Q & A with new restaurateur Bryan Livingston, at MeNa on Preston Street

Q & A with new restaurateur Bryan Livingston, at MeNa on Preston Street

Don’t overfuss with the food, and focus on a few dishes done very well. MeNa has figured it out

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APR 13 14 – 2:40 PM — I’m always heartened to visit a restaurant with a menu that doesn’t try to be all things to all people. Select a handful of dishes, execute them superbly, and people will return for seconds.

It’s a recipe chef Steve Wall and his wife, Jennifer, figured out when they opened Supply & Demand early last year on Wellington Street West. Doubtless their limited menu and attention to detail, executed with precision and aplomb, goes a long way to explain why enRoute magazine in 2013 crowned Supply & Demand as fourth-best new restaurant on a Top 10 list of dining establishments across Canada. Pretty heady stuff.

And it’s a formula the new MeNa restaurant at 276 Preston St. seems to have cottoned on to. To which I say, bravo!

Opened in February, here they churn their own butter and bake their own bread.

mena2Clockwise from top left, co-owner Bryan Livingston, head chef James Bratsberg, co-owner Rick Livingston, bar manager Samuel James.

The menu extends to just five appetizers, five mains and two desserts, ably executed by head chef James Bratsberg, 28, a Toronto native who began his career washing dishes, then moved to Calgary to work with chef Dominique Moussu at Teatro, then chef Scot Woods at Lucien in Toronto, and more recently running the raw bar at Restaurant E18ghteen in the ByWard Market under executive chef Walid El-Tawel.

MeNa is owned is by Bryan Livingston, 27, himself a chef with impressive pedigree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, and his dad, Rick, retired from the high-tech industry. Bryan worked 10 months with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in New York, then just over a year with acclaimed chef Lon Symensma at ChoLon in Denver.

IMG_1467The 40-seat space takes its name from Bryan’s wife, Marina, also a graduate of the Culinary Institute and now a sous chef at Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen + Bar on York Street under executive chef Jonathan Korecki.

Samuel James, 24, is bar manager and sommelier graduate from l’École Hôtelière des Laurentides. He has worked in five-star establishments in Canada and the Cayman Islands, and in vineyards in Ontario and British Columbia.

The wine list includes 20 whites, as many reds, and three sparkling, about 60 per cent Canadian. Four Beau’s brews are on tap, as well as bottled Muskoka ale, and Rhyme & Reason pale ale from Collective Arts Brewing in Burlington, Ont.

Did you notice, the people actually running this place are all under age 30?

MeNa’s arrival is part of what’s been described as something of a metamorphosis among eateries and food shops along Preston Street, a thoroughfare dubbed Corso Italia long dominated by its immigrant Italian roots.

Oh, but MeNa is not Italian at all — if anything, the food rides a nuanced French undercurrent, but with none of the overly gussied presentations you might expect in the haute dining rooms of New York, Paris, or Lyons in France.

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The room is appointed simply but tastefully — no big surprise, really, as designer Shannon Smithers-Gay of One80 Design is also responsible for the clean look at Supply & Demand, Union Local 613, and The Savoy Brasserie. The dominant colour is grey with dark burgundy upholstered banquettes accenting the south wall, a black bar, ebony-stained maple tables and seats, and whitewashed grey barn board panelling on the walls, with signature Edison-style lamps dangling from above. A nice touch: unobtrusive black hooks have been fastened under the table tops to dangle a purse (or, these days, the ubiquitous foodie pocket camera).

Oh, but on to the plates.

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I cannot recall such a satisfying potato soup (photo, above) chock so full of flavour and texture surprises, as the bowl Bryan poured for me on Friday. It arrives hot in a warmed, plain white vessel half-filled with crispy deep-fried potato skin, fresh chives and braised leek. The creamy chicken-based soup is decanted tableside, then finished with a dollop of rich yet bright house-made crème fraîche.

Here, attention to small details make a big difference, as whole local potatoes from Acorn Creek are dampened, then encrusted with coarse salt to draw out excess moisture and make them delightfully fluffy while baking. The flesh goes into the soup; the skins as crispy embellishment reminiscent of pork cracklings.

