Ottawa At Home has found a number of restaurants that pair perfectly with appetites coming in from the cold and are cool with diners in winter sportswear.
When visiting the Blackbird Café in Burnstown, don't be surprised if the table on your right is occupied by an immaculately-dressed couple while the folks on your left are in ski gear. Such is the charm of Charlene Chevalier's popular establishment located just fifteen minutes from Calabogie Peaks, or less than an hour from central Ottawa.
Housed in a gorgeous heritage building, the Blackbird draws people from all over the Ottawa Valley, thanks to its nostalgic atmosphere made all the more appealing by top-notch food. Charlene is quick to credit chef Dawn Smith for creating dishes that appeal to a broad range of tastes.
"Items on our specials board seem to be a big hit, although there are lots of favourites permanently on the menu such as our chicken, bacon and brie wrap," says Charlene. "We are busy from midday until evening each of the five days per week that we are open during the winter. It's gratifying when people tell us that they plan their excursions around our schedule."
Known for its very friendly service and generous portions, some of the Blackbird's well-loved dishes include quesadillas, vegetarian wraps, burgers and homemade soups. Salads are also a big hit with the many regulars, particularly the Greek salad. Those with a sweet tooth are sure to enjoy the desserts, including a decadent chocolate and banana cake as well as a moist, flavourful carrot cake.
Chelsea in Quebec is only 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa and home to the Gatineau Park's Visitor Centre, Camp Fortune ski hill and innumerable trails for winter sports. One hot spot for great food in the village is Café Soup'Herbe. Its vegetarian menu routinely makes converts out of meat eaters.
"I am very proud that a visit to Soup'Herbe can change someone's impression of vegetarian food," says owner Josée Lafrenière. "We occasionally have people come in who seem a bit reticent about the menu - it seems they think they will not feel satisfied by our food. Their reaction is always the same - they are pleasantly surprised and impressed by the robust, homemade food."
Josée's menu always has vegan and gluten-free options, and there are year-round favourites. Items such as curried vegetable triangles, spanakopita and a rich, flavourful burrito are stalwarts in Soup'Herbe's extensive menu which features over forty items including starters, sandwiches and wraps, pastas, pizzas, salads, children's options and desserts.
"We know there really is something for everyone on this menu," confirms Josée. She notes that the red Thai curry, loaded with vegetables, is a great way to warm up on a winter's day, as is the alfredo pasta. You'd be remiss if you left without trying at least one dessert; the maple praline cheesecake is particularly decadent and delightful.
CHOCOMOTIVE GARE DE MONTEBELLO
An established local chocolate-making enterprise, Chocomotive renovated and moved into the former Montebello train station in 2010. Now a part of the extensive Economuseum network which showcases artisans at work, Chocomotive's operation includes a delightful bistro featuring the creations of co-owners and seasoned chefs Gaetan Tessier and Luc Gielen.
Built over eight decades ago, the former train station is constructed of the same west coast red cedar used to build the nearby Chateau Montebello. The station was relocated to the centre of town after its decommissioning, and its proud history is now reflected in Chocomotive's name and logo.
The bistro's short, unpretentious menu is modified frequently as Gaetan and Luc enjoy working closely with the many vegetable, fruit, cheese and meat producers throughout the Petite Nation and Outaouais regions. Highlights on the winter menu include a sandwich of ham, brie and chocolate-caramelized onions, chili with local salsa verde and a rich, delicious mac ‘n' cheese with local bacon. If you're lucky, they will have the leek and three-cheese quiche or their incomparable quinoa salad with a hint of local maple syrup, on the menu when you visit.
Micro-brews, plus local and privately imported wines, are a nice accompaniment to the carefully crafted food. Their house-made chocolates are a fitting conclusion.
"We get a lot of visitors who've been dogsledding, snowshoeing or snowmobiling on the nearby trails," says Gaetan. "Sometimes they initially come in to watch and learn as we are making our chocolates, but then they want to stay for lunch when they see the menu because everything is fresh, made from local products and it's very inexpensive."
THE HEIRLOOM CAFÉ BISTRO
Perched beside the rushing waters of the Mississippi River in Almonte, an easy half-hour drive from Ottawa, sits the 150-year-old Victorian Woollen Mill. With stone walls, exposed wood posts and beams, the gorgeous space is now home to the Heirloom Café Bistro and made even more enjoyable thanks to a creative menu and polished service.
Even after three years, co-owners and chefs Richard and Brandy Kletnieks still revel in their view overlooking the falls. "We feel connected to nature because of our proximity to the water, so it becomes very inspiring to update the menu as our vista changes with the seasons," says Richard. "Almonte is a favourite destination for a day in the country - we receive many guests who come to walk about and visit the shops, then cap it off with a nice meal. We're also just 20 minutes from Mount Pakenham so the ski crowd likes it here too."
At lunch, you might enjoy a roast beef sandwich with beet relish, goat cheese and arugula prepared on Art-is-in bread, a braised lamb calzone, or a mushroom, kale and sundried tomato Croque Monsieur with brie and red onion jam. The Heirloom's bison, elk, duck confit and pork tourtière is so popular they now also sell whole ones for takeaway. Desserts, courtesy of Brandy the pastry chef, are outstanding.