Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tapas night at Allium


I know, I’ve been gone for a while. It’s kind of a stressful time around these parts, lots of stuff going on, and as a consequence I haven’t been inspired to post a whole lot, though I have been cooking as usual. Nothing earth-shattering, though I will clean off the camera this week and post about a few dishes from several weeks ago that I enjoyed making and also eating. For now, though, here is a review of Allium, a bistro on Holland Ave. that I had the pleasure of trying out last night. I went with my friend L because I had read on Ottawa Foodies that they do a Monday tapas night, and it so happened that we were looking for a place to meet for drinks and snackies. It sounded perfect – it’s between our houses, it’s not overly expensive, and they claimed to have good cocktails. It’s gotten good reviews. What’s not to like, right?

First, the good, because there was a lot to like about Allium. The space is simple, with rich mahogany-toned wood tables and chairs, frosted glass dividers between the bar and restaurant areas, and muted wall colours. L and I were seated at a high-top table in the bar area, which suited us fine, though my feet did start to fall asleep after a while due to where the hard wooden seat of the chair hit the backs of my knees. A small thing; I was comfortable enough.

The tapas menu is a single photocopied sheet, written neatly, with a lengthy list of hot and cold dishes ranging in price from $3 to $7 or $8. as well as five cheeses and a half-dozen desserts. At the bottom are five reds and five whites by the glass, a featured cocktail and a featured beer. It’s enough choice for most people to be perfectly happy, us included. We each began with the featured cocktail ($5), a raspberry and lime gin and tonic. It was done as a long drink, in a footed highball glass, and arrived bright rose from the fresh raspberry puree (fortunately, seedless), garnished with a lime wedge. It was refreshing and not too sweet; the gin flavor came through nicely but the drink wasn’t too strong. In short, it’s the perfect thing for warm summer evenings and I will definitely be making these at home.

We decided to order a first round of things to share and then see how we felt. L chose the rare beef crostini with grilled onion ($4), and the two of us selected three cheeses ($4 each) from the five on offer: a two-year-old cheddar (perfectly sharp while maintaining a smooth mouthfeel), an Allegretto (sheep’s milk cheese, sliced paper thin, it resembled a mild emmenthaler), and a Cendre de lune (cow’s milk, ash rind, creamy soft centre, mild but interesting). The cheeses came beautifully arranged on a platter with thin crisps of baguette drizzled with olive oil, half a sliced Bartlett ppear drizzled with reduced balsamic, and two chunks of ripe cantaloupe which I let L eat because I don’t care for it. All were very tasty and we polished off the lot. (We did run short of crisps, but that’s OK.) The crostini was very good as well, a generous slice of toasted, oil-rubbed baguette layered with a thick slice of sweet grilled onion and thin slices of rare beef, seared on the outside but ruby red inside. Excellent flavours and presentation.

Once we had finished and mulled over the menu and the remaining space in our stomachs, L decided she needed to try their steak-frites ($7), and I couldn’t pass up the roasted duck breast with sautéed peppers and onions ($6). They came arranged on the same rectangular plate, which was fine – a tiny cup of frites (perhaps ten in all, short ones, heavily salted and delicious), alongside about a 2-oz portion of rare steak, sliced, with dots of grainy mustard aioli for dipping. L was quite pleased with it and, as far as I could tell, with her accompanying glass of Kingston shiraz.

My end of the plate possessed about the same weight in ruby-rare duck breast, sliced thinly over a mound of what tasted for all the world like pico de gallo with the tomatoes replaced by roasted red peppers. It was a surprising and elegant combination of flavours and I devoured it with delight. It actually didn’t clash too badly with my second raspberry G&T, though I imagine wine would have gone better with it – I simply wasn’t in the mood for grapes.

After a suitable interval of gossiping and digesting, we moved onto dessert. L could not resist the vanilla bean crème brulée with shortbread cookie (at $7, the most expensive dessert on the menu, but it was full-size and delicious; Allium is of the wide, shallow ramekin school of crème brulée, and it truly makes a difference - you get a thinner sugar crust, but enough of it to have some with very bite of the lush custard. The shortbread cookie on the side put it over the top – it disappeared very quickly! My lemon tart was equally divine – a bright yellow wedge of tart lemon curd atop a soft, melting shortbread crust. A dollop of real whipped cream scented with lemon zest and a scattering of fresh berries made it sing. For $4, it’s one of the best dessert deals in Ottawa. I’ve had lame lemon tart for twice the price.

Now, for the bad, and it wasn’t really bad, just slightly unpleasant – our waiter was not, shall we say, the friendliest man alive. He seemed to blow hot and cold: sometimes he was friendly and affable, as when describing the cheeses to us (in a not terribly useful way – he simply told us which ones HE liked, not what they were like); at other times he seemed short and impatient with us, as when he checked back in to see if we wanted another round of food or drinks and we said we wanted to coast for a bit. I should point out that at no time during the two hours we spent there was the restaurant close to full, so it seemed odd that he was trying to rush us. He also refused to make change for L when she asked, claiming that he’d gone through all his change already that evening. It was 8 p.m. I found that unbelievable, and he was slightly rude about it, too. It certainly reduced his tip a bit, though we did leave about 15 per cent because the food was so very excellent. Generally these days I’m trying to tip 20, but he didn’t earn it.

All that said, we’ll certainly go back and bring the boys with us next time. I’d like to try it on a regular menu evening as well – if it lives up to the small bites reputation, it must be quite impressive! There were many more things on the tapas menu I wanted to try, too, so I’ll have to make that happen. It ended up being a very affordable evening for both of us, and extraordinary value based on the food quality. Now if we can just manage to score a different server, we’ll be golden.

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