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Fresh halibut (photo, above) now in season, arrives in two, two-ounce (or so) portions, each cooked sous vide to flaky, fork-tender perfection enrobed with wilted chard. Sliced pomme rosé (that’s red-skin potato, to me) is also prepared sous vide, and three little balls of yellow courgette (er, zucchini). The plate is garnished with mustard cress, fresh tarragon, while rich à la minute emulsified béarnaise presents crisp lemon undertones that brighten the whole effect.

Sorry, no room in my belly for dessert, although Bryan suggests yuzu curd and coconut cake as a very popular request.

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Below, my edited question-and-answer interview with Bryan Livingston (photo, above):

Blogger: How and why did you get into the restaurant business?

Bryan Livingston: I always wanted to be a chef, actually. When I was young I’d stand in the kitchen with my mother and tear apart her vegetable scraps while she was cooking. I was literally age seven, and I’d have a dull plastic knife and would hack apart whatever she wasn’t using for dinner just to make food for the Garbage Monster, as I used to watch Sesame Street. I never stopped wanting to cook.

I’ve been in kitchens 14 years , so MeNa is my first time out of the kitchen and in the front of the house.

Why? I just really enjoy cooking. I went through a co-op program in high school at the Embassy West Hotel, when it was still a hotel, now it’s a senior’s centre. I really like that, so I ended up at the Culinary Institute of America in New York where I met my wife. And I just kept going.

Blogger: How do you describe the approach at MeNa? Your food?

Livingston: Attention to detail is probably the best way. We try to make the little things really important and it comes together as a creative experience. That’s what we shoot for. For example, I believe in the tableside pouring of soup because I think it arrives in a better and prettier fashion, and hot. It’s never cold and it’s never slopped up the side, it just looks better. It’s a little detail that makes a big difference.

We got the comfiest chairs we could find for the bar, because if people are going to sit there I want them to be just as comfortable as if they were seated in the dining room.

Modern French is probably how I would describe the style. It’s like new American, almost like saying nouveau cuisine but probably leaning more toward French. We try to keep ingredients as simple as possible. We do some purées, absolutely, but we try to let the ingredients shine. We try to keep the dishes fairly simple and not try to mask the flavours. Of course, we try to make it look as appealing as possible, but every carrot may not look exactly like a carrot, it may look like an obliquely cut carrot — but it has not been reconstituted, it has not been dehydrated, there are no trans-glutamates to put everything back together.

 

Head chef James Bratsberg

Head chef James Bratsberg

Blogger: How much time did you spend in the kitchens in New York?

Livingston: I worked almost a year at [Iron Chef] Masaharu Morimoto’s in New York in 2011, after graduating in October 2010. A chef friend and mentor of my wife and I, Lon Symensma, was executive chef at Buddakan in New York at the time, and I had gone into there for a time. My wife actually did her internship there, so we were friends. He got us a trial at Morimoto, they liked us and offered us jobs, so my wife and I both worked there. I worked mornings, she worked nights. Then, Symensma moved to Denver to open his own restaurant, ChoLon, and we moved to Denver. We were there about a year and three months.

Blogger: Of the chefs you worked with, who had the most influence and how?

Livingston: Lon had a huge influence on me. He and I didn’t see eye-to-eye about how the kitchen should run, but he was an amazing chef and pushed me more than any other chef. Morimoto was a great chef but he was only in the kitchen maybe once a week – James Blankenship was the chef de cuisine there and, as the day-to-day operator, he had a larger impact on me.

He influenced me in a way that let me know, if I was ever going to own a restaurant, I’d want to own a small restaurant.

Blogger: Great chefs like Susur Lee in Toronto, and his student Matt Carmichael here in Ottawa, have impressed on me their respect for ingredients, to the point where they consider it a special privilege to break down pristine tuna, or even vegetables – that waste almost violates a sacred trust in the kitchen. Is this what you learned?

Livingston: I’d say I learned that kind of care in Denver with Lon. Morimoto was a lot more wasteful – it was a big restaurant with lots of numbers in the heart of New York. If something wasn’t right they threw it out.

While I don’t think you should serve anything that isn’t right, James, for example, was very cognizant about trying to use as much as is useable. That’s why I really like that we do an amuse bouche, which gives us a chance to make sure we use every aspect of whatever we bring in.

