However, I think Véronique Rivest likes wine the way I like breathing. Which is to say, this award-winning sommelier has created a wine bar for everyone: those who know a lot about wine and are looking for rare and unusual treats; those who just like drinking it with some friends and some tasty food; and everyone in between.
Tucked into a two-storey red brick building on Rue Montcalm in Gatineau, just behind the two massive federal government complexes, Soif is a warm, convivial space that feels like being inside a cork. The walls, floors, and bar tables are all covered in cork, which is both thematic and intriguing to the eye. There are several dining spaces which makes for a cozier feel than one large open room.
I had the privilege of joining a group of ladies who dine out together regularly, every two months, always selecting a new restaurant to try. The five of us were beautifully taken care of by our friendly and knowledgeable server who rolled with staggered arrivals like a pro and happily explained menu items in both official languages.
Most of us kicked off the evening with bubbles, in the form of a dry sparkling rosé from Austria. Delightfully, Soif offers two-, four-, and six-ounce pours of any wine they serve by the glass, so you can have a little or a lot, depending on how you feel. I opted for two ounces of bubbly, to open my palate and leave me some wiggle room to try a few other things.
Soif, like so many Ottawa restaurants these days, offers food in small-plates format, for individual enjoyment or sharing. Cooked up by award-winning chef Jamie Stunt (formerly of the brilliant Oz Kafe on Elgin), none of our plates disappointed anyone around the table.
I kicked off my meal with the smoked trout tartines: two slices of grilled country bread, spread lightly with crème fraiche and topped with house-smoked fish, fried capers, and sprigs of fresh dill. Every element was impeccably fresh and perfectly treated, and the flavours sang. Not to mention it was gorgeous to behold:
Alongside my trout, I had the fried beets with sauce gribiche (sort of like a French tartar sauce, with capers and pickles and mayo and other yummy things) for dipping. You can’t tell from the photo, but the serving size was very generous – probably two entire large beets, cooked and lightly pickled, then sliced into wedges, coated in crispy breadcrumbs (panko?) and fried to perfection. A fantastic twist on the typical fried zucchini or dill pickles served at so many pubs. If you like beets, that is (and do I ever).
With those two plates I drank a crisp, light, aromatic white from Spain, a blend of muscat, sauvignon blanc, and gewürztraminer that hit all my favourite notes without being cloying or heavy.
My third plate was the daily special, described as pork shoulder confit but arriving as pork belly confit instead, with crisp-fried sage leaves, matchsticks of raw apple and cubes of what I think was celery root atop a wine reduction. Normally, I don't order pork belly as I often find it too fatty, but the confit treatment rendered out most of the fat, leaving chewy-crisp meat behind for my enjoyment. The deck-of-cards-sized serving was just enough, and the flavours in the bowl melded into a symphony of sweet and smoky and meaty – a great success. So good, I forgot to take a photo.
With the pork, two ounces of a delightfully spicy and balanced Carignan, a red grape grown all over the south of France.
Two desserts were on offer that night, so we did the only logical thing: ordered one of each for the table and shared bites. The chewy chocolate brownie with espresso whipped cream was everything you wanted it to be: rich and luscious with a candy-like crackled top and that kick of coffee. Not weird but not ordinary either. The clementine cake was a symphony of citrus, with fresh and candied bits of the tiny orange scattered atop a light pound cake, alongside clementine curd and shards of meringue. A bright hit of sunshine for a February evening.
I was nearly taken aback when I received my bill – because I imagined it would be much higher for the calibre of food and drink we had consumed. Soif is a place for wine lovers to be surprised and wine novices to be welcomed – no fancy glassware or snobby service, just enthusiasm for the wines and a desire to provide true enjoyment. It is also, delightfully, a very good place to eat and spend an evening with friends old or new. I can’t wait to go back and try more from their eclectic and fun wine list and their seasonally-changing menu. Well done, Mme. Rivest and Mr. Stunt. Well done indeed.
À la prochaine!