A clutch of very good casual restaurants have opened in the past year that feature smaller menus, lower prices, and generally more laid-back than those featured in our Top Ten list, these places offer excellent food in appealing locales, and many commit to a sustainable food ethos.
Here, a celebration of five new casual, come-as-you-are spots.
When Corner Peach opened in January 2019, it was the darling of the Ottawa restaurant scene with its shabby-chic vibe, no-reservations policy, and short but gourmet comfort-food menu. After a bit of a kerfuffle over a late-in-the-game name change, Caroline Murphy and Emma Campbell opened this small Chinatown space to enthusiastic diners who lauded the little restaurant that could.
Now, nine months into its first year, Corner Peach is producing some fine food. While the menu is short, everything we eat during a recent visit is delicious.
A simple green salad with grated Parmesan and fennel is perfectly dressed, hitting all the right notes of acidity. A tartine arrives thick with creamy ricotta made in-house atop a slice of rustic toast, layered with spicy salami, briny black olives, hot pickled peppers, a drizzle of honey, and large fresh basil leaves. A real knockout comes by way of a green-pea creation, with the peas floating in a juice made from their own shells. The dish is finished with slivers of crispy radish, green onion, and bonito flakes. The falafel and lentil salad of the day doesn’t sound immediately appealing, but the colourful plate layered with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, radishes, yogurt dressing, fresh herbs, a pile of dark lentils, and two large falafel balls hits the mark in every way. The lentils comfort, and the vegetables and yogurt offer the perfect foil to the spicy falafel.
Much like the vibe and design at Corner Peach, which are unpretentious and informal, the food coming out of this kitchen allows the purity of the ingredients to shine while bringing together many elements in harmony to create flavourful, comforting dishes.
We can’t manage dessert, but the freshly baked pastries and tarts on offer from 11 a.m. daily boast a loyal following.
A very well-priced mimosa and a glass of white wine round out an excellent meal.
Corner Peach, 802 Somerset St. W.
When Cory Baird and Marhlee Gaudet, partners in life and business, decided to open Eldon’s, they knew that they wanted to pay more than lip service to the local, sustainable tune heard from any restaurant worth its salt. Eldon’s supports local farmers such as Against the Grain, Ferme Rêveuse, and Acorn Creek, so its offerings change with the seasons; it also minimizes waste by sending kitchen scraps back to the farms to feed the animals.
The rustic, unpretentious restaurant, named after Baird’s grandfather, offers uncomplicated yet satisfying food such as the particularly memorable potato soup — so rich and creamy and perfectly seasoned that I have to fight my dining companion for the last spoonful. The lentil salad is well balanced, deeply savoury, and hearty but with the refreshing crunch of celery and some mixed leaves, fresh dill, and soft flakes of in-house smoked trout. The trout is a pleasant surprise as it is so often dry and over-smoked, but here it is handled with care to keep its soft pink colour and succulent texture.
My guest’s pork-belly sandwich is met with a mumbled vote of pleasure (his mouth too full of goodness to draw breath, let alone speak). But I gather after the plate is clean that the grilled bread is chewy and perfect, the pink pickled onions adding a good dose of umami, and the aioli offering the perfect complement to the rich pork. I manage to get my fork into the smashed roasted potatoes, and for this Irish girl, they are perfection.
Eldon’s menu is not long, but it offers enough variety for casual dining and fresh, filling lunches. It strikes that happy balance between reasonably sized servings that don’t lean to gluttony and fair prices. The cocktail menu written on a chalkboard gives five or six choices, and there’s enough to choose from on the beer and wine list.
Eldon’s, 775 Bank St.
Gongfu Bao started life six years ago in a food truck, and in 2018, owner Tarek Hassan opened a bricks-and-mortar version in Centretown. With its sleek design featuring painted grey wainscoting, walnut booth tables, vintage-inspired Edison light fixtures, and upbeat tunes, Gongfu Bao gives a fantastic first impression, only enhanced by the authenticity of bamboo steamers stacked sky-high on the kitchen counter. And then there’s the food.
While the menu is short and there is limited table service, Gongfu Bao offers plenty of delicious combinations. The focus is handmade bao — soft, pillowy steamed buns that hail originally from northern China and Taiwan. The bao are prepared on-site daily, and there are a couple of not-bao items such as taro chips, slaw, and dumplings. These dumplings are apparently so good that they’re sold out every time I visit.
