27 October 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

Ottawa Dining: At Jackson, some artful, high-minded small plates were better than others

Jackson
10 Daly Ave. (in the Ottawa Art Gallery), 613-680-5225, jacksonottawa.com
Open: Monday to Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., closed Sunday
Prices: small plates $10 to $19
Access: no steps to front door or washrooms; washrooms are gender-neutral

Veteran Ottawa chef John Leung, whose résumé includes stints cooking at Restaurant E18hteen, Steak and Sushi on Clarence Street, and at the official residence of the British High Commissioner, has some huge incentives to serve beautiful plates at Jackson.

After all, the latest restaurant Leung is cooking for is located just inside the entrance of the new Ottawa Art Gallery, home to the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, which includes scores of paintings by the restaurant’s namesake, famed Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson.

The sleek surroundings at Jackson are meant to blend with the gallery and art beyond it, with diners gathering in a striking space with several storeys of air above it, amid natural tones, chic finishes and amethyst and rose quartz crystals. Sturdy tables and chairs look onto Daly Avenue, while sofas make for a softer, more lounge-y area closer to Jackson’s bar, which runs along its longest wall. It’s a relaxing but refined place to spend time in — arguably about as “New York” as Ottawa gets.

In the last week, I ate twice at Jackson and had small plates made according to a credo of healthy, plant-based eating developed by Leung and his business partner at Jackson, seasoned ByWard Market restaurateur Caroline Gosselin. Some plates were beauts, visually and otherwise, while others had blemishes. Thankfully, the former outnumbered the latter. For what it’s worth, the food was better at a weekend dinner than during a weekday lunch.

Let’s start with the winners at dinner. While three-quarters of Jackson’s 16-item menu, which is in force both at lunch and dinner, are vegetarian- or vegan-friendly, some fish-based options made big impressions.

A slab of trout ($17) was perfectly cooked, crisp of skin with juicy, just-done flesh. The dish’s mound of lentils and watermelon added some heft, and its ring of cilantro chutney added the bite  the trout needed.

Trout with lentils and cilantro chutney at Jackson Postmedia

Leung offered an equally simple but effective take on tuna ($17), with a half-dozen raw slices topped with a chia dressing and puffed rice, some salt on the side that bolstered the fish nicely, plus a bright salad of cucumber ribbons, perked by pickled ginger and jalapeño. At lunch, though, the salad was out of whack, with too much jalapeño overwhelming our palates. At dinner, the dish was much more balanced — very light on the jalapeño, I was told — and the tuna fans at my table even ordered a second helping.

Tuna at Jackson Postmedia

Leung put good things on sourdough toast, whether it was crabmeat with lemon aioli ($14) or a mash of avocado with tomato ($11). Both items felt like indulgences.

Crab on sourdough toast at Jackson Postmedia

Avocado and tomatoes on toast Postmedia

Meat abstainers should be pleased with Jackson’s smoked tofu ($17), a firm slab of which was not only smoky but also salty and sweet, prettied by branches of broccolini and a puddle of piri piri sauce.

Smoked tofu with broccolini, almonds and piri piri at Jackson Postmedia

A puff pastry-based flatbread ($15), which Jackson called a tarte flambée but made us think of pissaladière, the Niçoise bread typically topped with caramelized onions, olives and perhaps anchovies. Jackson’s flatbread, topped with onions, olives, chives and crème fraîche, was more low-key of flavour. Because the flatbread is designated a Mealshare item, Jackson donates $1 to that program for every tarte flambée sold, which pays for a simple, healthy meal to a youth in need.

Tarte flambée at Jackson Postmedia

With other dishes, however, there were enough shortcomings to remind us that the margin of error is smaller with small plates. At my lunch visit, it didn’t take much to make the dishes below seem a little wobbly and even over-priced.

White kimchi ($12) came quickly from Jackson’s kitchen at lunch. But the big bowlful of gently pickled veg was almost all cabbage and green beans, basically devoid of the asparagus mentioned on the menu. There was also so much pickling liquid in the bowl that when its contents were spooned onto sharing plates, the liquid couldn’t help but meld with everything else on the plate, making for a murkier meal.

White kimchi at Jackson Postmedia

Scallops were the star on the most expensive dish at Jackson ($19). While those three molluscs were fine, a slightly harder sear wouldn’t have hurt them, either. Dragging the dish down more significantly was the ordinariness and even the oiliness of the medley of sunchokes, mushrooms and celery on the plate.

Scallops at Jackson Postmedia

Jackson’s brussel sprouts plate ($14) appealed with its intriguing mix of halloumi and maple hummus. But the dish didn’t seem fresh off the heat, the taste of the grilled halloumi cheese was verging on burnt, and the serving of sprouts on this small plate seemed very small, perhaps even stingy.

Brussel sprouts at Jackson Postmedia

Churros ($9) served on a bed of salted caramel with a side-bowl of chili-spiked chocolate was the best item at lunch, even if its interior was on the gooey and underdone side. (At dinner, the doughy dessert was better, if still a touch moist inside.)

Churros at Jackson Postmedia

Promotional materials for the restaurant say it avoids genetically modified food, supports small family farms and uses organic, artisanal and environmentally friendly products where possible. The goal is to serve “high-vibrational food, locally sourced and globally creative … healthy food to increase a healthy mind, body, spirit and planet,” Jackson’s materials say.

Such progressiveness is in line with the fact that Gosselin, who has worked in Ottawa’s restaurant industry for almost two decades and is a co-owner of Restaurant E18hteen, Sidedoor and the Clarendon Tavern, is a yoga, meditation and ayurveda practitioner. She even teaches free yoga classes at the art gallery.

Appropriate, then, is the restful classical music that plays on Jackson’s sound system on Mondays “to offer a relaxed environment,” according to a press release. We found the lunch-time music more pop-y and even a bit tinny sound-wise, with the fidelity better at the bar than in the front dining area. On a weekend night, when Jackson was packed, the music was louder still and in full groove-and-dance mode.

In all, Jackson, which had its soft opening this summer, felt like a place to be and a place to eat well, if not voluminously so. The kitchen could have achieved a bit more mindfulness here and there, but for pros like Leung and Gosselin, cooking on a higher and more consistent plane should not be out of reach.

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