When the Empire Grill's owners John Borsten and Dave Mangano decided it was time for a comprehensive makeover, they looked for some new energy and creativity in the kitchen to complement their refreshed décor. Enter chef Norm Aitken, known and admired by many in Ottawa for his innovative dishes at the now-closed Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar. As Norm explains, "the Empire team wanted a chef who was interested in developing an innovative new menu. It's a great opportunity for me that came at the perfect time."
While he won't classify his latest cuisine as being of any particular genre, Norm admits that it is very much like what people would expect from his previous work. "The new menu is a little more casual and laid-back than what the Empire had before. We're emphasizing solid, Canadian-inspired flavours with local and seasonal being showcased in unique ways. My Maritime roots are definitely reflected in this menu as well."
The interesting new food offerings represent a blend of some of Norm's traditional favourites as well as some delicious, intriguing new elements. While the Empire is no longer branding itself as a steakhouse, steaks are most definitely still on the menu, says Norm. "Steaks will never go out of style, but I hope guests will also give some of my signature dishes a try, like crispy beef short rib nibs or braised curried lamb dumplings with preserved tomato. I'm very excited about our lentil-raw nut taco with basil slaw. We're also getting fresh pasta and flatbread dough each day from our sister restaurant, The Grand."
Norm is confident the new and improved Empire (Grill has been dropped from the name) will appeal to a broad range of diners. "We've got a great kids' menu, and we're mindful of food sensitivities and the increased interest in vegetarian dishes. This menu is more fun, packed with bigger and bolder flavours than before. I am excited for everyone to taste what's going on here."
Cuisine Meets Decor
To complete a restaurant renovation in just three months requires vision, determination and ingenuity. Fortunately for Chris Schlesak and Adam Vettorel, owners of the new North & Navy on Nepean Street, they clearly have an abundance of all three, plus a boatload of talent to boot. Serving as their own designers, the two have breathed new light and life into a mid-1800s Victorian brick house that has been a restaurant for decades, most recently home to Beckta Dining & Wine.
Chris's background as a photographer is evident throughout; his artistic eye has zeroed in on details both large and small. A charming collection of family photos graces the entranceway, while antique prints decorate another wall. An arresting gilt-framed mirror expands the main dining area and ornately decorated tiles add visual interest to the wood floors.
Sure to be a favoured spot at North & Navy is the expanded bar area at the back, with its view of the now-visible kitchen. A pretty, private dining nook is tucked into the side of this open area, with bar stools and a high-top table offering pleasant perches to watch all the action. Dark blue-grey walls provide a soothing backdrop and carefully curated antique furniture provides interesting accents throughout the restaurant. The upstairs private dining room and washrooms have also been given fresh treatments.
Inspired by the wine bars or bacari of Venice, North & Navy offers an environment in which the food experience is enhanced by the pleasing atmosphere. "Adam and I are really happy with not only the way the space works, but also how it feels," says Chris. "It is a great representation of us - touches of luxury in a casual, comfortable environment."