Before I leave an assigned area I always wonder to myself if I am going to miss anything about the place I am. The people, the amenities of the area, etc. It takes me SO long to trust people enough to form actual relationships that it is hard for me to feel attached to any one person or place that we've been. I can honestly say, however, that some real changes have happened to me while I was living here. Most of them great and only marginally to do with food.
Last night my Mister and I hired our regular sitter and for the last time in Ottawa went out for a night on the town. I hardly ever expect much out of a dining experience anymore. I had a friend tell me 2 years ago not to flog restaurants in the downtown core of Ottawa because they are all hype. He told me I needed to focus on the up and coming chefs in the outlying areas and put them on the map...cause who else was going to do it? No one. Everyone blogs downtown. Over the following months, I discovered he was quite right. But, I had a place on my "to eat" list that had just been sitting there...kind of festering really. I put in on there shortly after the Sweet Pea was born. It was a recommendation from a friend that LOVES all foods Latin. I read up on customer reviews, Googled the place, and actually put quite a bit more research into going than I ever bothered to do anywhere else in town. Mostly because the customer reviews were SO diverse and passionate. People asserting that the food sucked, people saying it USED to be fabulous but wasn't anymore...people who are so in love with the food, they eat there twice a week. Hmmm.... Quite a bag of confusion. Then ha! Color me surprised when the resident chef of this place ended up on the current season of Top Chef Canada. It was a "What the what?!" moment if ever I had one. How could a chef with such extreme differences in review end up on a show like that? Well....geez... Now I HAD to eat there, right? Of course right.
We made a reservation for 5:30 and made the mistake of getting there early. Most of the time, when I suspect the dinner hour will be packed and I want to get photos of the inside sans tons of people...I show up at least 15 minutes before my reservation. But, to our surprise they don't open until 5:30...and I mean...they doors are locked until 5:30. Lucky for me, I started my 3rd trimester the same day so the tweency little Meant to Be in utero was keeping me warm. The Mister was a different story, he kept walking across Murray street so he could stand in the sun...wuss. I made use of my time by staring at and reading the menu descriptions over and over...and over again. Intermittently people would come in and out of the restaurant for a cigarette or...to leave. I kept noticing that the chef himself was in and out and in and out 3 times or so before they opened the doors. Seemed odd to me. I would assume he'd be preparing his staff for the dinner hour. Guess not...
The doors finally opened and before we even began talking with our waitress over the menu I took some photos. It was just us and one other couple with reservations at the same time. Perfect! Navarra isn't very large so, all my worry was for nothing. I was able to take my shots in less than 5 minutes. Yay for no fuss!
I was informed that there is usually an equal amount of seating available on the patio once May hits but that for now, it is too cold to seat people outside. Fair enough; my Mister could attest to that fact.
We talked over the menu between the two of us and with our waitress for a bit before making any decisions. This is a tapas menu of Latin flavors. A number of things caught my eye initially but...reading from left to right certain items slowly got crossed off my list of interest. I SO wanted to try the roasted leg of lamb but....20 ingredient hibiscus mole?? *sigh* Why 20? Holy buckets... Most of the time in my experience with food...less is more. That being said...a mole with only 20 ingredients is actually middle of the road on the number of things I've seen get thrown into a pot. But, these days when I am going to spend 30 bucks on a plate of food...even in Ottawa where that is a normal price to see...I want to LOVE it and KNOW I'm going to love it. Not just hope. I moved on from that item and settled on the "Farm to Table Chef Feature"...then they weren't serving it that night. Grrrrr..... >.< I wanted lamb...I was going to get it one way or another. SO! Lamb Shoulder Chilaquiles it was! Our waitress warned us that things could get a bit on the spicy side. I told her I enjoyed Indian Vindaloo and her response was that the heat in this dish wasn't as spicy as an Indian curry. Okee dokee...I moved on. We sent in an app order for Chimichuri Mushrooms, my Mister's main of Confit Pork Cheek, and we had stared at the menu long enough to know we wanted to try the Granny Smith Apple Wild Blueberry Crumble for dessert. Seemed simple...
Before our appetizer of mushrooms came our waitress brought us some smoked seasoned almonds and some flatbread with serrano ham baked onto it.
We both thoroughly enjoyed the almonds and the bread was...well, it was just good. It wasn't great, but I wouldn't feed it to my dog either. The smoke with the spice combination on the almonds really took them to a place I'd never been with an almond before. I was really diggin them. I was happy to munch away on them while we waited for the mushrooms to make their way to the table and it only took about 5 more minutes before the mushrooms appeared. Yay!
We both dug in with gusto. It LOOKED amazing...but in ONE bite my palate was OBLITERATED. Spice, spice, and more spice. I immediately got annoyed. Mushrooms, potatoes, peas, onion sofrito, grana padano cheese, and nitro spicy popcorn....delicate, hearty, delicate, bold, delicate...see the problem? Mushrooms have their own distinct flavor. Potatoes can stand up pretty well to almost ANYthing. Peas are fairly delicate. Onion sofrito can be pretty bold depending on what peppers and paprika you use. Put this all together and BAM!...I couldn't taste anything but spice. Period. I honestly couldn't even have told you there were potatoes in there if my Mister hadn't said "Geez, it eliminates the flavor of the potato itself altogether." He wasn't wrong. We were starving, so we ate it anyhow. I LOVE jalapenos, but this dish just didn't need so much spice. It would have been more enjoyable if I hadn't been sweating like I was sitting in a Finnish sauna by the time it was all over. I never had SO much heat in a mushroom dish in all my life. I think my lips stopped tingling shortly before my main entree landed in front of me.
