Food and Wine

Best Restaurants of 2011: #2 Navarra by René Rodriguez

Navarra’s My Culinary Journey of the Aventine Hill in Rome: Bone marrow alla puttanesca, ricotta frittata, lucanica sausages, fried artichokes, and salt cod panzanella. Photo by photoluxstudio.com/Christian Lalonde.

“I don’t know what half of this stuff is,” said a woman as she walked away from the tapas menu on a Tuesday night.

It’s too bad this intimate Basque-inspired bistro gives off an intimidating vibe. Much of the warmth and charisma is reserved for the food. Navarra reflects its enigmatic chef-owner René Rodriguez, who rarely makes eye contact with patrons. I remember interviewing him before he opened the restaurant, and he struck me as one of the most guarded chefs I had ever met — never opening up or revealing where his passion for food came from.

Only the Food Network says chefs must be personable and engaging. But judging by the delicious food, Rodriguez seems content to cook, tinker with kitchen gadgets, and let us fill in the blanks about what makes him tick.

That night I fell under the spell of live flamenco music and the “bullfighter dinner,” a giant sweet and tangy beef rib, its fall-off-the-bone goodness infused with anise and apple, complemented by a chili-dipped hard-boiled egg and a plucky green sauce made with grainy dijon and cornichons. It didn’t replace a ticket to the Costa Brava, but it certainly made Ottawa feel a lot more interesting. Rome joined northern Spain as Rodriguez’ muse on a recent menu. I am hoping the black corn tamale signals a foray into the flavours of his childhood in Mexico.

93 Murray St., 613-241-5500, www.navarrarestaurant.com.

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