Monday, August 19, 2013

Gezellig: Cosy and convivial, indeed

Stephen Beckta has done it again. Not like you needed me to tell you that, but he truly has. His newest restaurant, Gezellig in Westboro, is a delight. I love the airy, two-storey space created from a former TD bank. I love the young, elegant, friendly wait staff. We loved the brunch menu back in May. So when our good friends who live in Finland were in Ottawa earlier this month and asked to try Gezellig for their anniversary dinner, I was thrilled to have a reason to go back for dinner.

It was a terrific evening, all told. A polite request for a table upstairs, rather than next to the entrance, was met with a smile and a move to the mezzanine where we received a cosy corner table with views out the high windows. Thus situated, we started with a round of delicious cocktails, including my terrific Southtown, with gin, mint, vanilla, ginger and black pepper. My friend M's Bittered Julep, with Fernet Branca, green tea, mint and bourbon was also a serious winner.

Our appetizers were all from the sea. I relished every mouthful of my perfectly sauteed calamari with summer succotash, arugula, grape tomatoes, and a truffled leek and lemon vinaigrette that lent the whole dish depth, umami and brilliance. (At the time I had forgotten about the truffle oil and guessed anchovies to be the secret ingredient, but later had a look at the online menu and had an aha! moment). The wine pairings were also excellent, as per usual in a Beckta establishment - I thoroughly enjoyed the Niagara Riesling paired with the calamari.

 Across the table,  M's Asian-inspired scallop ceviche was pronounced perfect, and the North Coast California Chardonnay paired with it was delightfully un-Chardlike.

The only slight miss of the night was in H and Chris's salmon rillettes, which they both found well-executed but under-seasoned - easily corrected with the salt shaker and the addition of the carrot and daikon pickles served with the dish.

After a perfectly timed rest for chatting and anticipation, our mains arrived  and red wines were poured. Let me reiterate how much I love that here, as at Play, they pour you a sip to try, before they ask you to commit fully to their recommendations. Then we dug in.

When the four of us eat together, M and I provide the evening's entertainment for our spouses, exclaiming and dissecting and laughing and examining and literally chewing it all over, to figure out how the chef built a dish and appreciate the complexities. This night was no exception. Every dish was a delight, from Chris's simple marinated flank steak with frites and aioli to H's handmade pappardelle with peas, kale and chunks of gorgeously cooked pork belly. 

On the over-analytical side of the table, my crisp and melting duck confit with roasted summer root vegetables and two surprising wedges of roasted nectarine was divine - the drizzle of lavender honey and the smear of sweet potato puree were the icing on the quack. M was thrilled with his grilled gulf shrimp and "popcorn grits" - they literally cook buttered popcorn into the grits and serve it under a pile of grilled seafood and andouille sausage. It was unexpected and decadent.

After all that, if you can believe it, we made room for the final course. Chris and H split a cheese board that came with a fantastic Quebec blue, an aged cheddar and something strong and creamy and almost too stinky - but they managed it somehow. I enjoyed a perfectly executed honey creme brulée with a dried apricot and fresh ginger compote. M went with Gezellig's signature dessert, the "butterfinger" - a sort of haute recreation of the chocolate bar, with pate de fruits on the side in case you like J with your PB. It made him laugh with delight - a sure sign of a successful dish. It's rich and filling and unctuous and wonderful. It didn't match with the Pedro Ximenez sherry that the bartender offered him from off the dessert wine list, but he didn't care, because both were so good on their own.

All in all, we found the pacing to be perfect, the service just right, and the food both comforting and challenging in the best possible ways. I even spotted Mr. Beckta himself delivering M's main course, proving that the man behind Ottawa's best all-round restos isn't above getting out on the floor to see how things are going on a Tuesday night in the summer.

Before we even got to dessert I made Chris promise to bring me back for our own wedding anniversary in September. That request gave him no pause. Thanks, Gezellig, for your charming and welcoming demeanour and your terrific plates.

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