Good vibes, affordability, and porky excesses are all part of a new wave of urban cuisine that is transforming the way this city eats.
As I reflected upon my year of eating since last compiling this list, I sensed that the ground has shifted. A new crop of restaurants has followed in the footsteps of that first wave of down-to-earth bistros that redefined fine dining as we knew it. And these most recent openings showcase a rising rebellious vibe among chefs. They are willing to take more risks and have a more playful attitude toward this whole venture we call dining out. It makes sense in an age when few of us live anything as our parents did: why should food conform to grown-up expectations?
More than ever, cooks are casting about and integrating ideas and inspiration from neighbours near and far. The result is a limitless mash-up of culinary histories and traditions — no passport required. This might explain why, in a town of supposedly buttoned-up bureaucrats, we are suddenly sitting elbow to elbow with strangers, washing down southern-fried pigs’ ears and boiled peanuts with bourbon cocktails. There is a greater appreciation of the fact that Ottawa is filled with experienced international eaters, world travellers, and food lovers who are hungry for something new. Menus today may have more misses than hits, but then again, the pursuit of perfect food is no longer the point. In the new culinary climate, cooks see themselves as craftsmen, artists, and artisans; kitchens are the new workshops.
In Europe, there’s a name for that new wave of chefs who are creating food that abandons the old hierarchies and satisfies their own appetites instead. It’s called Young Cuisine. The name has become the rallying cry of Omnivore, a French organization that hosts food festivals around the world. And here in Ottawa, we are experiencing a ripple effect from happenings in the food world at large. The most ambitious restaurants in Ottawa today remind me of a reality show in which the audience stumbles into the kitchen on the chef’s day off. When chefs cook for themselves, without the pressure to please picky customers or calculate food costs, inhibitions are abandoned and creativity is unleashed. These chefs are taking full control: butchering their own beef, preserving their own pickles, and fermenting their own kimchi. They are smoking their own cheeses and transforming condiments into tiny spheres that look like caviar. These days it seems as if more chefs are channelling the fun and excitement of making staff meals into preparing food for the rest of us. What winds up on the plate is part gourmet, part global,
Dining rooms are changing too. The best ones have dinner-party intimacy, but the kitchens are no longer content to be caterers; cooks have become the new arbiters of fun. Chairs may be uncomfortable and the music may make you smear your lipstick down the side of your face, but dining out has never felt so unburdened. We are getting to eat the food that chefs want to eat: big, juicy burgers; spicy tacos; and mountains of poutine. Menus that were once designed to transport us away from home cooking and impress us with a combination of fine skill and expensive ingredients have swung back to the realm of the familiar with an upscale twist. The plates are starting to look less like restaurant food and more like a gastronomic riff on a latchkey kid’s after-school snack circa 1980 (undoubtedly the era when most kitchen staff were raised). Dishes are rich in nostalgia, history, and animal fat.
This year’s list of Where to Eat Now focuses on the new spots that epitomize the energy of young cuisine — those eateries that are giving good grub greater accessibility and an Ottawa twist. Each one is serving up a taste of what is happening in the food world right now.