Ottawa is a gold mine of top-notch restaurants that serve seasonal comfort food in a relaxed atmosphere. I could rhyme off 20 in 10 seconds flat. At the other end, we have a smattering of destination restaurants, places you cross town for. Atelier is the most prominent of that genre, with the newly re-opened MeNa muscling in — restaurants where the dining experiences are completely guided by the kitchen and dishes are designed to knock your socks off.
Jason Sawision could do either model well. He may look nineteen, but his CV is deep and eclectic. In addition to stints as an apprentice butcher and cook at Canoe (in Toronto), and recently as culinary instructor at Algonquin College, Sawision’s worked for a couple of celebrated Canadian chefs with wildly different restaurants: on Michael Stadtländer’s Eiginsinn Farm and with the back-to-land cuisine at restaurant Haisai; and, for the past six years, with Marc Lepine of the modernist restaurant Atelier.
According to a gracious tweet from his former boss, Jason Sawision was “Atelier’s secret weapon.” He was also sous chef for Lepine when he won double gold medals at both the regional and national Gold Medal Plates competitions. The guy’s no slouch.
Earlier this year, Sawision left Atelier to scout a location for his own restaurant. He found it, on Wellington West, and opened Stofa in early October. The word means hearth, in Old Norse; the place where folks gather for warmth and kinship.
The best bits of the 55-seat room are the large peeking window into the kitchen and the white marble bar manned, at my visits, by very nice women. The rest is clean-lined and sparsely adorned. It requires people to create the warmth suggested in the name. A lack of those has not been a problem at my visits: the place has been packed, and with good reason.
Sawision’s Stofa delivers the casual-caring dining out we seek in a neighbourhood restaurant, with food that’s innovative, delicious, and infused with some of sensory drama, Atelier style. Where you really see Atelier on Stofa plates is in their thoughtful assembly, in their heightened levels of flavour, and their exceptional compositions. Through the kitchen window you see not one but two Lepine protégés: Sawision, and sous chef Imrun Teixera, recently returned to Ottawa from stage work in the UK.
I’ve pretty much eaten the entire menu – from the tower of seafood in many forms (raw, cured, potted, pickled, crisped, stuffed and sandwiched…) through to the soufflé of passion fruit – and with enormous pleasure.
There is one Stofa salad and it’s a good one. Sweet little gem lettuces, lightly grilled, and roasted fingerling potatoes cover a base of green goo that turns out to be baba ghanoush. These are dressed with a curried buttermilk cream, spiced cashews, and pink petals of pickled onion. The same attention to texture and balance is clear in the foie gras starter: the liver is offered two ways – seared and salted, crisped and wobbly, and as a torchon that melts like butter. It comes with the flavour punch of a sour cherry gel and a bright confit of tangy kumquat. Curling waffle ‘crackers’ are the toasties for ferrying foie to mouth. A steaming jug of celery root soup is poured tableside over a bowl filled with confit chicken, pickled shimeji mushrooms, spiced apples and a foamed fennel cream. With every slurp new flavours and textures are revealed.
Of the mains, the ravioli of buffalo milk mozzarella with smoked and confit duck, lentils, watercress and a rich and airy porcini mushroom sauce, was as good as it gets. Or so we thought, until the next dish landed: sea scallops with an almond pudding, anointed with a glossy lobster jus. The smoked paprika that coats a pink and juicy pork loin at first seemed too bullying, but the meat’s mates – cheddar spaetzle, pickled jalapenos, baby turnips, and dabs of a tamarind gelée – handle it well.
For the serious meat lover who’s seriously hungry, order the hanger steak with gin-spiked jus. It comes with a wedge of bread pudding, sunchoke chips, a sunchoke purée, and a lovely spiced beef wrapped in soft cabbage. Then order two sharing sides: the Pommes Pont Neuf (batons of bacon fat-fried spuds) dotted with a garlic aoili and the grilled broccoli and Brussels smothered in superior feta. I’m sure you deserve it and you’ll thank me for the tip.
The vegetable main is built around a splatter of romesco sauce, a soft pavé of sweet potato and a gooey-rich slow-poached egg. Mild flavours are balanced with a chipotle mayo, briny olives and pickled artichoke hearts, while the crunch on the plate comes in a fun cannoli of potato strings.
The passion fruit soufflé was a tart and airy mousse, hot, delicate, delightful, served with a scoop of tonka bean ice cream on a base of caramelized white chocolate crumble. We loved as well the kitchen’s take on (right-side-up) pineapple cake with salted meringue.
Drinks are designed for grown up palates. There’s good beer on tap. The wine list seems curated to work well with the food (and includes a couple of Ontario wines on tap, for $8/glass). The front of house team, led by sommelier/manager Emily Rack, is strong and kind, and knows its way around the food and drinks list. If I had one suggestion, it would be to consider cosying up the room up a bit: as the weather turns bleak, Stofa feels a bit austere for a place named for the hearth.
But I’m truly struggling to find a whinge. Stofa is a brilliant addition to our restaurant scene.