Last summer, the venerable Courtyard Restaurant (@CourtyardResto) suffered a small set back. Fire gutted its kitchen, causing an estimated $250,000 worth of damage and closing the restaurant to a la carte diners. According to the Ottawa Citizen’s account, there were no injuries, save for one staff member suffering smoke inhalation. Patrons and staff were evacuated safely.
Afterward, the Courtyard team continued to honour wedding arrangements, grateful the event spaces in the restaurant went untouched by smoke or flame. Executive Chef Michael Hay (@michaelthehay), his chefs, and his cooks worked out of nearby kitchens, including the one at Foundation (18B York Street), which has recently been purchased by Peter Boole (owner of Social (537 Sussex Drive)). But, with no lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch service, several cooks found work elsewhere. Many were welcomed by nearby restaurants. This week, the Courtyard re-opens.
Not three weeks prior to the fire, the Courtyard celebrated its 30th birthday with a “Decadent” dinner that featured a blind 5 course tasting. Jenn and I had the good fortune of attending that dinner. It was wonderful. The dishes served were characteristic of the prevalent food trends during the decades the Courtyard has been open, several preceding its young chef himself. The dishes were paired with wine and live music, performed by accomplished guitarist Dave Milliken. Ron Eade, food editor of the Ottawa Citizen (a local newspaper) would call it, “a dinner of whimsy.”
In an industry where a restaurant’s first birthday is celebrated with champagne because new starts rarely last the year, 30 years is unheard of. When Chef Hay introduced himself at the dinner’s opening, he rightly described the Courtyard as a dinosaur. However, as masterfully created dishes were served, the dinner would demonstrate the Courtyard is one that has evolved with the times. The meal Chef Hay and Sommelier Paul Samson put together, while good humoured, is one diners took pause to consider.
We considered the foods that defined a decade. We considered what would come.
According to the accompanying menu, the building at 21 George Street is not unfamiliar with fire. First constructed as a log tavern in 1837, it would have a long life in hospitality. First, it was the Ottawa Hotel. Then, Mcarther House hotel, McArther’s British Hotel, temporary lodging for the military during Confederation, Clarendon House Hotel, headquarters for the Geological Survey of Canada (not hospitality, but notable), and finally The Courtyard Restaurant. After renovations that began in 1978, a fire in an adjoining building caused the new restaurant to close for repairs. The Courtyard Restaurant celebrated 25 years in 2005.
Nouvelle Cuisine – 1980s
Just as the menu described Courtyard’s start, Chef Hay started with a nod to a master and a style of cuisine that broke fine food free of classic French tradition, “Nouvelle Cuisine.” Characteristic of this period were vinaigrettes and truffles. Served was a take on Chef Marco Pierre White‘s classic leek and lobster terrine.
This course was paired with Deinhard Dry Riesling (Germany), an old world-style wine meant to contrast the upcoming new world wines.
It is a dish that, shall we say, saw its time come and go.
Fusion – 1990s
To follow, Chef Hay delved into “Fusion/Confusion” when chefs and cooks decided to meld dishes together from different cultures, forming strange hybrids. His choice, sushi pizza. Apparently, sushi pizza is a Canadian innovation, hailing from either Montreal or Toronto.
This course was paired with McMannis Viognier (California). Its natural fruit character was meant to temper the wasabi’s heat.
A sushi fan, I have eaten at many-a-sushi bar and restaurant. Sushi pizza is unfortunately alive and well. I greatly dislike it because cooks, in their haste to plate and serve, seldom consider the slice of fish they top the beds of freshly fried rice with. When freshly fried, the beds heat the fish, causing it to change texture. Coddled, the fish can actually take on a slimy characteristic.
Chef Hay’s interpretation took care to celebrate his ingredients, his line caught albacore tuna, unpickled carrot, house pickled ginger, and toasted and untoasted white sesame seeds. The short grain sticky rice must have been par cooked, seasoned with dashi, loosely shaped, and fried in very hot oil to develop a crust. Then it was left to cool and cook through. When his kitchen plated his dish, they separated the tuna from the rice with a wasabi mayonnaise. The care they took produced the best sushi pizza I have ever eaten.
Molecular Gastronomy – 2000s
Having worked at Chicago’s famed Moto and staged at Ottawa’s Atelier restaurants (under Courtyard’s former Executive Chef Marc Lepine (@marc_lepine)), Chef Hay is familiar with the techniques once heralded as “molecular” and then “techno-emotional.” His molecular dish, pork belly with “7 different textures.”
