Late last month my eating companion and I had an early diner at Il Songo before heading to The Pirates of Penzance performance across the bridge in the East Village. Located in the de Waal Block (on the fringe of the Bridgeland community) is Il Songo, a “high end, contemporary” Italian Inspired restaurant. Despite the restorations, this heritage building has still managed to maintain some of the old world charm from its glory days: old brickwork façade and Art Deco style roof—but this review is about the food and if I don’t cut myself off here, this could easily become a thirty page essay on architecture and the importance of retaining heritage buildings. I digress.
Walking into the restaurant at around 5:15PM (we had reservations for 5:30PM) my companion and I waited a good five-ten minutes before being received—if not for other diners seated on the far side of the room, we could have sworn that the restaurant was closed. The bar (which was right by the entrance) was completely devoid of people… It was also so quiet (no typical music playing, not sounds of clattering from the kitchen, etc.) that we awkwardly had to let out a soft “hellooooo?” as a last ditch effort to confirm that we had reservations at the right restaurant. We almost left before a bubbly hostess popped out of nowhere and quickly led us up a small flight of stairs to our table—this room was impressive. Copper coloured coffer ceilings (like at Teatro) and a spacious open kitchen concept had me swooning—I thought that the dark hard wood floors and plush, red upholstery on the chairs were nice touches also. The pats of butter left open on tiny plates at every table was a questionable trait however … particularly as there was a huge fly buzzing around the restaurant.
Our sever, who was very polite—albeit stiff, suggested the “Chef’s Surprise Menu” which consisted of a whole roasted Cornish hen to share. Though it sounded tasty, we opted for Ά la carte (based on some of the reviews we read earlier). On this excursion we ordered the Duck Liver Parfait, Daily Risotto, and Pacific Scallop and Pork Belly; we thought that Chardonnay would pair nicely (and it did—but I do wish that the server would have made an effort in suggesting complementary pairings rather than letting us navigate for ourselves. Though he was clearly enthusiastic about the chef, I did not get the impression that he knew a whole lot about the food. Major fine dining faux pas.)
To start we had the Duck Liver Parfait with caramelized shallot and caraway puree and watercress salad with pickled fennel. The liver had a smooth, consistent texture and was absent of any grainy-ness (associated with low-end pate); this was juxtaposed nicely with an evenly brûléed sugar top and a crisp watercress/spinach/pickled fennel salad. The liver sat atop a bed of caramelized shallot and caraway puree—which provided a nice earthiness to counter balance the richness of the parfait. I also liked how the licorice-y/aromatic addition of the caraway brought out the sweetness in the liver. We felt that this dish was good, but it could have used a tart element, such as a cherry reduction or some kind of berry chutney, to add a hit of acidity. The side salad consisted of watercress and baby spinach leaves, garnished with pickled fennel, it was lightly dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and fine sea salt. The side salad helped to cut the richness of the duck parfait—but felt lacking as the pickled fennel and balsamic dressing did little to prevent the liver from tasting one noted after a few bites in. Overall, I liked this dish and would recommend it for anybody who likes sweet and salty combinations, as well as the texture of foie gras (it’s a bit off putting for foie-virgins as the liver can feel like anything between a cold stick of butter to warm, creamy—almost silky texture on the tongue).
For my entree I had the Orange Carrot Risotto—this must seem odd, dear reader, given my inclination towards heavy protein dishes or fresh seafood—to be honest nothing else really caught my eye. I originally wanted to order the “Seasonal Fish” but neither the server nor the chef knew the origin of their “steelhead” (other than it comes “from somewhere in the BC interior”) needless to say, I was not impressed by their lack of knowledge concerning their ingredients. This is not what one expects from a fine dining experience.
My thoughts on the risotto was that it was a lovely dish and I would order it again if given the chance. The rice was perfectly cooked (not a single grain was undercooked) and full of flavour. The fruity tang of orange was very subtle and the carrot pieces were the right amount of al dente. Overall the carrots added a nice amount of earthiness and sweetness, which complimented the orange zest flavour nicely.
My companion’s Seared Pacific Scallop and Pork Belly with Fennel Puree, and White and Green Beans was delicious. The pork belly was tender and flavourful, likely due to being slowly braised in the accompanying sauce. The braising liquid/sauce was wonderfully thick and full bodied—slightly sweet and meaty. Once the sauce started to cool, it turned into a thick, candy-like consistency (likely due to the rendering of the collagen in the belly). We both enjoyed this sauce in its thicker form as it became easier to eat (we used it to coat the pork belly.) The only thing that I would recommend the chef to improve on is to sear the fatty side of the pork into a nice crispy chicharron for a textural component. The scallops were slightly under seasoned but the meatiness and fattiness of the pork belly provided enough fat and flavour to carry the scallops throughout the dish. My companion was slightly disappointed that only one of the scallops were seared—but acknowledged that doing so might have caused the scallops to become overcooked. The white beans were cooked al dente in a sauce that was buttery and creamy while the haricot (green beans) was steamed until impeccably tender. The scallops sat atop a fennel puree which had a liquorish flavour with bright herbaceous notes that complemented each component of the dish without overpowering them. We felt that the individual components of the dish were cooked well and tasted fine as standalone items. Despite minor critiques concerning texture, this was a great dish overall and I (because my risotto was insignificantly portioned and my eating companion is a very generous, kind-hearted soul to share with me) would order this again.
To cap off our meal, we ordered a round of Lattes. Surprisingly these tiny cups of coffee were the star of the entire night. The Fratello beans had a bold espresso flavour that was addictive. No sugar was required for these lattes to be palatable. Although there was a light dredge of coffee grounds at the bottom of the cups, we were both really impressed with these lattes. It is amazing what high caliber beans can do for a simple latte.
As a whole, my first time at Il Songo was mostly enjoyable and I would come back again. I liked how the food is simple but still boldly flavoured—I just wish that the service was as uncomplicated and the staff were more knowledgeable of their ingredients.