Forty-eight hours have passed since Chef Jon Svazas and his wife Kate threw open the doors of their much anticipated restaurant to the public. Leading up to Fauna’s first dinner service, the Svazases engaged in a bit of tongue-in-cheek marketing, routinely changing the papers covering the slightly tinted floor-to-ceiling windows. Emblazoned with Fauna’s Momofuku-esque branding, they communicated the restaurant’s status, from “opening soon” to “opening slowly” and finally counting down the days until reservations were being accepted.
Located directly across from Josh Bishop’s almost decade-old Whalesbone Oyster House, the embattled Fauna has been the subject of curiosity and speculation for more than two years. For a city that once tried to establish itself as North America’s Silicon Valley North, Fauna was “vaporware,” a much talked about addition to the food scene along Bank Street but not yet open.
During Sunday’s soft opening Kate would explain to us how she and her husband encountered fellow chef entrepreneur Steve Mitton of Murray Street Kitchen in a nearby parking lot after originally signing the lease for the space. The building, owned by Ahmed Gabal and Velika Realty, once housed a longstanding shoe store. Fauna was slated to lead the latest wave of finer dining restaurant openings that included Supply and Demand, Das Lokal, Salt, and Mena.
“The branding is actually two years old,” explained Kate when we mentioned how we’ve seen similar restaurant branding from restaurants in New York City. Most recently, we saw the emoji-inspired food grid at the Momofuku Noodle Bar and Daisho in Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel.
Pointing to the floral light fixtures hanging from the ceiling above the stainless steel bar, she mentioned, “We bought the lighting two years ago too. It was a relief to see them finally installed!”
Suffice it to say, the landlord and tenant relationship between Gabal and the Svazases is strained. As of 2013, approximately $750,000 spent on renovations, operating costs, rent, and legal fees is being disputed in Ontario courts. Conflict, starting with Gabal charging Jon for relocating the building’s apartment tenants to a hotel, just escalated. Jon would enumerate lease breaches to the Ottawa Citizen’s Hugh Adami. Gabal countered, explaining he offered to sell the building to the Svazases, but they refused the offer. Three months after what was the earliest planned opening in October 2012, an overhead water pipe rupture and further legal challenges scuttled any further progress.
Award winning chef Marc Lepine would lend his Atelier Restaurant to the Svazases for a takeover event this past April. Lepine wanted to allow Jon to at least showcase concepts for Fauna’s menu; keep prospective diners’ appetites whetted. The Monday night dinner sold out quickly. When the multi-course menu leaked through social media channels, however, we were surprised by how many of the dishes were influenced by modernist cuisine. That is when we realized how dire it must have been at the Bank Street location. Chefs look to many things molecular when space or power is limited. The dilapidated kitchen at the Courtyard Restaurant, during Lepine’s tenure as its chef, to some extent forced him to dabble in what was then called molecular gastronomy.
Pastry Chef Michael Holland, who later left Atelier to open a malt shop in the Hintonburg neighbouhood, called Holland’s Cake and Shake, helped out during the takeover. “[Jon’s] really good! I expect no less than good things from Fauna,” remarked Holland.
The dining room at Fauna is standard modern contemporary with exposed brick, dark wood grain finished table tops, faux leather banquettes, and jet black wooden chairs. Look up. All of the overhead venting, cabling, and conduit are painted black to mask them from view. The bar at the back of the restaurant takes a little getting used to as it has a lip. The functional surface is recessed. One of the servers, whom we last spotted at Matt Carmichael’s bustling El Camino, urged diners to treat the lip like an ergonomic wrist rest. Jenn was rather taken by the hooks under the bar for purses or handbags. They keep belongings off the floor.
Jon, being an alumnus of Chef John Taylor’s former Domus and current Genuine restaurants, I was not expecting the Asian influences on the semi-finalized menu or the smaller plate, almost tapas, format. For anyone who attended the Atelier takeover, only minor modernist touches remain, something to be expected from today’s kitchens. For consistency, immersion circulators and sous vide are very much mainstream. Though, Caroline Gosselin and her chef Jonny Korecki of Sidedoor Kitchen should take notice. Fauna serves Asian Contemporary with a classical French flare. Only, the price point is lower. No plate costs more than $20.
[w/”fried rice”, ginger, napa, chanterelles, edamame]
[w/fingerlings, corn, fennel, Swiss chard, chanterelles, cherry]
[flank steak w/wheat berry, gai lan, shishito pepper, and tomato]
[w/squid ink spaetzle, kimchi on kale, and house ginger plum sauce]
Back of house, Jon apparently has a keen interest in Chinese, Japanese, and Thai fare: deep fried tofu, fried rice, and tataki. His chef de cuisine Billy Khoo is a staunch classicist favouring French cuisine, hence legendary Thomas Keller’s classic potato pavé that comes with the tender pork short ribs. Kate told us a lunch menu will appear a week after opening. And, on weekends, Jon is considering doing a take on Chinese dim sum for brunch.
Front of house, Doug Parsonage who helped open Gezellig Dining in the Westboro neighbourhood manages with a firm but friendly hand. Fauna seems to have attracted some of the finest servers we have encountered in Ottawa, including Julie Ribi, formerly of Hooch Bourbon House; Alex McHahon, formerly of Back Lane Cafe and El Camino; and Chanelle Foisy, formerly of Edgar and Odile. Like Parsonage, many of Fauna’s staff graduated from restauranteur Stephen Beckta’s school of enlightened hospitality. Expect to be treated well at Fauna.
Generally, I greatly dislike soft openings and writing about restaurants within a month of their launch. One must not judge a restaurant by how its new staff handles new equipment to serve a new menu in a new space. The difference with Fauna is complete and utter desperation. The Svazazes genuinely want to make a go of their restaurant. Fauna’s continued survival depends on a court judgement in their favour and being able to cultivate regulars quickly. Even the wealthiest of investors lose patience.
Jenn and I were impressed by how well the front of house handled itself Labour Day weekend, engaged but unobtrusive.
Jon isn’t testing a menu “trial by fire.” He has had two years to think about his food.
There is promise at Fauna, the “necessity breeds invention” variety.
Here are Jenn’s thoughts for Lunch Out Loud Ottawa
425 Bank Street