A lunchtime standout is crispy fried chicken: robustly seasoned, served with green relish and enveloped in the soft white cloudy goodness of the bao bun, the contrast between the crunch of the chicken and the soft bun lands somewhere between heaven and earth. It’s dreamy. The brisket option is deliciously tender, with the rich beef fraying into small pieces. Accompanied by crispy fried onions for crunch and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro, this little bun has it all — succulence, the juxtaposition of several textures, and a hit of vibrant green. For something a little spicy, I order the Shaoxing pork bao, which comes with long beans laid across the top. They look benign but add a little residual heat to the tender pulled pork, reminding me that food from China, even Westernized versions, isn’t always covered with a sweet sauce and can deliver some kick. On one visit, I order a tofu bao and the slaw. Even though I’m not generally a fan of tofu, this one is juicy and a great vehicle for a delicious, slightly sweet, smoky sauce, while the slaw is crunchy and packed with lively flavours.
Now licensed, drinks include local sodas, kombucha, beer, and cider.
Gongfu Bao, 365 Bank St.
Grunt could easily be mistaken for a corner store. Tucked away in Mechanicsville, this is a restaurant catering to locals. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t make the trek, only that its vibe says, “Welcome to my kitchen” rather than “Dress to impress.” It seats approximately 22 at rustic wooden tables and an L-shaped bar. Decorated in a raw industrial style with vintage touches, if there’s any theme, it’s pigs — not least because owner Jason McLelland “grunted and groaned through the whole process of getting it going.”
However, there’s more than pork on the menu. While there is some in the form of a porchetta sandwich and of bacon with the pasta offering, there are other options.
Grunt is trying to do something new. McLelland, a Scot from St. Andrews who has worked the international fine-dining circuit with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse, is aiming to show that really good food doesn’t have to be really expensive. Grunt offers four main-course options and one dessert, the same at lunch and dinner, with the menu changing every two weeks. Most are priced $15 and under.
When our plates arrive, we note that servings are small. But bison kofta with mint crema, lightly roasted tomatoes and almonds, crispy onions, and pig-fat shavings is a lovely surprise. The bison is well seasoned and not dry. The additions are packed with zing, and when finished, I’m satisfied but not bloated. The same goes for the porchetta sandwich, which gets the big thumbs-up, especially for including Yorkshire pudding inside the sandwich. The pâte à choux gnocchi are pillowy and light, coated with a deliciously rich sauce, lovely chunks of bacon, and soft white goat cheese. The pig-fat bread that comes with the gnocchi is a sensation; it looks unappealing but is deliciously salty, slightly brioche-like inside, and crunchy on the outside.
The drinks menu offers six white and six red wines by the bottle and glass. And McLelland will skip across the road to the corner store for non-alcoholic drinks. Now, that’s keeping the customer satisfied.
Grunt, 173 Hinchey Ave.
With the closing of Wasabi, the long-time ByWard Market stalwart, there was a space in Ottawa for more Japanese food. J:Unique chef-owner James Park has confidently stepped into the void.
Hidden in a little red-brick house in Centretown, J:Unique seats fewer than 30 people — most of those seats occupied on recent visits — and is reasonably priced. It’s a simple setup mixing wood with white and black accents. But the focus is on the food.
Clear menus offer easy-to-decipher pictures for those less than familiar with Japanese restaurants, but this in no way dumbs down the food. However, it does make it easier for a child to order, as mine does, soon declaring her shrimp tempura to be perfect and gobbling down a selection of salmon nigiri and maki rolls. Just before she cleans her plate, she kindly offers me one piece. The fish is fresh and soft, the rice toothsome and perfectly seasoned.
One of J:Unique’s specialities is oshi, or pressed sushi. It appears as a sockeye salmon dish with six generous rectangular pieces, the whole thing covered with a scattering of green onions and a warm secret sauce. We lick this plate clean.
Other maki rolls such as hamachi and toro are just as good, while miso soup is flavourful. The special set menus offer exceptional value, priced from $15 for a vegetarian option to $19 for the oshi set — the latter includes four pieces of nigiri, three pieces of oshi, four pieces of tempura, a small salad, and edamame. It’s more than we can eat. Pork gyoza are well filled and savoury, teriyaki noodles are delicious: slightly sweet and salty, but not cloying, with small, moist pieces of chicken, plenty of cabbage, green onions, and bean sprouts in the nest, which is decorated with strips of seaweed and crunchy sesame seeds.
There’s a good drinks list on offer featuring three beers, 10 sakes, six wines by the bottle and the glass, as well as a plum wine. Service is exceptional: fast, courteous, and knowledgeable.
J:Unique Kitchen, 381 Cooper St.