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.

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!