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Levante Becomes Hooch, Ottawa’s Newest Bourbon Bar

Hooch Bourbon House Under Construction Hooch Bourbon House Under Construction
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I dread restaurant openings, especially soft openings. There is usually palpable unease when patrons walk in. Hosts dawn a false bravado, their being first to interact with potential regulars. Tables, from deuces to four-tops, are set for the first time. The hardwood beneath the chairs is immaculate. The shiny bar is newly stocked with booze. Everything gleams. Extra staff, from bartenders to dishwashers, is on hand, bulking up the front and back of house. It’s showtime!

Why? Despite the advent (and popularity) of social media, the reputation of a new restaurant is still largely a function of word of mouth. First impressions are precious. They define the tone for months to come. Restauranteurs and chef entrepreneurs understand this all too well. There is a reason official “grand” openings are saved for later. Sometimes you need a “reset” button.

In my humble opinion, restaurants are at their best on opening day or after 4 to 6 weeks of operation. During the critical first service, staff work hard to make miracles happen. During the first month, new hires acclimatize to working with one another. The menu is refined. Back of house develops familiarities with the equipment, cooks and chefs working around quirks and setting routines. Bartenders (who prefer to be called “barologists” or “mixtenders” these days) get into their groove, slinging drinks.

Levante

Now, what happens when things go horribly wrong? For instance, imagine you open a restaurant at the same time the city decides to tear up the road in front of it. While you are assured the street’s “renewal” will eventually benefit your new business, you lose customer parking. You lose visibility. Potential walk-ins avoid the area, detouring around your restaurant to avoid heavy machinery, fenced off walkways, and loose rocks and dust.

Levante Bistro

Levante Bistro

This is the setback Levante Bistro (180 Rideau Street) suffered when its short-lived chef, “Kurt”, set his menu of flatbreads, pastas, and salads, and opened June 2012. For months, he and the owners saw nary a patron. Finally, management decided to hold an “exclusive” launch event, inviting the city’s notables to attend. Only, it wasn’t free, charging a nominal fee for a table d’hote meal. Many of the usual suspects disappeared back into the woodwork. Several, last minute no-shows. Of the twenty or so invitees, only six attended the event that ended with our receiving gift certificates to revisit.

In the end, the upper-scale bistro concept that many hoped would revitalize Rideau Street failed. For a time, Levante weathered its slow start, buoyed by revenue from its sister establishment, neighbouring Lunenburg Pub (14 Waller Street). But, with unwieldy plates that showcased too many cultural inspirations from Kurt’s travels and his overall inexperience leading a professional kitchen, patrons found no compelling reason to return.

Former Levante Dining Room

Former Levante Dining Room

Former Levante Bar

Former Levante Bar

Levante's Prosciutto, Fig, and Blue Cheese Flat Bread

Levante’s Prosciutto, Fig, and Blue Cheese Flat Bread

Levante's Fennel Salad

Levante’s Fennel Salad

Levante's Grilled Beef Tenderloin and Sweet and Sour Duck Magret

Levante’s Grilled Beef Tenderloin and Sweet and Sour Duck Magret

Levante's Grilled Lamb and Pan Seared Sea Bass

Levante’s Grilled Lamb and Pan Seared Sea Bass

Lunenburg's Peggy's Patty Melt

Lunenburg’s Peggy’s Patty Melt

Dry and Forgettable Burger Patty

Dry and Forgettable Burger Patty

Promotion after promotion followed, from Winterlude three-course specials to a Groupon, before Levante went the way of its predecessor, the Red Room. Both hosted jazz bands. Both didn’t work in an urban area that is better known for a chain poutinerie (Smoke’s) and grilled cheese shop (Melt). Both tried to sell wine to a beer-drinking crowd.

Hooch Bourbon House

Enter Chef Danny Mongeon and a new concept, a bourbon “house” named Hooch.

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of successful local establishments, Union Local 613 (southern comfort with a Canadian twist) and Supply and Demand (a “foods and raw bar”), Mongeon conceptualized Hooch to serve modern takes on country fare, including raw plates. Everything, paired with craft cocktails and small batch bourbon whiskey.

