Saturday, December 28, 2013

I'll be in

It's rare for us to go to the same restaurant twice in a row, much less on two consecutive weekends, but that's just what we did on two consecutive December Saturdays at The Albion Rooms, the new resto at Ottawa's downtown Novotel. I'm happy to report that I would go a third time (and more) without reservation. (But do make a reservation - it's not a big place and it was packed both times.)

Let's get one thing straight first: this is a restaurant attached to a hotel, but it is decidedly NOT a hotel restaurant. The decor and atmosphere remind me of my beloved Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington Vermont: lots of dark slightly rough-hewn wood, black or grey chairs, funky steampunk-ish light fixtures and clean white tableware. The food is equally interesting and adventurous: a good mix of small and large plates incorporating seasonal ingredients, combined in modern and unexpected ways.

What we ate was consistently delicious, well-presented, and fun. Beetroot-cured salmon from the charcuterie menu was a highlight, served in thick slices with house-pickled onions, capers and creme fraiche; the terrine of deer, pork and dried cherries was also a winner, lashed with sweet berry Cumberland sauce.

Two soups, both featuring butternut squash, showed off the chef's ability to make one ingredient sing in multiple ways. The first week it was laced with maple syrup and prosciutto, then blended to a smooth creamy puree with a hint of smoke and sweetness that was utterly balanced. The second, a slightly thicker and less creamy version, married the squash with apples and saffron, and was equally lip-smacking.

Mains were equally successful - their tuna Niçoise salad featured gorgeously seared slices of sustainable albacore tuna, blue and yellow potato coins, grilled artichoke hearts, grape tomatoes, barely-cooked green beans and proper tiny Niçoise olives, all drizzled in a herbed anchovy vinaigrette. Even the rosemary in the dressing (I'm not a fan) couldn't keep me from devouring this gorgeous plate/

Chris declared their fish and chips, made with sustainable Lake Erie pickerel in a lemon-thyme beer batter, the best he'd ever eaten, beating out the stuff we had in the UK at that. I would have to agree - the fish was perfectly cooked and flavourful, the batter airy, crisp and golden. The thick-cut fries, cooked three times and dusted with parmesan, were also utterly delectable.

I tried out the locally raised elk burger on our second visit and enjoyed it - I like the gamey taste of elk and this was yummy, paired with S2S bacon and sharp cheddar on a slightly oversized (to my mind) bun - some of which I left behind in order to enjoy the rest of the meat unencumbered.

One cannot discuss the Albion Rooms without mentioning the Scotch Egg. The traditional pub snack is a hard-cooked egg wrapped in ground sausage meat, breaded and deep-fried. The chef here likes to twist the original a bit - his version changes with the seasons and is currently using tourtiere meat (a beef, pork and deer blend) to wrap the soft-yolked egg, which is indeed breaded lightly, fried, split in half and served with a house-made fruity ketchup. Chris observed our friend enjoying one on our first visit and had to have one the second time. He was not disappointed.

Desserts put a fun twist on classics: a buckwheat-honey creme brulée; a warm butter tart with boozy raisins and pecans scattered on top; and a Nanaimo Jar, the classic square baked into a glass preserving jar. I was dying to try the latter, but it turned out to be the one slight misstep: the coconut brownie base was overcooked and dry. The custard and choclate layers were delightful, however. The butter tart and creme brulée were both very well-executed and tasty.

Cocktails taken seriously here. The Dalhousie Diablo - a mezcal-based concoction with cassis and ginger beer - was both interesting and delicious. They also have "driving cocktails" (booze-free) such as the Queensway Split with grapefruit, cranberry and soda. They also stock locally-brewed Harvey & Vern's sodas.

Service on the first occasion was seamless, pleasant and fun. On our second visit, a slight misunderstanding regarding who was in charge of our table resulted in us being served, delightfully and with great grace and humour, the floor manager, Jackie. We were very well taken care of and left with full bellies and happy smiles.We will certainly be returning - perhaps not next Saturday, but on a not-too-distant one for sure.

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