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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thirsty in Gatineau

I like wine. This is a well-known fact.

However, I think Véronique Rivest likes wine the way I like breathing. Which is to say, this award-winning sommelier has created a wine bar for everyone: those who know a lot about wine and are looking for rare and unusual treats; those who just like drinking it with some friends and some tasty food; and everyone in between. 

Tucked into a two-storey red brick building on Rue Montcalm in Gatineau, just behind the two massive federal government complexes, Soif is a warm, convivial space that feels like being inside a cork. The walls, floors, and bar tables are all covered in cork, which is both thematic and intriguing to the eye. There are several dining spaces which makes for a cozier feel than one large open room.
I had the privilege of joining a group of ladies who dine out together regularly, every two months, always selecting a new restaurant to try. The five of us were beautifully taken care of by our friendly and knowledgeable server who rolled with staggered arrivals like a pro and happily explained menu items in both official languages. 

Most of us kicked off the evening with bubbles, in the form of a dry sparkling rosé from Austria. Delightfully, Soif offers two-, four-, and six-ounce pours of any wine they serve by the glass, so you can have a little or a lot, depending on how you feel. I opted for two ounces of bubbly, to open my palate and leave me some wiggle room to try a few other things.

Soif, like so many Ottawa restaurants these days, offers food in small-plates format, for individual enjoyment or sharing. Cooked up by award-winning chef Jamie Stunt (formerly of the brilliant Oz Kafe on Elgin), none of our plates disappointed anyone around the table. 

I kicked off my meal with the smoked trout tartines: two slices of grilled country bread, spread lightly with crème fraiche and topped with house-smoked fish, fried capers, and sprigs of fresh dill. Every element was impeccably fresh and perfectly treated, and the flavours sang. Not to mention it was gorgeous to behold:

 Alongside my trout, I had the fried beets with sauce gribiche (sort of like a French tartar sauce, with capers and pickles and mayo and other yummy things) for dipping. You can’t tell from the photo, but the serving size was very generous – probably two entire large beets, cooked and lightly pickled, then sliced into wedges, coated in crispy breadcrumbs (panko?) and fried to perfection. A fantastic twist on the typical fried zucchini or dill pickles served at so many pubs. If you like beets, that is (and do I ever). 

With those two plates I drank a crisp, light, aromatic white from Spain, a blend of muscat, sauvignon blanc, and gewürztraminer that hit all my favourite notes without being cloying or heavy. 

My third plate was the daily special, described as pork shoulder confit but arriving as pork belly confit instead, with crisp-fried sage leaves, matchsticks of raw apple and cubes of what I think was celery root atop a wine reduction. Normally, I don't order pork belly as I often find it too fatty, but the confit treatment rendered out most of the fat, leaving chewy-crisp meat behind for my enjoyment. The deck-of-cards-sized serving was just enough, and the flavours in the bowl melded into a symphony of sweet and smoky and meaty – a great success. So good, I forgot to take a photo. 
With the pork, two ounces of a delightfully spicy and balanced Carignan, a red grape grown all over the south of France. 

Two desserts were on offer that night, so we did the only logical thing: ordered one of each for the table and shared bites. The chewy chocolate brownie with espresso whipped cream was everything you wanted it to be: rich and luscious with a candy-like crackled top and that kick of coffee. Not weird but not ordinary either. The clementine cake was a symphony of citrus, with fresh and candied bits of the tiny orange scattered atop a light pound cake, alongside clementine curd and shards of meringue. A bright hit of sunshine for a February evening. 

I was nearly taken aback when I received my bill – because I imagined it would be much higher for the calibre of food and drink we had consumed. Soif is a place for wine lovers to be surprised and wine novices to be welcomed – no fancy glassware or snobby service, just enthusiasm for the wines and a desire to provide true enjoyment. It is also, delightfully, a very good place to eat and spend an evening with friends old or new. I can’t wait to go back and try more from their eclectic and fun wine list and their seasonally-changing menu. Well done, Mme. Rivest and Mr. Stunt. Well done indeed.

À la prochaine!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A not-too-hidden gem in the Glebe

I went into Erling’s Variety with no idea what to expect. I’d heard generally good things about the food and the atmosphere in the nearly two years since it opened (and underwent an early name change due to some evil corporate overlord nonsense). However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to give it a try until my awesome friend C texted to invite me to dinner on a late-October Friday night with several other fabulous women of my recent acquaintance. How could I pass up an offer like that?

At the appointed hour I arrived and was immediately impressed by the warmth of the space, which has a two-storey ceiling with visible ductwork, all painted a warm grey and laden with quiet fans to keep air moving – a must due to the open kitchen. Despite the height, and the wall of windows facing Strathcona Avenue, it feels cozy. The warm wood tables and chairs are spaced just close enough together to feel convivial but not communal; the assorted soft pillows available to ease one’s back on the banquettes (including one printed with the image of a pug) invite you to sink in and stay a while.

