Size matters: Best small plates in Ottawa

Whether it’s the Spanish with tapas, the Greeks with meze, the Italians with cichèti or the Indians with thali, it’s clear Canadians aren’t the only ones with a big appetite for small plates. Sometimes you’re just not that hungry, or are indecisive, or want to share. At times like these, you’ll thank the food gods for these small-plate gems.

Play Food & Wine

1
1 York St, Ottawa, ON K1N 5S7

Stephen Beckta may well be Ottawa’s most celebrated chef; this certainly is his most playful restaurant. The main floor of this two-storey space located in a heritage building is where people come to be seen: minimalist decor with salmon-tinted ceiling drapes to stifle the sound and colourful art on the window casings. Charcuterie and cheese make an obligatory appearance, but the seafood selections are especially popular: red snapper ceviche, clams in linguini, octopus with jalapeno and crème fraiche. Among the sweets, boca negra (raspberry compote and peanut pavlova) has been a menu constant because it’s so popular.

Two Six Ate

2
268 Preston St, Ottawa, ON K1R 7R5

Steve Harris and Emily Ienzi – life and business partners – helm one of Ottawa’s hippest hangouts, full of edgy war-themed art and repurposed barn board. But it’s the food at this two-level, 65-seat Little Italy eatery that matters. All of it, even the relishes, is grown locally and made from scratch. Its “fun food” is always a hit: deep-fried foie gras pogos, for example, or a burger topped with foie torchon and tomato bacon jam. For drinks, try the urban sombrero that blends everything from cucumber to ginger beer with tequila. Please note they're closed on Tuesdays.

Sidedoor

3
Fl Lower 18 York, Ottawa, ON K1N 5S6

Chef Jonathan Korecki was a finalist on Top Chef Canada. At Sidedoor, tucked down a back lane behind the luxe Restaurant E18hteen, he proves why. His fusion approach is most popular in his tacos, such as romano masala or Bajan crispy fish. But other sharing plates rock, too. They might include grilled lamb rump with Thai pistou, braised beef with Panseng curry or Chiangmai sausage lettuce wrap. Leave room for the delectable donuts, a house specialty. The space, with exposed stone walls, is furnished in contemporary beige and black. Angle for a bright table under slanted windows.

North & Navy

4
226 Nepean St, Ottawa, ON K2P 0B8

When Adam Vettorel honeymooned in Venice, he was inspired by snacks served from take-out windows. Back in Ottawa, he’s put a Canadian twist on Venice’s approach to tapas, called cichèti, using provisions he picks up during twice-weekly visits to local markets. The result: an inventive, constantly changing menu that reflects what’s fresh. It might include ricotta with raspberries, or mackerel and cucumber tartare, or a tomato stuffed with blue cheese and pomegranate. The front room is lovely, but head to the back-room bocaro for a view of the open kitchen. The place can be boisterous on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Albion Room

5
33 Nicholas St, Ottawa, ON K1N 9M7

Gold Plates contender Stephen LaSalle specializes in fresh, locally sourced charcuterie: smoked Trillium Meadows wild boar rillettes, for example, or Mariposa Farms foie gras. Buffalo-style rabbit livers, deep-fried blue cheese stuffed olives, scotch eggs with pork shoulder and maple-Dijon, Pickle Point oysters — you get the picture. And picture this: the dining room is bordello chic, with red, floral wallpaper, green-gray drapery, crushed velvet banquettes, mirrors — and an open kitchen. Craft beers are local, while wines range geographically from Argentina to Austria. This enchanting space in the Novotel sure ain’t your grandpa’s hotel dining room.

