Monday, March 21, 2011

A Toast To My Hometown's Better Eateries - Beckta

Hey all!

I'm back again with more of my impressions of some of the finer places to eat in Ottawa.

Well, today's post is a bit special in that I'm retelling one of the better dining experiences I've ever had in my life.

Kari's (my girlfriend/fellow unicorn hunter) birthday was March 15, so the preceding Saturday night we celebrated by going to what is generally considered Ottawa's finest restaurant, Beckta. We decided to go full out and have the 5-course tasting menu with cheese plate and wine pairings. Add a few cocktails and tip and the whole thing clocked in at 400 bucks. Good thing I have disposable income this month! But, totally, absolutely and utterly worth every penny.

The difference between Beckta and every other restaurant I've been to is in the service. No one server takes care of you, although there's a 'mostly' dedicated server. Instead, each server takes care of you as needed or as available. Special props to Alex, the 'bread guy' who delighted us with three different kinds of bread, but especially made our night by describing the process of caramelizing butter (which was served with the bread, and was good on everything!) and to Bill who was our dedicated server and made my night by being able to describe our meals and wine pairings without coming off too condescending or pretentious (something that I was glad to see didn't happen too often, because I was expecting it a little, although the sommelier's forced guffaws at my jokes were a little grating).

Truly, these are people who make an art of service in a very traditional context that I had never experienced before. I was delighted, although not sure how much of it I could stand long term or recurring. I'll always be a 'casual' diner and like my servers to "keep it real" for the most part. However, this is an experience easily found at many other restos in Ottawa, leaving the Beckta caliber of service in the category of "special occasion", where it should rightfully remain. And no one gave me the hairy eyeball for dancing in my chair. (The food was really good, what was I supposed to do??)

Now, the food itself was inspired with nearly zero slips or disappointments in a 5-course meal (6 if you count the cheese plate). It was a true culinary wonderland of surprises as we had no idea what our courses would be until they were in front of us. Something I really appreciate since, as you may remember from my last post (, I too would like to "surprise" my clientele (if I had a business that had such things) with unannounced menu items. And as an added bonus, they wrote up the whole menu and gave us a print-out after we were done. YAY!

So, here's the menu with my impressions:


- Amuse-gueule of tuna rilletes and red pear on an in-house sesame cracker
- Cocktail of sparkling wine and passion fruit puree

The flavours of the tuna and the cocktail mixed beautifully, with elements of earthy, tangy and fishy (in a good way) all intermingling on the taste buds. It was kind of like there were go-go dancers on my tongue.

1st course

- Trout: Vanilla Bean and Coffee Cured Trout, Yukon Gold Potato Blinis (little pancakes), Berg en Dal Goldenrod Honey, Candied Bacon
- Wine pairing: Vouvray, Chateau Gaudrelle, France, 2009

The menu said the trout was smoked, but if it was, it must have been a very cold smoking technique. I must investigate further...

So, a wonderful mix of flavours in this one, with the blinis being little pockets of potato-flavoured air and the honey being like none I've ever tasted. If I have one issue with this dish, it's that the flavouring of the trout was a bit too subtle when paired with the bold salty-sweetness of the candied bacon. If I were doing it (and consider this the gauntlet lain to anyone who reads this), I'd have hot-smoked my trout (or, what I would preferably use, Arctic char) to give it a stronger, woodier flavour. Now, that being said, I'm simply a fairly talented amateur, so what do I know?

The wine was a great compliment here, having a subtle fruity taste and strong mineral tang in the finish. It pepped up the flavours of the dish tremendously without losing its own character.

