We live in times when what’s new and hot is headline news. Bloggers, PR machines, and online reviews are relentlessly pushing The Next Big Thing in dining out — and, yes, I’m as guilty as the next girl. But what of restaurants with staying power, with pedigree, with a noble history? The truth is, they tend to fall off the page. Sure, they’re visited and enjoyed and have devoted fans, but they’re not often trumpeted for the heroes they are. This list sets out to spread a little love their way.
These restaurants have all survived those first ten tough years and are still, in my books, delivering the goods. They are all places I liked on my first visit many years ago and today are places I like still. Most are chef-operated or have a strong owner presence. The majority are in their second decade of life, one is in its third, and still another (good heavens!) is in its fifth. A couple of them have changed addresses, many have changed looks, a few have spawned offspring, and most have hatched chefs who are now running their own places. Not one of them is coasting.
Related: Buy tickets to the Best Restaurants event, which will be held at the National Arts Centre on January 24th, 2018.
The Top Ten Over Ten is a list, presented alphabetically, that gives props to places that endure — that continue to fill our bellies with treats and our hearts with gladness.
Absinthe started life in 2006 in a former schnitzel house on Holland Avenue. Two years later it moved around the corner to its current home on Wellington Street West. There, chef/owner Patrick Garland revived his short bistro menu of ever-changing market cuisine. Or mostly changing: the lemon tart with its brûléed top stays put. So does the hanger steak-frites, the meat lavished with love and grilled to ruby-chewy-good. And for that matter, the house burger, topped with smoked bacon, caramelized onion, and “secret sauce,” isn’t going anywhere (with a buck a burger directed to Cornerstone Housing for Women).
There has always been an unswerving dedication to duck at Absinthe — order it any way it comes. And just in case you thought the kitchen was exclusively about old-school bistro cooking, consider the quail on a summer menu: the breasts treated to the flavours of bulgogi, the little legs Korean-fried —all bits nestled on a fiery slaw of green apples and kimchi. A clementine gel was a balm for the heat, while a shower of edible flowers and licorice mint prettied up the brown bird. Wines matter at Absinthe, as does the impressive collection of (yes) absinthe, included in inspired cocktails or served straight-up. End with the quartet of desserts that pay homage to the great sweet treats of Paris: tarte au citron, crème brûlée, chocolate moelleux, and profiteroles. You may stagger out, but you’ll be humming Piaf. 1208 Wellington St. W., 613-761-1138
Some chefs let the ingredients shine, pretty much unembellished. Others prefer to impose their personality on them. Arup Jana, chef/owner since 2004 of Allium on Holland Avenue, falls more into the second camp. His menu may be seasonal — spot prawns in May, asparagus in June, tomato salads in September — but he’s rarely content to let those summer tomatoes speak entirely for themselves, pairing them with pepitas and farro, crusted mozzarella, and a summer pea whipped crema sprinkled with fresh peas and mint. His steak tartare comes with a devilled-egg purée; his charred tuna with a cauliflower panna cotta, compressed pears (that pop with hyper-pear flavour), and bacon dumplings to naughty things up a bit.
The son of a globe-trotting professor, Jana has travelled widely, and he brings to his Allium plates — the small and the large — the flavours of many places. If you’re open to anything, the kitchen’s “blind” dishes — one starter, one main, both unknown — are fun and worthy. So is letting the sommelier select wines to match, plucked from a thoughtfully assembled list. Years ahead of the small-plates craze, Allium launched a Mondays-only all-tapas menu with an anything-goes smorgasbord of treats. You’ll need a reservation. The neighbours know a good thing.
87 Holland Ave., 613-792-1313
It began life in 2003 as a smart little boîte on Nepean Street, and from the get-go, Beckta turned heads. Opening chef was Steve Vardy; Michael Moffatt was his sous. Two years later, Moffatt took over as grand fromage, and he has remained in charge for 13 years, his duties now stretched to include Beckta’s younger siblings, Play and Gezellig. In 2015, the mother restaurant moved to a much more formidable address. Owner/sommelier Stephen Beckta saw potential in the historic mansion on Elgin and took a gamble that Ottawa was still enamoured with serious fine dining in a striking venue, setting himself the formidable task of turning a decrepit manor house into a modern-day beauty. With a casual bar in the back and private dining rooms above, many needs could be served.
Now in its 15th year and second home, Beckta feels confident in its stride, modern in heritage digs, its kitchen serving many moods: small cheering bites at the bar or the full-on prix-fixe in the restaurant proper, with wine pairings. A late-summer tasting menu was a litany of pleasures: marinated mussels, tempura shrimp, and bright orange pops of salmon roe rising out of a gentle seafood vichyssoise; an aged beef carpaccio with traditional trimmings; a stunning risotto spiked with bone marrow, the pile of creamy rice a pillow for juicy nuggets of Newfoundland snow crab. Stephen Beckta has always had a knack for hiring well: his team is professional and approachable and it has been from the get-go. As you would expect from a sommelier/owner, the wine list is deep and impressive. 150 Elgin St., 613-238-7063
That old chestnut “a hidden gem” was conceived for this little place. Found, if you know where to look, behind The French Baker on Murray Street, the bistro opens early and closes mid-afternoon. It’s windowless and slightly scruffy-looking, with few updates over its 18 years, but Benny’s is nonetheless where long-serving chef/owner (and culinary teacher) Scott Adams plates some of the most refined, delicious, interesting French bistro fare in the city. (What? Yup, true.)
