Anne DesBrisay has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years. She is the author of three bestselling books on dining out, is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine as well as a senior editor at Taste & Travel Magazine. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
So it’s happened. The highly anticipated new restaurant, Fauna, is finally feeding folk. It’s taken two years — and they don’t sound like pleasant ones — but enough ink has been spilt on Fauna’s struggles that I won’t bore you with a recap. Suffice to say, the window wit (‘Opening … Slowly’) is now down, the Bank Street doors are unlocked and we all want to discover if the interminable wait was worth it.
All of which must put considerable pressure on executive chef Jon Svazas. And perhaps on the restaurant critic as well. How can you kick a guy (if a kicking is required) who’s already been getting a licking for two years?
No need. The Bank Street former shoe shop has morphed into a solidly good place to eat. The room’s a beauty, taken back to its handsome brick bones and filled in with wood, metal, statement lighting, a zinc covered bar, and just enough visual drama such that the space seems confidently modern, rather than gimmicky. It’s a room with a great vibe and energy, packed on both our nights. Service was smooth, confident, and friendly.
The comfort Canadiana that Jon Svazas was dishing up at Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar is evident on the plates, though with various Asian inflections and modernist moments. He’s chosen a small plates formula (nothing more than $19) of no particular culinary core. Sort of Nouveau Canadian cuisine with bits of this and that — French, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese — applied to quality local ingredients. Flavours are well-balanced and dishes are pretty on the plate.
If I had a quibble, it would be with the chemistry — some of it was welcome, other bits felt contrived and irrelevant.
The opening menu had been tweaked a bit between visits, and I think I’ve worked my way through a good chunk of it. We begin with a winner of a pumpkin soup with warming Thai flavours. And then a dish of elk carpaccio, presented as a log might be found on the forest floor, with pickled mushrooms growing beside, the plate garnished with dots of a pungent black garlic aioli, and a sweet sticky miso reduction. More raw protein with the tuna plate, the cool and fatty-rich crudo left in log-like segments, set on a coconut-kaffir cream, and paired with sections of pink grapefruit dusted with black sesame seed. Also on the plate, a powdered chili oil — which added whimsy as well as heat — and a few wilted scallions and bitter greens.
Sablefish (Black cod) was the star of the second column. The filet had a strong flavour-charged black crust, while the white flesh fell in wet petals when poked, its cooking perfectly judged. It came propped up on a striking ‘hummus’ of black lentils. Roasted blue fingerlings came with the fish, along with a welcome tang of pickled elements (carrots and daikon).
Few places get quail right. These were succulent little bird bits, lightly bronzed but with lots of juicy meat to pick away at, set on a silky smooth puree of parsnip, which was perfumed fairly headily with vanilla. Pear added some sweet and some sour, Brussels sprout leaves a bitter crunch. Here, the piles of dehydrated bacon wasn’t a trick that worked, at least not for me. Give me chewy, salty lardons with these birds, any day.
We finished with the squash sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce, caramel ice cream, apple compote, and gingerbread dust. Terribly good and refreshingly not icky-sweet.
The wine list seemed to me well chosen, with decent choice by the glass. Local craft beer, of course, and a slew of expensive, fancy cocktails.
Some might find the noise at Fauna a bit troubling. There are sections — the northeast corner, say, and tip end of the bar — that are sheltered a bit from the centre of the action. Ask for those if volume bother you. Else come early. By about nine, Fauna is deservedly buzzing.
Small plates, $8 to $19
Open Monday to Friday for lunch, daily for dinner (till midnight, Thursday-Saturday).
425 Bank St., 613-563-2862, faunaottawa.ca