2nd course

- Eggs Benedict: Homemade muffin, 'Nduja pâté, Lamb Pancetta, Tempura-Fried Egg Yolk, Meyer Lemon Hollandaise, Micro Osaka
- Wine pairing: Cuvée 13 Sparkling Rose, 13th Street, Niagara Peninsula 2007

Wow. This dish introduced me to something that is going to haunt me till the day I die: Lamb Pancetta. Lamb... freakin'... Pancetta!!! SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!!
Imagine bacon, but with lamb's delicious subtle gaminess. Yeah, I need to figure out that one and make my own. As God as my witness, I will never go without Lamb Pancetta again!

OK, OK, there was also all the other bits of deliciousness that I need to describe. Well, let's make it simple: the muffin was tasty, especially the texture. The egg yolk was, well, egg yolk fried in tempura. Since I'm not a huge egg fan, I can't give it its proper due. BUT, in a nice surprise, Bill told us that the yolk would be runny and get all over everything (which made me cringe as I hate runny yolk). Lo and behold, a nice solid yolk.

As for the hollandaise, well, hollandaise is another one of those culinary items that does not really send me to the moon. It's damn tasty, but just not one of my faves. But the addition of the Meyer lemon really made it dance. Definitely one of the best I've ever had.

With this dish, I'm going to make clear culinary ignorance and declare that I have no freaking clue what 'Njuda pâté nor Micro Osaka mean. Internet to the rescue!

Nduja pâté: Oooooooh, it's like a pork pâté made from the head! THAT's what that extra meaty subtleness was!

Micro Osaka: I suspect this was actually a kind of beer that helped flavour the rest of the dish, but not sure how they incorporated it...

In the end, this course could have been Lamb Pancetta on a soda cracker and I would have been impressed! OM!

As for the wine pairing, I was completely taken aback at the flavour of the sparkling wine. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of sparkling wine. I find it needs to be mixed with something. But the elements of this wine on the tongue were complex and remarkable. The flavour that came out the strongest, and this might sound crazy, was turmeric. Yeah, earthy, dense turmeric in a sparkling wine. Weird, eh?

3rd course

- Quail: Seared Quail, Boudin Noir, Ghost Pumpkin Puree, Grilled Cortland Apple, Port Syrup
- Wine pairing: Pinot Noir, Appleby Lane, New Zealand 2008

Well, now, ain't this fancy? Quail, eh? I'll be honest, I've never had quail before. Turns out it's delicious! It's basically a leaner, slightly more restrained version of duck. Whatever the glaze/sauce it was cooked in was magnificent. Oh wait, maybe that was the Port Syrup. Mmmmmmmmm....

So, on top of that, there was the Boudin Noir, which is essentially blood sausage. I'd never had it before, but I found the flavour quite reminiscent of haggis. Good thing I love haggis!

The Ghost Pumpkin Puree (ghost pumpkin and white pumpkin are the same thing) was subtly flavoured, imagine a less strong tasting squash. Didn't really taste like pumpkin, but that isn't a bad thing!

I loved the Grilled Cortland Apple element. There's something magical yet totally simple about grilled apple.

The whole came together as a kind of autumnal comfort dish, and paired tremendously with the New Zealand Pinot Noir. Being especially fond of Pinot Noir, I was very pleased to try one from a region I didn't even know grew Pinot Noir grapes! As a good Pinot should be, it was light and flavourful.

It was around this time that I'd begun dancing in my chair, I hope no one minded...


- Iced Earl Grey Tea, Burnt Oranges

Umm, Iced Tea! With Burnt Oranges! Cleared the palette well, but that's about all I can say. Not a big Iced Tea fan...

4th course

- Bison: Seared Bison Striploin, Taro Root Robuchon, Tame Mushrooms, Bok Choy, Red Cabbage, "Broken" Ponzu of Soy Reduction and Yuza Gastrique
- Wine pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon, Bommarito, Napa Valley, California 2006

First they brought out the Cabernet Sauvignon, the sommellier hinting that it was time for the 'big guns', which prompted yours truly to wonder out loud if the next dish might consist of something that had once had four legs and might bleed on the plate. No response. Then, out came the steak knives. *Insert meat squee here*

So, needless to say I was almost jumping out of my seat when this gorgeous piece of burgundy, almost dark purple, meat got to the plate, surrounded by deep, rich red and orange, which were in turn offset by the lighter greens and whites of the bok choy and taro root. It was a beautiful plate (and this coming from the guy who doesn't really give a flying fig about food presentation).