Classic dishes with intriguing twists, like a salad that unites C’est Bon chèvre with Norwegian krumkake and spring rhubarb; or one that features a roasted melange of Le Coprin mushrooms, aged cheddar dumplings, and a preserved-lemon crème fraîche. Adams slices supple slabs of albacore tuna — which he has prepared confit-style, with a light sear — and pairs them with panko-crusted chorizo balls and a perfectly poached egg napped with a splendid hollandaise, all paddling in a smoky tomato broth. There’s always a soup, a daily sandwich, and a salad at Benny’s and options to pair these. Never overlook dessert. If you just can’t manage it, get a box to go and fill it with lemon tart, gateau opera, and macarons — and grab a baguette for dinner. Every time I sit down at a Benny’s table, I find myself remodelling the weary room, painting the walls with my mind-brush. And then I eat. And I waddle out thinking, Now that was perfect. Just perfect. As is. 119 Murray St., 613-789-6797
Weekday lunches at C’est Japon à Suisha are bustling. Most noontime diners order the daily bento box or the chicken teriyaki combo — quick, tasty, filling — then head back to work. If I come for lunch, it’s usually for a plate of gyoza: well-seasoned pork stuffing within delicate rice skins, which I’ll pair with a simple plate of greens revved up with the house ginger dressing. Or udon noodles with house pickles and tempura vegetables, the gossamer batter crackly, light, and grease-free, clinging casually to yellow beans, red pepper, yam, potato, and lotus root, served with a umami-rich dipping sauce. But I’d suggest that the very best way of approaching this 43-year-old Slater Street restaurant (yes, you read that right, open since 1974) is at night. The basement tatami party rooms might be occupied but a seat at the sushi bar is usually guaranteed. Behind it, since 1993, itamae Moriyuko Hiroha, known as Shu, plies his master trade.
Order à la carte, paying attention to specials, or ask for the chef’s choice. You’ll be rewarded with the pleasure of perfectly calibrated rice and the glow of fresh fish, properly cut, teamed up with appropriate treats — grated horseradish, the salty pop of fish roe, bonito flakes, a sprig of minty shiso, a chiffonade of nori — that provide the lovely intermingling of texture and flavour. Once upon a time, this place was known simply as Suisha Gardens. It stretched its name a decade ago, but otherwise the restaurant is largely unchanged. The water wheel still welcomes, the stream guides you down to the tatami rooms, and the slightly dated-looking dining room remains. Still, you’re here for the simplicity and elegance of well-executed sushi and sashimi and for the warmth of the welcome. There are many Japanese restaurants in this city; C’est Japon à Suisha remains the standard-bearer. 208 Slater St., 613-236-9602
Coconut Lagoon has come a long way since its 2004 beginnings, when it was a plain-speaking south India curry house, beloved of its community but not well known beyond. Today, chef Joe Thottungal’s restaurant is packed with fans from many places, largely because of the kitchen’s unwavering dedication to the cooking methods and authentic ingredients of Kerala cuisine and the warmth of the front-of-house staff, led by Joe’s brother Majoe. This was a big year for Coconut Lagoon. A 2016 win at the Gold Medal Plates culinary competition led to a silver medal at the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships for the team of Thottungal and his long-time sous-chef Rajesh Gopi. There followed a renovation of the restaurant, inside and out, and in the spring of 2017, in time for its 13th birthday party, Coconut Lagoon reopened — bigger, bolder, and thoroughly spruced up.
The menu remains overwhelmingly south Indian in focus, the signature dishes of Kerala — Travancore fish curry, lamb Chettinad, Kovalam lobster — taking pride of place, but these now share the page with small, innovative tasting plates. Dishes like crab cakes spiked with curry leaves and coriander; tandoori-spiced lamb chops furnished with a vibrant mint chutney and a side of Kerala-spice slaw; and onion bhaji, which insists on four types of onion mingling within crackling coats, served with a tamarind sauce. The few dishes that reflect northern India (butter chicken and dal Makhani, say) have been given southern aromas. The wine and beer lists, which include local craft and Asian imports, have expanded as well, selected for their ability to match the spices in these plates. 853 St. Laurent Blvd., 613-742-4444
The baby on these pages, Fraser Café just squeaks onto the list — it will celebrate a decade of feeding its east Ottawa neighbours in May. The café began life on Putman Street, 27 seats small, and moved to its current, larger home on Springfield Road eight years ago. There it has remained, a fixture in its community, cherished by its neighbours but good enough to draw from beyond the ’hoods it serves. Run by chef-brothers Simon and Ross Fraser, the team has gone on to open an event space, Table 40, next door, and a modern British gastropub, The Rowan, on Bank Street in the Glebe. But Fraser Café remains the rock, delivering what it has always delivered: a menu that’s short and sensibly seasonal, that dabbles in the flavours of many cuisines, and that’s filled with homey and polished food.
