Every year, the Ottawa Xpress newspaper, a local newspaper, polls Ottawans for their “Best of”s, be they ethnic foods, all-you-can-eat, poutine, catering, “cheap eats”, or restaurant patio. One of the oft recommended patios is actually part of a single “courtyard” shared by four restaurants, Black Tomato (11 George Street), Mamma Grazzi’s Kitchen (2 George Street), Social Restaurant and Lounge (537 Sussex Drive), and Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street).
These photos were taken during a C’est Bon Cooking Food Tour of Ottawa’s Byward Market
The Courtyard Restaurants’ patio is the one we vote for in the Ottawa Xpress poll.
The restaurant itself is about to celebrate its 30th Anniversary with the first of a 3 part dinner series. The first event, a “Decadent Decade Dinner“, will be held this evening. The Courtyard Restaurant’s Chef, Michael Hay (@michaelthehay), partnered with Sommelier Paul Sampson to create an innovative wine paired 5 course menu with selected dishes from food trends during the 80s, 90s, 2000’s, and something envisioned for the future.
Chef Hay, a former alumnus of Chicago’s Moto and cook for Atelier‘s Chef/Owner Marc Lepine (then, Courtyard’s Chef), has developed quite the reputation for creative dishes. On his current menu you will find components like in-house made red pepper sorbet (which I consider closer to an ice-cream), carrot emulsion, baconnaise, sous vide bread pudding, and pommes fondant. He even serves confit duck nachos between lunch and dinner services. The nachos are made with lime “dusted” corn chips and served with chive creme fraiche (in lieu of more pedestrian sour cream) and tomato concasse and the “Chef’s” pickles (in lieu of salsa)
With our kitchen demolished and it being a Friday evening, Jenn and I had dinner at the Courtyard Restaurant last week. It would be our first dinner at the restaurant, our having encountered Chef Hay and his dishes in several fundraising events. In fact, you will find many of his event offerings re-interpreted as appetizers or components of mains. This includes his Bon Appetit 2010 contribution of tuna sashimi, a tartare of sustainably caught albacore tuna, togarashi, and truffled caviar on puffed rice paper.
Our server was a younger man, probably university age, who kept referring to the back of house as “The Chef.” We do not presume to guess whether Chef Hay was actually in the kitchen that evening, but we know he has teams of cooks, working hard in the Courtyard Restaurant’s kitchens. From the boisterous laughter and camera flashes, there was likely an event in one of the larger dining rooms upstairs. One of the smaller dining rooms downstairs saw a steady stream of patrons. The patio we were seated in turned over often. It was a busy night.
Still, our host was very pleasant. Our glasses of water never went dry and our server checked on us often. He was familiar with the menu and answered questions well. Little did he know, our stay would be somewhat extended.
Minutes after seating, we were presented with menus and bread. The bread at the Courtyard Restaurant is one of the best in-house baked non-artesanal bread we have been served. The crust was crisp and layered. Inside, the bread was soft and moist, masterfully baked.
A Chef once told me there are several constants all restaurants can be compared by. Bread is one. Every fine dining restaurant serves bread. Look at the amount of bread served. Has it sat untended for a while, becoming stale? How was the bread cut? Is fresh butter served? The Courtyard Restaurant’s bread was presented well. It was impeccably fresh and delicious.
To start, Jenn and I split a scallop appetizer ($13.00), which includes pan-seared scallops, chorizo sausage, leek coulis, orange cells, and pine nuts. The kitchen split the appetizer onto two plates, halving the scallops so Jenn and I would have individual dishes.
While the leek coulis was a disconcerting colour, it provided a good foundation, both flavour and texture, on which seared scallop, spicy and salty sausage, nutty pine nuts, and sweet orange would build upon. I feel the appetizer would have been stronger were the scallops whole, but we appreciated the kitchen’s gesture. Incidentally, the menu description for the dish included pomegranate and blood orange cells. Both of which were substituted, presumably due to the availability of the ingredients.
Our bread and ice water arrived immediately. The appetizer, minutes after. Between appetizer and main, almost 70 minutes would pass. Jenn would lose her appetite. I would grow weary, watching tables that arrived after we did pay their bills and leave. The server would sheepishly come to our table and tell us the fish from my chosen main was burned, so “they” started over.
For my main, I ordered the “Fish Duo” ($28.00), pan seared line caught ling cod on baby green beans, served with a panko breaded smoked salmon fish cake. The fish cake was served a top baconnaise (mayonnaise made with bacon drippings) and maple candied thick cut bacon.
To their credit, the kitchen executed the dish well. The fish was tender, yet sported a thin and crisp crust. The fish cake was loosely packed, its crust slightly thick, but crunchy. It was not at all oily. The candied bacon, however was a little hard. The flavours worked well with each other: sweetened smokiness from the fish cake, bacon, and baconnaise; fresh green beans and clean pan seared white fish. What I like about duo dishes, and the reason I usually order them, is that you get ostensibly two dishes in one that the chef needs to loosely tie together.
Jenn ordered the braised lamb shank entree ($24.00), our having weathered a chilly week. According to the menu, the lamb shank was cooked in a dried fruit braising liquid. It was served with buttered, herb “pushed” potatoes and sauteed organic greens.
The potatoes were judiciously mashed, more than likely passed through a ricer and then finely chopped herbs were folded in. The meat on lamb shank was delicate, falling off the bone (sous vide Chef?). The sauteed greens included baby spinach and dandelion leaves with some older stems. They were peppery, slightly over wilted. Overall, Jenn liked her dish. She just was no longer hungry to eat it.
The Courtyard Restaurant is an event space, one that has the facilities to host events from small office parties to enormous wedding receptions. Like similar venues, Le Cafe comes to mind, Chef Hay is working to bring fine food to the forefront. He is succeeding. The menu employs quality local and/or sustainable ingredients. Dishes are freshly made, made order. They are worldly, borrowing flavours or ideas from many cultures. There is a firm hand at work here, one with exacting standards. We only take issue with timing, which we feel is a fluke.
Next time, we hope to be able to try Courtyard Restaurant’s desserts, prepared by Pastry Chef Quinn Davis, whose avant-garde plates we keep seeing tweeted by Chef Hay.
Total: $65.00 (before tip or taxes and includes no drinks since I did not have dessert and could not pair it with the late season Niagara Vidal I saw on the wine menu)
Tags: ByWard Market, C'est Bon Cooking, Courtyard Restaurant, great patio, Michael Hay