My better half and I find that we eat out quite the bit during the weeks leading up to and including Christmas. There are always good friends in town or visiting, with whom we like to get together at one of our favourite eateries one last time before the new year. With the large dinners Jenn and I usually prepare between Christmas Eve and Boxing day, it is nice to sit down to a great meal at a great restaurant.
Brunch: Benny’s Bistro
This year, we discovered a great brunch place, which we have determined somewhat inappropriate for our growing brunch club. It has limited seating. It is quickly busy and it does not take reservations (first come, first serve). Located surreptitiously in the back of the celebrated French Baker bakery (119 Murray Street) on the epicurean end (near Dalhousie Street) of Murray Street, Benny’s Bistro is a local’s favourite for lunch during the work week and an amazing brunch during the weekend.
Though, the service at Benny’s is many many times better than what Parisian Bistros are reputedly known for.
The Saturday morning we visited, the special was an omelet ($14), which is what I feel, a fresh take on New York Nova and Eggs; an omelet with roasted salmon belly.
It was spectacular, fatty salmon belly cooked delicately in an ever so slightly runny and made-to-order omelet. The kale was just wilted too, offering both an earthy flavour and not quite cooked texture, fresh and green.
The accompanying salad consisted of arugula and string shaved beets.
Me, I ordered the organic forest and leek confit “taco” ($15).
It too was spectacular. Accompanying the freshly cooked mushrooms and confit leek were braised Belgian endive, arugula leaves, shaved butter nut squash (likely shocked to fix the curls), and a lemon and horse radish creme fraiche to tie everything together. Its base, a round of puff pastry. Garnishing, a slice of in-house pickled beet.
The mixture of fresh, peppery, sweet, earthy, fatty, bright, and buttery flavours and crunchy, crisp, and soft textures resulted in an adventure for the palate, akin to a crisp hike in a forest.
Regarding the service at Benny’s, our dishes were served within 10 minutes of ordering, even with a nearly full dining room. Because my better half is sensitive to cheese, they happily subbed out components of their brunch special and furnished us with a side of roasted fingerling potatoes. The potato side was just as carefully cooked as our mains. We originally thought the potatoes were cooked in brown butter.
When seated, our hostess greeted us with a bowl of freshly cut bread from the French Baker bakery, nothing stale here. Drinks followed very quickly thereafter. Coffee for me and tea for Jenn.
Total: $42.38 (with coffee, tea, and side of roasted fingerling potatoes and before taxes)
For small parties of 4 or less, eating at Benny’s is one of life’s luxuries you should avail yourself of. If you are a local foodie, it is a must visit.
Please note that Benny’s does not open for evening service, its dining room reserved for special events only.
Lunch: Le Cafe
When we found out the Toronto foodie who baked one of the Christmas cookie care packages we received was coming to Ottawa for the Christmas holidays and wanted to have lunch with us in the ByWard Market, I made reservations at Chef Michael Blackie’s newly re-opened Le Cafe (53 Elgin Street) in the National Arts Center (NAC). Our guest, Bonita (@boneats) of the Bon Eats blog.
A little background, Jenn and I hadn’t visited Le Cafe since we started dating years ago. It was at Le Cafe, then under the late Chef Kurt Waldele, that I tried my first seared duck breast and duck confit. She, her first steak frites, the steak perfectly seared fillet. On a pair of students’ budgets, eating at Le Cafe was somewhat extravagant, so we visited sparingly, only celebrating special occasions there. Later on, I would find out one of my then supervisors, someone who would prove to be a mentor in my career, had proposed to his wife at Le Cafe, also during Chef Waldele’s tenure.
Chef Blackie made a name for himself locally at Perspectives (525 Legget Drive) in Kanata’s Brookstreet hotel, earning 4 Diamonds from the CAA/AAA. Many of the chefs I follow on Twitter congratulated him on his taking up the reigns at the NAC and later tweeted positive comments for his new menu.
Chef Blackie is also a regular competitor during Gold Medal Plates.
Inside, the restaurant had largely not changed since Jenn and I were there last: dark stained chairs against white linened tables on a dark carpet. The textured white ceiling add a dimension of openness. The floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Rideau Canal offer a picturesque view, no matter what season.
Please take note of the one piece coarse salt and pepper grinder/dispenser on the table. It will come in handy later.
With Christmas not a week away, I ordered the soup ($6.50) to start and one of the specials that Monday, Le Cafe’s interpretation of a turkey dinner ($11.50). I wanted inspiration for the turkey dinner Jenn and I were to prepare later on that week.
Drizzled with truffle oil and ethereally light in texture, the cream soup was rich and flavourful, perfectly seasoned.
