Ottawa Citizen

2012: THE TAST­ING MENU

The Cit­i­zen’s restau­rant critic ta­bles his favourite dishes from this year into an epic, 12-course din­ner

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Dur­ing the last week of each De­cem­ber, my pre­de­ces­sor used to re­cap her best bites of the year gone by, mov­ing month by month through her most mem­o­rable dishes. But since I’ve been writ­ing about restau­rants for much less than a year, I’ll need an­other frame­work for my culi­nary ret­ro­spec­tion.

Even in less than a year of din­ing out, the de­lights have been many and var­ied. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve pulled to­gether a se­lec­tion of 12 dishes from 12 restau­rants into one mind-bog­gling, and prob­a­bly gut-bust­ing, tast­ing menu. It is, af­ter all, the sea­son for let­ting one’s belt out a few notches.

What fol­lows is a mish­mash, to be sure. It jumps from cui­sine to cui­sine, for one thing.

It also skews to ap­pe­tiz­ers and the like be­cause, for one thing, the small-plates busi­ness model was rid­ing high on the lo­cal restau­rant scene in 2012.

Some dishes are re­fined and fan­ci­ful, while oth­ers are top­notch ver­sions of more hum­ble fare. Over­all, the flow from dish to dish might put the wack­i­est potluck to shame.

A few caveats: I don’t know if all, or even most, of the dishes are still avail­able on their re­spec­tive menus. And while some dishes are from restau­rants that. in their own right. daz­zled from start to fin­ish, a few were stand­out items in meals that oth­er­wise had a few hic­cups. But all that said, I’d eat all of th­ese cour­ses again in a heart­beat — in a sin­gle sit­ting, if it were pos­si­ble.

CRAB SALAD AT NAVARRA

Lead­ing off with some­thing from Chef Rene Rodriguez raises the bar for the rest of the meal. In­spired by his Mex­i­can roots, Rodriguez turns out some im­pec­ca­ble dishes with bold and sur­pris­ing flavour com­bi­na­tions. At his By­Ward Mar­ket restau­rant, his salad fea­tured sweet crab­meat mar­ried with av­o­cado and even dried mango, placed in a pud­dle of “aguachile,” a beau­ti­fully sour, spicy and mel­low cre­ation unit­ing grape­fruit, ser­rano chili and vanilla. On top was sesame “ash” — a Rodriguez condi­ment that takes black sesame seeds to a new level.

CO­CONUT PUMP­KIN SOUP AT IZA­KAYA

The El­gin Street restau­rant with a Ja­panese name made a Thai-tinged co­conut pump­kin soup that sat­is­fied with ev­ery spoon­ful. Its flavours were big and har­mo­nious, with many de­li­cious ac­cents float­ing in that volup­tuous bowl — Kaf­fir lime added com­plex­ity, shi­itake mush­rooms were savoury and meaty, and de­hy­drated mush­room “chips” added mys­te­ri­ous tex­tu­ral con­trast.

SHRIMP SHIU MAI AT HUNG SUM

Th­ese sim­ple, steamed dumplings would have to be served, as are all the dishes at the tiny and fre­quently crowded Som­er­set Street resto, pip­ing hot in its own steamer, the epit­ome of fresh­ness. In ad­di­tion to the clear shrimp flavour of th­ese morsels, I like the rus­tic but balanced mix of more coarsely chopped meat along with smooth paste — some­thing that sig­nals the work of hu­man hands in the kitchen.

FRIED CALA­MARI AT CAFFE MIO

Few things can ruin a meal faster than fried squid done badly. My pre­de­ces­sor re­ferred to the dish as one many “ba­nal, crowd-pleaser ap­pe­tiz­ers” on numer­ous Ot­tawa menus, and she was right. But Caffe Mio on Welling­ton Street West serves plates of fried cala­mari that are light, ten­der, and ridicu­lously loaded. Of course, in this tast­ing meal con­text, we’d stop af­ter one or two.

TUNA CRUDO AT BROTHERS

BEER BISTRO

Chef Dar­ren Flow­ers served a tuna starter that was as de­li­cious as it was com­plex and vis­ually al­lur­ing. Sub­lime fish had been gen­tly cured in grape fruit in­fused Stiegl Radler and adorned with pigs-ear crack­ling and dulse, as well as pa­per-thin slices of pick­led radish.

OYS­TER PO’BOY AT BRUT CANTINA SO­CIALE

If a kitchen is go­ing to tam­per with per­fectly de­lec­ta­ble raw oys­ters, what it comes up with had bet­ter be good. At Brut Cantina So­ciale, on Hull’s main drag in Gatineau, chef Danny Mon­geon deftly deep-fries Whales­bone’s oys­ters and serves them in mini-sand­wiches, crisply ac­cented with house-made tar­tar sauce and slaw.

