The Fraser brothers, Ross and Simon, were doing just fine in their diminutive ex-burger-joint-location on Putman Avenue on the fringes of Ottawa’s wealthiest neighbourhood. Neighbours packed the place nightly. (Though the diplomat sedans with their snoozy chauffeurs did look silly parked outside the shack.)
But when the New Edinburgh Fratelli (which, kismetically, means ‘brothers’ in Italian) was offered for sale, the boys jumped. Here was their chance to triple their workspace and move to a denser part of the ‘hood. The new Springfield Avenue Fraser CafÃ© opened in early September. The kitchen meets you as you enter. There have been other, more subtle tweaks to the Fratelli space – the signature wall of wine has gone – but the open kitchen is the most striking change, from both a visual and olfactory sense.
Used to be the work of cooking – the frenetic, flaming, tolling, boiling business of getting food on plates – was meant to be tucked away from the serene temple of the dining room. No longer. The reasons for knocking down the walls are many – some chefs crave the oohs and aahs – but my sense of the Fraser chefs is they were seeking an informal, buzzy and sizzle feeling (they’ve succeeded) and probably just wanted to meet their neighbours face to face.
One benefit of an open kitchen from the public’s perspective is that when your meal is running an hour behind schedule, you can at least take comfort from the certain knowledge that those chefs in that kitchen right there are working bloody hard to correct that, and not just out behind the dumpster having a smoke, while you nibble the linen.
That was a first dinner at Fraser: an hour-long wait for our starters, another for our mains. But it’s not the lousy pacing I want to emphasize – Fraser CafÃ© was only six weeks into its new digs and we’ll cut them some slack. Let me tell you instead how it was addressed. Bread was replenished, two glasses of wine were delivered on the house, and when the bill arrived, our appetizers had been comped. They clearly wanted our business back.
They just as clearly want to accommodate. The Frasers have continued their tradition of “surprise” dishes – which I suspect tax this kitchen (and may be the cause of the occasional one-hour wait) – one appetizer, one main dish, every evening a chef’s choice (promising that they will be different from each other if both at the table order blindly, and will be tailored around your allergies and, as they put it, “food particulars.”) Think of that challenge when a table of four all want surprises, each one different, one a vegetarian, the other with a nut allergy. Surprise!
From a sensibly short menu – always a soup, Whalesbone’s oysters, a plate of cheese and charcuterie, there are five starters and five mains, including the “surprise” dishes. When they come, they are deeply pleasurable, though no dish will rock your world. Fraser food is robust, honest and driven by the seasons, designed more for satisfaction than sensation.
They’ve nailed soup and bread – a good thing to get right this time of year. A silky purÃ©e of tomato and eggplant with a welcome belt of chili, one visit. A muscular mushroom soup another, scented gently with tarragon.
Bread is made in house and very good.
The best of the starters has been the beet salad: perfectly cooked golden and ruby beets, teamed with paper-thin slices of radish, toasted pecans, a pile of wild rice, another of flavourful greens, a blob of full fat and herby cottage cheese. A topper of excellent bacon adds smokiness and crunch to the cast of characters.
During one visit, duck was slightly chewier than ideal, on a rough mash of white bean, with roasted corn, bacon, perfect green beans, pickled beets and baby bok choy. Quail was my surprise starter – juicy and crisp skinned, gently seasoned, on a bed of soba noodles threaded with edamame. Scallops were ordered for the promised polenta, but were delivered with the same mash of bean and corn. A grilled Cornish hen was succulent, infused with lemon.
They make a first-class cheeseburger at lunch, served with salad and fries, and some wicked comfort desserts – lemon pound cake with blueberry preserves, chocolate brownies with ice cream, fresh cinnamon doughnuts.
This is a really good place to eat. And don’t the locals know it. Booking is essential.