The dish on Ottawa's food scene is that it's been deliciously transformed from safe to spectacular.
While seasoned stalwarts remain, serving passable but often predictable fare, eager diners are happily noshing at an ever-expanding list of terrific restaurants that cater to those craving something unexpected on their plates. Tour three of the city's hippest new eateries and meet the young, enthusiastic chef-owners whose innovative kitchens are being heralded for injecting some excitement into the experience of dining out.Murray Street
"There's a great food scene now in Ottawa that stands up to most other cities I can think of," enthuses Paddy Whelan, the 37-year-old co-owner of Murray Street, which opened its door to the public in mid-June. "Everyone in the business is so supportive of each other - it's like a gang, really. And what's going on right here in these couple of blocks downtown is particularly special. We've dubbed our immediate area Gastro Alley in recognition of food's role as a key element of the ByWard Market." Paddy and his partners have definitely created a new sensation in this bustling section of Ottawa. Entering Murray Street provides an instant feast for all the senses. First, your eyes take in the charming, rustic décor of the restaurant with exposed brick walls, inviting banquettes, well-spaced tables and gleaming maple bar. Dappled sunlight might warm your face if you venture out to its charming courtyard. The charcuterie cases located behind the bar sets your tastebuds tingling, with a dazzling assortment of luscious cheeses and savoury meats just begging to be sampled. Then there's the olfactory delights wafting out of the kitchen, where the team prepares what they fondly call upscale Canadian comfort food. Last, but not least, are the warm, friendly greetings you're sure to receive - a nod to the proprietors' East Coast heritage and its legendary hospitality. Murray Street's cuisine also emphasizes the best of what's local and seasonal. "It's about being unpretentious while delivering excellent plates at a reasonable price point," confirms chef Steve Mitton, 38, well-known for his superlative results in the kitchen at Social Restaurant + Lounge for the past four years. Ironically, Steve served as chef more than a decade ago at the former Bistro 115, housed in the same location as the new Murray Street. Paddy has been involved in the hospitality industry since childhood, helping out in various family businesses, and although he trained at Stratford Chefs School and met Steve while working together in the kitchen at Social, Paddy has initially chosen to focus on the front of the house at Murray Street, whose opening a few months ago was the culmination of a 10-year long dream for Paddy. Steve says it was his tenure serving high-volume food that cemented his desire to open his own place. "I wanted a chance to come back to more personalized cooking; to challenge myself and also find ways to be less wasteful in the kitchen. Carefully preparing less-traditional cuts of meat, for example, is one of the things I'm enjoying doing differently here." Steve suggests that what makes Murray Street unique is how their methods hearken back to old culinary traditions. "I'm relying simply on top-notch ingredients, my hands and my knives," he explains modestly, although he speaks enthusiastically about the restaurant's most obvious innovation - the restaurant's charcuterie bar, complementing the kitchen's hot dishes with generous servings of cheeses, pâtés, terrines and sliced meats, some made in-house and others sourced from local artisanal suppliers. Steve began experimenting in the kitchen around age 12, and he went on to attend PEI's Culinary Institute of Canada and work as a cook and butcher's apprentice in Germany before settling in to a succession of fine kitchens in Ottawa. He says that one of the true pleasures of running one's own establishment is having the opportunity to incorporate one's favourite influences into the menu which, in the case of Murray Street, means fresh interpretations of classic family fare. Steve's Beans ‘n' Wieners features in-house lamb chorizo sausage, Great Northern white bean salad and steamed clams, while his sublimely delicious version of mac and cheese includes an assortment of mushrooms, aged Pine River cheddar and hand cut spatzle. Equally appealing is Murray Street's Shepherd's Pie, featuring braised Québec lamb, potato-parsnip puree, creamed corn and baby leeks. "Our menu is designed to appeal to a broad range of palates and also to showcase the best that our local artisanal food producers have to offer," explains Steve. Paddy agrees, adding "we want to serve up delicious food that's not pretentious. We like to think of it as Bob and Doug McKenzie meets Sushi Bar!"Murray Street's Duck Rillettes
