The Back Lane Café is a rare bird. A distinctive room that makes an immediate statement about its individuality, but without the aura of self-indulgence that can be part and parcel of restaurants that are so deeply personal – places more about the people who run them, their vision and ego, and less about the guest at the table. In all the years I’ve been studying restaurants, it’s rare to run across that successful balance.
But Back Lane is the product of a seasoned restaurateur. George Monsour left the restaurant business in Ottawa to do other things, live other places. When he returned he could have opened a place that was all about him. And maybe he has. Fortunately for us, what Monsour seems to like to do best is to please and to serve.
The Back Lane space is considered and welcoming. There’s interesting stuff to look at, some well thought through whimsy and quirkiness, all invitingly lit. It’s busy and crowded and it can be loud, and yet it remains thoroughly likeable. Monsour has also hired well. The room is run by nice, smart people who make you feel quite tucked in.
Chef Michael Hay is still fairly new to Back Lane (opening chef was Evan Pritchard ) but he brings experience and talent developed most recently at The Courtyard Restaurant – with some of his time there under superstar chef Marc Lepine.
The dish that stood out was a starter featuring octopus. It takes some effort to tenderize octopus. This one tasted as though it had been done over low coals for a long time. The smoky char intensified the flavour, the crisp tips added pleasing contrast, and the meat itself was soft and moist and effortless. Beneath the fish was a walnut and roasted red pepper puree (called muhamara) deliciously smoky and spicy, drizzled with bittersweet pomegranate molasses. The plate was finished with a panzanella of sorts – a Mediterranean bread salad with grilled tomato and vegetables.