Simon Fraser (not the 19th Century explorer but the chef and new restaurateur, late of Domus, CafÃ© Henry Burger, Black Tomato, among others) and his brother Ross (previously, Domus, Beckta, New York City’s CafÃ© Boulud, Michael Stadlanter\’s Eigensinn Farms, among others) have joined forces, converting a little burger joint into a cosy neighbourhood restaurant of twenty-seven seats called, simply, Fraser CafÃ©.
As the mother of brothers, I find two things interesting about this coalition. The first is that the Fraser boys work side by side in a very teensy space with sharp knives, heavy pots and so on and they both clearly appear to be perfectly sound of body. (Our table was close enough to the kitchen I could count each bead of sweat.) The other is that they actually seem to like each other. Or at least they put on a very good show for the paying public.
If the fraternal urge to bash each other ever surfaces, I should think the open kitchen provides a strong deterrent. Clever boys.
143 Putman was the original location of The Works, an Ottawa hamburger restaurant, now a chain of five. It was then, is still, and will in all probability forever be, a small, cramped, and endearingly cluttered space. The Frasers have opened things up as much as they can, rimming the square with a bench of purple (matching the potted purple shiso on the pale wood tables) tossing in some lime-green sploshes and keeping the rest of the space clean and white. Kitchen utensils – whisks, sieves, ladles – hang above the galley window. It’s a fun, boisterously busy place. Between the chatty trio perched at the polished cement bar, the stud on the Food Network telling us how to grill eggplant, the sounds of the chefs toiling away in the fully exposed kitchen, and the music – which at times seems more suited to the young bros than their Boomer patrons – it’s a happening little place.
So very happening you can’t get a table. I tried without luck to book four times with those Frasers. Once, in desperation, and because my summer break was approaching, I just showed up, to find the place closed for a private function. (I had, by the way, a stunningly delicious meal across the street and down the way at the near-empty Ambienteâ€¦ but I digress.)
But luck was with me in late June, and I squeezed into the then six week old Fraser CafÃ© for a very fine meal of oysters and quail, scallops and bass. The Frasers have carefully constructed their menu to meet the limitations of a tiny open kitchen and to capture the progress of summer in its weekly revisions. It is mostly food unspun, devoid of frou frou; not meant to wow so much as to well and truly please.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t some wow moments. In between the more ordinary starters – the day’s soup, a tomato salad with dabs of feta and grilled bread, local greens with a cucumber vinaigrette – is a little quail, glossy skinned and moist fleshed, the flavour delicate, delicious, served with a few tempura vegetables and very good roasted fingerling potatoes. (This ate more like a small main dish than a starter. I should think lacquered quail and asparagus soup would make a happy, affordable meal here.)
Rare strips of beef have a dark, sweet crust, animated with a Korean barbecue sauce, served over thin soba noodles, with roasted peppers, asparagus, red onion. Sea scallops are so very good, expertly prepared, with a Nicoise-like side of olives, tomato, potato, and avocado, and with a gentle lemon dressing. There is a \’kitchen\’s choice\’ main dish which you order blind. It turned out to be the standout. A wild caught striped bass on a bed of snow crab, the delicate fish and the rich crab boosted with a smoky sauce of charred tomato and paprika, the elements all mingling beautifully.
For dessert, a fresh strawberry crisp with in house ice cream and a deeply delicious chocolate pie.
There is decent choice of wines by the bottle, glass and half litre and there is a selection of local beer.
If the Fraser CafÃ© is in your neighbourhood, you should go and go often.