One of the delights of Murray Street's charcuterie offerings, rillettes is a classic French dish similar to Canadian cretons, often made from pork but equally delicious composed of rabbit, goose, poultry or fish. It consists of meat that has been slowly cooked in seasoned fat and then pounded, along with some of the fat, into a paste. This mixture is then packed in small pots and covered with a thin layer of fat. Rillettes can be stored for several weeks in the refrigerator providing the fatty seal is not broken. Similar to pâté, rillettes are typically served cold with sliced bread. Duck confit and fat are available at Aubrey's Meats. 6 legs of duck confit, meat removed ¼ cup of reserved onions and garlic (from confit process), or ¼ cup caramelized onion & roasted garlic 2 Tbsp grainy mustard 1/2 cup of duck fat 1 Tbsp herbes de Province (fresh rosemary, thyme, tarragon, etc.) Zest of one orange 1 tsp ground fennel seed, toasted ½ cup toasted pistachios, chopped (optional) Salt to taste Place all, except mustard, in a sauce pan. Cook on low heat stirring constantly for 8 minutes or until the meat starts to break up. Add mustard and stir to combine. Pour into a terrine mold brushed with oil and lined with plastic wrap or fill small mason jars. Cover and refrigerate over night. Remove the rillettes from the terrine mould and slice or simply spread on a piece of your favourite toasted Art-is-in Bakery bread.Fraser Café
It may be small, but New Edinburgh's latest dining hot spot, Fraser Café, leaves a very large impression. From the moment you enter the bustling restaurant to the time you leave, satiated and smiling, you'll feel like you've had a very personal encounter with the young chef-owners and their culinary wizardry. Whether you sit at the polished concrete bar, or at one of the half-dozen tables, you are treated to the theatre of an open kitchen where Fraser brothers Ross and Simon proudly prepare honest food that offers no pretension and great value. The Frasers mischievously draw attention to the intentional vagueness of their printed menu, playfully warning to expect the unexpected at Fraser Café, which opened in May. "You might find us offering a plate composed of sea scallops, potatoes and tomato, for example, but you won't know until your server presents the dish whether the scallops will be poached, sautéed, or baked; likewise with the potatoes and tomatoes," explains Simon. "One of the fundamental principles of our cooking philosophy is that diners should trust the kitchen and know we are determined to impress you every time you visit." Surprise at Fraser Café also comes in the form of its Kitchen's Choice, an unlisted plate that leaves your feasting fate securely in the creative hands of the culinary team. "We're very pleased with this innovation; we chose this offering instead of a tasting menu and it has been phenomenally successful for us," says Ross. As with most of Ottawa's best restaurants, Fraser Café's ever-changing menu emphasizes simple preparations using fresh, locally sourced ingredients as much as possible. "We want our cooking to speak for itself. You'll always find lots of nice touches, but it's not about being flashy. Our primary objective is to ensure that each plate is just as good, or better, than the ones before it," he adds. Both Ross and Simon have had interesting culinary journeys, from teenage stints at McDonald's to the Algonquin College Culinary Arts program, followed by experiences in numerous kitchens both local and abroad. Now 32, Simon has been cooking professionally for more than 10 years, while 26-year-old Ross has eight years under his belt. Immediately prior to opening Fraser Café, they worked together at domus café. Simon notes that Fraser Café is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. "I've wanted to do this ever since I started cooking but knew that it would be worthwhile to wait for Ross to be ready. We both knew that the more experience we gained ahead of time, hopefully we'd make fewer mistakes," he explains. One of the greatest joys of running their own establishment manifests itself in the menu. "I love being able to cook exactly what I feel like preparing on any given day. A big part of cheffing is being creative; I like incorporating whatever ingredients or influences I think of or see while out gathering supplies. I couldn't bear to cook the same thing every day," says Simon. "Running our own place has definitely exceeded our expectations in every way," says Ross. "We love this space; its intimacy helps define Fraser Café and gives it some intangible, appealing qualities that seem to be resonating well with our patrons."Fraser Café's Yukon Gold and blue potato risotto with sweet corn and roasted black cod
