Dining: Monday’s pots of goodness at Absinthe bolster fine bistro fare
Keeping the fondue flame burning
1208 Wellington St. W., 613-761-1138 absinthecafe.ca
Open: Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Price: Monday night fondues, three courses for $44/person, minimum two people
Access: No stairs
Douglas Coupland and I are just not on the same page.
“Fondue sets, martini shakers and juicing machines: three things the world could completely live without,” the famed Gen-X Canadian writer wrote.
Never mind the shakers and juicers. It’s impossible then that Coupland has dined on a recent Monday night at Absinthe Café on Wellington Street West, when the popular bistro has thrown three-course fondue parties.
The night I partook, the fondues — cheese to start, beef as a main, chocolate to finish — were mighty fine, with deliciousness and culinary sophistication far outweighing any retro vibe that Coupland might have found offensive.
Restaurants serving Swiss-style fondues are rare in the Ottawa area. As I wrote last week, Meule et Caquelon in Gatineau has specialized in fondues, not to mention raclette, for more than a decade, and it pretty much has had the market to itself.
But now, Absinthe chef/owner Patrick Garland wants a piece of the action. His higher-end, once-weekly fondue ($44 a person for at least two people) ought to woo dipping diners to his unfussy, attractive room, with its mirrored, pumpkin-coloured walls, absinthe-green back wall and woody, comfy surroundings.
The cheese fondue course featured a melted mix of Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois that was gooey and irresistible on florets of broccoli and cubes of baguette. Bites of apple and Bartlett pear were palate cleansers.
Garland’s main was, in a sense, an extension of the Absinthe brand. His fondue bourguignonne saw big chunks of hanger steak — the same cut that stars in the bistro’s signature steak frites — dunked and left to sizzle in well-heated oil. Making the beefy nuggets better were four top-notch sauces. Ranging from mildest to punchiest were an umami-rich and surprisingly kid-friendly garlic and anchovy, ranch, a ramps-bolstered dip and a fiery but rounded chipotle choice.
For dessert, a pot of liquefied Valrhona 56.5 per cent cocoa Caraque dark chocolate starred. We greedily immersed Garland’s house-made “churros” (more like Timbits), slices of strawberries and bananas and segments of clementines in the sweet, rich bath. Had I been Winnie the Pooh, I would have licked the pot.
Absinthe’s fondue equipment was new, efficient and even beautiful, lending to a sense of occasion. Our server was keen and knowledgeable, informing us, for example, of etiquette and safety tips (the fondue fork is for dipping only) and practical pointers (baguette pieces should be speared on the crust side for better bread retention). She also nicely matched a wine with the meat course — which wasn’t that hard, given Absinthe’s smart wine list and selected pairings as a resource.
At least for now, the restaurant will allow customers (say, Coupland, were he to pop by) to order from its usual and compact dinner menu on Mondays if fondue — for some crazy reason, or because of lactose intolerance — doesn’t appeal.
We saw, for example, a solitary diner tuck into her steak frites that Monday, and on a subsequent visit, I saw many more of the meat-and-potatoes faves emerge from the kitchen.
In her reviews of 2007 — the year Absinthe opened in its current location — and 2010, the Citizen’s Anne DesBrisay lavishly complimented Garland on his steak frites, and I can concur in 2013. The darkly seared, medium rare special ($23) rewarded diners who welcome more robust flavour and a bit of chewing over, say, a bland, if yielding, tenderloin. The meat, served over braised green beans, that I stole from a friend’s plate made me a believer, as did the frites that I filched from their little metal pot and dipped in horseradish aioli.
A pan-seared Mariposa Farm duck breast ($32) was the steak’s avian equivalent — similarly pre-sliced, red and juicy. Its ducky reduction and bracing sauté of Le Coprin mushrooms and kale made the dish complete.
As good as those mains were, the kitchen’s smoky and succulent bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($26) was best. Its fine jus and perfect, edge-to-edge pinkness testified to the kitchen’s high level of execution, while a sauté of apple and beets, some of which had been smoked, added comforting sweetness and acidity.
Before these mains came items that in a few cases stepped a bit out of the bistro box.
Absinthe’s complimentary bread, served with sweetened butter, and flavoured with fennel — naturally, given that fennel is an ingredient in absinthe — showed some savvy.
The restaurant’s winning twist on carpaccio ($14) featured a few thick slabs of beef tenderloin, offset by a mound of Caesar-dressed chopped kale, a fried whole anchovy “fritter,” and Béarnaise sauce. Wee and bony frogs’ legs ($12) were treated like chicken legs, buffalo-battered, deep-fried, hopping in a line flanked by ranch sauce and an appealing slaw of kohlrabi and celeriac.
During our fondue visit, we also enjoyed Garland’s beet salad, which was a more creative spin on that menu staple, thanks to smoked and pickled beets and a scene-stealingly good goat cheese tart.
The charcuterie board at Absinthe ($14) is smaller than what you’ll find at some Ottawa restaurants. But spot-on, house-made components such as bison bresaola, curried and pickled veg, a sphere of battered pork “Pogo” and especially a vinegary, grainy mustard all shone.
The restaurant played desserts very straight — in some cases, overly.
There’s a dessert sampler ($14) for the undecided, but three of its offerings — an average crème brûlée, a too-cold, tiny profiterole and some bland, dense apple cobbler — lacked zip. Better to commit completely to a full serving of dense chocolate fondant cake ($9) with praiseworthy chocolate ice cream (also available as a take-home treat), even if the cake would have been better with its fudgey sweetness ratcheted back a notch.
But after these two fine dinners, please don’t ask me to rule on which I prefer — Monday fondues, which should continue for the next few months, or à la carte. That’s a delicious dilemma, one that makes Absinthe well worth double-dipping.