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!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lunch on the Riviera

Yesterday Chris turned 40, and we thought it fitting to celebrate with a fancy lunch. After all, we are both self-employed in the summer and can take long lunches if we so desire. After some rumination about where to go, I recalled that Chris hadn't yet enjoyed a meal at Riviera, so I booked us a table and off we went.

Riviera is such a glorious room, and it's even nicer with daylight streaming in from the high windows. We had a nice table for two about halfway back with a friendly and well-informed server who took great care of us. I generally don't drink in the daytime, so I ordered sparkling water, but it came with two freshly-cut slices of lemon and a cut-glass tumbler. Classy. Chris got one of his favourite beers, Saint of Circumstance by Collective Arts.

The lunch menu is much shorter than dinner, and includes salads, pastas, sandwiches, and a few more traditional mains. Chris nearly always gravitates towards a fish dish, so he selected the Euro bass with morels and peas. I dithered over steak-frites and spaghetti with shrimp, but ended up going for "Le Big Matt," which I correctly deduced was a burger. I asked what it came with, and our server winkingly rhymed off the Big Mac jingle: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese... you get the idea. I couldn't resist after that, though I did get the side salad with it, thank the gods. 

The fish was a perfect slim fillet, skin seared crisp, with a buttery flavour enhanced by a white wine and butter sauce with (I think) tarragon, over morsels of morels, fresh summer peas, and slices of baby potato. Chris just about licked the bowl, it was that good. (I know because I tried it.)

The burger was... I feel like I've been overusing the word epic lately, but it really was. It managed to perfectly capture the spirit of a Big Mac, while upscaling the experience with great beef, a soft homemade bun and cucumber pickles, fresh lettuce, and a not-too-sweet sauce. The melty cheese pulled it all together. This was a riot, though very messy to eat (think sauce down the wrist and sesame seeds everywhere). I resorted to knife and fork, sparing my dress the indignity. I'd order it again, though. What a treat.

Chris and I swapped modes for dessert: I opted for restraint with the pavlova while he went hardcore with the peanut butter mousse. The latter had flourless brownie bits and hot fudge sauce to take it over the top. To him, it was the perfect birthday dessert.

My pav was perfection to both the eye and the palate: crisp without, chewy within, on a thick puddle of calamansi curd, topped with dollops of white chocolate ganache, micro mint leaves, and supremes of ruby-red grapefruit and orange. I've rarely come across such a well-designed and delicious dessert. I thought the deconstructed lemon tart from their opening menu couldn't be beaten. I stand corrected.

It felt gloriously decadent to have such a delicious and relaxing lunch on a Monday afternoon. But a birthday calls for a little indulgence, don't you think? (I've already requested we return for mine in February.)