Articles Tagged ‘best restaurants 2011’

Best Restaurants of 2011: #10 Sidedoor

“Peking-style” Mariposa Farms chicken in a chili and scallion sauce. Photo by Lalonde.

Every day in Sidedoor’s subterranean kitchen (technically the back door to its sister restaurants E18hteen and Social), big bunches of fresh herbs and whole spices are pulverized for 1½ hours with a mortar and pestle to create supremely aromatic pastes for deeply layered curries. Lush and fragrant with lemon grass, lime leaf, and basil, they are mixed with coconut milk and served over large chunks of meltingly tender braised beef short ribs, lamb shoulder, or pillows of silky tofu captured in a crisp golden crust.

For all I know, this pales in comparison with the labour required to create the supremely succulent Peking-style chicken. It’s a marvel! These modern takes on authentic Asian dishes impressed me more than the tasty soft-shelled tacos touted by the staff (and for which Sidedoor has become best known in its eight-month tenure).

Judging by the uneven quality of the food from one visit to the next, I sense there may be unrest in this kitchen. Sadly, the service has gone from bad to worse. And while growing pains can be expected, a menu this exciting and unique in a space this beautiful and convivial should be the talk of the town by now. At the helm is chef Matthew Carmichael and his former sous-chef from E18hteen, Jonathan Korecki, the talent now charged with running this kitchen. Sidedoor has all the ingredients for greatness. Here’s hoping it is ready to shine.

20 York St., 613-562-9331,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #9 Murray Street Kitchen Wine Charcuterie

The Murray Street Reuben includes Don O’Brien beef brisket on Rideau Bakery rye with in-house sauerkraut, in-house pastrami, le Clos St-Ambroise cheese, pickled onions, and spicy mustard-mayo. Photo by Lalonde.

It’s not just the giant pig’s head theme that makes me feel that Murray Street is an unnaturally macho environment. It has always struck me as a place where boys feel most welcome. That and the $30-plus main courses (lunches make more sense at $16) are what drive me nuts about this place. Let’s just get that out of the way.

No one else has embraced the locavore and snout-to-tail cooking crazes as seriously as chef Steve Mitton. If you’re thinking you want to gather up a bunch of mates to feast on parts of a pig once reserved for the compost, Mitton is your man. His dedication to connecting Ottawa eaters with the food that is grown and raised all around us is admirable. This year he aimed to expand the reach for his farm-to-table proselytizing with Murray’s Market, a nearby takeout shop and lunch counter where customers had access to many of the raw ingredients used in the restaurant. Unfortunately, though the restaurant remains as popular as ever, the Market lasted but a few months, closing up shop in October.

The restaurant’s Canadian cheeses and unusual charcuterie offerings make for some of the best noshing in town. I watched a pair of well-heeled lunching ladies clink their wineglasses as they surveyed their selection of artfully displayed smoked duck breast, seven-year-old cheddar, and elk terrine delivered on a large wooden cutting board. Clever boys’ clubs know how to charm the ladies.

110 Murray St., 613-562-7244,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #8 The Whalesbone Oyster House

Whalesbone’s popular “Chicken” and waffles: Cornflake-crusted albacore tuna with cornbread waffles, fresh whip, Jerry’s syrup, and blueberries. Photo by Lalonde.

When I think of The Whalesbone, I think organic. But not in the sense of chemical-free certification that, say, government agencies or veggie buffet restaurants wish us to define it. It’s easy to forget that organic also refers to that gritty, primal, sometimes messy stuff that goes on below the surface of life. Somehow, dining at The Whalesbone connects me to that place: a delicious, raw, and vulnerable place.

I’m not talking just about the act of slurping fresh oysters out of their shells, though it’s an apt analogy for the letting-go attitude that permeates this place. Experimentation and a more-is-more ethos has always been the domain of the young artiste, and there is no doubt that the creative burn of youth is the source of the energy in this kitchen.

Chef Charlotte Langley, who led the crew until leaving for Café Belong in late November, is one of the most audacious young chefs in the city today. Her menu is Maritime chic, featuring imaginative items such as Arctic char bouillabaisse and mackerel lasagna. Who else would think to reinterpret the soul food classic chicken and waffles as chicken-fried tuna with fluffy herb-flecked cornbread waffles infused with boozy syrup and slathered with whipped butter? It will be intriguing to see how the menu develops in the wake of her departure.

Yes, we all know Whalesbone as the source for sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood options, but it is also one of the few places that pulses with genuine vitality. Love to see that its gregarious servers equally embody the hedonistic vibe.

