First we had the Asahi Pentax, then the Hondas and Datsuns. Later on: Ikebana, Hello Kitty, and manga comics. When it comes to Japanese food, Ottawans had their first taste, outside of the embassy, in 1974 at newly opened restaurant Suisha Gardens (now C’est Japon à Suisha, one of Anne DesBrisay’s picks for 2017’s Top 10 Over 10). Since those meagre days, over 20 others have emerged, not counting the wanton growth in sushi shops.
Now, non-Japanese chefs have picked up on our insatiable hunger for Japanese cuisine. You know, not so long ago, only low-grade sake was on offer in restaurants (and always served hot). Back then, black sesame seeds were mysterious: what were they for? Thankfully, sophistication ensued and we have discovered the purity and simplicity, not to mention an elevated creativity, of Japanese fare.
Vegan and raw-food restaurant Rawlicious offers a nice solution for sushi without rice: raw vegetables. “Simple is how things should be,” says Natalie Papineau, owner of the Ottawa location of Toronto-based Rawlicious, who sprouts her own alfalfa for the nori rolls. Avocados and marinated mushrooms provide meatiness to red peppers and other vegetables, while coconut sap acts as a mild soy sauce. Picking up the palate is a crisp, clean Southbrook Seriously Cool Rosé. $7.50.
Rawlicious, 381 Cooper St., 613-565-8030
“We’re doing things that aren’t being done other places,” says Sidedoor executive chef Ben Landreville. For his black cod dish, he makes an exquisite dashi, a slightly smoky kelp-and-bonito broth. Star anise and cinnamon, a Szechuan twist, are introduced, along with garlic butter. Greens and chewy tree ears — those flat, curly-edged fungi popular in China — are simmered. Black cod, meanwhile, is seared and napped with a miso-sake glaze and laid in the dashi. Perfect with aromatic Beaumont Chenin Blanc. $30.
Sidedoor, 18b York St., 613-562-9331
Regarding his tireless research, Daniel Tremblay of Cha Yi tea house says, “I want to be beyond reproach.” Tremblay’s meticulousness shows in his tea imported from China, Japan, and India but also in his five-part Japanese-style lunch, which is packaged in traditional bento-box style. Unlike conventional bentos, which focus on deep-fried and grilled foods, Tremblay’s version includes onigiri — sushi rice pressed around a filling. Choose either tofu teriyaki or Western-style tuna with wasabi mayo, the latter’s exterior sprinkled with fragrant red shiso leaves. Miso soup, also atypical for bentos, is rich with the seaweed, kombu, and tofu; its preparation here without bonito (fish) pleases vegans. Cashew butter makes a delicious nutty sauce for buckwheat soba noodles, Thai basil adding a licoricey spin. Two more dishes round out the lunch: caramelized Japanese yam and overnight carrot and cucumber pickles. To refresh the spirit is a tipotto — a teapot of organic Japanese sencha tenho green tea. $8.50.
Cha Yi, 165 Eddy St., Gatineau (Hull sector), 819-205-1830