Restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay reveals her list of the top 10 best new restaurants in Ottawa.
Have you noticed? Ottawa is on a culinary tear. A cluster of restaurants birthed in 2015 and 2016 have raised the dining out bar, big-time. Liberated from the confines of yesterday’s fine dining rules, this new crop of chef-driven eateries has shifted away from the more instant-pleasure domes (just add pork belly!) that defined the scene a few short years ago. They may have stripped linen off tables and handed servers branded tees — but their food and its delivery have also changed. Small plates, tapas, pintxos, cicheti, and sharing plates splayed on hand-fired crockery, dispense a cooking more vibrant and interesting than we’ve seen in some time.
These are kitchens that find inspiration from the Middle East, southern Europe, and pockets of Asia, though turn to proteins and produce sourced uncompromisingly from nearby, in lockstep with the seasons. These men and women are interpreting modern Canadian cuisine exactly as they please, using elements of their family roots, their world travels, and their grandmothers’ kitchens. And though Ottawa is late to the craft cocktail scene, this list shows it’s making up for lost time now. Finally, these are all restaurants that understand the sweet spot in service — a balance of approachable and polished — and that caring for people is never dated.
This list represents the finest of that new harvest. Here are the top 10 new restaurants in Ottawa:
Chef Jon Svazas
Chef de cuisine Zachary Resnick
1087 Wellington St. W.
Carben Food + Drink
Chef Kevin Benes
Pastry chef Caroline Ngo
1100 Wellington St. W.
Chef Matthew Carmichael
380 Elgin St.
Chef Walid El-Tawel
343 Somerset St. W.
North & Navy
Chef Adam Vettorel
226 Nepean St.
The Pomeroy House
Chef Rich Wilson
749 Bank St.
Co-chef Matt Carmichael
Co-chef Jordan Holley
62 Sparks St.
Chef de cuisine Kyle Decan
915 Bank St.
Chef Jungsik Yim
153 Bank St.
Chef Michael Radford
231 Elgin St.
After a chef has achieved his first successful restaurant, opening a second is an idea to be toyed with. Jon Svazas toyed, and Bar Laurel is the result. A sister restaurant for the two-year-old Fauna on Bank Street, Bar Laurel inhabits the Hintonburg space vacated by Back Lane Café.
The room has been modernized, and if you know the look of Fauna, you’ll recognize the same mature design sensitivity, in particular the focus on groovy lights.
The inspiration is the food of Calle del Laurel in Logroño, northern Spain, and with that, it carves out a niche in this city for Basque-style bar snacks. Pintxos — one- or two-bite pleasures — are on the menu, as are a few larger platos dished up to serve the table.
Ideally, you attack Bar Laurel with a cadre of friends in a mood for nibbling and sharing. Start with an aromatic cocktail created by Matt Millard (he’s the tall, slim Scotsman in the bunnet) and a plate of the celebrated pata negra ham served simply with good hearth bread. It’ll make chatter cease for a moment.
Then go hog-wild on the rest, ending with the Basque-style cheesecake, warm from the wood-fired oven manned by chef de cuisine Zachary Resnick.
Bar Laurel 1087 Wellington St. W., 613-695-5558
Run by the husband-and-wife team of Kevin Benes and Caroline Ngo, Carben is a 2015 triumph. He does inventive, Asian-inflected, modern Canadian cuisine; she does desserts (and almost steals the show). Eating commands attention and consideration and sometimes feels like a bit of an adventure — there’s no shortage of stuff happening on these dazzling plates — but their success lies in how good it all tastes, how the flavours and textures combine in a sophisticated embrace.
Highlights include Cornish hen — the breast seared, the thigh cooked sous-vide — and it all comes together on a cherry gastrique, which is scattered with pickled almonds. Another standout is the pea panna cotta with beet crème fraîche. The mushroom salad, one of the finest plates of 2015, is a constant pleasure here. And who knew yucca cake and lemon jam (featuring basil seeds compressed with lime leaf) would make an endearing dessert?
Service standards are relaxed but professional, and the Carben cocktail list is fussed over. The room is simple: modern in design but with homely touches and a long wall of windows that let light in.
It may be a small place, but it’s had a sizable impact on the ever-more-interesting Hintonburg restaurant scene.
Carben Food + Drink 1100 Wellington St. W., 613-792-4000
A smash hit from day one, Datsun opened in 2015 in the space next to its big brother, El Camino. Datsun toddled off with the Asian side of the menu; now, when you head down those Elgin Street steps, you bear right for underground tacos and tostada or left for steamed buns and dumplings (both available through takeaway windows if you can’t find a perch). Either way, the reward is crave-worthy food, tuned-in service, and Asian-tinged cocktails.
