“Do you see? Do you see what I mean? It’s happened again! You promised just a snack…”
“Hush, my love…”
“Just a morsel of lunch, you said… Just tapas! And you end up eating everything on the menu!”
“Not everything, cara mia. But one can’t ignore a chef’s own charcuterie…”
My stomach and I have been having these little talks lately. Thanks to Gold Medal Plates and six weeks of serious cross-country eating I now have to put up with this constant rumble of reproachful complaint from El Gordo, the belted one.
One recent mezzogiorno, we found ourselves in Ottawa and wandered down to the Byward Market, thinking of a bite of lunch at Domus or Eighteen. One was full and the other only open for dinner but fortunately I was armed with an ideal vade mecum, the latest, bran-new edition of Capital Dining, the definitive Ottawa restaurant guide written by my friend Anne DesBrisay, longtime restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen. So we found our way swiftly to Play, the cadet establishment to eight-year-old Beckta Dining & Wine.
Play occupies two storeys of a sturdy building directly across the road from the fortress-like American embassy. A cheerful colour scheme has the walls painted cerulean blue, a ceiling of billowing orange fabric and glossy little wooden tables that aren’t quite big enough to be comfortable.
At Beckta, chef Michael Moffatt and owner-sommelier Stephen Beckta offer some of the capital’s most serious fine dining; here they’re at play with a menu of small plates, lots of cheeses and charcuterie and a really interesting wine list loaded with treats and with Canada well represented. At lunchtime, you can order any two plates for $20 which simplifies everything, and Beckta has paired every dish on the menu with a cleverly chosen wine available in 3oz or 5oz pours.
Yes, we began with charcuterie. The kitchen buys in Mario Pingue’s silky prosciutto from Niagara and also the coarse chobai sausage made at Cheese Boutique in Toronto from fine Winnipeg Berkshire pork. Moffatt also does some meats of his own – a brisket and a dense, stiff country paté with the texture of meat loaf. It came in slices, cold from the fridge, and frankly outclassed by the accompanying condiment, a luminously flavourful compote of beet and raspberry.
Chunks of soft pink beet and big seedless cubes of chilled Californian watermelon starred in the next course, a salad of grilled romaine lettuce with nubs of soft, mild goat cheese and a big smear of cashew purée on the plate. Not a bad dish, but we had tasted nothing yet to write home about.
Catfish tacos changed all that. Piping hot, moist, fluffy fillets of catfish in a peppery crust were served on a bed of shaved brussels sprouts on top of firmish round tacos that tasted delectably of corn. A mashed tomatillo salad was fresh and sharp and a sweetish salsa of edamame and chopped peppers added a sort of succotash component in the same continental key.
The waiter (otherwise so friendly and smart) should probably have warned me that my next dish was eerily similar to the tacos, but it too tasted great so I wasn’t remotely dismayed. Moffatt had set a piece of cumin butter to melt on a crisp-skinned slab of pickerel and paired it with actual bean, corn and pepper succotash nicely spiked with jalapeño.
Then there was the hanger steak, marinated for 24 hours with tamari, citrus, mirin and brown sugar so that its surface caramelized and crusted during its brief time on the grill while the heart of the meat was crimson as a blush. Excellent frites were heaped alongside and some sautéed mushrooms hidden beneath the sliced meat. Upon request, a ramekin of salsa verde replaced the advertised aïoli.
Somehow room was found for dessert, though not without mutterings from behind my tie. The menu called it apple pie Napoloeon but it was made with diced and lightly cooked quince between tissues of phyllo, backed up by stiff vanilla-almond custard. The plate was finished with quince sauce, berries and a rich cinnamon ice cream.
“Happy now?” demanded my belly as it led the way back to the hotel.
Play Food and Wine is open daily for lunch and dinner at 1 York Street, Ottawa. 613 667 9207. www.playfood.ca.