Where to Eat Now
Restaurant Eighteen 18 York St., 613-244-1188
Surf and turf? Rather antiquated, I’d say! The stuffed potato, the spinach (creamed, of course), the Manhattan ... didn’t we toss all that out 30 years ago? Wait a sec.
At Restaurant Eighteen, resuscitation is in full force, courtesy of executive chef David Godsoe.
In his 1957 book Mythologies, French literary theorist Roland Barthes talked about the primitive act of eating steak: “The heart of the meat, it is meat in its pure state, and whoever partakes of it assimilates a bull-like strength.” We still crave such fortitude, such masculinity. Meanwhile, the paler seafood serves as helpmate to this red-blooded slab. Such a union: the power, the glory!
Godsoe serves our nostalgia well while carrying the torch forward. Some sauces are traditional: the deep-tasting demi-glace for the beef tenderloin, concocted by early-20th-century chef Auguste Escoffier; the creamy sauce américaine for the lobster (Eighteen’s shellfish is lusciously sweet), invented by Parisian chef Pierre Fraysse upon returning from Chicago. But Godsoe offers new twists too. A duck duo presents roasted breast with sweet-sour juniper agrodolce and a sensuous rillette fritter, crispy shell giving way to tender interior. And you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy Eighteen’s meaty dish of tagliatelle and roasted king oyster mushrooms enriched with nutritional yeast and cashew butter.
The 150-year-old ByWard Market building that houses Eighteen is a fitting backdrop for traditional menu items, with its exposed limestone walls and a gargantuan fireplace. Servers are polite and attentive. (Rather quaintly, one hand is held behind the back when serving.) Knowledge, even about the lengthy 15-or-so-page wine list, is their business. Yet all are personable: intelligent, entertaining conversation is quite likely to ensue. Speaking of wine, a red that packs a punch without being overblown — the Paulo Laureano Vinhas Velhas from Portugal — has an earthiness, a spiciness nicely brought out by a steak’s robustness. Meanwhile, Domaine de Mauperthuis Chablis from France is ripe and round, its nuttiness perfect with, say, lobster.
Back to food and the details of dinner. An octopus appetizer is proposed two ways: as a terrine and grilled (this most tenderly). The former does get rather lost underneath the latter (all those arms), but rich, spicy mayonnaise works a treat. Eighteen’s version of Caesar salad includes lovely chewy cubes of bacon and crunchy croutons. However, the red sail and other soft lettuces cannot hold their own against the thick dressing. There’s good reason to use robust romaine. Melt-in-the-mouth pink beef carpaccio, though, is perfect with pickled shallots and deep-fried capers. You could eat only that and be content if there weren’t so much else on offer.
A lavish supper, indeed, but don’t hold back on dessert. Crème brûlée could be dismissed as conventional if it weren’t for this one’s unmitigated orangey creaminess and the excellent crunch of caramelized crust. Steak, seafood, let’s have it! Mains $31–$55. Open daily 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Thanjai 108 Third Ave., 613-695-1969
Thanjai Ottawa is the baby sister of Thanjai Montreal, which has been serving South Indian food for six years. Three chefs from the Montreal branch regularly rotate through the Ottawa restaurant; all three are from the same area of South India, and two have worked in restaurants in the Middle East.
We start with an onion bhaji to keep the hunger pangs at bay while we work our way through the menu, which is an encyclopedia of Southern Indian food. With wisps of crispy-thin deep-fried onions loosely tangled in a disc, it’s more latke than the bhaji balls I’m accustomed to.
We can’t resist that most traditional of southern foods, the dosa. At Thanjai, the Ghee Paper Masala Dosa, complete with mildly spicy potato masala, stretches off the plate and is both delicate and filling. And because we are in a sharing mood, we choose a lunch thali: a traditional South Indian meal with lots of small bowls that include fish, soup, lentils, a green vegetable that we never manage to identify, and a dessert, as well as rice, naan bread, and a chapatti. Flavours are lively, not overly spicy, and varied.
During a subsequent visit, we begin with a chili idly, curious to see if the double chili sign on the menu will bring water to our eyes. A large pile of disturbingly red chunks of idly arrives. The soft, pillowy cubes of rice and lentil flour, rolled in rice flour and deep-fried for a chewy crust, are dotted with green peppers and flecks of chili pepper in a sticky chili sauce. Within seconds, my guest is sweating beneath the eyes and I’m gulping glasses of water. As our mouths get accustomed to the heat, we make a good dent in a generous serving.
We move on to a Chettinad chicken curry and lamb biryani. The mention of “boneless” elsewhere on the menu should have been a giveaway, but we were both surprised to find fairly large chunks of bone in our food. No doubt authentic, it wasn’t the kind of surprise we were looking for. The Chettinad curry came with a generous sauce, layered with the flavours of spices from the Chettinad region, while a huge mound of biryani in a beautiful beaten-copper bowl offered small pieces of sweet lamb and a whole hard-boiled egg hidden in rice flecked with tomato, with hints of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Open daily for lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays. Mains $8–$16
The Soca Kitchen 93 Holland Ave., 613-695-9190
Soca is a husband-and-wife venture with Daniela Manrique in the kitchen and her partner, Gustavo Belisario, working at front of house. Both are originally from Venezuela. They opened the restaurant on Holland in 2014.
