Some restaurants have life stories. The Black Cat Café’s story is one of survival. Born 30 years ago on Echo Drive, it also thrived for a decade on Murray Street (plus a couple of stretches of thinking-through-its-next-move) before finding its way to Preston Street.
Along the journey, some gifted chefs made Black Cat purr — notably René Rodriguez, Trish Donaldson, Keith Kowalski and Catherine Wise. Now we can add Steve Vardy to that list.
Vardy made his name in this city as opening chef at Beckta (2003-2006). After stints at Par-fyum and The Whalesbone Oyster House, he left Ottawa in 2007 for a resort project on Fogo Island. He\’s been wooed back to Ottawa by the BCB father-son team of Richard and Reme Urquhart while the project on The Rock runs behind schedule. Word is, Vardy\’s here for two years.
This latest Cat has made a slight surname adjustment (from Café to Bistro) and stretched in size since its ByWard Market incarnation. Spread out over two levels, rimmed with two walls of windows, the look is handsomely understated. High-gloss black tables and black rounded chairs cover dark wood floors. Whitewashed brick and lengths of mirror cover walls not covered with window. Window wrap around two walls. Other than the bar, which is its own slab of art, the only adornments of note are the flying-saucer resin lamps with leafy etchings that hang over the tables, upstairs and down. The one splash of colour in the space is provided by brandied orange booths on the upper level. A gas fireplace set in a cocoon of wood warms that upper room.
There will always be “better” tables in any restaurant and restaurants that show quite differently in summer than in winter. In January you may have a different experience seated by the door on a 23-below night, with a view of the neon bank sign, than tucked into one of the upper booths with a view of the fireplace. I expect that, come June, when the sidewalk patio is open and leafed-in trees provide some bank protection, the Urquhart boys will field a lot fewer requests for the cosy tables by the fire.
But for now, the food will warm ya.
Vardy has assembled a slate of wintry comfort food — heavy, meaty, rib-sticking fare — though there are moments too of great delicacy. We began with one of those. A starter of white tuna from B.C., torched (flash seared), the pale pink fish sliced and sitting up naked, glistening along the length of a white plate. Around it, a disciplined garnish of halved grapes topped with thin rounds of jalapeno, crispy wisps of shallot and a confetti of purple basil shoots. Pretty, indeed, but also ethereal, gentle, and then an edge of Whoa-Nellie! when the jalapeno bites. I was most reluctant to share.
Lucky for me, my other mouth had the venison carpaccio. I lingered over this plate, too. The meat was gorgeous — rich, supple, almost sweet, and the traditional beef-carpaccio garnish of Parmigiano was given a Canadian twist with aged cheddar and some zingy mustard.
In a third starter, roasted pears, pickled beets, blue cheese and almond praline gather together happily in what Vardy calls a winter salad.
Two main dishes I thought splendid — the fennel-seed-crusted sweetbreads, creamy soft, but with a crisp exterior, topped with the beautiful Lion\’s-Mane mushrooms that look like January icicles, leeks and crisp chunks of yummy fatty bacon; and a perfectly cooked duck breast escorted with Black Mission Figs. But I found the chorizo sausages too assertive, too gamey for the scallops they were paired with, and Vardy’s roast chicken, brined and smoked before roasting to crisp-juicy glory, was too forcefully truffle oiled. It\’s an elixir that, used in moderation, adds a rich, elusive note to a dish. Too much is ruination.
The kitchen struts its stuff for dessert. The creme brulée is infused with cardamom, cinnamon and a vanilla bean and works better than sunshine to dispel winter. The lemon tart is strong and smooth, the short crust heavenly. Don\’t leave the Cat without a wedge of it.
There is a first-class wine list to match with this food. It allows ample choice, but isn\’t so so big to cause a quandary. And the BCB staff — at least those I’ve encountered — are well acquainted with what comes out of the kitchen and the cave.
We’re glad the Cat came back.