Matthew Carmichael may be distracted by his new place, Riviera (read on), but the Datsun kitchen is rock-solid. On the one-page menu, pork steamed buns are constant pleasures, as are shrimp sliders and pot stickers. Recent standouts also include mushrooms — a mighty mix of them in an umami bomb of a broth — and a Penang curry of braised beef, the square hunk of velvety meat punched hard with lime leaf and a “Whoa, Nellie” litter of chilies.
The cool concrete space is warmed by people (not a problem) and a professional staff that is disarmingly friendly. Datsun takes no reservations and tables are hard to come by. Good thing service is mercifully swift.
Queue be damned; it’s well worth the wait.
Datsun 380 Elgin St., 613-422-2800
How often do I get to say that the chicken, of all things, is a triumph? Or that a salad is possibly the most kick-ass part of the meal? At Fairouz, seemingly safe and boring dishes are transformed, through a ballsy infusion of spices and thoughtful attention to texture, into meals I can’t stop thinking about. It reopened earlier this year in the same old house that was, for some 20 years, Ottawa’s go-to for fine Lebanese food.
Reimagined and invigorated, the new Fairouz is nothing like the one that served Ottawa in the 1990s and early 2000s. The new Fairouz has a new look (brighter and prettier, with Moorish touches) and a cuisine that introduces this city to the pleasures of Middle Eastern flavours far removed from the starkly casual shawarma joints.
In the kitchen is former e18hteen head chef Walid El-Tawel, who is brilliant at hitting the brazenly flavoured sweet spot of Middle Eastern food. His cooking is lively with staple spices (cumin, dukkah, sumac, paprika) and has been plumped up with pomegranate, pistachio, dried fruits, and nuts. Start with dips and the cumin-flecked house pita, and then order chicken with date leather and lamb with chermoula.
And don’t forget the tarted-up rice dishes.
Fairouz 343 Somerset St. W., 613-422-7700
Don’t expect lasagna; this is modern Italian, and no other restaurant in this city has taken modern Italian cuisine to such smart and sophisticated heights. The small plates of handmade pasta and cicheti (bar snacks) on offer evoke Venetian bacaros (minus the Venetian habit of standing elbow-to-elbow to nibble and drink). The mood is merry, especially if you’re seated at the back bar, with its wide view of the kitchen.
The floor staff know their stuff, and chef/proprietario Adam Vettorel is the whiz in the kitchen. From the John Taylor school of regional-seasonal-sustainable cuisine, he brings local flavour to these Italian plates. Start as the Venetians do, with a flute of Prosecco and a plate of meatballs. Or just order all cicheti on offer and plunge your fork into everything.
Depending on the season, Vettorel pairs fresh summer fava beans with blobs of local feta, petals of pickled squash, and a confetti of fresh horseradish; he unites heirloom tomatoes, basil, and wobbly mozzarella with carefully sourced Venetian olive oil; he puts his own particular imprint on corzetti filled with spring rhubarb and garlic scapes. If the rabbit-stuffed capeletti is still on the menu, don’t look anywhere else.
Though you could save room for the Venetian liver and onions. (Honest.)
North & Navy 226 Nepean St., 613-232-6289
Sparkly-pretty and lumberjacky in equal measure, The Pomeroy House is a brilliant neighbourhood restaurant. Grab some friends, and bag the round table just beneath the window that peeks into the kitchen. That kitchen is run by Beckta alum Rich Wilson, while his partner, sommelier Lindsay Gordon, runs the floor with grace and charm.
They’ve crafted a menu of precisely the sorts of dishes the neighbours want to graze on, with wines to suit any mood and budget. Add cheery staff and a welcoming bar, and this house feels like home. Go for a glass of wine and a bowl of the Prince Edward Island blue mussels, which are served in a broth chunky with caponata. Or feast more leisurely on the torchon of foie gras: spiralled with juniper ash, plopped onto fry bread, and sweetened with grapefruit marmalade, it’s a splendid dish. The crunchy chicken with cauliflower cream is a star plate, but so is the house steak, glistening with sauce Robert and sided with rich mashed spuds.
If you can, save room for one of the classic desserts, which have been updated with pleasurable twists: go for the Meyer lemon tart with chèvre mousse or sticky toffee pudding sided with smoked dates and a blob of sherry ice cream.
