We in Ottawa routinely break the cardinal rule for polite conversation. Topics such as sex, religion and politics (especially politics), pop-up in almost any available forum, from the bus stop to the dining table. Lately, two subjects dominate, the weather and “in defense of our fair city.”
Spring has sprung, but Mother Nature has deemed herself too inconvenienced to raise temperatures.
“Ottawa is not boring!”
Amateur filmmaker and Toronto-expat Amen Jafri produced, directed, and recently released a crowd-funded documentary that considers why celebrated Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotherham deemed Ottawa “The City that Fun Forgot,” “Coma City,” and “Sparta on the Tundra.” Her conclusions aren’t entirely positive.
I contend Ottawa’s self-deprecating residents are to some extent responsible for our city’s dull reputation.
We append “but it’s Ottawa” or “good for Ottawa” to much of how we describe our amenities, music, art, and food.
Worse, we actively declare any and all inconveniences in our fledgling restaurant scene “hipster.”
At popular El Camino on Elgin Street (380), lineups form with diners often waiting upwards of an hour to tuck into platters of tacos and craft cocktails. The taqueria doesn’t take reservations. Its takeout window is cash-only.
The line-up at Kevin Mathiesson’s Art Is In Bakery (250 City Centre Ave #112) stretches from the counter out the door and into the parking lot.
George Monsour’s Back Lane Cafe (1087 Wellington Street W.) takes reservations, but leaves too few seats available for walk-ins.
LeRoy Walden’s resurrected Jean Alberts restaurant, now called Detroit Soul Food (707 Gladstone), is cash-only for southern comfort staples like fried chicken. Walden serves everything on paper plates at what was recently Jon Reilly-Roe’s second venture of Tacolot, called Hang 10.
Union Local 613‘s (315 Somerset Street W.) dining room, a paragon of eclectic retro chic, is almost entirely communal seating. Union’s proprietor Ivan Gedz appears disheveled and wears flannel.
Steve Mitton’s Murray Street Kitchen (110 Murray Street) enforces its 90-minute dining limit during busy evenings.
Desserts are served in mason jars.
Condiments are made in-house with ingredients from nearby farms.
“OMG, this is hipster!”
“That is soooo hipster!”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hipster as “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion).” According to Julia Plevin’s “Who’s a Hipster?” which was published in the Huffington Post,
…the whole point of hipsters is that they avoid labels and being labeled. However, they all dress the same and act the same and conform in their non-conformity.
So, apparently, waiting patiently in line for a spot at a restaurant (that collects your cell phone number and texts you when a table clears); dining in a timely fashion so the next couple can have the table; and enjoying a laid-back unpretentious meal are characteristic of an ill-defined and potentially non-existent sub-culture that is hell-bent on resurrecting the Kodak Instant Camera?
Ask expats and chefs about characteristic food from Canada’s most populous city and they will likely point to sandwiches served at the St. Lawrence Market, a year-round indoor farmers’ market. While much more diverse and high-paced, Toronto’s restaurant scene benefits from a more developed dining-out culture. Ethnic and late-night options abound; everything supported by loyal crowds of diners. However, like our schizophrenic culinary landscape, theirs also seems to search for identity. On the outset, we identify with Beaver Tails. They identify with pea-meal bacon or “bifana” (sliced pork, piri piri, and sauteed onions and peppers) churrasco sandwiches.
Neither sandwich is served from Social’s kitchen, now under executive chef Kyrn Stein, to its 110 seats. Though, the Ottawa native and his pastry chef Justin Tse (formerly of The Courtyard Restaurant and Odile) are developing a bar snacks menu.
Taking over from Jordan Holley, who now leads El Camino’s kitchen, Stein has been working to re-brand. He wants to attract young professionals to come for drinks, but stay for dinner.
Since October 2013, he has brought in Ontario lamb; Organic Oceans steel head trout from Lois Lake, British Columbia; and organic produce from Juniper Farm in Wakefield, Quebec. Burgers are made from beef short rib that is ground daily. The intent involves showcasing Canada’s best agricultural products from “pork to chickpeas.”
[While not surf and turf, this pairing of earthy pulled ox tail, northern bean puree, and smashed potato with clean fish and marsh salty samphir evoked the pairing. The fish was expertly seared crisp on the outside and medium-well in the middle.]
[Imagine a meal of lamb curry, earthy daal, crunchy poppadum, and cooling yogurt. Now, infuse the yogurt impossibly with poppadum flavours. Cook the daal in fat rendered from lamb belly. Replace the poppadum with deep fried chick peas; and braised meat with an Indian massala-seared lamb shoulder cooked medium, only the familiar spice blend is spiked with dessicated shallots and onion.]
