Dining Out: Plant-based hits and misses at St. Elsewhere in Chinatown

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This popular spot for vegans opened last fall on Somerset Street West.

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St. Elsewhere
826 Somerset St. W., 343-588-1537, stelsewhere.ca
Open: daily for dinner 5 to 10 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: plant-based plates $12 to $27; wines by the glass $12 to $18; cocktails $14 to $16
Access: steps to front door, steps to dining areas

During a recent dinner at St. Elsewhere, a dining companion had a very pleasant flashback to a plate of pasta carbonara she enjoyed decades earlier at Mama Teresa’s in Ottawa.

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But between her past and present-day pastas, there was a key difference. In what might be called her previous life, she ate meat, and the fondly recalled pasta carbonara likely teemed with the deliciousness of eggs, cheese and pork-y garnishes. But at St. Elsewhere, the carbonara was made with egg-free udon noodles, a similarly cheese-free “parmesan,” tempeh “bacon,” and other plant-based ingredients intended to evoke the richness of its iconic Italian inspiration.

carbonara
Udon carbonara with tempeh bacon at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

For my vegan friend, who has eschewed meat all her adult life, St. Elsewhere’s udon carbonara was not only permitted but also very tasty. But the forkfuls I stole from her bowl only reminded me that a classic carbonara I had last year at Cantina Gia in the Glebe was much more to my liking, because, well, eggs, cheese and meat are my jam.

Therein lies the challenge of reviewing St. Elsewhere, which was opened last fall by chef Tyler Da Silva of Thr33’s Co. Snack Bar on Bank Street, with seasoned chef Martin Levesque, formerly of the similarly plant-based restaurant Astoria Bistro Botanique in Gatineau, as chef de cuisine.

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You can say what you want about people’s palates being individual and subjective. In this case, a more significant distinction is between diners who like animal protein and those who reject it.

I took four friends who live plant-based lives to St. Elsewhere. All liked the restaurant’s casual but classy vibe, an improvement on the cafeteria ambience of some vegetarian and vegan haunts. To varying degrees, they were OK with how St. Elsewhere’s dishes tasted and were executed. Perhaps above all, they appreciated St. Elsewhere as that rare-in-Ottawa restaurant that put their plant-based politics on a pedestal and offered uncompromising choices.

For my part, while I accept and even applaud St. Elsewhere’s fundamental premise, I can’t quit meat. And, I was arguably the most critical among us.

I visited St. Elsewhere twice this year and have tried most of the items on its tiny-font menu, which included eight smaller and nine larger plates.

Of the six smaller dishes I tried, I thought most highly of the grilled asparagus with its tart yuzu crema ($13) and the crowd-pleasing blooming onion ($12), although the latter could have used more salt. Both seemed like complete, satisfying dishes that prompted quibbles at most.

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asparagus
Asparagus with yuzu crema and toasted almonds at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
onion
Blooming onion at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

Smoked tofu played well with its guajillo sauce and pickled pineapple, but for $20, I thought I should have been wowed more. Similarly, the smashed cucumber salad with sesame dressing ($13) was tasty, although at some Chinese restaurants in Ottawa, similar salads are more punchily flavoured and half the price.

tofu
Smoked tofu with guajilo sauce and cucumber at St. Elsewhere Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
salad
Cucumber and apple salad at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

Kale salad with a peppercorn ranch dressing ($16) benefitted from the quality of its vegan crumbled sausage, although it needed more of its promised fried capers. Hummus ($15), tweaked with the addition of roasted parsnip, was too sweet for me, but not for others at the table.

salad
Kale salad at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
Hummus
Hummus at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

Of six larger dishes, three worked for me, and four didn’t.

The successes were the mushroom risotto ($27) topped with crispy blue oyster mushrooms, although even more mushrooms studded in the rice would have improved the dish. Gnocchi ($26) were more like nicely seasoned mashed potato croquettes, but slabs of vegan sausage and a kombu sauce made the dish crave-able, while the dish’s almond “ricotta” was too grain-y for me. A massive jerk seitan cutlet ($26) brought the heat I wanted, and seitan does rank higher up on my list of meat substitutes.

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risotto
Mushroom risotto at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
seitan

Jerk seitan with mango at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West

gnocchi
Gnocchi with vegan sausage, almond ricotta and cherry tomatoes at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

You already know I thought the carbonara fell short. I also felt the lion’s mane mushrooms main course ($22) could have made more of its stellar main ingredient. The eggplant steak ($22), in which a slab of eggplant was grilled with Montreal steak spices, got its main element right, but the chutney was only so-so. Grilled cauliflower ($26) was lacklustre, missing in grilled flavour and texture but redeemed by its gochujang sauce.

lion's mane mushrooms
Lion’s mane mushrooms with fennel, leeks, new potatoes and red wine tarragon sauce at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
eggplant
Eggplant steak at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA
cauli
Cauliflower with gochujang at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

Dessert options were limited, but a $10 slab of cheesecake did do the trick.

cheesecake
Cheesecake with lemon curd and caramel at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

The selections of beers, wines and cocktails were reasonable, although the strictest of vegans should note that not all of St. Elsewhere’s wines are vegan (It’s common for winemakers to use egg whites, milk protein or other animal products as “fining agents” that remove sediments that the filtration process cannot).

cocktails
Whiskey sour and old-fashioned cocktails at St. Elsewhere on Somerset Street West Photo by Peter Hum /POSTMEDIA

Of the restaurant’s two ambiences, I prefer the darker, cozier stretch by the front windows to the brighter back room.

Despite being someone who practically salivates at the thought of a barbecued meat platter, I am open to plant-based dining. Two of my vegan dining companions threw a dinner party last year that was over-the-moon tasty. They swear that when the Centretown eatery Gongfu Bao goes vegan on Wednesday nights, its food is delicious, and I’ll bet they’re right.

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While St. Elsewhere made us some good plant-free dishes, others needed work — or cheaper prices. For my vegan friends, it will be on their go-to list anyway. I’ll go with them, but with hopes that the restaurant clears a somewhat higher culinary bar.

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