The Pomeroy House 749 Bank St., 613-237-1658
It’s a grand Sparks Street bank from a different century that has been beautifully remade into an elegant restaurant. In place of teller windows, there is a long bar, brass-wrapped and precision-lined with diners perched on stools. Instead of writing desks and pens on chains is a thoughtful maze of shallow banquettes and bare oak tables, softly lit. Music suits the room and era, the artwork is playful and provocative, and light from the tall front windows floods the space.
Riviera is the third restaurant in three years for the Matthew Carmichael-Jordan Holley team. The other two — El Camino and Datsun — are basement pleasures, while Riviera marks a return to glamorous destination dining in which the food and drink are as correct and ambitious as the room. Start with a cocktail crafted by bar manager Stephen Flood. While you examine the one-page menu, consider the delightfully retro prawn cocktail. Or try a mix of autumnal carrots, sweetened with honey, littered with dukkah, and served with a blob of whipped feta. The hanger steak, sided with splendid frites, is a perfectly cooked pleasure. And ask for a spoon with the short rib, as the meat-off-the-bone dish is propped up with soupy-soft polenta and a dark pool of rich jus.
Finish with the classic Eton Mess, which has been updated with tart sea buckthorn berry curd and is charmingly served in a Champagne coupe.
Riviera 62 Sparks St., 613-233-6262
This is the third venture for Simon and Ross Fraser, the chefs/brothers of New Edinburgh’s Fraser Café and family-style dining space Table 40. The Rowan landed happily in the Glebe in the summer of 2015, its garage door open wide to the bustle on Bank. Bare surfaces are warmed with clusters of white lights, walls of kelly green, and a mural featuring the red-berried tree from which the restaurant borrows its name.
The kitchen, led by chef de cuisine Kyle Decan, will cosset any modern British pub-food cravings you may have: for pork pie, say, or a fine Cornish pasty perked with lime chutney; for house-made bangers swaddled in Yorkshire pudding; for a superb chicken curry. Fish dishes on the short menu, including battered ling cod and raw tuna sprinkled with the umami-briny house-made bottarga, start with top-notch product.
Dishes receive injections of flavour from greens and herbs or a pungent preserved-lemon aioli or the bone-warming joy of a jus made from good stock, a gravy that elevates everything it touches.
And don’t forget the milk-chocolate tart.
The Rowan 915 Bank St., 613-780-9292
Holy Moses, the queues continue! Six months since opening, Sansotei Ramen remains a honey pot for the ramen lover. There are three Sansotei Ramen locations in the Toronto area; this one is the first to venture beyond. And though it might seem odd to see a chain restaurant on a best-of list such as this, it merits a spot for the simple pleasure of its product. Sure, it’s just Japanese noodle soup (stock plus noodle plus toppings equals ramen), but the strength of the broth, the style of the noodles, and the balance of what finishes the bowl are all pressing issues for the ramen buff.
For anyone who cares deeply, there’s an obsession to get that balance right every time, and they obsess here in this small, friendly, busy little Bank Street space.
The tonkotsu (pork broth) has fatty, marrow-milky good flavour and some seriously satisfying soul. The noodles have bounce, and the rest of it — the chashu (pork belly), the soft-boiled marinated egg, and the assorted vegetable fillers — are all well done.
There are things other than ramen here — the gyoza are plump and perfect, the pork on rice makes a sweet, simple lunch — but really, you are here for the big bowls of steaming soup, best slurped noisily and with your eyes closed.
Sansotei Ramen 153 Bank St., 613-695-1718
Moby Dick swims the length of the south wall, while stag heads guard the northern flank. These are the standout bits of room art in this latest, much-anticipated new project from the Whalesbone group — they of two oyster houses, a catering operation, a yearly oysterfest, and now this big new place on Elgin Street. The feel is quintessential Whalesbone: quirky-casual, with charred barnboard, pipe railings, hard benches, and metal chairs. The bar is long and busy, and portholes into the kitchen reveal that the back of house is much the same.
Helming that busy kitchen is Whalesbone executive chef Michael Radford. On his sustainable fish menu is the finest chowder in the city, as well as a cornucopia of oyster offerings from both coasts. And always a catch of the day, which might be pickerel, in which case, it will arrive golden and salt-scattered, balanced on fennel salad and a knobbly brown pile of roasted sunchokes.
Steak tartare is a champ, as is the Flintstone-sized femur of beef marrow topped with a bright little salad and served with toasted brioche (perfect for ferrying the fatty, buttery, beefy stuff to mouth). Fried cauliflower with soused raisins is the OMG side to just about anything here. Service is uber-casual but has fine-dining table manners. Loud, merry, and boisterous, with big-flavoured food: just another hit Whalesbone project.
Whalesbone Elgin 231 Elgin St., 613-505-4300