René Rodriguez has been on a walk about. His 2011 travels through the streets and markets of Mexico City, Tijuana, the southwestern state of Oaxaca and east to Veracruz, the menu tells us, have inspired a new philosophy for his Basque-inspired restaurant, one he wants to share with us at the new Navarra. So off I went.
I’ve reviewed Navarra twice over its five years, though I’ve known chef-owner Rodriguez’ cooking for many more before he settled down on Murray Street. Navarra is unique in Ottawa, a signature restaurant for the city, and one of the places that makes this Byward Market street so tasty. That opinion hasn’t changed. The food remains a draw. These are rich, broody dishes, full of layered flavours. Thoughtful attention has been paid to texture and the eating is deeply pleasurable.
So long as you ignore the prices when you consider this is now a tapas restaurant.
Navarra has tossed out the usual progression of starter-main-sweetie in favour of the ever-popular small plates style of dining. The trouble is the prices remain mostly at main dish level, so when the menu recommends two plates per person, and our server suggests three might be better, you don’t need to be a math whiz to figure out this will be an expensive night.
People understand what an appetizer looks like, and they understand what a main dish looks like. They get nervous about small plates. How small is small? Will I still be hungry? How many do I need to order to feel satisfied?
The least expensive small plate/tapas at Navarra is $9 (marinated olives) while the majority of the dishes are in the $20s, climbing as high as $29 (for the bigger portion of Navarra’s signature beef tartare). One dish is called ‘Rioja Potatoes’ and sure, the fine print tells us there’s chorizo and a saffron aioli involved, but when a small plates dish that’s titled ‘potatoes’ costs $22, you tend to fret. Same with a ‘tapas’ called “Macaroni Carbonara,” which costs $24.
So it’s a menu that requires a guide. Fortunately, the guides at Navarra are delightful.
Ours suggested a few dishes, starting with the beet salad. Every restaurant must have a beet salad. (It’s the New Law, replacing the Must Have Caesar.) I order it as much for the promised pear, quince jelly, and grapefruit, as well as for the suggestion there would be vanilla salt. And isn’t it pretty? This was a carefully constructed plate that ate very well. And for $17 for beets, it better work well.
The Oaxacan lamb shank mole ($27) – a 1920 family recipe, apparently – was utterly delicious. Dark, wildly rich, intensely flavoured, smoky, sweet, bitter and fiery. The mole grew in intensity as you worked your way through it. Its topping of shaved radish was a welcome component. On to a mound of mushrooms, brightened with a chimichurri sauce (usually reserved for meat in Argentina, this is pesto-like, of herbs and chilies, vinegar and oil) mixed with fried potato and finished with a grating of pecorino cheese, cilantro and fennel fronds. Very good indeed, but very spicy. Too much so for my Other Mouth, who wished she’d been warned…
And then a deep bowl for a slight serving of scallops ceviche, with lychees, the meat ‘cooked’ in a sparkling citrus-oil marinade kicked with jalapenos, brightened with mint and served with tostadas. It was delightful, but at $18, seemed a bit dear, amounted to maybe one scallop, possibly two, and was really too small to share
The duck was disappointing. The meat was tough, and the rich cocoa crumble it sat on (all nubbly, designed to look like a pile of earth) diverted too much attention.
Some dishes were easier to share than others. Some seemed fairly priced for the portion delivered; and others not so much.
Much to like here though. The food is really very good. But the menu needs clarity. Chef Rodriguez calls it a return to Grandma’s kitchen kind of cooking. All fine and fair. But when a menu makes me nervous – and I’m no menu rookie – imagine what it’d do to gran.