Monday, July 25, 2016

The Middle East returns to Centretown

About a year ago I went to the Celtic Cross Pub on Somerset Street West, to do a Paint Nite with a couple of friends. I recall it as a fairly decent but not outstanding place, in one of those old brick houses on the strip between Bank and O'Connor. Thirteen months later, that space is utterly transformed into a gorgeous restaurant whose decor manages to be both exciting and serene. Fairouz is a rebirth of sorts; a restaurant of that name once occupied this house, but closed about a decade ago. I never ate there, but by all accounts it was a traditional place where you could get a meal like your mom used to make, if your mom happened to be Lebanese.

The new Fairouz is nothing like that. And I loved it from the moment I walked in. The subtle tile patterns repeated in various decor elements such as the wallpaper, the mural on the wall that leads up the stairs, and the amazing screen-wall of ebony wood that separates the bar area from the hallway while allowing light and a peek at what's beyond. Everything is white, black, or palest pink, with hits of deep teal for emphasis: a feature wall, the candleholders. Even the patio out front has been transformed, with a stylish black railing and filigree-iron hanging lamps that I was dying to bring home and use on my back deck. This is a restaurant I could live in.

Especially when the food is this impressive. At the suggestion of our kind and friendly waiter, we (two couples) began with a trio of delicious dips and stunning house-baked pita, still pillowy and piping hot. The labneh was simple and yet delightful, a cooling mix of thick yogurt, olive oil, cucumber, and za'atar, a divine spice blend that incorporates herbs, sumac, and sesame seeds. Baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip) was as perfect as any I've had in Montreal restos, gorgeously smoky and smooth with hits of fresh parsley to liven it up. I was also thrilled to see mouhammara appear on an Ottawa menu as it's a favourite of mine and something I make at home regularly. A blend of walnuts, bulgur, roasted red peppers, garlic, and pomegranate molasses, their version was chunkier than mine but dead-on perfect in flavour and spice. Each dip comes with two pitas; we ordered a couple of extras to scoop up every last bit of tasty goodness.

The dips hail from the half of the menu known as "grazing;" the other half is called "sharing plates" and consists of larger protein-based dishes, which arrive carved for easy distribution. Yes, this is yet another restaurant where sharing and nibbling is encouraged. You can certainly build yourself a traditional three-course meal here (just order one app, a sharing plate, and dessert), but why would you, when you can try even more items by sharing with your friends?

As a midpoint between apps and mains, we ordered a plate of perfectly-executed sesame-crusted falafel to share between us. An order is four of the crispy fried chickpea fritters, which when cut open are green with herbs (parsley and dill, I think) and sit atop a pool of dill tahini, garnished with thin slices of stunning watermelon radish tossed in spicy harissa dressing, as well as some truly adorable microgreens. All of those greens and herbs, by the way, are grown in-house in a cultivator. It doesn't get fresher than that.

From the list of sharing plates, we selected the berbere-spiced duck breast and the sumac-glazed chicken, as well as a bowl of rice to share. Fairouz offers two rice dishes independently of the sharing plates, which do not come with starches. The savoury option is mujadarra, with lentils, caramelized onions, and spices mixed in; the jawahar rice we chose is the sweeter option, with pistachios, pomegranate, cardamom, candied orange, and orange flowers.

It was something truly special unto itself, even alongside showstoppers like the expertly-cooked duck breast, ruby red at the centre and lightly spiced, topped with dried sweet-tart barberries. The King eryngii mushrooms, baby squashes and beets, and dots of saffron Bearnaise microfoam were adorable and tasty accompaniments.

They say never order chicken at a restaurant, and yet early reviews of this spot all mentioned the chicken as a standout, so we did order it and were not disappointed. I have rarely had such a nicely-cooked piece of poultry, with sweet-sour notes from the sumac glaze and the date "leather" that sat alongside the meat. Impressive.

As promised, proteins were nicely carved and sliced for serving and sharing, and each person got a good sized piece of chicken and two or three slices of duck breast.

I should quickly mention the interesting cocktail list, the good selection of wines by the glass, and the thoughtfully curated beer choices. I had a glass of excellent Leaning Post rosé from Niagara with my apps and another of a medium-bodied red Barbera from Italy with the mains. Chris had a Summer Damask cocktail with pink pepper, rosewater, sparkling wine and elderflower liqueur that he found refreshing and perfect for summer, followed by a pale ale from Left Field brewery in Toronto. Fairouz smartly also has a short mocktail menu and a daily iced tea, which I always appreciate, as sometimes I have a migraine and prefer not to drink alcohol when I go out.

