Friday, February 12, 2010

Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21

Nick and Nat's Uptown 21
21 King St. North
Waterloo, Ontario
(between Erb and Dupont St.)

Lunch 11:30AM - 2PM, Tuesday - Friday
Dinner 5PM - , Tuesday - Saturday

If my memory serves me right, Uptown 21 first opened its door December 2008. Both proprietors, the chef and the manager, were originally from Hannah’s Bella Bistro. The decor is mostly the same from the now defunct Salute with some personal touches; for example, a wall of shelves full of pickled vegetables jars.

Lunch items, all served with soup of your choice, salad or fries, range from $12 to $14. They also offer a three-course prix fixe option for $25. If you order dinner a la carte, it can easily add up to $50+ per person for a three-course meal, so the three-course ($35) or four-course ($45) prix fixe options are highly recommended. By the way, all prix fixe menus change daily.

Other than the “cider beer tempura of fresh tuna”, the idea “eat local” is heavily promoted. They even installed the supplier’s name plate on the kitchen range hood. I myself also side with the "eat local" concept so Uptown 21 certainly gains bonus points on this.

During one of our visits, we had the following items:

  • Dinner four-course prix fixe (two options for each course).
  • Foie gras of the day: foie gras poutine with truffle
  • Cocktail, the Uptown
Cocktail:
the Uptown - vodka, red Alizé passion fruit liqueur, sparkling wine, grapefruit and cranberry juice



Normally I order the cocktail named after the restaurant (I believe many people would), mainly because I automatically assume that it should be the signature drink. The composition also looks good on paper - with the clean vodka backbone and a bit of fizz from the sparkling wine, the tartness of the grapefruit juice and cranberry juice should balance well with the Alizé passion fruit liqueur. RIGHT?

It was surprisingly flat.

The bland syrupy liqueur totally dominated the drink and made it taste artificial. The juice, probably from some concentrate mix, wasn't of much help either. This is one example of good concept with poor execution. If I were the owner/bartender, I would look into changing the name of the drink or fine-tuning it. Simply removing it from the menu would do, too.

The food, however, is a lot more interesting and packed with character.

We were tempted by the description of the foie gras of the day so we ordered it in addition to the four-course prix fixe. DON'T DO THAT! The portion of every course was generous. We should have scaled back to three-course prix fixe with that foie gras dish.



The foie gras of the day was foie gras poutine with truffle. The portion was generous; a big plate full of skinny crispy fries topped with brandy-glazed foie gras bits and truffle sauce. Brandy was not completely burned off so TripleQ, who rarely drinks, found it a bit overwhelming. I myself enjoyed this course very much. It was rich and flavorful, completely maxed out the "umami" meter (if there is one). Price-wise though, this is not your everyday comfort food.

We both ordered the four-course prix fixe menu. There were at least two options for each course so we ordered different items to maximize our sampling.

First courses:
  • Crisp fried frog legs with an espresso-ancho dusting served with a radish and jalapeno salsa and chive sour cream
  • House-made lamb and smoked boar chorizo with herbed crème fraiche and olive-basil pesto

The chorizo was quite lean. I don't remember TripleQ commenting on it.
The frog legs were over-fried so they weren't as juicy and tender as I expected. But it might just be the spice mix overpowering its delicate flavor. By the way, I wonder where they can get frog legs locally. I would love to get some.

