October, 2012 note to readers: Evan Pritchard is no longer chef at Back Lane. Michael Hay from The Courtyard Restaurant has taken over.
When I was new to Ottawa, getting acquainted with the restaurant scene, George Monsour was a big name. He was Monsieur Ritz. He owned a bunch of Ritz restaurants scattered around the core of the city. They were solid on bread and good on sweets and decent on most stuff in between – some locations more decent than others. Monsour left that business a bunch of years ago. He did other things, lived other places, and now he’s back in Ottawa, and in the noble business of feeding folk once again.
Back Lane Café is Monsour’s new restaurant, newly open in the Hintonburg space where the Ethiopian restaurant Habesha used to be. We were perched at the bar our first visit, at the very back of Back Lane, sheltered somewhat from the noise that bounces around this happy place.
I am told that Monsieur Monsour is aware that noise is an issue in his restaurant. (I overheard as much as he assured a neighbouring couple complaining about the din, telling them his original design team – Rusty Nail from Merrickville – is coming back to help him deal with it.) I won’t go on about the decibel level. What can be done about it, I have no idea. It’s a tall, open space filled in with wood after all – dark, reclaimed timber and beams, complete with whimsical wooden archway into the bar and a panel of cast off windows at the far end. But what makes it loud, also makes it look wonderful. The hand-crafted tables are round and bare, the chairs deep press back, the pale walls rough with a Tom Sawyer whitewash. They’ve used vintage porcelain knobs from early electrical wiring to hang the art. There are touches of brass, wrought iron, and a bit of red brick. I like the line of lamps on the wide concrete bar, a new surface that somehow manages to look worn down by a million thirsty elbows.
In fact the whole place has a comfortably tucked in feel, a reclaimed-second-hand-store European glamour about it.
Monsour is in the house, welcoming the crowds, contributing to the buzz and bustle with hospitality that is enthusiastic and genuine. Helping him are solid servers who know their stuff.
Evan Pritchard, late of Stella in the Byward Market, leads the kitchen. His one page menu – five apps, a few salads, six main dishes, plus pizzas (which emerge from his two wood-burning ovens) – is confidently concise. I’ve eaten a good chunk of it and find the food pretty impressive in a straightforward, flavourful, and not too fussy sort of way. Food prices prompt return visits. So does the list of wines and craft beer. All of which is exactly what you want in a neighbourhood restaurant.
The food is broadly Mediterranean with dishes like grilled shrimp and radicchio with chickpeas, lamb shank tajine with almonds and figs, a garlicky fisherman’s stew, orecchiette pasta with Bolognese, plus a short list of those wood-fired pizzas.
There’s a surprisingly robust flavour to the veggie paté – almond, garlic, mushroom, served with a pretty display of mustards and aoili, house pickles and good crostini. Ordering tomato salad is a no-brainer in September, but a tomato tart is a rare and welcome sight on a fall menu. This one sports a lovely pastry, concentrated tomato flavour, perked with chive oil, and the textural crackle of a parmesan crisp that boosts the salt and savour of the ripe fruit. Soups – white bean and bacon one visit, borscht another – have been delicious. Mint and citrus zest feature in a generous salad topped with a sea of tender squid.
Perhaps most impressive among the main dishes has been the Fisherman’s Stew, brimming with bouncy market fish, vegetables, fingerlings, while the classic side of saffron rouille on garlic toastie is mellowed with sweet potato. More bread is delivered – great campfire bread – to finish the sop-up-worthy broth.
The hearth oven imparts a welcome flavour and crisp, fire-kissed colour to ruby slabs of rare duck, served over a mound of fruited bulgur with a side of braised endive. Lamb shank is an ample plate, the soft meat sweetened with figs and almonds. The pizzas have improved, I would say. My first one had a paucity of toppings, the assembly on the dry side. My second stab at them a few weeks later was better – particularly good the musa, which features lamb and pine nuts on a wildly rich base of cauliflower cream and fresh mozzarella.
Donuts with salted vanilla ice cream makes a fun finish. The wine and beer lists are thoughtfully selected and kindly priced.
Monsour will have his hands full quieting the place down. Particularly with all the people sensibly clambering to get in.