Hooch Boubon House Under Construction

Hooch Boubon House Under Construction

Mongeon comes to Hooch by way of Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro, Atelier (540 Rochester Street), Churchill’s (356 Richmond Road), and Brut Cantina Sociale in Gatineau. He opened Brut in August 2012, leaving the restaurant eight months later and hinting at a new venture back on the Ottawa side.

He is joined by Sous Jesse Payette who comes by way of Les Fougeres (also in Gatineau).

Hooch’s bar will be run by Jeff Taylor and Tom Wilson. Taylor comes to Hooch by way of Murray Street Kitchen (110 Murray Street), aforementioned Union, and Juniper Kitchen (245 Richmond Road) where he established “gastro-bar” cocktail programs. Hooch’s will consist of three lists: a bourbon list that will rotate seasonally, a “punch” list, and “house” cocktails. On that note, don’t expect cocktail mixes at Hooch. Taylor and Wilson promise house-made syrups, fresh squeezed juices, even house-made lime, strawberry, and hibiscus cordials.

“If I walk into a bar, this is what I want to drink,” said Taylor about the drink menu.

In keeping with the southern country feel, he hopes to add small distillery gin to his arsenal as well.

Beer aficionados need not worry. On tap, there will be craft brews from Ashton Brew Company, Beau’s All Natural, Kichisippi, and Beyond the Pale. Bottled, there will be brews from Dieu de Ciel, Flying Monkeys, and Spearhead.

Joining Taylor and Wilson will be house manager Shannon Hargadon and a team of seasoned servers.

Shannon Hargadon and Danny Mongeon

Shannon Hargadon and Danny Mongeon

Hargadon, a part time grade school teacher, is Mongeon’s fiancé. They will wed two weeks after Hooch’s soft opening, tomorrow.

During the past month, contractors ripped out everything Levante, from booths to fixtures. Tables were switched out. Chairs were distressed to look worn and welcoming. Wall accents and furniture were redesigned to play on a prohibition era theme. The most striking addition is the hand painted mural by local artist Sarah Doll.

Hooch's Lady

Hooch’s Lady

Dumping the Bathtub Gin

Dumping the Bathtub Gin

Wood Accents

Wood Accents

Oak Barrels

Oak Barrels

Food-wise, Mongeon promises a creative farm-to-table menu to match the decor with $8-$10 small plates and under $30 mains.

Tuna and Watermelon

Tuna and Watermelon

[thinly sliced albacore tuna served with watermelon (compressed with peach brandy), roasted peanuts, burnt lime gel, pickled jalapeno, and edible flowers from Acorn Creek]

Ceviche

Ceviche

[thinly shave scallop crudo, cherry gel, orange foam, caramel corn, and edible flowers from Acorn creek]

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

[brined, dredged (in flour, cornstarch, egg white powder, and milk powder), and fried Cornish hen on a crispy buttermilk waffle with maple chipotle emulsion]

Octopus

Octopus

[brined and grilled octopus tentacles with smoked cranberry kidney beans, "large" bacon lardons (fried pork belly), collards, coke and bourbon molasses, and habenero powder]

And, further distancing his cuisine from Levante’s, Mongeon refuses to plate anything on white plates. Expect stone slates, platters, and metal trays.

When I met up with him to taste some of his prototype dishes, Mongeon mentioned serving lunch and dinner seven days a week, food until midnight. Brunch is being considered. Depending on interest, he may offer a late night menu like Brothers Beer Bistro‘s down the street on Dalhousie (366).

Me, I think his chicken and waffles and octopus dishes are easy wins. Mongeon, knowing my love for all things offal and charcuterie, described a chorizo-stuffed pig trotter menu item. It will interest the more adventurous diner.

By the way, expect Mongeon to work his magic on Lunenburg Pub in the near future. Already, he envisions a rum bar with a true east-coast theme. So, think Screech and Halifax donair pizza.

Good luck, Chef!

