Chris and I treated ourselves to dinner at this new restaurant last night, in honour of our 7th wedding anniversary. Murray Street is one of a pack of new eateries that have opened in Ottawa over the past few months – there seems to be a revitalization of sorts happening. If any of the others have the kitchen brilliance that Murray Street possesses, this is going to become a wonderful town for food lovers in very short order.
The first thing you have to know about Murray Street is that they love meat here, so if you’re sensitive about eating animals, this is not the place for you. There is one vegetarian main course and at least one small plate, but otherwise this place is pretty much about the pleasures of the flesh, so be warned. That said, the meat you will consume here is sourced carefully, prepared lovingly, and served in reasonably-sized portions with accompaniments that bring out the best of their flavours.
In fact, this is one of those places that proclaims the sources of many of the ingredients right on the menu. St. Canut pork, Mariposa Farms duck and vegetables, Le Coprin mushrooms, Spicollo farms kale, and sustainably caught pickerel from Lake Erie are all here. It’s not done pretentiously, nor is it self-congratulating, with the possible exception of the Agawam grape “chow” that accompanies the duck leg confit, which the menu proudly states is made from grapes grown on the restaurant’s patio. I rather enjoy knowing that much of my meal comes from close by, grown by people who I might conceivably meet one day.
We began with a drink: I noted the presence of Beau’s Lug-tread ale on the menu and informed Chris that it’s brewed in nearby Vankleek Hill, which was enough to sell him on it. I opted for a dramatic cocktail of cucumber and watermelon juices, Hendricks gin and triple sec, garnished with a cucumber slice. It was sophisticated and refreshing, definitely an adult pleasure and not at all girly or sugar-sweet.
Knowing our own stomachs, we intelligently decided to share one of the menu’s small plates as an appetizer. Chris gravitated towards the plate dubbed simply “beets”, which when it arrived proved to be a rectangular white plate layered with thin pink slices of pickled beet, deep red wedges of roasted beet, a sprinkling of spiced pecan halves, a tangle of microgreens, and a drizzle of sheep’s milk yogurt (a nifty play on the goat cheese oft-plated with beets). Both of us preferred the tangy pickled rounds to the roasted wedges, which didn’t have as much natural sweetness as they should have; the pickling liquid for their paler cousins obviously contained mustard seed, a fantastic punch of flavor that was cooled by the yogurt. We devoured it slowly, along with a complimentary small burlap sack of Art-is-in bread (white and whole grain) with a tiny ramekin of roasted garlic and smoky tomato butter that tasted like the best gourmet potato chip flavouring you could hope for.
If the beets were good, the mains blew our minds. Two large, shallow white bowls arrived with delights to be delved into over the next thirty minutes or so. I had fortunately gone with my gut (literally) and ordered the Mariposa farms duck leg confit, which arrived dark and crisp-skinned, atop a stack of green and yellow beans, with a bundle of roasted cauliflower, dollops of that white grape and red pepper relish, and a small, whole roasted red onion stuffed with corn, duck sausage, wild rice and Ferme floralpe goat cheese. I won’t mince words: everything on that plate was fresh and delicious, and it all disappeared save the bones. Beneath the skin, the duck was moist and fork-tender with crisp bits here and there; the grape relish was a divine complement, both sweet and tart. The onion was difficult to cut into with the non-steak knife I had been provided, but its innards were soft and yielding, the stuffing flavourful and interesting. The beans were cooked but still held some snap, while the cauliflower sang with caramelized sweetness. Halfway through my meal I finished my cocktail and ordered a glass of Lailey Riesling from Ontario, which was tasty in and of itself though not a great match with the food, which I knew when I ordered it – I was simply in a white wine mood.
Chris, on the other side of the table, devoted himself to his meal with few words and many wordless expressions of delight. His St. Canut pork loin was roasted to pale pink and sliced, then topped with a clear apple jelly. The meat was set atop two delicious puddles: one of homemade creamed corn, the other of molasses and birch syrup-scented baked beans. A few stalks of gorgeous green broccoli finished the plate with panache. I managed to score a small bite of the meat and found it cooked to moist perfection. The creamed corn had a smoky flavor to it that I loved, while the baked beans… let’s just say I could have eaten a whole bowl of those. Chris called it the most sophisticated pork and beans he’d ever eaten.
Though the portions looked small and were, in fact, quite reasonable, we probably should have shared dessert. I am forced, in the name of honesty, to tell you that we did not: in fact, we both ordered the chocolate-espresso pudding with ginger-orange compote and salted caramel. And we both finished it. The rectilinear plates came adorned with a Chinese soup spoon of delicate orange compote, tasting of citrus and candied ginger, topped with a perfect golden raspberry, and a cone-shaped bowl of pudding with a lightly bruléed top, drizzled with thick burnt-sugar caramel and sprinkled liberally (actually, a bit too liberally) with sea salt. Stripes of the same caramel anchored the spoon and bowl to the plate.
The pudding was thick, dense and almost truffle-like, not too sweet, with a wonderful bitter edge and unbeatable smooth texture. Chris liked the compote with the pudding, while I preferred to eat them separately. The caramel was amazing, but the salt crystals burnt my tongue a bit and could be dialed back significantly to better effect, we both agreed. We declined coffee or tea, completely sated by that point.
A word about the space: Murray Street occupies a heritage home; it underwent a full reno after the current owners bought the old Bistro 115, and has been transformed into a dimly lit, masculine space with walnut-coloured chairs and tables whose tops are left bare; antique glass and cast iron light fixtures soften the espresso leather banquettes somewhat, and the wood-cut wall at the back that provides a trompe l’oeil of the restaurant’s M logo is fun, but I found the restaurant as a whole a bit cold-feeling, not terribly cozy, despite the fact that it’s tight for space: our server had to squeeze in between our table and the backs of the chairs at the table next to us in order to serve them. I wouldn’t call it a romantic restaurant at all, though the food is presented more softly than the space. The servers were all male, and while ours was solicitous, he gave off a slightly snooty vibe (maybe he’s just a man of few words?). Also, my water glass was empty for a very long time, and my empty cocktail glass languished for far too long without being removed and a replacement offered. But these are small things, and the food more than made up for most of them.
The music is another bonus: I asked before I left who selected the tunes, and was informed that it was the Chef’s iPod. We heard at least a dozen songs that reside on our own iPods while there, by the likes of the Weakerthans, Luke Doucet, the New Pornographers, Arcade Fire and the Be Good Tanyas. Canadian indie rock and folk-pop was the prevailing aesthetic, and we loved it.
To make a long review short, do check this place out if you have any carnivorous tendencies whatsoever. The food is a delight, and we’re already dying to go back with some friends to try out the extensive house-made and local charcuterie and cheese menu. If you’re looking for a romantic dinner, though, there are warmer and more inviting spaces in town (though the food might not be as transcendent). If you go, let me know what you think!