Ottowa’s thriving food scene

Ottawa’s thriving food scene

by Niamh Shields 20 October 2017

Niamh Shields heads to Canada’s capital to find a city brimming with incredible restaurants, bustling markets and all sorts of delicious things to eat.

Niamh Shields is a scientist turned food writer. Based in London and originally from Ireland, Niamh travels the world for much of the year exploring food and flavours, and develops recipes in her London kitchen to share on her award winning blog

Niamh Shields is a scientist turned food writer. Based in London and originally from Ireland, Niamh travels the world for much of the year exploring food and flavours, and develops recipes in her London kitchen to share on her award winning blog

When asked what the capital of Canada is, most non-Canadians might be surprised to find out that it is the bright city of Ottawa. A capital of culture with many of Canada's museums, it is also an excellent destination for eating. In Ottawa there is a variety of cultures and languages which feeds into the food culture. To add to the interest, Ottawa is in Ontario and is Anglophone, but directly across the river from the parliament is the city of Gatineau which is in Quebec. French is the spoken language here, and once you cross the bridge that switch is evident, but you'll hear both English and French as you explore the city.

The restaurant scene

The Ottawa restaurant scene is a joyful mix of old and new, and old informing new. A city that's home to politicians is a city that meets over dinner, so there is no shortage of options. Just don't expect them to be stuffy; they are far from it. I found the atmosphere and general attitude to be fresh, open and energetic.

Riviera downtown is a perfect spot for cocktails and excellent food, from hand-crafted pasta to charcuterie. Solo diners can people watch from the bar, as I did, and watch the open kitchen and cocktail bartenders at work. Stephen Flood, Riviera's master bartender, is a local legend and he has crafted some excellent drinks. House pasta is a must; I loved the blood rigatoni with morcilla ragù. Trust me, just order it.

Beckta's famous hanger steak and fries is one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant
Play Food and Wine – Beckta's sister restaurant, serves contemporary small plates in the city

In historic Grant House lies Beckta Dining + Wine Bar, a beautifully restored heritage building with an equally beautiful interior architecture. There are two formal dining rooms, three private dining rooms and a more casual wine bar where I ate. House fettuccine with cured egg yolk and shiitake mushrooms was excellent, as was the popular hanger steak with fries. There are excellent Ottawa touches here, like hashtags from local politicians and businesspeople on brass plates at their regular tables.

In the ByWard Market area, Play Food and Wine, a sister restaurant of Beckta, serves up small plates of locally sourced bright contemporary food. Again, I recommend that you sit at the bar here to watch the kitchen at work. I found the locals to be so friendly and chatty, the chefs too. Pork belly was sublime, served in tender slices. The ceviche with lotus root crisps was excellent too, especially on the hot summer day that I visited.

The wood-fired Montreal-style bagels from Ottawa Bagelshop and Deli are among the best in Ottawa
The blood rigatoni with morcilla ragù is a must-try dish from Riviera

Festibière de Gatineau

Ottawa has an excellent craft beer scene which is superbly represented at the Festibière de Gatineau hosted at the Canadian Museum of History. With over 300 beers from more than thirty breweries all in the shadow of parliament and the terrific displays in the museum, it is a destination in itself. Outside there is live music and open fires to gather around and chat with the locals. In 2018, it'll be held from 7–9 June, and there's also a winter version in Ottawa from 16–17 February.

Proud immigrant heritage

As with most Canadian cities, Ottawa has a proud immigrant heritage that is imprinted on their culinary scene. I did a food tour of Wellington West to explore this and the emerging scene there with C'est Bon Cooking Tours.

Parma Ravioli is an old school Italian food shop serving up homemade pans of lasagne, fresh pasta and sauces since 1984. Ottawa Bagelshop and Deli makes gorgeous wood-fired Montreal-style bagels and sells a host of Jewish delicacies including excellent smoked meat. They also curiously sell a pho, which a Vietnamese member of staff used to make and became so popular it has remained on the menu ever since. Thyme and Again serves as a reminder as to just how much Ottawans love their food, serving great dishes in-store and to take home. It is a perfect place for lunch too. A stop at doughnut shop Suzy Q is essential – do not neglect their bacon and maple doughnut.

The ByWard Market area is home to one of the oldest and biggest farmers' markets in Ottawa
The city has a strong community of artisanal producers

Ottawa's markets

The city of Ottawa covers 2,796 square kilometres and the vast majority is rural, comprised of farms, forests and parkland. Ottawa has several farmers’ markets which enables its citizens to access the produce produced from these. The ByWard Market area is home to one of the oldest and largest farmers' markets in Canada. Inside and around there are many restaurants, bistros, shops and food retailers. In summer there are up to 175 outdoor stalls selling plants, flowers, fruit and vegetables surrounding the market building. It is a lively space.

Every visitor to the ByWard Market district must try a BeaverTails pastry at the original ByWard Market shop where they were developed. Whole-wheat deep-fried pastries shaped into thin beaver tail shapes come in a variety of toppings catering for the Nutella-obsessed to those who like simple cinnamon and sugar. Fantastic.

The Ottawa Farmers' Market by the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne is home to farmers and makers year-round, selling fresh produce and handcrafted drinks, jams, pies and other delicacies. When I visited in early summer there were many stalls selling tall, sturdy tomato plants that you could take home.

Favourite among these for me were Loon Kombucha, which sells kombucha by the glass or the growler to take home. Backyard Edibles, a community-supported agriculture programme where the produce is grown in Ottawa backyards before being sold in the market, supplies fresh vegetables and salads. John Lu Brun has been making hot sauce in Ottawa for forty years. From St Lucia originally, this informs his product, but others are very Canadian, like Miss Nunavut which was developed to celebrate the new territory. Raon Kitchen sells their terrific fresh homemade kimchi and Korean sauces. And that is just to begin! Until next time, Ottawa.