While it's ideal for fall, Ross and Simon Fraser also love this versatile dish because it's easy to adapt to suit your tastes or to take advantage of the best of any season. You can modify it to include sweet potatoes, wild mushrooms, fennel or Parmesan cheese, for example, and serve either as a main course or a side dish. The unique preparation of the potatoes adds to the dish's charm, though the Fraser brothers warn that you must be attentive to the potatoes for the dish to turn out correctly. For the potato risotto: 2 large Yukon Gold Potatoes (peeled and small dice) 3 medium size blue potatoes (peeled and small dice) Note: Once the potatoes are peeled it is important not to rinse in water or soak them as it will wash away the natural starch. 4 oz smoked bacon (cut into lardons or small cubes) 1 medium white onion (finely diced) 3 cloves garlic (chopped) 1 cup dry white wine 1 ½ cups fresh sweet corn (removed from cob) ¼ cup butter 1.5 l chicken stock 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese Handful of fresh herbs: marjoram, parsley, thyme (¼ cup chopped) Salt + pepper to taste Bunch watercress, for garnish For the black cod: Four to 5 oz portions of black cod (sablefish) Salt + pepper to season For the vinaigrette: 1 cup olive oil ¼ cup sherry vinegar Juice from one lemon 2 tbsp maple syrup Salt and pepper to taste Wilted swiss chard: One bunch of bright light swiss chard (8-10 stems) 1 tbsp of butter 3tbsp olive oil Salt and pepper to taste 2 large shallots (finely chopped) Method: Risotto: In a heavy-bottomed pot, sweat the bacon, corn, onions and garlic with the olive oil for approximately 5 minutes, before the vegetables start to change colour. Deglaze with the white wine and reduce by 2/3. Add the diced Yukon potatoes and enough chicken stock just to cover, simmer for 5 minutes, then add the blue potatoes and continue to simmer, adding chicken stock as needed (you are not likely to use all 1 ½ litres). Be sure to add only enough stock to just barely cover potatoes so the risotto will not end up too thin or watery. Once the potatoes are just cooked (approximately 10-15 minutes) and still retaining their shape, and the stock has been reduced, leaving a somewhat thick liquid, turn heat to low and gently fold in butter, mascarpone, chopped fresh herbs; season with salt and pepper and keep warm. The consistency should be loose but creamy. Swiss Chard: Remove the leaves from the stems. Wash the leaves and roughly chop. In a large pan add the butter, shallots and swiss chard and wilt on medium heat until tender, adding a splash of water or chicken stock if needed to avoid burning. Season and reserve. Vinaigrette: Combine all the ingredients and reserve. Taste and adjust balance to your taste (should be slightly acidic). Black Cod: In a small oven-proof non-stick lightly oiled frying pan, place the seasoned black cod portions and spoon over a tablespoon of the vinaigrette. Broil in the oven for approximately 8-15 minutes at 400 F until fish flakes easily. Assembly: Ideally the risotto should be served immediately once cooked, so time the black cod and swiss chard around the risotto. Into shallow (pasta) bowls, spoon a portion of the risotto, and portion of the wilted greens and place the baked black cod on top. Garnish with a small mound of watercress, and 2 spoonfuls of the vinaigrette. Serves 4.Atelier
Marc Lepine is clearly having fun playing with his food. It's just as easy to envision this 31-year-old chef foraging in the wild for cattail shoots, sumac berries and milkweed blossoms as it is to picture him experimenting in his kitchen in mad-scientist fashion or artistically arranging plates of visually arresting food. Whichever hat he's wearing, his just-opened new restaurant is proof positive of his determination to reinvent the dining experience in delicious and magical ways. Its very name, Atelier, which means workshop, exemplifies the creativity for which Marc has become renowned in the Ottawa food scene. At Atelier, you'll be served dishes that are equally intriguing in terms of their preparation, appearance and taste. The element of surprise is front and centre, with a 12-course menu that plays with texture and form while delivering unparalleled flavour. An Atelier plate might have as many as 18 elements - a crab dish, for example, could include a bacon paste, black truffle, chives, dehydrated leeks, mousseline sauce, sous-vide potatoes and much more. As you wind your way through the meal, you'll encounter numerous delightful surprises, such as torched marshmallows, which become liquefied and are served in a shot glass, or another unique treat, prepared tableside, which involves liquid nitrogen and a medley of delicious flavours. Each day's inventive menu starts with the freshest local ingredients and is concocted using revolutionary appliances such as solar ovens, immersion circulators, small induction cooking surfaces, and the thermomix, a compact device that chops, blends, heats, and whips, replacing up to 10 linear feet of other kitchen machinery. These tools allow Marc to dispense with