Dining out: The Albion Rooms
The Albion Rooms
Address: 33 Nicholas St. (inside the Novotel), 613-760-4771, facebook.com/TheAlbionRooms
Open: Monday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. to midnight
Prices: dishes from $7 to $30
Access: fully accessible
If more hotel restaurants were like the Albion Rooms, which opened in April in the Novotel Ottawa Hotel, I would not have such a dim view of them.
Elsewhere, I’ve too often encountered dining rooms serving upscale menu items that were pretty ordinary or worse, even as they charged people through the nose for convenience. I’ve had bland fare not much better than what’s in the frozen foods aisle at the supermarket.
Fortunately, the Albion Rooms breaks from these formulae. A few steps to the right of the hotel lobby, this collection of multiple spaces — a bright patio, a lounge of couches, round tables, high tables and a bar, a more subdued, formal dining room — feels more like a hip, woody, chef-run place, a neighbourhood gastropub with friendly, smart service.
More importantly, the Albion Rooms provides true tastiness and value with a concise but treat-packed menu that is tweaked regularly, highlighting locally sourced, seasonal ingredients along the way.
So, no mediocre $38 racks of lamb that leave you feeling cheated, no $22 rubber chicken entrées. Rather, there are $8 servings of radishes and cauliflower — you read that right — that leave you feeling like a cat after a belly rub.
Those unexpectedly flavour-packed vegetables left the impression that chef Stephen La Salle, just 26 and previously the sous-chef at Arc Lounge in Arc The Hotel, knows how to transform and elevate humble ingredients in deftly crafted, traditional but interesting dishes.
The impeccably roasted florets of cauliflower arrived on a monogrammed board — as many Albion Rooms dishes do — and mounded on saffron-spiked mayonnaise and adorned with raisins, croutons, pine nuts and parsley.
Radishes from Acorn Creek Garden Farm in Carp were tender and mellow after time in a pan with butter and white wine, joining arugula and feta in a warm salad.
A $10 salad of mixed greens, beluga lentils, chèvre, berries, and pepitas (squash seeds) was less surprising but still satisfying.
La Salle caters to nibblers with one of the better charcuterie selections I’ve had in a while. Very fine Seed-To-Sausage sausage and salami were available, but house-made rabbit terrine and cured sockeye salmon — other choices included wild boar rillette, and foie gras torchon — were the scene-stealers on the $21, three-item board we tried.
With that board came a paper bag filled with lots of crostini. That might seem like a small thing to praise, except that my pet peeve is that elsewhere in Ottawa, too few crostini always seems to be part of the charcuterie-board deal.
Similarly, Albion Rooms served Whalesbone Oysters ($7.50 for three, $15 for six), boosted with good kitchen toppings (chili sauce, ramp-lemon pesto).
Ceviche ($12) was bracing and good, with soft scallop slices ringed with crisp cucumber in a bath of lime juice, gin, minced Thai chili and ground juniper.
More homey and comforting was a plate of richly flavoured, salmon-egg-topped smoked trout on a bed of quinoa ($18) that had flecks of radish adding crunch and a slick of honeyed mascarpone to put it over the top.
While we didn’t try the most main-course-like offerings — a $30 Living Pastures rib steak, an $18 Elk Ranch elk burger — we’ve enjoyed some heavier, pub-style fare.
The restaurant’s version of a Scotch egg ($10) one-ups that U.K. picnic staple (a hard-boiled egg encased in sausage meat and baked) by wrapping a soft-poached egg in a mix of chorizo, bread crumbs and seasoning and deep-frying it. Sheathed in its spicy sausage coating, the egg remained nicely runny and smoked paprika aioli enlivened it.
Fish and chips ($18) featured clean-flavoured pickerel in a crisp, beery, just-a-touch-too-greasy batter. As good as the fish were the “thrice-cooked chips” — finger-sized batons of potato goodness, upright in a tiny pail, deliciously soft and yielding inside.
Beside the bar, two specials on the blackboard tempted, and the pork belly grilled cheese ($16) won. Served with more of those thrice-cooked potato wedges, it was shamefully, indulgently good, with brie and hazelnut-studded raisin bread adding depth and contrast.
Of three desserts, I’ve only had the Nanaimo Jar ($8). Dear editor, that’s not a typo. The restaurant puts a fine coconut brownie, vanilla custard and a topping of chocolate ganache in a Mason jar, and it can only be eaten with eyes-wide, childlike delight.
My predecessor Anne DesBrisay did not much like Trio, the Novotel restaurant that preceded the Albion Rooms. In her 2008 review, she concluded: “Trio feels like a corporate-created construction, the food from which would be tolerable if the kitchen were up to it. It isn’t.”
What a difference five years and some enlightenment has made. RIP, Trio. Long live the Albion Rooms.