Dining Out: Too many flawed dishes at pricey Urban Pear
The Urban Pear
151 Second Ave., 613-569-9305, theurbanpear.com
Open: Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., closed Mondays
Prices: starters in the $20 range; main dishes $28 to $55
Access: no steps to front door or washrooms
Last week, when the third of my three visits to the Urban Pear ended, there was a bit of generosity shown. Once the sizeable bill was paid, our server gifted us with a card promising a free appetizer, costing on average $20, if we returned. I don’t want to be ungrateful, but it felt like too little, too late.
OK, this Second Avenue restaurant has been the Glebe’s priciest meal out for some years. But these days, the sticker shock — $12 (five-ounce) glasses of wine (when the bottle costs $13 at the LCBO) or a $60 entree (when the lobster tails arrived overcooked and the rice was crunchy and undercooked) — is practically gasp-inducing.
A bit of history: chef-owners Ben and Summer Baird opened the Pear in 2002, and during its first decade, my predecessor Anne DesBrisay absolutely raved about the place four times. She did, in one review, suggest that the Pear lower its prices.
But, by the spring of 2013, the restaurant was sold. Summer Baird had opened the Hintonburg Public House and Ben Baird opened his Ottawa Streat Gourmet food truck. Since then, the Pear has had two owners. The first, Jeffrey Frost, switched chefs at a dizzying rate before selling last fall. New proprietor Nick Caravatta took over, and chef Paul Vanderpool Jr., a Louisiana native who formerly cooked at the Bridge Cafe and Bistro in Carleton Place, is firmly in place.
What I’ve sampled at the Pear’s latest incarnation has ranged from satisfactory to puzzling to insufficiently refined to seriously flawed. Too often, our disappointments were deepened because of prices that should correspond with not only deluxe ingredients and ambience but also flawless execution, finesse and even successful innovations.
The Pear’s refined, minimalist space has been nicely updated from what I remember, with a white banquette in place of a long, hard bench, white tablecloths and a red wall, darker than the green of years ago, decorated with lots of art.
But the food has not been as sleek.
An exploratory lunch last December began well with free bread that came with artichoke hearts and a perky tomato sauce. Barley risotto ($23), served as a timbale-shaped mound, looked good and had fine flavour, especially from the pop of grape tomatoes. But more shiitake mushrooms and more creaminess would have improved it.
The duck burger ($19) featured so-so, slightly dry confit leg meat on a brioche, offset by a slaw that needed to pop more. The greens with this dish, as well as with the barley risotto, were a little tired.
Tempura ice cream ($12) was closer to a deep-fry than a delicate tempura, but the saffron ice cream was well made and long on flavour. Coffee ($3), Lavazza we were told, was excellent.
After that lunch, we hoped for a top-notch dinner to re-assert the Pear’s reputation. Instead, on a Sunday in mid-March, there was a sore and expensive letdown.
A plate of cheeses and charcuterie had no pizzazz despite its $28 price tag, and our server couldn’t distinguish between cold sausages of venison and duck. (Overall, service was enthusiastic, but lacking in polish and information.)
Lamb chops ($40) were small, under-seasoned and dry. A veal chop was small, thin, under-seasoned and dry — scandalously so for $48.
Lobster tails with risotto — $60 then, but since reduced to $55 — featured gargantuan but overcooked and brusquely spiced seafood with woefully underdone rice. Incredulous, we pointed out just the crunchy rice, and, in return, a dessert came gratis.
Perhaps the best and most value-packed main that night was chicken parmesan ($38). While casual and even homey, it had big flavours and properly cooked protein. Still, we would have liked it more had it been a good $10 cheaper.
In addition to our ice cream/sorbet trio on the house, we had an overly boozy lemon gelato ($13) and the slab of sweet, dense “chocolate bomb” ($12).
That underwhelming meal, served when the restaurant had less than 10 customers, made me wonder whether Vanderpool was cooking. This week, he confirmed that Sundays are his night off, and he apologized for his kitchen staff’s performance.
At last week’s dinner, when a friend and I were the Pear’s only customers, items came with less alarming, but still high, prices and better cooked proteins, although they still left us scratching our heads a bit.
Four generously portioned “sliders” ($23) showed off fine crab meat and lobster claws, more mediocre duck confit and some tender, although cooked-past-medium-rare, beef tenderloin on thick rounds of toasted bread. More like huge canapés than mini-burgers, these “sliders” lacked condiments, we thought.
Two mains featured tasty meats but could have used more brightness in terms of their looks and flavours.
By itself, a rabbit leg stuffed with foie gras ($39) was moist and delicately flavourful. But it was too chunky visually, and its plum sauce was muddled, taste-wise.
Meaningfully seared and properly pink inside, duck breast ($32) was also fine on its own. But its orange-miso sauce seemed miso-free and its bounty of shiitakes and cloud-ear mushrooms seemed at best an arbitrary nod to Asia. The plate’s scattered shards of grilled banana leaves were confusing, especially when our server, in response to our question, told us they were likely not meant to be eaten.
According to its Facebook page, a new menu is to debut next week at the Pear. Meanwhile, Vanderpool’s Twitter feed shows some appealing looking dishes. Let’s hope for mistake-free and more affordable food.
UPDATE: Vanderpool sent me his new menus, which debuted in early June, and the details are here.
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