WHERE TO EAT NOW
Soif bar à vin, Mati Crudo + Charcoal, and Orto Trattoria
Soif Bar à vin, 88 Montcalm St., Gatineau (Hull sector), 819-600-7643 I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. It seems like a good time to cross the river, visit Soif once again. (Dare I say more than once.)
Soif is a wine bar: one never tires of all the wines that owner and sommelier Véronique Rivest introduces to our region. She travels the world so that we can enjoy, say, the electric citrus flavours of Palo Blanco from Envinate on the volcanic Tenerife. Or check out the earthy, dark, fruit-filled Ténébi Côtes-du-Rhône Sablet from Domaine de Piaugier in France. There’s also the tart Les Russet cider from Quebec’s Cidrerie Milton. At Soif, Rivest hosts wine-pairing throwdowns, wine tastings, beer tastings, even the odd film night. An event this past July offered over 80 different varieties. Indeed, the moment you walk into the sleek space, you are met with cork displays, maps of wine regions, and other decor that announces this place is about wine.
With gentle lighting, the minimalist interior still manages warmth while the split-floor level and wall openings add interest. A combination of bars and tables induces conviviality. Then there’s the secluded patio, featuring a maple towering over one corner and, serving as dividers, planters filled with violas, marigolds, and salad greens. Some you’ll find gracing your plate.
Speaking of plates, I’m famished. Over the new year, chef Jamie Stunt left Soif for Dish Catering. But don’t worry — Kris Kshonze, who’s worked under Stunt as sous-chef, is now steering. Kshonze has imagination and an eye for detail. His new small plates menu includes a dish of grilled green beans and sea urchin butter with new potatoes, and lamb ragù with grilled zucchini, whipped feta, and basil. The addition of poached and halved apricots to a third dish of pork slices cooked in their own juices with red wine does little. The delicate wine sauce is simply overcome by the fruit (the case might be similar for any fruit).
Kshonze’s menu follows the seasons, but favourites such as bison tartare and raw oysters remain throughout the year.
Highlights of Kshonze’s offerings include a Boston lettuce salad overlaid with fine slices of dried duck breast and small, delicately deep-fried potato nuggets. Hidden underneath the leaves is a layer of ever-so-light chicken liver mousse. Then comes grilled toast with ricotta, and topped with oyster mushroom conserva, the latter cooked in oil and dressed with vinegar. Swiss chard in a mustard vinaigrette adds requisite bitterness. Breaded pork cutlet is deep-fried-crisp, tender inside, and scattered with a piquant cabbage salad. Slashed, smashed lengths of cucumber are dressed with buttermilk, horseradish, and dill-infused oil, marigold petals strewn on top. Accompanying all this, and providing spicy zing, is the nearly translucent, lightest red ever: a Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir from Edmunds St. John.
A lemon cream tart laid on with macerated strawberries and scattered with a few puckery blackcurrants makes a fine dessert. Give the weak, much-too-hot latte a pass. Instead, order the perfumed, effervescent Beezz rosé with raspberries from Ferme Apicole Desrochers D in Ferme-Neuve, Québec. The flavour: delicate yet steely, with a tinge of honey.
Small plates $7–$13. Open Monday and Tuesday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday to Friday from lunchtime through to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Mati Crudo and Charcoal 428 Preston St., 613-680-3860 This restaurant toots the horn for crudo and charcoal and is heavy on Mediterranean flavours, with a nod to South America. It’s been garnering lots of buzz since it opened in 2017, not least for its sublime design. But a sleek atmosphere won’t fill my growling stomach. Only the food can do that.
First impressions are good. Our waiter greets us with an enthusiasm that never wavers. We sit at the bar, and the drama begins with a couple of pretty cocktails. My guest chooses a gin concoction, which comes in a pewter mug with a couple of slices of cucumber and a dried lemon; he declares it delicious. My peachy Prosecco mix is less successful, with an overtone of syrup rather than peach.
