DesBrisay Dines

Bye Bye Black Cat — Anne looks back at the Cafe’s ‘nine’ lives

“The best thing going in Ottawa – maybe the only thing going in Ottawa – is the Black Cat Café. Make sure you get there your first week. It will make the unbearable seem less so.”

Ahem. Yes. The “unbearable” referred to was my impending move to Ottawa. The year was 1990 and the speaker was a friend who had lived in Ottawa, in her words, “six hellish months” before scurrying back to Toronto. She was packing me a survival kit filled with her wisdom and warnings about a city for which she held little regard.

I never did get to the Black Cat. At least not to the Black Cat as she knew it, the “Nouveau American” restaurant on Echo Drive. It closed shortly before I arrived. But in 1999, it was born again, on Murray Street, where it lasted for another decade, before relocating to Preston Street.

It was recently announced on its current chef’s Instagram feed (David Schaub) that the Black Cat would be closing at the end of June. For good? Not sure. This cat has had a few lives: going on hiatus, then returning, reinventing, relocating, and rechristening itself over its 37-year history.

I’ve been writing about the Black Cat every so often since 1999 when it was reborn on Murray Street. Here are a few snippets to give you a sense of its history, at least from my privileged seat at its many tables.

December, 1999 (chef Candice Butler)

…“Black Cat Wine and Noodle Bar” announced the sign lying flat on the sidewalk. I picked it up, set it on its feet and read that the special was lamb shanks with wasabi mashed potatoes. It was just that sort of November afternoon when a girl starts thinking about lamb shanks… Even before I ate a bite, I knew I had stumbled on a find… (The Black Cat) has two great things on a one-page menu: dozen of wines by the glass and no-nonsense pricing — $8 a glass for this and $14 a plate for that… The food is mostly about Asian noodles, providing the foundation for the various things that settle on to and pool beneath.

2008 (Chef Trish Donaldson, GM/sommelier Rémy Urquhart)

My first taste of chef Trish Donaldson’s food at the Black Cat Café came as a trio of freebies: a slice of her wonderful “angry bread” (reddened with chillies and paprika); a dish of her spicy orange-infused olives; and a buttery nugget of monkfish, dredged in Indian spices on a perky, sandy Bolognese with dill and saffron oil in green and orange dribs and drabs on the plate. She called it her “surf and turf” amuse bouche. We call it fun. And very tasty. Which sums up dinner here. Donaldson’s dishes start with solid ingredients and into their assembly is injected innovation, inspiration and an impish sense of humour. The flavour combinations are solid and the presentation is stylish. Donaldson worked under René Rodriguez at the Black Cat until he left for the executive chef job at Luxe Bistro. She now runs the kitchen, while the restaurant is managed by sommelier Rémy Urquhart (son of Black Cat owner Richard Urquhart, who first opened the Café on Echo Drive in the 1980s, and who now makes Toronto his home.) The sign of the original Black Cat Café graces the walls of the Murray Street location, a small, intimate restaurant of pale-wood tables, molded black chairs, and clever, unfussy things on the walls.

2010 (chef Steve Vardy)

If you walked into this restaurant 10 years ago, the sign would have read ‘Black Cat Wine and Noodle Bar,’ and you’d have found it on Murray Street. Candice Butler — now resident chef at The Urban Element — would have been in the kitchen. In 1999, the Cat food was mostly Asian noodle dishes and mostly came in shallow bowls. Ever more changes — new chefs, new directions, a few tweaks to the surname, and after 10 years in the Byward Market (and more before that on Echo Drive) it’s now in its third home. In 2010, we find the Black Cat Bistro on Preston Street. Steve Vardy is in its kitchen. It was good then. It’s better now.

2011 (chef Patricia Larkin)

The Black Cat has reinvented itself a few times over its 30-year history – changing locations, surname, even trying out a period of studied eccentricity when it became, for a time, an Asian noodle soup sort of place – and chefs have certainly come and gone, their stamp imprinted on a restaurant whose cooking has always been sure-handed and creative. Under Patricia Larkin, the Black Cat purrs contentedly on a French bistro track; the short menu a nice balance between comfort food specials and traditional French faves.

(Larkin remained at the Black Cat Bistro until 2015, replaced by chef Michael Farber. The kitchen today is helmed by chef David Schaub and sous chef Matt Gardiner.)

2017

Will the cat come back? Let’s hope so. But if not, may I wish it and its restaurant family the very best, and offer thanks for its many years of service.

“The lemon tart is the way to end things here: it always has been, it always will be.” (Capital Dining, 2011)