The Whalesbone Oyster House
430 Bank St., 613-231-8569, thewhalesbone.com
When it comes to Ottawa restaurants, it has always seemed as though the Whalesbone operates in some kind of alternative universe. How else to explain the hip, quirky atmosphere of a cutting-edge Montreal bistro crossed with the casual feel of the seashore? That’s a lot of personality to stuff like a sardine into tiny digs on perhaps the ugliest stretch of Bank Street. I marvel at how the rest of the world, let alone the city, seems to disappear as I cross the threshold and enter the Whale, where the retro vinyl spins and further blurs the space-time continuum. It’s best to try to snag a coveted seat at the bar overlooking the pristine oysters and related live entertainment. The menu here changes often, and recently the style of menu changed as well, though the jury is still out as to whether it’s for the better. Items are organized into two sizes — not exactly appetizers and mains, but rather big appetite or small. While the list is short, it feels as if each plate is getting more ambitious (though I, for one, would advocate for the less-is-more approach: fewer deconstructed dishes and fewer embellishments to things that are perfect as they are — I’m talking about you, fish tacos, and you, corn chowder with blue cheese). One thing the Whalesbone does consistently well is play the ethical foodie card without a hint of earnestness. In their hands, it feels utterly cool to want to consume only seafood options that have been recommended as sustainable and ocean-friendly, especially if that means the chef finds ways to make us fall in love with sea creatures that have been deemed less sexy — think Newfoundland sardines and pungent mackerel. We’ll soon be hearing a lot about another rare species in the Whalesbone kitchen: its executive chef, Charlotte Langley, who is among a very small handful of women who run restaurant kitchens in Ottawa.