Some dishes will make your heart sing: a salad that unites the sharp, salty meatiness of seared halloumi with bright bursts of fresh melon and spicy chorizo sausage comes dressed with yogurt, rhubarb, feta, and pine nuts. Fresh tuna is jazzed up and tempura-fried, the juicy flavour bombs paired with bronzed scallops, spiked with jalapeno rings and toasted cashews. Dabs of a tamarind purée and crème fraîche lend the dish a bit of tart and a bit of rich. Fries are dusted with sumac and Parmigiano and almost steal the show next to a succulent short rib with a delightful crust. If you can manage dessert, the hot-from-the-fryer apple doughnuts with crème anglaise and July raspberries is mighty moreish; otherwise, if you want to be grown-ups, there’s a fine selection of local cheeses served in fine condition. 7 Springfield Rd., 613-749-1444
Les Fougères is a truly grown-up restaurant, as its near quarter-century of awards, laurels, and media praise can attest. Run for all those years by visionary restaurateurs, chefs, and cookbook authors Charles Part and Jennifer Warren-Part (with a strong supportive cast, including chef de cuisine Yannick LaSalle and long-time maître d’hôtel and sommelier Louis Parisien), this Chelsea pillar enjoys the benefits of maturity within a completely remodelled dining room. Last year, the knotty-pine interior was shed. When Les Fougères reopened, the room was unrecognizable. Still the screened-in porch, the same backyard, with its expansive kitchen gardens and Gatineau woods beyond, still the bird feeders and garden swing, but now with big wrap-around windows through which to take it all in.
The gourmet shop that sells kitchen treats and take-home food remains tucked onto the side, but the restaurant proper now begins with the warmth of a pizza oven at its entrance and swings around to reveal a stunning bar, long and winding. The goal of the remodel was to offer more options for eating at this venerable restaurant: from the five-course tasting menu with wine pairings to a pizza with duck confit, chèvre, and pear enjoyed at the bar with a Quebec microbrew. Any way you slice it, you’ll be in fine hands. What has not changed is the kitchen’s steadfast focus on invention, beautiful plating, showcasing regional products, and providing exceptional service. 783 Quebec rte. 105, Chelsea, 819-827-8942
What does it mean to be a favourite neighbourhood joint? At The Wellington Gastropub, which opened in 2006, it means a solidly good restaurant that offers a daily menu of contemporary Canadian comfort food with ingenious additions, a beverage list that’s carefully curated, and a real commitment to warm-hearted service. And a commitment to fun: that too. The food may be seriously delicious, but this pub’s about more than that. The Wellie has made its own beer, run a beer school, hosted winemakers’ dinners, shown up at the Westboro Farmers’ Market to whip up breakfast for shoppers, and hey, there’s a monthly record club, don’t ya know.
For the neighbours who just want an amber ale at the bar with some seriously bad-ass chicken-fried cauli with pimento ranch, they can fix you up just fine. And for those who want more, the daily menu is short but full of startling plates. Begin with an heirloom tomato salad teamed up with September peaches; move on to perfectly seared scallops, set on a knobby bed of lentils, fresh peas, and charred cauliflower, served with fried shards of salted chicken skin for crunch. Pastry chef Adrianna Babineau’s luscious ice cream — plum at my last visit — is usually the way to end. Run for a dozen years by the team of chef Chris Deraiche and manager/sommelier Shane Waldron, The Wellie’s relaxed brand of fine dining has fixed an absolute template for the modern Canadian gastropub. No other that I’ve ever noshed at has managed to touch it. 1325 Wellington St. W., 613-729-1315
They’ve since expanded their realm, but it all began here a dozen years ago at this oyster house on Bank Street, small and rambunctious and a proving ground for many gifted chefs who have manned its galley kitchen since 2005. The long, narrow room is crowded with stuff — memorabilia, rec-room kitsch, fish cookbooks, old vinyl, in-joke art. Where you find pristine is in the seafood. Sit on a hard bench at a tiny table or elbow-to-elbow at the bar. Eat oysters. Slurp a bowl of the smoky clam chowder. Chow down on a mess of a lobster roll, the sweet meat drenched with a lemony mayo, tumbling out of a toasted brioche bun, sided with a heap of fries and a fine salad. The more elevated dishes include mussels in a coconut-lime-chili sauce and a tuna niçoise better than anything I ever ate in Paris.
For the past five years, this Whalesbone and its brother restaurants on Wellington West and Elgin Street have been under the steady hand of executive chef Michael Radford. His direct approach to fish and his deep understanding of their tastes and textures translate to a string of big-flavoured pleasures on plates. Radford and chef de cuisine Trish Grey continue the tradition of top-quality, sustainable seafood shown off in approachable dishes served by lively people in ball caps but with fine dining manners and wine know-how. Dessert goes back to big and messy — ice cream sundaes, perhaps? Or deep-fried ice cream with chocolate sauce and summer berries? Or maybe another tray of oysters. 430 Bank St., 613-231-8569