Dining out: Hooch Bourbon House
Hooch Bourbon House
180 Rideau St., 613-789-1821, hoochbourbon.ca
Open: Daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Mains from $14 to $29, appetizers from $3 to 16, late-night menu items from $3 to $26
Access: No steps to front door or washrooms
Right off the bat, let’s wish Hooch Bourbon House a longer run than its predecessor had at 180 Rideau St.
A few months ago, the owners of the business there opened Hooch to replace Levante, a sleek, dark lounge that itself didn’t last a year. Months of road construction certainly didn’t help Levante, which I visited once in its early days. You also have to wonder if its upscale aspirations, sort-of-Mediterranean menu and live jazz, were overly out of sync with the neighbouring fast-food shops and tattoo parlours and their regulars.
Hooch, which opened in June, should do better, and not simply because the construction has finished.
The restaurant of 40-odd seats is still dark, but it has more character, and even an engaging, woodsy, well-designed scruffiness. Collected curios, exposed light bulbs hanging from skids and baskets and the raw sound of vintage blues evoke a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Some local craft beers are even available by the jug.
And then there’s the almost dizzyingly diverse food from chef Danny Mongeon, who was previously in charge at Brut Cantina Sociale in Hull.
For sophisticated snackers, there are flashy small plates (tuna crudo, a foie gras app). For those who want something more substantial and even a little diner-y, there are comforting staples (burger and fries, fried chicken — Cornish hen, actually — and waffles). For eaters who want a foodie’s night out, there are mildly discomforting signature main courses (octopus or stuffed pig’s trotter).
Factor in Mongeon’s across-the-board use of buttermilk fluid gel, orange foam and olive-oil powder, and you might presume that he’s been given carte blanche to design the menu.
In short, with its combination of trendy spirits, some down-market inspirations and fancier eating, Hooch Bourbon House is kindred to Ottawa’s Union 613 and El Camino — but with a bit of Au Pied de Cochon, Momofuku and molecular gastronomy flourishes thrown in.
Yes, yes, but how did it taste? Sampling everything from impressively refined bites to potent, porky indulgences, we left happy and amused by the imaginative fare. But we thought there was room for improvement too. Some dishes seemed like less than the sum of their complicated parts, and others less than well-executed or perhaps worst of all, boring.
Top marks went to a ceviche of B.C. side stripe shrimp ($10), an appealing composition built around delicate seafood offset most of all by the punch of pickled corn.
Horse tartare ($8), which Mongeon served at Brut, was treated more lavishly at Hooch, well-seasoned with not just capers but shallots and chili oil, mounted on a fluffy brioche.
With the duck carpaccio ($8), the thinly sliced meat impressed more than its accoutrements (cherry fluid gel, smoked salt). The dish’s crisp “Kentucky-fried” mushrooms would have been finger-licking good if they had not been cold.
Hooch served some fine hush puppies (fried cornmeal dumplings) topped with large shavings of frozen foie gras torchon. (Momofuku chef David Chang, who came up with this preparation, grates his foie more finely.) However, the dish, while quite tasty, struck as a little oversold on the menu as a foie gras app ($12) with hush puppies. Proportionately, it was the other way around.
Tuna crudo ($12) disappointed. For all of its many flavour accessories, the dish delivered little tuna taste.
Of Mongeon’s mains, we liked best the massive pig’s trotter ($29), stuffed with spicy chorizo and other components. It was the star on a large shiny platter, but nicely supported by buttery grits and treat-like caramelized peach slices. The Meat Brother who tucked into the crisped pig foot, and took much of it home for later, said he enjoyed it more than the utterly over-the-top equivalent served by famed chef Martin Picard at Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal.
Sizable but tender octopus tentacles ($26) were compactly coiled in a bowl with baked beans and collard greens and house-made fresh cheese. While my friend who had the dish had no problem with the cola-sweetened bean sauce mingling with the octopus, I felt differently.
Fried Cornish hen and buttermilk waffles ($14 for a half-order) was a kid-friendly dish of crisp, moist meat and well-made waffles. Hooch’s burger ($14) was less memorable, eclipsed by its dauntingly large mass of shatteringly crisp sweet potato chips.
There were problems with the scallops main ($24). While the scallops were nicely seared and yielding inside, they were also cold. The dish’s sweet-potato-and-buttermilk purée was thick and bland, and a scattering of peas added very little beyond colour. Especially beside the trotter platter, this main course seemed more like a large app.
Dessert-wise, Mongeon plays it simple. Generous, homestyle portions of pecan pie topped with burnt-butter ice cream and a butterscotch ice cream sandwich made with crisp sugar cookies (each $7) hit their rich, sweet notes hard.
There were definitely dishes worth returning for at Hooch and perhaps just as important, the promise of interesting food from Mongeon. If the restaurant gods are kind, Hooch will establish itself where Levante could not. Making the minor missteps we encountered go away might make the gods more well-disposed.