Not only is the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro Ottawa’s first and only Native restaurant, it is also a celebration of Aboriginal culture and a visceral catwalk of food made from regional ingredients.
In the heat of mid-summer, editor-in-chief Will Nicholls and I headed to Ottawa to enjoy a wedding gift that we had been craving for almost a year – dinner on the house, courtesy of owners Phoebe and Warren Sutherland.
Within moments of being seated at our terrace table and gazing at the dishes the other patrons were being served while having my palate aroused by the surrounding aromas, we began to salivate with intense anticipation.
While Nicholls had dined at the restaurant before, it had been years ago and during the winter. Sweetgrass’s menu is changed four times a year to offer comforts available each season as well as what is available locally as the bistro has a mandate to offer as much of the region’s bounty that is grown within a 100-mile radius.
We began our meal with a perfectly round nugget of bannock, served with tarragon butter.
“What’s interesting about this one is that it is not made with the traditional white flower so it is healthier for you. The herb butter is also a nice addition,” explained Nicholls as he attempted to keep a portion of the Native staple (that reminded him of his grandmother’s) to dip into the juices of his main dish. He did not succeed.
Knowing the capacity of our own appetites, we skipped over the starters and went immediately to the “in betweens” section of the menu. I ordered the Alaskan crab cakes served with a cucumber-dill sauce, lemon-lime vinaigrette, Butterfly Sky Farms microgreens, while Nicholls chose the slow-cooked elk stuffed dumplings, sautéed mushrooms and spring onions, with mustard crème fraîche.
The crab cakes were nothing like my previous favourite (yes Maine, you have been dethroned). The crab is thicker, much less stringy and more savoury than the east coast variety. The dill cream sauce paired with the fried savoury globes of crabby goodness fit perfectly. The aroma and the texture of the cakes, paired with the accompanying local greens made for a unique flavour sensation that was outright delicious.
One nibble into the elk dumplings and Nicholls wished that he had ordered nothing but them as the elk was incredibly tender and savoury and its quality, undeniable.
Between the mushrooms served with his dumplings and the greens on top, the mustard crème-fraîche sauce and the elk encased in the dumpling pastry, the blend of flavours and textures resulted in an almost indescribable sensory overload.
For our main courses, Nicholls went with the grilled tatanka (buffalo), a 10 oz bison rib-eye steak, with Christophe’s mushrooms, market vegetables and roasted Spicoli’s new potatoes and Sweetgrass steak sauce. I, on the other hand, went with the surf route, the butter-poached lobster and pan-seared scallops served with new potatoes, Christophe’s mushrooms, pickled wild garlic and green beans.
Having known Nicholls for many years and shared thousands of meals with him, I could honestly say that I have never seen a piece of meat garner so much attention from him before. He was passionate about tucking into this particular piece of meat, enthralled by its flavour, freshness and quality. His facial expressions reflected nothing other than true bliss. One taste and I understood his romance with the large cut of meat on his plate.
My lobster and scallops were the best I have ever tasted – succulent lobster, still vibrant with the scent of the sea and perfectly seared scallops that had a light sweetness and savoury quality to them. The yellow beans in the dish were bursting with the taste of late summer and were crisp as though they had been picked that day.
Sadly, we had to forgo dessert as one more bite would have marred us as gluttons. But why go for extras when you are already so sated?
“The local aspect ties in with the Aboriginal concept because it ties in with what the Ancestors in the region would have eaten to certain degree. Particularly with the meats, we eat and serve whatever the land has given us,” explained Phoebe Sutherland.
Mistissini-born Phoebe opened up the bistro with her Jamaican husband in 2003. While not all of their ingredients are local, like the fish and seafood, the Sutherlands try to stay with the concept by serving wines from countries with large Indigenous populations such as Canada, the U.S., Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Their concept is to serve the meals bare bones, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves as they would have in the past, devoid of exotic truffles from France or imported spices from the east.
Phoebe explained that the décor is part of the Aboriginal ambiance as the bistro features the works of local Native artists while music with a distinctly Native flare can be heard in the background.
Sutherland said Sweetgrass’s fall menu will be making its way out of the kitchen in early October and neither Nicholls nor I can wait to see what Sweetgrass will have to offer.
The Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro is located at 108 Murray Street in Ottawa. For more info, go to: www.sweetgrassbistro.ca