DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: The Courtyard

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Pheasant terrine

Pheasant terrine. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Twenty-one George Street has been, since 1827, in various life stages and incarnations, a place to drink, eat, sleep, and work. For the past 34 years, it has been operating as The Courtyard Restaurant, serving for the majority of those years uninspired ‘continental cuisine.’ That is until a young chef called Marc Lepine gave the somnific kitchen a serious shaking up. The place still looked the same — a pleasant courtyard patio, an awkward, cluttered foyer, stone-framed dining rooms upstairs and down —but suddenly the modernist cuisine was like nothing else in the city.

After Lepine left to open Atelier in 2008, his sous chef Michael Hay stepped up and the cooking continued to impress. Hay’s dishes were adventurous, imbued with big fisted flavours and presented in cunning ways.

There have been other chefs since Hay left for Back Lane Café (and now on to Toronto, where he’s chef de cuisine at Oliver & Bonancini’s Canteen). I’d dropped in twice since then, penning a lunch review during chef Murray Wilson’s tenure, but it has been a few years since I’ve done a proper dinner report of the old place.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Mariposa Farm lunch required for local food devotees

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Terrine of chicken, served with pickled vegetables and crostini. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Some meals should be required eating: a learning lunch on a working farm, complete with a lesson on sustainable farming practices and a viewing of days old piglets.

Think that sounds too much like a school trip? To that i say, how many of those begin with foie gras and end with panna cotta?

This is the property that Ian Walker bought and built up when he was barely out of his teens. That was over 30 years ago. Today, Mariposa Farm co-owners Walker and his wife Suzanne Lavoie raise Barbarie ducks, Embden geese, and crossbred pigs on their pretty Plantagenet property. They keep chickens and a dairy cow, and have a thriving commercial vegetable garden. They used to raise wild boar, but quit that. They were, apparently, a “pain in the ass.”

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DESBRISAY DINES: Clover Food and Drink

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Clover's corn chowder. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Clover’s corn chowder. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

There’s a spartan look about Clover. High school chairs, bare benches, caged industrial lights, walls of open brick and plywood (sanded and varnished, but still plywood) are either indications of a work in progress, or the carefully considered props for the homespun look this new Bank Street restaurant seeks. It makes the warming touches — the pots of sage on the tables, the white linen napkins, the amber glassware — all the more appreciated. Come winter, the addition of some visual drama, some colour, (and certainly some padding, ahem), might help.

But the frugal decor and the bum-aching-bench whinging evaporate once the food starts to arrive. This restaurant is taking interesting culinary risks. And the pleasure of Clover is that the risks taste very good indeed.

Clover chef West de Castro — bee keeper, honey farmer, and most recently sous chef of Zen Kitchen — chose to work with smelts as her fish. Sourced from The Whalesbone, these were big (boned, floured, and fried) guys, and they were absolute champs. She set them on a warm salad of tomatoes, zucchini, shaved fennel, leeks, and cucumber, with black olives, fennel fronds, and a marvellous avocado aioli. A big hunk of grilled sourdough bread finished the plate.

After smelts we had a puffball. Have you ever seen puffball featured on an Ottawa menu? Neither had I. Paired with grilled broccoli and roasted fingerlings, the outer bits of the big white mushroom find had been cleaned and diced and fried up. These were meaty textured. The inner bits were surprisingly soft and creamy, almost custard like. Beneath the mushroom was a pea purée, and strewn overtop bacon, almonds, fresh sage.

Some dishes were less out there and no less pleasing. The corn chowder was gossamer, a great rendition of the classic late summer soup, with chewy lardons of smoked bacon bumping up the pleasure factor. A gazpacho was like slurping up the September-garden. It arrived properly chilled, with good acidic balance and well seasoned. Having drunk up an assertive marinade, bison flank steak was grilled to rare, sliced in thick chewy strips and set on wilted greens. It came with a hunk of very commendable corn bread.

