Review: Pepper Garden east-end surprise

No offence, Montreal Road, but until recently I was not aware that any of your restaurants were worth my pulling over.

OK, this ignorance flows from a lifelong west-ender’s snobbery. East is east, west is west and neither the twain will eat, I thought.

But a restaurant called Pepper Garden — open since 2002 but almost entirely unmentioned, and definitely unreviewed, in the Citizen’s pages — makes me eat my words. It’s a solid and welcoming bistro that during my two visits delivered on many fronts. It’s family-friendly and reasonably priced, but its menu features good choices for people seeking something beyond what the nearby chain restaurants offer. (In fact, the Pepper Garden sits where a doughnut shop once was, and it still adjoins a Pizza Hut.)

Grand Marnier Chocolate Mousse at Pepper Garden. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

Here is a cosy 80-seater with an attractive aquarium up front and an open kitchen in the back. Chef David Dempsey, who has been at Pepper Garden for two years, is not trying to dazzle with culinary innovation or haute sophistication. But his unpretentious versions of much-loved and comforting dishes — a mix of bistro fare and pastas — were generally well executed and nicely accented so as to be lifted above the mundane.

Take for example, two satisfying soups that I’ve tried — a robust leek-and-potato potage garnished with a slick of chipotle oil and chives, and a creamy onion soup adorned with a Gorgonzola crouton.

And like many a more westerly eatery, Pepper Garden proudly rides the local-food producer bandwagon. It offers Art-Is-In Bread, Mariposa Farms’ duck legs and the wares of Ottawa-area microbreweries such as Kichesippi and Beau’s. It also serves a good 20 bottles of wine by the glass.

During a recent late lunchtime visit, the restaurant was almost empty, past whatever rush it had experienced. Still, the kitchen was turning out dishes with care. A juicy and flavourful lamb burger was cooked medium rare as requested and topped with a glob of goat cheese and much caramelized onion. Chicken confit risotto arrived nicely al dente and not too salty, generously studded with tender thigh meat and spinach. The dessert special, a Grand Marnier chocolate mousse, was creamy and decadent, but not simply one-dimensional.

When we arrived for a Friday-night dinner, our reservation vaulted us to one of the few empty tables, ahead of a small throng of walk-ins. The joint was buzzing and I was curious to see how the kitchen and staff would perform under pressure.

Reasonably gracefully, it turned out, even if the kitchen might have been a bit put upon. By 7 p.m., it had already run out of the day’s appealing short rib special, and one main course arrived later than the others because, as the server explained, the chef felt that the first attempt had resulted in some slightly overcooked salmon.

But these were slight hiccups in a meal that otherwise went smoothly and amiably, bolstered by friendly, attentive and bilingual service.

A starter of two meaty crab cakes served with a mango aioli hit the spot, although the plate’s small, no-nonsense side salad would also appear on two main courses. We saw it beside the duck confit (moist and not too salty, although not as crisp-skinned as promised) and a compound-butter-topped rib-eye steak (a second choice in lieu of the short ribs, thick and flavourful but in need of some trimming, I thought, to remove some surplus gristle). The steak came with fries that were better than average, but not by that much, and the duck came with potatoes cooked in duck fat that were better than the fries.

Best among the main courses was version 2.0 of the salmon, no doubt more moist than the first effort would have been, accompanied by a cauliflower purée, beets, broccoli and confit cherry tomatoes.

It was a struggle to fit in dessert after all the creamy soup, buttery beef, rich duck and naturally fatty salmon. Still, a creme brulée of the day — strawberry — was ordered and fully consumed. It wasn’t a world-beater, but it hit the right sweet, creamy and fruity notes to cap an equally pleasant meal.

Pepper Garden

681 Montreal Rd., 613-749-2999, peppergarden.ca

Open: Monday to Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

Prices: Dinner main courses $16 to $35

Accessibility: No steps at entrance or washroooms

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