Tucked away in a one-storey building along Bank Street in Old Ottawa South is the city’s newest entry onto the dining scene: Belmont Snack & Liquor. Once the home of Carmen’s Veranda (1169 Bank St.), Belmont threw its doors open to the public this past Wednesday evening after a soft opening for family and friends over the weekend.
Having snagged an invite, a good friend urged me to join him for dinner last Saturday. Needless to say, I did not need any convincing as I love checking out new restaurants. Sadly for Don, he was still sick, but encouraged me to take a break and have some fun. I have such an understanding husband!
Attending soft openings are always interesting. Staff are seeking input from the diners. Compliments, suggestions and complaints are usually passed on to the chef and crew. The menu is still in need of tweaking and kinks in the service are being ironed out. The dishes I eat may not be the same come opening day. The wine and drink lists are often still being finalized. Having visited during the trial period, I like to follow up with a return visit several weeks later. By then, the restaurant should be running smoothly.
Arriving in the neighbourhood just after 8pm, my friend and I walked up the steps to Belmont, its windows still covered in paper. I’m not sure if there is a lot behind the small strip mall, but parking mainly consists of on street parking. This may be challenging, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night and with winter here, dress warmly as you may need to walk for a bit in the bitter cold.
[Photo of Belmont’s dining room used with permission from Justin Tse, pastry chef at Social (537 Sussex Drive)]
Unfortunately, Belmont is not wheel-chair accessible. There are a few steps leading up to the front door from the sidewalk. As neither my friend nor I used the washroom facilities that evening, I also cannot say whether the size of the room and stall can accommodate someone with any physical challenges.
Walking in, I took note of the busy and friendly atmosphere in the dim room. The large bar is the first thing you will notice, with seating for approximately half a dozen people. It can seat a couple more, though a tad uncomfortably tight. The stools have a high back, allowing for jackets to hang. I immediately checked to see if there were hooks under the bar to hang my purse, but alas, I could not find any. If sitting at the bar with the doors directly behind you, I suggest a sweater or an extra cardigan for the ladies during the winter months. Otherwise, it is quite warm, almost cozy in the small dining room.
With mostly bare walls (the exception of the large chalkboards consisting of the wine, beer and cocktails menus and the odd hanging picture) and bare wooden tables with simple chairs, the modest decor suggests a simple and pared-down restaurant. Billed as a snack bar, the menu consists of small plates and snacks. Some plates are large enough that they can be shared among two people. Prices range from $4 for deep fried chicken skins to $13 for the lamb tartare. Fresh oysters are listed at market price. While the majority of the menu has meat or seafood, there are four vegetarian-friendly plates.
Michael Portigal, former chef of Das Lokal, now heads the kitchen at Belmont. Some may recognize the staff from other restaurants, including El Camino.
I should also mention that my friend and I did not pay for our food. Diners invited that weekend were treated to a free sample of the menu and only had to pay for their drinks.
Of the 11 items listed, we tried 7 dishes, sharing each plate presented to us. First up was the Bibb & Togarashi ($5).
A simple salad of tender lettuce leaves with a ginger vinaigrette dressing, shisito peppers, fresh clementine (thank goodness it wasn’t canned mandarins), and sprinkles of sesame and nori completed the dish. I appreciated the sweetness of the fruit as it pared well with the vinaigrette, however, I would have preferred there be a bit more dressing. The lettuce leaves were fresh, crisp and each leaf was a beautiful green colour. The colour and condition of the leaves is of utmost importance to me as a salad served with wilted and/or brown leaves demonstrates a lack of care from the kitchen. No fear of that here. For those who may be put off by the shisito peppers anticipating it to be spicy, these peppers are generally mild and sweet. Only one out of every ten shisito is spicy. Though I found the salad fairly pedestrian, it was a good start to the evening.
Our second dish was Deep Fried Chicken Skins ($4).
While this dish was been tired and done in many restaurants, I still love a plate of really good deep fried chicken skins. Don’t expect there to be any meat. Done well, this can be one delicious snack. I strongly recommend that the chicken skins be shared as it is a plate of deep-fried goodness. Each piece was perfectly crispy and well-seasoned. It was also well-drained. With ribbons of lightly pickled celery and carrots to cut the fat, my friend and I enjoyed every bite.