Pea and lovage soup

Pea and lovage soup. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Lovage is an unloved herb. I can’t recall the last time I saw it on a menu, or tasted its distinct flavour. But there it was, featured in Clover’s daily soup at lunchtime: fresh pea and lovage. It was a regal green, with a pretty swirl of creme fraiche and a bump of snipped chives. The flavour of fresh peas was clear and bright, but so too was the parsley-like, celery-ish and slightly anise flavour of the herb. A panini that featured zucchini was more on the dull side, and though there were parts of the grilled romaine Caesar we enjoyed (the egg mimosa, say, and the terrific dressing), the unwieldy hunk of grilled baguette and the bitterness of the wilted lettuce meant this dish was less of a thrill.

But we were grinning again by dessert time. De Castro’s panna cotta infused with thyme and lemon, and topped with stewed peaches and rhubarb was simply gorgeous, with edible flowers, fresh raspberries, and chopped pistachio crowning the glistening custard.

At my visits the restaurant had been largely empty, but this will surely change.

Panna cotta. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Panna cotta. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Wines are all Ontario VQA (Niagara and PEC) and beer on tap is from Beau’s, Kichesippi, and Covered Bridge in Stittsville.

Clover is open weekday lunches but only Fridays and Saturdays for dinner.

Lunch mains, $8 to $15; dinner mains, $18 to $23

Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

155 Bank Street, 613-680-8803, cloverottawa.ca

DESBRISAY DINES: Che Chartrand takes Muse Restaurant at Wakefield Mill Inn to the next level

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

King mackerel sashimi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Scoring a table at the Muse Restaurant in the Wakefield Mill Inn this summer had proven tricky. And sure enough, when one was found (“we could seat you at 6 or 8:45”) we arrived to a packed room, both on the more sought-after solarium side of the restaurant, the bit that juts out over the MacLaren Falls, and in the dining room proper. Every table was filled, staff was scrambling.

“We have a new chef,” our server explained to justify the full house. “He used to own Chez Eric and he had many fans. They’re coming here now.”  She was referring to the wee village restaurant on Wakefield’s Valley Drive.

Two years ago, Che Chartrand left Chez Eric and landed the job of chef de cuisine at the new Gezellig Restaurant in Westboro. But last February he moved back home, accepting the top job at The Wakefield Mill Inn and reducing his commute to three minutes. Six months later, Chartrand’s mark on the menu eats very well indeed.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Fresh pea and watercress soup. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Beginning with the bold amuse of garlic scape kimchi paired with a cool square of pickerel mousse, dribbled with herb oil and scattered with micro-greens. And then a marvellous summer soup — fresh pea and watercress, the bullying bitterness of the cress tempered with rich nuggets of local chèvre.

A salad of “jeunes pousses” proved to be a highlight. The greens seemed more days old than weeks, and yet had such grand flavour, caught in a ribbon of cucumber, scattered with crunchy wisps of shallot and dressed smartly in a classic honey-mustard vinaigrette sweet with raisins.  The “ Chef’s choice of sashimi” was King Mackerel – a bold choice, though its oily fishy flavour was cleverly tempered with creamy elements (an avocado mousse) with a rousing wakame salad and with dobs of a sweet carrot purée.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Rosie’s Southern Kitchen & Raw Bar

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Scallop ceviche salad: raw scallops served in fat juicy disks and plopped on a bed of superior greens, with rings of jalapeño and radish, and carefully sectioned lime Photo: Anne DesBrisay

After what seemed to me to be a rocky start, culinarily speaking, Rosie’s Southern Kitchen and Raw Bar, which opened in December 2013, appears to have settled comfortably in the southern bit of the Glebe.