This course came with a demo. Chef Hay demonstrated how the nitro-noodles of coconut curry ice cream that graced our plates were made, wheeling in an insulated canister of liquid nitrogen and wielding a squeeze bottle of ice cream mixture.
The pork belly was slow cooked, sous vide, in sweet soy (likely kecap manis) and sour tamarind for over 12 hours. It was succulent beyond description, sweet, tart, savoury, and carefully seared. It was served on a bed of gailan (Chinese broccoli) with coriander and mango fluid gel. This course was paired with Angels Gate III Bordeaux blend (Niagara). This wine blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot was chosen because it had no “meaty” character, but its tannins would go well with the pork belly.
Served with this course were baskets of rice vermicelli noodles, deep fried at 425F and sprinkled with togarashi (a Japanese spice blend).
At first, we were served a tic tac.
While it was intended to ask the question, “What do we want the next food trend to be?”, many wondered, “How do we eat it in a fine dining environment?”
A joke, Chef Hay later asked his diners, “Do we want a future where we subsist on pills?” He then introduced one of the farmers Courtyard sources its produce from, both the farm and restaurant being Savour Ottawa accredited. The farmer, David Burnford, of local Riverglen Farm.
Riverglen is a mixed biodynamic farm in its 4th year growing vegetables.
We were then served a communal plate of what Jenn and I refer to as our “reference” preparation of roast chicken.
Made with locally reared chicken, prodigiously brined, and roasted with star anise, it is what we have compared every restaurant’s roast chicken to since. Its skin was perfectly crisp. Its flesh was juicy and perfectly tender, both dark and white meat. Best of all, everything tasted naturally of chicken, something we, especially Jenn, are wary of when we eat brined poultry. Oftentimes, brining poultry changes its texture and strips it of natural juices.
The accompanying jus was buttery.
Both breast and leg quarters were served atop wilted peppery swiss chard, freshly picked by Farmer Burnfod that morning. This course was paired with Cave Spring un-oaked Chardonnay Musque (Niagara). It was chosen to demonstrate a blend of old and new world style wine.
The tic tac was “whimsical.” But, the contrast drawn between the palate cleansing pill and our family-style dish is serious. Fine dining is evolving yet again. Chef Hay believes, as many do (us included), “farm to table” isn’t a passing fad. It is a driving force. In a recent “Meet a Gold Medal Plates Ottawa Chef” interview, Chef Steve Mitton of Murray Street Kitchen aptly said, “it is something previous generations just did. We are only now becoming aware of it.” Thoughts of sustainability, carbon footprints, and quality in lieu of quantity are becoming prevalent. The appetite for humble, fresh, and seasonal ingredients, prepared respectfully, is growing and reshaping menus.
Dessert – A Modern Classic
The final course, an off-menu classic everyone who has worked the kitchen at the Courtyard has had to learn to make, maple sugar pie. The pie’s recipe has changed very little over 30 years.
It was prepared by Pastry Chef Quinn Davis and served with apple puree, candied pecans, blueberries and a scoop of Beau’s beer ice cream.
In my humble opinion, this sugar pie should tempt and/or convert any stalwart fan of British treacle tart. It was rich and sweet with dark sugars. The ice cream was incredibly smooth and beer-y. This dish was paired with Domaine Pinnacle Ice Cider (Quebec).
In one evening, Chef Hay and Sommelier Samson took thirty or so diners on a retrospective through the Courtyard’s past, present, and possible future. And, it was a great trip. As Robert Bourassa, fellow diner and famed restaurateur who opened the former Cafe Henri Burger told us, Chef Hay “started with a dish from a master” and finished the meal, “demonstrating himself a master.”
Why write about it now? Two reasons: First, Jenn and I did not have the heart to post this writeup after the fire as the Courtyard’s kitchen was being renovated. Secondly, all of these dishes were prepared in the Courtyard’s former 30 year old kitchen, which was “loyal” to its past. It was incredibly cramped, badly laid out by modern kitchen standards (no reach-ins, no line to plate food), and poorly equipped (grill with half the burners operable, decades old ovens and fryolator, one of a kind ventilation system that looked like it belonged in a ship’s engine room). The new streamlined kitchen equips Chef Hay, his chefs, and his cooks with modern equipment. Can you imagine what his new menu will look like or how its dishes will be served?
Suffice it to say, we are excited to eat at the Courtyard again.
Update: This post has been cross-posted to Ottawa Tonite
21 George Street
Tags: ByWard Market, Courtyard Restaurant, Michael Hay, Ottawa Tonite, reference dish, roast chicken, sighting, sponsored