Tapas fans expecting bread to come right away and at no cost will be disappointed. Bread must be ordered (and paid for) but will be appreciated — a chewy sourdough with a generous smear of flavourful tomato-and-garlic purée (called pan tomaca). It’s not baked in-house. With a casual shrug, Belisario explains that at Soca, they leave the bread to “the experts.”
Corn tortillas loaded up with shredded pork offer juicy mouthfuls, thanks to a spicy pineapple salsa and an orange marinade; a garnish of pink pickled onions and shredded lettuce adds a lovely acidic note, while cilantro crema lends colour and freshness. The stuffed piquillo peppers with almonds are a big hit. The garnet peppers are roasted to a sweet softness and stuffed with Quebec goat cheese. Candied slivers of almonds adorn the top.
Less successful are the lamb meatballs. They are a bit tough and dry although still tasty thanks to a crust of cinnamon and cumin. An egg is served on the side that is very runny, adding gooeyness.
But it’s the seafood where Soca shines. Grilled calamari are tender, lying on a bed of thick yogurt, almost a labneh, adorned with drops of a lime-infused oil. The squid are topped with a chimichurri and then covered with a mass of crispy onions.
Also delicious — and beautiful — is the ceviche. Tuna and shrimp arrive in a bowl with hominy, avocado, and a crispy wafer — the flavours soaking up the garlic in the lime-and-cucumber marinade.
Sourdough and pan tomaca make a reappearance, this time topped with pickled mussels. But the combo falls short: the mussels sink too easily into the soft bread and the flavours are too acidic when combined.
For dessert, we choose a caramelized mango, which is as you expect: slices of mango sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar glazed under the salamander. Fine, but not memorable.
The wine list is short, but a lovely Spanish Tempranillo is a good partner for the dishes.
The service is casual. On one visit, whether by coincidence or intention, every dish came out at the same time, crowding the table. At a second visit, the timing of dishes was on point. Inconsistencies aside, the adventuresome menu and welcoming atmosphere mean that there will be a third visit.
Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday and brunch on Sunday. Tapas: $11–$24
Jabberwocky 315 Somerset St. W., 613-231-1010
Since 2011, Ottawa diners have been going to Union Local 613 on Somerset Street for great southern cuisine. Whether for brunch, lunch, or dinner, chef Darren Flowers gets creative with classics and fearless with the unusual — pickled fiddleheads, smoked duck hearts — you get the idea.
This contrasts sharply with what’s been taking place upstairs since last spring. To emphasize how very different Jabberwocky is from Union 613, the name, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, was chosen as a way to remind guests that they are entering a very different space.
While Union Local 613 is roadhouse cool, with its shared tables, mismatched plates, Mason jars, and raucous playlist, at Jabberwocky, you feel as though you are in an aerie of light, under the eaves. Film noir is projected on the bar walls, adding an otherworldly element.
Jabberwocky also impresses with its restrained aesthetic, fabulous cocktails, and very tasty vegetarian/ vegan plates designed by chef consultant Mike Frank (Mellos, Citizen’s meatless Mondays) and served up by chef Andrew Fraser.
Like Alice who went through the looking glass, there are messages here, too, to guide you: a blackboard says, “Go outside if you must use your phone”; “Don’t be Sh*tty”; and, importantly, “Cash only”.
“Lavender makes everything so great!” my slightly-tipsy friend exclaims. “I’m so sad this drink is gone!” She’s talking about the last sip of her BBees Knees, a golden concoction of gin, with burnt and spiced honey infused with sage, lavender, and lemon. This cocktail is one of several “brillig” remakes of classics with a creative use of aromatic herbs.
Her buzz may also be explained by excitement about the tasty small plates we’re sharing. We dive into fluffy pillows of fried tofu on a bed of roasted Brussels sprouts topped with pepitas and green onions. A dusting of an “all-dressed” powder (ketchup and spice) punches up the earthy flavours.
Potatoes arrive looking like deviled eggs. They’ve been steamed, hollowed out, and refilled with a mustard, dill, lemon, and garlic dressing with a hint of coconut oil. The top is heaped with a generous handful of fried onions.
Another under-the-ground basic, celery root, is transformed on a bed of chili paste, bolstered with a tahini garlic sauce. Puffy bits of rice cracker add texture, as do the garlic chips on top.
Staff are helpful in explaining the drinks and food menus and attentive in service.
Open Wednesday to Saturday 7 p.m.to 2 a.m. Small plates $12
Antiquated? Anything but! Housed inside a 150-year-old building, Eighteen’s menu serves nostalgia well, while still being creative with classics