The best places to eat in Ottawa
Why Ottawa is a low-key Canadian food capital
Words— Clay Sandhu
Is Ottawa's restaurant scene worth paying attention to? The often maligned if not completely ignored city has a reputation for being pretty, safe, clean if not a bit boring. On the culinary side, the shawarma is good, but I bet most people couldn't name a single restaurant in town. That, however, may all be about to change. Recently, when I heard rumours from other former Ottawans and cooks like myself, that there was a steadily developing restaurant scene, I was intrigued. I'm the type to root for the underdog, especially when my former home town's pride is at stake, so I booked a train to Ottawa for the day to eat and drink and see for myself if it's worth making the trek.
Looking for a guide to the new Ottawa restaurant scene I contacted Alex McMahon, the sommelier of the wildly popular new restaurant Riviera, which was featured in enRoute Magazine's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2017. Alex has lived and worked in Ottawa's restaurant scene for over a decade and has witnessed Ottawa turn from a one-restaurant town to one with a burgeoning hospitality industry. We talk over a glass of Cortese from Bellotti, and a wedge salad bathed in Bagna Cauda and topped with Matane Shrimp. “[Ottawa] was a pretty sleepy town for a long time but there have always been cool pockets. When I grew up here there was a really cool punk and hardcore scene, there was an amazing skateboarding scene here, some amazing musicians have come out of here, but a lot of the best people have left, and for the longest time you sort of had to, there wasn't a lot going on, in dining especially.” explains McMahon looking back on his experience, “I think that in the last five years there has been a lot of people who got trained really well, learned a lot about food and a lot about how to run a really good restaurant then applied that to the spot that they thought needed to be here. It's the same thing that happened in every other city it's just happening a little later here.”
The space itself is a sight to behold, making its home in a tastefully restored former bank. An open kitchen and extensive bar are opposite a sleek — just on the right side of austere — dining room with lavishly upholstered black leather banquettes, all divided by a brass bar that runs the length of the room and set below the grandeur of 25-foot ceilings. The menu is retro in a sort of anti-trend way that somehow still comes across cool featuring dishes influenced by 80's bistro culture but done in a refreshing, polished way. Riviera is the poster child for Ottawa's new dining scene, and despite its nearly overstated elegance, it maintains an inviting feel. More notably is its location on Sparks Street: a pedestrian thoroughfare a short walk from Parliament Hill, that over the decades has become a relatively defunct chain-pub filled, march from centre-town to the Byward market.
Riviera's allure, however, draws a more diverse crowd, bringing new life to the area and giving a glimpse into the potential that exists in the city. As Alex describes: “At dinner, we get a good combination of people who are really into food and wine, and we have an extensive cocktail program—cocktails are really big in the city right now, and we have a lot of business [crowd] as well.” Riviera gives this sleek and upscale touch to the street, the building is an imposing art-deco structure, but it nestles in seamlessly between the other commercial buildings. Once inside you immediately understand the significance of this restaurant, a place decidedly un-Ottawan, it's emblematic of a great change.
Walking down Bank Street from Sparks Street you get a good sense of the vibe in town—there's a buzz in the air. It's a Monday at 1:30 pm and patios are packed; people on lunch breaks, tourists checking out the sites, you get the sense that if you could somehow change the habits of the clientele here from eating burgers and fish 'n' chips in generic Irish pubs you could really have something going. Small glimpses of change reveal themselves as I walk through what is arguably the cool part of downtown: a Korean barbecue street cart selling various grilled meats and kimchi smells strong and deliciously savoury as I pass. After lunch with Alex at Riviera we part ways and he sends me over to Fauna, a small plates restaurant in the nearby centre-town where he has had a hand in shaping the wine list.
Eric Romolock, former head bartender and now wine director for Fauna, co-chairs an annual natural wine symposium along with Alex McMahon called Wines by Nature. The symposium is the first of its kind and plays an important role in demystifying natural wine.
I'm told the food is good although I don't eat, I've come here for the wine. What's clear about Fauna is that it is attempting to carry the torch when it comes to natural wine in Ottawa. “[The reception to natural wine] is mixed, especially [when it comes to] higher end [bottles]. People find as they spend more they expect more intensity, more oak, they think that for 80 dollars you're probably getting a Napa Cab, or a big-fat Shiraz or Bordeaux” explains Mike Rochon a server at Fauna who also represents the natural wine importation company All the Right Grapes in Ottawa. “We try to always have an Orange [wine] on by the glass, that way people don't have to commit to spending 80 dollars on a bottle, you can come in and just have a glass.” This can tough in a city where people can be slow to catch on to new trends, especially when many natural, due to their lack of artificial preservatives, often don't have the same longevity as conventional wines after they've been opened. All the same, the restaurant prides itself on its wine list, and with a list full of so many great producers, by all acounts, it should.
North & Navy
For dinner, I make reservations at North & Navy, another recommendation from Alex. This restaurant is of particular interest historically because it occupies the two-story townhouse which was formerly Beckta Fine Dining. In the 90's Beckta was the place to eat, it was fine dining from an Ottawa chef trained internationally and most significantly bringing a New York fine dining experience to Ottawa.
Its current tenant, North & Navy is another beast altogether. The food is casual fine-dining, the type of place that's cosy and intimate while also putting out high-quality, thought-provoking food, without pretension. The food is chef Adam Vettorel's take on Venetian fare, think Northern Italian but by the sea. Vettorel, before opening North & Navy worked under another chef, Steve Wall, at Supply and Demand in Ottawa's trendy Westboro neighbourhood. Supply and Demand is best known for its homemade pasta so it's no surprise that Vettorel has brought this knowledge and discipline with him to North & Navy. The pasta section of the menu shines brightly. Other offerings include fried smelts with orange and basil, polpette (meatballs in tomato sauce) and duck with spelt and roasted carrots. The wine list here is more classic, leaning heavily on big, robust Italian wines, think Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, however, Canadian wines feature prominently as well, with a few natural producers like Arianna Occhipinti and Frank Cornelissen also finding their way on the list. A small but well-curated list of cocktails is also available.
To me, Ottawa's dining scene is looking promising and this is all without mentioning fine-dining establishments like Gezellig, Atelier, and Beckta. Across the river to Gatineau, world-class Master Sommelier Veronique Rivest has opened her stylish wine-bar Soif, where the wine list balances natural wines and conventional wines with the grace and competency of one of the world's great wine minds. Other great considerations in Ottawa's food scene include the Whalesbone, a seafood wholesaler and restaurant offering the city's best selection of high-quality seafood, not to mention the scores of falafel and shawarma spots covering every corner of the city and its suburbs, and lastly the unbeatable quality and abundance of Vietnamese food. All are strong arguments in favour of Ottawa's dining scene.
Ottawa is at the centre of a perfect storm, a strong economy chalk-full of professionals with money to spend, an unsaturated market with clever restaurant minds offering high-quality, unpretentious experiences all while being located in close proximity to all sorts of amazing farms, and producers. Many would-be restauranteurs in cities like Toronto and Montreal are now looking more seriously toward Ottawa as a place to open restaurants for the reasons mentioned above, but also because there is still plenty of opportunities to do something in Ottawa that hasn't been done yet. Ottawa is a sort of blank canvas well on its way to becoming the next big food destination in the country, pay attention now and you can count yourself amongst the clever few who in a few years can say, “I called it years ago” when the city's food scene blows up.