ACE Mercado

6
121 Clarence St, Ottawa, ON K1N 5P5

One of Bytown’s trendiest spots, Ace Mercado seems more club than eatery after about 8 pm, when a boisterous crowd packs the bar for push-the-envelope cocktails and the music booms. But when Rene Rodriguez, who won Top Chef Canada in 2014, has a hand in the menu, you can be sure the kitchen is more than accomplished. Among small plate gems are tuna tostadas, scallop ceviche with passion fruit and smoked hibiscus salt, and chicken tamales. Mexican Day of the Dead decor is everywhere, right down to the napkins. The patio helps you escape the buzz, if you must.

Fauna Food & Bar

7
425 Bank St, Ottawa, ON K2P 1Y7

It took months to transform this former footwear store and shoe repair shop into the clean, contemporary space it is today. But the butcher-block tables, pop-art light fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows make the wait worthwhile. Chef John Svazas has put together a compact but wow-inducing menu of small plates, of which horse carpaccio and soft-shell crabs are perhaps the most popular. The suggested wine pairings for each dish are made by enthusiastic sommelier Alex McMahon. A seat at the zinc-topped bar permits a glimpse into the kitchen of this buzzing go-to spot for foodies of all ages.

222 Lyon Tapas Bar

8
222 Lyon St N, Ottawa, ON K1R 5V9

Laurie Jones’s neighbourhood institution introduced Spanish tapas to Ottawa when it opened in an old brick house in 2003. It still serves tapas and pinchos at a marble-topped bar seating 10 — big with the middle-aged, after-work crowd — or in a dining room that seats another 20. The stained glass windows and terracotta walls seem the right setting for such treats as marinated olives, beef-stuffed piquillo peppers and shrimp with chorizo and peppers. Two or three full-entree daily specials are offered. A list of a dozen wines by the glass is, naturally, heavy on Spanish labels.

Aroma Meze Small Plates & Wine

9
239 Nepean St, Ottawa, ON K2P 0B7

The wee front porch of Aroma’s turn-of-the-century brick house makes for lovely al fresco dining — but if the weather turns nasty, the inside is welcoming, too, with its Tuscan yellow floor and wood tables that seat no more than a couple dozen. The Mediterranean vibe continues with a lengthy small-plates menu — meze in Greek — that ranges from traditional Aegean fare (think dolmades and loukaniko) to more innovative items (kangaroo souvlaki, anyone?). A favourite is the pan-seared East Coast scallops served with wasabi-infused caviar. Desserts are worth main-course restraint. The wine list naturally favours Greece and Italy.

Aperitivo

10
655 Kanata Ave, Kanata, ON K2T 1H6

Logic says a small-plates gem shouldn’t work in the forest of big-box stores that surrounds Aperitivo. But since 2012, the eatery, whose name is Spanish and Italian for pre-dinner snack, has crafted sharing plates from local provisions. It seats just 30 or so at small tables, plus another 10 at the bar, where patrons can watch the tiny kitchen at work. Aperitivo offers a constantly updated menu. Recently included, were grilled fava beans and lamb tostadas. For drinks, try the basil Collins with elderflower liqueur, a gluten-free draft beer or one of eight wines by the glass.

True enough, Ottawa ain’t the city that never sleeps, but that’s not because of a caffeine shortage, especially in Lowertown where coffee shops abound. If you can’t find something to give you a java jolt among these options, you really are sleepwalking.
Hotel bars aren’t a mere convenience for hotel guests. Some of Ottawa’s best are grandly sumptuous: perfect venues for a milestone occasion. Other bars are stylish and sleek, ideal for a dress-up date night. There are those where friends meet after work, and a couple that are perfect for the T-shirt-jeans-and-bottle-of-beer set. One thing our favourite hotel bars have in common, though, is decent drinks and nibbles.
Maybe it’s because our summers are short that all Ottawa citizens flock to restaurant patios as soon as the snow melts, and stay till it falls again. Some eateries plop down a couple of tables just about anywhere outside, abutting busy roadways where they snarl sidewalk traffic. But we’ve found great al fresco dining – from gourmet fare to burgers ‘n’ beer – that eliminates both sunstroke and exhaust fumes.
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