Home » Traveling Gourmet — Ottawa, Canada

Traveling Gourmet — Ottawa, Canada

by Jeff Heilman
Canadian Parliament in Ottawa (Photo by Sergii Figurnyi)

No matter the time of year, Ottawa's cuisine is a celebration of both tradition and innovation, making it a food lover's paradise waiting to be explored.

Canadian Parliament in Ottawa (Photo by Sergii Figurnyi)

When I first visited Ottawa in 2010, the food scene was widely considered “bland” along with the city itself.

An appetizing transformation was afoot though, and today, that adage no longer applies as Canada’s enlivened capital can convincingly claim gastronomy as a calling card.

The fairytale French Renaissance-style Fairmont Château Laurier (1 Rideau Street. Tel: 613-241-1414. fairmont.com/laurierottawa) has been the place to see and be seen since 1912.

If a newsman in Ottawa needs a story in a hurry…he simply drops into the lobby of the Château Laurier and interviews almost anyone in sight,” declared Canadian National Magazine in 1948 of the “fabulous Château.” Under no such pressure from Passport, my recent three day dining adventure, made surreal by Canadian wildfire smoke, began with famed Afternoon Tea at Zoe’s, the hotel’s conservatory-like lobby bar. The space is named after Lady Zoe, wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh prime minister and namesake of the hotel and its fine dining Wilfred’s Restaurant.

Fairmont Chat̂eau Laurier Afternoon Tea Desserts (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Fairmont Chat̂eau Laurier Afternoon Tea Desserts (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

From 21 curated choices, I chose the Maple Cream black tea, along with a tower of English scones, open-faced sandwiches, and delectable desserts. Charmingly presenting the experience was 25-year property veteran Nicole Giguère, who won the “Exceptional Service: Restaurant/Culinary” category at Tourism Ottawa’s long-running “Shine On” hospitality awards in May 2023.

La Terrasse, the Château’s covered outdoor patio, is for cocktails and prime views of neighboring Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next door, Parisian inspired Métropolitain Brasserie (metropolitainbrasserie.com) features Ottawa’s largest raw bar and popular weekday “Hill Hour” featuring “Buck-a-Shuck” oysters every Thursday.

Eight local restaurants made the annual Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list, up from six in 2022, signifying Ottawa’s rising culinary status. Four returnees from prior years include hotspot Riviera (62 Sparks Street. Tel: 613-233-6262. dineriviera.com) from serial chef restaurateur Jordan Holley. Updating a 1930’s Art Deco bank with soaring ceilings and giant end windows, the building sets an elegant stage for Holley’s Mediterranean-influenced “new Canadian” cuisine.

When traveling, I follow the late Anthony Bourdain’s advice to “…order the steak rare, eat an oyster. Have a negroni, have two…” whenever possible. Seated at the inviting long bar which fronts the open kitchen and curls at one end like a musical note, I went straight for the steak tartare and oysters, plus tuna crudo and subtle white fish caviar served in a tin. Renowned Ottawa mixologist Stephen Flood’s menu features inventive, mezcal-based negronis, including the Red Right Hand, a spicy, smoky fistful with coffee- and dried chipotle-infused Vermouth.

Ranked 49th on the 100 Best list, Riviera resides within SoPa, or South of Parliament, a new branding initiative to promote the downtown core south of Parliament Hill as an entertainment district. Other restaurants bringing much-needed sex appeal to this seven-block grid of corporate towers, government offices, and heritage buildings include Beckta dining & wine (150 Elgin Street. Tel: 613-238-7063. beckta.com).

How this classy restaurant and wine bar fell off this year’s 100 Best list is a mystery. Staged within another heritage property, the 1875 Grant House, the service, cuisine, and wine list were exceptional.

With sister restaurants Play food & wine and gezellig to his name, Ottawa-born owner Stephen Beckta worked in NYC with Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud and Danny Meyer at Eleven Madison Park before coming home. To evoke Bourdain again, the steak tartare at his legendary NYC flagship Les Halles is my enduring benchmark for the French raw beef classic. Beckta’s version was right up there. Other highlights of the small but unerring menu included roasted asparagus with pickled fennel and roasted almonds.

Another SoPa star is bustling Thali (136 R. O’Connor Street. Tel: 613-594-4545. thaliottawa.ca) from award-winning Indo-Canadian author, restaurateur, and chef Joe Thottungal. Dating more than 5,000 years ago to South India as a ceremonial feast for royals, Thali (round plate) comprises up to ten different dishes originally served on banana leaf and now in small bowls (khatoris) on a platter.