PORK BELLY AT PLAY FOOD & WINE

If you thought that pork belly’s moment in the culi­nary sun had passed, you’re wrong. Let Chef Michael Mof­fatt at Play Food & Wine per­suade you with what is ar­guably Ot­tawa’s most ex­pertly pre­pared ren­di­tion of this hum­ble cut. I had a small plate that teemed with play­ful com­po­nents, from beets and grapes to sam­bal-spiked cashews and a leaf of lo­vage. Still, su­perbly cooked pork belly was the star with its crunchy ex­te­rior, pil­lowy fat and tooth­some meat.

ARAN­CINO AT TWO SIX {ATE}

Of the many snacks I’ve tasted at the hip Pre­ston Street han­gout, none was bet­ter than the fried rice ball with bits of ham stud­ded in­side. For such a ba­sic of­fer­ing, it was well-crafted in terms of tex­ture and sea­son­ing, and the arugula side salad nicely off­set its rich­ness.

PORK RIBS AT THAIPAS

We don’t as­so­ciate pork ribs with Thai cui­sine, but maybe we should, given the de­lec­ta­ble ones they serve at ThaiPas, a Pre­ston Street resto/ lounge where Thai food and ta­pas hap­pily co­ex­ist. I’ve had the ribs sev­eral times, and they were meaty, suc­cu­lent, and sweetly caramelize­d.

DUCK BREAST AT APER­I­TIVO

While most of the Kanata Cen­trum restau­rant’s menu is given over to so­phis­ti­cated small plates, I’m sin­gling out its duck breast main course. Given its ten­der meat sur­rounded by tea-poached pear, a re­duc­tion spiked with chai tea, de­li­cious con­fit potato, and crispy leaves of Brus­sels sprouts, can you blame me?

SHORT RIBS AT THE VIL­LAGE HOUSE

The small and rus­ti­cally charm­ing Vil­lage House in Wake­field knocked it out of the park with a gi­gan­tic cube of short rib that was fall-apart ten­der and de­li­cious, nes­tled on a mound of car­rots, sautéed kale, mush­rooms and gnoc­chi. Last but not least was the dish’s sauce — beefy, or course, but also sea­soned, herbed and even sweet­ened (but not cloy­ingly so) with maple syrup.

ICE CREAM, AL­MONDS, BLUE­BER­RIES, CHOCO­LATE AND ESPRESSO AT ODILE

Truth is, I don’t look for­ward to desserts as much as I used to. It’s a first-world prob­lem to be sure, but if I never have crème brûlée again, that would be just fine. But I would al­ways have dessert if they were as good as what I’ve tasted at Odile. While the restau­rant ex­cels on all fronts — I’ve had duck and scal­lop/ pork-belly mains here that al­most jos­tled their way onto this list — my best dessert of the year con­tained vanilla and praline ice cream, roasted al­monds and clus­ters of frozen wild blue­ber­ries en­robed in dark choco­late. The server emp­tied a small cup of espresso into the bowl, and voila — a deluxe, melt­ing, caf­feinated, nutty mud pie. The de­li­cious, soupy, creamy mess prac­ti­cally made me feel like a kid again, which, af­ter all, is part of the joy of the hol­i­days.

 ?? JULIE OLIVER/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ??
JULIE OLIVER/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN
 ?? PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? This pork belly dish at Play Food & Wine el­e­vated the hum­ble cut of pork.
PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN This pork belly dish at Play Food & Wine el­e­vated the hum­ble cut of pork.
 ?? CHRIS MIKULA/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? The oys­ter po’ boy mini-sand­wich at Brut Cantina So­ciale packs lots of flavour and tex­ture into two bites.
CHRIS MIKULA/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN The oys­ter po’ boy mini-sand­wich at Brut Cantina So­ciale packs lots of flavour and tex­ture into two bites.
 ?? JEAN LEVAC/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? Chef Dar­ren Flow­ers of Brothers Beer Bistro makes his tuna crudo plate a de­li­cious study in con­trasts.
JEAN LEVAC/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN Chef Dar­ren Flow­ers of Brothers Beer Bistro makes his tuna crudo plate a de­li­cious study in con­trasts.
 ?? PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? Co­conut Pump­kin Soup from Iza­kaya on El­gin Street was sur­pris­ingly com­plex.
PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN Co­conut Pump­kin Soup from Iza­kaya on El­gin Street was sur­pris­ingly com­plex.
 ?? PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? Shrimp Shiu Mai at Hung Sum.
PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN Shrimp Shiu Mai at Hung Sum.
 ?? CHRIS MIKULA/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? The ThaiPas pork ribs are meaty, suc­cu­lent and sweetly caramelize­d.
CHRIS MIKULA/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN The ThaiPas pork ribs are meaty, suc­cu­lent and sweetly caramelize­d.
 ?? PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? This dessert from Odile’s makes you feel like a kid again.
PETER HUM/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN This dessert from Odile’s makes you feel like a kid again.
 ?? PAT MCGRATH/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN ?? Short rib main course from The Vil­lage House is a win­ner.
PAT MCGRATH/OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN Short rib main course from The Vil­lage House is a win­ner.

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