Dining Out in Ottawa: Le Poisson Bleu offers fresh, refined take on fish and seafood
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Le Poisson Bleu
610 Somerset St. W., 613-656-1638, lepoissonbleu.net
Open: Wednesday to Sunday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday
Prices: small plates $15 to $24, mains $28 to $127
Access: two steps to front door
During one of two visits I made last weekend to Le Poisson Bleu, we wavered on ordering the charcuterie plate. That is, until our server bubbled with excitement about the plate’s tuna bone marrow. Having had our rubber arms twisted, we said yes to the $70 indulgence.
Some of you may have just done a double-take, and for one or more reasons. Doesn’t a charcuterie plate consist of cured meats, usually of the porky kind? And since when does a charcuterie plate cost $70?
Well, give your head a shake. Opened in early February on an unassuming corner in Chinatown, Le Poisson Bleu champions an emerging global culinary trend focused on preparing and serving fish in innovative and even challenging ways.
Australian chef Josh Niland, author of 2017’s The Whole Fish Cookbook and 2021’s Take One Fish: The New School of Scale-to-Tail Cooking and Eating, is this trend’s pioneer and his high-profile supporters include U.K. queen of cookery Nigella Lawson, who calls him “a genius.”
It’s a credit to Ottawa’s advancing restaurant scene that Le Poisson Bleu’s three owners — chef Alex Bimm, who has cooked at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Que., and The Whalesbone on Bank, his brother Eric Bimm, and their cousin and bartender Sophie Velour — chose to fly their fishy flag on Somerset Street West.
Kudos to them for offering fish and seafood dishes that provoke curiosity as well as hunger, even if the edgiest ones might have a guest thinking they’ve gone too far.
So, how about that tuna bone marrow?
I like tuna and I like beef bone marrow. But I didn’t leave LPB having acquired a taste for tuna bone marrow, which I’ve since learned is also known as tuna spinal jelly.
An Internet source says that tuna spinal jelly “when fresh… tastes like fresh seawater. It’s incredibly refreshing.” We missed that epiphany. Instead, the allure of tuna spinal jelly went over my head and my dining companion even compared it to a mildly fishy Jell-O shot. Clearly, we have a lot to learn.
Of course, LPB’s website doesn’t say its food will confound you. “We strive to create food that is fresh and memorable, sophisticated yet unpretentious, comforting and full of heart,” it says. “Most importantly yummy.”
So, if the outré thrill of tuna spinal jelly isn’t for you, more conventional and tasty choices abound.
East Coast oysters ($42 for a dozen) were pristine and briny, with not only the usual shaved horseradish and mignonette on hand but also a squeeze tube of herby house-made chermoula to garnish those luscious bivalves.
Yellowfin tuna tartare ($24), another raw, impeccably fresh treat, swaddled an egg yolk that added unctuous savouriness.
Le Poisson Bleu’s beignets ($15) were deep-fried concoctions of smoked trout and potato that were hard to stop eating, especially with a chunky romesco-style condiment that affirmed Alex Bimm’s fondness for big flavours.
Morsels of Virginia rock shrimp ($24), dotted with crisp discs of trout “chorizo” and served on beds of loose, jalapeño-tinged polenta, were as sweetly tasty as that crustacean is obscure.
From Fogo Island came the most tender, meaty squid ($24) I may ever have had. The dish’s vibrant pool of punchy chimichurri vied for taste-bud domination.
Fresh clams ($16 for a half-pound) steamed in a house-made XO sauce (a Hong Kong condiment made with dried scallops and shrimps) were all about the umami.
Along with tuna spinal jelly, our charcuterie platter ($70) included (in order of ingenuity) slices of cured albacore tuna loin, steelhead trout summer sausage and pistachio-flecked cod-tongue “mortadella.” All had a lot of salt-forward flavour and pleasing textures.
Of five main courses, the unanimous favourite was a perfectly cooked aged king salmon fillet ($38) with sauteed king mushrooms in a simple but irresistible sauce of emulsified house-made butter.
Salmon at Le Poisson Bleu.
Something to wrap our heads (and wallets) around was Le Poisson Bleu’s play on steak frites, which swapped in a large chunk of dry-aged striped bass ($76 for an 11-ounce steak). The imposing steak, topped with dollops of that bracing chimichurri, had concentrated flavour and textural complexity going for it. The fries went from good to better when they sopped up the fish’s delectable pan juices.
A whole local sunfish ($32), butterflied and breaded, didn’t work for us because the shrimp-infused Hollandaise sauce, which worked with the dish’s asparagus, took over when applied to the mild fish.
Also, the decision to leave some scales on the fish for crispiness, which was alluded to on the menu, was debatable, especially when breading already made the fish crunchy. I, for one, indelicately removed bits of scales from my mouth rather than crunch through them.
While two desserts — a mille-feuille ($12) that alternated puff pastry and chocolatey pastry cream and a fig pavlova ($12) with lemon curd and rosemary pine nut praline — were tasty, they both felt off texturally, too dense and not nearly yielding enough.
Fig pavlova at Le Poisson Bleu.As I’ve begun to say of other restaurants, money earmarked for desserts here might be better spent on beverages.
Velour, a veteran of Montreal’s cocktail scene who presides over an attractive bar in the centre of Le Poisson Bleu’s front dining room, makes some pretty artful drinks. Two bourbon-based and two gin-based concoctions were astutely balanced winners worth ordering again.
Wine-wise, the restaurant offers a concise selection of affordable and often organic bottles from small producers, and single glasses are available.
While we clearly liked some dishes more than others, Le Poisson Bleu still feels like a cut-above new restaurant. Provided you accept its fundamental premise, that top-tier and even avant-garde seafood is to be celebrated in relaxed surroundings, you’ll find myriad refined pleasures. Just hold the tuna spinal jelly, if you prefer.