Ottawa has some new gems on the dining front that are turning heads not only for the calibre of their food, but also for their genuine and comprehensive approach to hospitality.
It might seem like an unusual neighbourhood for haute cuisine, but Chef Jason McLelland intentionally chose Mechanicsville when he opened Grunt last May. A native of Scotland who has cooked at some of the top spots around the world, Jason says that he wants to show people that fine dining doesn’t need to be expensive and flashy to be intriguing.
With just 22 seats, Grunt offers a cozy, modest environment with rustic barn board throughout and interesting art on the walls. You can watch this genial chef at work in the open kitchen; he might ferry your plates to your table, or it might be his gracious, friendly wife Marie.
A short but well-chosen wine list complements the equally-brief food menu, which changes every two weeks. Among the many popular dishes that have been featured are an inventive take on the porchetta sandwich and a gnocchi Parisienne in carbonara sauce. Vegan and vegetarian options are always available. Dessert is always a standout; recent selections have included sticky toffee pudding, upscale bread and butter pudding, and a gorgeous squid ink meringue with strawberry ice cream and peppered strawberries.
With a name like Grunt you might think it’s a meat-centric restaurant but there’s more to the story. “This is my time,” says Jason. “I worked for others at a very high level for so long, making outstanding food and helping sell excellence. But when you’re grunting it out for others, there’s a lot that goes on that guests never know about. Now I get to do things my way and be open and transparent about it. I want people to see it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to eat well and I want this place to be a springboard for making change in the industry.”
While the name of this new Elgin Street eatery might conjure up notions of French sophisticates, rest assured that Gitanes is a comfortable, welcoming spot.
Ottawa native Mitch Lacombe serves as the chef de cuisine at Gitanes, leveraging his experience at Riviera and Restaurant e18hteen. He helped develop the menu with executive chef Luke Reyes, who is one of the restaurant’s owners. It reflects classic French culinary traditions, fused with local, Canadian ingredients. “We serve dishes that people can recognize as comfort food and which are accessible, yet elevated with unusual touches,” says Mitch.
The cold seafood bar is a highlight of any visit to Gitanes—from oysters to sea urchin to king salmon crudo, there is an ever-changing array of delights. Popular entrees include French onion soup—complete with bone marrow on top to scoop out into the dish—as well as vegetarian options such as mushroom Bolognese on vegan pasta or a delicate celery salad with spicy pickled raisins, toasted hazelnuts and Quebec blue cheese. For a real indulgence, the chef’s table in the kitchen seats six for a lively, interactive experience.
After 10 pm, a late night menu takes over, making Gitanes popular among workers in the restaurant industry. “It’s a homage to the original OZ Kafe which was in this space for many years and was a bustling late-night spot,” explains Mitch.
Don’t miss a chance to try one of Gitanes’ creative cocktails. If you’re lucky, you might even be seated at the one table which features a “press here for champagne” button, summoning a cart full of interesting bottles of bubbly. It’s a casual, fun place, offering diners a culinary experience that is unique in Ottawa.
Chef Arup Jana gained legions of fans with his first restaurant, Allium, which is due to reopen this summer after a devastating fire in February 2019. Together with his wife Maggie Von zur-Muehlen, Arup has just opened a new spot in Westboro called Brassica. It is the genus name for the plant family which includes kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and broccoli—all among the chef’s favourites. Plus, as Arup points out, it offers continuity with the Allium name (allium being the genus name for the garlic family).
The 68-seat restaurant has understated decor; it's the menu that really sets the atmosphere for Brassica. Arup has created a comprehensive bill of fare which acknowledges the current desire for foods that are lower in carbs and contain less gluten, along with dairy free options and an emphasis on vegetables and fish. It’s a diverse, seasonal menu with reasonable-sized portions and pricing. All the food is made in-house, and reflects what Arup and Maggie themselves enjoy, along with a concise and interesting wine list.
“Brassica offers the kind of experience that I want when I go out to eat or when I am cooking at home. It’s not just a protein, a side and a starch; we are encouraging sharing and trying as many things as possible. We believe we have the right formula to make people happy and feel like they got good value.”
Brassica is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, with both lunch and casual day-long and drop-in menus also available on Fridays. In addition, there’s an innovative, appealing brunch on offer both Saturdays and Sundays.