The Byward Market section of downtown Ottawa is quite the sight and is always a buzz with activity. My Mister and I frequently have reason to pass through the market either on our way to the Embassy or to the Rideau Centre to shop. The sidewalks and streets are littered with vendors peddling their wares; from clothing, to flowers (hanging baskets and potted plants) and of course....food. On this particular day we were about the business of going to the Post Office in the Embassy. Afterward, we headed straight for the food. Walking past plenty of places, feeling quite indifferent as I considered each of them, my eyes fixed on the outdoor patio at the Empire Grill.
The weather was in rare form that day; I could see why so many were choosing to spend it out of doors dining rather than inside. As of late, our Sprout has also been in "rare form" with his tantrums while we're dining. So after reviewing the menu finding a number if things that piqued my interest, I was ready to take the plunge. We purposefully asked to be seated inside so the Sprout wouldn't disturb the larger amount of guests outside.
As soon as we walked in I was taken aback by the lavish decor. Very modern; very classy. Here is a small taste...
For our appetizer we ordered the duck spring rolls. I've seen a LOT of things put into a spring roll, but never duck. Perhaps I haven't been around enough, it is possible. But this seemed like a new concept that I just HAD to try. For my entree I sent up the order for their Alberta Bison Rib Eye; rare. The description was just too irresistible to pass on. While we waited our waiter brought out a loverly basket of bread.
You can't see it very well but in this basket was the most DIVINE olive loaf I've ever had in my life. Fruity, savory and with a bit of sweet that came in at the back end of the chewing that really rounded the bread out. We wasted no time eating it and before too long our spring rolls were up.
Duck Spring Rolls w/ Spicy Ponzu sauce
Yeah, they were as good as they looked. I am such a sucker for a good sauce. I dipped my pinky in right away to deconstruct it; such a wonderful pairing for the duck. Now...I will admit I purposefully got this expecting it would turn out to be a dud. Fried AND duck...a typically heavy and oily meat I knew that if I wasn't made just right it would feel like I was eating a stick of lard. It was unbelievably fabulous. I believe the secret to their success was in the details. "Pickled vegetables" inside rather than merely a mix of cabbage and sprout stuffing (you'd most likely come across at your less refined eateries), set these rolls on FIRE with taste. The sauce perfectly spiced; not too much, not too little and perfectly balanced with the parts of oils and vinegars to cut through the fried rolls. Perfection... This always raises my excitement level for the main entree.
While we were waiting for our main entree I spotted these GINORMOUS trays of food going out to the patio. I finally stopped the waiters and asked him what I was seeing. There were some things on the menu that had caught my eye, but because I couldn't envision the sheer volume of food, I passed on it. GOOD thing I did. The Empire Platter went by teeming with meat, cheeses and veggies accompanied by a couple loaves of crusty bread. It certainly helps that I tell the servers that I am a flogger... After I saw that tray, every time another went out from the "Sharing Plates" menu our server had the other waiter stop and show us what he was bringing out. Our waiter by the way was great. Service in this place is TOP notch. As it should be; matching their menu.
Alberta Bison Rib Eye
When this platter landed in front of my face I looked at it and for a split second thought it was too "pretty" to eat. That didn't last long... The first thing I checked was my steak...I order my meat rare unless it is ground or I am in a questionable place. Neither was the case, so "the redder, the better" was my strategy. It was perfect, red in the center but warm. The Cabernet rosemary demi glaze was HEAVENLY! It was a worthy opponent against the rustic flavors that come along with eating bison. The goat cheese on top offset the sweet in the Cabernet brilliantly. I would have asked to meet the chef, but I wouldn't have known what to do other than hug him! The hash was absolutely wonderful. The potatoes were sublime and the chorizo really gave them a light kick. My greens were tender crisp and FRESH.
I found myself trying not to make noises of rapture while I was eating. This was truly an establishment defining moment. They won me over without a single shot being fired. Not only would I go back to Empire, but I would order this dish again and again. In between...try other dishes of course. But this was a absolutely masterful orchestration on a plate, one worthy of repetition and respect. I read some customer reviews before I went and didn't expect much, in fact as one customer put it their meal at Empire was "forgettable". Their customer rating is quite low on all the foodie websites I read through. But they turned out to be exclusive experiences to a few people many months ago; people that took the time to go on the internet and whine. Let me add my gush to the mix by proclaiming I'd eat there again without second guessing the idea.
I plan my eating out quite deviously. Going shortly before or after the lunch and dinner rushes so I can watch the rush unfold, taking in how the staff function under pressure. I order things that would be quite a hassle to make for someone in the kitchen and typically I go for something that can easily be screwed up if the chef isn't on the ball. Empire rose to the occasion on all accounts. Thanks for a wonderful dinner and impeccable service from you staff. Until we meet again!