430 Bank St., 613-231-8569,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #7 Restaurant Ei8hteen

Restaurant E18hteen’s caramelized black cod with coconut-carrot purée. Photo by Lalonde.

Matthew Carmichael has a way with his ingredients that makes it seem as if he has employed magic to will them into submission. I hope he never reveals his secret; that is so much of the pleasure of eating his food.

In his hands, fish behaves like tempered chocolate, melting on the tongue and blooming with hidden flavours. Braised crispy octopus with dark, drippy honey is a mesmerizing appetizer. Fork-tender chunks have a hit of spice and are a satisfying chew.

A fixture in the trendy ByWard Market, E18hteen remains unapologetically fashionable and expensive. Plates are not particularly balanced, but that’s not the goal. The seasonal vegetables appear like a farmers’ market stall in miniature: a few corn kernels, a few fresh green peas, a leaf or two of sautéed chard, a few tender turnips, and a pair of snap peas. Everything is lovely, of course, each one tasting of itself, but the plate seems to say, You are not here to eat your vegetables. Instead, it’s merely intermission before submitting to the big moment of satisfaction.

This is a meal that teases and tantalizes; it is sensual food — voluptuous, creamy, silky, and moist. It is served in a timeless, cultureless, placeless space — looking around, you could be anywhere. In that sense, eating at E18hteen is almost an out-of-body experience: the food and decor conspire to usher your senses inward rather than out.

11 York St., 613-244-1188,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #6 Fraser Café

Sweet jerk-spiced pork chop with grilled peaches and marinated onions from Fraser Café. Photo by Lalonde.

The Fraser brothers came along at precisely the right moment for Ottawa. We were craving something different, something that felt more personal and less fussy and made us excited about going out for dinner — or lunch or brunch. And we still do.

We want to feel part of something bigger, more cosmopolitan. We want flavours that are familiar, but not too familiar. We want to be surprised, but not too surprised. We want to be tested: what is that spice exactly? Did you say duck meatballs? And we want a restaurant with thoughtful, fresh, delicious food that doesn’t require an enormous splurge. Fraser Café is all that.

It takes us on a ride without taking us over the edge. And judging by all those satisfied regulars, it has truly hit the sweet spot. I watched a young couple in their late 20s introducing the young man’s parents to the concept of ordering the “chef’s choice” for a main course. The father opted for a sure thing — a messy platter piled high with fried chicken and barbecued ribs — while the mother considered letting the kitchen surprise her. Just one question for her server first: what would she do if it arrived and was something she disliked? Apparently that never happens. As she contemplated the menu further, she watched as two huge grins swept across the faces of a couple at a neighbouring table as their surprise meals arrived.

How intoxicating it is in this impersonal world to have a talented chef cook something Just. For. You. And so another one drank the Kool-Aid.

7 Springfield Rd., 613-749-1444,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #5 Canvas Resto-Bar-Etc.

From Canvas, wild boar with pineapple, pepper, and ginger salsa; date glaze; and cranberry-citrus chutney. Served with a goat cheese potato cake and honey-cilantro buttered corncob. Photo by Lalonde.

How important is it that a restaurant has an auteur — a brand-name chef with a personal creative vision? That question pops to mind every time I enter this handsome west-end neighbourhood bistro with its low-key vibe and charming neighbourhood views.

Who is the chef at Canvas anyway? I have spotted owner Charles Beauregard sporting an apron, serving tables, and delivering a tray of double-smoked bacon. I’ve also seen him sitting at the bar enjoying a meal. In spite of his presence, Canvas feels rather anonymous.

I think that’s part of what keeps it flying under the radar, much as Absinthe and Allium did five years ago. As menus go, it’s not terribly inventive. I guess you could say it lacks edge. But I have come to appreciate the fact that Canvas knows its limits and doesn’t take itself too seriously. What’s refreshing is that Canvas isn’t afraid to cater to both your less adventurous father-in-law and your foie gras-obsessed foodie friend.

Pasta with grilled chicken may be shorthand for unambitious eating, but this is some of the best homemade pasta around. And the seared tuna that was served as part of a composed niçoise salad may not be the most original dish, but it turned out to be one of the most simply delicious things I ate last summer. I am still reeling at the bargain-basement price tag of $20 for a main course. I can’t figure out if Canvas is an underdog or an underachiever, but my hunch is it’s just a throwback: honest bistro-style cooking that pretends to be nothing but what it is.

65 Holland Ave., 613-729-1991,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #4 Oz Kafe

Oz Kafe's roasted eggplant stuffed with duck ragout, yogourt, chilies, herbs, and fish sauce. Photo by Lalonde.