The restaurant (its sister is the Big Easy on Preston) has positioned itself, pretty cleverly, just north of the massive Lansdowne Park development in the former home of the original Mexicali Rosa’s (from 1979). Where there used to be parking, is now a likeable outdoor patio, complete with a come-hither fireplace, thoughtful wind blocks, funky vintage-y fans, and great lights. It’s a great place to be on a fine night. Inside, the room is dominated with wood, tables are both high and low top, while most of the visual drama takes place above our heads, with chandeliers of clustered jars stuffed with Edison bulbs. The oyster/booze bar is zinc-topped, leggy, and lovely. During my visits, the room was loud and full, and while there are TV screens, they didn’t dominate.

When it opened, and upon my first visits back then, the food was largely unimpressive. Didn’t seem right to complain about a fun new neighbourhood place with southern comfort cooking, but the dishes I tackled — with the exception of the raw oysters and fried calamari — were decidedly mediocre. I gave it a few months and returned.

Quel difference! The menu has shrunk considerably, and the food has risen a considerable notch. Dishes were more daringly plated and southern flavours decidedly more pronounced.

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Crab cake: beautifully seasoned, lightly fried, and served with a powerfully green chimichurri featuring cilantro. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Diners should be aware there’s some serious heat in the scallop ceviche salad. Here the raw scallops are served in fat juicy disks rather than the usual thin slices, and plopped on a bed of superior greens, with rings of jalapeño and radish, and carefully sectioned lime. The crab cake was a terrific rendition, the meat untainted with iodine, left in large, lightly-packed chunks, beautifully seasoned, lightly fried, and served with a powerfully green chimichurri featuring cilantro. Full marks.

A small salad of heirloom tomatoes and cucumber dressed well and served with a likeable guacamole felt a tad overpriced at $12 bucks, but still, it was pretty on the plate and lovely to eat, and if the quantity were bumped up a bit, the salad would make a fine lunch.

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Blackened catfish properly spicy and cooked, topped with juicy disks of chorizo, a few unseasoned shrimp, and served with well seasoned Mexican rice Photo: By Anne DesBrisay

Ribs were tender and meaty; the blackened catfish properly spicy and cooked, topped with juicy disks of chorizo, a few unseasoned shrimp, and served with well seasoned Mexican rice.

The only real disappointment was with the pork chop. It arrived overcooked, grimly grey, though supported with a fine Bourbon apple sauce, chunky and perfumed with thyme and cinnamon. We loved the fried potato dumplings, though the pile of vegetables — heirloom carrots, green beans, braised radish, baby kale — looked more promising than they ate, injured by a heavy hand with (what I suspect is jarred) garlic.

The chocolate pecan pie was perfect, though the whipped cream was icky sweet… but so what. At Rosie’s, there’s much more right than wrong now.

Mains, $20 to $43. Open for lunch, brunch, and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. 895 Bank Street, 613-234-7674 www.rosiesonbank.ca

DESBRISAY DINES: Elegant salads and splendid mains at new Preston Street resto Salt

By ANNE DESBRISAY
Salt's pierrogi gnocchi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Salt’s pierogi gnocchi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

