The Gist: http://www.petitbillsbistro.com/
The Why: Knowing that I would be dining at Atelier that evening while my mother and aunt got some needed rest I decided to accompany them for their dinner before mine. Having presented them with a number of Ottawa options it was Petit Bill’s Bistro that caught their fancy.
The Reservation: Opentable.com, and all things being equal a reservation is probably a good idea as they seemed quite full throughout the night with many large parties.
The Space: The location could have just as easily been a home as a restaurant with small separate rooms, low ceilings, and dim (but not dark) lighting. Dominated in earth tones and a lot of red, including tablecloths, the lighting was certainly not ideal for photography – particularly as we got tucked into a dark corner…the worst seat in a place without many “good” seats to begin with. With walls decorated nicely by local artists and works for sale the restaurant was notably loud but certainly not ‘deafening’ – though after listening to the table next to us chat on their cell phones for >10 minutes I rather wished for deafness in my left ear.
The Service: Aside from the halfhearted greeting at the door everything went nicely in terms of meeting the restaurant’s proprietor who led us to our table and the service from a pair of young ladies who performed the perfunctory duties of refilling water, delivering plates with minimal description, and picking them up with total disregard for whether we had enjoyed what we just ate or not.
The Food: Complimentary bread and butter, 3 appetizers, 3 mains, 2 desserts.
Tomato, Parsley, Dijon Butter with House Baguette: Warm but soft throughout the baguette was more like a cross between a breadstick and a baguette and the butter, while light, was simply too mustard for myself – something my aunt enjoyed, particularly with the tinge of tomato.
Little Bill’s Crab Cakes: Ordered by my aunt these were described on the menu as “Two Crab Cakes lightly breaded & seared accompanied by a roasted garlic aoli & fresh tomato salsa” but with far too much filler and February ‘fresh’ tomatoes used to compose the salsa the flavor of this dish was really quite meager aside from the garlic and old bay used to season the crab-tinged dumplings.
Cod Tongue Croquettes: Fairing much better than the crab cakes my appetizer selection of 3 muscular and tender cod tongue croquettes served with spicy almond & roasted red pepper romesco would turn out to be a rather well crafted dish with a light salad serving to balance the acid and heat of the romenso while the batter on the croquettes was flavorful, though a touch oily.
Lobster Poutine: Without a doubt the best savory of the meal the only thing Petit Bill’s really had to nail in order to make this dish shine was the frites and that is precisely what they did – the crispy spuds holding up admirably to a rich mixture of chunked and shredded lobster, shellfish butter, and mascarpone. Crispy and creamy, sweet yet savory – it wasn’t traditional poutine, but it was delicious.
Sea Scallops: My mother’s main course arrived on a lengthy plate and featuring three pan seared scallops in a slick of Chelsea Quebec maple syrup & house smoked bacon I’d be lying if I said it did not taste delicious – it was sweet and savory with a touch of the sea – but with that said, with the scallops overcooked and essentially lost in the other potent ingredients I really did not get the ‘point’ of this dish at all. Adding a touch of levity with an almond spinach salad dressed in citrus vinaigrette I will say that the acid helped somewhat, but honestly this was just a bunch of disjointed ingredients on that plate that appealed to me the same way bacon and maple syrup would if it was served with something as simple as bread or scrambled eggs.
Lobster Pot Pie: My Aunt’s selection was a dish that SHOULD have been an easy success given its constituents of fresh lobster, winter vegetables, and fingerling potatoes…and yet it wasn’t. Marred by a combination of far too much potato and carrot, watery flavorless gravy, and an undercooked and doughy pastry top the only thing that really shined about this dish was the lobster – perhaps a single small carapace or a couple of small claws’ worth perhaps 1/3 of the pot pie’s actual pricetag.
Lobster & Pickerel Raclette: A $28 dish for which I had high expectations this was without doubt the best of the main courses yet even at that it still fell far short of its potential. Described on the menu as “Pickerel & Lobster quenelle topped with a white wine & clam buerre blanc served atop an Arctic surf clam potato rosti & topped with Pied de Vent Cheese” the highlight of this dish was actually the rosti – a savory concoction with notes of sweetness and the sea perfectly cooked like a hash…it would have gone great with breakfast but worked equally well at dinner. Moving on to the featured quenelles – they were dense, overcooked, and almost ‘chewy’ – nothing like the life altering version at Michel Rostang and despite the supposed use of lobster the flavor was pure pike plus the slight tang of the Quebecoise bleu.
Traditional Newfoundland Pound Cake soaked in authentic Newfoundland Screech: Where the mains failed the desserts certainly did not and although the portion was small, this dense buttercake soaked in rum with a small ball of rich cream at its side was the picture of balance. Boozy and buttery, dense but crumbly, and toothsome but mellowed by the cream I’ve no doubt one could make this at home without too much trouble but that didn’t detract from it one bit – I’d have gladly eaten a loaf (and likely ended up quite drunk.)
Bread Pudding with cranberry-raisins, white chocolate & crème anglais: If the Pound Cake was good, this was superlative. Measuring perhaps 1.5” x 4.0” x 7.0” but rich, dense, warm, and drenched in thick vanilla crème it was as simple as the previous dessert but an entirely different flavor profile, texture, and temperature – the pair together slight in portion but enormous in flavor.
The Verdict: While I’m not sure it is possible to go into a place you know little about with expectations that are “too high,” we all walked out of Petit Bill’s disappointed. From the lousy seats to the perfunctory service there was really nothing harkening the “down-home hospitality” proposed in their mission statement and while I guess the food was decent enough ‘homestyle’ food, the prices suggested the majority of the dishes should have been executed much better than they were – particularly as some were overcooked, some undercooked, and others simply poorly conceptualized or balanced. I’d go back for dessert, maybe, but considering the other meals we enjoyed in and around Ottawa it would have to be on someone else’s dime.