Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Luxe-urious evening

Last night we went out for a so-called "grown-up dinner" with our friends D&K. They have a three-year-old daughter and therefore don't get to go out on their own all that often, but K's sister offered to babysit for them, so we arranged to go to a nice wine bar for pre-dinner drinks and snacks, and then a bistro in the Byward Market that I've been wanting to try for years.

I got all dressed up for dinner, something I rarely do these days but what the hell? I wore a skirt and heels and a swanky top I bought last weekend, and lots of mascara, which is key to dressing up, I think. Anyway, the venues merited the dressy. 107 Fourth Avenue Wine Bar, in the Glebe, is one of our perennial favourites, and they got a mention in the weekend paper a couple of weeks ago, which D saw, and requested we check it out. We were more than happy to oblige.

At 6:30 p.m. on a cool, but sunny Saturday evening, we literally had the place to ourselves. As it turned out, K knew the waitress - she used to work at a pub near his office that he regularly frequented. Small town. D and I enjoyed a glass of wine each (I had a Syrah rosé from France, while she chose an Italian pinot grigio), Chris had a half pint of beer, K opted for a Manhattan, and we all shared a small plate of antipasto (meats, cheese, olives) and a plate of caprese salad (slices of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella cheese and basil leaves drizzled with olive oil and balsamic). Nice and light, just to keep us going until our dinner.

Around 7:30 we headed down to the Market and managed to score a parking spot not tooooo far from Luxe Bistro, which sits at the corner of York St. and Byward Market St. It's a lovely space, with lots of windows, that at one time was an old-school, dainty and very fussy creperie. After that place closed it was a short-lived general restaurant called 47 York (how creative) and then it became Luxe, about 5 years ago. It's a very French-ified space inside, plenty of dark wood panelling, round booths with brown leather banquettes, white napery, dim lighting and polite but not overly-solicitous wait staff.

It's an upscale place, with prices to match - main courses fall mainly into the high twenties-to-mid-thirties range - but there are some less expensive selections, such as the pasta dishes, all of which looked creative, interesting and full of high-quality ingredients like Bay of Fundy smoked salmon, Rocquefort cheese, and double-smoked bacon. They do a daily chef's tasting plate, which sadly none of us ordered, because it looked both intriguing and mysterious, and at the high end they offer Sterling Silver Alberta AAA steaks. There's also a page of daily specials, including a main, a soup, a salad, and a pasta creation. Not starved for choice, in other words. They also have plenty of lovely cocktails - K ordered a martini straight up with a twist, and when they accidentally brought him one with olives, the bar realized their mistake and brought him another, made correctly, free of charge. He drank them both happily. I thought that was classy as heck. D had a sparkly concoction of raspberry vodka, cranberry juice and sparkling wine, which she deemed a little sweet for her, but I thought it was lovely. Very pretty, too, with cranberries floating on top.

Chris ordered the daily pasta dish, which was curly macaroni with sliced skirt steak, coffee mushrooms (I think those are just cremini), and chunks of pineapple in a creamy ginger-coconut-basil sauce. It sounds a little bizarre but was, in a word, amazing. The sweet and salty and spicy mixed perfectly and exploded with unusual flavours all over the tongue. He practically licked the bowl (in fact, an overzealous busboy attempted to remove his bowl when he had one bite remaining and he held on to it for dear life, as well he should have).

Our friend D ordered chicken, as she nearly always does, but this was beautifully done, a supreme (breast with wing attached) roasted until golden and lightly crisped on the outside but still moist inside, topped with a mixed mushroom ragout and sitting on a pile of mashed potato and French green beans. A lovely, simple dish, well executed. She matched it with a glass of an excellent Cotes du Rhone and was well satisfied with it.

K went the whole hog and ordered the 14 oz Ribeye steak (on the bone) with three huge grilled scallops perched atop it; Rocquefort butter, shoestring fries and aioli, and creamed spinach au gratin. It was a crazy amount of food, but he's a big eater and loves his food, and he enjoyed every bite, as did those of us lucky enough to score a bite of that steak and a morsel of divine scallop.

It took me a while to decide, because all of the pasta dishes looked so amazing, but in the end it was the mussels meuniere and frites that sold me. It was a generous serving, though I wouldn't call it the usual pound, steamed in white wine with capers, parsley, butter, garlic and cherry tomatoes, alongside a bowl of those amazingly crispy, grease-free frites and a tiny bowl of lighter-than-air aioli. It was an excellent choice, and a good test of a bistro's mettle, which it passed with flying colours. I even had a glass of the single rosé they had by the glass, a Malivoire "Ladybug" rosé that's a mix of Cab franc, Pinot noir and Gamay grapes. It was a perfect match, light and sparkly and refreshing but with enough weight to match the mussels. Chris also had a glass of it and enjoyed it greatly.

I should mention that the meal was very nicely paced - we were the 8 o'clock seating, and they have a 10 pm as well, but they were obviously not turning our table, because the funny, friendly, and intelligent waiter left us to chat and eat slowly and gave us plenty of time between dinner and dessert selection. Each couple split one, since we were all pretty full but wanted to try something sweet. D and K split the warm Belgian chocolate brownie with double chocolate gelato and raspberry coulis. They didn't leave much, so I gather it was pretty amazing.

Chris and I shared a Tahitian vanilla bean creme brulée, which was the best I've had in Ottawa. I found the custard a touch on the warm side, and if we're being picky the texture was ever so slightly grainy, but it was delicious and went down a treat, garnished with a huge, sweet strawberry. The burnt sugar crust was thin and light and crispy, while the plate contained a drizzle of burnt caramel sauce, single spiced pecan, chunk of fresh pineapple, sliced green grapes, and julienned apple that were fun and tasty additions.

Chris finished off with a tisane of mint and verbena, while K and I had strong decaf coffee. We lingered in our circular booth with plenty of room to chill out and chat. Eventually they had to go home to relieve their loyal babysitter, but it was a relaxed, laid-back, and utterly delicious evening for all of us.

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