DesBrisay Dines

Road to Oz — Newly reopened Kafe is hard to find but worth the quest

There were nuisances, as I remember, along the road to the literary land of Oz — wicked witches, flying monkeys, a field of poisoned poppies. The difficulty in finding the Oz in our Ottawa lives can’t really compare… still, it’s a bit of a bother. The new home of the 13-year-old Oz Kafe, relocated from Elgin Street to 10 York Street, is not on York proper. You need to leave the street and head down Clarendon Lane. Take a right after Sidedoor restaurant, continue fifty paces, then turn left. On that stately limestone building in the centre of the pedestrian courtyard you’ll find a number ‘10’ — I think it’s marked by a dimly lit table behind a potted plant with a small wooden sign that announces in the smallest voice, ‘Oz Kafe’.

I’ve been following the protracted progress of Oz’s re-opening (two months turned into a year and two months), so I knew my way. But my oblivious dates, with only 10 York to go-by, arrived a bit grumpy from walking in circles scratching their heads. (A plate of smoked rare beef helped improve moods enormously.)

Those with cherished memories of the original Oz – the pokey little underground (and slightly hidden…) restaurant owned by the good-hearted Ozlem Balpinar – that captured faithful fans for its food, its feel, its community-mindedness (and made headlines when its chef, Jamie Stunt, won gold and silver medals at the 2012 Ottawa Gold Medal Plates and 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships) may feel the new home lacks the gnarly vibe it used to have. Oz, now in the venerable Clarendon Court, feels all grown up, in a right-proper place. And though it was many things on Elgin Street, nobody would have called it a beauty.

It is now that. And lots bigger.

Two floors, both framed in carved limestone, the space has been reworked thoughtfully (and slowly) and now contains a somewhat-on-view kitchen where no kitchen had been before. Playful art on those old walls, plenty of bar seating and bare wood tables are more in keeping with the original Oz.

In charge of that brand-new kitchen is chef Kristine Hartling. She was the secret weapon at Taylor’s Genuine for many years, when John Taylor was preoccupied with Domus. And before that, I thought she was the best thing going at The (long-suffering) Urban Pear, post its Ben Baird chef/owner days.

Hartling’s put her own stamp on the Oz menu: you won’t find a resurrection of past hits. The short menu is more focused on seasonal Ontario cuisine — other than two fish dishes, everything on it would come from ‘round here. The quality of product is clear on the plate and the standard of cooking is high.

Oz Kafe's pork rib chop
Oz Kafe’s pork rib chop

Stars of the starters included that mood-altering beef — a simple plate with lots going for it. The meat was supple, lightly smoked and deeply pleasurable. It came with a lovely mostarda (preserved stone fruit and mustard seed), delicately pickled shimeji mushrooms, and was jollied-up with polka-dots of tarragon aioli and rings of crispy leek. Shrimp salad on toast was a sophisticated presentation of a comfort dish. And there is no finer way to handle the fall bounty of summer squash than to tempura fry them all, as Hartling does, slathering the crispy sticks with a green and garlicky pistou and siding them with a preserved lemon whipped ricotta, prettily piped like a long braid down the side of the plate. The tomato salad, with artichoke dressing and lusciously creamy feta, contained lots of interesting flavours and balanced textures. One dinner began with a mound of moist, fatty rillettes of Mariposa duck, and moist slices of the house-cured salmon, served with toast, pickles, nuts and seeds.

Of the five main dishes on offer, we’ve devoured four. Favourites include the spiced-up Cornish hen perched on a white bean purée, with pepita gremolata and wee little turnips; and a fine rare steak with compound butter. As for the Nagano pork rib chop, it was a knock out. Not sure I’ve ever had better, the meat juicy-chewy and pale pink, nicely seasoned and served with corn two ways — sweetly roasted kernels and in a rich custardy purée. A pile of stewed peppers – yellow and red – crowned the heap of meat.

Oz Kafe's peach pavlova
Oz Kafe’s peach pavlova

There’s ice cream sold by the scoop, which seems a friendly thing to do. And a warm cinnamon bun with cream cheese icing, which younger gallbladders will no doubt enjoy. The sophisticated entry is a pavlova — a ring of crisp-chewy meringue topped with roasted peaches, lemon balm ice cream, candied pistachio and a flourish of ground cherries. It was a lovely way to end.

Welcome back, Oz. Now get yourself a great honking sign.

Mains, $26 to $32 ($60 for 12-oz ribeye)
Open Monday to Saturday from 5pm to 2am. Closed Sunday (“for now”)
10 York Street, 613-234-0907