Dining out: Murray Street
110 Murray St., 613-562-7244, murraystreet.ca
Open: weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; weekends from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for brunch and from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Price: starters, $12 to $14; main dishes, $20 to $28
Access: steps to restaurant, washrooms in basement
When chef Steve Mitton and his business partners opened Murray Street — the ByWard Market’s most meat-loving restaurant — more than five years ago, they hit the ground running.
It wasn’t long before my predecessor, Anne DesBrisay, raved about the place in her August 2008 review. Soon after, Air Canada’s EnRoute magazine selected Murray Street as one of Canada’s Top 10 new restaurants.
I’ve eaten there a few times in recent weeks, curious if the restaurant has maintained the same high culinary standards that won its early accolades. Happily, the answer seems to be a hearty, lip-smacking yes.
It is still a woody, casual place with an inviting, if darkened and porcine, ambience. Only at Murray Street are there profuse pictures of pigs on the walls. Servers, still clad in T-shirts and jeans, are fresh-faced, smart and confident.
Here, Mitton exalts meats of many kinds, affirming both farm-to-table and nose-to-tail eating. A whiz at slow, patient preparations, he reduces humble cuts from top-quality animals to states of crazy-good succulence. For smaller appetites, he makes refined and sometimes irresistible charcuterie to boot. If you give the kitchen two days’ notice, you can even get a smoked, roasted and garnished pig’s head for your party.
Think of Murray Street as the Whalesbone Oyster House’s red-meat sibling. Or, as a kinder, gentler Au Pied de Cochon, to refer to that Montreal resto of famously meaty, over-sized delights (including pig’s heads). But let me add that I’ve preferred Mitton’s potent but more manageable meals to the one fois-gras-fuelled pig-out I subjected myself to at APC.
While lunching, brunching and having dinner at Murray Street, I’ve never been less than impressed with its direct, well-executed food. My favourite items were intensely flavoured and fatty in the best way — pleasurable indulgences to be sure.
The dish that wowed me above all: A plate of pressed confit pork shoulder, well supported by pear and bacon jam, assorted veg and spaetzle (a go-to starch for Mitton), some of which was slightly browned and crisped ($27). Mitton’s elevation of simple fare was supremely satisfying. The next day, he told me in an phone chat that the pork had been smoked and cured, slowly cooked in fat and then pressed overnight before being readied for my plate. It was one of those too-rare, I-didn’t-know-pork-could-be-that-tasty dishes.
Not that much was wrong with two other mains during a dinner visit. Imposingly sized beef short ribs ($27) were braised overnight to be fall-apart tender, and they came with smooth, bone-marrow-enriched mashed potatoes and lots of superior red-wine jus. A generously proportioned filet of steelhead salmon ($28) had been pan-fried just so, and it sat pretty on a blend of lentils and mushrooms. Brown butter deliciously pushed the dish over the top.
These dinner mains were fairly standard crowd-pleasers, and smaller portions of the same proteins can appear on Murray Street’s lunch and brunch menus, along with choices that feature the likes of duck confit, corned beef or pulled pork.
More adventurous eaters might want to home in Mitton’s offal offerings. Thinly sliced, pliant and mild smoked beef heart ($12) played nicely on a small plate with the stronger flavours of Glengarry Fine Cheese’s Gouda, pickles, and crunchy bacon-y morsels. Among his charcuteries, ox tongue was similarly supple and neutral, more like a canvas for the sturdy accompaniments of pickled fruits and vegetables.
Mind you, it does not always have to be about the meat. A lunchtime bowl of sizable but not-gummy gnocchi tossed with woodsy, intense mushrooms of all kinds, hazelnut pesto, more of that Eastern Ontario Gouda and Swiss chard ($15) was a complex treat. Also at that lunch came a salad that was one of the rare Murray Street dishes that underwhelmed — a cold salad of roast cauliflower and slaw-like black radish ($9) that, especially in relative terms, was a bit dull.
A smelt aficionado liked her appetizer of crisp-fried Lake Erie fish, as did I. She said she had tasted better, lighter fish at one Ottawa restaurant, while I replied that I had tasted worse at another.
At a recent weekend brunch, best among the rustic, rib-sticking options was a homey “hasherole” of fabulous braised corned beef, poached egg and cheesy potatoes ($16). A peppery omelette was studded with smoked mussels and goat’s milk cheese curd and an assertive jalapeno sauce ($17).
Desserts (all $8) from Murray Street’s pastry chef were big and comforting. I thought the Mason-jarred rendition of S’mores was a bit overloaded — frankly, just its top-notch chocolate-espresso pudding would have sufficed, minus its crown of torched marshmallow and layer of Graham cracker crumbs.
Oh — if you wanted to know about the pig’s heads, which are served at the rate of one or two a week at Murray Street, I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong reviewer. I never got around to ordering one (they are recommended for parties of eight to 10 people), although apparently many a young and carnivorous lady has. “It’s mostly bachelorette parties” that order the pig’s heads, Mitton told me. “It kind of blows me away.”
Just as, I’m sure, many a customer has been blown away by Mitton’s food.