Beautifully presented, Le Cafe replaced traditional stuffing/dressing with a savoury bread pudding. On top, sliced turkey breast. Then, yu choy (a Chinese green), bread pudding, cranberry sauce, roasted baby carrots, and turkey jus.
Alas, my slices of turkey breast were on the dry side. I had to drag bites through the savoury jus and tart cranberry sauce to make them palatable. Given the shape of the slices and the fact we were the first table in the dining room to be seated, my slices were likely first carved off the roasted turkeys. As someone who has been on a quest to prepare a moist roasted turkey, I find the first carvings from the top of the breast drier, as it is most exposed to the dry heat of the oven.
Bonita and Jenn ordered the other special that Monday, line-caught rainbow trout ($11.50).
Both Bonita and Jenn, whenever possible, prefer their fresh fish medium-well, ever so slightly rare in the center. The trout was a little over cooked for their liking. Each fillet’s corn meal crust though was crisp and carried a nice crunch. The sauce was a good accompaniment and the mashed potatoes, wonderfully smooth.
Bonita, Jenn and I remarked at all our dishes coming adorned with yu choy. Bonita aptly dubbed it Chef Blackie’s “it” vegetable for Christmas 2009. We giggled quietly when other tables were served their dishes and patrons found their accompanying greens exotic. Yu choy is a staple vegetable in Asian diets, the three of us eating it in our respective homes the night before.
For drinks, with Bonita and Jenn having plans that afternoon and my having to return to the office, we decided to order purified water.
According to a media-release, Chef Blackie had installed a Vivreau Water Purification System that purifies tap water, producing both a carbonated Perrier analogue and a non-carbonated option. At $3/re-usable glass bottle, a portion of sales goes to the NAC’s National Youth and Education Trust.
As someone who very rarely drinks wine, I am weary of the disapproving looks I get from wait staff who think I am at a restaurant for a cheap meal. Usually, I order cranberry juice or a cocktail to finish the meal. But, with the in-house purified tap water on the menu, I have another option. At Le Cafe, our waiter’s look changed from disapproving to amused, when I asked if bottles from “Chef Blackie’s Vivreau Water Purification System” were available.
Total: $67.80 (after taxes, but before tip)
Dinner: Play Food and Wine
Earlier this past fall, during the United Way Schmoozefest, Jenn bid on and won a pair of $50 gift certificates to the two Stephen Beckta restaurants in Ottawa, Beckta Dining and Wine and Play Food and Wine (1 York Street). The latter, a newer establishment serving small plates, Beckta opened with Chef Michael Moffat. Chef Steve Vardy, was the original chef at Beckta.
When Jenn looked at the menu at Play, she told me there are likely other food enthusiasts we know who would better appreciate its dishes and handed me the Stephen Beckta signed certificate. Indeed, Jenn is not the fan of charcuiterie I am. She is also somewhat sensitive to raw milk cheeses.
Hearing my friend Izzy (@spoonsie) had broadened her culinary horizons at Chef Steve Mitton’s Murray Street Bistro (110 Murray Street), I invited her to join me. Murray Street has what I feel is an amazing charcuiterie bar. The evening she was at Murray Street, she tweeted something along the lines “OMG, I tried tongue!”
Play Food and Wine is a two story restaurant, the bottom dining room with a large bar. The upper dining room with tables facing Play’s open kitchen. Both floors have large windows that let in large amounts of light during the day and permit a view of the ByWard Market in the evening. The wood bistro tables are lacquered almost golden with dark coloured chairs surrounding them. On the second floor, there are leather-clad booths to sit in as well. Me, I was happy to be seated in front of the kitchen. I kept peeking at the line cooks and chefs busily kicking out dishes for patrons.
Even for a Monday (yes, the same Monday I went to Le Cafe), it was busy. Yet everyone in the kitchen practiced their craft with an almost choreographed efficiency, at least to my untrained eye. It was very unlike the insanity I saw when Jenn and I sat at the bar of a Denny’s. Peering into that kitchen was amusing. The wrong dishes were made. Orders were tossed about, no one taking ownership. The cooks at each station looked stressed and confused. At Play, the kitchen, I later commended Chef Moffat, functioned like a well oiled machine.
For starters, Izzy and I ordered the mixed charcuiterie plate ($19) to share.
From left to right: baby dills, pickled apple, Knorr Dijon, beef brisket, more baby dills, bread chips, house pate, in-house pickled squash and turnips, even more baby dills, Serrano ham, fig compote.
Again, please take note of the salt and pepper shakers on the table.
