RestauRanting: Allium, Ottawa, Ontario
(*This review is a lot more in-depth than others I’ve posted, as it was done for a school project.)
Allium restaurant is located at 87 Holland Street, a half block north of Wellington Street. Open since 2004, Allium’s website describes the restaurant as a “modern bistro-style restaurant”, and I think this is a very fitting description. Allium offers both lunch and dinner menus and the ever-popular Monday night tapas menu. The service style is tableside service. The menu is changed the first Thursday of every month, offering new and exciting dishes to those who choose to frequent the restaurant more than once.
We made last minute reservations for Monday, October 20th 2014 at 8pm. Around noon that day, I used the online reservation to book a table for two. There was still space available, I assume due to the fact that we were having a later dinner as opposed to a regular time. We arrived a little earlier than 8pm, but we didn’t have to wait for our table.
The hostess greeted us promptly, confirmed our reservation and took my jacket, hanging it in the nearby closet. She lead us to our seats, left us with menus and the wine list and told us our server would be with us shortly. As Dan looked at the wine list, I took this time to check out the table and cleanliness of the surrounding area. The table itself was not wobbly and it was clean. We were seated beside a window, I was impressed to see the window was streak and fingerprint free and the window ledge was well dusted. There were no unnecessary items on the table aside from a small tealight in its holder.
There was no marketing in the restaurant, on the tables or walls. There were paintings along the walls with price tags below them, I’m assuming they were from a local painter. (Also, they weren’t cheap.) I think the lack of marketing is good for this restaurant as they are maintaining the “higher-end” feel of it.
Our server came over and asked us if we wanted regular or sparkling water, we chose the regular water and she filled our glasses. She didn’t ask if we wanted drinks, but Dan was still looking at the wine list, so she may have assumed we hadn’t made up our mind. I was surprised that she didn’t offer any help in selecting wines, she just filled our water glasses and said she’d be back.
Dan and I decided on the DonaMatilde, a 2009 bottle of red wine from the Duoro region of Portugal, after making a few food decisions. It was a Monday night, so Allium was only serving from their tapas (small plates) menu, which was one of the reasons we chose this specific restaurant. The server went off to get the wine and we worked on finalizing our menu selections.
When she returned with the wine, she held the bottle with the label facing Dan and pointed out the name, the year and where it was from. She opened the wine, again with the label facing out, and did not set the bottle down on the table. She tucked the foil into her pocket and set the cork on the table in front of Dan before pouring a small amount in his glass for him to taste. He approved of the wine and she proceeded to fill both our glasses.
The service wasn’t overly bad, but nothing really stood out either. She didn’t upsell us on any of the food, nor did she even suggest a certain dish or anything. She didn’t help with our wine selection either. Maybe she assumed we were wine connoisseurs or something, but I personally think it’s nice when they offer some kind of assistance to the food and wine selections, even just mentioning their favourite dish or something of the sort.
The first two dishes we decided on was the fresh bread with local goat cheese, balsamic, oil and cheese and the beef tartare with Dijon, truffles, chives, pickles, hot sauce and smoked corn salad.
At first I was annoyed that we had to pay for the bread, normally that’s included in the meal, but I didn’t say anything to anyone. I assumed it was because it was a tapas night. However, when the bread showed up, I was very impressed. Not in the bread itself, that was just white sliced baguette, but the amount of creamy goat cheese that accompanied it. The balsamic vinegar drizzled over the cheese was one of the best balsamics I have tried so far, very sweet and not at all tangy.
The beef tartare is one of my favourite dishes, and this one did not disappoint. The smoked corn salad was a wonderful addition to the tender pieces of meat. While I do appreciate larger chunks of beef in my tartare, this beef in this one was cut quite small. The truffle flavour was incorporated into the hot sauce, giving a richness to the spice and vinegar. One complaint was that there wasn’t enough crustinis to finish the tartare. However, when we asked for more crustinis, she brought us another little bowlful immediately so we could finish the dish.
Our next choice was a duo of duck dishes. We chose the crispy duck confit wontons with hoisin, spicy honey and braised spicy cauliflower as well as the duck rillette and foie gras terrine with pickled beets, pistachio aioli, crisps, chervil and balsamic.
Both of these dishes were amazing. The crispy wontons were spicy, sweet and crispy and paired very well with the well-seasoned cauliflower florets. I wish they had asked us if we wanted to add another wonton though, as there were only 3 on the plate and Dan and I were sharing everything. This would have been an excellent upsell option for the server as well. The terrine was fantastic as well. The foie gras was melt-in-mouth creamy and the duck rillettes surrounding it added to the delectable flavour. My one complaint about this dish was the repetition of the truffle flavour. I’m not sure what it was in, quite possible the terrine, but it was too similar to the beef tartare. (It was also not mentioned on the menu, which I found surprising.)
Another note on service, while it wasn’t very busy in there, I thought our empty plates stayed on the table far too long. When we first looked at the menu, she mentioned only ordering two plates at a time, as we were at a smaller table. With that information, you would think the servers would have worked at keeping the empty plates out of the way. As we waited for her to clear the plates, Dan mentioned that there were three servers chatting it up at the bar. I couldn’t see them from where I was sitting as I was in the corner. They talked for quite sometime, which was quite annoying, as Dan and I were done with our food and we were waiting to order something else.
Instead of dessert, Dan and I opted for a cheese plate. I’m not exactly sure what the three cheeses were, but it was paired with an onion and apple compote, pear and apple slices and a spicy honey.
The cheese plate was okay, but it definitely lacked in colour. The cheese plate was monochromatic with lots of yellow and brown shades. The fact that it was served on a wood board didn’t help either. The compote was not bad, but I would have preferred something sweeter.
When we finished dinner, we were brought the bill and our table was cleared. There wasn’t a lot of chatting going on between the servers and the few guests that were left, I assumed they just wanted to get out of there as it was nearing 10pm. The restaurant concept was good, I really like the tapas or small plates idea as it let’s you sample a number of dishes as opposed to just one.
Dan and I made our way to the bathrooms, which were located downstairs on the lower level. (On that note, I’m not sure what they would do if they had to deal with someone in a wheelchair.) On the way down, I asked him to take a look at the men’s and I would do my check of the women’s.
It was a single stall, dark tiles on the wall and floor and dim lighting. I ran a finger on the shelving unit in the bathroom and noticed it needed dusting. The lighting however, allowed this to go unnoticed. The wastebasket was overflowing with paper towels and probably should have been changed at least once during the evening. Other than that, it was alright, as far as bathrooms go. It served its purpose and I could wash and dry my hands, although my paper towel landed on the ground as well, due to the overfill of the garbage. Dan’s experience in the men’s was nearly identical, aside from the fact he didn’t dust check the shelving unit. He also had an overflowing garbage and a very dimly lit bathroom.
As for things I would change or improve, I would recommend the servers get to know some favourites, for both wines and dishes. This small gesture would make for a friendlier overall service. I would also have bread available at no cost, but without the goat cheese. This would give the servers an additional chance to upsell at the table. They should also refrain from chatting in a group at the bar and focus on the customers in the restaurant. In conclusion, aside from the few small slips in service and a not-so-perfect bathroom, I would definitely return to Allium as well as recommend this restaurant to others.