Blogger: Would you say you subscribe to the snout-to-tail philosophy, using every part of an animal whether it’s in a braise for tougher cuts, or a charcuterie platter?

Livingston: I fully believe that, but I don’t think that’s what this place is. We’ll never bring in a whole pig, I don’t think, because I don’t think we’ll do a lot of offal. We’ll do some offals on our menu, but a place like Murray Street is known for charcuterie and I don’t think that will be our style. We don’t really have space to do a lot of charcuterie here.

We try to use produce and fruits to the fullest. We have trout on the dish with broccoli tartare, but we also take the stock and make a broccoli marrow. We braise it and get just the crisp centre part, which adds a nice texture on the plate that most would either throw out or, at best, use in a soup. We try to highlight all the benefits when we can.

Blogger: How has your experience in New York helped develop your standards for cuisine at MeNa?

Livingston: I was very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing and very talented cooks and chefs in New York, so it really raises the bar for what you have to do, what is expected, and what you bring to the table. So you start working those extra four hours a day off the clock, you start coming in on days off and buying books you wouldn’t normally get and you start reading those books because you want to be at the head of the class.

So, it started me on a pursuit of wanting to be better. While I definitely don’t think I’m ever the best, I aim to be better. That’s what I want to bring to this place.

I’m very lucky and thrilled to have Sam James behind the bar, because he’s a very talented finance manager, sommelier and mixologist. While I’ve been around restaurants a lot, I’m aware I’m weaker in the front of the house and that’s why I have Sam to keep me on my toes.

Blogger: Recall, it was Stephen Beckta who reinforced high standards in restaurant service in Ottawa when he opened Beckta Dining & Wine in 2003, after returning home from a celebrated career as sommelier at Danny Meyer’s restaurant, Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. He also hired fine talent in chef Stephen Vardy when he opened. Are you looking to do the same at MeNa?

Livingston: I’m trying to take back what I found in restaurants in the United States that I really liked. Before moving back to Ottawa I spend almost a year on a road trip with my wife eating around North America. We packed up everything, put it in storage, threw our dog in the car and went. Through all the travelling, I thought there’s just so much out there in the food world that’s not here in Ottawa.

I don’t necessarily think I can change the food scene in Ottawa, but I can take one step toward it. I think I can bring concepts people may not consider in Ottawa. For example, one thing that frustrates me is where servers wear jeans and T-shirts and you never really know who is a server and who is a guest. While I don’t want my servers in uniforms, they all wear an apron because I want them to stand out as who they are. I think we can bring a bit of professionalism back to service that is starting to veer away in Ottawa a little bit.

Small bites have become a huge thing in Ottawa, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the classic appetizer, main and dessert format. I think I’m trying to bring back a little of the class. We have plates you can share, but they’re not designed as sharing plates, they’re not designed to order eight small plates.

Blogger: Your menu is tight, not sprawling, with five appetizers, five mains and two desserts.

Livingston: I think it’s better to do a few things very well. We want to change our menu when it’s appropriate, but I don’t believe in mandatory changes because it can lead to some unthoughtful dishes. When new ingredients come into season and chef James Bratsberg comes up with a new dish we’ve tested, tasted and think it’s perfect, we’ll switch it out with another dish on the menu. It’s a great way to keep rotating the menu without over-extending it.

For example, three dishes on the menu now were not on our opening menu in February – the lamb, halibut, the short rib. We changed them as they started becoming available. Halibut, for example, is in season now. While lamb didn’t just come into season, the fennel and baby patty pan squash on the same plate did. And we found a great supplier for bone-in short rib.

We try to stick to as local as possible but I don’t believe in the 100-mile rule. If you can get a better tomato from farther away, why not use it? I’d like to stick to local produce when it’s the better choice, but I don’t want to constrict ourselves by saying we’ll only use what grows in Ottawa.

Blogger: What are your signature dishes? Why?

Livingston: Everyone loves our potato soup. They’re loving our halibut now, our short rib, and our yuzu curd and coconut cake dessert.

Blogger: What are the hallmarks of a successful restaurant?

Livingston: Having happy regulars. If people love our food and the staff love working here then, personally, I think I’ve been very successful.

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