Dish

Characters

dish-characters

Character flaws: Downtown restaurant comes close to perfection

After doing the rounds at many fine-dining establishments in the city, one
major downtown institution was missing from my list: Characters.

We arrived on a Thursday evening, to find the restaurant quiet but welcoming.
The interior of Characters is, simply put, lovely. Natural lighting from big
windows exposes the wide expanse of Characters’ main dining area that has
touches of caramel coloured wood, pale green chairs and white linens. Near
the rear is an open kitchen where customers can reserve a seat at the chef’s
table.

The wine list is extensive, spanning over 20 pages. It’s well composed,
featuring a wide selection of price points and, to make the massive list a
little more approachable, there is a list of chef favourites for value and
price.

Settling on a wine from the Rioja region of Spain, we select the 2002 Bodegas
Roda II ($78). At first taste, the wine was bold with notes of fresh tart
berries. Our waiter helpfully decanted it, and as our meal progressed the
wine became the star of the evening. After 45 minutes, it blossomed into a
smooth balanced wine, with notes of spice, vanilla, leather and ripe red
fruit throughout.

Instead of the predicable bread on the table, Characters started with
delights from the deep fryer to pique our palates. Crispy fries and chips
were served with a black bean aioli dip. The fries were delicious, crisp,
moist on the inside and expertly salted. The black bean aioli was
exceptional, combining smoky, creamy and salty flavours into one great
dip.

For appetizers, I ordered the lobster ravioli with braised spinach and
pancetta ($16) and my partner settled on the foie gras with toasted brioche
and plum salad ($16). Somewhat uninspired in its presentation, the ravioli
was covered in a creamy lobster sauce with the crispy pancetta propped
vertically at twelve o’clock on the plate. The ravioli was a little too al
dente, more firm to the bite than pleasing, but better to err on the side of
less done than overdone. The filling, with little morsels of lobster and
spinach was dry but once thoroughly doused in the flavourful lobster-infused
cream sauce and paired with the crunch of the pancetta, it created an overall
composition that was delectable.

The foie gras proved to pack more punch when it came to eye appeal. The dish
had a large portion of foie gras on the toasted brioche, and was topped even
higher with greens from the plum salad. It was then drizzled with a tangy
sauce that provided the acidic fruity punch that counterbalanced the rich
foie gras. This dish was delicious, barring one oversight from the
kitchen—the oxidized grey exterior of the foie gras was not cut away,
giving a strange tin taste to the meat. Not good eats, but my dining partner
navigated around the unpleasant grey matter and enjoyed the dish
otherwise.

My choice for an entrée was the Brome Lake duck breast served with
gruyere and ham croquettes accompanied with an apple cider butter sauce
($36). The presentation of my main dish was more innovative than my
appetizer, as the food was segmented from left to right on a horizontal axis.
At the right, on a mound of mashed potatoes, sliced and fanned out was the
duck breast. Cooked to a perfect medium doneness, the meat was juicy and well
seasoned. Pooled below the meat was the apple cider butter sauce, containing
hints of mustard it added to the flavour of the duck but did not shine over
it. In the centre of the plate were seasonal vegetables that were excellent
and tasted garden fresh. At far left, three gruyere and ham croquettes were
placed on top of more mashed potatoes. The croquettes were crispy, with a
molten potato inside and were full of cheesy flavour.

The bold flavours of my partner’s entrée stole the show. He ordered
the New Zealand lamb loin, served with cold sauces (herb mustard vinaigrette
and taziki) and accompanied by white bean purée and mashed potatoes
($39). The lamb was grilled to medium rare and smothered with a mustard herb
coating that added yet another layer of flavour. The contrasting cold sauces
were both excellent, and the play on temperatures a fresh approach.

The portion sizes at Characters are ample, leaving little room for dessert,
but wanting to be thorough we ordered two to sample. Arriving mile high, the
mango soufflé was flawless ($10). It was fluffy and melted in my
mouth, full of mango flavour. The mango ice cream served alongside was smooth
and equally tasty. The mango turnover, unfortunately, was flat and lifeless,
instead of crisp and flaky, and detracted from the perfect
soufflé.

For the second dessert, we went for the Callebaut, a chocolate lover’s
delight ($10). Comprised of several elements, it included a warm molten
chocolate cake served with chocolate pudding, and raspberry ice cream. The
chocolate molten cake was tiny, perhaps too small to be molten and was
unremarkable. The pudding was full of rich dark chocolate flavours and the
raspberry ice cream was its perfect partner in crime.

When people dine at fine-dining establishments, they spend far more money and
in return expect a level of food that is consistent with that investment. The
art of presentation, intricate flavour profiles and attention to small
details becomes critical—near perfection is the expectation. Characters
comes close to meeting that challenge, but does not accomplish this feat
entirely. V

Mon (11:30 am – 2 pm); Tue – Fri (11:30 am – 2
pm & 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm); Sat (5:30 pm – 10:30 pm)

Characters
10257 – 105 St, 780.421.4100 

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