What was even more beautiful was how tender the bison. I could damn near cut through the 2 inch thick striploin cut with my fork. But I stopped myself for fear of making a racket and a mess. I do, on occasion, stop my clumsiness from going too far... The meat was delicious, lean, and surprisingly un-gamey. It tasted like beef that had infused with, I don't know, faerie dust? It's hard to describe the first time you taste something!

The Taro Root Robuchon was basically a mash (apparently "Robuchon" refers to a method of cooking based on the name of a French chef. Here's the loop, and then here's me, about 5 light years away) with a nutty, subtle parsnip flavour. Very nice.

The "Tame" Mushrooms simply meant that the mushrooms weren't wild. Um, OK... They were mushrooms, so what can I say other than mushrooms are awesome? These were as well!

The bok choy was prepared simply, lightly steamed with some butter (and lemon?) while the cabbage was, I believe, raw. But all elements worked well in concert, with one slight exception based on my own tastes. The ponzu (a Japanese style citrus reduction) was actually quite tasty, but the soy element was just too damned salty. When combined with the accumulated salt of all the preceding dishes, it seemed a bit much. Unfortunately, it took away more than it added to the dish. Oh well...

Can't really say much about the wine. It was a big, bold California Cab, ideal for red meat. It was definitely playing Robin to the bison's Batman. In other cases, like the Eggs Benedict, the wine almost overshadowed the plate. Totally not the case here, which is good. I can't imagine having a wine so bold as to overpower a bison steak would be a wise idea.

Around this point, Kari had already been gripping the table in joy, but she was starting to feel a bit full. She wasn't sure about going for the cheese plate. So, we decided after they cleared our table of the bison plate, to just chill and finish our wine. And then those sneaky bastards took the cheese for a walk to another table, right in plain sight! When Kari saw those pretty veins of blue cheese, she didn't need any further convincing.

Cheese plate

- Prestiche de Bourgogne (super creamy Brie)
- Niagara Gold (strong cow's milk)
- Sainte Maure de Touraine (goat's milk)
- Smokin' Back Forty (hard sheep's milk)
- Peau Rouge (hard tangy)
- Celtic Blue (smooth blue)
- Wine pairing: Madeira "Fine Old" 5-year, Casa dos Vinhos, Portugal

So, this was a veritable "world tour" of cheese, with some from France, Ireland and here at home (OK, so more like a Euro-Canadian tour).

The Prestiche de Bourgogne was one of the creamiest Brie/Camembert-style cheeses I've ever had. It was almost buttery, and richly flavoured without being overpowering the way, say, a Boursin can be. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Next was the Niagara Gold, a cheese with a cheddar-like texture which got met with mixed reactions. It had a very strong "barn" smell and flavour. Kari thought it was icky, I found it intriguing. But not really delicious. Definitely last on the list.

The Sainte Maure de Touraine was a goat's milk cheese out of Quebec with a remarkably subtle flavour. Kind of a welcome change from the standard over-the-top sharpness of most "chèvre".

The Smokin' Back Forty was a Beckta exclusive (oooooh, fancy!), made in nearby Lanark County, then shipped to the resto where they smoke it with rosemary. Yeah, guess which cheese was my favourite? This had a wonderful light smoky flavour (they used apple wood, I think) that didn't overpower the natural fresh flavour of the cheese itself. I need more! Maybe Beckta will cut me a side deal? Would ya? Guys? Pleeeeeeeease?! I'll totally be your friend forever and ever!

