Despite the pandemic, local restaurateurs determined to open their doors found creative, and delicious, ways to launch their brand — and satiate our craving for local food made with care.
340 Somerset St. W.
When opening a restaurant, it’s hard to stick to timelines during the best of times. During a pandemic, they become irrelevant. Arlo, the much-anticipated restaurant and natural-wine bar, opened on Canada Day under the billing Petit Arlo, seating customers on magical terraces surrounding the red brick building. “This isn’t what Arlo is going to be,” says owner Alex McMahon, “but we wanted to give a feel for what the restaurant will be. The food will be more ambitious, but the essence will remain. The spirit has been captured. We’ll be highlighting natural wine and showcasing the highest-quality ingredients simply.”
For the first few months, chef Jamie Stunt cooked on a barbecue on the back terrace, food prep was done at Bar Lupulus, and glasses were washed at Union 613 just down Somerset Street. “Our friends have been so supportive,” says McMahon. “I’m not sure we could have done this in any other city, as the physical act of running service has been really difficult.”
However, the feedback to simple food cooked outside has been “amazing,” says McMahon. Eggplant toast is a great balance between crunchy toast and creamy goat cheese with smoky cubes of the vegetable on top, while steak arrives delicately pink, slices lying on a pile of young summer vegetables. Pickled shrimp offer just the right tangy balance.
As cooler weather approached, McMahon moved the cooking into Arlo’s own space. On the main floor, there’s a private room — four tables of four, six feet between each — where dinner is served. He’s planning an apartment-style loft space upstairs with a long dining table for private dinner parties, which he plans to open in the spring. There’s also a bottle shop, and plenty of plans for when restrictions are lifted.
“For us, it’s about being open to everything and willing to change our business model,” says McMahon. “We are having the time of our lives with Arlo, which is a construction site inside. But when you don’t have too much time to think, there can be beauty in chaos.”
Arlo, 340 Somerset St. W.
309 Richmond Rd.
After a rotten year in 2019, when his beloved Holland Avenue restaurant Allium burned down, chef Arup Jana and his wife, Maggie von zur-Muehlen, rose from the ashes to open Brassica. It was open scarcely seven weeks when COVID-19 shut it down.
“We were just hitting our stride,” says Jana, “and we were figuring out our new neighbourhood and finally getting fully staffed.” The restaurant, which is located in the former Vittoria in the Village space, closed completely for nearly a month as Jana figured out what he was going to do.
In early April, he and von zur-Muehlen launched a takeout menu for two on Instagram. Within hours, it was sold out. “It was pretty crazy how quickly we would sell out,” recalls von zur-Muehlen. “The first week I remember just trying to figure out how many portions Arup could produce on his own, then the timing to optimize how many packages could be prepped at the same time while also leaving space for people to not come in contact with one another. But the overwhelming kindness and support was so appreciated.”
Jana was surprised by the amount of time it took to package the meals for takeaway. “It was really rough,” he recalls. “I was working alone, and I just didn’t have enough hands to do everything. But in one way, it was easier — at least we knew what we were going to sell.”
Jana had never planned to do takeout. “That’s not why I cook,” he says. “It was an adaptation. I learned that braised meats are easier to send out at the right temperature and easy to reheat and also easier to prepare in volume.”
A recent takeout dinner for two saw braised beef alongside crispy shrimp tacos, house-smoked duck breast, marinated beets with bresaola, duck rillettes, and chocolate mousse. Now offering a separate menu for dining at their Westboro restaurant, Brassica was able to set up a small patio during the warm months and is now set up to seat 30 inside, with appropriate distancing measures. But the takeout still goes strong.
Brassica, 309 Wellington St. W.
50 O’Connor St.
Ottawa’s newest high-end restaurant opened in early August after months of COVID-related delays. The restaurant was just two weeks away from construction completion when the pandemic hit. And when construction resumed, finding skilled trades to complete the renovation work was a big challenge, says owner Devinder Chaudhary.
