Is fine dining dead? The city’s most buzzed-about restaurants are serving up a convivial atmosphere and refined dishes that take local and seasonal cooking to new heights.
In 2007, Frenchman Yannick Anton took over the reins as executive chef of Le Cordon Bleu’s restaurant, Signatures. That same year the CAA/AAA recognized it as a five-diamond restaurant — the highest and most coveted symbol of excellence for fine dining in North America. Just one year later the Sandy Hill crown jewel shut down for what was billed as a mini-facelift. And, like the secretive French woman who returns from her weekend getaway looking decades younger, the acclaimed culinary classroom emerged with little fanfare in November 2009 with new radiance, a new attitude and, judging by the new clientele, fewer wrinkles. It had a newfangled name as well: Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @ Signatures. With its sunny yellow walls, contemporary tableware sans tablecloth, and servers empowered to make wine suggestions as well as small talk, Signatures bid adieu to its seven-course marathon meal; its dark, sombre dining room; its sommelier and 40-page wine list; and the decadent white-glove and silver-bell service. Gone is the $45 main course, and in its place, there’s a three-course prix fixe lunch menu for $25.
Le Cordon Bleu’s decision to forgo five-diamond status in favour of a bistro concept reflects something more powerful and enduring than an economic trend. The fine-dining finishing school isn’t alone in recognizing a growing appetite for upscale food experiences that can be sated with more regularity, with less stuffiness, and at more palatable prices. The death knell for haute cuisine has been sounded around the world, most famously in France, where it was documented in Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by American journalist Michael Steinberger. On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed that the most buzzed-about restaurants were no longer temples of gastronomy, but postage-stamp casual spots with simple menus that changed according to the chef’s whims. Among the hottest reservations in town was the 20-seat Le Comptoir, a bustling, casual brasserie by day that offers an ultra-gastronomic 50-euro ($67) bargain of a fixed menu by night. There, famed chef Yves Camdeborde treats customers to food worthy of Michelin stars — but at a fraction of the price. Next door he now also runs L’Avant Comptoir, a blissfully inexpensive takeout crepe and sandwich counter with a tiny standing-room-only tapas bar tucked behind it. I stood shoulder to shoulder at the zinc bar chatting with my neighbours while dipping steamed Camus artichokes in olive oil, popping back addictive croquettes filled with Ibaïona ham, and passing the communal bread basket, a slab of fine French butter, and jars of pickles. It was the most fun I’ve had eating fabulous food in a long time. And it was there that I began to reflect on Ottawa’s restaurants, the ones that are working to close the gap between good eating and feeling good. If I had to sum up the gustatory zeitgeist, I’d say we’re seeking culinary excitement in the form of emotional connection.
In a way, chef Anton is our equivalent of chef Camdeborde, a man who famously rejected Michelin-star mania in 1992 in order to run what is being called a “gastro bistro” or “bistronomique” — a place where cuisine remains haute, but no one need sport a tie or fear speaking above a whisper. This may not be Paris — and Canada’s capital has had a more modest platform from which to fall (rest in peace, Café Henry Burger) — but Anton can now count himself among those chefs in Ottawa who are pioneering a brave new wave of fine dining.