Dining Out

Owner Sean McCoy, right, and head chef Steve MacDonald are the pair behind Aperitivo restaurant in Kanata. (Photo: Julie Oliver)

Aperitivo
Address: 655 Kanata Ave., Unit L2 (Kanata Centrum in the pedestrian zone near AMC Theatre) 613-592-0004, aperitivo.ca
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., every day
Prices: small plates/salads $8 to $16, large plates $18 to $24
Accessibility: no stairs at entrance or to washroom

It was great for us, but surely less good for the restaurant, that when we three popped by Aperitivo for a recent lunch, we had the sleek and slivery Kanata restaurant all to ourselves.

We had Chef Steven MacDonald’s undivided attention, so that of the parade of small plates that emerged from his tiny kitchen, all but one was pretty much right on the money.

One had even grown 50 per cent, from two toothsome, cilantro-cream-spiked fish tacos to three, so that one of us would not be deprived. When we asked to take a dessert back to a buddy who couldn’t join us, MacDonald brought the package of sticky toffee pudding to our table and told us how to reheat the caramel rum sauce.

But surely it must be a different story at Aperitivo when the place is jammed at dinner, you say. Well, let me describe my version of that experience.

During a recent weekend dinner, the restaurant was indeed almost full, with most of its 44 seats filled, many no doubt by couples kicking off date nights. We three walk-ins were lucky to get seats at the bar down the length of Aperitivo. There, we were well-served and well-fed, treated to a succession of bold flavours on handsome plates. There was one kitchen flub that resulted in a freebie plate, but no bad feelings.

To boil it down: nearly empty or busy and buzzing, Aperitivo won us over.

Just to be clear, this three-month-old restaurant should not be confused with Bin 790, which used to occupy the same space, although such confusion would be understandable.

Sean McCoy, Aperitivo’s owner, explained that its well-regarded predecessor, which also focused on small plates, closed in late April after about two years in business. McCoy, formerly a salesman, jumped in to open Aperitivo, his first restaurant, this summer, and was able to snag key members of Bin 790’s former kitchen and serving staff.

He renovated the long, narrow room, which is distinguished by its wine-bottle-lined walls, its bar that blurs into a small, open kitchen, its fireplace and its orange and white accent walls. He told the chefs to stick to a menu stressing small plates — they suit the kitchen’s size and resources — but asked them not to re-create any of Bin 790’s recipes. He also challenged them to make a 100-per-cent gluten-free menu, in deference to a celiac relative.

They arrived at a list of nine small plates, two salads, four large plates and four desserts plus a cheese plate, all available every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. From my sampling of more than half the menu, I’ll separate the many good offerings from the few that didn’t do it for me.

Of the small plates, the bacon-wrapped striploin ($16), while small, was potently flavoured and keenly eaten. Two medium-rare cubes of beef were swaddled in crisp bacon, with micro-greens and sautéed mushrooms to offset them and a foie-gras-infused demi-glace adding savoury funk and richness. Chili rellenos ($10) had a lot going for them too, namely crisp poblanos stuffed with a moist goat-cheese filling, joined by a bracing romesco sauce to cut the richness of the cheese.

Of several upmarket poutines that I’ve recently had, Aperitivo’s might take the prize. Its makeup varies, but I enjoyed the “mushroom cheeseburger” version ($12) we received. Frankly, I think poutine still comes down to fries and gravy, and both of those ingredients were as good as I would want at Aperitivo.

We three did so well with our four plates (beef, tilapia tacos, peppers and poutine) that we decided to get a fifth, the Johnny cakes ($9). We like the dance of flavours and textures on the plate (chili-flake-spiked bitter rapini, sweet oven-dried tomato, crème fraîche, an oozing poached egg) but found the too-tough Johnny cakes (cornmeal-based pancakes) didn’t merit star billing on the plate.

During my dinner visit, the two salads were fine. The beet salad ($10) with goat cheese and arugula (one of many such salads around town, it seems to me) was good. The generous winter salad ($8) of endive, radicchio, fennel and apple in a butter milk dressing was better still.

A plate of two calamari preparations ($12) — fried on the left and grilled on the right — satisfied immediately, both ways. The grilled squid was especially good, accented with tomato, garlic and capers. However, the kitchen did leave a tubelike bit of cartilage on the plate amid the grilled food. After I brought it to the staff’s attention — I mistook it for plastic, no less — the price of the plate came off our bill, not that I had suggested it.

Of the more substantial, complex and pretty large plates, the duck breast ($23) delighted, its meat tender and well-complemented by no shortage of intriguing items — tea-poached pear, a reduction spiked with chai tea, delicious confit potato, and crispy leaves of Brussels sprouts. Too assertively salted, the sprouts were the only misstep on the plate, and a slight one at that.

Seared scallops ($24) provided five large, fully loaded bites. On top of each peppery scallop was a morsel of candied bacon, and below was a dollop of celery root purée. Squash hash dotted the plate.

I had exactly one forkful of gnocchi ($18), offered to me by a very friendly and kind neighbour lady at the bar, but it was enough to get a very good feeling about the properly cooked potato dumpling served with peas, mint and mushrooms in a goat cheese cream sauce.

I wished that I had liked the short ribs ($24) that I had ordered for myself as much. The server promised it would be fall-apart tender, but it fell short, although not by much. More seriously, some flavours on the plate went too far, beyond bold to excessive. Coffee rub on the meat was too bitter, sauce on the plate tasted too strongly of wine, and the polenta tasted as if too much sour cream, or something sour, had found its way in.

Dessert selections were appealing variations on the tried and true. Lemon vanilla crème brûlée ($9) was well-crafted and right-sized. More interesting and eye-wideningly good was the day’s cheesecake ($10), a layered treat of banana cheesecake, a rich chocolate slab, banana slices and a homemade layer of warm marshmallow.

Beyond the small and large plates, there are other ways to eat at Aperitivo. True nibblers might be content with the cheese plate, candied nuts, a mix of olives, or chickpea “popcorn.” These can be washed down with wine from a discriminating list (almost 20 bottles, of which 16 are available by the glass) and local beers on tap (Kichesippi 1855, Beau’s, Hogsback).

I’ve not tried the bar snacks or cheese, but expect they would more than fine, given the level of most things I’ve tasted at Aperitivo.

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