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Dining Out: Best bites of 2014

"After 100 or so meals out in 2014, I’m still struggling to digest what kind of year it was for Ottawa’s restaurants.

On one hand, in late October, the Gold Medal Plates organization introduced emblem of distinction plaques to fête restaurants in Ottawa and elsewhere that participated in its much-celebrated competition. Reason to celebrate?

On the other: 2014 was also the year in which three highly regarded Ottawa restaurants, all associated with Gold Medal Plates in previous years, shut their doors. Goodbye John Taylor’s Domus Cafe, ZenKitchen and Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar. We’ll miss your fine food.

That’s not to mention the 25-year-old downtown steakhouse Prime 360, or the not-even-a-year-old Skirt Steak in Kanata. Or Brut Cantina Sociale in Hull, Comfort by AJ’s in Kemptville, and the Ottawa neighbourhood restaurants Carmen’s Veranda and Milagro Grill.

Yes, restaurants don’t last forever. The good news: upstarts such as Fauna Food and Bar, MeNa, and Salt Dining Lounge, to name a few, are distinctive and promising new destinations for foodies.

I single out these three spots because Fauna is my favourite new restaurant, MeNa would take my prize for best service, and Salt so proudly says night-on-the-town with its sleek food and ambience.

Still, I don’t recall the city’s chefs previously uniting to stage an event to kickstart a special fund to, in the words of the Chef Bites website, “provide a safety net for Ottawa’s restaurant industry.” That event took place in mid-December.

Meanwhile, many of the restaurants that did open chose to stress small plates, many of which delivered refinement at sub-$20 prices. You have to wonder if they’re all sensing not just a dining-out trend, but also what the market will bear in a city that’s seen its federal public sector so downsized and demoralized in recent years.

But fortunes of the restaurant community aside, there were eateries, both cheap and cheerful or swish and splurgy, that delivered memorable and even delicious dishes. Below are 10 of my highlights, plus just as many honourable mentions, in roughly the order that I’d want to eat them if I were having that proverbial over-the-top last supper.

But first, the usual caveats: Some restaurants may have tweaked or even removed that dish that won me over earlier this year. And while I wish it were otherwise, my fondness for these dishes can’t be read as an endorsement of everything on their respective menus.

Bison Carpaccio at Fauna Food and Bar

Chef Jon Svazas elicited an audible “wow” from me with some edible abstract art that featured not just finely seasoned raw meat but an ensemble of dazzling garnishes. Aioli made with black garlic, a sherry reduction, dehydrated mushroom chips for a crisp hit of umami, an underpadding of burnt miso for further funkiness, and crushed wasabi peas for crunchy and powdery heat made for a small plate with big flavours, but also complexity and even harmony.

Honourable mention: If you’d rather have your bison cooked, I’d suggest the bison skewers I had at Teatro Café.

Leche de tigre at L’Epicerie Petit Peru or Petit Peru Resto Bar

At either of chef-owner Jorge Bahamonde’s locations, you have to get past the naive surroundings — L’Epicerie is a corner store and the resto bar converts to a dance club after 9 p.m. But both are worth visiting if you love vibrant raw fish creations, of which my favourite are the addictive cups of “leche de tigre” that combine lush chunks of tilapia with concentrated ceviche broth, toasted corn nuts and the distinctive heat of Peruvian peppers.

Honourable mention: Of the many seared tuna apps I tried in 2014, I loved the one at Town, with thick slabs of fish, a bracing orange-and-fennel salad and even the indulgences of sausage-stuffed olives.

Kale-and-ricotta malfatti at Town

It might seem funny to pick a vegetarian dish from the Elgin Street boite where chef Marc Doiron is renowned for ricotta-stuffed meatballs and artful, Italian-inspired dishes. Still, my shout-out goes to the ricotta-and-kale malfatti ($17), a sophisticated, satisfying gathering of loose dumplings in an deliciously soppable sage-tinged brown butter, accented by toasted garlic and pickled jalapeno.

Honourable mention: the hearty, savoury vegetarian “meat” loaf at Bowman’s Bar & Grill.

Smelts at Clover Food | Drink

My late father loved his smelts. I’m can take them or leave them, except for the little fillets I had at lunch at Clover. Chef West de Castro made smelts I could crave — pleasantly salted, clean-tasting and texturally perfect, while the mound of salad beneath them was thick with slices of cucumber, tomatoes, the hit of black olives and dabs of basil aioli.