The plate was great, pairing different pickles, compote, and Dijon with the various meats and the pate brought out different flavours. Compared to Murray Street though, I found the plate made up for a more mainstream audience. Murray Street’s charcuiterie bar is stocked with less conservative options, more terrines of varying textures (including rilletes), more dry cured sausages, more dry cured meats, and even head cheese (aka: brawn). To someone who believes strongly in eating nose-to-tail, while I appreciate Play’s sampler, I prefer the variety at Murray Street. But, I digress. The plate was great.
Regarding how I know the Dijon is Knorr brand, we asked. It had such a strong finish and great heat that we wanted to know if it were made in-house. Our friendly waiter, gladly obliged. He was friendly and attentive throughout our meal. I am told service at Play is beyond reproach. I believe it!
As her main, Izzy ordered the scallops ($14) and frites to share ($4)
The seared scallop I tried was perfectly cooked, perfect for me being gently crusted on the outside with different strata of done-ness inside and a near-rare core. The frites were bistro quality, freshly made, crisp, and not at all oily.
I ordered the sweetbreads ($15), a first for me.
Paired with sage leaves, the sweetbreads had a spongy texture and a crisp coating, wholly enjoyable with the fresh herbs. The lentils tasted of mushroom, but had nutty side-notes and a warm spice mouth feel. Delicious.
Play Food and Wine is now my recommend in Ottawa for dedicated small plates.
Christmas Party: Absinthe Resto-Bar
Absinthe (1208 Wellington Street) has been my recommend for Ottawa’s best steak frites, since I first tried it over a year ago. Jenn is also a fan. The bistro uses hanger steak for the classic dish, which its cooks marinate and sear up medium rare. I am only critical of the accompanying fried-to-order fries. The fries, sometimes over-seasoned, are served in small bowls, allowing moisture to collect as they cool. If you don’t eat the fries fast enough, they go soggy.
Pardon the play on words, but I now have two beefs with the bistro. As the Urban Foodie pointed out in her review of Absinthe, I discovered there are indeed neither salt nor pepper shakers on tables. During a non-work Christmas party, I asked our waiter why. After informing me I must be “new” to eating in restaurants like “this one”, she told me Chef/Owner, Patrick Garland, feels his food comes out properly seasoned. “If you want more salt, you have to ask the kitchen.” Me, I have never tried to correct the seasoning of a dish served to me in any restaurant. I have never reached for a salt shaker. I have never reached for a pepper grinder. I want the Chef to speak. However, everyone’s palate is different. With both Le Cafe and Play, providing patrons the option, I was left to wonder about having the option.
My second beef has to do with acoustics at Absinthe, a restaurant known to be cavernous. In the past, I have only sat at tables along the sides of the dining room, the middle tables usually reserved for larger groups. When we arrived, my sizeable group was seated at a middle table, where it quickly became clear we were at one of the focal points for sound in the restaurant. Everybody’s conversations reflected off the walls towards us. I had to raise my voice to speak to the person beside me. I had to crane my neck to listen to the person across the table. I kept hearing a constant unintelligible drone of voices and noise from tables around me. I left with a bad headache.
As always, the food was good, but the ambiance left me disappointed. I had heard people with hearing aids avoid Absinthe. I believe I may know why.
Nevertheless, Absinthe is still my recommend for steak frites. Only, I suggest patrons go in small groups and they request tables around the perimeter of the restaurant.
Update: After new year, I went with friends (@cestboncooking and @biff_da_bear) to Play Food and Wine for lunch. I ordered the salmon gravlax with beet, apple and ginger gastrique ($10) and the grilled hanger steak with mushrooms, and frites ($15). Serving the in-house cured gravlax with sweet beets and fruity apple and ginger flavours made an excellent starter. The mini-steak frites came with perfectly seared medium-rare hanger steak and crispy fries.
Afterward, I still felt Absinthe’s hanger steak frites tastes better to my palate because I prefer Chef Garland’s marinade (more umami), but Play’s is a VERY close second. However, were I to take a large group of people out to lunch or dinner for bistro-style fare, I would choose Play over Absinthe.
Total: $25.43 (after taxes, before tip, including a coffee)
French Baker (original location)/Benny’s Bistro
119 Murray Street
French Baker (Second location)
801 Bank Street
53 Elgin Street
Play Food and Wine
1 York Street
Absinthe Cafe and Resto-Bar
1208 Wellington Street
Tags: absinthe cafe, back posted, Beckta, Benny's Bistro, Christmas, Chronicles of Christmas, French Baker, Hintonburg, Kurt Waldele, Le Cafe, National Arts Centre, Play Food and Wine, steak frites