A fan of modern British cuisine, he added a “ploughman’s platter” to the menu in lieu of the more commonplace charcuterie plate.
The lamb has proved particularly popular, dishes selling out during Valentine’s.
This spring, Stein is looking to tap organic farmers for goat.
Social, with its dark accents, upholstered seating, and red velvet motif, seems to be the product of an illicit relationship between a steak house and cocktail bar. While one of three restaurants originally presided over by Chef Matt Carmichael, the sixteen year-old restaurant always stood alone. Largely known to locals for its DJ’ed cocktails on Saturday evenings and to tourists for its expansive cobblestone patio in the summertime, Social operated independently of Caroline Gosselin’s E18hteen and Sidedoor Contemporary restaurants at 18 York Street.
Such explains the price point of Stein’s menu, which smacks of affordable luxury. Social’s small plates start at $14 for a table-side assembled soup and top out at $18 for scallops with pork belly. Its entrees flirt with the $40 threshold. E18hteen’s price point is higher, par for its prestigious four-diamond rating by the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).
[Take pub fried calamari rings up a notch. This dish of tender Humboldt squid evokes the same textures and flavours from creamy labneh to crunchy curried shallot rings and crisp squid ink crisp.]
[The component fried bread and blood sausage are staples of a traditional full English breakfast. They work well with the shelled escargot and ethereal potato velouté.]
On the subject of breaking Ottawa’s sometimes self-inflicted stereotypes, Stein explained, “[our] restaurant scene isn’t just pubs anymore. Much as changed in twenty years.”
Yet, diners rarely sit down to a three-course meal. They routinely skip appetizers or desserts.
Stein wants Ottawa diners to consider what $32 “gets you” in larger metropolitan cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
At Social, he hopes to upset the value proposition by assembling eye-catching plates made with quality ingredients, so authentic food prepared with skill and integrity.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Stein schooled at Lycée Claudel and Nepean High School before entering the restaurant industry. Chefdb.com says he did a short stint at Metropolitain Brasserie (700 Sussex Drive) after returning from Hyde Park, New York where he studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), earning a Bachelor in Culinary Arts Management.
Stein brings with him an impressive resume, representing almost a decade of cooking in professional kitchens. Besides staging at Michelin Star Pied à Terre in London, England, Stein worked his way around a number of Toronto’s notables. His employers include The McEwan Group (Executive Sous and Chef de Cuisine at One) and Jamie Kennedy (Sous at the Gardiner and Chef de Partie at former Jamie Kennedy Restaurant). However, it was his time spent at Claudio Aprile’s former Colborne Lane (Junior Sous) and Ben Heaton’s The Grove that would define his approach to fine dining, especially his intricate and thoughtful plating. Well-rounded, Stein also participated in the opening of the Hot Stove Club in the Air Canada Centre, a high-end boutique steak house.
The journeyman chef was only developing his repertoire.
“Ottawa is home,” explained Stein.
“I wanted to come back and establish myself here,” he continued. “[This] is where you grow up and return to.”
Stein believes in the chef-owned restaurant concept that is predominant in the National Capital Region. Moreover, he wants to participate in developing our restaurant scene to attract investment by large fine dining restaurant conglomerates like The McEwan Group or Oliver & Bonacini.
“Imagine if Susur Lee decided to open his next restaurant in Ottawa?”
And, Stein wants to give young chefs a reason to come to Ottawa to apprentice. In fact, Social’s new found panache kept Holley-era hire Tse interested enough to stay put. Tse’s signature desserts continue to grace the menu.
[Deconstructed lemon meringue pie, only passion fruit and replacing the pastry with hazelnut praline.]
[Brown butter done in a number of way adds rich nuttiness to pumpkin puree. Forget the Thanksgiving treat. Embrace the best of the dessert when served with whipped cream.]
Besides, coming home, Stein is closer to his beloved Quebec poutineries, particularly La Pataterie Hulluoise (311 Boulevard Saint-Joseph, Hull).
So, how will Ottawa take the challenge issued by Social?
It depends. We are quick to judge. We are quick to grudge.
A Taste for Life
This spring, Social will participate in A Taste for Life. Social will be donating 25% of their evening’s sales on April 23rd directly to support Bruce House and the Snowy Owl AIDS Foundation. Reservations can be made by contacting the restaurant itself. So don’t miss your chance to enjoy a delicious night out and to support our local community.
Disclaimer: The dishes pictured above were specifically plated for us to photograph. However, the experiences and opinions are our own.
Social Restaurant and Lounge
537 Sussex Drive
A Taste for Life
April 23, 2014
Tags: A Taste for Life, featured, Justin Tse, Social, The City that Fun Forgot