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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
Food-wise, Mongeon promises a creative farm-to-table menu to match the decor with $8-$10 small plates and under $30 mains.
[thinly sliced albacore tuna served with watermelon (compressed with peach brandy), roasted peanuts, burnt lime gel, pickled jalapeno, and edible flowers from Acorn Creek]
[thinly shave scallop crudo, cherry gel, orange foam, caramel corn, and edible flowers from Acorn creek]
[brined, dredged (in flour, cornstarch, egg white powder, and milk powder), and fried Cornish hen on a crispy buttermilk waffle with maple chipotle emulsion]
[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.
Hooch Bourbon House
180 Rideau Street
Tags: bourbon, Danny Mongeon, featured, Hooch Bourbon House, Levante, whiskey