New name; new menu. On March 23, the Novotel Ottawa (33 Nicholas St.) launches The Heritage Room Gastropub. It’s a chance for executive chef Jesse Bell to shine, making the 86-seat restaurant his own after taking over from Chef Stephen La Salle, who moved down the street to Andaz last year.
Admittedly, there was some confusion as to whether the Gastropub was replacing The Albion Rooms or not. Bell helped clear it up by saying: “The gastropub is the large room and new dining room,” says Bell. “We are still the Albion Rooms, and yes the [Gastropub’s] menu is available across the whole restaurant.” Hope this clears it up!
Chef Bell has taken full advantage of the revamp, designing a menu that is both accessible and sophisticated. He tells Ottawa Magazine that he has spent the past year scouring turn-of-the-century cookbooks, then putting his modern twist on Canadian and British classics.
As he prepped for the grand opening party, Chef Bell sat down for just long enough to describe a few of his favourite new menu items — and his plans for a chef’s tasting menu.
Your grand opening is this week, but I hear you’ve been testing your gastropub menu on guests for a little while now.
We have. We did a soft opening in mid-February and have been slowly working out the kinks for a few weeks and gearing up for the big launch.
How long have you been planning the menu?
It has been ready for a little over a year, believe it or not. The plan for a gastropub has been in place for a while, but for various reasons we weren’t ready to launch. While I was waiting, I actually rewrote the menu three times to take into account the produce available in various seasons — I have 30 recipes in my reservoir right now!
Why a gastropub?
It fits with my cooking style. I love to bring a modern twist to old-world flavours. I’d describe my style as contemporary Canadian with a bit of Nordic and English influence. I like to take a lot of turn-of-the-century recipes — things that Canadians would have been eating 100 years ago — and tweak them, modernize them.
How do you find these recipes?
I have a few really old cookbooks, plus I research when I travel. I’ve been across a good portion of the eastern side of the country and picked up lots on the way. So, for instance, when I went to Newfoundland, I stayed with a couple of families and ate very traditional food. It was amazing. When I came back to Ottawa, I took those traditional recipes and dishes and put my own take on them.
Tell me about a few of your favourite menu items.
I love the elk tartare, which is inspired by the taiga forests of the north. I hand-cut the meat, then mix it with some pickled saskatoons and 67-degree egg yolk. Basically, when you cook the egg at this temperature it’s got a cooked egg flavour but you can spread it like a sauce. I also add some puffed wild rice and, of course, the classic tartare ingredients like shallots, Tabasco, and a little Worcestershire.
I have a caramelized leek vinaigrette. It’s a play on an 1800s dish that was essentially boiled leeks in mustard vinaigrette with a chopped egg on top. For my dish, I do a frisée with a lemon-dijon vinaigrette and charred avocado. I cook the leeks sous-vide with a little bit of truffle and vegetable stock then caramelize them with butter. I add a bit of cured egg yolk and black olive soil, then a bit of truffle oil and allegretto cheese [a local, hard sheep’s milk cheese]. It’s so good.
And one more, just to get readers salivating?
It’s hard to pick! My grilled mackerel has been really popular. I use Atlantic mackerel and cook it very simply with a bit of butter, skin-side down so it’s crispy. There’s a little drizzle of lemon juice, then the base is a lemon-caper pistou made with lots of fresh herbs. And there’s a nice composed salad of sea asparagus, pickled heirloom carrots, and watermelon radish. It’s light and fresh.
Is the menu completely new or have you saved a few popular dishes?
I kept a few classics — an homage to our original menu — as well as some favourites that we can’t take off the menu because people love them too much.
Our beer-battered fish and chips had to stay. And our elk burger, the Scotch egg, our Brussels sprouts. Those were Stephen [LaSalle, the former executive chef]’s dishes, when I was his sous-chef. We’ve had customers who have been coming here for years, so it felt wrong to just take them off. Who doesn’t like a Scotch egg, right?
Did the fact that this is a heritage building help inspire your menu?
Of course. For people who don’t know, this site was Ottawa’s oldest hotel, the Albion Hotel. For the longest time, this room that we now call The Heritage Room Gastropub was a bar; it was a bit of a dive. You’d get a pint of Labatt 50 and a pickled egg. Since the hotel purchased the property in 1988, the room has been a few things and had a few different looks. But now that it has been renovated, you can feel the history.
And the beer? It is a gastropub, after all.
For draft, we’ve got six taps. It’s all local beers — a Beau’s, usually Lugtread; a Dominion City Sunsplit IPA; Stalwart Brewery’s stout… It’s a nice lineup.
I see that there’s a separate seating section beside the open prep kitchen. What’s that big table for?
It’s table for 12, which can expand to seat 14 or 16. My plan is to hold chef’s tasting menus there on Saturday nights. It’s a bit separate from the gastropub. The idea is that if you reserve for the tasting menu, you get a seven-course meal of my own design. It should be fun — whatever I’m feeling. If demand is high, we’ll do it on Fridays as well.
That sounds fun. Do you have to book the whole table?
Not at all. I’m sure there will be group bookings sometimes, but you may have a whole bunch of random people at the table on some nights, too.
So you’ll be running the tastings as a solo effort?
For now. In the future, I think it would be fun to invite some guest chefs and do some duelling chefs’ tastings, but that’s well down the road once everything’s running smoothly. Who knows? Maybe six months from now.
What are you most psyched about?
Being open! About finally having everything in place so I can put my own name on the menu. The Heritage Room Gastropub marks a new name, a new menu, a new direction. It will be fun to put my stamp on the restaurant. It will feel like it’s my own.