The latest arrival on the constantly shifting Holland Avenue restaurant strip, Canvas is newly installed in the place where Absinthe used to be. (Absinthe has moved south to larger digs on Wellington.)
A beige and black awning announces the restaurant. Inside, the petite space is slightly more posh than it was during Absinthe’s tenure. All black and white, Canvas offers a dozen tables, a bistro bar, long mirrors and a wall of windows, framed with wispy drapes, black metal candelabras, some elegant lights. Pumpkin coloured napkins brighten the bare black tables. And there is one rogue chair, painted brilliant yellow, in a roomful of black ones.
This is the third Ottawa restaurant for Craig Pedersen of the Preston Street ‘Il’ twins – Il Primo, Il Piccolino – and it marks a split from a red-sauce menu. No stracciatella, no pizza, no veal Parmigiano. Rather, Canvas presents a short menu of eclectic dishes – coconut shrimp, beef tartar, seared Ahi tuna, lamb, halibut, veal with apple Wellington.
The libero chair, the yellow one, is a fun quirk at Canvas. You might say the space – a reclaimed auto shop – is another. The name might be considered a third. Canvas is not an art gallery. It’s a “Resto-Bar-Etc.,” (I still don’t know exactly what that means?) named in honour of the artistic temperament of its neighbourhood. It’s surrounded by art galleries – Cube Gallery, Gallery 3, the Parkdale Gallery, Pukka Gallery – as well as the new home of the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
Canvas’ first act is impressive. Art-is-in bread comes with butter and also with a pot of whipped goat cheese infused with ground toasted pine nuts, sweet with a drizzle of maple syrup. The amuse bouche is a golden cube of grilled polenta, rosemary-scented, creamy inside, butter-crusted out, topped with a thumbnail-sized scoop of herbed goat cheese and a wee garnish of lightly dressed broccoli sprouts. To follow, celery root soup is perfectly seasoned, its surface speckled with chives and with beads of truffle oil – kept in check. Truffle oil can be lustrous but it needs to be kept wisely in its place as a gentle escort, not a big fat bully.
Bulghur, onions, and coarse sea salt are the simple pleasures in a mound of raw beef. The tartar is topped with a deep fried wonton, inside of which is a raw egg. Clever, but the egg yolk within turns out to be hard boiled – we want it to ooze all over the raw meat. I like very much the gentle, clean flavours in a starter dish of zucchini strips, assembled with a mascarpone and ricotta mix, and set in a light tomato bouillon.
Canvas earns praise for the freshness and integrity of its ingredients, though the execution of some of the main dishes is weak. Lamb is ordered medium rare and arrives medium-well, the meat unseasoned, the flavour in need of a boost. The meat comes with under-roasted parsnips and carrots. Chicken has a crisp skin, but the flesh is dry and slightly rubbery, and the maple syrup-boosted sauce is on the just-too-sweet side. Halibut, however, hits the spot, moist and meaty, in a gentle citrus sauce, with a side of roasted brussel sprouts.
The elements of a good tiramisu are here – boozy cake, rich mascarpone custard, quality chocolate, plus the added pleasure of a drizzle of thick caramel. Coffee is taken seriously.
I’ve enjoyed much about the new Canvas. Its missteps speak more of a kitchen finding its stride than of a restaurant off course. There is a lot to like, though I find the price of a Canvas meal a bit high – better suited to the patrons than to the artists. Charging a tad less would feel more neighbourly and would fit more comfortably with what Canvas ought to charge for a restaurant still finding its stride.