Both el Camino and MeNa made a short list of 30, but missed on the final cut
OCT 23 14 – 6:01 AM – Wolf in the Fog restaurant in Tofino, British Columbia, has just been announced as Canada’s best new restaurant in the 13th annual Top 10 list of dining rooms selected by enRoute, Air Canada’s in-flight magazine.
Sadly, neither el Camino on Elgin Street nor MeNa Restaurant on Preston Street, the only two Ottawa entries that made it to the short list of 30 recommended new establishments in seven provinces, landed a spot on the magazine’s prestigious final Top 10 list announced at 6 a.m. today. (See the original blog post citing el Camino and MeNa in August, with enRoute’s comments here.)
Restaurants were nominated by 32 panelists across Canada including restaurant critics, food writers, cookbook authors, winemakers and TV personalities. Representing Ottawa on the nomination panel were myself, and food writer Pierre Jury of Le Droit newspaper.
The magazine’s Top 10 list covers dining rooms that opened between July 2013 and June 30, 2014, although exceptions can be made if an excellent restaurant was inadvertently missed the previous year. In this case, MeNa opened its doors on Feb. 12 of this year, while el Camino opened in late May 2013.
For the second year, members of the public were invited to vote online for a People’s Choice award, which this time went to Ayden in Saskatoon, which also placed eighth on the Top 10 list for 2014. (Last year, the people’s pick was Vij’s Railway Express – a Vancouver food truck with east India cuisine.)
The annual list has been published each fall since 2002. Previously, Supply and Demand of Ottawa placed fourth overall in last year’s list. Other Ottawa establishments placing in earlier Top 10 lists have included Atelier (fourth place) and Murray Street Kitchen (fifth) in 2009, and Beckta Dining & Wine (fourth place) in 2003.
Each qualifying restaurant on the short list is visited and judged anonymously by British Columbia native (now based in San Fransico) food and wine writer Andrew Braithwaite, 33, who publishes his latest eBook next week about food and wine travel An Inconvenient Fruit: One winemaking family’s pursuit of an intoxicating, doomed grape (link www.andrewbraithwaite.com/an-inconvenient-fruit).
The Top 10 restaurants (with Braithwaite’s comments) in order are:
1. Wolf in the Fog (Tofino): “On the extreme west coast of Vancouver Island, where rainforest meets ocean, you stumble up a flight of stairs and into a soaring cedar-clad room above a surf shop where chef Nick Nutting leads a crew trained in the precise details of fine dining.”
2. The Farmer’s Apprentice (Vancouver): “Each small plate – more often, a bowl – conjured by owner David Gunawan is a precise jumble of textures and flavours. Digging in is a sort of black magic.”
3. Le Vin Papillon (Montreal): “Long-time Joe Beef guru Vanya Filipovic fills massive chalkboards with organic wines to run with a vegetable-focused cuisine from boyfriend and chef Marc-Olivier Frappier.”
4. RGE RD (Edmonton): “The heart of Blair Lebsack’s kitchen is a wood-burning oven that consumes birch and maple at 700oF, curing honey ham and smoking Salt Spring Island mussels or even dehydrated local milk during the off-hours.”
5. Mallard Cottage (St. John’s): “Todd Perrin spent two years restoring a heritage property in Quidi Vidi Harbour for this brilliant mash-up of fine dining and comfort cuisine on the outskirts of St. John’s.”
6. Bar Buca (Toronto): “Rob Gentile’s restaurant likes to pretend it’s a simple bar for sipping Barolo. You’re here to drink, sure, but you’re also here to eat things like tiny fried smelt dusted with fennel salt.”
7. The Chase (Toronto): Chef Michael Steh doesn’t lean on molecular trickery or audacious ingredients to wow. His food is more direct and more delightful than that, in an atmosphere that makes you want to say yes to things.
8. Ayden (Saskatoon): Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay gambled that Saskatoon was ready for lime- and lemongrass- and ginger-dusted chicken wings. Ayden isn’t about showing off Prairie cooking to the world –it’s about bringing the world home.”
9. Légende (Quebec City): Northern Quebec is the culinary hunting ground that Frédéric Laplante mythologizes at his capital-city bistro. Cornish hen gets a boreal accent from balsam fir fleur de sel.”
10. Edna (Halifax): Jenna Mooers’ North End bistro digs up treasure from the fertile soils of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and hauls it out of the brisk Atlantic waters.”
