The last time I saw James Bratsberg, he was handing me a puck of salmon tartare and a platter of citrus dusted B.C. oysters. That was sometime in early 2013, when Bratsberg was the chef in charge of the raw bar at Restaurant E18hteen. He looked about 12. But the kid could clearly plate some fetching uncooked food. So it was nice to see him resurface at MēNa, a new spot on Preston Street place, to learn that he can work with fire as well as the fridge.
MēNa opened in January without much hooplah. It’s one of a number of newish non-Italian places on the Preston Street strip, done up in cool tones with warm lights. White-washed barn boards brighten the grey and black, while dozens of hanging filament bulbs and mod chandelier give the L-shaped room and long bar a lovely glow. Fresh flowers in glass jars and starched white serviettes on shiny black tables make it feel loved.
The menu is sensibly short. The only comment I’ll make from the get-go is that it could use a non-meat main. Yes, the kitchen will whip up something green for us, but still, the omission stands out. (Which says something about how far we’ve come in mainstreaming plant-based dishes.) And the other thing I’ll say about MēNa is that the food is all terribly rich. I trust this will change as the season does, but right now every dish — from the baked potato soup to the salad that features deep-fried sunchokes, to the braised beef short ribs with pommes Anna — has a hefty feel to it. Given that three hollow-legged young guys run MēNa, it’s little wonder.
There’s Bratsberg, bar manager/sommelier Samuel James, and MēNa owner Bryan Livingston. You learn less about them on the floor. Perhaps they’re shy? I’d suggest they might work on the warmth and welcome elements. At my visits, the life in the room was provided by the lone woman server who knew her stuff.
One night she delivered an interesting amuse. Tied in a bundle with twine, boutonniere-like, a sprig of chickweed and spear of wild onion served with dobs of what I think was a lemon vinaigrette. If the purpose of an amuse bouche is to whet the appetite in a gentle, provocative sort of way, this did that.
From there, the potato soup was genius. Poured tableside, it revealed crackly potato skins, chunks of yellow potato, snipped rounds of garlic chives and soft rounds of buttered leek. It was rich, with a sly chili heat and textured treats in every other slurp. The pork rillettes were softly unctuous, served with caper berries and greens. Plopped on top was a soft egg, nicely prepared sous vide, but unexpected. The description of the dish failed to mention it and he who ordered the rillettes loves everything under the sun except eggs. So the omission mattered. Full marks for the very well executed goat cheese ravioli paddling in a rich chicken stock. And to the wobbly cauliflower panna cotta that was so cool with the crunchy sunchokes and the puffed wild rice in the house salad.
The five mains — lamb, halibut, chicken, pork, beef ribs — were probably less interesting than the starters, but well executed nonetheless. The ribs were really good, with a polished jus, Chinese broccoli, and that rarely-seen French treat — pommes Anna, drenched in butter comme il faut. Wilted kale wrapped the halibut, the fish nicely wobbly, the flesh milky. This was a pretty dish with pink fleshed potatoes, yellow zucchini balls, tarragon leaves and a lemon coloured bearnaise that danced circles around the plate. Roasted lamb from the leg was pink and juicy, served with pickled patty pan squash
For dessert, two little coconut cakes, the size of one-bite brownies, served with a yuzu curd, wedges of poached pear, sprigs of Thai basil and coconut ice cream. A fresh and vibrant end to a nice meal.
There are fussed over cocktails on the drinks list and James seems to have assembled a very interesting wine list with strong Canadian content.
MēNa is off to a fine start.
First published in OttawaMagazine.com on April 21, 2014