Flavour, fun and fancy at Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro

Welcome back!

As the winner of the Ottawa Fish Market Project Food Blog 2012 contest, I’m excited to share with you my SECOND Blog entry of its three restaurants! I’ve blogged about The Fish Market last month, and coming later in December, I’ll be blogging about Coasters Gourmet Grill. But for now, if you’re looking for a tasty and fun night out, well I’ve got just the place! Let me tell you all about Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro!

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MIDNIGHT CITY

Before I step into Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro in the heart of downtown Ottawa’s ByWard Market quarter, I’m reminded of a famous scene from a Woody Allen film. The movie is “Midnight in Paris” where during a midnight stroll through Montmartre, Paris, Owen Wilson’s character pushes through the mysterious doors of a quaint bar off the smokey-lit cobblestone streets in one of the world’s most romantic sin cities by night.

What awaits him on the other side is a slick bar playing jazz music and a cast of characters that includes writers and artists of the 1930s—Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzergeralds, Cole Porter and Piacasso’s mistress. Among beautiful soft-licked-locked and flapper-frocked women, everyone is smoking, imbibing and conversing salon-style into the late hours.

It’s a magical place not unlike Ottawa’s unique and only cellar wine bar in the Market, where with a little imagination, you too can recreate your own “scene” (and enjoy one hell of a meal and great service!).

From as stylish an upscale soirée as you would like it to be, to as lingering a lounge Regal-Beagle style over a pint, or Cheers-familiarity at the bar, as you wish it. Whatever your style, when you walk through Vineyards’ side door, off William Street, you’ll feel the pull of this bistro-bar, ready to take you to another world, tonight. We did!

NIGHT ON THE TOWN AND I’M FEELING GOOD

Vineyards was the perfect combination of cool and cozy for my second stop for the Project Food Blog. I was joined by five local artists, from musicians to our photographer. It’s a casual-relaxed atmosphere surrounded by cellar-rock walls and warm hues. There’s no cloud of smoke (thankfully!), but you can catch some live jazz on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday! And, this is a great place for real-life celebrity-watching! (Platinum Blonde came here for drinks when they last played Ottawa).

For us, the wine, beer and scotch flowed as smooth as the conversations about life, love, art, sex and service (at local restaurants). Our food sat well as we did in our cozy curved benched nook. We closed the bar, as they say, well past midnight. It was indeed, magical.

FLASHBACK: STEAK FRITES

I often came for dinner at Vineyards as a couple with the Carpenter on those Friday nights when we didn’t feel like cooking, but hadn’t planned on a date. I would order $12 fries: a plate of fries or salad—and an amazing cut of steak perfectly grilled. This steak-frites supper idea reminded me of the lamb & frites and beans I ate a lot for dinner in Paris on vacation years ago; the surroundings feeling very European as well.

The warm wood and dim lighting emanating from stained-glass overhead lamps produce a romantic feel if you’re on a date; a cozy feel if you’re out with a group of friends like I was; or, a calming oasis for family dinner or a quiet meal to celebrate yourself. I’ve also chosen Vineyards for Girls Night Out, and it’s my first choice for congregating with out-of-town guests. You can use your evening as an excuse to dress up, or make it a throw-on-your black sweater and jeans kind of date.

SO, HOW WAS THE FOOD?

Vineyards has a very “London” feel according to Manager Jaden, who says the style mimics the British “belly-up-to-the-bar” concept where you travel up to the bar to get your drinks. When you’re seated, a server comes to take your food order. I suggest you sort your drinks out first. Servers are more likely to stop by for a food order if they know you’ve had time to settle in after a few sips.

There are more than 300 wine choices and Vineyards boast one of the largest beer selections in the city. Sorry, why are you going anywhere else?!

Our group enjoyed beers from the West coast of Canada over to Belgium classics. Sticking with the travelling theme, author/performer/artist Danniel Oickle and I each indulged in a “wine flight” – three glasses of international splashes of wines from different countries. Through my reds, I travelled from California to Spain and Italy. A great way to taste a place, and pace. With so much to choose from, helpful bar managers like Jaden and Adam, are there, patient, to help you find something you will savour.

Appetizers at Vineyards are incredible and must be shared. The crab cakes from Blog 1 described as “une caresse au palais” pleased us with their fluffy filling of crab meat blended with herbs, shallow fried and finished with lemon and garlic. The house cheese of the day plate was our photographer Pierre Gallant’s choice, which came with an assortment of fine cheeses served with mango chutney and candied nuts. Fruit fresh. Cheeses nicely paired. Chutney none too candied.

Myself, I dove into a dozen Prince Edward Island oysters that I enjoyed even more than the last time because of the accompanying mignotte sauce. Make sure to ask for it if you get oysters upstairs at the Fish Market.

