Located within the newly renovated Ottawa Art Gallery, Jackson Café is attracting diners who want their food and drink to be as thoughtfully and creatively prepared as the art on the walls.
Open since August 2018, Jackson offers a menu of small plates — heavy on the vegetables and fish — and luscious craft cocktails. Operated by the people behind Restaurant Eighteen and Sidedoor, Jackson functions as an independent business, separate from the not-for-profit OAG.
It’s a light and soaring space tucked into a corner at the Daly Avenue entrance, which itself is nestled back from the busy sidewalk. A wall of windows looking out to the street and the gallery entrance makes you feel as though you’re in a sidewalk café. There are couches and traditional tables and chairs, inviting you to come and stay awhile.
The service is warm and professional. We’re advised to get two plates per person for a meal, and that is excellent advice.
But first, drinks. Gin is featured in several of the specialty cocktails. The Oracle is a glowing garnet goblet of Aperol, gin, and Campari, sweetened with elderflower syrup and fizzed up with sparkling water. It provides a deep note of bitter topped with sweet, combining for a potent, warming drink. The Spring Song, with celery juice and basil mixing with the juniper of the gin, convinces you that a cleansing drink can be fun too. Their signature cocktail, the Jackson 75, is a rosy mix of gin, sparkling rosé, and lemon that makes you think of summer, no matter how grey the day.
The menu — developed by executive chef John Leung, formerly of Restaurant Eighteen — offers eclectic and eye-catching dishes with Middle Eastern and Asian flavours happily snuggling up to European offerings. Each dish is a fusion of subtle flavours punched up with one ingredient as a playful and sometimes surprising counterpoint. For example, in the moist rainbow trout on lentils, it’s the ginger and sesame oil that finish it. Thin slices of grilled halloumi are satisfyingly squeaky, topped with slices of roasted delicata and acorn squash. Anise is the surprise ingredient in the vinaigrette that sweetens cold buckwheat noodles with napa and purple cabbage. The beautifully simple crab toasts are taken to the next level with a rich lemon aioli.
Desserts by chef de cuisine Thomas Brissiaud are a delight. Of particular note are the churros: the cinnamon-sugar fried pastries arrive on a bed of salty, buttery caramel and come with a pot of melted dark chocolate with a hit of chili. It is enough to make us forget our manners and dip our fingers long after the churros have disappeared.
Jackson Café is not only a welcome addition to the restaurant scene but also an example for other galleries and museums of what can be done when the same focus, freedom, and fun that are brought to the exhibits make their way to the food-and-drink program.
Small plates $11–$18. Open Monday to Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., and
Sunday for brunch.