Which we proceeded to do, with great enjoyment. A round of very well-executed cocktails and two bowls of utterly delicious fries with smoked duck-fat aioli were the first order of business. We savoured them as we further contemplated the extensive but not overwhelming menu of small plates, which include seafood, fish, meat, and vegetarian options. B, the lone member of our party who was a repeat visitor to Erling’s declared that anything with mushrooms was a must-try and that her husband had just kept ordering more of them. On that very strong (not to mention hilarious) recommendation, C and I decided to share the oyster mushrooms with goat cheese and kale on a pumpkin flatbread. I also ordered the scallop dish, which changes daily, and the smoked sturgeon. Others at the table went with beef tartare, roast pork loin, oysters (which arrived fried, not raw as ordered, and were promptly comped and cold ones brought out as well), fried pickerel, and seared tuna, and we all snacked off one another's plates.

The mushrooms were as advertised: heavenly. “I thought, how good can a mushroom be, right? Now you know,” B pronounced, and she was right. Umami does not begin to describe the depth of flavour these humble fungi possessed. Matched with the warm melty goat cheese, the soft flatbread rendered only a tiny bit sweet from pumpkin, some wilted kale and garlic, these mushrooms SANG. They DANCED. They were better than Cats (but not cats; let’s be reasonable here). I tried to change my mind about sharing but C insisted. A wise choice in the end; it was very rich and I needed space for my other delicious dishes. 

The smoked sturgeon arrived stunningly sliced and gorgeously plated, crowned with strips of pickled yellow carrot and tiny piles of black caviar on a bed of wilted spinach with a berry aioli beneath. The fish itself was perfection: only lightly smoked so the flavour shone through, nicely matched with the salty hit of caviar and the sharp pickles. However, the rather intense acidity of the vinaigrette on the spinach combined with the sweetness of the aioli overpowered the delicate flavours of the fish and provided the only misstep of the night for me. Each element was tasty on its own, and the plate was clean when I finished it; I just felt the two halves of this dish were not meant to dance together. 

I’ve left my scallops for last, though they arrived first, because they surprised and enchanted me so. Unless there’s fennel involved somehow, I am guaranteed to order the scallop dish on any small-plates menu, as they are one of my very favourite foods. I’ve eaten a LOT of scallops presented in a lot of ways. These blew past all previous incarnations and went straight to number one on my list. Two fat scallops, each seared to barely-set perfection with a crisp bronzed lid and crowned with tiny, adorable piles of micro-diced beet relish, arrived with a smear of rich celeriac puree, a small pile of wilted curly kale in a puddle of sharp-sweet confit tomato, and two sexy chunks of house-cured and smoked brisket “bacon.” This was the dish I could have ordered three more of. The Brits have a food term I love: “moreish,” meaning it’s so good you want to eat more of it, and that’s what these scallops were. I am still mourning their passing, days later. When the waitress asked whether we needed anything, I actually said “a cigarette.” 

I was able to shoehorn in bites of the seared tuna and the pickerel, as well as two oysters (one raw, one cooked, both much tastier than I remember oysters being when I last tried them at sixteen) and everything was bright and interesting on the palate, rather than heavy or hackneyed. It’s not weird food, but it is creative food, and that scores big points with me. 

All this, and I haven’t mentioned the wine. After I finished my delicious Southside cocktail I thought I’d have a peek at the wine list and the word “Malvasia” leaped off the page at me. “They don’t have it by the glaaaaaaass,” I moaned to my companions. B, a wine blogger, perked up. “Is it the Birichino?” she asked. I confirmed that it was.

“Let’s get a bottle, then,” she said decisively, and so we did, and it was awesome. It’s an aromatic and crisp California white, using a Spanish grape varietal, and I’ve only ever had it at Play before, where it was comped me by a delightful waiter who, upon seeing my delight at a different white wine, insisted I had to try this, and bless him. It is SO GOOD. I now order it whenever I see it. Kudos to Erling’s for an unusual and fabulous pick.

Speaking of comps: Our waitress throughout the evening was a delight, but the occasional plate was dropped off by a man in his thirties wearing a very nice grey sweater and a sweet smile. As we wound down our admittedly raucous and random-silly-toast-filled meal, he quietly placed a bowl of ice cream and four spoons on the table “with our compliments.” Such a sweet gesture given that he knew none of us from Adam’s housecat. The awful part was that it was peanut butter-and-banana ice cream and none of us liked it. I tried, I did, but bananas are my nemesis, and apparently the others felt the same. He noticed, stopped by again, and we apologized abashedly for not enjoying the treat. He removed it gracefully and – I kid you not – not five minutes later was back with two other kinds for us to try. As you will all have realized by now, the Man in Grey Sweater is Liam, the owner of Erling’s, and for his kindness, his terrific room, his lovely staff, and his utterly fantastic food, I thank him. We four crazy women had just the best time and left well-fed, well-cared for, and wanting more of what you’re cooking up in that open kitchen.