Discovering Canada's cool capital

At Byward Market, in Ottawa's historic center, small local shops sit around the corner from international chain stores.
At Byward Market, in Ottawa's historic center, small local shops sit around the corner from international chain stores. (Alamy)
Map of Ottawa, Canada
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
By Michael Kaminer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2010

When I was growing up in disco-era Montreal, we Canadians had a snarky sobriquet for our nation's capital: "The City That Never Wakes." It may have been our home and native land's seat of power, but Ottawa also meant somnolent streets, dull dining and nonexistent night life.

So when I read that this summer, the National Gallery of Canada would be the only North American stop for the Tate Modern's blockbuster "Pop Life" show -- an ambitious three-decade survey from Warhol to Hirst to Murakami -- I did a double take. Was it possible that the parochial Ottawa of my childhood had actually become hip?

To find out, I spent an early spring weekend navigating the compact capital. And I left planning a second visit. Ottawa still isn't Toronto or Montreal (nor do I think it wants to be). But it felt lively, smart, quirky and confident: a city waking up to its own potential after many dreary years.

In fact, if anything now characterizes the city, I'd say it's an unselfconscious cool. There's a proudly indie aesthetic in its neighborhoods, but without the hipster posturing of Toronto. Unlike language-obsessed Montreal, the city has a relaxed attitude toward bilingualism -- everything here comes in both official languages -- that lends Ottawa an easy cosmopolitanism.

And there's a buzzing food scene that turned out to be the weekend's big reveal. Larger cities get the glory, but Ottawa's kitchens might be some of North America's best-kept secrets. Locavore-fueled creativity here arguably rivals that of San Francisco or Chicago, albeit with less ego, zero attitude and gentler prices.

A disparate pair of restaurants on opposite ends of town best symbolized Ottawa's transformation. The first night, after sightseeing around my hotel, I walked down Elgin Street to Somerset and dinner at ZenKitchen. A traditional French restaurant formerly occupied this old house on the edge of Chinatown; in 2009, it became Canada's first fine-dining vegan restaurant. A bookish, prosperous-looking crowd packs the place for such locally sourced specialties as panko-crusted seitan with Asian slaw and a killer raw chocolate-mint-coconut parfait. "People told us Ottawa wasn't ready for a vegan restaurant," New York-trained chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii told me as she surfed the cantaloupe-colored room, greeting diners. ZenKitchen is now one of the hottest tables in town.

Aggressively Canadian bistro Murray Street is like ZenKitchen's funhouse-mirror counterpart. It's another rehabbed French-continental spot, but its signature dish is a whole smoked pig's head. It equally epitomizes Ottawa's new spirit, with serious creative chops, a singular Canuck-vernacular menu and wicked irreverence. Where else will you find a poutine of "hand-cut herb spatzle, shredded mariposa duck confit, roast duck gravy" or a kitchen board assortment described as "kind of like 'The Island of Misfit Toys' . . . but, food"?

"Ottawans are coming out of their culinary shells," bearded chef and co-owner Steve Mitton enthused as I nibbled sublime Ontario and Quebec cheeses at the bar while British noise-funk band the Go! Team blared from the sound system.

There's a similar independent streak in Ottawa's neighborhoods, where non-chain shops rule. My favorite quarter was the Georgetown-like Glebe -- a word meaning "land belonging to a parish church," according to Webster's -- whose heart is a 10-block stretch of low-slung brick buildings along Bank Street. Along with lefty bookstore Octopus, homemade-dessert shop Cafe Morala and vegetarian bakery Wild Oat, I found Slaysh, nominally a skateboard shop but actually a trove of smartly curated design. My most prized Ottawa souvenir is Slaysh's own T-shirt, with a heavy-metal-inspired logo, for about $33. You'll also find pieces by Montreal jewelry designers Uranium (brass, feather and peace-sign earrings, about $23) and Colab sunglasses from Australia, so limited-edition that they're numbered, such as the "Ultra Violence" model I tried on (more than $250 -- I put them back).

The Glebe also has a comfy branch of ubiquitous local coffee chain Bridgehead, where WiFi is free and a kid with an extravagantly teased Mohawk pulled me a perfect espresso shot.

Hintonburg and Westboro, two more quietly indie neighborhoods -- think Berkeley -- are small enough to handle in an afternoon. Nearly all of Hintonburg's shops, strung along Wellington Street West, are local independents: Lida Boutique and Clothes by Muriel Dombret for chic-looking women's clothes, Collected Works for books and snacks, Nectar for teas and tastings. There's also an unassuming corner cafe where one of Ontario's locavore pioneers holds court. Sheila Whyte of Thyme & Again was a founding member of local-food boosters Savor Ottawa. Everything in the cafe -- "including marshmallows and jam," she told me -- is made in-house, with local ingredients.

Even Ottawa's kitschy Byward Market, the city's historic center, yields quirky treasures if you avoid touristy strips such as York Street, which is ruled by chain restaurants. Shops on Dalhousie Street, at the Market's eastern edge, form a sort of mini-Greenwich Village. Workshop, which claims to stock 140 handmade Canadian collections, carried brilliant political finger puppets from an Ottawa outfit called Fish on Fridays. The day I came in, artist Gabe Thirlwall was dropping off her latest creation: miniatures of Helena Guergis, a disgraced cabinet minister who had been fired that week. Washingtonians will appreciate the sentiment.

A few doors down, streetwear emporium the Layup carries statement clothing from such local brands as Raised by Wolves and Flying Coffin. And across the street, you'll find Ma Cuisine and Mon Cadeau, adjacent stores with Ontario-made products that make great little gifts: Rootham preserves, Jules + Kent jellies, Cocolico dessert sauces and Mrs. McGarrigle's mustards.

Oh, yes: Ottawa also boasts Canada's Parliament, along with the National Gallery, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Canadian War Museum, Rideau Hall, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Children's Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. They're all gleaming, serious attractions, with collections often lauded as some of the world's best.

They used to be the reason for a visit to Ottawa, with restaurants and shopping an afterthought. These days, don't be surprised if you find the opposite to be true.

Kaminer is a freelance writer based in New York.

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