In the modern world where everything is available at the tap of a button (or so it seems), making a deliberate choice to set limits seems almost bizarre. But that’s exactly what Chef Dominique Dufour has chosen to do at Norca, the newly-opened restaurant at the also-new Hotel Le Germain Ottawa. Dufour’s menu showcases “fruits, vegetables and proteins that are exclusively from Canada,” according to the website. (One imagines they make an exception for things like tea and coffee, which aren’t grown here.) This rule seems intended both to promote Canadian food and inspire creativity, and based on my experience I’d say it’s working, at least so far.
Naturally, the Canada-only rule means the menu, which leans towards the fine-dining end of the scale, will look vastly different in the winter than it did in late July, when I ate there. Fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful here in summertime, but I’ll be curious to revisit Norca in midwinter to see what Dufour can do with root vegetables and hothouse-grown produce (and perhaps house-made preserves and pickles?).
The Canada-only rule means the menu, which leans towards the fine-dining end of the scale, will look vastly different in the winter than it did in late July.
We certainly enjoyed the summery menu offerings, including an incredible shrimp tartare. I didn’t even know you could eat shrimp raw, but our server told us that when the side-stripe shrimp arrived in the kitchen, they were so fresh and beautiful, Dufour couldn’t bring herself to cook them. So they were chopped, seasoned, and stuffed into crisp, thin pastry cylinders (much like a chilled spring roll), served with ricotta, powdered seaweed, and compressed cucumber. It was so tasty, we nearly ordered another one. The summery crab cappelletti arrived garnished with fresh peas and edible flowers, and a small jug of chilled vichyssoise was poured over the dish at the table.
We tried two mains: first, an entire de-boned quail, stuffed with smoked egg yolk, rolled inside a layer of pork mousseline, served with red and white currants and eggplant two ways. The second plate featured big chunks of sweet Maritime lobster, a single sea scallop on the shell, and a piece of tender Humboldt squid, placed like jewels on top of green-pea purée and pea-infused spätzle. I loved everything but the purée, which I found a bit dry and pasty.
Desserts are adventurous and avant-garde. My husband’s beignets stuffed with rosewater pudding, topped with wheat-beer granité and compressed rhubarb, sounded unusual but tasted wonderful. My bay-leaf-infused aerated cake (similar to angel food) paired with juicy sumac-infused cherries and hay ice cream was equally creative and just as tasty. Hay ice cream! Put it on a cone and I’d walk down the street with it.
The menu also boasts a selection of sharing dishes, including charcuterie, seafood, and vegetable platters, as well as a “nose to tail” plate and something dubbed “crispy offal bites” for adventurous carnivores.
The wine and beer list isn’t subject to the Canada-only rule but includes many producers whose products are organic, sustainable, or biodynamic. There are two Canadian gins (Top Shelf and Romeo’s) on the cocktail list, for those patriots who prefer spirits.
Norca occupies the second floor of the hotel, with large windows on two sides overlooking Nicholas Street and Daly Avenue. The seating includes regular tables and chairs as well as lounge-inspired areas with low tables and soft benches topped with throw pillows. We sat at one of these and found it a comfortable and relaxing way to enjoy a meal. There’s a large L-shaped bar with tons of seating as well.
Service was friendly, professional, and competent. I found our meal was paced a little bit slowly, with overlong pauses between courses, but better that than feeling rushed through one’s dinner.
Dufour’s creativity and drive to showcase Canadian ingredients is admirable in theory and impressive in practice.
Norca is a great addition to the higher end of Ottawa dining. Dufour’s creativity and drive to showcase Canadian ingredients is admirable in theory and impressive in practice. It takes a lot of planning and research to pull off a fine-dining menu with such a huge limitation in place, but she and her team are clearly having a great time doing it, and that comes through in the food.
Norca and the Hotel Le Germain Ottawa are located at 30 Daly Avenue. They are open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30am–2:30pm and for dinner Monday to Saurday 5:30pm–10pm. The bar is open Monday to Friday 11:30am–close and Saturday and Sunday 5:30pm–close. Visit www.norcarestaurant.ca or call 613-691-3218 for reservations.