Eating & Drinking

Best Restaurants 2018: Centretown

Fairouz — 343 Somerset St. W.

Fairouz has been around since the 1980s, serving such glorious Lebanese dishes as stuffed dolmas and roast lamb on white-linen-covered tables. Then, after a hiatus of 10 years, it was resuscitated by co-owner Hussain Rahal, a member of the original family running Fairouz, which, by the way, means “turquoise” (note the restaurant’s turquoise banquette and accent colours throughout).

Fairouz. Photos: Photoluxstudio.com - Christian Lalonde
Fairouz. Photos: Photoluxstudio.com – Christian Lalonde

Contemporary and upscale, there’s exposed brick and rich decorative touches — a stairway curves gracefully to the second floor — making for an elegant yet comfortable ambience.

Complimenting the decor is Middle Eastern cuisine that’s modern. No surprise, as former executive chef for Eighteen, Walid El-Tawil, brings big ideas. He’s still doing brochettes (now called kebabs), but for his beef version from Turkey, luscious eggplant purée with smoked Gouda is added to the plate. Eat with handmade thin lavash bread sprinkled with cumin. Speaking of spices, menu items feature fennel seeds, sumac, ajwan (pungent like oregano), along with enigmatic mixes such as the Moroccan ras al hanout. One unusual dish, a whole grilled trout, is stuffed with sautéed Swiss chard and overlaid with fennel bulb confit and preserved lemon. Sundays and Mondays, only mezze is served with, say, Monforte halloumi from Milton, made without salt, or lamb köfte with charred onion.

Fairouz. Photo: Photoluxstudio.com - Christian Lalonde
Fairouz. Photo: Photoluxstudio.com – Christian Lalonde

Knowledgeable and warm, service is top-notch.

In a city known for its plethora of shawarma joints, it’s a pleasure to have an elegant, modern option for Lebanese cuisine.

 

Riviera — 64 Sparks St.

In a building that once housed the Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada, Riviera’s high ceiling, marble wainscoting, and art deco trimmings cannot go unnoticed. The bar running the length, half the space behind taken up by an open kitchen, leads you to believe the joint is putting on the ritz even further. But casual is on: most diners dress down. Nevertheless, in a city dominated by casual fine dining, including sister restaurants El Camino and Datsun, Riviera stands out.

Riviera. Photo: Amy Zambonin
Riviera. Photo: Amy Zambonin

Service is high-end too — wait staff are not only knowledgeable but helpful and personable as well.

Riviera. Photo: Amy Zambonin
Riviera. Photo: Amy Zambonin

Mixing French, American, and Italian cuisine, chef Jordan Holley offers such dishes as iceberg lettuce with bagna cauda and lamb shank with sorghum (the new quinoa). Also notable is chicken Kiev, a breast with a perfectly deep-fried bread-crumb crust. One cut of the knife, and melted butter with parsley dribbles onto the mashed potatoes.

Riviera. Photos: Amy Zambonin
Riviera. Photos: Amy Zambonin

Presentation is notable: aforementioned mash is planted with carrot nubs. Slices of the appetizer coppa (cured shoulder of pork) are simply overlapped on a platter and served with mostarda, Italian sweet fruit mustard. Let’s hope the light, tender gnudi (Tuscan gnocchi) in a pea-cream purée returns springtime. I’d like to die and go to heaven once again.

 

Clover Food and Drink — 153 Bank St.

With so many chefs in this city surfing the latest wave — setting up in hip locales and making a splash with the decor — Clover is clearly wending its own sweet way. Co-owner/chef West de Castro, former sous-chef of the late ZenKitchen, opened Clover in 2014 and has continued to innovate — without going overboard — ever since.

Clover. Photos: Angela Gordon
Clover. Photos: Angela Gordon

From her oven, a humble roast chicken seems the ultimate in luxury. But don’t be fooled: de Castro has the French classics of mirepoix, demi-glace, and fines-herbes aïoli down pat. On top of that, she pickles shimeji mushrooms, puts up cherry mostarda, and collects honey from her own backyard apiary for crème brûlée. This is local food taken to the next level.

