Dining out: Next
‘Shank the lamb,” the menu read. Clearly, Michael Blackie was back in business.
We were at NEXT last week, in Stittsville, which seemed to us, at least initially, like an unlikely kitchen for one of Ottawa’s foremost chefs to run.
Here was a Montreal-raised chef whose early career was spent cooking in top hotels in Mexico, Bali and Hong Kong. Who, after moving to Ottawa in 2003, ran one top-tier kitchen and then another (Brookstreet’s Perspectives restaurant and then Le Café at the NAC), collecting a stream of awards and accolades. Who in 2006 won Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates competition and then finished second — ahead of acclaimed Toronto celebrity chef Mark McEwan — at the national fine-cooking contest’s finals.
Last November, Blackie, who was promoting his own “MB”-branded celebrity, left the NAC. This spring, the chef who loved being the centre of attention surfaced on the outskirts of town.
He co-founded NEXT, an 11,000-square-foot facility on Hazeldean Road that previously was the Sixty Four Hundred Celebration Centre. No mere restaurant, NEXT, which opened in April, hosts events such as wedding receptions and caters for off-site events. It sells take-home meals and feeds diners such as the foursome I took there.
We sat smack in the middle of a large, high-ceilinged, neutral-toned space to dig into what NEXT refers to simply as “casual dining.” We were a stone’s throw from the open kitchen, where Blackie was visibly cooking and in command. (This meant that Blackie, who has met me a few times over the years, could well have seen that I was in the house, and perhaps cooked accordingly. Make of that what you will.)
But if Blackie has gone into the neighbourhood restaurant business, his food, while more simple and less pricey than what Le Café and Perspectives served, was still sophisticated, well executed and flavourful.
Now, Blackie being Blackie, there were aspects about our dinner at NEXT, quite apart from how the food tasted, that would annoy traditionalists who found elements of his work elsewhere in Ottawa affected, confusing and off-putting.
Some of the creative verbiage that typified previous Blackie menus remains at NEXT — “Shank the lamb” rather than lamb shank, “shallot and corn flash” served with striploin steak — although his previous dish descriptions were more cryptic and copious still.
More significantly, at the top ofNEXT’s compact, one-page menu it reads: “Simply put all dishes are to share, dishes arrive as they are made by the kitchen.” Indeed, each table at NEXT has been set with plates for sharing before diners sit down.
And yet, some dishes — labeled as either “cold” or “hot” on the menu, although these correspond, roughly, to appetizers and mains respectively — are not so easy to share as truly family-style fare at an Asian eatery, or even the items at many a small-plates restaurant. Also, maybe that duck confit or lamb shank in front of you is so good that you won’t want to surrender most of it to your dining companions.
But if you can get with Blackie’s program, you should be rewarded with partial portions during an eclectic, enjoyable dish.
First to arrive at our table was a signature item from Blackie’s other Ottawa menus, Blackie’s chicken ($16). The chef’s riff on General Tao’s chicken took tempura-battered dark meat and sauced it impeccably and with tang.
If I recall correctly, the dish had previously appeared at Blackie brunches, where it could only have degraded while sitting in a steam table’s pan. Made à la minute, and served it was fresh, crispy and delicious.
Next came three cold dishes in quick succession.
NEXT’s steak tartare ($15) was a balanced, robust rendition of that bistro fave, with lots of roughly chopped rib-eye standing up to the punchy seasoning of Dijon, shallot and lemon.
Fennel arugula salad ($9) was simple and satisfying, more arugula than fennel, with a zippy dressing and toasted pecans adding interest.
More complex, and reflective of Blackie’s Asian inspirations, was a yellowtail tuna sashimi pizza ($14) — an elevated riff on a new-sushi creation. Its base was a crusted puck of deep-fried but nongreasy rice, upon which were pickled daikon and toothsome morsels of seared fish. Slashes of wasabi mayonnaise completed the plate.
The “hot” dishes we tried were streamlined, protein-centred, bistro-style plates, each with some very good sauce and some nominal amount of starch or veg. And yet, we didn’t feel cheated for what was received. All but one of Blackie’s “hot” dishes cost $24 or less.
Duck confit and lamb shank ($23 each) arrived with bones pointing up, like Rockettes kicking. Braising had left both meats succulent and nicely flavoured. The pan reductions for both were distinct, slick indulgences. With the duck came a mess of julienned, fried burdock and a blob or two of duck-fat-enriched mashed potatoes. With the lamb, there was cheesy polenta and a bit of diced veg.
NEXT’s pan-fried wild salmon ($24) topped similar dishes that I’ve tasted this year. It was already more moist than salmon that other restaurants have served me, and Blackie had coated it with melted butter.
Perhaps it was the effect of eating all that shared food, but we didn’t need any of NEXT’s sides, such as the fries, mini-potatoes or sautéed greens.
What we did need was dessert, especially because Blackie likes to show off beyond the usual crème brûlée.
Scoops of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream ($8) were exceptionally smooth and creamy because Blackie has used a pricey and effective piece of gear called a Pacojet to make it.
More of that superb Pacojet ice cream and some candied peanuts were huddled snugly in a cup with some sumptuous dark chocolate mousse ($8).
We were skeptical about hot cheesecake mouth pops ($8) but were won over. The four deep-fried mouthfuls were lighter and tastier than expected, complemented by a sweet but herbal strawberry basil “pulse.”
Service throughout was knowledgeable, gracious and attentive. Blackie himself made the rounds in the dining room to chat with some customers — although for some reason he skipped our table.
6400 Hazeldean Rd., Stittsville, 613-836-8002, nextfood.ca
Open: Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Mondays; closed to the public most Saturdays this summer due to weddings
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $16; mains $15 to $26
Access: no stairs, accessible washrooms on main floor