Aside: I am presently trying to ramp up a friendly competition between Hooch’s Taylor (@mixshakeandstir), Brothers’ Steve Benson (@ottawacocktails), and Urban Pear‘s (151 Second Avenue) Bethann McLaren (@tastket). Talented “drink slingers,” it’s high time Ottawa’s craft cocktail talent gets some visibility! Watch for #ottCocktailOff.

Particulars:
Hooch Bourbon House
180 Rideau Street
(613)789-1821

Hooch Bourbon house on Urbanspoon

Mild-mannered IT professional by day and food blogger by night, I founded foodiePrints with a single intention, to share my love of all things food. My first post shared a recipe. Many followed. Eventually, I learned Ottawa prepares and serves great food. Thereafter, I started meeting restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, farmers, and other local producers, all good people. Ideas for food-related content swirled in my head. foodiePrints grew into a place to put them. From exploring foreign and domestic cuisines to shopping for exotic ingredients and cobbling together my takes on dishes in my meager kitchen, there are stories to tell. Welcome to foodiePrints. Here, you will find stories about food and drink, cooking, and eating in Canada’s capital. Be it food-related or just food-for-thought, I hope you find something tasty here.

Comments

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Bethany Laye

I can't wait to try this new restaurant. Also, Jo Mcgee, keep your negativity to yourself. All the best to them.

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Jodi

Was at Hooch last night... totally agree! Opening a new place can be hard - best of luck to them!!

Don

We have received two comments about horses, animal welfare, and risks with eating horse meat. I have visited Hooch post soft opening twice. I have seen the finalized menu. There is NO horse on the menu.

Christopher Lord

Well said Bethann, I am glad to see someone else tackling a style of food that I like so much. Hopefully the online bullying doesn't get under their skin at Hooch, I'm really looking forward to trying it out for myself. Like you said, there's plenty of room for more bourbon and fried chicken. Make cornbread, not war.

Bethann McLaren

Thanks for another well-researched and well-written article Don! I always enjoy your pieces - you're one of the best Ottawa has to offer! Hooch looks like it's going to be great; it's too bad it's already facing so much hostility from fans of the rival bourbon bar in town, Union Local 613. Some of the online comments have been totally classless. Ottawa has plenty of room for more than one restaurant, bar or cocktail house. If it has good food, good service and good drinks, people will go, as they should. Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion amongst online groupies, neither Union nor any other establishment in town owns the copyright on bourbon, southern food, raw food, cocktails, etc etc. If you just take a gander in any other city in the world, you'll see that cocktails, speakeasies, and prohibition-styled establishments have been all the rage for literally 10-15 years. As for bourbon and southern food, well, I'm fairly sure there are millions of people south of the Mason-Dixion line who have been indulging in these niceties for centuries. Oddly enough, until quite recently, these very people have been much maligned by posh, salad-eating Northerners for their greasy, deep-fried food; funny how things come full circle! Having working at Union Local 613 as the head bartender for several glorious months, I know for a fact that the owners of that establishment pride themselves on the wonderful, close-knit restaurant community that exists in Ottawa. Unlike other cities where there is deadly enmity between rivalry establishments, we here in Ottawa kind of like each other. As an industry veteran, it's disappointing to see misguided guests ranting on a burgeoning new hot spot out of misplaced loyalty to an already-thriving favourite bar. Good restaurants need good (friendly!) competition in order to stay fresh, current and inspired. As a bartender, I can resolutely say the same goes for cocktails. Give Hooch a chance to prove itself one way or another: if they treat you shoddily, burn your food and serve you a premixed, overly sugary drink than by all means, rant away and never darken the doors again. But at least be open to the fact that they just might have an amazing concept, complimented by great food and a half-way decent cocktail. Don't allow your judgement to be clouded by the love of an already-successful establishment. Let's be honest: Elijah Craig is going to taste as good in a mason jar at the Union speakeasy as it will in a rocks glass at the Hooch bar or in a paper cup on your back porch. Bethann McLaren @tasket

Big Mike

Ottawa's first Bourbon bar you say? http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/boom+bourbon/7128883/story.html

across the pond

I can't wait to try this place out!

jo mcgee

This place will go the way of levante...because ownership and management of this place will fale as they do with all there business plans....

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