Sidedoor — 18b York St.
Mystique? Mystery? Allure? Whatever it is, there’s something about slipping down an alley and literally going through a side door.
It’s this sense of adventure that Sidedoor has been capitalizing on since it opened in 2011. Renowned for its globally inspired small-plates menu, Sidedoor was one of Ottawa’s first upscale Asian-fusion restaurants. Executive chef Ben Landreville continues this focus with tacos inspired by flavours from Korea and Thailand. Mains, too, are infused with Asian touches, with the appearance of a miso sake glaze on cod, grilled chicken dressed in a spicy Thai sauce, and a strip loin enlivened with chili lime and served with rice instead of the usual potato.
Nuts, especially cashews, are a frequent garnish, but they are also the key to Sidedoor’s legendary green papaya salad, which has diners lustfully mining their plate for every drop of the minty, salty, fruity vinaigrette.
In Sidedoor’s hunger for international flavours, Landreville doesn’t eschew North American staples either: russet potato fries — a work of crispy and hearty perfection — and mini handmade doughnuts make an appearance.
Sidedoor is the restaurant where you look at the menu and you want to eat all the food — and since they are mostly small plates, you can get your wish. Whether sitting on the patio in their cobblestone courtyard in warm weather, under the glass atrium with views of Ottawa’s historic buildings, or at a table with a view of the kitchen, Sidedoor is a lively place to dine on adventurous, well-executed food.
Restaurant Eighteen — 18 York St.
Set inside one of the ByWard Market’s grandest buildings, Eighteen’s soaring ceilings, walk-in hearth, and luxurious black-and-silver interior make an elegant setting for enjoying refined food with creative flair.
Executive chef David Godsoe is busy producing the classic surf and turf: steak and seafood. Serving nostalgia well while carrying the torch forward, he presents the traditional — a deep-tasting demi-glace for the beef tenderloin, a creamy sauce américaine for the lobster. But he also introduces twists — roasted duck breast is tarted up with a sweet-sour juniper agrodolce and accompanied by a sensuous rillette fritter, its crispy shell giving way to a tender interior.
Though Godsoe has a sharp focus on the mains, accompaniments aren’t overlooked: spicy mayonnaise and tiny sweet, zesty Peruvian peppers called sweet drops. Small plates like melt-in-the-mouth pink beef carpaccio are perfect with pickled shallots and deep-fried capers — you could eat only that and be content if there weren’t so many other enticing offerings. Eighteen’s meaty dish of tagliatelle and roasted king oyster mushrooms, for instance, which is enriched with nutritional yeast and cashew butter. Likewise, a crème brûlée for dessert could be dismissed as conventional if it weren’t for its orangey creaminess and the crunch of caramelized crust.
The pleasure of the food is enhanced by the refreshing professionalism shown by the wait staff — doubly important when navigating Eighteen’s extensive wine list.
With opulent dishes, luxurious but tasteful decor, and sophisticated service, Eighteen is a dining experience almost unparalleled in the city.
Oz Kafe — 10 York St.
When Oz Kafe reopened in 2017, it marked a reinvention of sorts for restaurateur Oz Balpinar. Moving from its beloved corner on Elgin Street, the restaurant’s reincarnation in the ByWard Market sees Balpinar building on her experience in a completely different location that aims to attract a different clientele.
Now executive chef Kristine Hartling leads in the kitchen. A chef who has earned a following with stints at other well-respected restaurants, Hartling was given complete menu freedom. And so the dinner menu is short and European-focused, with an emphasis on locally sourced food. It is an old-fashioned appetizer and main course restaurant, which, in a world of small plates, can seem downright revolutionary. It also sets itself apart by being open very late — great news for people looking for an after-the-show (or shift) alternative to shawarma.
Notable entrées include the Nagano pork rib chop; indeed, it is among Hartling’s signature dishes. Juicy and flavourful from brining, it sits atop a sweet corn purée. No one will mind if you gnaw on the rib.
Traditional mushroom risotto is presented as an appetizer but is big enough to be a main, showing loyalty to the Italian classic and respect to local fungi.
The new location is a beautiful building that we hear might have been stables in the Bytown era. It is easy to imagine the sound of hooves on the cobblestones but harder to imagine that in those days, diners were lucky enough to enjoy such delicious food.
Play Food & Wine — 1 York St.
A creation of Stephen Beckta, one of Ottawa’s best-known names in fine dining, Play is the happy-go-lucky younger sibling to the more serious Beckta.
Anchored in a heritage building at Sussex and York, Play’s big windows make the space gracious without being grandiose. And despite the name, there is no false cheeriness or cheeky familiarity from wait staff: servers ask about allergies and accessibility issues, competently answer questions about the menu, and offer advice about wine pairings. Rather, the playfulness comes in the fun to be had in creating a meal with small plates. Putting local, sustainable produce front and centre, chef Emeric Beccaris makes small plates work, with variety and sensible portions. Described as “full-sized appetizer portions,” the offerings give a nod to trends, with selections like grilled halloumi with pomegranate seeds and, for dessert, a lavender panna cotta.
But Play also respects the classics with a simple celery soup made special with green apple and drops of golden scallion vinaigrette, a silky duck-liver mousse with cherry molasses, and grilled rainbow trout with shrimp in a luscious cream sauce with spicy nduja sausage.
Even housed within a historic stone building, this restaurant has a lightness — a playfulness — that makes it stand out among its peers.
Das Lokal — 190 Dalhousie St.
Das Lokal is a little off the beaten path: what was once a KFC and then a Portuguese grill is now a destination on Dalhousie. With alpine ski chalet decor and live music on weekends, it’s a cozy, lively spot offering food that’s both modern and old-world.
Austrian-born chef Christian Wallner puts forth such German classics as buttery spaetzle, bratwurst grilled to just bursting, and Black Forest cake. Add to these pork cheeks, root vegetables, cabbage, kale, and flavours that rely on pickles and mustard.
Schnitzel is, expectedly, a popular choice — the thin piece of pork enveloped in a crunchy coating provides a satisfying taste of meat, fat, and salt. Vegetables get star treatment: salad is kale with grilled radicchio while corn-and-asparagus blinis are a feast for the eyes and palate. Given portion sizes and the typical heaviness of the dishes, you are unlikely to be hungry after a meal.
The drinks menu includes original concoctions, mixing tea syrups with citrus and muddled fruit; peach schnapps, of course, is mixed in creative ways.
Fairy lights outside, a fire in winter, and a sizable terrace in summer make Das Lokal a year-round destination where people are beating a path to a now beloved place.
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