Dining has moved into a new era where respect for culinary tradition and home cooking collides with vanguard ideas. This season, the best meals are coming out of kitchens where the chefs excel at experimenting while keeping it real.Food editor Shawna Wagman’s Top 10 Restaurants List.
Photography by photoluxstudio.com/Christian Lalonde
What do ideas taste like? We eat them all the time, though we may not be aware of it. And it is the city’s chefs who are the ambassadors of these new food ideas. Consider how many dots, foams, farms, towers, and trios made it to the plate the last time you ate out. The kitchen-as-laboratory movement — a maelstrom of ideas — continues to fire the imaginations of cooks and eaters across the globe. When elBulli, Spain’s temple of the edible avant-garde, served its final meal in July, chefs Marc Lepine of Atelier and René Rodriguez of Navarra took note and replicated its recipes a month later via multi-course tribute dinners. Who would have guessed 10 years ago that Ottawa would be plating on par with the most cutting-edge kitchens on the planet? Forget predictable French gastronomy. Dining has moved into a new era where respect for culinary tradition and home cooking collides with vanguard ideas. The only rules now are that there are no rules. It seems to me that the very idea of food is up for interpretation — and reinterpretation.
Consider the case of Next. That’s the name of the new Chicago restaurant from Grant Achatz, one of the most progressive chefs in the United States. It opened in April with a single no-choice menu based on modern French cuisine circa 1906. Reservations are made online in the form of tickets, which are paid in advance, for a limited 90-day run. Next then closes and reopens a week later as a completely different restaurant: a new concept (Thai Street Food and Childhood have been themes so far) every three months. Next. Get the idea? The New York Times predicted that Achatz had perhaps created for himself “the most difficult, ephemeral, and stressful restaurant in culinary history.” By all accounts, it is also an exhilarating and extraordinarily delicious one. And isn’t that what drives us to dine out?
Our city’s food scene has transformed radically in recent years. There are bound to be growing pains. Last year in this issue, we celebrated the burgeoning casual fine-dining scene — young chefs striking out on their own while eaters became more invested in the overall experience. This year we’re salivating over lower-key spots showcasing an influx of new flavours and cuisines: traditional Neapolitan pizza, real southern barbecue, and trendy fusion tacos. Even more conspicuous, perhaps, were the restaurant closings — first Benitz Bistro and b/SIDE, then Sweetgrass and, after a 24-year run, Savana Café.
In a city like ours, eager to shed its reputation as a dull dining town, aspiration drives the food scene on both sides of the table. Food is an expression of who we want to be. A restaurant such as Next reminds us that unlike eating at home, dining out is an exchange: it shouldn’t be about having everything exactly the way we usually have it. Aren’t chefs in the best position to show us how much more succulent a steak is when cooked to medium rare or the necessary abandon that comes from a perfectly oozy egg yolk or freshly shucked oyster? This explains the growing popularity of tasting menus and surprise dishes across Ottawa. Maybe we don’t need all those choices after all.
But living in an age of culinary lawlessness can be a double-edged knife. As I set off on this year’s quest to recommend 10 great places to eat right now, I battled against idea fatigue. Many dishes seemed unnecessarily complex or too precious; some of the better meals were outrageously priced, insanely rich, or just not delicious enough. Restaurants that claimed to cook with the seasons and support local farms (no doubt feeling obliged to do so) served industrial strawberries at the height of our growing season. The tendency for even the more eclectic food ideas in town to fall into line made me wonder if the new chef cliquedom might be having a homogenizing effect (after a while, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry as I encountered yet another menu featuring gnudi or a clever riff on a s’mores dessert). There were times when I wondered if this was the year that there might not be a Where to Eat Now list.
What became clear is that the very idea of where to find great food continues to shift. Some of the most delicious things I ate over the past year came from some of the most unexpected places: fresh doughnuts at the Lansdowne farmers’ market, barbecue chicken from an Ivorian chicken joint on McArthur Avenue, a terrific gourmet lunch counter on a residential street in Old Hull, and two feisty new post-poutine food trucks. Then there’s the most buzzed-about foodie sensation of all: Art-is-in Bakery, which abandoned its tiny wholesale digs in favour of a bread factory café in an off-the-beaten-track warehouse packed with French pastries, picnic tables, and long lunchtime lineups.
If this keeps up, we’ll have to investigate why restaurants are no longer places where great food flourishes. My feeling is that much of the popularity of pop-up, mobile, and underground food can be attributed to the face-to-face exchange between cooks and eaters. If we start to see restaurant-going as less of a transaction and more of a conversation, perhaps instead of wondering why so much dining out in Ottawa is disappointing, we might better ask why we aren’t inspiring our chefs to make better food.
The restaurants on this year’s list are the ones that are working to bridge the gap — making food based on ideas that are focused less on bragging rights and more on connecting eaters to the pleasures of eating. These are the chefs who are using whatever tricks and tools they choose to bring us back to our senses. And we should expect nothing less.