I knew it would take a pretty special meal to bring me out of my semi-blogtirement, but last night was fairly close to being off the charts. I think what made it even better was the company in which we ate – a couple we are friends with who live in Finland, and only visit Ottawa every two years or so. We never get to spend enough time with them while they’re here, but we came pretty close this week. We had a fun homemade Middle Eastern dinner at our place last weekend, then attended their son’s first birthday party on Sunday.
But last night was the big splash-out: dinner at Play Food and Wine, Stephen Beckta’s small-plates restaurant in the ByWard Market. I’ve been meaning to try it for ages, but couldn’t come up with a suitably important occasion until now. M and H are total foodies, like us, and are also very into wine, so we deemed it the perfect place to try together. We had planned to go on Tuesday but couldn’t get a reservation at a time that worked for us, so we pushed it back to Wednesday at 6 p.m. (which turned out to be perfect). H and I dressed up a bit for the occasion with heels and dresses and tiny purses, which is always fun.
We arrived and were greeted kindly and gracefully, and immediately escorted to our table upstairs by the window where M and H were waiting. They ordered cocktails while Chris and I went straight to wine, and I love that they offer both 3 and 5 ounce pours of their wines by the glass. I had a 3-oz pour of Bon Courage Gewürztraminer (from South Africa) that blew my head off with its gorgeous deep yellow colour, lightness on the tongue and complexity of nose and flavor. Sadly the LCBO doesn’t currently carry it, but I’ll be watching the Vintages catalogue closely for this one.
The cocktails were equally impressive: the spa martini featured Hendricks gin, cucumber juice and lemon for a truly adult flavor that still managed to be smooth. H’s Niagara cosmo was late harvest vidal, vodka and cranberry juice – mighty tasty. Once we were libationed, we got down to the difficult business of deciding what to order. Our delightful waiter, Michael, suggested two plates per person would be a satisfying meal, and he was right. We each ordered two selections from their small plates section, eschewing charcuterie and cheese this time.
M and I both began with the quail with mead and mustard glaze atop a pile of dandelion greens concealing a pork belly-enhanced potato rösti. All of the elements were perfectly in balance; the slight bitterness of the greens offset the honeyed sweetness of the glaze on the tender, beautifully cooked tiny fowl while the rösti, dotted with tiny cubes of spice-cured pork belly, gave the dish needed weight and richness. M and I both wondered what the “Christmasy” element of spice was in the rösti and the waiter found out for us that we were tasting the allspice, clove and cinnamon in the curing rub; he was very impressed with our palates. (I guessed mace, M guessed nutmeg, so we were close.)
Chris started off with the wild trout with anchovy butter accompanied by almonds and capers. This turned out to be two thin rectangles of gorgeous peachy-pink fish, golden from the grill, skin-on, with a pat of melting briny butter atop a pile of sliced small Lebanese cucumbers in a sort of almond-caper pesto. I tried the fish and it was perfectly cooked, with a nice fishy bite from the anchovy butter. He was very enthusiastic about it. Chris had a 5-oz pour of a Spanish red called Mencia with both his dishes, and was very pleased with it.
H’s first dish was a post-pregnancy splurge: beef tartare, hand-cut, spiked with capers, sitting amidst a swipe of Dijon and another of (get this) bacon aioli, surrounded by taro root chips. I’m not a beef tartare girl, but H swooned over it, and the boys were equally impressed. I did try the bacon aioli and that is an idea that needs to be copied. YUM.
M went with the Bon Courage as well for the match for his quail, and loved it too. H had a small pour of Pilletteri Estates Cabernet Franc with her tartare – M said it tasted like a cigar, and H loved it. Leather, blueberries, smoke.
On to round two (ding!): quail for H, with the Gewürztraminer as well. Hanger steak and frites with mushrooms and aioli for Chris, who pronounced it some of the best steak he’d ever eaten. When we tried it, we concurred – it was unbelievably tender, served rare and sliced thinly, with a great sear on the outside and fantastic depth of flavor. The frites were skin-on, crisp and utterly addictive; the mushrooms were just garlicky enough. The portion looked smallish but turned out to be quite generous; with the side of roasted asparagus and prosciutto that Chris and I shared, it would be a decent meal on its own. Phenomenal.
M’s pork belly with rhubarb, maple and fennel made him swoon. Again, generous portion size; the belly was nicely crisped on the outside, the plate decorated with a thin sticky swoop of caramel that made the roasted baby fennel bulbs taste good even to me, a fennel-hater; the roasted rhubarb was pink and looked luscious. With it, a glass of Cave Spring pinot noir that was light and balanced and nicely acidic, to cut through the richness of the pork. (Yes, we tried all of one another’s wines; we’re GOOD friends.)
My seared Digby scallops were absolutely one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. Three of the plump beauties (not huge, but decently sized) sat in a row on a white rectangular plate. Each of them was nestled into a pile of avocado purée, on top of which was sprinkled crumbled cooked chorizo sausage; each scallop was crowned with a jewel-like dice of ethereal pink pickled shallot. It was beautiful to behold and even more so in the mouth. Sweet, briny, rich, spicy all commingled to produce the perfect bite. I was almost in tears when it was all gone. I took a wine suggestion from the waiter for this one - a blended white called Tollgate from Stratus, in Niagara – and was not disappointed. Chardonnay and Sauv Blanc were the predominant grapes, giving it both weight and aroma, but it was fairly light and nicely acidic, an excellent food wine.
Because the plates are small, we actually had room for dessert (well, Chris and I shared). H dared the carrot trifle and was rewarded with a goblet layered with sponge cake, carrot sorbet, custard and date puree. She scraped that glass nearly clean (the waiter noted her devotion to duty). M ordered the roiboos tea crème brulee with cilantro sugar. He laughed out loud when he tried it, pronouncing it “like a good joke” that also tasted good, if strange. I don’t like roiboos, but I tried it anyway, and it was indeed very odd, but it worked. Both M and H had a glass of Niagara-produced ratafia dessert wine, which tasted to me as if someone had spiked a bottle of dessert wine with single-malt scotch. Interesting, but not my thing. They both loved it though.
Chris and I split the maple-hazelnut baklava that came with a small scoop of creamy, nut-studded gelato. It was enough to share – three rectangles of dense, sweet nutty goodness layered with phyllo. What a delicious twist on a classic pastry. (We declined dessert wine, as I had to work this morning and Chris was driving.)
Everything we ate and drank impressed us. The service was kind, lightly humourous and attentive without being pushy. The room is classy without being pretentious. I cannot think of a single sour note in the evening. We talked and laughed and tried tastes of others’ plates, and it was just exactly the way I want a special meal to be. When the bills did arrive (split correctly among the couples, without asking, I might add) we found ours to be worth every penny and then some.
Get thee to Play. And have some fun while you’re there – it’s a place that treats food lovingly but not with too much gravity. A perfect balance. Now I just need to find an excuse to go back.