Ottawa: Capital of flavours

by Heidi Small, aka The Wander Woman

With Aeroplan’s wind at my back, I was thrilled to plan a mini-holiday to Ottawa. Much like the city itself, the food landscape of Canada’s capital is quiet and unassuming, yet rich with secret finds. It’s also only two hours down the highway from my home in Montreal, and less than an hour by air from Toronto. I was well-versed in Ottawa’s chef scene by the time my two-night sojourn began, and, as always, I dove in headfirst.

Riviera is an architectural gem and housed in a former bank building. Frequented by many a politico, I noticed eyes swivelling whenever someone made an entrance, in case the next person to walk through the door was the prime minister! I grabbed a quiet seat and delighted in the open space feel of this restaurant, helmed by chef Jordan Holley and sommelier Alex McMahon. 

Things started with the perfect, sharing-sized scallop crudo with creme fraiche, poppy seeds, caviar, endive and a luxurious touch of caviar lending richness and a salty ocean kick. The mushrooms on toast featured bold, seasonal hen-of-the-wood funghi topped with fresh chives and shaved truffle, and was a tower of flavour. Next: five puffed clouds of heaven, in the form of a sublime ricotta gnudi (a gnocchi-like dumpling) with fresh snap peas that melted on the tongue. I wanted to lick the plate.

The finale dish of lobster spaghetti was made with fresh al dente pasta, which sashayed around my fork with fleshy pieces of fresh lobster. And I chose a dish from the dessert menu (which cheekily asks “DID YOU SAVE SOME ROOM?”) called Chocolate Nemesis, which, topped with whipped sour cream, turned out to be the lightest mix of sweet and sour. 

That age-old question of what gets you out of bed in the morning? My answer: coffee. And in a new city, the quest to discover a new latte gets elevated to a whole new level.

That’s how I found myself at Art Is In Bakery, a place that melds so effortlessly into its industrial warehouse setting that it has you wondering if your GPS made a mistake. Step inside, however, and you’ll find an oasis. Owners Kevin and Stephanie Mathieson and their daughter Emily have mastered the warm, casual feel in form of a huge, open-concept space with monster-height ceilings and a bevy of kiosk-like offerings. Aside from coffee, there’s a sumptuous selection of artisanal breads, baguettes and pastries. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. 

Despite the line-ups, the service was efficient. I sipped a perfect flat white with oat milk, and devoured a croissant and a chocolatine in minutes. Both were buttery, flaky and decadent. For coffee-lovers who enjoy a light, airy interior, this place nails it! 

I like to think of meals as an escape, especially when it comes to travel. Pelican Seafood Market and Grill’s nostalgic vibe will have you hearing seagulls and feeling the ocean splash across your face. (Just imagine that ocean being tucked away in a strip mall.) This family restaurant, now manned by third-generation grandson Emile-Roy Foster, would make the founding great-grandfather proud. 

I slurped back a dozen fresh oysters before a handful of specialty dishes were paraded out of the kitchen. Pelican’s classic clam chowder was silky smooth, with nugget-sized potato and clam morsels and the requisite crackers crumbled in. Their dill mayo-infused lobster roll left me certain that a fisherman was out back, net in hand, boasting about his latest catch. 

Later that afternoon, after taking on most of Ottawa on foot, it was time for that true holiday indulgence: the midday cocktail. Housed in a 122-year-old building, The Rabbit Hole took me straight to Wonderland. Even the glass containing my smoked peach Old Fashioned, prepared by co-owner Mitch Cole, was an artform: smoked with cinnamon and cardamom, and rimmed with orange zest. The drink itself warmed my soul as I cozied up to the bar. Chef and co-owner Christopher Juneau was onsite, prepping a menu rich with options, from steak frites to charcuterie plates. This place is a true find on a gusty Ottawa day.

Walking into the swish restaurant Mati, I was struck by a magnificent bar in the centre of the space, with old school accoutrements ready to shake you up a magical potion from a bygone era. I saddled up close to mixologist Marty Pineault as he tinkered, toiled and created a mouthwatering surprise: a daiquiri made with fresh lime juice, poured to perfection in delicate and ornate glassware. 

My sit-down with the owners, husband-and-wife team Elias Theodossiou and April Miller, felt less like a first-time encounter and more like visiting old friends. You can feel the warmth and care exuding from these two, and their heartfelt commitment to their staff. The setting itself reminds me of being in someone’s (very nicely decorated) living room: an exposed brick wall is dotted with fresh plants; hardwood floors and cozy corner banquettes invite you to stay a while. 

The kitchen is captained by chef Julian Hiotis, and the menu is touted as “the art of crudo and charcoal styles”. I sampled a yellowfin tuna crudo that burst with texture and melted in my mouth with a kicker of a finish – a Serrano pepper adornment. I was ready to fight Elias for the last bite, but, ever the gentleman, he was more than happy to acquiesce.

North & Navy is the trifecta of great dining: love, dedication and wildly magnificent food. This was demonstrated not just by the menu, but by co-owner Chris Schlesak’s warm greeting – and then his explanation that his dishwasher was out of service, and that he was on dish duty for the night. 

Sitting as close to the open kitchen as I could, I watched chef and co-owner Adam Vettorel lean painstakingly into every dish as if it were a standalone masterpiece. Nothing was rushed, and what could easily have been just another frantically paced kitchen exuded a passion-fuelled energy. 

Fresh bread and butter accompanied a mini crab croquette, lovingly plated on an antique dish, the kind your grandmother would save for special occasions. Next was an equally dainty dish of house-cured prosciutto topped with delicate pieces of peach, which I devoured in nanoseconds. I requested a pasta dish and received eight billowy soft, ricotta-filled agnolotti, sprinkled with poppy seeds and granny smith apple slivers – a flavour play that had me weak in the knees. And on breaks between shifts in the dishwasher trenches, Chris poured me biodynamic wines that exploded with the flavours of each dish. 

Like someone newly in love, I obsessed about North & Navy for days… until I did what any desperate eater would: I got back in my car and drove two hours for another taste.

Ottawa, we’ll be seeing each other again very soon.