Sunday, November 5, 2017

This is not a drill: Makita Kitchen & Bar

It rained most of last week here in Ottawa, and I spent most of that week cooped up in the house, so when Chris suggested we go out for dinner on Friday night, I was psyched. He asked me to choose the restaurant, and I went back in my mind through places we know and love, and didn't hit on anywhere I needed to go back to immediately. So I tried to think of places I'd been wanting to try, and suddenly Makita popped into my head. No, not the company that makes power tools. Makita Kitchen & Bar is a roughly year-old spot at the north end of the Glebe serving modern Asian food, and that sounded totally perfect for a casual Friday night out. I called, they had space, so off we went.

The first sign that it was going to be a great night happened even before we walked in, when we saw the free street parking spot literally right in front of the restaurant. We refer to that as "rock star parking," and it is never not awesome. We walked in and the amiable waiter offered us our choice of tables, as only two or three were currently occupied. We chose one in the middle of the room, from which I had a great view of the long bar and the ornate mirror above it.

The music playing as we settled in was our second indicator of a delightful night: "Gun" by CHVRCHES, one of our favourite electro-pop bands, and one of their best songs no less. As the night went on, the playlist went on to emulate Sirius XM's Alt Nation channel from about four years ago, and guessing what bands and songs we might hear next added a lot to our enjoyment. (I guessed three bands and two exact songs, by the way.) Music can make or break a social experience for me, and this was top-notch.

But you're here for the food, and trust me, so were we. It was extremely challenging to narrow down what to order from the amazing menu of small plates, steamed buns, noodle and rice bowls, and larger plates. Some were more traditional, like the sesame seared tuna or pork and shrimp spring rolls, while others, like the creamy miso kale salad or the udon noodle carbonara, offered a fusion twist on classic flavours. We wanted to try about 90 per cent of the items, but settled on a bun and a main each. I went classic with the pork belly and hoisin bun while Chris fusion-ed it up with the fried chicken one.

Both were impeccably presented in bamboo steamer baskets, nicely sized for an appetizer, and packed with flavour. My pork bun was crispy, chewy, soft, herby, sweet, salty, and spicy all at once. I didn't get to try Chris's, but it disappeared with many nonverbal expressions of delight. Top marks for nailing the texture of the buns perfectly, too.

I enjoyed a tequila old-fashioned from the short but interesting cocktail menu with my pork bun. Lots of them involve sake, and I actually don't know if I like it, so I stuck with something familiar, and it was boozy and delicious. Chris had a local IPA from their great beer list, which he loved.

Full speed ahead to mains, as each of us was presented with the plate we'd been unable to resist ordering. For me, it was the Korean spin on chicken and waffles, with three gorgeously crunchy boneless chicken thighs resting atop triangles of pale golden, soft-yet-crisp waffle, drizzled in maple-twisted hot sauce and covering a mound of perfect, funky, spicy kimchi. Yes, kimchi and waffles. I promise you, it worked brilliantly. It's a generous but not insane portion for the price and I enjoyed every mouthful. Huge kudos to the kitchen for the prep work on the chicken: not a shard of bone or cartilage marred my enjoyment, nor any unduly fatty bits, and as someone who has butchered chicken thighs myself, I know how hellishly hard that is. High fives. I had the inspired idea to pair it with a glass of sparkling wine, and I'm thrilled with my decision. The wine, from Prince Edward County's Hinterland winery, was dry and fruity and cut neatly through the richness of the food. Beautiful.

Chris, for his part, zeroed in early on the ramen risotto and was not disappointed. A generous bowl of soft, soupy-but-not-runny rice infused with pork broth, mushrooms, parmesan, and garlic topped with a soy-marinated soft-boiled egg, this dish had umami written all over it, and man, did it eat gorgeously. Warm and comforting and interesting all at once, this one's a big winner.

After all that, somehow we found room for dessert when our waiter told us they had a coffee butter tart. Presented with coconut whipped cream and candied cashews artfully arranged into a flower and its stem, this flaky pastry amused the senses by being not at all what you expect when you think of a butter tart, and yet it totally worked. Fun and very tasty. A round of properly strong decaf Americanos were the perfect match.

Service was warm and friendly throughout, just the way we like it. The room filled up about halfway as the night went on, and got a little louder, but never truly loud, another point in its favour. It was truly a delightful experience all around. As we drove home, listening to CBC Radio 2's new show Afterdark, the host mused about where in Canada his listeners might be as they tuned in. "Maybe you're in Ottawa," he said, "heading home after a delicious dinner in the Glebe." We stared at each other in utter amazement and then laughed our heads off. How on Earth did he know? Final proof, as if we needed it, that we were exactly where we were meant to be at that moment.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Well-executed French cuisine at Sur Lie

The lovely ladies I dine out with convened upon the site of the late, lamented Murray Street Kitchen this week to try out its successor in the space, French bistro Sur-Lie. The name means "on the lees," a method of making wine that allows the liquid to age on the leftover yeast particles from the winemaking process. This adds flavour and texture to the finished wine. So my first impression is that this is a place that takes its wine seriously.

