Hiding in plain sight, sleuthing about secretly dining at restaurants, Anne DesBrisay has worked as an award-winning food writer and restaurant critic in Ottawa for more than 25 years. While being a restaurant critic can be an isolating job, like a culinary superhero of sorts, maintaining a secret identity is essential to the task. But when the opportunity to gather the best chefs for a cookbook celebrating the capital region's food scene, flipping the tables to work directly with them, DesBrisay couldn't resist.
Writing and co-ordinating this book "meant having to stop the rather lonely business of sneaking around, working as anonymously as I possibly could and meeting these men and women face-to-face. At the same table. Me, still with a pen, but this time telling their stories about food, rather than my take on it," DesBrisay says.
And even though Christian Lalonde's striking photography has illustrated DesBrisay's words in dozens of restaurant reviews and food stories spanning five years of work, the pair had never met in person. But DesBrisay immediately pegged Lalonde as her partner in crime for this project.
The just-released cookbook features recipes — signature dishes from the pages of the restaurants' menus to those served at family celebrations and staff meals — by more than 40 of the city's finest chefs. And as DesBrisay writes in the book's introduction, "they are all, in my books, chefs at the top of their game, cooking their hearts out, contributing to our region's flourishing food scene. Some are in charge of the city's most glamourous restaurants. Others run a diner, a brewery kitchen, a doughnut shack. One drives a truck. Another works in a converted barn of a duck farm. They are chefs from established restaurants that have been raising the bar — splendidly — for decades. And they are chefs from places still in their infancy, but ones that have excited our senses and filled our bellies in immensely satisfying ways."
For the home cook, it's a fabulous collection of approachable recipes ranging in complexity from challenging to no-nonsense. "And taken as a whole, not just recipe to recipe, it's a book that celebrates this city, this region, this bit of place and introduces the men and women who feed it so well," DesBrisay says.
And while Ottawa Cooks is pretty enough to top your coffee table, it is best to be used, as the sample recipes on the following pages will show — flour-dusted, dog-eared and sticky in your kitchen.
Clover West de Castro
West de Castro's copy of The Flavor Bible is torn, tattered, held together with tape. “It’s my go-to,” she tells me over the square of chicken liver pâté she’s just delivered, exquisitely rich, served simply with green apple and crostini. Her food fits the décor— no-frills (“I really like plywood”), put together with creativity, hard work and humour. I love seeing the Bank Street suits slurping up her remarkably good corn soup while sitting on retro school chairs. “So why did you name your restaurant Clover?” I ask de Castro. “It sounded better than ‘small potatoes.’ That was the original idea.” And why small potatoes? “Because I didn’t want anyone to come in here with high expectations.” Right. Well, the trouble is, we have them now, and with good reason.
De Castro is a self-described introvert, but there’s nothing shy about her food. Flavours are confident, exuberant. Formerly cooking at the vegan powerhouse ZenKitchen, she brings a deep love to fresh vegetables.
The brassicas dish she offers us comes from that love, each humble root treated with utmost respect. A power base of navy beans, hit with caper and lemon and some chili heat, drizzled with almond brown butter, it’s a dish whose title sounds a bit like medicine (“No getting up from that table, young lady, till you’ve eaten your brassicas . . .”), but, my God, if my mother had cooked Brussels sprouts like this... Clover is a gem of a place, run by a gem of a woman: shy, modest — and no small potatoes.
Clover Food | Drink
155 Bank St., Ottawa, Ont.
town. Marc Doiron+Lori Wojcik
Feeling as though a restaurant has opened with the sole purpose of making you happy is rare, but I feel that way at town. The husband-and-wife team who run the place wanted two things: to be part of a downtown neighbourhood and to have a wood-burning pizza oven. Marc Doiron and Lori Wojcik found the right space, in the heart of Elgin Street, but it lacked space for a pizza oven. So they switched gears and opened a wine bar that served “inauthentic” Italian food. That’s how chef Doiron describes it in self-effacing fashion. I’d call it inventive Italian, comfort Italian, generous Italian, but the sort of “Italian” not averse to putting ramen on the menu. (Though ramen with an Italian spin.)
It’s abundantly clear on plates that Doiron is a pastry chef by training; there’s a delicacy in even the gutsiest dish. And a scrupulous attention to balance: “Where’s the sweet, where’s the sour, where’s the fragrance, where’s the colour?” You can hear his mind at work on the plate.
His wife’s background is in art restoration. Lori Wojcik ran an art gallery for a dozen years, and she brings to this narrow space sizeable style.
And the couple hires well. The team at town are keepers. The day it opened, six years ago, was the day Elgin Street became a much more interesting place to eat.
296 Elgin St., Ottawa, Ont.
townlovesyou.ca, 613.695.TOWN (8696)
Soif Jamie Stunt+Véronique Rivest
Gosh, we love this story. It starts with the wine win in Québec a few years ago. Véronique Rivest of Wakefield then moved on to top podium finishes at the national sommelier competition and at the Best Sommelier of the Americas. In 2013, she headed to Tokyo for the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition, where she made it to the finals (the only woman ever to reach that level) and ended up placing an unprecedented second. And now this remarkably accomplished woman has opened a wine bar in Gatineau, which snagged a spot on enRoute magazine’s 2015 Top Ten list of Canada’s best new restaurants. You find it in a handsome red-brick house, across the street from the park Rivest played in as a child. Soif it’s called, which is how you are meant to arrive. (Something will be done about that!)
Arrive faim, too. In the kitchen is Jamie Stunt, a chef with an impressive CV, including a Gold Medal Plates gold, and a silver medal from the Canadian Culinary Championships. Stunt has a laudable goal at Soif: to practice restraint. To keep the food winefriendly. “Natural, simple dishes, without too much noise,” as he puts it. Handmade bread with tapenade; house-smoked trout with crème fraîche; and a “Mushroom Melt” in which all the elements of a straightforward dish are utterly sound. Bison tartare vies for my affection with crispy smelts, served with rémoulade and a citrus salad. The star anise beef jus that pools beneath the grilled steak might make for a challenging wine pairing. The smart staff at Soif nails it, bien sûr.
Soif Bar à Vin
88 Montcalm St., Gatineau, Qué.
Excerpts from the pages of Ottawa Cooks: Signature Recipes from the Finest Chefs of Canada's Capital Region, written by Anne DesBrisay with photography by Christian Lalonde, were provided by Figure 1 Publishing. The book is available in stores and online.