Clover. Photo: Angela Gordon
Clover. Photo: Angela Gordon

There are complex dishes, such as a clear broth gazpacho with a riot of feta-stuffed zucchini blossoms, shaved cucumbers, multi-coloured tomatoes, apricots, young basil, and pine nuts. But there’s also the simplicity of a chicken-liver pâté graced only with fine shavings of Granny Smith apples. A rustic dish of rabbit comes with Jerusalem artichokes, broccoli, and soft, chewy oyster mushrooms. Service is downright playful and spot-on; the small dining room is relaxed and airy, the bare space enlivened by local art on the walls. The wine list is strictly Ontario, the craft-beer lineup continuing that local love with limited releases from Ottawa breweries and unique choices by the can and on tap.

At some point during the meal, the exacting de Castro herself comes out to welcome you, a sure sign of her thoughtfulness.

 

Town — 296 Elgin St.

It set up shop in 2010 and has been humming ever since. Town was among the first restaurants to bring fine dining to Elgin, rescuing this part of the street from its Eurostar legacy (a late-night hangout that offered cheap drinks and bland grub). 

Town. Photo: Angela Gordon
Town. Photo: Angela Gordon

Rather, Town is an upscale, modern space with leather-backed booths, high tables, cool lighting, and a large window looking out onto Elgin; though small, it’s a perfect place for rubbing elbows and enjoying the hum of a crowded, bustling space.

Town. Photo: Angela Gordon
Town. Photo: Angela Gordon

Co-owner/executive chef Marc Doiron and chef du cuisine Alex Johnstone run a tight ship (crucial, now that the kitchen is shared with sister restaurant Citizen next door). Their concise Italian menu is laid out on a large blackboard, offering ingredients atypical to the European peninsula’s traditional cookbook: pumpkin seeds, chipotle ranchero sauce, and sumac, for instance.

Town. Photos: Angela Gordon
Town. Photos: Angela Gordon

Small plates can be as simple as a dish of warm olives or as complex as a crab risotto. The refreshing green salad is dressed beautifully: Little Gem lettuce, a compact romaine, has lively additions of walnuts, grapes, and Cheddar. Lusciously stuffed with ricotta and Parmigiano, Town’s meatballs have always been a menu high point. Large plates include Cornish hen, trout, and eggplant lasagna. Rustic cavatelli, nice and chewy, come in a sauce rich with house-made sausages. Crispy pangrattato (essentially sautéed bread crumbs) provides contrast.

The food is consistently excellent; the service is timely and warm. Whatever reputation this part of Elgin once had is gone; Town has established a new bar.

 

Union 613 — 315 Somerset St. W.

Union 613 reminds you why you like America: it’s direct, authentic, and delivers the goods. Chef Darren Flowers makes us abandon any stereotypes of mediocrity we might associate with American cuisine. Instead, he delivers simple, bold flavours — to great effect.

Union 613. Photos: Amy Zambonin
Union 613. Photos: Amy Zambonin

The fried chicken is crispy and juicy and served with sides of traditional potato salad with a mayo base and slaw — also traditional — with a nice vinegary tang. Pork tenderloin is served atop creamy corn and black-eyed peas. A side of cornbread is a must: moist, studded with corn kernels, and seasoned generously with a creamy butter whose flavour changes regularly. The vegan grilled broccoli is punched up with kimchi and a bed of cashew cheese. Shrimp and grits are another classic combo that’s treated with respect.

Union 613. Photo: Amy Zambonin
Union 613. Photo: Amy Zambonin

For dessert, lemon meringue pie — with a shortbread crust and just the right amount of sweet meringue — makes you think you’ve died and gone to heaven.

On the drinks side, the bartender mixes fruit and herbs in carafes to delicious results. Even standard drinks are “Unionized” by in-house additions such as tonics, syrups, hot sauces, and colas.

Union 613. Photos: Amy Zambonin
Union 613. Photos: Amy Zambonin

Union 613 has a woodsy roadhouse feel, with communal tables in the back; there’s even a speakeasy in the basement, hidden behind a bookshelf. Like America, Union 613 can be a little loud, but it never pretends to be other than an informal meeting place for good drinks and simple food, elevated.

 

THE BYWARD MARKET
Sidedoor, Eighteen, Oz Kafe, Play Food & Wine and Das Lokal

THE GLEBE
Erling’s Variety & The Rowan

LITTLE ITALY
Two Six Ate, Atelier, Mati Crudo + Charcoal & MeNa

WELLINGTON WEST
Carben, Absinthe, Supply and Demand, Stofa, The Wellington Gastropub & Allium

 

 

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