I’ve had my fill of porcine décor, I must say. So the wall art at The Rowan came as a relief – a noble-looking stag, its antlers tangled up with the branches, birds, blossoms and scarlet berries of a rowan tree. It’s the emblem of this new British-inflected restaurant, settled since mid-summer, in the south end of the Glebe.
Its owners are the Fraser brothers, chefs Ross and Simon, along with business partner Ion Aimers. The Rowan is their third collaboration. If you’re the sort who eats out strictly in the neighbourhood, and your neighbourhood isn’t New Edinburgh/Rockcliffe/Vanier/Manor Park, you might not know the Frasers and what pleasures that duo has brought to Ottawa-east bellies over the past many years.
The Rowan doesn’t feel all that different from the Fraser Café – still the open kitchen with the energy that brings a room, the bold colours, the bustling vibe and helpful service. The bar is more of a presence here, complete with discreet television, and a cluster of handsome hanging lights – the better to examine the fruit in your Pimm’s cup. The crowd seems a bit younger, though, and the food more focused. The fare at the Fraser Café is a delicious sort of anything-goes hodge podge. The Rowan’s is an homage to the big hits of British cuisine, except updated to, well…, to taste good. There are no shortcuts taken. Stick your finger in the jug of jus that comes with the pork pie and you’ll know what I mean – not a bit of Bovril – that dark, shiny pool spent much time with roasted bones, then hours more reducing to coat a spoon.
So by all means begin with a Pimm’s. While you sip that fruity beauty, you can go a few ways with the one-page menu. If you insist British food must be deep fried, you’ll find a couple of ways to scratch that itch – but just a couple. Lingcod fish sticks are juicy, judiciously coated and not at all greasy, served with a curried mayo; and potato crisps come with a thinned out, chived-up sour cream.I’m nuts for the potted smoked mackerel served with toasts and pickles. And the chicken liver paté is all a chicken liver paté ought to be. I’ve liked the seafood casserole starter – shrimp and out-of-shell mussels bathed in a chilli-fired, full flavoured tomato sauce, with a bit of house bacon for chew and smoke, finished with chives and fennel fronds.
I’ve liked as well the sausage roll filled with shredded oxtail and set on that same luscious jus. It comes with a pot of seedy mustard and a watercress salad dressed with pickled beets, carrots and peppery rounds of radish. Starters are generally generously served.
The Rowan salads fill their plates too. Three fat triangles of tuna, seasoned and seared for just seconds, are paired with an onion relish, house pickles, fried bread and mizuna leaves. Two fresh figs are roasted, sliced and split into four petals. They arrive still warm, their softness balanced with the crunch from smoked almonds and rounds of radish. Strips of grilled peameal bacon, bitter watercress and a lemon cream cheese complete this plate of grand textures and flavours.
Chef de cuisine at The Rowan is young Kyle Decan, formerly sous chef at Fraser Café. The kid can roast a chicken. Crispy, well-seasoned skin, wondrously juicy flesh, it arrives plopped on spiced up roasted veg (potatoes, cauli, zucchini) topped with a cilantro chutney and moistened with a delicious curry cream lightly greened with methi (fenugreek). Full marks as well for the moist meat pie, standing tall in its splendid pastry case, the meat inside densely packed and pleasingly porky, seasoned to balance with the polished jus in the jug alongside. It’s served on a board with a side of pickles and a pot of mustard.
The coriander chutney rescues a fairly bland and slightly over-fried tofu dish, served with lentils and vegetables. And the snails in ale save a tough beef sirloin – good flavour, but far too much chewing required. Back to form with trout, perfectly cooked, bathed in a lemon butter sauce, served with new potatoes and summer peas.
No idea if Decan grew up with treacle tart, but my gran would have approved of his rendition. Head-achingly sweet, in the tradition of all good molasses pies, slightly relieved with lemon juice, and crumbly textured with breadcrumbs. The shortcrust is thin and rich and comes with vanilla-ed sour cream, stewed apples, dobs of a raspberry coulis, and a heavy dusting of powdered sugar. Two bites did it. My husband polished off the rest.
The beverage list is strong on local draught beer (in two pours) and imported English ales and ciders. There’s a good selection of whiskeys as well. The wine list is short but well chosen, and includes good choice by the glass and half-litre (thank you). A few bottles for the big spender too.
The Rowan’s been pretty packed at my visits. It can be loud in there, with the concrete floor and open kitchen, but not uncomfortably so. Mostly it just feels jolly.
A rowan tree is considered magical in European folklore, with particular powers for warding off witches. It might have been planted next to a front door, as a sort of a charm, to protect the family against sorcery. One wonders if this Rowan will have the power to protect against the profusion of chain eateries just to its south at Lansdowne. It certainly has its own sort of charm.