-known boulangerie in Ottawa (and supplier of many of the local bests’ breads) our trip to Kevin Mathleson’s Art Is In almost did not happen due to a GPS Glitch and the bakery’s location amongst a number of loading docks...and that would have been a damned shame because from French pastry and viennoiserie to American staples like cookies and cupcakes, plus sandwiches, eggs, and griddle items this was the sort of place I knew would be good walking through the door.
With baking space behind a rack of baked breads to the right, freely refilled coffee and water up front, and seating pretty much – well – wherever they can fit it the scene at Art Is In is most certainly ‘controlled chaos’ and even arriving just after opening the place was crowded (and soon to develop a line snaking out the door) as the crew of ten worked behind the pastry counter to the left. Set to divide and conquer as mom found a table my aunt and I approached the counter and ordering as we walked we quickly realized we had ordered too much yet at the same time we also didn’t mind as nearly everything could be packed ‘to go’ according to our server.
With baked goods in hand as brunch items were prepped we filled our coffee mugs with a nutty and rich blend before returning to the table and on sitting down to indulge we began with a quartet of a Pecan and Walnut Sticky Bun, a Pecan Tart, a Raspberry Scone, and an Almond Croissant. Beginning first with the Croissant – a measuring stick of any bakery for me – I’ll admit that I first wondered if we had made a mistake as the first bite struck me as dry and dense, but once I got into the body of the pastry things certainly improved as the flaky shell crackled lightly while the inside was moist and flavorful, though certainly not as wispy as some of the best I’ve had. Moving next to the remaining options, let’s just say I think I got a bad croissant because each of the later choices were standard bearers – the bun rife with butter and raisins with the nuts wound into its core, the scone buttery with pockets of sugar juxtaposing softer pools of butter and berries, and the tart featuring a crisp crust and dense interior with sweetness held in check by the toasted nuts.
As we worked on the pastries a young woman with lots of ink arrived with our hot dishes and boldly announced that she thought we may have over-ordered (truth, considering the day’s eating agenda) but delivering the bounty too much immediately seemed like ‘just right,’ beginning with a perfect Croque Madame served on buttered white sourdough alongside a bright salad kissed with light vinaigrette and followed up by two sweeter selections; Hot Cross Bun French Toast with sauteed honey pears, a skewer of melon, and pure maple syrup plus hose made Cranberry Nine-Grain Bread Pudding with cocoa nibs, caramel, and crème Anglaise – both stellar examples of what happens when you take superior quality bread and smother it with house made concoctions of butter and cream, the bread pudding especially praiseworthy given the heterogeneous texture created by the toasty crusts and caramelized interior.
As a brief interlude between lunch and dinner a quick stop for gelato seemed appropriate and with mother and aunt attending mass I made a quick drive to Stella Luna Gelato – a place I’d heard was ‘good for Ottawa,’ thus making it seem to me a safe bet after SuzyQ and Art Is In both stood up admirably to donut shops and bakeries I’ve been to in other cities.
Part coffee, part café, and mostly gelato Stella Luna is shockingly large on the inside and with friendly employees and plenty of seating I took my time making my decisions and after asking for a few tastes (including a particularly boozy “Rum Raison”) I settled on a trio of Biscotto, Piemonte Hazelnut, and Ferrero Roche – each shining examples of their hallmark flavors with notes of anise and almond in the biscotto, smoky aromatics abound in the hazelnut, and the Ferrero Roche the best of all – a flavor identical to the signature truffles. With each hand made creation intensely flavored and densely packed with a texture as smooth as soft serve Stella Luna would once again prove that ‘good for Ottawa’ often means ‘good’ without qualifications.
Moving on to our final stop in Ottawa, breakfast before heading to Montreal, a prelude of all the French food to come was found at “Benny’s Bistro – The French Baker” where our 8:00am arrival was greeted by not only a plenty of sunshine, but friendly servers (and clients) chatting in French as two men worked in back kneading, folding, and baking myriad classic pastries and viennoiseries with top quality ingredients including Michel Cluizel chocolate, organic whole milk, and large mounds of locally sourced butter while the air smelled heavily of vanilla, cinnamon, and Illy coffee and espresso.
Realizing that the Montreal dining agenda was packed and curbing our order accordingly the selections of the day would feature a quintet including two croissants – butter and almond – plus a blueberry scone, pain aux raison, and finally a Chocolate Éclair. Beginning first with the almond croissant – always my personal barometer of a bakery’s quality – much like Art Is In I was disappointed…the crumb too dense, the almond flavor resigned only to those topping the pastry, and the quality simply lacking…yet just like Art Is In Benny would rally back with aplomb, first with a scone nearly equal to that of Mathleson’s and then with a butter croissant that shattered on mastication revealing ample notes of butter, a dense yet fluffy interior, and plenty of nuance from tip to tip making me wonder just where they’d gone wrong with the almond version to begin with.
Moving next to sweeter options, the pain aux raison selected by my aunt would prove to be perhaps the best version of the pastry that I’ve ever had with a boozy (rum, perhaps?) sugar glaze overlying a soft choux base with custard center and plump raisins – in any other situation it would have stolen the show and here it would have too if it weren’t for the chocolate éclair, a suggestion from the young lady at the register. Generally not wowed by éclairs or one to order a chocolate pastry at breakfast I will first admit that I am not an expert on the subject, but with that noted I’ll simply say that what we received was nothing short of ‘wowing’ – the choux crisp yet wispy with a bit of choux and the Cluizel 45% milk chocolate interior nicely paired with a 72% cocoa ganache on top with the end results creamy and sweet yet just slightly bitter; a lovely match the strong coffee and a perfect send-off to the boulangeries in Montreal a few hours later.