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Savana Cafe: CLOSED

UPDATE: SAVANA CAFE CLOSED AFTER 24 YEARS OF SERVICE.

Chef Michael Radford is now at Izakaya on Elgin Street.

Savana Café is that rare thing. Found on the southern edge of the downtown core, it’s an intimate restaurant housed in an old home, a fixture on the dining out landscape in Ottawa for 22 years, and still very much owner-driven for all those years. You still find Cathy Dewar at the door most nights, greeting and settling guests in one of her three small and cheery rooms.

And for nearly all those years I’ve known and liked this place. Although it’s had more to do with the vibe than the food.

You’d have to be a real grump not to love its merry mood, its sunshiny music and the Caribbean palette of colours that cover its dining rooms, particularly on wintry nights, when a rum drink, a reggae sound and a roti wrap may seem just the thing.

And yet, Savana’s food has never risen far above OK, some dishes more OK than others.

But this year, Dewar got herself a new chef who has kept – as far as I can tell – two, maybe three familiar favourites. Otherwise young Michael Radford has completely revamped the food.

Radford comes to Savana via a slew of restaurant kitchens in Ottawa, but most lately, he was sous chef at Restaurant E18hteen, under the leadership of Matthew Carmichael. He also brings to Savana some life experience in the tropics. During his teenage years, we learn from the website, he lived with his family in Barbados.

The food at Savana Café is now more ambitious; dishes still look south and east for inspiration – chiefly to the Caribbean and to Thailand, though also to Latin America and Japan – but traditional dishes now come out of his kitchen with well-judged twists.

My first Radford meal at Savana started impeccably. His rendition of the Jamaican classic, salt fish and ackee, was remarkably good. Crack through the panko-crusted cod croquettes, perfectly milked of their saltiness, and a molten middle spilled into a yolk-coloured sauce (ackee purée, apparently) while the tomato sofrito (a Cuban-style tomato sauce) and a vibrant lime cilantro mayo brought balance, depth and colour.

Order his beet salad and you get a parade of pleasures – a rough chop of al dente beets on a bed of arugula and other fresh greens, plus pickled cucumber, queso fresco (fresh cheese), pappadum crisps, and a shallot-raisin-coriander jam round with vanilla.

Scallops are beauts. Crunchy outside, almost raw in, sporting a canopy of chives, they rest on an autumn hash of oyster mushrooms, smoked pork belly and lightly curried fingerling spuds, with an apple and sunchoke slaw. Lime leaves boost the sauce and almonds tint the bubbling foam that finishes the plate. At least that should have finished the plate. The mélange of broccoli and cauliflower florets, though perfectly cooked, seemed amiss, too pedestrian.

Truffle oil perfumed the purée of cauliflower that held the luscious short ribs. These were tamarind-glazed, served off the bone, just fatty enough, topped with deep-fried flakes of fresh horseradish and parsley.

At lunch, the mussels were excellent – small, but fresh-tasting, in a winey broth perfumed with Thai basil, livened with chorizo, and filled in with corn. On the side – a pot of two potato fries, most excellent, and a piquant aioli.

Desserts are accomplished. A deconstructed key lime parfait – really more a semi freddo – features all the parfait-ish elements on the plate: a smart brick of key lime mousse, rich and lusciously puckering, on a long plate with sauces – mint, raspberry, milk chocolate, a swath of caramel – plus a pile of ginger-coconut crumbs and a spring of mint.

A chocolate brownie was deeply chocolatey, its texture perfectly chewy, though the rum raisin ice cream we were promised turned out to be vanilla one night, banana another (both delicious, but not what we wanted). The banana cheesecake that’s been on the Savana menu forever has been reconfigured into two cheesecake balls, wrapped in sweet crumbs, and served with a chocolate and a raspberry sauce. For these delights, they charge $6.50, which seems to me a deal and a half. Order two.

A final taste, just to confirm all was swell, didn’t go as well. A chicken roti was weighed down with large chunks of too-dry chicken and a glut of chickpeas. And the mahi mahi was uncomfortably fishy, its chipotle-lime lacquer bitter, and the vinaigrette from the side of Savana slaw (which we enjoyed) drifted too much.

But as the song says, two out of three ain’t bad.

New chef, new menu, nouveau cooking means new prices, right? Not so. Cost remains at an accessible level with main dishes in the high teens and low twenties. May explain why the rooms are packed.