When I took over this dining out column in 1993 there was precious little worth recommending in the Market. Even eight short years ago, I wouldn’t be saying what I’m about to say. But here goes: if you want some really great eating, you should think about heading to the Byward Market.
A decade ago, the Market was strictly for a mingle-‘n-martini, maybe grab a quick lunch on a sunny patio in an old courtyard, or just soak in the crowds and general bonhomie. If you wanted a seriously good meal, you’d steer clear, with one or two exceptions. Years before anyone else was doing it, before there even was a bandwagon, John Taylor of Domus CafÃ© was taking organic vegetables and foraged mushrooms out of the tofu stir-fry and into the world of haute cuisine. Clair de Lune was worthy too, may it rest in peace.
But the kitchens have been changing, particularly on Murray Street. Domus still delights, and there’s now Murray Street (a new restaurant named for the street and reviewed in this spot on August 31) right next to game-heavy Sweetgrass Café.
Kitty corner to these is the former home of the Black Cat Café. In place today of the black feline logo there is now an annoyed black bull. And in the kitchen, in a homecoming of sorts, is chef-owner René Rodriguez, doing his bit to keep this block of Murray ever tasty.
I first tasted Rodriguez’ food a decade ago, when he was cooking at the Ironwood Café and, later, at Luna (both gone now). I followed him to the then brand new ARC Lounge. Then to Social on York Street, then, for one brief shining moment, to the Pelican Grill, south on Bank. He first landed in the Byward Market in 2005 at Richard Urquhart’s long running Black Cat Café (moved to Preston Street) where he stayed put for about four years. Then he moved around the corner with much whoop-de-do, to Luxe Bistro. Now he’s running his own new show in the old Black Cat space. Rodriguez has opened a Basque style restaurant called Navarra (named after this northern region of Spain) He has staffed it with black shirted women who know their stuff inside out and who go the distance to make you feel marvellous, and he’s complimented his lovely food with a commendable wine list.
The colours are more vibrant – more reds, more blacks – and the art more bullish, but the private patio in the back remains a little oasis, and the restaurant remains divided into two skinny rectangles, divided by the bar and open kitchen, all of it intimate and moody, yet casual.
This is not your usual Ottawa-style Spanish restaurant. No paella. Rodriguez has added flair, excitement and invention to the freshest, finest ingredients and the result is a modern Basque cuisine ripe with taste and texture.
You can start with steak tartare. The beef is clearly hand chopped, beautifully seasoned, formed into a hockey puck and covered with a green blanket of snipped chives and ezpeleta powder. Beside it, a dob of spicy aioli, Kevin Mathieson’s dynamite bread grilled and oiled and fantastic, and, on a trapeze wire suspended above it, a crisp slice of Serrano ham, honey brushed and coated with crushed macadamia nuts and pulverized popcorn. Fantastic.
“Flavours of Spain” brings two enormous grilled shrimp, a line of sliced chorizo sausage on a spicy aioli, a soft, salt cod rillette, Bayonne ham, cumined and oranged olives and roasted piquillo peppers. A mushroom bisque served in a highball with a milky foam is divine.
We are told 28 spices go into the savoury shortbread that’s crumbled beside an impeccably roasted loin of lamb scented with cumin and Maldon salt drenched in preserved lemon, scattered with dried olives and market vegetables. (I could only make out 26 of them.) It was a very fine plate.
A silky mash of potatoes, Robuchon-style (which means buckets of butter), accompanies a superb beef tenderloin. On the side, a square of torched gorgonzola cheese, some roasted baby vegetables – yellow carrots, beets, fennel – and meaty King Eryngii mushrooms.
A lobster ‘pil pil’ (pronounced ‘peel-peel’) is updated at Navarra – a rich dish of lobster meat, with chorizo sausage and mushrooms in a luscious lobster sauce scented with vanilla and truffle oil and marjoram, and crowned with a milk foam. The striped bass is less magical. A metallic flavour haunts the fish and the fingerling potatoes are dry.
You can end with a tasting of Spanish cheese, or with a taste of Amadei chocolate in various incarnations. I’d opt for these over the apple crisp, which is all granola with only a blob of apple butter, or the crÃ¨me brulee, which is delightful, save for the menacing shards of melted parmesan that contaminate the sugar crust. It’s interesting, granted, but it didn’t work for me.
One more thing – until they’ve worked out the kinks with the front door, which sticks and blasts in autumn air (God help us all in February) request a table on the far side. But my sense is they’ll sort this out soon. They know what’s coming.
There are exciting ideas and impressive finesse at this Murray Street startup. Long life to the bull!