conventional equipment - you won't find a stove, grill or deep fryers at Atelier. "I can fit my entire kitchen into a cupboard," he says proudly. After 13 years in the business, Marc is quick to say that he didn't choose to become a chef; rather, the profession chose him. "I'd worked as a restaurant dishwasher in high school and really liked being in the kitchen." Stints at two Ontario culinary schools were followed by apprenticeships in France and Italy as well as four summers as executive chef at the famed Bartlett Lodge in Algonquin Park. "It was when I came to Ottawa seven years ago to become executive chef at the Courtyard Restaurant that I first began to dream of opening my own place," he explains. Marc acknowledges that while it was very exciting to be able to introduce many innovations to the Ottawa food scene while at the Courtyard, where he garnered two prestigious Chef of the Year awards from the Canadian Culinary Federation, he knew by last fall that it was time to make his dream a reality. Marc has assembled a youthful but eminently talented team for his small Rochester Street restaurant. Together with his 21-year-old sommelier, Steve Robinson, and his 26-year-old sous chef, Sarah Allen, Marc Lepine is optimistic that Atelier will succeed in its goal of redefining the modern dining experience. "For the past five years, the culinary world has been changing faster than ever," says Marc. "It is so much fun to surprise diners and watch their reactions." Marc believes Atelier will readily earn its place as one of the few restaurants in town where people go when they want a big night out. "An evening with us is much more of an experience than simply just a good meal."Raspberry
Just as he is always trying to push the boundaries of his own cooking in exciting new directions, Marc likes this recipe because it offers an interesting way to experiment with new flavours such as milkweed and sumac, which are abundantly available in the Ottawa area. Less adventuresome cooks can also substitute vanilla extract as a flavouring for the chocolate, and replace the sumac with lemon juice. This is a playful, exciting dish that is as much fun to look at as it is to eat and showcases how Atelier's kitchen elevates every flavourful preparation from sublime to sensational. For the raspberry sheets: ½ lb raspberries (if using frozen, thaw first and drain) 2 sheets gelatin (or 4 g gelatin powder) 1 g agar-agar (available at health food stores and Asian groceries) ¼ cup sugar Bloom sheet gelatin in a bowl of cold water until soft, then drain. If using powdered gelatin, dissolve per package directions. While gelatin is softening, in a small saucepan, mix raspberries, sugar, and agar-agar and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the drained gelatin, then puree the mixture in a very high speed blender while still hot. Strain and pour puree over parchment paper. It should begin to set almost immediately. Cut into 4 large triangles and set aside. For the chocolate sphere: ½ lb 72 per cent chocolate, chopped 250 ml heavy cream 1 bunch milkweed flowers (or 1 tsp good-quality vanilla) 6 Tbsp unflavoured Pop Rocks candy In a saucepan, heat cream to just under a boil. Add chocolate and milkweed flowers (or vanilla) and stir over low heat until chocolate is melted. Turn off heat, cover pot and let infuse for 15 minutes, then strain. Cool mixture in refrigerator, then shape chocolate into small spheres and freeze. Just before serving, roll half of each sphere in Pop Rocks. For the mint cream: 250 ml heavy cream ½ bunch mint leaves 6 egg yolks ¼ cup sugar In a small pot, stir egg yolks and sugar together and set aside. In another pot, heat cream slowly with mint; remove from heat, cover and let infuse for 20 minutes. Bring the cream mixture back up to 82 C. Stir ¼ cup of the warmed cream into the egg yolks and beat well; once the yolks have been tempered in this way, they can be added to the cream. Heat the combined ingredients until the entire mixture reaches 82 c. Spoon it into small shapes onto a steel tray coated with cooking spray and freeze. For the sumac-honey syrup: 250 ml honey 6 medium sumac bunches (or 1 tsp fresh lemon juice) 250 ml water In a small pot, bring honey and water to a boil. Turn heat off and add sumac bunches (or lemon juice); cover and let infuse for 10 minutes. Strain this mixture into a clean pot and boil over medium-low heat, reducing until syrupy in consistency To finish: Tiny mint sprigs Raspberries 2 oranges: use a sharp knife to remove skin and pith from oranges, then carefully remove segments (the resulting crescent-shaped pieces are called suprêmes) Place raspberry sheet in the middle of the plate. Place chocolate sphere in middle of the triangle and surround with oranges, raspberries, and mint cream. Drizzle sumac-honey syrup on plate; garnish with tiny mint sprigs. Serves 4. Written by Paula Roy