A new restaurant opened quietly on the edge of Chinatown in late July. It doesn't serve Chinese food, of course, as is the norm for new Fisgard Street businesses lately -- in fact, it replaced a Japanese restaurant. In the latest fashion, it serves contemporary cuisine crafted from locally sourced ingredients.
And it is amazing.
If you can't remember the last time you were genuinely thrilled by a new restaurant in Victoria, you're not alone. The good news is that you can get very excited about Ulla.
Lori and I arrived to find an understated room, dominated by arched windows. It seats just under 40, including space at the bar. The menu and wine list are equally restrained -- a refreshing departure from the typical verbose lists that overwhelm more than they impress, not to mention a move that allows the owners to keep their costs under control and their prices fair.
After a pleasant greeting, we began with glasses of Cristalino. This citrusy Spanish Cava makes an excellent aperitif -- a steal at $7 -- arrived in chilled glasses.
Our first dish was a salad of watercress, heirloom tomatoes, crisp green beans and fluffy ricotta, dressed with slivers of herbs and roasted lemon vinaigrette. It was summer on a plate and was quickly devoured with some very good baguette.
As she removed the empty plate, co-owner Sahara Tamarin sighed that she will be sorry when the tomatoes are gone for the season. Indeed, but I can't wait to see what her partner, chef Brad Holmes, does with autumn produce.
Holmes took his inspiration for our second appetizer from Momofuku -- not the Elvis Costello album, but Manhattanite chef David Chang's Lower East Side noodle bar.
Chicken wings are brined before being subjected to a multi-step cooking process that involves a number of good things, including pork fat, garlic and a tare that would have my Japanese relatives nodding their approval. It was smoky and moist, and our only complaint was that we would have liked more than six for $12.
Main courses ($20 to $27) are equally intriguing and well-executed. We enjoyed thick slices of lamb sirloin, its juices enriched with briny olives, shallots, a few more heirloom tomatoes and roasted garlic, which was duly mopped up with lightly sautÃ©ed gnocchi sharpened with Romano cheese. A juicy short rib steak was drizzled in red wine sauce and paired with handmade tortellini filled with creamy cauliflower purÃ©e and al dente cauliflower tossed with brown butter.
Portions are not enormous here, but certainly ample, and food of this calibre satisfies quickly. That being said, even though we weren't hungry, we had to try dessert.
A sinfully rich unbaked chocolate cake on a pool of lightly whipped cream infused with hazelnuts, topped with crispy rice crunch and served with candied hazelnuts made the perfect ending. The price tag for coffee, two glasses of wine and five dishes? A reasonable $115.
While I mourn the slow death of Chinatown into a pan-Asian tourist attraction, it is a pleasure to add Ulla to the list of places for a special occasion in downtown Victoria. Dishes are carefully thought out in terms of flavour and texture, and presentation is a delight.
Service is informed without being pedantic or disingenuous. Not once did I see an employee standing at the bar sending a text message while they waited for drinks, which seems to be the norm these days. Not once did we receive the answer "I don't know."
The owners have worked at some of Vancouver's best restaurants and if there is a theme, it is perhaps quality without pretence. They are leading skilled teams in the front and back of house and should expect many accolades, including a spot on enRoute's annual list of the 10 best restaurants to open in Canada.
Reservations here are strongly recommended. In fact, as Lori noted, we might finally have a restaurant in Victoria that you have to wait a couple of weeks to eat at -- especially if you want to visit on a weekend -- a wait that would be worth it.
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