Review: On good days, Whalesbone still has its seafood mojo

A dish of walleye accompanied by Israeli couscous, wilted greens, cauliflower purée and sections of tangerine hit the mark. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

The self-styled culinary rebels who have made Whalesbone Oyster House into Ott­awa’s hippest seafood eatery must know that its lofty reputation is something of a delicate balance.

Open for the past seven years with a kitchen under the command of almost as many talented young chefs, the narrow and unique Bank Street boîte is renowned for not only a compact, changing menu studded with flavourful, creative and well-executed dishes, but also for its championing of sustainable seafood. And that’s not to mention the impeccably fresh oysters.

At the same time, Whalesbone is casual and boisterous, more akin to a pub than a fine-dining venue. Its wood seats can be hard, the music spinning on the bar’s turntable can be harder. And penny-pinchers should take note that some of Whalesbone’s pricier items can induce sticker shock.

On the best nights, when everything lines up, the Whalesbone is fun with a capital F. The food hits all the right notes for taste and complexity. The cramped, kitschy room is comfy and enchanting, loud but not overbearingly so. The server is so jovial that you’d want to share a shooter with him or her.

But I’ve also experienced a dinner a few weeks ago that made me begin to doubt the Whalesbone’s formula. I questioned whether some dishes were over-priced by about 10 per cent, and wished that the service had been more attentive and sensitive to our discomforts.

Both recent visits were prompted because chef Charlotte Langley, who during her time at Whalesbone rose to be a Gold Medal Plates competitor, left almost a year ago. Chloe Berlanga, sous chef under Langley, was promoted, and I was curious to see whether the Jolly Roger above Whalesbone’s open kitchen would still fly as high. Although Berlanga was not cooking during either of my visits, it seems that for the most part, she is maintaining Whalesbone’s high standards.

A dinner late last week was pretty close to flawless.

It began with the two of us, despite our reservation for a table, somehow winding up at the Whalesbone’s long bar, served by an animated barkeep with a thing for playing 1980s TV theme songs.

I began by sampling something simple and something more complicated.

Two Malagash Thrumcap oysters, the pride of Tatamagouche, N.S., were exceptional. The chowder was creamy but not overly so. Its three submerged P.E.I. clams were tender, two pieces of trout belly were meltingly good and crisp-skinned, and a floating mini-scone added richness.

At first, I wondered whether my friend’s scallop ceviche ­— a composed plate boasting not only pristine discs of shellfish but also slices of sweet fig and bracing jalapeno, smoked olive oil and the crunch of “chip dust”— was worth its $20 price. What I tried from his plate, as well as his approval, made me a convert.

Our mains were smartly composed arrays of tastes, textures and colours. My halibut was perfectly cooked to combine a crisp exterior and a moist, yielding interior, and was set on a bed of wild rice pilaf, cubes of squash and fried shallots that was pleasantly varied and autumnal. Ling cod arrived just done and delicious, with ratatouille, fried chickpeas and a generous slick of green “tangy mayo” to offset it in multiple ways.

Desserts were more homespun than haute, but they sang with quality. An apple crumble was heavier on the whipped cream than cold fruit, with a click of caramel and scattering of granola. Churros with chocolate are a basic Spanish breakfast (the fried pastry is usually paired with hot chocolate), but Berlanga’s refined version was stellar, the churro lightly sugared and not at all greasy, the warm melted chocolate a sinfully enjoyable dip.

But at an earlier visit, our experience was more mixed.

When we called to reserve, we were told that we would be seated at the “chef’s table,” a booth to the side of the open kitchen. While we enjoyed a good view of the action (noting, for example, how the cooks use small cast-iron pans to weigh down the fish to achieve crispy skin), we also received sporadic and off-putting blasts of heat.

Our server seemed a bit perfunctory in her dealings with us, and we weren’t crazy about the comment another staffer made as we left, regarding the kitchen-side hot flashes: “It’s the worst place to sit in the summer, and the best place to sit in the winter,” he joked. Maybe someone should have mentioned this when we made the reservation?

There were plates that hit the mark, including a winning dish of walleye accompanied by Israeli couscous, wilted greens, cauliflower purée and sections of tangerine. The beet salad was solid.

But the lobster with barley risotto and mushrooms, while good, might not have been $45 worth of good. The lobster was just a touch too chewy and the risotto was a bit too salty. I’m being picky, but a dish over $40 gets fine-tooth scrutiny.

Similarly, the most expensive appetizer, a $25 platter of “crispy” (Whalesbone loves this word on its menu) clams, “spicy” mussels and “sweet” oysters, seemed over-priced — its dressings were not big enhancements.

Also, the desserts didn’t seem like $11 desserts. The berry panna cotta and the sundae hit doubles instead of the homers of last week’s desserts (which, by the way, were only $9).

What we had a few weeks ago was not a bad dinner — far from it. But when you’re paying top dollar, “pretty good” isn’t good enough.

Fortunately, last week’s meal, perhaps more smartly ordered and definitely more comfortably seated, restored my faith in the place. It showed that Whalesbone still has its seafood mojo.

The Whalesbone Oyster House

430 Bank St., 613-231-8569, thewhalesbone.com

Hours: Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m., Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Prices: appetizers $11-$25, main dishes $ 26-$45

Access: one step from street level, washrooms are downstairs

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