While Chef James Bratsberg honed his skills staging at top kitchens in London, co-owner Bryan Livingston spent the last six months overseeing a major renovation of MeNa on Preston Street.
The critically acclaimed restaurant, known for its modern take on French cuisine, gave the design job to Shannon Smithers-Gay of One80 Design, who focused on a sleek reno that gave the space a more black-and-white look, with pops of burgundy. Guests will also appreciate the open kitchen, which provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the restaurant.
“When we first opened MeNa [four years ago], we were more of a casual fine dining restaurant, but we’ve always leaned toward fine dining,” Livingston notes. “This redo allows us to see our vision through.” Bratsberg’s fans will be happy to hear that his popular blind tasting menu remains a cornerstone. Diners get to be surprised every night, committing to a 5-, 7-, or 9-course blind menu, with Bratsberg swapping out dishes regularly to tie with the availability of seasonal produce.
City Bites Insider popped by the restaurant to see the redesign and find out more about what MeNa’s owners have in store.
The obvious first questions — why renovate and why now?
Bryan: We’ve been open for four years and finally have a bit of money to fix a few things that we couldn’t right at the beginning. When we first opened, we didn’t fully know what we were. We had planned for MeNa to be a casual fine dining restaurant, but we quickly became more of a fine dining restaurant — it’s something our guests pushed us towards and we leaned into.
So you wanted the look and feel of your restaurant to match your cuisine.
Bryan: Exactly. Closing for a complete reno gave us a chance to redo our kitchen and gave James [Bratsberg] all the tools and toys he’s always wanted. We’ve updating the look of the restaurant, obviously, but also upgraded all the little things that make a big difference to people’s comfort — the windows, the air conditioning, the floor.
Give us a few details.
Bryan: The look is more black and white with pops of burgundy. We kept our chairs, which are sleek and very comfortable, but replaced all the tabletops and the bar top. We took down the kitchen and rebuilt it — making it open so people can now see in.
James, what were you up to while all this was going on?
James: I was mainly staging in London. England is a very hard and exacting place to work, but the food is incredibly good and I love that busy atmosphere and attitude. It’s hardworking but fun.
Your main influence is modern French cuisine, though?
James: Yes. I’m strongly influenced by French food and techniques, but I also learned so much from eating around London and spending some time in Spain.
Does the redesign signal a change to your menu?
Bryan: Obviously our menu is always changing and James came back with lots of ideas from his travels. Our focus is still on modern French, but the redesign allows us to really lean into fine dining. We’re keeping the blind tasting menu, but will focus it. We’re pretty much the only restaurant in Ottawa doing a blind tasting menu so we want to make sure we can make it as special as possible.
James: I’m doing 5-, 7-, and 9-course blind tasting menus. I have a very clear vision for what I want to do and the kind of experience we’re trying to provide for guests. It’s not a static menu — I test at three new dishes every Tuesday so I’m constantly refining and changing with the seasons.
When you talk about leaning into the fining dining even more, who do you see as your competition?
Bryan: I don’t think of it as a competition. We’d like to be thought of next to Marc Lepine [Atelier] and Restaurant E18hteen and Beckta. I lived in New York for a time and I want to reach the level of dining and service that I experienced there.
And a final, unrelated question. I hear rumours that, as if you’re not busy enough, you have plans for a second restaurant. Is that true?
Bryan: It is! MeNa is my first restaurant and my passion project, but we’re pretty excited about plans for a second place on Gladstone [391 Gladstone Avenue]. I don’t want to give too much away right now, but it will be a more family-friendly kind of restaurant, serving lunch and dinner and with a lower price point.
Good luck! Busy times for you and James.
Bryan: We don’t sleep much!