Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Toast to my Hometown's Better Eateries - Play!

This post has been a long time in coming as this is one of my favourite places to eat in Ottawa.

Play Food and Wine is the brainchild of Stephen Beckta and Michael  Moffatt (of Beckta renown) and the concept is to have a low-key, fun environment to enjoy really tasty small plates from an ever-changing menu and a diverse wine selection while not breaking the bank. Whereas Beckta is a once-a-year super-splurge (as my post from last March will attest to), Play has been a recurring treat for a couple of years now. Why I haven't blogged about it yet is really just a case of me forgetting to chronicle my meal properly in the past (sometimes it's hard to remember how good something tastes four glasses of wine later...) and by the time I remember to actually write a post about it, I've forgetten the details!

So, this time I made sure to take pictures and notes of what we ate and what I enjoyed most about it. Luckily the meal was pretty damn memorable all on its own! Let's explore it together, shall we?

Kari and I are pretty exacting in our culinary experiences when we go out. I have no qualms letting the server know how I'd like a meal to proceed and this was no exception. Luckily Play follows a service model that accomodates the customer without ever getting the sense of "attitude" from the staff that we're bothering them. In fact, I think the fact that we knew exactly what we wanted and in what order probably made life easier.

So, here's how the menu works at Play: It's a savoury small plate menu (as you can see below) with cheese, charcuterie and dessert selections also available. On the back of the menu is the wine list. They also publish it on simple paper so you can keep your menu to take home, something both the blogger and experiential packrat in me appreciate.

First things first, we ordered our de rigueur cocktails, which is usually something fun and sparkling for Kari (a Spanish Cava in this case, I believe), and a draft beer for me (Beau's Lug Tread).

As we sipped our drinks and looked over the menu, we figured we'd stick to two plates each, followed by a "Wine and Cheese Flight" (more on that later...). So, now came the actual choosing process of what's for dinner! One thing I really dig about Play is that they list the wine pairing along with the plate, so for wine rookies like me, it saves a lot of contemplation. Now, as I looked through the menu, the first thing that grabbed my attention after the Pork Belly was the Meatball Sub. And then I looked at the pairing, which happened to be the exact same thing as what was in my glass! So, first course was picked. Kari was having a bit more trouble deciding, but the ingredient combo in the Beet Bruschetta was too enticing to pass up. Next course had me torn between Pork Belly and Braised Rabbit. In the end, having previously had only one bite of rabbit in my life, I decided to go for it. I've had Pork Belly a few times, including once at Play, so I figured the rabbit needed to be given a chance to shine. Meanwhile, Kari was weighing the options of Pork Belly herself, as well as the Gnocchi and Beef Tataki. In the end, she went for the beef, basically for the same reason I did. It is worth noting that Play usually has pork belly on the menu, so the opportunities to try it are ample.

So, food was ordered with the pairings as listed, and off we went!

Kari's 1st plate - Beet Bruschetta w. chèvre, honey and truffle - paired w. Barbera d'Asti Cascina Caslet (Italy, 2009)

I only tasted a bit of this one, as it was Kari's plate, but I noticed a magical element in the combination of beet, chèvre and honey. It was a completely unique mix of flavours that worked very well together. Definitely something to try in the future, either at home or at Play.

Nick's 1st plate - Meatball Sub w. spicy eggplant, burrata and hickory stix - paired w. Beau's Lug Tread Lagered Ale (Vankleek Hill, Ontario, 2011 - I hope!)


Oh man this was good times! The meatballs were so ridiculously tender that I had to ask how the kitchen staff made it. Turns out they use pork belly. HA! Now, take this gorgeous meatball flavour and mix it with subtly spicy eggplant, fresh and bright tomato sauce, gooey burrata (a fresh mozzarella). Not bad eh? NOW, top that sucker with homemade hickory sticks. Yeah. Goddamn. Not much to say about the beer except that it's really good beer and beer goes with meatball subs.

Kari's 2nd plate - Beef Tataki w. habanero jelly, shiitake mushroom and sweet & sour onions paired w. Z52 Zinfandel (Lodi, California, 2006)

I'm somewhat regretting not getting a whole order of this myself... In case you're wondering, Beef Tataki is a Japanese cooking style where the meat is lightly seared, then slightly marinated, then sliced super-thin before serving with all the good stuff listed above.

