Ottawa is not a pace-setter. Beg your pardon if that offends, but in terms of innovation in the restaurant landscape we tend to be forever a few steps behind the usual suspects — Toronto, Vancouver, New York. They’re bigger, they’re more ethnically diverse and they have a deeper culinary past.
Which is not to suggest we don’t have superb restaurants in this city. We do. We just don’t have buckets of them. And we don’t typically create the fashions that give birth to them. So it did seem forced to look deeply upon the decade of dining in Ottawa in search of new trends.
Of course “regional-seasonal-organic” is big here, as everywhere, and yes we are uniquely situated in this region, blessed with a bountiful backyard, easily accessed without spending hours in traffic jams! (In this, at least, there are others who lag far behind.)
And yes, I could talk about small plates dining, bar menus, bare-table dining, open-kitchen restaurants, and meat still mattering. But what I would like to do instead is to speak of three Ottawa restaurants, all born during the past 10 years, that I would suggest are worthy of looking at more closely. Not because they’re the best we’ve got — although all three are terrific — but because each is, for now, unique.
The Wellington Gastropub Since 2006
1325 Wellington St. 613-729-1315
Much was made of the name when it first opened. It stuck in people’s craws, its phonetics made the tummy squiggle, its definition defied the mind (what the heck is a gastropub anyway?). Blah, blah, blah. But anyone who is familiar with the restaurant scene across the pond knows that gastropubs are a strong and plenteous category in any U.K. restaurant index.
And anyone who knows Ottawa knows we are not short on English/Irish-style pubs. What we are short on is English/Irish-style pubs that cook well. What the Wellington Gastropub has done is combine a pub — good drinking options in a convivial atmosphere — with destination dining. You go as much for the food as the drink, and you can shuffle over in your slippers if you care to. And the place is packed. I predict (here we go … ) more of these. Because they make such good sense.
Atelier, since 2008
540 Rochester St. 613-321-3537
I think it more likely there will be a gastropub on every neighbourhood corner a decade from now than a molecular gastronomy restaurant. It’s not that I think it’s a flash in the pan (or, say, a ripple in the thermostated water bath) but it requires money to outfit a space-age kitchen, and demands chefs who have the time to spend, an abiding fascination with, and talent for, the science and art of manipulating ingredients to produce flavours, textures and looks that fascinate, provoke and delight.
But here we have Atelier, unique not just in Ottawa, but — I’d suggest — in the country. A sign-less restaurant that delivers the double whammy of food prepared using unconventional methods and presented without a menu.
It takes courage to offer no options. Thirteen courses, served blind (I can hear Atelier chef Marc Lepine shouting that allergies and food “particulars” can be handled with sufficient notice), but the fact remains that Atelier is not for the finicky or the timid.
Hard to say if we’ll see more gastronauts the likes of Lepine, but I’d sure like to see more tasting-menu-only restaurants in this city, molecularly prepared or otherwise. Atelier just takes a worthy idea to extremes, and deserves our admiration.
ZenKitchen Since 2009
634 Somerset St. W., 613-233-6404
That Caroline Ishii’s new restaurant serves exclusively vegan food is largely forgotten as you work your way through dinner at ZenKitchen. And that’s what makes this new restaurant extraordinary. ZenKitchen has taken what you might consider peripheral dining to a prominent level. Yes, this is a vegetarian restaurant. No, there are no buffet lines, no weigh scales, and no banquet tables. And sure, it’s early days yet, but if its opening moves are to be trusted, I would happily slot ZenKitchen in Ottawa’s top 10 dining rooms a year from now.
So will ZenKitchen pave the way for other so-called fringe eateries to smarten up? If a vegan dining room can polish up its act, can’t we hope for the same from our city’s ethnic dining rooms? We are desperately due for inventive, sophisticated, ethnic dining in this city. Not just “quality” or “authentic” but ethnic food that is truly innovative.
Can such a thing happen in this city? To paraphrase one of this decade’s great newsmakers, “Yes it can.” Let the word go forth that within the next 10 years one of Ottawa’s finest restaurants will be Cantonese or Goan. Some might say that Ottawa doesn’t have the ethnic population to support such a thing. But what percentage of our population is vegan? If Ottawa has a yen for ZenKitchen, can molecular mutton vindaloo be far behind?