The Peau Rouge comes out of Quebec (I think) and had a strong sharp flavour that is nestled somewhere between an extra-old cheddar and a Parmesan. Very salty, but in this case the saltiness worked well, especially when cut by the Madeira. And the cheese itself did this fun little dissolving act on the tongue that was quite enjoyable.

Last but not least was the Celtic Blue (from Ireland, I assume?). This was a very mild blue cheese, which was rather welcome at the end of the night. My taste buds were getting a little overwhelmed! Not really much to comment about it. It's blue cheese, it's delicious!

The Madeira pairing served as kind of a catch-all to cover the sheer variety of all these cheeses. It worked well, having an almost maply flavour and richness, but without so much sugar. It had a velvety finish that gave an exquisite mouth feel when matched with the creamier cheeses.

5th course

- Dessert - "Tropical Cubist Movement": Grilled Pineapple Polenta Cake, White Chocolate Bavarois, Cinnamon Date Semi Freddo, Citrus-Cured Papaya with Espellette Pepper
- Wine pairing: Riesling "Indian Summer" Cave Spring, VQA Niagara Peninsula 2007

Before I comment on how good things were in the dessert course, let me just say that by the time we got around to dessert, we'd been in the restaurant for about 3 and a half hours and were near bursting. So if I don't do justice to these wonderful examples of the art of sweet, I apologize in advance, my sinuses were packed with meat. And cheese. And wine...

So, the desserts were a series of little squares (hence "Cubist" - Oh you witty chefs!) served with the usual artistic flair that I have yet to master.

First, the Grilled Pineapple Polenta Cake. The flavour was reminiscent of pineapple upside-down cake, albeit better (naturally). What made this dish unique was the interesting exercise in texture it presented. On its own, when first biting a piece of the cake, it was tough and chewy, but as you chewed it with the pineapple, the acidity of the fruit helped to soften the cake into a perfect bite. It was like a chemistry class in my mouth!

Next was the White Chocolate Bavarois (aka Bavarian cream). This one was sort of neutral to me in the sense that the flavours didn't smack me upside the head and scream "I'M NEW! LOVE ME!" It was creamy white chocolate goodness. Not much else I can say about it.

What's a Semi Freddo? Half of a wimpy Corleone? The Italian name for a pair of ambiguously gay hobbits? In fact, it's an Italian term for a "half frozen" dessert. Basically, a frozen kind of mousse. Not sure how "freddo" this Cinnamon Date Semi Freddo was, but man was it molto bene! I'm a big fan of cinnamon when used correctly, and it was here, blending superbly with the mousse. The flavour of date (which must have been ground in this case) played more of a support role, which I enjoyed. Too much date is cloying. Not what I needed from dessert, especially since the Riesling had a honey-like palette. Both together would have been way too much.

But the pièce de résistance (and likely the easiest to prepare) was the Citrus-Cured Papaya. So fresh and tasty and bursting with goodness, it was exactly the way to relieve the tongue of all those flavours. The Esplenette Pepper was this lovely melange of spicy and sweet (peppers and sugar) and the whole of it came together in a perfect end note to the evening.

The Reisling was a surprisingly good match, especially considering how much I normally dislike sweeter wines. But in this case, it complimented with the Semi Freddo and Bavarois and was deliciously subdued by the acidity of the pineapple and papaya.

So, friends, there's my tale of culinary extravagance told. Finishing touches came from Bill as he brought us the print-out of our menus as a souvenir, and Alex suggesting that if I needed the recipe for Lamb Pancetta, to maybe ask for it on the Beckta Web site (

In the end, this was an unforgettable experience, one I hope to recreate when my pockets are once again obese.

To the servers and cooks at Beckta, I salute you for being the artists that make life so much better for Hedonists like me. Maybe some day I'll repay the favour!

And to anyone watching who's in the know or happens to work at (or own) Beckta, I hope you like what I have to say. I welcome any clarifications about the meal and suggestions for future dining experiences.


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