Ottawa’s food scene is not nearly as sleepy as folks make it out to be. It is a local’s scene, however, many hidden gems highly trafficked by people in the know. But, while the nation’s capital may not yet be a culinary destination, with our having a little developed eating-out culture and restaurants closing before 8 pm five out of the seven days in any given week, our city does follow the food trends.
Oftentimes Ottawa is a year or two behind. We cling stubbornly onto the cupcake trend. We have witnessed a taqueria boom with Los Tacos de Maura, Corazon de Mais, and Tacolot; locals finally glimpsing the difference between Mexican food and Lone Star Tex-Mex. We are amassing food trucks when food meccas like Chicago are starting to face street food fatigue. We had two restaurant-affiliated food shops from which many of the ingredients that went into the dishes on the menu could be purchased along with heat-and-serve dinner solutions. One remains, The Piggy Market (400 Winston Avenue).
And, contrary to popular assumption, Ottawa has hosted a number of pop-up restaurants over the years, the most notable being the monthly dinner events award-winning Chef Caroline Ishii and her husband Dave Loan used to hold at the Chelsea Pub. They would prep the entire night before; bring in both food and equipment for the evening, including dishware and linens; set up; finish and plate; serve 40 to 80 people; tear down; and leave the pub without a trace of their ever being there. These supper club-style dinners set the stage for what is now celebrated ZenKitchen (634 Somerset Street W.).
There is also the Cobra Ottawa “underground” supper club, which, like its Charlie’s Burger sibling in Toronto, is shrouded in intrigue. For each Cobra event, noted restaurant chefs from Ottawa’s food scene get together to serve blind tasting menus in very non-restaurant locations. Attendees’ e-mail addresses are drawn from a pool. They gather at a meeting place where they pay for their seats. Then, they are given the location for the dinner. Funds raised are donated to great causes like the Ottawa Food Bank and prostate cancer. Jenn and I are still kicking ourselves for turning down our invite when my email address was drawn two years ago.
The new owner of one of Ottawa’s three oldest surviving restaurants typed furiously on his Blackberry when I provided him this abridged account of food and drink within city limits. Having purchased Mellos in the ByWard Market (290 Dalhousie Street) last February, Martin Fremeth was slightly shocked. A Montreal native, he never imagined Ottawa’s food scene had a pulse. He just wanted to buy into the fledgling market and preserve the history that is the venerable diner.
“Sometime in November or December my business partner and I walked by Mellos and peeked through the window. It was closed,” said Fremeth. Longtime manager, Leisa Bell spotted him and invited them in. She has been working at Mellos seven years now.
Mellos itself hails from at least 1949 and bares the name of its then registered owner, Gabkop Mellos. No, “Mellos” should never be spelled with an apostrophe. The space however is older, originating as an ice cream shop. Fremeth is chasing down his acquisition’s rumoured 76-year history, hoping to dig up copies of photos from before a fire forced the renovation that brought in the 70’s deuces and 4-tops that still seat loyal customers today. The fire destroyed photos that used to adorn Mellos’ walls.
Incidentally, Mellos longstanding brethren include The Carleton Tavern (223 Armstrong Street) in Hintonburg and the Prescott Bar and Restaurant (379 Preston Street) in Little Italy.
Aspiring to serve more than a faithfully restored diner menu, Fremeth partnered with Chef Matt Carmichael, former executive chef of Caroline Gosselin’s restaurants E18hteen, Social, and Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen, to utilize Mellos’ kitchen facilities when it is closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings.
While Fremeth has absolutely no plans to convert Mellos into something more upscale faux retro, he is a fan of the boys at Joe Beef and Chuck Hughes and his restaurants.
When I arrived for an interview, Fremeth and Carmichael were planning their first pop-up.
Carmichael’s eyes danced excitedly as he counted Mellos’ thirty-seven seats, including the padded swivel stools attached to the floor at the bar.
He looked at the mirrors, thinking aloud, “You guys mind if we write the menu on the glass?” Fremeth tested a dry-erase marker that was lying around. Carmichael vowed to try lipstick next time.
The basis of a pop-up is a respectable juxtaposition, testing the limits of what can be temporary. Even cheap lipstick washes off without too much difficulty.
While Carmichael does not plan to serve plays on a diner theme, his dishes will sport his signature: very high quality ingredients, employed in worldly dishes. Think “vintage” setting meets “modern” food.
When Carmichael turned his attention to the vintage Garland gas stove and oven at Mellos, he spotted something somewhat rare in modern professional kitchens, an integrated broiler. These days, adjustable salamanders do the job.
Inspired, he started listing dishes he could make: ground curry with black cod finished under the broiler; a flat iron steak frites using the flat top and fryolater; something with an oilier fish like mackerel; a starter with morels and asparagus; some sort of seafood crudo; maybe some fresh pasta.
Accompanying the food, Carmichael plans to serve local Broadhead beer. Fremeth would later tell me a bar may be set up for cocktails.
To set the ambiance, vintage light bulbs will be installed, which will be supplemented by candlelight. Carmichael will supply some fun dishware, including custom gun metal bowls he proudly showed off. Music will come from a collaboration with industry go to Steve from the Black Tomato (11 George Street). It will be an eclectic mix, piped from speakers that will have to be installed temporarily as well.
Dishes will cost anywhere from $3 (mostly appetizers) to $20 (mostly mains). Nothing will be priced over $22.
Depending on the success of the inaugural pop-up dinner, which is slated for June 25th, Carmichael may switch things up every week.
Tentatively, there will be two seatings, one at 6pm and one a 8:30pm. An eight-person staff will work the popup: two, maybe three, servers; a bartender; and cooks.
Asking me not to publish anything until today, Carmichael hopes someone from the foodiePrints team will attend.
Claire, Jenn, and I are very intrigued by what the pop-up will look like and how Ottawa will receive it.
Carmichael’s first popup will take place 3-days after Ian Capstick of MediaStyle and Chef Jason Laurin of Essence Catering hold theirs, the Two Loud Mouths’ Supper Club. Theirs will be a spring-themed and wine-paired blind multi-course, costing $90/person.
That said, I am of the vintage that vaguely remembers the colourful renaissance Mellos enjoyed in the 80’s. Thankfully, friends have more vivid memories of the diner back when it was open almost 24/7 and Dalhousie was known for another form of commercialism. They remember setting down after a evening of imbibing to a burger or a greasy breakfast combo. They remember nursing bad coffee and indulging in rice pudding, not quite wanting to wander home yet. They remember very interesting people watching late at night. Some feel Mellos is Ottawa’s first greasy spoon. Everyone thinks it is an enduring classic.
Said Jackie Jolliffe of Stone Soup Foodworks, owner of one of the aforementioned food trucks, “Every time I’ve walked by there for the last few years I have had a burning desire to make food in it and keep all the decor the same.”
After chatting with me, Fremeth hopes Ottawa’s greater minds in the industry will see the potential of Mellos, beyond a classic diner. He hopes to make it a pop-up venue.
Me, I just want to see Carmichael cook the food he loves again.
Update: Chef Matt Carmichael’s popup is first-come first-served. There will be no reservations. There will be no tickets sold.
No reservations, but two seating[s] are encouraged at 6 or 8-30. Kelly Landry will be at the door to tell people how long [until seats open] and to [collect] cell #’s. If they [walk] to a close [by] place for a drink, she will call when a table is ready.
290 Dalhousie Street
Tags: ByWard Market, diner, featured, Lowertown, Matt Carmichael, Mellos