Second courses:
  • Cream of asparagus and fiddlehead soup



  • Shaved asparagus, greens, aged goat cheese, toasted almonds and rhubarb chutney

I had the soup. With the distinctive asparagus flavor, it is something you either like it or you dislike it. The salad composition sounds appealing; however, TripleQ (again) quietly worked through it stoically. Something funny was going on in that dish: all the ingredients were obviously fresh and it was seasoned. Still, I didn’t feel the whole dish came together. Could it be proportions? Maybe some asparagus could have been treated differently (e.g., grilled) to add dimensions to the dish? Maybe the almonds could have been toasted a tad longer? A squeeze of lemon juice to spike the flavor? I watched TripleQ’s fork repeatedly poking and picking up each piece, with no intention to share/help. :p

Third courses:
  • Moroccan style paella with dried fruit, almonds, and olive studded saffron rice simmered with fresh seafood and smoked garlic sauce
  • Roasted duck breast fanned over crisp fried sage spatzle, fiddleheads, asparagus and duck confit finished with a sherry jus

Compared with the previous course, both options of the third course were extremely savory. The chef really managed to showcase the gamey side of duck meat. As for the paella, TripleQ was awfully quiet that night but this time I am sure he was just too busy (in eating) to talk. I have to admit that between the two, the paella wins the title of “the” comfort food.

Last courses (desserts):
  • Goat cheese mousse with praline maple and a fresh doughnut
  • Parfait of chocolate cake, chocolate gelato and a rhubarb strawberry compote


The doughnut was really cute sitting in the glass. It won't be fair for me to comment on the taste since I am not a big fan of goat cheese, and the goat cheese had a strong presence in that dish! As for the dessert I had, at first I was just ok with the chocolate cake dessert. The more I dug into it, the more nostalgic I felt. It is just like the brownie with strawberry syrup I had as a kid when dining out with parents. I don’t know why but all of sudden I thought of the scene in the movie “Ratatouille”, when the food critic dropped his spoon and had his childhood flashbacks after he sampled Remy’s ratatouille. (And coincidentally, I write restaurant reviews just like that mean food critic!)

Now let’s recap all the dishes we had for the night:
- Crisp fried frog legs with an espresso-ancho dusting served with a radish and jalapeno salsa and chive sour cream
- House-made lamb and smoked boar chorizo with herbed crème fraiche and olive-basil pesto
- Cream of asparagus and fiddlehead soup
- Shaved asparagus, greens, aged goat cheese, toasted almonds and rhubarb chutney
- Moroccan style paella with dried fruit, almonds, and olive studded saffron rice simmered with fresh seafood and smoked garlic sauce
- Roasted duck breast fanned over crisp fried sage spatzle, fiddleheads, asparagus and duck confit finished with a sherry jus
- Goat cheese mousse with praline maple and a fresh doughnut
- Parfait of chocolate cake, chocolate gelato and a rhubarb strawberry compote

It is quite obvious that today’s (vegetable) feature of the day were asparagus and fiddlehead. The chef also had a good supply of goat cheese and a huge jar of rhubarb handy.

Eating local, sustainable produce is a good cause. A chef earns my respect instantly if he/she is willing to source local sustainable products plus changing menus daily. For the level of work he/she has to go through, it takes tremendous determination! But will I go to a restaurant simply based on those factors? Food is meant to be enjoyed after all. If I have to eat so righteously (or shall we say, politically correct?), I find it a bit hard to swallow.

In my opinion, a customer will likely return if 1) food is good; 2) service makes you feel right at home; 3) dirt cheap; 4) no where else to go (luckily #4 is rarely the case in KW). As an independent business determined to provide quality food, it's understandable that #3 is out of question for Uptown 21. Also, it might be quite a stretch to achieve #2 since the service we received wasn't that memorable (on a not-so-busy night). So the deciding factor to attract returning customers for Uptown 21 will be squarely on #1. Both TripleQ and I feel that some items could have turned out better, with more experience and polish. We'd rather see a well sought-after seasonal menu. If it's too boring, make it weekly.

Although we hope that all restaurants thrive in KW, Uptown 21 is definitely one of the few that we really want them to stay. I always enjoy dining at a bistro - small operation with quality (local) food. A place you know you can always take your friends to which is not uptight, yet the food can satisfy any self-acclaimed foodie.

Every city should have at least one of those gathering places, and Uptown 21 has the potential to be one for Uptown Waterloo.

3 comments:

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