Unfortunately, I'd had a migraine the night before and didn't feel up to indulging in any vino myself, but my compatriots did: in fact, several of them ordered flights, which here are four three-ounce pours of wines around some sort of theme "VQA, "light and lively," etc.). I found both the number of glasses and the fact that both red and whites were included in most flights unusual, but certainly not outrageous. Ontario wines were well-repped alongside selections from France, Spain, South Africa and Italy. All wines are available by the glass (3 or 5 ounce) or the bottle, a deeply welcome idea that I wish all restaurants would adopt.

As for me, I asked for something interesting and non-alcoholic, and our kind waiter inquired about my sweet versus sour preferences, then brought me a delicious strawberry-cucumber lemonade concoction with a pretty garnish, no less. Another member of the group ordered a mint julep, which was served in a proper hammered metal mug and deeply enjoyed.


A few of us had apps, while others opted to save room for dessert. I overloaded on cake during the Thanksgiving weekend, so in lieu of sweets, I enjoyed the King crab salad "Lyonnaise." The traditional dish is frisée lettuce, a poached egg, bacon lardons, and vinaigrette. The frisée was accounted for (though underseasoned, the dressing lacking zing and zip), the egg was quail (tiny and cute!), the bacon in small crisp strips rather than chewy cubes, and to this was added a slice of brioche topped with King crab chunks dressed in a light herbed mayonnaise. Sort of a fancy crab roll, if you will. The crabmeat was fresh and sweet, but a bit overpowered by the mayo, and I would have preferred the brioche a bit more toasted for some crunch. I also felt the crab and bread didn't really mesh with the rest of the dish. Poach the crab in butter and sub it for the bacon, zing up the vinaigrette with some lemon or yuzu, and the whole thing might sing a bit more sweetly. But it was pretty and all the parts were fresh and well-treated.

I kept on with the sea theme for my main. I never try to resist a scallop, especially a diver scallop, guaranteed to be huge and sweet and meaty. I was not disappointed with the three perfect beauties that appeared on my plate, atop mounds of tasty and well-seasoned potato purée. The fourth mound was crowned with two slices of nicely crisped but still chewy pork belly, which when paired with the scallop is just heavenly. The beurre blanc (poured from a tiny jug) was nicely bright with acidity, which perked up the richness of the other elements. A few crisp fresh green beans and a spear of broccolini finished the plate. There was a swipe of something pink across the middle of the plate that I assume was the promised "sultana-rum glaze" but it was so scarce I couldn't really taste it. A little more of that might have elevated this dish from really good to great.

My friend across the table ordered the wild BC halibut and pronounced it to be the best-cooked piece of fish she's ever eaten, perfectly done and collapsing into succulent petals when touched. It was prettily crowned with a crisp nest of potato shards and surrounded by mussels and a saffron and leek sauce. It was my second choice and I was almost jealous.

Two of the three desserts showed up on our table: the chocolate orange was literally chocolate mousse frozen inside a scooped-out orange shell that had been candied. It was accompanied by brown butter financiers and clementine meringue. My neighbour said it didn't quite thrill her, though the bit of orange and chocolate I tried was excellent. (I admit the financier was dry, but that seems to be a feature, not a bug, with those.) My friend had the carrot cake, which looked like three half-cupcakes with dollops of carrot puree, swoops of brown butter frosting, and hazelnut ice cream. She cleaned her plate and sighed with happiness.

The decor has been adapted to fit the elegance of this food rather than the rip-roaring meatiness of Murray Street's menu. The brick wall's been painted grey, there's a new half-wall with nifty maze-like wood screening between the dining area and the bar. The soft globe lighting is a really nice addition. I found the leather chairs uncomfortable but I'm not sure if they're new or old.

I left satisfied, but somehow not totally wowed. This is fine French cooking, well-executed and well-priced, for the most part, but lacking something in the way of creativity, inspiration, verve. Nothing surprised me, and I like a little surprise. A little punch of unexpected flavour or texture was missing from each dish I tried. But it's a friendly and welcoming restaurant, and I think they should do very well with people in Ottawa looking for a classic, classy, upscale night out with friends or colleagues.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Canada's (gigantic) table

In February of this year, it was announced that Stephen Beckta (of Play, Beckta, and Gezellig fame) and Sheila Whyte (of Thyme and Again catering) were putting together a 1,000-person dinner party on Wellington Street, in honour of Canada 150. It was like they were speaking directly to me. I told Chris that I wasn't interested in any of the other celebratory events, but that I really, really, REALLY wanted to go to this one. At the time, ticket prices had not yet been revealed, so we agreed to wait and see, and then decide.

$175 a person? Sign me up. (Plus taxes and fees, of course.) Then it was a question of whether we'd even be able to get tickets. Somehow, the Ticketmaster gods smiled down upon me and I scored a pair in the blue section, near the eastern end of the venue. (I may have shrieked a little.)

After that, we waited.

And waited.

And... you get the idea.