A few days after I took my new-to-Ottawa friend to Oz Kafe, she emailed me with this message: “I can’t stop thinking about that corn. What was in the sauce?”

The answer is butter and chili. It’s pretty much what you’d find poured over a pile of Buffalo chicken wings. Not brain surgery, right? But on top of nutty-sweet, peak-of-summer cobs of corn finished on the grill, this dish became unforgettable. Simple, fresh, and unpretentious but also a little bit bad-ass and freakin’ delicious: it’s such an Oz dish.

These same chefs, Jamie Stunt and Simon Bell, offer a tight but eclectic comfort-food menu that includes a crowd-pleasing steak and caesar salad with smoked mashed potatoes and homemade barbecue sauce. They are also the only ones brave enough to serve local farm-raised Tibetan yak. The simple dish, Yak Tataki, pairs sweet, tender slices of barely seared meat with crunchy bacon-fat-fried breadcrumbs, yuzu, parsley, and horseradish mayo.

But the real magic of Oz is that its tiny closet of a kitchen has the best karma in town. It’s where cooks go to get unhooked, preparing prix fixe dinners for their own kind at monthly industry nights. In August, chefs, servers, and dishwashers piled in for a “spare parts” themed meal. The first course was called quadruple bypass — salmon, chicken, beef, and lamb hearts. Oz Kafe makes a party out of cooking and eating. And every other restaurant in town benefits from its existence.

361 Elgin St., 613-234-0907,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #3 Town

Town’s salted caramel ice cream piled high with whipped cream, peanuts, and caramel corn. Photo by Lalonde.

If Town were a freshman, he would be that adorable, smart, funny kid who has endeared himself to absolutely everyone — the artsy types, the jocks, the nerds, the cool kids. Even the parents are smitten. They say his taste in music makes them feel young again.

This is eager-to-please food that reaches out and hugs you. You’ll find things here you never even knew you were craving. Like a stunning classic Italian summer salad of prosciutto and fresh melon with arugula and little goat cheese fritters, the plate drizzled with honey. I bet all the other chefs in town are kicking themselves that they didn’t think of that one.

The featured flatiron steak was pink perfection, cooked under vacuum (he’s a bit of a science geek too) and topped with watermelon salsa. So good, it’s hard to believe the sides stole the show — we’re talking silky-smooth puréed mascarpone potatoes and quickly sautéed kale, its lacy leaves tasting of smoked bacon and butter (okay, it’s not that hard to believe).

So let’s see now: soulful creative cooking, fresh ingredients, great music, great vibe, excellent service, not a trace of attitude, and sane prices. At least dessert was a dud, right? No, it was incredible: a magnificent mess of salted caramel ice cream piled high with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a tower of peanut and caramel corn. Town travels the line between frivolous fun and serious food and welcomes everyone to join the ride.

296 Elgin St., 613-695-8696,

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 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,

Best Restaurants of 2011: #1 Black Cat Bistro

Black Cat’s smoked and charred octopus with olives, parmesan, smoked-paprika mayo, tomatoes, and spicy yuzu vinaigrette. Photo by Lalonde.

Steve Vardy may no longer preside here, but his ideas live on in many of our trendiest restaurant kitchens. His unique flare for pairing pretty proteins with elegant flashes of deep, natural flavour seems to have had a lasting impact on the brigade of young chefs who are cooking their hearts out around town these days.

As mentors go, it makes sense. He had a knack for putting restaurants on the culinary map, ruling the range at Beckta and The Whalesbone before becoming the Cat’s inaugural chef on Preston Street in 2008 (Black Cat Café had existed for the previous decade in the market).

When Vardy left, a young and inexperienced cook, Patricia Larkin, was promoted to executive chef. The boss, Richard Urquhart, turned over the reins, leaving Larkin free to develop her own menu. Unlike many of her peers, she is no copycat.

Larkin has a mind and style of her own. My most recent dinner featured a filet of wild salmon that demonstrated such quiet confidence and harmony that it stopped me in my tracks. What struck me most was that it was a meal, not a concept. The flavours and textures were already expertly layered, without my having to do the work of dabbing and assembling all sorts of dips, foams, and frills. It was just earthy mushrooms and firm, buttery fingerling potatoes set against the crispy skin and meaty flesh of the fish. Capers added a slight zing to a mischievous brown butter sauce that gently moistened, seasoned, and wrapped itself around every delicious bite. Might this be a case of the student outshining the teacher?

428 Preston St., 613-569-9998,