This big corner space of Preston Square has had two fairly short-lived restaurant tenants. The latest is called Salt, and I rather hope it’s third time’s the charm for this one.
Salt is a tall, dark, mod space, divided into bar, dining room, and patio. The design is generically industrial, though the  chandeliers and custom iron work lend lustre. One wall is all windows framed with dark drapes. It overlooks a corner patio with  fire pit, lounge furniture, and a nicely tended vegetable/herb garden in full swing. Another wall introduces a built-in of backlit spirits around a slick electric fireplace. The lounge at the front has a marble bar-top curved around a baby grand piano. The dining room proper is very dark, the walls and ceiling painted black. (Or possibly navy to match the drapes; hard to tell.) Outside the kitchen pass is a handsome shelving unit, loaded with carefully considered bits of culinary nostalgia (an old Joy of Cooking, a few ‘we love the whole pig’ cookbooks, many jarred preserves). It all looks designer-great.
Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Two problems marred my initial enjoyment of the place. One, was the pong of bleach, or some sort of industrial cleaning solution. (Not an unusual whiff at bars and restaurants these days, but a regrettable one: doesn’t whet the appetite.) And two, it was freezing cold. And quite dark. It was a welcome that had me bracing for a middling meal and a final bill that looked like it would be hefty.
The cold was dealt with by a gracious server. The smell faded (or we got used to it). The bill was indeed sizeable, but the food, as it happened, was disconcertingly delicious.
That may have to do with the fact that Salt, which is open 18 hours, seven days a week, has three chefs: Aaron Wong, most recently at Play; Jessica Hendren from Town; and Ryan Edwards, formerly of Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar. Three great restaurants.
The dinner menu is divided into small and large plates, and steaks. The pricing is a bit confusing. Small plates range from $12 to $39; large plates start at $16 and climb to $32.
Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We began at the bottom, with an elegant salad starring house cured and smoked salmon. On a long plate were three moist piles of the fish on a bed of pea shoots, dill fronds, carrot tops, and spinach, topped with pickled pearl onion, fennel, and jalapeño, injecting a bit of heat. Piped blobs of a luscious avocado mousse lent richness, and oiled caraway toast, crumbled overtop, gave crunch.
And then a dish so rich and good I ordered it again for lunch. (Partly so I could see it enough to photograph.) Billed as ‘pierogi gnocchi,’ these were big, bronzed pillows of gooey smoked potato, seasoned with a whiff of garlic, the soft texture within offset by the crisp out. On top were scattered hunks of blue cheese and strings of caramelized onion, some young arugula leaves, while creme fraiche perked up with pink peppercorns was the moisture beneath.
We loved the dish called “Kraken vs Halibut” and though the name suggests the fish would arrive wrapped in the octopus tentacles, the two elements were kept apart. I’ve had lousy halibut of late. Dry and dull. But this was a splendid finger of the fish, with a powerful sear and soft, moist petals of flesh set on a carpet of minted summer peas. Other successes included the salt brick chicken infused with lemon and bathed in brown butter, and a dry aged 20 ounce striploin for two with choice of sides and sauce.
Salt has a climate-controlled, dry-aging room — the only restaurant in the city with one of those, our server tells us — and their cuts are reported to hang for at least 45 days. This was a very fine steak, the meat musky, grilled to rare, sweet in places, and with a pronounced flavour of ripe cheese.
The one dud came at lunch with a so-whatish bolognese, the fresh pasta overcooked, the basil puree served as a streak on the plate, rather than mixed in where it would have done more good.
The wine list offers lots of bubbles by the glass, which is very good of them, and a generous, well chosen list of reds and whites in two pours. There’s a good craft beer list and though I can’t vouch for the ‘craft cocktails’ the young women chatting up the bartender appeared to be happy with them.
Salt’s a fine addition to an ever more interesting Preston Street.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Large Plates, $16 to $32
345 Preston Street, 613-693-0333 saltottawa.ca

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Introducing Fiazza Fresh Fired

By  ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

A few weeks back I had come to the ByWard Market with my son to pay our respects to Domus Café. He had celebrated a thirteenth birthday there, along with another family feast to mark a university graduation. We noted the massive ‘For Lease’ sign, and we shook our heads and we sighed. We cupped our hands around our eyes and peered through the windows into the empty space. Then we smelled pizza — and I spied a face that was familiar to me, delivering the pizza to an outdoor table. So we crossed the street.

The last time I saw Luigi he was handing me a rabbit. A very nice stew, as I recall. I still have the 2003 review of the dish. That was at (the late) Zibibbo Restaurant on Somerset Street, owned by Luigi Meliambro.