And now I will tell you that for dessert, Fairouz has house-made ice cream bars.

That night there were two flavours on offer: dark chocolate, dipped in more dark chocolate, crusted with pistachios; and coconut milk, swirled with dates, dipped in dark chocolate and crusted with toasted coconut. We ordered two of each flavour and traded a few bites with our spouses. These were AMAZING. Better by far than any Magnum or Haagen-Daas you've ever tasted. The ice cream was rich and luxurious, but not so much so that it left a coating of fat on my tongue. The chocolate coating shattered and melted perfectly in the mouth. The toppings offered the ideal textural contrast. My friend said "I wish I could just walk by and pick up one of these to go, anytime I wanted." Then one of the waiters inquired how we were enjoying our dessert, and informed us that the resto does in fact already have plans to sell their ice creams to the public. I can't wait.

There are two other desserts on the menu, and I bet they're both amazing, but for my money, on a summer night, you simply cannot beat an ice cream bar.

We left Fairouz on a floaty cloud of happiness and satiation, thrilled to the teeth with a Middle Eastern fine dining experience right here in our own city. Shawarma and other street foods have their place, and there's some incredible spots for that in Ottawa, but this level of cooking was missing from our food scene, and I sincerely hope that Fairouz will show others (perhaps some of our new Syrian residents?) that it can be done, and that people are seeking it out. I know we'll be back for more.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Pomeroy House: Excellent food, elegant space

The evening started on a high note, with the fries: a heaped bowl of golden, crispy potatoes, sliced a bit thinner than is usual, lightly salted, with an adorable pot of malt mayonnaise for dipping (a second soon appeared to supplement it). All six of the women at the table agreed on the superior taste and texture of these indulgent snacks. I was thrilled at the absence of truffle oil or salt, duck or goose fat, or oddball spice coatings: these were honest potatoes that had been done right by.

The second indication that the Pomeroy House would be a happy place to spend a Tuesday evening with friends arrived with the drink orders: plenty of interesting wines were available by the glass, as well as beer for those so inclined and, for me (nursing an annoying and lingering headache) a not-at-all boring fizzy lemonade, made in-house and nicely balanced. Kudos for offering a fun option for teetotalers and drivers.

That elegant simplicity persisted through the meal, with ingredients combined in complementary and interesting ways but allowed to shine individually, fresh, sharp flavours, and intense colours. Presentation was beautiful but never fussy; portions were fair, neither overly generous nor disappointingly restrained.

The menu is divided into snacks, appetizers, "mids," and mains, with that third option providing a smaller yet still fully-realized plate for smaller appetites or those hoping to try several courses. Options included meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and vegetarian options (the latter leaning heavily on mushrooms the night we were there; this writer loves them, but knows many herbivores who do not, something the kitchen might consider rethinking).

We tried our hardest to run the kitchen out of Fogo Island cod, with all of us save one ordering it from the selection of mids. The holdout ordered the "hot chicken," two glorious pieces of crispy fried bird laced with hot sauce, served atop a cauliflower puree and wilted kale. She pronounced it excellent, with the promised kick of heat.

That popular cod was not a disappointment to anyone and all the plates went back clean. A thick, gorgeously crisp seared rectangle of fish had clean and enticing flavours of the sea, a perfectly flaky texture, and a crackling finish from the pan. A soft croquette of smoked cod was smooth and punchy, balancing out the sharp green taste of a pile of wilted red chard leaves, while spears of just-cooked asparagus and tiny (no, really tiny) white turnips offered zing and a small pool of leek cream pulled the whole plate together. This is how really great fish should be showcased.

Thanks to the portion sizes, we all had room for dessert, for which I gave fervent thanks when a bright yellow Meyer lemon tart was placed before me. Adorned with crumbled toasted coconut and almonds, the shortbread shell held a smooth, soft, sweet-sour filling that made me long to live in California where the Meyer lemon (a cross between a regular lemon and a tangerine) is widely available. A scoop of honey ice cream, made on the premises, was a cool complement, but the real kicker was the dollop of chèvre cream, made from soft goat cheese, that turned the whole thing into a grownup dessert. I will say that the portions for sweets here make them ideal for sharing, but it wasn't a hardship to have it to myself.