But the appetizer to die for, was Fourstroke punk-rocker Ken Ketchum’s order of the panko-breaded and deep-fried camembert, with a soft center, served with a blueberry port wine and caramelized onion reduction.

We found the appetizers so delicious and substantial, that for a small meal, why not combine treats from this “Lighter Fare” menu. Our late-comer, Jazz musician and foodie Emmanuel Simon, went this way with the caprese salad of vine-ripened tomato slices, mozzarella, fresh basil leaves and drizzled with olive oil, balsamic glaze and sea salt, and a skewer of shrimp.

Onto mains, the highlights were Danniel’s cajun seafood jambalaya about which he consulted with Jaden on the spice factor. It’s not that this theatrical performer himself, very spicy, could not handle it! It’s that while the temperature was great for me in my sleeveless dress, Dan was boiling in wool. I would have thought that a cellar bar might be cold, also.

The jumbalaya, no doubt, warmed his palate, as he later commented: “Neither firm nor mushy, delicate and perfectly cooked rice made a filling bed for the succulent and generous mix of seafood [succulent shrimp, mussels, sea scallops, assorted fresh fish], chorizo sausage, and delightfully spicy sauce [tangy Creole sauce laced with southern spices].” I also recommend that if you’re at the Fish Market, upstairs, you order the conch chowder for a delightful mix of seafood and slightly spicy but not overbearing.

Another winner was Ken’s exquisite meal of fresh halibut fillet baked with a pocket of lightly seasoned fresh halibut stone crab meat, topped with a rich spinach and onion sauce. To this he added a shrimp skewer, one of many Vineyards’ “sides” options. “I was pleasantly surprised at the generous and succulent serving of halibut,” Ken said. “There wasn’t a scrap left on my plate once I was done.”

For singer/artist Olexandra Pruchnicky of Ottawa-based The Peptides (who are CBC Stuart MacLean’s choice for musical soundtrack to his new Vinyl Café book), it was the shrimp and scallops sauteed with bell peppers, onions and mushrooms with fresh garden herbs in garlic butter. “My shrimp and scallops were perfectly firm, but not rubbery,” Olex said. “Pulled off the heat at just the right time.”

For his main, Pierre enjoyed the juicy chicken parmigiana over a layer of fresh arugula and creamy alfredo linguini. A touch of vegetables he said would round out this dish just perfect. Breaking from my steak and frites, I went for the Atlantic salmon fillet and ceasar salad.

I was not disappointed with la dolce vita chocolate cake, with its rich chocolate with a baker’s sweetness, smooth and delicious. Olex recommends the crème brulée, Emmanuel indulged in an apple treat with ice cream. About his raspberry scene-stealing cake, Danniel said: “I must say that the cheesecake and I will be having a romance for many years to come. Light yet dense, not overly sweet raspberry reduction, and some signature raspberry gelatine near the crust just stole the show … simply, wow.”

QUALITY EXPERIENCE: NIGHT AND DAY

For me, when I was single and writing my SHOTGUN column or other articles for The Ottawa XPress, if I wanted to get more acquainted with artists and musicians, it was often with mates in a late-night setting and always almost done over shooters, cigarettes and loud bars where you couldn’t hear yourself talk and after-parties where it was impossible to concentrate and listen.

When I wanted to visit with artist friends over a meal, The Manx Pub is always a favourite for everyone but because of its popularity, less intimate–to me. Without beer gardens in the city for mid-day meet-ups, night town was where I would typically congregate.

If getting older and wiser involves choosing an option of getting together at a hip-but-inviting bistro where pretensions are stripped away instead of my pants, I’m all for it. Hey, being in a couple means nice dinners out, and when you go back to being single, it’s missed.

So, for me, “closing the bar” took on a whole new meaning last month at Vineyards, and I strongly suggest you grab a friend and a glass, fill your belly, and enjoy some jazz, forgetting all about the time until it’s past midnight, and you feel nothing but the magic of a night gone absolutely right … in Ottawa.

THANK YOU’s

So great to see Supervisor, André, pop in to say hello! We thank Jaden for his personable and professional service. Adam for the laughs and recommendations. And Happy Birthday Week, Cheryl – it was kind of you to take the time out to chat with us! :)

Please join me here again in December for Stop #3: Coasters Seafood Grill! On Thursday, December 6, why not drop in? Look for me and introduce yourself. I’d love that!!

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Thanks to the Group of Six: my fellow diners, Danniel Oickle, Olexandra Pruchnicky, Ken Ketchum, Emmanuel J. Simon, and (photog) Pierre Gallant.

Thanks for being there in spirit and throughout the night on Twitter: Californian synth-pop artist Jenna F, former Ottawan artist/musician CC Trubiak now transplanted to Flin-Flon, and Kayt Sukel Texas author of “Dirty Minds,” and frequent Ottawa visitor! We would have so liked to have you there.