Sometimes friends fade from your life and you wake up one day and say, “Whatever happened to so and so?” There was no scrap or disagreement. Life merely got in the way. As with an old friend, this can also happen with some formerly often-visited haunt. Back in the day, for me, Restaurant 18 was the place to be. Then, for no apparent reason, it faded from my consciousness. So after Restaurant 18’s decade-long absence from my regular restaurant rotation, I decided it was high time for me to zip back in and visit my old friend.
Much has happened there since I last visited. After a company shake-up last fall, Kirk Morrison was installed as the restaurant’s Chef de cuisine. Now at the helm of one of the top restaurants in the city, Mr. Morrison reinvigorated the menu, displaying an impressive set of skills he’s been developing since he interned under superstar Chef Lynn Crawford at the Four Seasons. The dining room has been made over in muted earth tones, rendering the space dark, moody and elegant. Think Paris-chic with striking modernistic design influences. But, it’s the food that stands out the most for me at Restaurant 18. And, there is no better way to test the mettle of a chef than to make your way through the tasting menu.
The evening started off on the right foot with an amuse bouche, Pacific northwest oysters on the half-shell. Although I was self-conscious about tossing back a few in such a graceful setting, I knew after the first bite that Restaurant 18 and I were taking up where we had left off all those many years ago. The initial slurp was briny and oceanic; the flesh of the oyster, robust. Then the flavours crescendoed to a fruity, cucumber-melon finish. Unfussy and flawless.
Next, the salad was reminiscent of an expressionist painting. Almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. Layered on a brush stroke of pesto were little diamonds of young yellow beets. The earthy quality of the beets was a perfect match for the refreshingly tender peas served alongside their shoots. Crisp little domes of pastry hid luxuriously rich duck pâté. The honeycomb gem was a treasure and provided sweetness and a unique texture. There was nothing not to like about this salad.
The courses came to the table at a measured pace with the server popping in and out at just the right moments. The service was attentive but never overbearing. You are forever aware of the haughtiness of the establishment, yet you are never made to feel lowly. Quite the opposite, really. You are treated as a noble guest.
Mr. Morrison serves up prawns that are poached in butter and dressed with sea urchin roe and guanciale and plated on a roasted red pepper and saffron bisque. Here, it is clear that the roe and guanciale are in blatant collusion with each other. The flavours are slap-in-the-face salty, but they soften with every bite and meld together to underscore the sweet smokiness of the peppers. The prawns give off just the right amount of chew and tenderness.
The seared scallops that appeared next were cooked to faultless perfection and sat atop a heap of al dente risotto that had an earthy richness imparted by tender beet greens. The lush and creamy broth was lovely.
The veal strip loin sous vide was a rare misstep. The meat was a bit too sturdy for my taste and seared to a thuggish conclusion. On the upswing, its accompaniments more than made up for this letdown. Mr. Morrison is a master at contrasting taste and texture. A soft poached egg floated gently in a horseradish cream sauce that added just the right amount of nippiness. The chanterelle mushrooms’ fruity aroma was an interesting counterpoint to the pickled onions that served to provide some crunchy texture.
Pied-De-Vent, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Îles-de-la-Madelaine, was placed before me next. I lacked the self-discipline to resist another course, so I trundled onward, indulging in this mild cheese that had gentle notes of hazelnut and mushroom. Partnered with a raspberry gastrique and dotted with pistachios, this dish made me deliriously happy.
Dessert, for me, is always the star of the party. My hopes here were certainly not dashed. A domed pistachio cake with a raspberry confiture was enveloped in the most luxurious white chocolate ganache, topped with an artful milk chocolate swirl, and served alongside a tart lemon smear.
Mr. Morrison has become an incredibly important voice in Ottawa’s culinary scene. His dishes are exceptionally well prepared. And, with Restaurant 18 he has found a wide canvas on which to paint. Throughout the meal I found myself admiring the way he skillfully orchestrates stunning works of culinary art through sheer originality, all the while upholding the traditions of French and Italian cuisines. Many of his dishes are indicative of someone baring his soul.
The intensity of this dining experience is one that will stay with me for a long time. Unsurprisingly, I have committed it to memory. Dining at Restaurant 18, it should be said, remains a great privilege. And, I’m very happy that I got the chance to rekindle my friendship with an old friend. I certainly won’t wait a decade before another visit.