Our third dish: Rabbit Pozole ($10)
I love rabbit, I really do. And when I see rabbit on a menu, I just have to try it. Braised rabbit with some fresh cheese, pickled peppers, hominy and pearl onions completed the dish. We found this dish savoury and well-seasoned. As this is not a large plate, it is meant for one person. I wished there was more rabbit.
As the evening went on, I noticed there was something vaguely familiar about the actual dishware with the thick deep reddish edge and gold rim. I had seen something similar at Supply and Demand but could not quite put my finger on where the plates actually came from until we finished some of the food. The dishware are from the former Café Henry Burger in Hull. Some of them even have the stamp of the old celebrated restaurant logo.
Next dish: Shrimp Cocktail ($11).
James Beard, an American cookbook author and teacher, once wrote, “There is no first course as popular as a cocktail of shrimp with a large serving of cocktail sauce.” A popular hors d’oeuvre in the 1960s to the late 1980s, I can still recall the number of dinner potluck parties I attended as a child with my parents and saw shrimp cocktail among the sea of dishes. By the 1990s, shrimp cocktail became rather unfashionable, almost scoffed at. What was once considered luxurious, this appetizer was readily available in the frozen section of any grocery store. I remember my mother buying boxes of them for $2 at Food Basics. These days, you’ll be hard pressed to find it anywhere except perhaps at a seafood restaurant. So imagine our surprise when my friend and I saw shrimp cocktail on the menu.
The shrimp was plump and well done. But what stood out was the confit tomato sauce with a hint of tamarind and horseradish. A nice sauce, but we wanted to taste more tamarind.
Fifth dish: Lamb Tartare ($13)
Lamb is one of my favourite proteins. Having eaten mostly New Zealand and Australian lamb, I enjoy the gamey meat taste. For those who prefer something milder, Ontario lamb is the best option as it lacks that distinct characteristic.
Dressed in yogurt and dried fruit, the tartare was topped with crispy black lentils and pomegranate. I’m sorry to say that we were both rather disappointed. As the key ingredient, the lamb should have shined, but somehow it was lost. Granted, Ontario lamb was employed, but neither of us could really tell that we were eating lamb. The only recognizable taste was the pomegranate.
Sixth dish: Roasted Romanesco ($5)
This was easily the best dish of the evening. While I very much enjoy truffle oil, I generally find its usage gimmicky as restaurants tend to go overboard with it. Served roasted, this large broccoli, cauliflower-like vegetable was served with hollandaise and a pleasant hint of truffle oil. The romanesco was crunchy with a nutty, earthy flavour. As I have a hankering for cabbage, Brussels sprout, broccoli and cauliflower, I swear this dish was tailor-made for me. It was large enough that my friend and I were able to share this equally. Although, I believe we each could have had our own plate as we both savoured every bite immensely.
Final dish: Braised Octopus ($12)
I was really looking forward to the octopus. I find this creature of the sea is a tricky ingredient to cook with. Poorly done, you’ll have a rubbery, tough, dry, almost inedible muscle. Done well, the octopus will be tender and moist.
I strongly suggest that this be a sharing plate given that the braised octopus is wrapped in a tornado of crispy fried potato and served with a blooming onion that again, was deep fried. I found it a bit too heavy for one person to eat alone.
The fried potato was delightful and well-seasoned. In fact, the swirls of potato were reminiscence of a favourite Asian street food snack from childhood. As I did not experience the joy of eating a blooming onion from the Blooming Onion food truck (it was at the corner of York and Dalhousie), I was really curious to try it. At first the onion was fun to eat, but after several bites, it became heavy and the vegetable felt oil-logged. Regrettably, both my friend and I were disappointed with the octopus, having taken on a tough and somewhat rubbery texture. However, we are willing to give this dish another try.
As for drinks, we were informed that the wine and cocktail menus will change every couple of weeks. Beers on tap include Beau’s and Kichesippi.
Overall, we found our dining experience pleasing, though not quite satisfying. The menu is definitely a work in progress, but shows promise. It is worth a second visit.
As of Friday morning, Belmont has yet to list a phone number on their website or on Twitter. If you need to get in touch with the restaurant, Twitter or emailing Adrian Vezina is the best way (email available on the website).