Quebec Lamb Shoulder Chilaquiles
Funny thing about this dish is...I was WARNED. I was told it was a "bit" on the spicy side. So...when I dug into it expecting to be blown away (because comparatively speaking...we weren't warned about the spice level in the mushrooms and they half killed me, I could only assume that actually being given a heads up on this food...I was going to be completely killed. I wasn't wrong...) I was surprised for about 4.5 seconds when I was chewing away happily and pausing every couple of seconds waiting to burn alive. It didn't happen. Not right away. The delay was about a half of a minute. Then I felt like I was burning alive from the tip of my tongue to the back of my throat. *facepalm* Holy geez! When you're serving something like lamb...WHY?!...why kill it with such an array of spices and heat that you have to alternately sip water with your food? The worst part is, I'm not wuss when it comes to heat. But I stopped eating for a couple minutes to take my food notes, whilst wiping the sweat off from under my poor eyeballs. My Mister was sharing with me. He didn't dig in too heartily. After he saw my reaction, he waited patiently for his pork cheek instead. Smart move. I wanted to love this dish, but it just wasn't happening. Add to the assault on my taste buds that the lamb was dry....I wanted to get up and go across the street to "Bite" and get a dang burger instead. Dammit! I hate it when I don't like my food!
Confit Pork Cheek
My Mister's plate looked just as awesome as mine did, but after two frontal assaults on my mouth...I wasn't about to mess with trying his food quite yet. We meant to share but I was too busy trying to put out the fire in my mouth. About 4 minutes into eating he said it wasn't spicy at all and that once he scraped all the red sauce off it actually was a very well composed dish. He made a bite up for me with some of the pineapple and other tidbits and forked it over. It actually was very good. SUCH a contrast in dishes... My Mister always warns me not to ask for recommendations from wait staff or even the chef and tells me to order what sounds yummy. Why don't I listen? If I had done that...I would have ordered the Carbonara and most likely LOVED my food and had a completely different experience. Oh well...live and learn. He made short time of his plate compared to me.
I'm sure any wait staff or kitchen staff reading this are wondering WHY in the world I didn't send my food back or why I finished my food. I can tell you...I was paying for it, and I was HUNGRY. I didn't want to wait for a new plate of food to be made. Just thought I'd toss that out there for any inquiring minds...
Next...was dessert. My LORD was a hoping for the moon... But, all we got was Pluto... And we WAITED for it too. I noticed that FEELING had returned to my mouth after about 10 minutes of being finished with my main entree. I noticed it more than once...then realized it had been about 25 minutes since she took our dishes away from the main course. We saw on the note on the menu for the dark chocolate coulant, asking folks to be aware that it takes about 15 minutes for it to bake. But there was no note for the crumble...and our waitress told us she put in the order for the crumble with our app and entrees. So waiting almost an extra half hour was pretty annoying. I always try to look on the bright side though... At least I was going to be able to taste my dessert...the fire in my mouth was out.
Granny Smith Apple Wild Blueberry Crumble
Looks pretty great, doesn't it? That's exactly what I thought every single time they set a plate in front of me throughout our time here. "Wow! That looks SO yummy..." But...this was the fourth time someone put a plate in front of us, so I suspected I had better hold my mental applause until I took a bite. My Mister got to it before me. The first words out of his mouth were "NOT worth waiting for." Damn... I was afraid to even take a bite. But of course I did. It wasn't as bad as he made out. He just wasn't used to the way it was made. When I make a crumble I use brown sugar instead of white, I add oats to the crumble mixture, and sometimes nuts. This was just straight up flour, white sugar, and butter... Nothin' wrong with that. But, the more I dug around in that ramekin the more I wondered...where the hell are the blueberries? It was almost like they made a sauce out of the blueberries, strained the fruit out of it, then added the apples. What the heck?
The vanilla bean ice cream sort of saved this dessert from the brink of disaster. Every time I took a bite with the fruit, crumble topping, ice cream, and caramel in a composed bite, the dish made sense and it was good. But when you go to a place expecting SO much more and you hear your Mister say "We should have skipped the appetizer and entree course and went straight to dessert." you know that we can't be the only people who have said that or felt that way.
Worst part about this whole experience is I sensed some REAL skill in the kitchen with concept and plating...but somehow this food got lost in translation. I'm not sure what is going on back there in the kitchen but...someone has lost their passion or...the chef has turned over his recipes to novices that just don't "get it". Trust me...I spent quite a bit of time looking around at the other tables of people. By the time we were to our main entrees, the place was PACKED. Saturday night packed. Not an empty seat in the house. The only people I saw smiling and looking remotely happy were the couple next to us that was drinking more wine than they were eating food. What a bummer.
So far I have decided I don't like Navarra. I want to like it, but I don't. I feel like I ALWAYS do when I give a place a bad review...I feel like I want to go back, try something else...you know, give them a chance to redeem themselves or show me what really makes them stand out. Unfortunately I don't have that luxury here. We're leaving in a week and with the pregnancy, packing, and two children at home....going out again just isn't in the cards. Oh glorious let down! Thwarted in food at my last... Frick...lol... 100 loonies and two fires put out later, I won't be going back to Navarra and unless you have a remarkably resilient mouth...I wouldn't recommend eating the dishes that I ordered last night. No way Jose! If you chance to eat there, let me know how it went for you. I HAVE to believe that there is something worth eating there...and even going back for. How else could Navarra have been in the "best of" in Ottawa in 2013?? Right...they couldn't.