Braithwaite took over the enRoute Top 10 job last year from Sarah Musgrave of Montreal, who had done the list for three years, by visiting every in the course of a month.
Although Ottawa didn’t place among this year’s Top 10, Braithwaite was clearly impressed by what he sampled in the nation’s capital.
“Ottawa is hitting a nice groove right now in the way it turns out restaurants for different people and different desires,” Braithwaite says, in an email interview.
“El Camino and MeNa are good examples of this – the former feels hip and on-trend but completely authentic and confident in what it’s doing, the kind of place you want to swing by late on a Thursday night for a proper cocktail and something tasty but clever.
“MeNa, on the other hand, is hitting that sweet spot for people who want to enjoy a more refined meal with close company, but the execution isn’t stuffy or overly formal. I think that, going forward, Ottawa needs to keep thinking creatively about smart ways to package that dining experience for different tastes, and even different moods.”
More comments from Braithwaite about the two Ottawa’s entries:
“El Camino seemed from everything we’d herd to be the buzziest opening of the year in Ottawa and it certainly lived up to the billing.
“Even from the sidewalk, you can see and feel the subterranean room is a place that you want to be in. I had to wait for a table at 9 p.m. on a Saturday so I popped down the street to The Guest Room for a smoke-infused cocktail. El Camino has a great drinks list that works well with the cuisine – tacos, ceviche-type raw dishes, dumplings.
“Chef Mathew Carmichael’s cooking hits that sweet spot between casual and polished, with some clever twists. It’s the kind of place I’d eat at all the time if I lived down the street.”
As for MeNa restaurant on Preston Street, Braithwaite says:
“MeNa is a totally different beast, aiming for a much more polished and refined dining experience. It’s a restaurant that I know you [Ron Eade] have championed, and rightly so.
“The room is gorgeous in a stark, calming way – design is be Shannon Smithers-Gay, who also designed Supply & Demand (No. 4 on enRoute’s list in 2013). And the team here is really young, but with this preternatural maturity that’s rather impressive.
“Chef James Bratsberg is going to be a big star one day if he keeps this up – his tuna tartare with crispy fingerlings and tomato-and-zucchini mirepoix was the best tuna tartare I’ve eaten in a long while. And the sommelier, Samuel James, knows way more about wine than a guy his age should know.
“The team at MeNa has a bright future.
“We definitely had at least twice as many candidates put forth than we eventually ended up visiting in competition,” Braithwaite says.
“A restaurant is a place, and it’s a place we choose to spend time in. The main reason we end up there is to eat, so the food is always going to be the most important thing,” he says of the evaluation process.
“Assuming the kitchen knows what it’s doing, the things I like to look for when I’m evaluating are all the little touches that make the time we spend in this place delightful – from the décor to the layout, to the wine and beer and cocktaiuls and how well they pair with the cuisine, to the people taking care of you and the story that the chef is trying to tell.
“It sounds cliché,” Braithwaite says, “but a great restaurant stands out from the crowd by nailing all the little things.
“From the moment I walk in the door to the moment I leave, everything hat makes me feel happy is a plus.
“This year we visited more than 30 restaurants in seven provinces. The window for travel is always slightly shorter by number of days than number of restaurants, so there are a few nights when I have to pull a double-header – that’s two dinners, one night.
“It was fun to put candidates in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia to the test this year, since there were no candidates in those provinces when I wrote this story in 2013. The restaurants were as far afield as Tofino on the west coast to Quidi Vidi Village out east, so we really take the cost-to-coast mission seriously.”
The short list of 30 restaurants this year included Agave y Aguacate Toronto, Ask for Luigi Vancouver, Ayden Saskaoon, Bar Buca Toronto, Black Pig Bistro Calgary, The Blacktail Florist Vancouver, Byblos Toronto, The Chase Toronto, Cinara Vancouver, Edna Halifax, el Camino Ottawa, Fat Pasha Toronto, Farmer’s Apprentice Vancouver, H4C Montreal, Impasto Montreal, Legende Quebec City, Little Jumbo Victoria, Luckee Toronto, Mallard College St. John’s, MeNa Ottawa, Mercuri Montreal, My Shanti Surrey, North 53 Edmonton, Patrice Patissier Montreal, RGE RD Edmonton, Rhum Corner Toronto, Le Serpent Montreal, Vin Papillon Montreal, Wolf in the Fog Tofino, Woodwork Edmonton.