Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Born-again food enthusiast - my reintroduction to good food

Our plans to go to Allium started to form in April with the promise of a birthday dinner to my friend, Nina. Among trips, other social circumstances, and a move (myself, down the street from Allium) by June, we still hadn't found a date we could both correlate. We decided we wanted to aim for a Monday night because of the special tapas menu offered (last entry on Ottawa Magazine's 101 Tastes Issue). But we played soccer Monday nights so we planned for July 15, our first night of freedom. Until July 8th when we were told we had a game on the 15th. So we'd go the following week. Until we found out we had a game then as well. 

Finally, on July 22, we went. 

Worth the wait.

The tapas menu changes regularly based on what they have on hand, the weather, what mood the chef is in, Amanda Bynes' hair cut - who knows really. All I know is that the "sample" menu they had online (from January 2012) did not prepare me for the utter bliss my senses would be privy to.

The outside of the restaurant doesn't garner a second look, nor the inside itself, which is nothing extra special. It is clean, modern, and cute - but nothing snazzy, attention-grabbing, trendy, hipster, or unique, compared with some of the interesting decor in the food industry as-of-late (motorcycle handle-bar faucets, horseshoe door knobs, window-panes on walls). Except for an illustration in the back section of four or five men, each with a different vegetable for a head, which I quite liked.

This is a place that gets by soley on its food and wonderful personalities tending to it. I cannot express how many times I've gone to this-or-that regular chain restaurant, been annoyed with the food/service/speed/stickiness of the cheap carpet I am standing on, and then having to tip the server for the iceberg lettuce and frozen veggie patty that she brought to my table in an all-to-clear-fashion that I was putting her out of her way.

We made a reservation online (reservations are an absolute necessity for Monday nights - a few couples that came in on a whim while we were dining were sorrowfully turned away as every spot was spoken for) and were greeted by a chipper server from Absinthe, believe it or not. The two restaurants have a relationship: you scratch our back, we'll scratch yours. 

He seated us and brought our menus. Then it was like two toddlers being released in an amusement park: Wine! Let's look at the desserts! Red or white?? Ohmygawd, is that shrimp tempura? MUSHROOMS ON TOAST????

Somehow we regained our focus, chose our wine, and moved on to the sharing plates. The typical contenders caught our eyes - calamari, shrimp lollipops, pork belly (Nina), any and all salads (me), but the Absinthe server had some suggestions for us:
"You can get that kind of food anywhere, you should really go for the unique things here; fried snails, the scallops - and mushrooms on toast. I get it all the time."
So we took his suggestions and ordered all three, as well as the squash salad.

The salad came up first - little squash and zucchini medallions, topped with blue cheese  and pecans. We each took a little vegetable tower and dug in. 

I cook with squash all the time - at least once a week. I have never achieved this kind of "OMG" flavour in a squash. Also, blue cheese tastes good with EVERYTHING.

Warm summer squash salad

Commence smiling like idiots.

Both of us being pretty big foodies (we love to look at food, eat it, talk about it, instagram it - that's a foodie, right? Most of my Twitter followings are of restaurants...), we were so overwhelmed by the mind-blowing that was going on over a simple ground gourd. 

The timing between dishes was short, thank baby hesus, because after such a great start, we were eager to eat more.

The "mushrooms on toast" came next. Who would have thought that something this simple (yes, really, mushrooms - in a cream sauce - on toasted baguette) would be so good!? I have never had mushrooms that good - EVER! 

Mushrooms on toast - questionable photography

The seared scallops showed up on a fried-polenta cake with pear relish and raisin puree (sorry, no picture - ate it too fast I guess?). I have rarely been disappointed by scallops in a restaurant and these were just as wonderful. It was the polenta and raisin puree that made this so special. The polenta was akin to a gourmet McDonald's hashbrown (I apologize if this seems to degrade the quality of  it, but if you know me even the slightest bit, you know this is a huge compliment. There are few things in life that will make me happier than a McDonald's hashbrown) and the raisin puree was so unique and so well balanced with the savoury items (I have since learned that contrasting sweet and savoury is kind of "their thing").

The last of our original order was the snails. They weren't off-putting, they were cute little fried balls, perfectly bite-sized and delicious (I guess everything deep-fried is - that's how I taught myself to enjoy pickles). Served with a creamy, spicy, mayo-type-dip.

*text from Nina the next day: "Is it weird that I am craving the snails we had from last night?"

Fried snails
We still had some room left (or maybe we weren't quite ready to face the fact that moving on to dessert would mean the end of the food) so we ordered the “Bread” which is sliced baguette served with a delicious amount of soft goat cheese, and the 14 Arpents from a selection of local cheeses (after some quick smart phone googling).

Have you ever had whipped goat cheese? Can you whip goat cheese? If you can, I’m pretty sure it would have tasted like this.

Continue smiling like idiots.

"Bread" - served w goat's cheese and cold pressed soy oil
And we were so happy with the 14 Arpents. It reminded me of brie but more soft tasting. And it came with a wonderful selection of goodies – even the freakin’ baguette crisps were phenomenal. Were they fried? I don’t care – they were so good.

"local cheese" - 14 Arpents

When that was (depressingly) all gone, we moved on to dessert (depression alleviated). We almost got the Fried Chocolate Cake, but when we read the description for the Chocolate Parfait, Nina was won over by the caramel popcorn, and myself by the rum balls.

Chocolate parfait

Definitely served in a very interesting vessel, definitely could have been bigger (but I would have said that if it had come in a large-sized DQ Blizzard cup). Definitely best for everyone involved that it wasn't. 

ITWASSOGOOD. Seriously, caramel popcorn in a parfait? Who would have ever thought of that? And who would have thought the combination of flavours would have been THAT amazing!?

stupid happy about the dessert

we can't be upset about her photography skills because she is so pretty <3

Two cups of coffee and a shamelss scraping of the parfait vase later, our tummies are sufficiently full and our mouths are still trying to make sense of everything that just happened. I haven't had my mind this blown by food in a long time - probably since the first time I ate at Play, which I would consider to have been my baptism into food enjoyment and my first experience with properly flavoured food, ever.

We could not stop smiling like idiots. A wonderful night out with friendly service, lovely company, and not a single notion that I was paying too much for what I had eaten or that I was leaving a tip just because I had to.  

food stained and well used

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