I liked the short-lived Zibibbo; I liked its second floor lounge (TheCamarilloBrilloUpstairs) but the place closed ten years ago, and Luigi moved on. To Kanata, I believe. And then across the river. Friends in Chelsea and Wakefield were Friday night regulars at his pizza joint, Cheezy Luigi’s, though I’d never had the pleasure.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Meliambro has moved back to Ottawa now, and has a new venture. Pizza, fired in one of those crazy-hot ovens in something like 140 seconds. The pies are created to order, assembly line style (a la Subway) while you wait. Fiazza Fresh Fired is found on Murray Street in the spot where Pecco’s bike shop used to be.

It works like this: you queue up, read a lot, and hem and haw while the kids in their Fiazza Fresh Fired T’s and food service gloves wait patiently for instructions. You may order one of the dozen suggested combinations, or you create your own based on a lengthy list of toppings. There are two bases — regular and gluten free. The sauce, we are told, is made with (the lionized) San Marzano tomatoes. There are seven cheese options, including blue, feta, goat cheese, fior di latte, or the house blend. All cheeses, we are told, are locally sourced. Toppings come in two categories — the traditional (mostly vegetable, at $1.25 each) and specialty (mostly meat, along with organic mushrooms). The “After Fired” options — fresh basil, chilli flakes, oregano, evoo drizzle — are on the house. Once you’ve placed your order, you can watch them load it on and fire it up, or sit down and have it delivered.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Mamma Teresa in Chelsea

By ANNE DESBRISAY

 

The original Mamma Teresa on Somerset Street West may not be the power ristorante it once was, but the walls tell a tale. Framed, signed portraits of the movers and shakers who supped here still guard the vestibule and line the stairs — the ones that lead to the private dining rooms where, legend has it, much of the nation’s business was once conducted.

Pickled peppers to start. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pickled peppers to start. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

When owner Guiliano Boselli retired, he sold Mamma Teresa to two long-serving employees who had worked their way up the ranks. And now Frank Schimizzi and Walter Moreschi have opened a second Mamma Teresa — out of province. On the former home of another long serving restaurant, L’Agaric, they’ve constructed a handsome wood- planked-chalet sort of place, green-roofed and red-trimmed, and they’ve brought Mamma’s portrait and stuck her in the front lawn.

If you are a Mamma Teresa Ottawa regular, you will know well the wide-ranging menu. Nothing trendy on it; black olives and pickled peppers to start; warm buns; a crisp and ample Caesar salad with a gutsy dressing. There was a soup du jour with an admirable broth and al dente vegetables, and we ordered a serving of calamari so generous is fed four, crisp and tender and not the least bit greasy.

Linguine pescatore. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

The presentation of the house carpaccio could use some refinement, and we’d have preferred the parmesan come in shards, rather than the pile of gratings we received. The dish was also missing an anointment of some sort — a drizzle of oil, a bit of aioli or a lemon wedge would have been welcomed — but the beef itself was clearly sliced to order, the meat rich and red and good, strewn with capers and bits of pickled onion.

Veal was disappointingly tough, though the clam linguine that came with it was perfectly judged. Indeed, pasta might be the way to go here. The linguine pescatore featured al dente noodles and lightly cooked seafood united in a rich creamy sauce. And the gnocchi were pillowy pleasures, bathed in a fragrant tomato-basil sauce. Portions invite doggy bags.

I have always had a soft spot for Mamma’s cake, so we ordered that, along with the tiramisu. Again, a no nonsense presentation, but fresh, tasty desserts.

The service we received was top notch.

Pasta/mains, $21 to $39. Open daily, lunch through dinner.  

254 Ch. Old Chelsea, 819-827-3020, mammateresa.com

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DESBRISAY DINES: Café My House

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

The banh mi tacos topped the list of Café My House offerings for Anne DesBrisay. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

 

 

A few months ago, the vegan/vegetarian/raw food restaurant Café My House packed up all its grating/grinding/whirring machines and moved from suburban south Bank  to the happening Hintonburg neighbourhood.

