Some time has passed since I have mentioned my longing for the larger than Greek mezze or Italian tapas small plates served at Japanese izakayas. There are two reasons.
C’est Japon a Suisha
Firstly, Ottawa’s venerable Suisha Gardens (208 Slater Street), which has taken on the strange French moniker “C’est Japon a Suisha” in recent years, held an “izakaya night” at the end of May. The sold out event promised to serve the characteristic dishes and convey the distinctive dining experience that originated in sake shops that decided to install seating and serve home-style snacks.
Unfortunately, with Suisha’s enclosed tables, private tatami rooms, and formal service, the jovial atmosphere of a tightly packed izakaya was lost. Moreover, the dishes betrayed a sushi restaurant retooling to offer an unfamiliar menu.
The meal Jenn and I shared with the good people behind michaelsdolce jam, confectioner Michael Sunderland and his wife, could be chalked up to a nice try. The stand out dish was an expensive one izakaya-wise, Osaka-style sushi ($15).
Fast forward two months. I receive a rare invitation to visit a soon-to-open restaurant. This one, on the Gatineau-side. Chef Danny Mongeon wanted to get the word out he was leaving Westboro pub Churchills (356 Richmond Road) for Brut, which would be located in the space left by long ailing Italian restaurant Molto (131 Promenade du Portage).
While just about every chef we have had the pleasure to meet is passionate about food and service, few get excited when they describe their menus. Mongeon was excited. He promised dishes like the ox tongue pastrami he served his peers at an Oz Kafe Chef Appreciation Night, foie and duck confit pogos, and foie and boudain pizza.
“The idea is to keep the lunch service simple,” he messaged me. “Dinner will be my playground. You will see [dishes] like roasted and stuffed guinea fowl and ‘stuff’ like that.”
When I arrived at what was Molto-in-transition, Brut’s owner, young and lanky Mathieu Guillemette, was finalizing the menu. After a phone call with a supplier, he turned his attention to repairing and organizing deuces with corresponding chairs.
Pastry Chef and Sous Adam Bannerman met me at the door, informing me his chef would return to the restaurant shortly. I later learned he and Mongeon were running on 3 hours of sleep, their having spent days cleaning and streamlining Molto’s aged kitchen for service. Over the years the successive restaurants in the space accumulated a decade’s worth of commercial grade equipment. Some worked. Some did not.
Brut was being readied for its grand opening, its dishwasher and cooks rushing about prepping for a night that promised a full book of reservations. They would see 60 turnovers that evening.
Knowingly, Mongeon led me into the kitchen for a tour. Everything on a plate at Brut is made in-house, from bacon to brioche, even condiments like grainy mustard. The walk-in was jam packed with olives marinating, hanger steak dry aging, Mariposa beets pickling, and other charcuterie precursors curing. The garde manger was banging out sweet potato gnocchi effortlessly. Mongeon repeatedly checked an enormous pot that was simmering corned ox tongue, which was destined for a cracked black pepper coating and three hours in the smoker. Bannerman, who came to Brut by way of Ottawa’s Courtyard Restaurant and Churchills, made brown butter ice cream with a stand mixer and liquid nitrogen.
Suffice it to say, Mongeon was stoked to take the reigns of a kitchen that produced dishes his patrons would have no preconceptions eating. At Churchills, he always had to contend with burger and fry palates. That is, despite his then brigade having many former Michael Hay-era Courtyard hands who cooked with whole ingredients and made good use of the Churchill’s in-house smoker. Hay was Executive Chef of the Courtyard for almost 5 years, leaving recently for Backlane Cafe.
“It’s my bible,” Mongeon said, carefully collecting his books and cleaning the work surface for prep. “I learned the art of curing meat from Charcuterie.”
He then ushered me out to look at the urban bistro-inspired dining rooms. I had no idea he and Bannerman were preparing plates for me to sample.
[Aside: The La Fraise dessert ($8) reminded me of the desserts the Courtyard Restaurant served when Justin Tse took the pastry chef position after Quinn Davis left.]
As I walked the dining rooms, I chatted with Guillemette. He was extremely happy with his Executive Chef hire, recounting Mongeon’s resume: his apprenticeship with Chef Warren Sutherland at former Sweet Grass Aboriginal Bistro; the year he staged with Chef Marc Lepine at Atelier Restaurant; the fact Mongeon was on Lepine’s team that brought back the gold from last year’s Canadian Culinary Championships.
Guillemette’s resume is no less impressive. He listed off a string of Montreal restaurants he owned, opened, or worked in after leaving his hometown of Aylmer for school. There was a “tasting room” called Matière Brut at the corner of St. Denis and Rachel; a must-try burger and tartare “joint” called Hachoir; an Italian restaurant called Charisma; and a Latin restaurant called Raza from which he learned about Spanish cuisine and wine. He also staged with famed sommelier Enrico Bernardo in the South of France.
Guillemette pointed me to an enclosed booth he intends to convert into walk-in wine storage. Another, with a much larger table, will be where he and Mongeon plan to serve 7-course wine-paired tasting menus on Tuesdays.
The wines at Brut will be chosen by wine producers and not regions. Every drop will come from organic or bio-dynamic wineries, so there will be neither pesticides nor sulphites in any glass. This is a far cry from Guillemette’s first encounter with wine. At the tender age of 9, he got into his parents’ Oiseau Bleu, which he likens to vermouth, essentially fortified vodka.
A homecoming of sorts, Guillemette wants to bring Montreal’s fresh vibe to the national capital region. He sees Ottawa’s as a much livelier restaurant scene. He wants to develop Gatineau’s. The concept behind Brut is a modern twist on the Spanish cantina, “Cantina Sociale.”
So, Brut has a talented kitchen and a sommelier-trained restauranteur with experience and a vision. How does a cantina relate to an izakaya? Guillemette and Mongeon offer an extensive tapas-inspired “cantina menu” with small “back to basics” dishes. Mongeon promises farm-to-fork fare on “super small plates.” Guillemette promises “well seasoned” and “well-dressed” food. The price point? $4-$10.
While patrons can also opt for regular plates from the lunch ($11-19) or dinner menus ($15-24), what excites me is that Guillemette and Mongeon get it. They understand that, after work or during lunch, when you are socializing with friends or just enjoying the patio breeze with a glass of wine, it is nice to have the flexibility to order accompanying food that is neither an appetizer nor entree. You can create your own plate, nibble, and share.
The cantina menu works. Imagine a late Friday afternoon, tucking into the following dishes while watching the pubs and bars open along Promenade du Portage.
The cantina dishes Jenn and I ordered were outstanding. Everything was served at the right temperatures; cooked foods were hot; chilled foods were cool. Fried foods were perfectly crisp, not oil soggen. There were no issues with seasoning. And, that boudain was a sinfully good introduction into the world of blood sausage.
You could taste the care that went into every dish.
Guillemette may want to bring the vibrancy of Ottawa’s food scene to Gatineau. The thing is, we have nothing like Brut on the Ottawa side.
Jenn and I will be back and, the next time we’re in, we’re likely bringing our wedding party for a snack.
Brut Cantina Sociale
131 Promenade du Portage