14 MAR 2019: Decades ago when I lived in Ottawa and worked in politics, I was decidedly unimpressed by the restaurants and bars in the city. Fast forward to today and I have to say that Ottawa has a cool factor and it’s not just the weather. Things have vastly improved – not in the antics of politicians - but at least in food and drink.

On a recent visit to the capital, I looked up dear friends from those past years and asked them to pick a place and time for our rendezvous. My friends Margaret and Pierre booked us in Riviera on Sparks Street, likely the hottest, hippest spot in town. It was terrific.

Chef-restaurateurs Matthew Carmichael and Jordan Holley’s first two projects in Ottawa were the popular ethnic eateries taqueria El Camino and the Asian street food-inspired restaurant Datsun in the south end of Elgin. Riviera, in a gorgeously converted former bank building circa 1869, is a vision to behold that delivers the latest-greatest in trend setting drinks and eats.

On the menu when we ate there were items like tuna crudo with puffed quinoa and argan oil, roasted Romanesco (Roman cauliflower) with yogurt and za’atar and black cod with sun choke puree. Talk about hitting all the millennial hot buttons.

Most impressive was the huge list of inventive cocktails created by bartender manager Stephen Flood. There are nine takes on the Negroni cocktail, including a resinous one call Venus in Firs, six variations of Old Fashions for warming up winter and specialty Flood creations such as Lie to Me with bourbon, amaro Nonino and coffee liqueur.

The list of spirits including Amari and herbal ones was enormous with many specially selected small craft distillers. The wine list was also extensive with so many lesser known but excellent picks from around the world that I’m sure I was drooling on the menu as I read. Customers best reserve far in advance to get a table here. www.dineriviera.com

My friend Christine took me for brunch at Benny’s Bistro in the Byward Market area. Benny’s tucked in back of The French Baker, is like a secret hideaway only known by savvy locals. The French baker, which many consider the best in the city, was opened 1995 by Jérôme Mantel. He added Benny’s in 1999, reached by walking past the bakery counter down a narrow passageway.

Naturally they have great coffee and pastries from their bakery but more importantly, under Chef Scott Adams they offer delicious fresh market dishes at very reasonable prices. My daily special of boudin (a specialty sausage) was perfect as was Christine’s Benny’s Salmon Gravlax. Also on the menu that day were duck leg confit, pan roasted trout with soft poached egg and grilled octopus with white bean salad. All priced at $19 to $22. http://www.frenchbaker.ca

Christine and I also visited the Westboro neighborhood in the city’s west-end as she wanted me to see some of its neat eateries such as Pure Kitchen for tasty vegan fare, Gezellig which serves up haute cuisine versions of comfort food and Baker Street Café famous for cinnamon buns and hearty brunches. https://westborovillage.com/directory/baker-street-cafe

Then I went onto Soif, sommelier Véronique Rivest’s charming wine bar in a former hamburger joint in Gatineau. Food here features local ingredients in small-plate dishes made to pair well with the curated wine list such as tempura mushrooms, ricotta tartine, bison tartar and veal cheek. https://www.soifbaravin.ca

My first night in Ottawa, I stayed at the Andaz Hotel. This newly built hotel in the Byward market area had lots of bistros and cafes nearby. It was an easy walk to Parliament Hill and other attractions. My room, an Andaz suite, was spacious and very contemporary (blond wood floors, sleek furniture, glass walled shower and toilet cubicle) – the work of Canadian interior design firm Mason Studio. Windows were floor to ceiling and provided lots of light. I was impressed by its urban chic and Copper Spirits & Sights, the city’s tallest rooftop bar, located on the 16th floor. www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/canada/andaz-ottawa-byward-market/yowaz

My second night I moved to the Hotel Fairmont Chateau Laurier to experience the freshly renovated modernized Fairmont Gold rooms of this magnificent landmark on the banks of the Rideau Canal, next to the Parliament Buildings. Zoe’s, their cocktail bar was also recently renovated to both maintain its special architectural elements including the chandeliers, crown moldings and marble bar and add a sleek new look. I ordered The Statesman a rich, smoky, cocktail made with rye whiskey, maple syrup and Islay single malt and served with panache in a smoke-filled glass box. www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa

I left our capital city feeling much of what was stodgy had been replaced with hipster. Yes ,Mamma Teresa Ristorante, a favourite haunt of politicians in the seventies when I worked on the Hill, was still around but even if old traditions die hard among politicians and bureaucrats, there was a plethora of new destinations for a hot night on this cool town.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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