Eating & Drinking

Best Restaurants 2018: Little Italy

Two Six Ate — 268 Preston St.

Since 2012, chef Steve Harris and his partner/co-owner Emily Ienzi have helmed this small, modest spot. In addition to adhering to a philosophy based around local, seasonal, sustainable, and nose-to-tail cooking, Two Six Ate also boasts an eclectic style. That style is evident in the decor (tastefully sparse) as well as their cocktails (Let’s Get Fizzical is an Earl Grey-infused bourbon with house bergamot bitters and soda) and their approach to brunch (Funky Brunch surprises guests with a three-course secret breakfast).

Two Six Ate. Photo: Angela Gordon
Two Six Ate. Photo: Angela Gordon

In approaching Harris’s nervy mix of low- and high-brow, one has to bring a sense of adventure: poutine comes with chicken confit, beef tartare with liverwurst mayo, deep-fried sweetbreads (like oh-so-tender chicken nuggets) are served alongside smashed peas and mint. And Italian sausages, from a recipe handed down to Ienzi from the Puglian side of her family, are accompanied by a roasted-tomato and squid-ink aïoli.

Two Six Ate. Photo: Angela Gordon
Two Six Ate. Photo: Angela Gordon

Presentation is light and playful. Some molecular gastronomy, yes, but it’s no biggie: “ash” is called simply “powder,” made in this case with hot sauce. Curious ingredients are pickled: sea beans (salicornia), favas, and blueberries.

At a restaurant that seems to take great care with every element on the plate, it’s notable that the only menu item over $20 is the cheese-and-charcuterie board.

Unlike the many Italian restaurants presenting timeless dishes from that part of the world, Two Six Ate’s fearlessness in being creative with Italian gastronomy makes it a special part of the neighbourhood.

Atelier — 540 Rochester St.

The culinary theatre that chef Marc Lepine has become renowned for — locally and nationally — is centred around molecular gastronomy, an approach that, for Lepine, means avant-garde techniques that result in ingredients being presented in unique ways. The theatre begins with simply finding this restaurant, which is located inside a small residential house (look for the rusty-copper facade beside Morning Owl).

A master of cerebral drama but also of balance, Lepine orchestrates the elements of each dish, not to mention the whole blind 12-course menu, impeccably.

Atelier. Photo: Photoluxstudio.com - Christian Lalonde
Atelier. Photos: Photoluxstudio.com – Christian Lalonde

Upon being seated in the tranquil space — lights dimmed — our focus is on the magic that’s unfolding. No menu is given, so when a server sets down a tiny wooden spoon for the first course, you begin the guessing game. Then a small globular glass terrarium, dangling from an elegant stand, is presented. There’s a bite of salmon on a bed of mushrooms, pea-shoot tendrils curling up gracefully and dill fronds almost waving. With that wooden spoon, you retrieve everything through a hole in the globe. The tender fish, cooked sous-vide and flavoured with miso, maple syrup, and lime, is a nice counterpart to the spicy grilled corn. Fungi are deep-flavoured with double-smoked bacon.

Servers are attentive and personable, patient with questions, and passionate about ingredients as surprises are unveiled: purple petals floating on a tarragon pandan-leaf soup, crunchy freeze-dried garlic scapes camouflaged on driftwood. And for the finale, a chocolate vortex into which a strawberry gelatine disappears.

Abracadabra!

Mati Crudo + Charcoal — 428 Preston St.

With a bold menu focus (charcoal and raw, or crudo) and a sleek interior featuring white quartz, black granite, textured walnut, and gold accents, Mati continues the diversification of Preston Street culinary options. Open since 2017, Mati puts forth a menu that incorporates Mediterranean flavours with nods to South America.

Mati Crudo + Charcoal. Photo: Angela Gordon
Mati Crudo + Charcoal. Photos: Angela Gordon

From the crudo section, yellowfin tuna tartare is a home run of crunchy cucumber, green onion, and raw tuna with a layer of lively green avocado on top and a soft bed of curry aïoli underneath. The whole thing floats in a pool of maple soy sauce with crunchy taro chips at the side, creating a perfect balance of spicy and sweet, crunchy and soft.

A Greek salad is a chunky mélange of aromatic vegetables and cheese. Tomatoes have plenty of flavour, the cucumbers smell divine, the feta is creamy and slightly sour, and the black olive tapenade brings just the right touch of brine. But it’s the croutons that shine: slightly garlicky, at once soft with olive oil and crispy from the grill.

Mati Crudo + Charcoal. Photo: Angela Gordon
Mati Crudo + Charcoal. Photo: Angela Gordon

Arancini produce a moan of pleasure. Coated with crunchy crumbs, they ooze creamy Friulano cheese and sit atop a spicy tomato sauce.

When it comes to the entrees, both the 14-ounce steak and the bone-in chicken benefit from the smoky, charred flavor of the grill. Meat is juicy,  with an earthy flavour that you just can’t get from any other cooking method.

Thoughtful touches throughout the menu, as well as a sense of how to make the most of the classics, mean Mati deserves to become more than a special-occasion restaurant.

MeNa — 276 Preston St.

*MeNa announced in December that they will be closing. Their last day is December 23, 2018.

MeNa has been open for five years, but only since late 2017 has it focused exclusively on a tasting-menu approach (choice of five, seven, or nine courses). This followed an apprenticeship of sorts that saw co-owner/chef James Bratsberg travelling the world to gather inspiration from others. While Bratsberg was away, MeNa was renovated into a sleek space, black tables and chairs softened by whitewashed walls.

MeNa. Photo: Amy Zambonin
MeNa. Photos: Amy Zambonin

The menu presented is merely an ingredient list to whet appetites: elderflower, bay leaf, amaranth, pistachio. Bratsberg’s strength is molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine, pulling inspiration from France, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and Japan. He’s also partial to precision: three slices of carrot, say, or six drops of mango espelette gel, judiciously placed. One dramatic dish involves golden char caviar atop smoky potato purée, ringed with dill oil. Inside: a steamed egg yolk. A gateau Pithiviers gets a savoury interpretation, the puff pastry (typically filled with almond cream) here stuffed with beef and foie gras. A sauce Périgueux (Madeira and black truffle) finishes it.

Echoing that precision is the service: the sommelier keeps the list, which is primarily from France, Italy, and California, in his head, and the wait staff maintain their distance, resulting in an intimate, food-focused ambience. Upon departure, you’re handed a mystery gift: three mini cupcakes.

For those keen on exploring molecular gastronomy, MeNa is one place in Ottawa that executes it successfully.

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

CENTRETOWN
Fairouz, Riviera, Clover, Town & Union 613

THE GLEBE
Erling’s Variety & The Rowan

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

 

 

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