But then, suddenly, it was August. The weather in Ottawa got better. Emails about where to arrive and what to bring (and not to bring) popped up in my inbox. We started to get excited. We got dressed up. I packed my tiniest purse. We got in line with all the other keeners in evening finery on a stunning summer night in the capital. We walked down the long, long, long table to our seats in what turned out to be the Quebec section. We made friends with our seat neighbours to the west who, as it turned out, had gotten engaged earlier in the day. (Congrats, Ben and Demetra!) Champagne was poured (and refilled). A toast was called for by Guy Laflamme and Steve Beckta. We cheered. We drank. We drank it all in. The white tablecloths, the wineglasses, the sun in our eyes, the Peace Tower, the pure joy on everyone's faces, just to be in this place on this night.

And then we were wined and dined beyond all expectations.

The giant (really, it looked infinite when you peered in either direction) table was divided into five sections, one for each region of Canada: Pacific, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic. Each section had four chefs: two local, and two from the region in question. Each chef supervised one of the meal's four courses. Our chefs were Normand Laprise from Toqué in Montreal, Daniel Vézina from Laurie Raphael in Montreal and Quebec City, Joe Thottungal from Coconut Lagoon, and Marc Lepine from Atelier. Each course was paired with an Ontario wine. Portions were fair, even generous for the quality of ingredients in play here.

We began with Normand Laprise's whelks and heirloom tomatoes. What's a whelk, you ask? It is otherwise known as a sea snail. And it is apparently delicious. I'm a big fan of pretty much all shellfish, so I was excited to try these, and was not disappointed. These were from Quebec's north coast, and had been cooked in what tasted like butter, to a chewy but pleasant texture, paired with both raw and poached tomatoes, olive paste, and herb oil, garnished with tiny edible flowers and a few petals of pickled white onion. Briny, fresh, and exciting. The wine pairing was a Charles Baker Riesling from Niagara's Twenty Mile Bench, and it was my ideal wine, zesty and citrusy with a tiny hit of sweetness.

Next up, my favourite course of the night: Daniel Vézina's lobster and grilled romaine. A generous portion of butter-poached lobster meat rested on a smear of coral (yes, coral) mayonnaise alongside two tiny adorable heads of grilled romaine lettuce, a crisp shard of bacon, pickled daisy buds, crisp tiny cornbread croutons, and a parmesan crisp. The lobster came from Iles de la Madeleine and was luscious and luxurious and just perfect for a fancy, one-night-only dinner like this. With it, an unfiltered Norman Hardie Chardonnay. Everyone knows I'm a member of the anything-but-chard club, but this was very nicely matched to the food and it worked for me. (Also it was the smallest pour of the night, which is fine.)

Third course was the ostensible "main," the heaviest and most protein-centric. Joe Thottungal created a luscious lamb loin dish with mushroom masala (a mildly spicy curry that to me felt inspired by German-style Jaeger sauce) topped with tiny chickpea puffs and fried rice noodles for crunch,  surrounded by a creamy beet sauce. The lamb was lean yet buttery-soft, and the surrounding elements married perfectly, with no one flavour overwhelming the rest. I loved it, and said so when the chef walked by later and I got to shake his hand and thank him. Chris asked on the spot if we could make Coconut Lagoon our anniversary dinner next month, and I am so on board. (Watch this space!) The Niagara Pinot Noir from Pearl Morissette had a pleasant earthiness that went very well with the lamb, and the texture was heavier than some pinots I've had, which was a positive note for me (I usually find them a bit too light).

All too soon, it was time for dessert, and yet not a moment too late, because I was dying to see what Marc Lepine and his band of molecular gastronomy practitioners would set before us. I was not disappointed. A bar of wobbly raspberry curd (set like a soft gel) was showered with spongy bright-green crumbs of matcha cake and liquid nitrogen-frozen chocolate ganache "rocks" that melted as you ate them. The whole thing was speared with a gently minted shard of meringue for extra zip and crunch. I tried to get a bit of each element in every bite, because they all danced together so well on the tongue. It was exciting and impressive, but not weird or too pushy. My one quibble was with the dessert wine pairing, a "Forté" port-style fortified red wine from Union in Niagara. It was neither sweet enough nor weighty enough for this dessert; I would have done a red icewine, I think. (On its own, the wine was delicious, though.)

Finally, each guest received a stunning dark chocolate bar (in a really nice box) from Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, compliments of chef Melissa Craig, to take home. I have yet to devour mine. But it looks amazing.

After a final toast and standing ovations for the chefs and the myriad volunteers (who did incredible work and should be commended heartily for making the event run so smoothly), our magical evening wrapped up with a viewing of the sound and light show on Parliament Hill. We wandered west to find our friends B and C, who had dined in the Pacific section (cod curry from Vikram Vij! wild boar! crab! corn dessert!) and also had an extraordinary time. We had a blast debriefing one another and talking over the night.

I can't imagine any adventurous eater leaving this party unsatisfied. The ingredients were so high-calibre, and in my opinion the preparation and presentation lost nothing to the demands of a large-volume, high-stress environment. It was as though we visited four fabulous restaurants in one night, with one of Ottawa's best views no less. I think the price was more than fair for what we received and enjoyed. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience such a perfect evening. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. It's rare to see such perfect execution of a very, very big idea with a lot of moving parts. Massive kudos to you all. Cheers!