One of the best bites of beef I've ever had and I've had a LOT of beef in my life. I can't really remember what the rest of the flavours on the plate were. Again, this wasn't my dish. Rats...

Nick's 2nd plate - Braised Rabbit w. orecchiette pasta, sofrito, date and pistachio - paired w. Benzinger Chardonnay (Sonoma, California, 2008)

This plate sort of hurt my brain. I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this dish. I knew that rabbit was a very light-tasting meat and that the combination of light meat, nuttiness from the pistachio and the sweetness of the date would be interesting. What I didn't expect was how evocative it would be. This was a plate full of Autumn. It had elements of Thanksgiving dinner with the veggies of the sofrito, and the rabbit was similar to turkey in flavour and texture. Also, the sauce itself had elements of a sweetened gravy. But on top of that, there was a freshness to the whole thing that simply reminded me of going for a walk on a brisk Fall day. More date would have been nice though...

The wine was maybe a smidge under-assertive compared to the complex flavour of the plate, but I guess it's better for the wine to be "outshined" by the food. Nonetheless, it was a tasty experience!

But next came my favourite part, the Wine and Cheese Flight!

Wine and Cheese Flight

Play does its best to keep the good times rolling and for the late crowd, they offer their Wine and Cheese Flight from 10 pm to closing time (generally midnight). This consists of three 2 ounce glasses of wine paired with a generous hunk of cheese. Usually there's a brie-style cheese, something hard and salty, and a blue cheese. Tonight was no different.

Our gracious Wine Director, Grayson
We were fortunate to have Play's Wine Director (aka Head Sommelier?) Grayson McDiarmid there on this night (he also takes care of the resto's twitter account - @playfoodandwine). He kind of takes experiences with wine and cheese to a whole new level.

The whole thing is presented on a single plate per person and our Sommelier/Director explained his choice for each pairing. I remember that there was a theme of "chips and pop" to this Flight, with each choice having its roots in salty meeting sweet. Works for me!

1st pairing - Brie de Meaux - France - paired with Organized Crime - Pinot Gris (Niagara, Ontario - 2010)

Brie de Meaux is a raw cow milk described as "creamy and mushroomy". The earthy flavour was nicely contrasted by the bright, citrusy flavours of the Pinot Gris. I was pretty impressed by the wine, as I find most Niagara wines a bit boring.

2nd pairing - Caciotta - Italy - paired with Pagos de Araiz - Crianza (Navarra, Spain - 2007)

The Caciotta is a goat's milk cheese wrapped in walnut-leaf. It had a beautiful saltiness that was offset by the nuttiness of the walnut leaves. It reminded me a bit of Manchego cheese, so paired nicely with the slightly sweet Crianza. Chips and pop indeed!

3rd pairing - Bleu d'Elizabeth - Warwick, Quebec - paired with Gonzales Byass - Sweet Cream Sherry (Spain)

It's been said that no ordinary wine can pair well with blue cheese. While I tend to disagree, it's pretty hard to pair well with a red or white. Here, Grayson decided that a sweet cream sherry would do the trick. He was right, the sherry was very sweet and robust (almost cloying), but that was a necessary flavour profile to match up with the very salty and intense blue cheese. In the end, it created a fascinating intersection in the mouth with nuttiness and chocolate being the end products. YUM!

Who needs dessert?

Of note: the first time I did the Wine Flight was back in '09 and I had the pleasure of a fascinating pairing of a blue cheese and a uniquely bold Merlot called the Velvet Devil out of Washington State. I remember the flavour was reminiscent of a pancake breakfast. I've since had Velvet Devil at Whalesbone and Play a second time. I want more and really wish the LCBO or SAQ had it in stock. Siiiiiiigh...

Free booze! YAY!
As an added bonus, when Grayson heard that Kari had never tried Port, he insisted on treating us to a 2 oz. sampling of a Taylor Fladgate 10-year old Tawny Port. Thanks again Grayson!

In the end, the bill was in the 215 dollar range, including tip (I think...). Certainly worth it for that delightful an eating experience.

So, that was just a sampling of what the dining experience at Play is like. We're going back there for a 4-course table d'hôte on New Years Eve, so expect a follow up post, if I don't get too loopy on champagne...

Also, as a bonus, they do a 2 plates for 20$ lunch special. I have no idea why I don't take more advantage of this...

Merry Xmas and enjoy the food!


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