537 Sussex Dr., 613-789-7355, social.ca
Open: Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., closed Sunday
Prices: starts $8 to $18, mains $22 to $39
Access: One step into restaurant, washrooms downstairs
A few months after Social on Sussex Drive opened in the spring of 2000, the Citizen’s reviewer described it as “glamorous, hip and humming.”
If anything, the restaurant’s glamour score has recently tripled or so, thanks to its most recent renovations that have seen Social take over the space of the former art gallery next door to become an even more posh, multi-roomed hangout.
Meanwhile, its executive chef for the last year has been Jeff Bradfield, formerly of Erling’s Variety in the Glebe, which is noted for its distinguished small plates.
With its new look and newish chef in mind, I decided to eat again at Social, which I had reviewed, and quite liked, in January 2014.
Before this spring, Social, despite its dramatically high ceilings, still felt not so far removed from its beginnings as a cosy, narrow bistro. Well, that intimate space where I’d enjoyed a short rib-enhanced burger and fancy clam chowder three years ago has been converted into a waiting and lounging area of cushy couches and massive overhead mirrors.
The expanded Social also includes five tastefully luxurious dining rooms that seat anywhere between 18 and almost 50 and about 185 cumulatively. At this time of year, factor in the large, secluded backyard patio that seats about 100, plus the bar, and you have what’s essentially a high-volume eatery — where, fortunately, the food markedly surpasses what high-volume eateries typically serve.
Social’s owner Peter Boole said he wanted the make-over, which he did with designer Henrietta Southam, to better organize his restaurant’s space while granting it more street exposure and more space to host events. The new front dining room — a 47-seat space with a bold blue wall, brass horseshoe banquettes paired with white marble tables and chunky cloth-covered or leather chairs matched with big, distressed wood tables — is the “proper dining room” that Social lacked until now, Boole says.
Truth is, a few weeks ago, I bolted past this appealing space because we were so keen to eat al fresco. Four of us sat in the splendid enclosed patio — during the waning days of Bradfield’s spring menu, it turned out — and had a lovely dinner.
Three appetizers struck us as well-crafted, harmonious compositions that nicely tweaked familiar dishes and waved the flag for from-scratch cooking.
Rather than serve pork belly, Bradfield turned his attention to pig cheek, served with a miso lacquer in a crisp croquette offset with celeriac purée and gingery, compressed Asian pear. Beet salad, with roasted and pickled beets plus apple chips, beet meringue, cashew cream, goat cheese and maple-espresso nuts, felt very much value-added. Flatbread loaded with wild mushrooms, hummus, greens and truffle honey didn’t last long at our table.
With all of these dishes, I was pleasantly surprised by the smart way in which Bradfield was able to add a discernable but uncloying sweet note to make a savoury plate more playful and diverse. Even though my palate leans more to salty, sour and umami flavours, I fully approved.
The mains were no less impressively conceived of and executed. Smoked chicken pappardelle, with kale, peas, fennel and sun-dried tomato pesto packed a wallop of flavour and comfort. A plate of tender yet crisped duck confit with purple potato, corned red cabbage, heirloom carrots and sea buckthorn gastrique, was one of the very prettiest that the kitchen sent out. Almost as splashy visually, on its vibrant blue plate, was a slab of ling cod topped with a thick rouille sauce with an exotic, uni (sea urchin) boost, beside a smear of sweet potato purée and a succotash of beans and okra that provided a crisp, green contrast. OK, the fish was a wee bit dry, but the uni rouille was to die for.
Desserts were pricey but memorable and even quirky splurges. I’ve frequently been let down by savoury accents on sweet meal-enders, but Social pulled it off with blue cheese adding funkiness (but not too much) to a chocolate brownie, accompanied by sour cherries, double chocolate gelato and cocoa olive earth. Similarly, coffee-cured pork belly played well with deep-fried gelato, which also benefitted from the salted dulce de leche on the plate. Apple halves received a modernist treatment, arriving after being cooked sous-vide and served with sour apple fluid gel, coconut caramel, and a scattering of cheddar crumb and spiced nuts.
As review research goes, the only thing amiss about that meal, given its tastiness and the polished, attentive service, was our timing. The summer menu has seen some of the dishes tweaked or removed.
I have sampled a few of Bradfield’s new, lighter dishes and they were winners, too. A raw tuna starter was fresh and lucid of flavour, with a barely blowtorched exterior. With the fish were Japanese accents — wasabi yogurt, compressed cucumbers, Asian pear, nori and togarashi — but none outshone the delectable tuna.
Shrimp raviolo was a deceptively cross-cultural dish, its massive dumpling stuffed with a heap of shrimp that had been subtly hit with Thai/Asian seasonings while its broth tasted of a hint of Pernod, which also lined up with the dish’s wedge of grilled fennel.
From new pastry chef André Bluteau came an admirably light buttermilk black pepper panna cotta in cold-pressed strawberry juice. Ottawa’s more rubbery, heavy panna cottas should take note and raise their game.
During its run, Social has been blessed with a succession of talented chefs, from René Rodriguez to Steve Mitton to Matthew Carmichael to Kyrn Stein. Given the vividly flavoured, thoughtful food that Social’s kitchen now turns out, even as it meets the demand of 40-plus extra seats and the summer patio rush, Ottawa native Bradfield, 32, belongs in this illustrious company.