THE BLACK HAT**** 1/2
1005 Langley St. Victoria 250 381-2428
Open for dinner, 4: 30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards and Interac accepted. Wheelchair accessible. ???? 1/2
Sam Chalmers probably isn't the kind of guy who relaxes much. Not content with the pressure of being the chef proprietor of a successful restaurant, he threw open the doors to a second venture in a recently retrofitted heritage property in downtown Victoria a few months ago.
Featuring a bustling open kitchen, organic tones, picture windows and dim lighting, the Black Hat is every bit as slick as its older sibling, Bistro 28, but significantly more spacious. Dani and I entered a room halffilled with middleagedwith-a-few-bucks types, with the amusing exception of a table of slouching twentysomethings who resembled one of those indie bands featured in a free magazine and now think they are the Rolling Stones, unaware their 15 seconds have already passed.
The menu makes the current de-rigeur claim of employing local, seasonal and sustainable products and offers diners more than one way to approach a meal, be it snack and drink at the bar, the traditional threecourse method or a lighter meal Ã deux. The latter began with a shared plate of assorted charcuterie with pickles and grilled baguette and is followed by two or three selections from the small-plates section of the menu.
Chalmers has increased the raw offerings available at his freshman restaurant with a strong list of tartare, carpaccio, crudo, tataki and ceviche, delighting Dani, who announced she wanted "raw everything." Unfortunately, her first two choices were unavailable. Her tuna tataki arrived as promised on a block of Himalayan salt, but without the spicy mango sauce we expected. I chose my appetizer solely because I thought it would be an interesting combination with the advertised accompaniment of saba, but this, too, was missing. Our server advised that it must have been under my chicken rillettes, which turned out to be slices of a rather bland terrine. It was not.
Main courses, however, won full marks. Specials are enticing, and per Chalmers' stated goal, suit various budgets. From the small plates section, sausage of the day (pork and veal sauerkraut, smoked chicken with herbs) served with frites, or the featured terrine (pork with red pepper, almond, venison and pistachio) are under $15. Entrees such as pan-seared duck breast sous vide, with yam gnocchi, bacon and brussels sprouts, or venison with potato and celeriac rosti, chanterelles, braised greens and red wine jus cost more, but are ample. Dani gave up raw food for fritters made with reinterpreted bacala made with salted halibut instead of the traditional cod, served with aioli, Yukon Gold purÃ©e and spicy lamb ragu - an interesting combination of dishes that worked well together. My fork-tender lamb shank with wilted greens and chickpeas was equally successful. We finished with a superb caramel pot de crème garnished with a pinch of sea salt.
On my second visit, I wavered between the "dry ribs" - fried pork belly tossed with star anise salt and black pepper, and the rillettes - now made with bacon in the appropriate rough patÃ© style - but given my intended main course, chose a salad of salted watermelon and shredded greens with sunflower sprouts, pickled red onion, dressed with a sherry vinaigrette and dotted with serrano chili and a dusting of grated Manchego cheese. It was simply everything an appetizer should be.
I continued with a grilled 10-ounce heritage Angus striploin, frites that were thankfully not truffled as advertised, since I forgot to ask they not be, served with lemony mayo and housemade roasted red pepper ketchup with a hint of spice.
Chalmers has achieved his goal of creating a new hangout for Victorians, treading the line between bistro and restaurant successfully, with genuinely intriguing food. There will be no shortage of new lunch customers when they extend their hours - they hope - in February. There is, however, a little room for improvement in the usual areas. The website menu doesn't quite match the one you are handed, which is annoying when you arrive craving a particular dish, and on each visit they have been out of menu items within an hour of opening. The wine list is bizarrely priced. A five-ounce glass of shiraz will set you back $15, yet you can have a decent bottle of sparkling wine for $30. Service was attentive, but absurdly so on my first visit, when our server frequently interrupted our conversation and repeatedly called us "you guys," which takes the edge off an upmarket dining experience. Product knowledge on both visits was weak. But for a new venture in the competitive downtown market, The Black Hat is a justifiable force to be reckoned with.
Two courses, exclusive of tax and beverages, from around $30.
* Below bad
** Below average
**** Above average
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