Alison Larabie Chase blogs about cooking and restaurants at This Dessert Life when she’s not herding cats, working in association communications, or traveling the world.
It had to be intimidating, moving into Beckta’s old house on Nepean Street. But as far as I can tell, North & Navy is making it their own with charm, grace, and very tasty food, much of which is a novelty for Ottawa restaurant menus.
I never ate at the old Beckta so I can’t speak to how much of a change was made to the interior décor, but I will say that it is warm and welcoming now. Vintage tile floors and dark-varnished stairs greet you in the hall, with a paned glass door to shield diners from the elements. We were lucky enough to score one of the comfy leather booths. Other tables were far enough away for discretion and featured classic dark-wood bistro chairs; antique paintings and framed maps adorned the walls. Best of all, the small restaurant was bustling, but not so loud that we had to shout at our friends across the table or even raise our voices.
Service was warm and professional, and the waiter took time to explain the menu in detail, which we found helpful as many of the dishes were unfamiliar to us. This is not red-sauce Italian (though there is a great one on the menu; more on that later) but rather a selection of dishes from the northern regions of Italy, in particular Veneto and Piemonte. The menu offers cicheti (Italian for tapas) which are just a bite or two each, then a section each of antipasti (starters, large enough to share with a friend) and pastas (ditto) and finally the Secondi, or main courses. Guests can either share a few plates or build a traditional three- or four-course meal from the options available.
Meatballs all round
Everyone began with polpette – who can say no to a duck and pork meatball? You can get a single or a set of three, and the soft, loosely formed meatballs arrived in a pool of rich, long-simmered tomato sauce. The hearty bread provided was essential for scooping up any remaining sauce dregs. I should mention the gorgeous dishes here too – some are modern and sleek, but interspersed are vintage plates, tureens, bowls and saucers of gilded china that wouldn’t look out of place at Downton Abbey.
I have a compulsion to order any eggplant dish I see on a menu, so the seared eggplant antipasto with house yogurt was a must. The plate arrived painted with thick, cool yogurt upon which sat rounds of charred and softened Asian eggplant (the long skinny ones) topped with slices of mild, dark-green olives and a smattering of herbs. It was perfect in its simplicity; every ingredient sang. My husband, when offered one bite, snagged a second immediately.
Our dining companions shared a plate of the house specialty pasta, corzetti (medallions) with pancetta, walnuts and a drizzle of honey. They pronounced it well-balanced and very tasty.
My main dish of glazed quail with polenta and rapini was the one slight letdown of the evening for me. While the little birds were meaty and the portion size generous, the glazing was a bit too charred for my taste and the polenta, while texturally perfect, was bland, in need of some herbs or cheese to perk it up.
My husband’s dish of squid and octopus was an adventurous order for him – he likes squid but didn’t love the octopus. I tried it and found it to be very nicely cooked, though. Across the table, my friend adored her olive oil-poached ling cod with “Livornese” sauce of tomatoes, chickpeas, and anchovy. She said the sauce was so good she could have eaten a bowl of it alone. Her husband’s medium-rare flatiron steak (an off-menu special) came with sweet potato chips, broccoli and crispy pancetta, and it had all disappeared by the time I thought to ask about it. His verdict: awesome.
From the short but well-curated wine list, I chose a glass of Calamus Riesling from Niagara which was great with the quail; the boys enjoyed beer from the Ashton Brewing Company and there were several other local and international selections as well.
This ain’t your childhood snack cake
Neither couple at the table could resist ordering the Giuseppe Luigi. (That’s a semi-literal translation of “Jos Louis.”) More like a whoopie pie than a trashy snack, its two chocolate cake layers had a crisp edge and soft interior, sandwiching a layer of marshmallow-like cream and a second of salted caramel. One edge of the cake peeked out from underneath a glossy glaze of chocolate. It was rich and decadent, and sharing it was definitely a good call.
The bill was fair, given the quality of the ingredients, the portion sizes, and the excellent service. For a full meal, I’d call it a bit of a splurge, but if you want to try out some tasty small plates that can’t be had anywhere else in the city, with a great glass of wine alongside and the possibility of audible conversation with your friends at the same time, North and Navy would be a terrific and affordable place to do it.
North & Navy is located at 226 Nepean Street and is open for lunch Wednesday – Friday 11am – 2pm and dinner Monday – Saturday 5pm – 10pm.