We move on to tuna tartare, arancini, and a Greek salad. All three are classics of their traditions and can be boring if approached without flair. Not so here: the salad is a chunky mélange of aromatic vegetables and cheese. Tomatoes have plenty of flavour, the cucumbers smell divine, the feta is creamy and slightly sour, and the black olive tapenade brings just the right touch of brine. Arancini produce a moan of pleasure. Coated with crunchy crumbs, they ooze friulano cheese and sit atop a spicy tomato sauce. And the yellowfin tuna tartare is a home run of crunchy diced cucumber, green onion, and tuna with a layer of avocado on top and curry aioli underneath. The whole thing floats in a pool of maple soy sauce with crunchy taro chips at the side, creating a perfect balance of spicy and sweet, crunchy and soft.
We ordered the least expensive steak to share — $54 for 14 ounces. “It’s the best steak you’ll eat outside Argentina,” says our waiter. Cooked over charcoal, it arrived beautifully charred and very rare (as requested), the Argentinian chimichurri acting as a foil for the rich food.
A lunch visit produced a bone-in charred chicken breast with a fennel, apple, celery, dill, Italian parsley, and mustard coleslaw. This chicken was the juiciest and most flavourful I have eaten in years. Less successful was a Ruby Trout salad with fried capers and kale Caesar salad. While the trout was tender and not overcooked, it was underwhelming, and the Caesar lacked punch.
The menu offers plenty of choice, a wide variety of fish and seafood (both crudo and cooked), and all the usual suspects for cooking over charcoal. The wine list is long and features only European bottles, with a fair selection available by the glass. And while not inexpensive, Mati deserves to become more than a special-occasion restaurant. It has a great vibe and mostly achieves what it sets out to do. Appetizers at lunch $14–$17, at dinner $14–21 Mains at lunch $16–$128, at dinner $22–$128 Orto Trattoria 151C Second Ave., 613-244-6786 This Southern Italian restaurant opened with celebrated chef René Rodriguez as head honcho. But restaurant insiders will know that he brought Razmon Poisson, his right-hand man at Navarra, as well as pastry chef Marie Ford, with him to the new Orto Trattoria. Those insiders would also know that Rodriguez doesn’t stay in one place long; indeed, his name is now off the website, his menu of cucina povera, or peasant cooking, handed over to chef Poisson.
Scanning that menu, one wonders about the obscure terminology — bring your Italian-English dictionary for looking up such words as bottarga, soffritto, and pangratatto. Upon tasting the dishes, this quibble becomes fairly immaterial.
Spring salad is a perfect mix of greens, red endive, and grilled radicchio, lightly dressed. Finely grated parmigiano is on top, while two surprises await underneath: coppa alla romana — a sweet, tender, prosciutto-like cured meat — and a crispy parmigiano-pine nut tuile.
Another appetizer consists of two deep-fried arancini balls. Atypically, the rice for the shell is ground rather than left whole. Encrusted with pecorino cheese, the centres oozing with mozzarella, these arancini are worth their weight in gold.
Breaded and fried veal scaloppini on a bed of fennel purée is delicious. A simple tomato sauce napped over the meat is in turn covered with melted burrata and, at the very top, a row of asparagus.
A buttermilk marinade tenderizes Orto’s silky pig cheek confit. Truffled dwarf peaches, part of the dish, are similar in colour to the pork, so their crunchy texture is a surprise. I couldn’t detect any truffle flavour in these lightly pickled unripened peaches, but regardless, the contrast with the meat was refreshing.
For dessert, try chef Ford’s Romeo and Giulietta: a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce sits next to a pavlova nest filled with white chocolate mousse and sweetly decorated with fine slices of dried strawberries. Exquisite romance.
Now, about the service — it’s mostly good. One evening, maître d’ Ian Martin asked, “What can I bring you?” What a civilized way to ask for our order. Martin is also quick to give wine expertise from Orto’s all-Italian list. (I enjoyed a fragrant white called Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna.) Unfortunately, though, at the end of another evening, a top-40 rock station came blasting through the dining room while my espresso, halffinished, was whisked away. It was 10:30, and we were not the only customers in the place. Mains, including pasta dishes, $21–$32. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed Sundays.