Honourable mention: Since we’re talking about salad, I want to salute the deluxe root vegetable salad at Salt Dining Lounge.

Massaman Curry at Sam’s Café in the Fairmont Confectionery

If you’re lucky, the café will have Massaman curry as a daily special posted on its white board.

Although Sam Souryavong has dialed down the recipe that he learned in Bangkok, the devoted Thai cook/corner store owner concocts a Massaman curry that still teems with richness and flavour, including hints of nutmeg and cardamom as well as plenty of heat.

Honourable mention: For different kinds of curry, there’s the lamb masala, distinguished by caramelized onions, or the beef kolhapuri, made with poppy and sesame seeds and dessicated coconut, at Palki.

Seafood paella at Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar

The newest purveyor of Southern food at 895 Bank St. took a detour to Spain and turned out a fine seafood paella, which boasted plump shrimp, fine mussels, clams, squid and bits of chorizo mingling with well-cooked and seasoned rice.

Honourable mention: the briny, teeming-with-seafood linguine pescatore at La Porto A Casa.

Chicken at Pili Pili Grilled Chicken

Pili Pili Chicken at Pili Pili Grilled Chicken on Dalhousie Street.

It’s tough to choose my favourite roast chicken of 2014. By the skin of its teeth — do chickens have teeth? — I’ll pick the alluringly spiced, grilled-over-hardwood birds at the two humble Pili Pili Grilled Chicken joints. At the Dalhousie Street location, I had a sublime $5 chicken leg lunch. From the Montreal Road location, I brought home a hacked-up whole bird that thrilled with its balance of spice and smokiness and provided left-overs worth gnawing on the next day.

Honourable mentions: the moist, flavourful roast chickens at Petit Peru and EVOO Greek Kitchen that do their home countries proud.

Duck main course at Social

At the Sussex Drive hotspot, chef Kyrn Stein served a knockout of a duck dish with deep flavour and vivid pink succulence going for it. Morsels of breast and confit leg were mounted on pumpkin puree and offset with a jolting, dark purple smear of tart huckleberries.

Honourable mention: chef Mook Sutton’s duck breast small plate at Teatro Cafe.

Lamb chops at EVOO Greek Kitchen

Plate of Lamb chops with tzatziki and lemon potatoes at EVOO restaurant

The year-old Preston Street restaurant brings in top-notch lamb chops from Washington State and serves them charbroiled and lemony, pinkly succulent and full of flavour.

Honourable mention: Moving from one homey chop to another, I’d single out the luscious pork chop at Bistro l’Alambic in Gatineau’s Hull sector.

Aerated sponge cake with fennel at Salt Dining Lounge

Too many desserts in Ottawa eateries feel like obligatory, sugary placeholders on their menus. If I never have crème brûlée again, I’ll be just fine. But at Salt, a plush Preston Street space, chef Ryan Edwards is heavily invested in desserts, and the winner of those we tried was an outré, sweet-meets-savoury meeting of “aerated” sponge cake (indebted to El Bulli) with dehydrated fennel chips, fennel jam and fennel-meets-brown-butter ice cream.

Honourable mention: the Rocky Road dessert featuring a squiggle of ganache, roasted marshmallows, almonds and cereal milk ice cream (indebted to Momofuku Milk Bar) at Social.

THE RESTAURANTS

Clover Food | Drink155 Bank St., 613-680-8803, cloverottawa.ca

Epicerie Petit Perú/Petit Peru Resto Bar89 Boul. St-Raymond, Gatineau (Hull sector), 819-205-6231, and 349 Dalhousie St., upstairs, 613-562-9756, petitperu.com

EVOO Greek Kitchen438 Preston St., 613-695-3860, evoogreekkitchen.ca

Fauna Food and Bar425 Bank St., 613-563-2862, faunaottawa.ca

Pili Pili Grilled Chicken355 Montreal Rd., 613-695-7454, 205 Dalhousie St. 613-695-7404 pilipiligrilledchicken.com

Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar895 Bank St., 613-234-7674, rosiesonbank.ca

Salt Dining Lounge345A Preston St., 613-693-0333, saltottawa.ca

Sam’s Cafe at Fairmont Confectionery102 Fairmont Ave., 613-728-0931, www.facebook.com/FairmontConfectionery

Social537 Sussex Drive, 613-789-7355, social.ca

Town296 Elgin St., 613-695-8696, townlovesyou.ca"

Source: Peter Hum, Ottawa Citizen. December 30, 2014.


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