Thali at Thali Restaurant(Photo by Jeff Heilman)

Thali at Thali Restaurant (Photo by Jeff Heilman)

From the extensive menu, I started with the zesty Tandoori Lamb Chops and mint chutney before diving into the eight-bowl Traditional Thali. Served in a copper platter with rice, crisp papadum, and paratha flatbread, the vegetable curries and dishes with chickpeas, chicken, lamb, and mushrooms were a heady spin.

After schooling at the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus in Napa Valley and furthering his chops at Michelin starred restaurants including Michael Mina in San Francisco and former world-ranked Fäviken in northern Sweden, Raghav Chaudhary brings his expertise and eye for detail to sophisticated Aiāna (50 O’Connor Street. Tel: 613-680-8100. aiana.ca).

Meaning “eternal flower” in Somali, this stylish sanctuary, co-owned by his father Devinder Chaudhary, is a level above. In the impressive show kitchen, Chef Raghav and his crew celebrate Canada’s multi-cultural culinary heritage with offerings including the ten-course Chef’s Tasting Menu.

Highlights from the land and sea, all exquisitely plated, include oysters, truffles, foie gras, and lobster. Exceptional entrees include the fagottini pasta, pursed with prosciutto, zucchini, ricotta, and boursin. His imaginative take on the traditional layered Nanaimo bar from British Columbia, paired with Canadian ice wine, exemplified the artfully constructed desserts. Aiāna’s glassed in wine collection won the Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator in 2022.

Chef Raghav is one of six Ottawa chefs competing in the regional qualifier for the 2024 Canadian Culinary Championship.

My second digs, The Metcalfe Hotel (123 Metcalfe Street. Tel: 613-231-6555. themetcalfehotel.com) brings boutique ease to the SoPa scene.

Sited on the former home of Sir George Étienne Cartier, renowned as the Father of the Confederation that created the Dominion of Canada in 1867 (a decade after Queen Victoria designated Ottawa as Canada’s capital), the red brick building became a YMCA in 1906 and then a hotel in the 1960’s before a relaunch as the four-star Metcalfe in 2017.

The staff are genuinely welcoming, while the common areas, including the centerpiece library-style Living Room and naturally-lit five story atrium, follow an artful modern design aesthetic which carries throughout all 108 guest rooms. The atrium is an extension of Cocotte Bistro, the hotel’s attractive and leisurely French restaurant, where I lunched on well-delivered frog legs and salmon tartare.

After lunch I head for ByWard Market (byward-market.com), Ottawa’s birthplace. Established in 1826 by Lieutenant-Colonel John By, builder of the Rideau Canal, as a commercial center to support the builders of the still-operational UNESCO-listed strategic waterway, this roughly four-block pedestrian-friendly district incorporates some 120 restaurant, bars, and cafes.

Self-guided and guided food tours from C’est Bon Ottawa (200 Dalhousie Street. Tel: 613-722-8687. cestbonottawa.ca) are a great way to go. Co-owner Stefanie Siska, herself a 2023 “Shine On” honoree, arranged parts of my itinerary for this story, the ByWard included. Dining options run the gamut from fine cuisine to multi-ethnic fare, along with specialty food shops, boutiques, galleries, salons, smoke shops, and more.

Highlights include the centerpiece farmers’ market, one of the oldest in Canada, and legendary Le Moulin de Province café, bakery, and pastry shop. Family-run Château Lafayette, locally called The Laff, is the city’s oldest bar (1849), boasting dive bar appeal, live music, and tasty food, including poutine with green peppercorn gravy.

Drink, dance, and catch the free outdoor patio drag shows at all-welcoming LGBTQ+ haven The Lookout Bar and Nightclub (41 York Street, 2nd Floor. Tel: 613-789-1624. thelookoutbar.com).

Tuna Crudo with Puffed Quinoa and Serrano Chile (Photo by Riviera)

Tuna Crudo with Puffed Quinoa and Serrano Chile (Photo by Riviera)

Authentic taqueria Corazón de Maíz serves tasty Mexican street food with seven signature sauces made in-house. Housed in a historic hotel building, Grand Pizzeria & Bar, with retro-Italian poster art and photographs setting an authentic Roman vibe, delivers hot pies with expert chewy crust and char. Located in a former stone Army barracks with an outdoor courtyard where dissenters were once hung, English-inspired gastropub Clarendon House is for fresh made fare such as my memorable smoked duck breast. Another choice al fresco spot is the Tavern at the Gallery patio and lounge in the Sunken Garden of the nearby National Gallery of Canada.

