Dining out: Deluxe dining in a gorgeous setting

Restaurant E18hteen

18 York St., 613-244-1188, restaurant18.com

Prices: Mains $30 to $59

Open: Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Access: Steps to restaurant and dining rooms, washrooms downstairs

Are you marking a special occasion?” asked the person on the other end of the line.

So said Restaurant E18hteen’s reservationist, a few weeks ago. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d heard that question. It’s 2013, and we’re firmly in the era of accomplished Ottawa chefs opening the likes of neighbourhood restaurants, taco counters and food trucks. In fact, in my year or so of writing this column, focusing on new restos, I’ve only once or twice been to a place where jeans might have appeared too casual and where a server called me “Sir.”

But it was indeed a special occasion, and we snared a table on a recent Friday night at E18hteen. We strode through its imposing three-metre-tall front door, hoping to celebrate in its lavish surroundings and enjoy a splurge-worthy dinner as impressive as the setting.

Pork belly appetizer at Restaurant E18hteen. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

The ByWard Market venue that my predecessor Anne DesBrisay in 2010 called “the city’s most beautiful restaurant” remains a plush, gorgeous space. When E18hteen opened in 2001, people swooned at the sheer and unprecedented drama of its dining room. With its striking mix of high, mirrored ceilings, over-sized tables, stone walls, inviting fireplace and soft curtains. E18hteen still looks the same, and it still looks very good.

You could even say this room looks like money. It opened in 2001, when the expense accounts of federal bureaucrats allowed for more entertaining and not long after the dot-com boom inspired dreams of dollar signs. If you can call 12 years ago a long time, then E18hteen feels almost old-fashioned in its opulence.

But the groovy music still signals a hip, youthful vibe, in line with E18hteen’s sleek bar. Good thing that neither the house sound system, nor chatting at neighbouring tables, makes conversing difficult.

Since my predecessor weighed in with the last of three very positive reviews, there have been changes at E18hteen. Chef Matthew Carmichael left in the spring of 2012 after roughly four years and his young sous-chef, Walid El-Tawel, was promoted.

A few months ago, El-Tawel, now 26, introduced a larger raw bar component. This change brings to mind the crudo- and sashimi-based successes at some recently opened chef-run neighbourhood restaurants, and it underscores E18hteen’s serious commitment to sustainable seafood.

Our special dinner began with the kitchen sending an amuse-bouche of smoked tuna with caramelized butter and grapefruit juice. A small bite that impressed with clear and significant flavours, it raised expectations for what followed.

Among the appetizers, there were two hits. We thought highly of the meaty dungeness crab cake ($19), sandwiched between slices of melon and a yuzu crema, and the heritage-breed pork belly starter ($17), although the meat in the latter app was under-seasoned and needed help from its zingy chutney to deliver its thrills.

The raw bar selection for two ($30) did the least for us. A three-item flight included slices of salmon with a ponzu dressing, chayote and white radish, a tartare of albacore tuna on beet greens and spot prawns with kimchi. While the various combinations intrigued, the items were a little flat in flavour and mouth feel.

Salmon Tartare at Restaurant E18hteen. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

Crudo is such an ephemeral, expensive treat. The memory of how supremely fresh morsels of fish felt and tasted ought to live on long after. Happily, I had that kind of raw-bar experience at a second visit to E18hteen — more on that below.

The main courses reflected well on E18hteen. Without exception, they were attractive plates with properly cooked proteins and thoughtful, even complex accompaniments, signalling impressive technique and culinary flair.

Lacquered black cod ($38) has been one of E18hteen’s calling-card dishes for years now, and the restaurant has this dish down. A plump filet of rich, white-fleshed fish arrived well coloured by honey, lemon and ginger and perfectly cooked, mounted on carrot purée and flanked by sugar snap peas.

Two cuts of wild boar ($38) were succulent and distinct, attesting to El-Tawel’s fondness for and expertise in sous-vide cooking. Tenderloin medallions were a lovely pink from edge to edge, ringed by a uniform sear. Bits of shank, which sat on a rich square of potato pavé, had benefitted from a longer immersion in the water oven.

The lamb rack ($44) was more satisfying still. The stars of the plate were substantially sized and perfectly rosy and they tasted even better than they looked — gnaw-off-the-bone good.

Then came an acknowledgment of our special occasion — a plate of mignardises for the table on a plate with “Happy Birthday” written on it. Even better was the maple-themed dessert ($13) suggested by our server (who, it should be said, was otherwise just a touch too quick and casual). The slice of pie was nicely refined and the maple granité was more refreshing than sweet — in other words, how I like it. Ditto the beer ice cream.

We left feeling pretty pampered. But we also wondered if E18hteen could do better with its raw bar. I returned more recently and embarked on a raw-bar raid, enjoying salmon tartare, a salsa-verde-spiked beef tartare and a flight that included more spot prawns, some salmon topped with roe in a dashi-enhanced puddle and, best of all, some meaty swordfish that stood up to a jerk/jalapeno sauce.

Wild boar main course at Restaurant E18hteen. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

These efforts struck me as better crafted, more generous and more deeply flavoured and textured than the raw items we had tried earlier this month. Notably, it was El-Tawel himself manning the raw bar when its food shone.

The amiable chef said that the raw bar, which was very popular this summer, was winding down for the season. It might be gone in just two or three weeks, but will be back in 2014.

Having enjoyed the raw bar even more the dinner proper, I’d say go while the getting’s good — even for a special occasion.

phum@ottawacitizen.com
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