Blue seas, white sand, flip-flopped feet: billboards and pop-up ads are reminding us that it’s time to escape the frigid Ottawa winter and head to warmer climes. But what if a sun-and-sand vacay isn’t in the cards? In Ottawa, we’re blessed with such an array of restaurants that if you can’t physically get out of town, you can still partake in that special experience of tasting — and appreciating — something new. For those sticking close to home this winter, here’s a list of great places to take a virtual vacation — or to share a meal with a special Valentine.
1. The Soca Kitchen & Pub
93 Holland Ave., 613-695-9190
Ottawa Magazine restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay has described the food at this new Hintonburg spot as having “big flavour that speaks mostly of Spain, with bits of Middle East, North Africa, and Mexico.” (Right now, they all sound appealing destinations.) Try Chef Daniela Manrique’s pretty ceviche dishes, which feature Ocean Wise oysters, prawns, and other delicacies from the sea. Another great option: the Chopping Block for Two, an assembly of creative concoctions from Manrique and her team.
2. Coconut Lagoon
853 St. Laurent Blvd., 613-742-4444
Roasted spices, fresh fish, and complex curries: expect all this and more when you enter Coconut Lagoon, a long-standing and much-adored restaurant in the east end. If you’ve never been, the lunch buffet is an excellent way to become acquainted with the South Indian dishes of Chef Joe Thottungal. Anne DesBrisay has called Coconut Lagoon the best Indian restaurant in town and with his third-place win at the local Gold Medal Plates competition last year, Thottungal is clearly on the rise.
3. Flavours of the Caribbean
259 York St., 613-241-2888
Chef Frederick White’s new place is homey and cluttered, with a big Bob Marley poster and walls painted the colours of the Jamaican flag: if stepping inside Flavours of the Caribbean doesn’t instantly transport you to a seaside shack, nothing will. Try the filling soups, spicy wings, goat curry, and cod cakes. (And expect to bring home leftovers — this is one time, perhaps the only time, when you’ll be happy you’re not stopping at the beach first.)
4. Petit Peru
792 Somerset St. W., 613-229-2868
Travelling helps us to open our minds — and our tastebuds — to different flavours, textures, and ingredients. Petit Peru’s Chicken Empanadas feature sauce made with amarillos, a South American chili pepper known for its fruity (and spicy) flavour. If you knew Jorge Bahamonde when he was sharing a space with Discoteka on Dalhousie, expect the same complex flavours — this time, with a dedicated dining area.
5. Ola Cocina
62 Barrette St., 613-746-6222
For authentic hand-pressed tortillas (as well as irreverent dishes such as tandoori chicken tacos), there’s nothing like Ola Cocina. Try the all day Mexican breakfast for that feeling when you wake up late (and hungover) on vacation and wander the hot, dry streets of Oaxaca in search of a greasy spoon. And now you can take home a souvenir of your virtual Mexican adventure: the house hot sauces (jalapeno crema, choco habanero) are available for purchase.
93 Murray St., 613-241-5500
There’s nothing like visiting a country — or a restaurant — with someone who knows the cuisine so well that you can simply hand off all decisions and enjoy the meal knowing you’re getting the very best. Chef Rene Rodriguez has already proven his mettle by winning Top Chef Canada last year (and by surviving and thriving for years with his own restaurant). His new tasting menu is inspired by the flavours of Basque country — not a sweltering hot region, but it’s certainly snow-free — and brings the best of Basque to the ByWard Market.
7. Ace Mercado
121 Clarence St., 613-627-2353
If your idea of a sun-and-sand vacation includes hip bar with a clubby vibe, check out Ace Mercado. While Ottawa Magazine restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay questions the casual service and loud music, she calls the scallop ceviche sophisticated and beautifully judged. And she notes the handsome young mixologists at the bar. Fantasizing about those sexy scenes from Cocktail? Then take your tastebuds for a trip to Ace Mercado.
8. Kothu Rotti
408 Dalhousie St., 613-680-7812
Slide into this downtown hole in the wall for filling fare that’s not afraid to turn up the heat. The obvious choice is the namesake dish, which is cooked on an open grill and has been called “a stunner” by Anne DesBrisay. A visit to this take-out place will make you feel like a local — or at the very least a well-seasoned traveller — on the streets of Colombo.
9. La Cabana
848 Merivale Rd., 613-724-7762
A favourite among chefs and other Ottawa foodies, this restaurant offers a taste of El Salvador and is known for its pupusas (patties filled with pork, refried beans, and cheese]. Make sure to ask for extra curtido, a spicy fermented cabbage condiment that adds kick to the mild fare at La Cabana. Bring home a souvenir of your virtual vacation from sister store La Tiendita, the attached Latin-American grocery.
10. Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar
895 Bank Street, 613-234-7674
This fun Glebe restaurant features southern comfort food and a raw bar, a creative cocktail list, and a friendly vibe. In short, it’s perfect for snowbirds stuck in Ottawa this winter. Top picks include crab cakes, ribs, and blackened catfish. Come for the food, stay for the ambience: a large bar, funky lighting, and a cozy fireplace make Rosie’s a fine place to wait for spring.