In 1978, following his German-Canadian grandmother’s recipe, Grant Hooker and his wife Pam introduced the Beaver Tail at a West Ottawa fair. Formed from hand stretched wholewheat pastry and covered with cinnamon sugar and other toppings, this iconic tail-shaped indulgence is a must try at the original ByWard Market shack. Ottawa is also for beer lovers, and Chez Lucien (137 Murray Street. Tel: 613-241-3533. facebook.com/chezlucienottawa) on ByWard’s outer edge is a cozy local gastropub for craft brews and pub fare.

Just under two miles west of downtown, Ottawa’s Chinatown and Little Italy have fetching culinary cachet. With the monumental Royal Arch and its nine golden roofs, ceremonial Pixiu and Qilin dragons, and parade of human-size cartoon-like bunnies, dogs, and other installations enlivening otherwise non-descript streets, Chinatown’s collection of Asian eateries includes Shanghai Restaurant (651 Somerset Street West. Tel: 613-233-4001).

Locally called The Shang, this pioneering family-run former grocery store from 1971 is for Cantonese and Szechuan food plus art shows, dance parties, disco bingo, and karaoke nights with China-China Doll, co-owner Edward Kwan’s flamboyant alter ego.

Centered around Preston Street (locally “Corso Italia”), neighboring Little Italy is home to Ottawa’s Best 100 leader, Chef Brianna Kim’s vegetable- and fermentation-focused Alice Restaurant (40 Adeline Street. Tel: 613-733-0707. alicerestaurant.ca). Rising from 50th place in 2022 to 31st in 2023, Kim also won the 2023 Canadian Culinary Championship. In 88th place, nearby molecular gastronomy star Atelier features a dazzling four-hour, 40-course tasting menu.

Settled around 1900, this multi-ethnic community’s numerous other dining draws include Gelatini’s for authentic gelato and hip Retro Gusto for antipasti and pizza.

Long-time eyesore City Centre, a 1960’s crescent-shaped warehouse complex on Little Italy’s outskirts, got a major boost in 2010 when classically trained pastry chef Kevin Mathieson and his wife Stephanie opened their all-day Parisian-inspired “gastro-bakery” and café Art-Is-In Bakery (250 City Centre Ave. Unit 112. Tel: 613-695-1226. artisinbakery.com). Line up with locals for tasty coffee, breads, croissants, cookies, cinnamon buns, and other superb baked goods, including the cronut-style “OTowner” croissant-meets-donut.

The fun continues next door at microbrewery Beyond the Pale (250 City Centre Avenue, Unit 108. Tel: 613-668-2337. btpshop.ca). Featuring a hopping taproom and massive outdoor patio, this local’s favorite pours delicious fresh craft brews such as the Dark & Picante, a “Mexican Chocolate Cake Imperial Stout.” Neighboring BBQ joint The Smoque Shack provides the lip-smacking in-house eats.

The next neighborhoods over, Hintonburg and Wellington West, provided the memorable finale for my foodie adventure. Running through these former villages, historic Wellington Street West is one cool culinary corridor of microbreweries, pubs, bakeries, restaurants, and other eateries.

Cruising the entire stretch, I visited West Park Bowling, a 1946 five-pin bowling alley adjacent to 1950’s-style Fil’s Diner; affordable all-day eatery The Third, housed in a former Chinese laundromat; Portuguese bakery Lusa; decadent donut shop Suzy-Q and adjacent brunch favorite The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs; and welcoming Tooth & Nail Brewing Company.

With hotspots Petit Bill’s Bistro and stylish seafood- and pasta-driven Supply and Demand, the latter ranked 63rd on the Best 100 list, commanding the thoroughfare’s far end, I capped my stay with dinner at Absinthe (1208 Rue Wellington St. West. Tel: 613-761-1138. www.absinthecafe.ca). Chef Patrick Garland’s celebrated homage to the “green fairy” intoxicant of 19th-century Paris centers on French-influenced cuisine using ingredients grown within 100 miles of Ottawa. Featuring wild Le Coprin mushrooms and flavored with parsley oil, tarragon, and crème fraiche, his velouté, one of French cuisine’s “mother sauces,” was velvety perfection. Spot on, too, was the marinated and grilled steak frites, and dessert of Malagasy Vanilla Crème Brûlée.

Ottawa has truly become a fully-rounded culinary destination. Bon appetit!

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