The new place looks nothing like the old. I remember a green and white space, with a bright and cheery homespun look.  The new Café My House is none of that. A long, narrow room, it’s quite dark — black really — inside and out, which you either find edgy and contemporary or somewhat gloomy and oppressive. I must say I was in the latter camp. Worried, too, that if the feeling was a bit bleak in June, how would it seem in December?

For now, the back patio is open and quite sweet, and that’s where we found ourselves at a second visit. At our first, we sat as close to the front windows as we could.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Summer lasagna. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

The menu begins with a page of CMH Mixology — cocktails ‘without processed ingredients’ — and I gave the one called ‘Japan’ a go, intrigued by the description (anise pickled beets, dry sake, pear bitters, ginger beer). It was pretty, I’ll give it that, but the flavour was underpowered. Too much ice, perhaps, melting too quickly in the heat…

But underpowered pretty much sums up my feeling about the food as well. It certainly looks striking. Dishes arrive layered, multi-coloured, fussed over, very pretty. But with a few notable exceptions, the flavours were wan and the texture at times flabby, at other times unrelentingly crunchy.  And some dishes suffered from a general temperature trouble — sauces served only tepid when they should have been hot, for example. 

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DESBRISAY DINES: The Rex is now open for dinner

By ANNE DESBRISAY

Photo by Anne Desbrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Former Urban Pear sous chef, back when Ben Baird was in charge, Cody Starr named his new place in honour of his grandfather and has created in a former pizzeria on Adeline Street, an intimate, old world space with homespun charm.

I took the Rex for a lunch time spin six months ago, when it was pretty brand new. That was back when the noon crowd — Rex is close to the Rochester office towers — was the focus of the kitchen. Evening-opening was in the thinking-through process. And now the dinner gong sounds, but only on Friday and Saturday nights.

On our Friday night, the place was packed.

Rex offers a limited dinner menu, which is always a pleasure for those of us decisioned-out by end of week. There is some choice — between two starters on our night (Cobb salad or crab cakes) and two mains (trout or brisket) for the set price of $35.

Nothing rocked our world, but it was all pretty solid. If I had a quibble, it would have less to do with the quality of the food or the mix of flavours and more about portion and presentation. The Rex dinners seem to be trying on a simple, family style, come-as-ye-be sort of vibe. So modern, composed plates don’t feel quite right.

The Rex Fish Cakes. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Crab Cakes at The Rex. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The Cobb salad featured eggs, still soft at their yellow core, crisp lardons, a bit of Boston lettuce, avocado, tomato, and a sharp dressing, but the poster child for composed salads could have had a few more elements and been a bit more generous. The crab cakes were meaty, well seasoned, served on a few greens with a dill remoulade and pickled red onion.

Other than the odd choice of plate and fork (rather than bowl and spoon) to serve the fish and clam chowder, this was a lovely dish. It was just a bit tricky to eat.

The cooking of the trout was well judged and the chowder starred three meaty Quahogs, steamed to just-open, with traditional mates of corn, carrots, celery, and soft leek and with crispy rings of leek for pleasing chew, in a rich cream sauce perfumed with clam juice, fresh thyme and anointed with leek oil.

The second main was the ultimate Sunday supper comfort food — brined spiced brisket, slow braised to fork tender, with a sturdy caramelized edge, served with roasted carrots and brussels sprouts, and with horseradish spiked mashed potatoes. A whole grain mustard sauce finished things with an extra little zing.

Fish and Clam Chowder at The Rex. Photo By Anne DesBrisay

Fish and Clam Chowder at The Rex. Photo By Anne DesBrisay

For dessert, the Johnny Cakes combined a cornmeal pancake with ice cream and rhubarb-maple compote and the Boston cream pie — dark shiny chocolate sauce, solid cake, well flavoured pastry cream, bittersweet caramel sauce — gets full marks.

Three course table d’hôte, $35 on our night.

Open Monday to Friday for lunch, Friday and Saturday for dinner.

40 Adeline St., 613-695-9739, therexottawa.com

DesBrisay Dines