Acclaimed Chef Dominique Dufour got her restaurant Gray Jay Hospitality off to a beautiful start, opening in a 27-seat space on Preston Street back in 2019. That space is now occupied by Perch, a new venture by Ottawa chef Justin Champagne. Meanwhile, Gray Jay has taken flight and is now occupying a 60-seat space that’s three times bigger at 221 Echo Drive, the former home of a Royal Oak. We had the pleasure of attending the soft opening and tasting the pre-set menu without knowing what was on it. Below is our recount of the night.
Chef Dufour appeared on the 2020 season of Top Chef Canada and is known for her strong commitment to using only local ingredients, so we knew we were in for a treat. For example, Gray Jay doesn’t use chocolate or coffee, because they can’t be grown sustainably in Canada, and Dufour tirelessly looks for local alternatives.
Knowing the space used to be a Royal Oak, we were pleasantly surprised by the renovations. “You have to embrace this space as it is,” Dufour says. “It’s a 100-year-old building. It’s a work of enhancing—you can’t make it super-modern.” The older building brought many challenges: “Every time we opened up a wall, we were in for a surprise. Permitting also made the construction longer than expected.” Dufour says she followed her intuition for the design, which is minimalist, yet soft and comforting with a terracotta bar, wooden benches lining the walls, carefully placed pillows, burnt orange and grey curtains, and a warm green tone on the walls. There is a vintage fridge and the back of the bar is decorated intentionally with cookbooks.
“It’s a 100-year-old building… Every time we opened up a wall, we were in for a surprise.”
“I am excited about the bigger space—Preston Street was 960 square feet and this is more than 3,000 square feet! We are excited to open the balcony in the summer and we are opening the private dining room in 2022,” Dufour says.
Upon arrival, we were greeted with a team of servers attending to our table at perfectly timed intervals. We felt like valued guests, but not rushed in any way, an art in and of itself. The menu is leather-bound with thick paper pages, and what a pleasure it is to not scan a QR code.
The drink menu is small but enticing, and pays homage to classic cocktails with a local twist. My “Fermented” cocktail was Gray Jay’s take on a Caesar, with locally sourced squash and miso that created a kimchi-in-a-glass impression.
The atmosphere is buzzing, ’90s hip-hop interspersed with Leonard Cohen playing at a perfect volume in the background. It was pleasant to be indoors, surrounded by other people (what a concept!) enjoying their dishes.
Lo and behold, the first amuse-bouche arrived: a deer heart tartare with Concord grape jelly. The crunchy outside shell mixed perfectly with the cool and tender meat mixture, letting the strong acidic flavour shine through.
Warm sourdough bread in a skillet followed, with cultured butter and fermented sweet and smoked onion jam. A beet and endive structure appeared next, housing soy yogurt underneath and a blanket of black walnut shavings on top. It tasted like a campfire and was the perfect introduction to the French-Canadian take on dumplings that came after. Thick dough made with semolina flour encased goose leg meat, and the dumplings swam in a goose fat and chamomile broth.
Then came my favourite dish of the entire night: Potato. Okay, it wasn’t actually called that, but it did feature thinly sliced potato along with charred pearl onions, squash, and a sauce made of potato skins, so nothing went to waste. It was extremely satisfying to eat, very comforting, and the strong flavours danced in my mouth.
The hearty potato was complemented with charred broccoli and fermented sauerkraut. To quote my partner: “How can it… be so good?” Braised venison with crispy moss and sauce made from venison bones completed the main course. It tasted like a forest, but while the meat was easy to pull apart and tender, I found it a bit dry.
Dufour delivered the pre-dessert herself—a delicately whipped fennel meringue with a delicious sweet sauce. Then a team of servers brought over actual honeycombs and scooped out the honey from the comb for us with wooden spoons. It went perfectly with an array of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses that came out with dessert—a rich cake with hazelnut cream, chantilly on the side and, as a chocolate replacement, amaretto-style sauce from Quebec.
“There is always a fear that the soul of the food won’t translate when you are in a new space,” says Dufour. We can confidently say that the soul of the food has absolutely traversed the miles intact and you definitely know you are at Gray Jay.
Gray Jay is now officially open in their new location (221 Echo Drive) and taking reservations.