Sometime during June of last year, I blogged about a top 10 list of “tips when heading out to a restaurant.” The tips were paraphrased from an article that appeared on MSN Money. I then added tidbits from Macleans Magazine, my personal experience, and Chef Anthony Bourdain’s seminal book Kitchen Confidential. Both Chef Bourdain and the article from MSN Money recommend against heading out to a restaurant on Mondays. Their reasons have to do with potentially being served the weekend’s leftovers and the head chef more than likely being off.
Chef/Owner Arup Jana of the Allium on 87 Holland Avenue is not only present on Mondays, but he’s serving made-to-order tapas from a menu that changes weekly.
What is/are tapas? According to wikipedia, tapas is the name for a cuisine of appetizers that originated in the Spanish cooking tradition. At Spanish restaurants, instead of ordering courses, patrons can order many different appetizers and combine them for a full meal. Spanish restaurants even specialize in serving specific taps.
The snack-based meal, however, is not new. There are similarities between tapas and dim sum from Chinese cuisine. Dim sum is a brunch-style meal that consists of a variety of single-themed small dishes served with tea. Some are dry fried. Many are steamed. Some are braised. Others are baked.
While the tapas served at Allium is neither Spanish nor Chinese, it captures the spirit of the snack-based meal: a large selection of small dishes with varying ingredients, flavours, and textures. Allium’s tapas is more of a French-bistro style tasting menu. When served, waiters happily pair dishes with local Canadian wine. After all, Allium is a bistro.
The following are pictures from a November 2007 visit to Allium for tapas
Given the menu that Monday, we decided to each order 3 dishes and sample each other’s choices. This way we could sample 6 wonderful creations. Our theme: surf and turf.
We started with Chicken Skewers and the Frites. Our chicken skewers came glazed in light soy, honey, and very finely chopped cilantro. They were plated on a mayonnaise-dressed carrot slaw, garnished with soy bean sprouts, and accompanied with a honey dip. The chicken itself was white meat chicken breast and it was tender. Yet enough heat was applied to gently caramelize the honey glaze. It tasted sweet, slightly salty, and savory. The slaw was a little watery, but the dish worked nonetheless.
Regarding the frites, every worthwhile bistro serves wonderful fresh-cut fries. Allium is no different. However, these fries were a departure from the glassy fries Jenn and I remembered. While the fries we were served were carefully fried, they simply weren’t the fries Jenn and I were familiar with from dining at the Allium in the past. The fries we had had before were thick cut and plated in a tower. They were exquisitely cooked so that they were extremely crisp on the outside and buttery soft on the inside. In comparison, these fries were thinner and did not sport the same crispy exterior. Nevertheless, they were served in abundance and taste great with the slightly spicy chipotle aioli. Please note that this is a slight twist on the straight creamy mayonnaise that Europeans seem to enjoy with their fries.
Next, we had Crab Cakes and the Shrimp Poutine. The crab cakes were served on a bed of the same carrot slaw as the chicken skewers. They were plated with the same chipotle aioli that was served with the fries and they were garnished with soy bean sprouts. Since I was utterly in awe of the shrimp poutine I was served, I tasted very little of the crab cakes. As far as I could tell, they were light, pan seared, slightly herbal, and savory. The crab seemed gently cooked and it was not at all greasy. Jenn seemed to enjoy the dish.
The shrimp poutine was the dish that made the meal for me. What do you think of when you think great poutine? For me, it’s more textures than flavours: fresh cheese curds in various stages of melting from slightly melted to liquified; thick gravy; and fries in various stages of sogginess from crisp to “gravy-logged”. Allium’s shrimp poutine stays true to form, but it highlights the primary investment: seafood. Firstly, the poutine is built on a bed of crisp fries. Then it is layered with chunks of perfectly cooked shrimp and thin slices of a soft brie. Finally, it is topped with just the right amount of creamy hollandaise. The creamy hollandaise drapes over the shrimp and fries and melts the cheese. The savory cheese and eggy hollandaise go well with the shrimp. Speaking of which, Allium must use low count large shrimp in this dish. When I was served, I initially wondered if the line cook assembling my dish grabbed lobster tail by mistake. It was thoroughly delicious.
We ended the meal with Seared Scallops and Duck and Foie Gras Pâté. The scallops were pan seared and plated with a mango salsa and dollops of chipotle aioli. Jenn exclaimed that the scallops were perfectly cooked. Though she avoided the chipotle aioli.
Regarding the pâté, I have a soft spot for French charcuterie. I really enjoy the concentrated flavors that come from transforming rather unpopular cuts of meat into something edible. The pâté I was served was much more than just edible. It came topped with the same sugar crust that tops crème brûlée. This topping and the pear and apple chutney that shares the plate provide sweetness to contrast with the strong flavors of the pâté. Eating this dish well is a careful balance of topping the baguette crisps with the proper ratio of pâté and chutney to bring out the savory tastes of the duck and fois gras in the pâté. The dish put a smile on my face. I enjoyed every bite.
Here’s a texture shot of the pâté:
Total cost of the meal: $42.28 (after taxes, before tip, including a raspberry cosmo)
This posting is dedicated to my colleague Ilona who has yet to visit my favourite restaurant in Ottawa. She has such a love of seafood that I feel she would really appreciate the variety that a tapas meal at Allium provides. Allium’s tapas menus are usually rich in seafood.
To every foodie out there, you have to try the shrimp poutine from Allium. It is literally brilliant. This is the type of abomination dish that gourmets condemn and a foodies love.
To the Allium restaurant, as always, we’ll be back for more!
Here’s the menu from our meal:
87 Holland Avenue