The lone taker for the chocolate terrine found it to be delicious but definitely rich enough to require two mouths; the bite I snagged made me agree, though it was well-executed. I particularly liked the sponge toffee garnish that came with it.

This is, by the way, an elegant and welcoming space in which to dine. Set on  Bank Street in the heart of the Glebe, this long and narrow room was well-lit by a large front window as well as a dozen enviable pendant lamps constructed from heavy, cut-crystal decanters, each a different shape. The navy-blue walls contrast beautifully with the blond-wood tables (no cloths), and the chairs were blessedly comfortable (though I heard the banquettes were built for taller folk and could perhaps use a toss cushion or two to support one's back). The pale blue and grey, softly curvy ceramic dishes were lovely and unusual, a soothing change from ubiquitous sharp white squares and rectangles.

Our server, a young and enthusiastic man with a great smile, took excellent care of us and was both patient and kind; we even had a great chat about the best techniques for making crispy breakfast potatoes. Music in the room was set at the correct volume - audible, but only just - and included a variety of moody electro-pop that I quite enjoyed.

Overall, this is a casual luxe dining experience, on the level of Gezellig or North and Navy. Prices are fair for the quality and portions of ingredients, but for me (and for most) this is a special-occasion restaurant. One worth adding to your list of places to try, in my opinion. I think it's great now and I bet it will keep getting better as it ages, like a fine wine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A chance encounter with ramen

I spent last weekend in Toronto with a friend, and much delicious food was consumed. We kicked things off Friday night with luscious burgers from Big Smoke, balanced that out on Saturday with vegan lunch bowls from Kupfert and Kim, and by Saturday night we were ready for our main event: tacos and grilled corn at La Carnita, followed by fancy soft-serve from Sweet Jesus.

Except that the wait at La Carnita was at least an hour, and lest we be tempted to flip dinner and dessert, the lineup for Sweet Jesus was out the door, around the corner and halfway down the block. My friend said she'd never seen anything like it. Fortunately, she knows her city well, and tossed out a terrific backup suggestion: walk over to Momofuku Noodle Bar for ramen?

We did, praying that it would not be packed to the gills, and lo and behold it was not. We were offered seats at a long communal table immediately. We pulled up a scrap of bench and ordered two bowls of the house special Momofuku ramen and an okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) to split.

The Toronto outpost of New York chef David Chang's Momofuku empire opened in 2012 to great fanfare, but I had not yet been fortunate enough to try it out. It's sort of three restaurants and a bar all in one; the noodle bar takes up the first floor, while the bar and fancier restos are upstairs. I didn't mind hanging out at entry level, because the space, while simply furnished, was clean and open and very pleasing to be in, and the staff were friendly and welcoming.

Oh, the food? It was fantastic. Really delicious from first bite to last. The deep bowls of noodles and broth arrived gorgeously garnished with a hunk of pork belly and a shredding of shoulder meat, as well as sheets of nori, shaved green onions, slices of fish cake, and a trembling six-minute egg which we tore apart and mixed in to lend further creaminess to the already-rich broth. We dug in and were mostly silent for the next few minutes, except for slurping and possibly some moaning (from me). I don't know if they make their own noodles (I doubt it) but these were chewy and had excellent flavour, and I say that noting that the noodles are usually my least favourite part. (I'm in it for the broth, I am.) All in all it was an incredibly satisfying bowl of goodness, and I would go back and eat it again tonight if I could.

The okonomiyaki was new to my dining companion, and she loved it as much as I did. This thick pancake had no discernible cabbage, so I think it leaned towards the Kansai/Osaka school rather than the Hiroshima. Adorned with diced yam, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, and otafuku sauce, the gorgeous thing disappeared as fast as we could maneuver it into our mouths with chopsticks.

We coudn't resist sampling the house-made soft serve ice cream for dessert, to make up for missing out on Sweet Jesus. Lucky us, this stuff was amazing. Modeled on Momofuku Milk Bar's famous desserts, the two flavours on offer were cereal milk and "crack pie," a sort of butterscotchy thing. We shared a swirl of both, topped with sweet-salty cornflake crumbs. The ice cream managed to be both rich and ethereal, and as a lover of salt with my sweets, let me tell you, those cornflakes sealed the deal.

We left after less than an hour in situ, which was fine - ramen's not a food to linger over. I would love to go back and sample all the snacky things on the menu over a glass of wine or a cocktail sometime, but our Saturday night dinner was exactly what we wanted it to be, and then some.

I didn't even miss the tacos.