I remain, after two visits and much thought, completely stumped by Ruby Watchco. Everybody loves it. The other critics are giving the place raves. It's so busy you can't get a reservation. Don't get me started on their reservation policy. You can only call for reservations between 1 and 9 p.m. When I call two days in advance of my reservation to ask if we can change our 7 p.m. table to 6:30, they say no.
Come on. They're not selling that 7 p.m. table before we get there, so why not let us come earlier? Is it inconvenient for the restaurant? Whose convenience is this about? Call me spoiled, but I figure that, if I'm paying, I get to be the one they cater to. And that's not how I'm feeling at Ruby Watchco.
Now, chef/owner Lynn Crawford has graduated from the cutthroat high-pressure world of being executive chef at several Four Seasons hotels to a kinder, gentler job and she, as the owner, has the right to set up her restaurant any way she wants. But I, as the diner, have the right to dislike that she serves one set dinner every night and I don't get to choose what I eat or to know in advance what it is so I can decide if I want to go there that night.
The restaurant posts each evening's menu on the website that same day, but you have to book days if not weeks in advance, so how to know if you're going to like what they're cooking the night you go? It's nice for the chef, who gets to be spontaneous. Also very nice for the chef to give up that whole challenge of offering different menu items, as the cost and stress of both stocking and cooking different foods is eliminated. It's so much easier! But how about the diner's experience?
On our first evening, everybody in the room started with warm, chive-studded buttermilk biscuits and a layered salad consisting of undistinguished marinated salmon atop boutique greens and a potato cake (trying to be crisp but not quite succeeding) hiding under it. The salad aside, we really enjoyed the biscuits and could have used more when the main course arrived: grilled chicken so badly overcooked that even its sweet tomato sauce and lemon-spiked ricotta topping failed to distract from its toughness. And ours wasn't the only chicken overcooked: A large table nearby sent its back. With the unfortunate chicken came pasta with fragrant, oily pesto and perfectly grilled asparagus, radicchio and zucchini.
After that came the cheese course: impeccable Quebec blue with apple and walnut salad and grilled toast. Dessert was a pleasant but unexciting lemon meringue cupcake - white cake with a lemon curd centre and meringue top.
Dinner cost $49 a person plus wine, water and tip. Its overall mediocrity, though, was underlined by the lack of choice. To serve a set dinner and change it nightly is an interesting idea, but I don't love it. So much of my dining pleasure is built on choosing what to eat and nibbling at my tablemates' plates. Having every plate on the table be the same feels somewhat ... boring. That the room is long, narrow and noisy is not helpful.
Also not helpful is the fact that the food comes not plated but family style in serving dishes, mostly Le Creuset, very pretty. But those pretty vessels also crowd the tables, which were not designed to accommodate four serving bowls. I do get that the place is aiming for an unpretentious home-style vibe, but my response to having to serve myself a dinner I'm paying just shy of 50 bucks for is borderline hostile. Especially when they only bring one set of serving utensils for four serving bowls.
The next time we go, dinner starts again with those fab, warm buttermilk biscuits. The first course is a pleasant salad: endive with white wine pickled pears (nicely piquant), Quebec blue and candied walnuts.
The main course on this night is tender slices of rare beef sirloin with Stroganoff sauce. The beef is fork-tender and wonderful. With it come slightly overcooked buttered egg noodles, beautifully braised cremini mushrooms and plain beets with beans. Good, home-style. So is the cheese course of 10-year-old Ottawa Valley cheddar with lovely tomato chutney.
Dessert on Night Two is individual shortcakes filled with whipped cream and sweet-tart Morello cherries that chef Lora Kirk (ex of Truffles and Crawford's right-hand woman) preserved last fall. The shortcakes are properly and delightfully short, but their textural resemblance to the buttermilk biscuits is unfortunate. We find ourselves still craving variety.
It's kind of like eating at home: Everyone eats the same thing, we serve ourselves at the table and it's pretty simple food. Hardly worth a special journey.