Aiãna, which means “eternal blossom” in a Somali dialect, is now offering a chef ’s tasting option (regular and vegetarian $185) and a short à la carte menu. Described as “a Canadian farm-to-table restaurant” by executive chef Raghav Chaudhary, dishes include mushrooms on toast with generous slivers of black truffle and a side serving of truffle consommé, duck croquettes on chimichurri with berry compote, corn fritters with feta, Nova Scotia Halibut wrapped in fine potato strings, a rib-eye steak for two, and an Ontario Wagyu beef burger, which features a day-old croissant, just a bit crusty so it should not become soggy.
Billed as a restaurant collective, Aiãna aims to rectify the wage inequities of the industry: all staff is on salary. However, as a new restaurant, Aiãna did not qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. “We struggled with our initial decision to offer 46 full-time salaried positions as planned,” says Devinder. “In our case the word of law seemed to have trumped the spirit of this regulation, which is aimed at employment generation in this very difficult time. If the government had extended this relief to new business such as Aiãna, we would not have been forced to trim our team strength to 27 full-time positions.”
Aiãna, 50 O’Connor St.
Thr33’s Company Snack Bar
589 Bank St.
They’d planned to open mid-April, but COVID-19 took care of that. However, Thr33’s Company Snack Bar did finally open its doors at the end of July. “We opened as soon as phase three began,” says co-owner Ian Wilson. But not earlier. “Since we were a new restaurant and nobody knew who we were, we thought just doing takeout would be tough.”
The plan? To introduce something new to the food scene in Ottawa — a snack bar. “Some may think we aren’t a dinner option, but we are a full-kitchen snack bar. You can turn a few ‘snacks’ into an entrée pretty quickly,” says Wilson.
The three owners — Tam Auafua, Ian Wilson, and Tyler da Silva — have a long history in the food business. Auafua was general manager of El Camino in the ByWard Market, Wilson managed the Senate Tavern, and da Silva was chef de partie at Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen.
Da Silva’s background explains the globally inspired menu items: tuna tartare is cut in generous cubes, with a coating of pesto, sesame seeds, and miso; a shrimp and cabbage stir-fry is redolent of sesame, garlic, ginger, hoisin, and chili. The crunchy Brussels sprout salad is a delightful dish with fennel, strawberries, and a honey-ginger dressing. This is sophisticated snack food, perfect for pairing with a creative gin cocktail and sharing with your bubble
Thr33’s Company Snack Bar, 589 Bank St.
465 Parkdale Ave.
At Heartbreakers, co-owner and baker Andrew Chatham uses naturally leavened yeast and organic flour for his crust, and the result is tender and chewy. Topped with Wakefield-grown mushrooms from Le Coprin, it’s a knockout. And while the addition of fruit to pizza can cause rifts, Heartbreakers’ pineapple pie did not disappoint.
These simple, fresh, comfort-food triumphs have not been easy for either restaurant. Heartbreakers opened March 6, closed March 13, and reopened March 18 for takeaway and delivery. “It was a hot mess,” says co-owner Juliana Graf. “We were suddenly completely overwhelmed. The mental stress of it for the first three months was very hard.” Now making 50 pizzas every day, the Heartbreakers team even found time to sell pizza kits through Burrow Shop and deliver over 150 loaves of bread to High Jinx to help feed their neighbours.
Heartbreakers Pizza, 465 Parkdale Ave.
478 Bank St.
City Goose owners John Macklem and Eric Robertson-Tait are now selling around 200 pizzas a night. But it was a terrifying start: the bank withdrew financing for the not-yet-open restaurant as soon as the pandemic hit, and government subsidies left them out to dry. “We felt that there was just no support for small businesses,” says Macklem. But they had grit and creativity and the ability to pivot quickly. “Because we weren’t established in any way, we can be whatever we want to be.” They actually opened a bit earlier than planned, on April 11 — no need to worry about a beautiful interior space if the focus would be pickup and delivery.
At City Goose, try the mushroom pizza, made with a white sauce. Another winner is the chicken salad, the meat tender from sous-vide cooking, the dish amplified with plump Israeli couscous, cucumber, radish, and herbs.
City Goose, 478 Bank St.