Monday, July 25, 2016

The Middle East returns to Centretown

About a year ago I went to the Celtic Cross Pub on Somerset Street West, to do a Paint Nite with a couple of friends. I recall it as a fairly decent but not outstanding place, in one of those old brick houses on the strip between Bank and O'Connor. Thirteen months later, that space is utterly transformed into a gorgeous restaurant whose decor manages to be both exciting and serene. Fairouz is a rebirth of sorts; a restaurant of that name once occupied this house, but closed about a decade ago. I never ate there, but by all accounts it was a traditional place where you could get a meal like your mom used to make, if your mom happened to be Lebanese.

The new Fairouz is nothing like that. And I loved it from the moment I walked in. The subtle tile patterns repeated in various decor elements such as the wallpaper, the mural on the wall that leads up the stairs, and the amazing screen-wall of ebony wood that separates the bar area from the hallway while allowing light and a peek at what's beyond. Everything is white, black, or palest pink, with hits of deep teal for emphasis: a feature wall, the candleholders. Even the patio out front has been transformed, with a stylish black railing and filigree-iron hanging lamps that I was dying to bring home and use on my back deck. This is a restaurant I could live in.

Especially when the food is this impressive. At the suggestion of our kind and friendly waiter, we (two couples) began with a trio of delicious dips and stunning house-baked pita, still pillowy and piping hot. The labneh was simple and yet delightful, a cooling mix of thick yogurt, olive oil, cucumber, and za'atar, a divine spice blend that incorporates herbs, sumac, and sesame seeds. Baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip) was as perfect as any I've had in Montreal restos, gorgeously smoky and smooth with hits of fresh parsley to liven it up. I was also thrilled to see mouhammara appear on an Ottawa menu as it's a favourite of mine and something I make at home regularly. A blend of walnuts, bulgur, roasted red peppers, garlic, and pomegranate molasses, their version was chunkier than mine but dead-on perfect in flavour and spice. Each dip comes with two pitas; we ordered a couple of extras to scoop up every last bit of tasty goodness.

The dips hail from the half of the menu known as "grazing;" the other half is called "sharing plates" and consists of larger protein-based dishes, which arrive carved for easy distribution. Yes, this is yet another restaurant where sharing and nibbling is encouraged. You can certainly build yourself a traditional three-course meal here (just order one app, a sharing plate, and dessert), but why would you, when you can try even more items by sharing with your friends?

As a midpoint between apps and mains, we ordered a plate of perfectly-executed sesame-crusted falafel to share between us. An order is four of the crispy fried chickpea fritters, which when cut open are green with herbs (parsley and dill, I think) and sit atop a pool of dill tahini, garnished with thin slices of stunning watermelon radish tossed in spicy harissa dressing, as well as some truly adorable microgreens. All of those greens and herbs, by the way, are grown in-house in a cultivator. It doesn't get fresher than that.

From the list of sharing plates, we selected the berbere-spiced duck breast and the sumac-glazed chicken, as well as a bowl of rice to share. Fairouz offers two rice dishes independently of the sharing plates, which do not come with starches. The savoury option is mujadarra, with lentils, caramelized onions, and spices mixed in; the jawahar rice we chose is the sweeter option, with pistachios, pomegranate, cardamom, candied orange, and orange flowers.

It was something truly special unto itself, even alongside showstoppers like the expertly-cooked duck breast, ruby red at the centre and lightly spiced, topped with dried sweet-tart barberries. The King eryngii mushrooms, baby squashes and beets, and dots of saffron Bearnaise microfoam were adorable and tasty accompaniments.

They say never order chicken at a restaurant, and yet early reviews of this spot all mentioned the chicken as a standout, so we did order it and were not disappointed. I have rarely had such a nicely-cooked piece of poultry, with sweet-sour notes from the sumac glaze and the date "leather" that sat alongside the meat. Impressive.

As promised, proteins were nicely carved and sliced for serving and sharing, and each person got a good sized piece of chicken and two or three slices of duck breast.

I should quickly mention the interesting cocktail list, the good selection of wines by the glass, and the thoughtfully curated beer choices. I had a glass of excellent Leaning Post rosé from Niagara with my apps and another of a medium-bodied red Barbera from Italy with the mains. Chris had a Summer Damask cocktail with pink pepper, rosewater, sparkling wine and elderflower liqueur that he found refreshing and perfect for summer, followed by a pale ale from Left Field brewery in Toronto. Fairouz smartly also has a short mocktail menu and a daily iced tea, which I always appreciate, as sometimes I have a migraine and prefer not to drink alcohol when I go out.

And now I will tell you that for dessert, Fairouz has house-made ice cream bars.

That night there were two flavours on offer: dark chocolate, dipped in more dark chocolate, crusted with pistachios; and coconut milk, swirled with dates, dipped in dark chocolate and crusted with toasted coconut. We ordered two of each flavour and traded a few bites with our spouses. These were AMAZING. Better by far than any Magnum or Haagen-Daas you've ever tasted. The ice cream was rich and luxurious, but not so much so that it left a coating of fat on my tongue. The chocolate coating shattered and melted perfectly in the mouth. The toppings offered the ideal textural contrast. My friend said "I wish I could just walk by and pick up one of these to go, anytime I wanted." Then one of the waiters inquired how we were enjoying our dessert, and informed us that the resto does in fact already have plans to sell their ice creams to the public. I can't wait.

There are two other desserts on the menu, and I bet they're both amazing, but for my money, on a summer night, you simply cannot beat an ice cream bar.

We left Fairouz on a floaty cloud of happiness and satiation, thrilled to the teeth with a Middle Eastern fine dining experience right here in our own city. Shawarma and other street foods have their place, and there's some incredible spots for that in Ottawa, but this level of cooking was missing from our food scene, and I sincerely hope that Fairouz will show others (perhaps some of our new Syrian residents?) that it can be done, and that people are seeking it out. I know we'll be back for more.

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