A starling is a bird known for iridescent plumage and taking over other birds’ nests. Starling is a fitting name for the ByWard Market’s newest restaurant — lush blue velvet seating and birdcages replace the nautical theme of its predecessor, The Fish Market, symbolically and literally taking over the nest. (An institution in its own right, The Fish Market closed its doors after 41 years at 54 York Street.)
But Starling’s road to opening was filled with thorns. Renovating a 130-year old building, the pandemic, and a break-in during the recent convoy protests, where the perpetrator came back three times and stole much of the high-end alcohol inventory, are just some of the challenges that delayed the opening. But the owners and staff overcame it all and the restaurant has finally opened.
We got the chance to experience the lavish bird-themed Starling ahead of its grand opening on Thursday, February 24th. The restaurant occupies the main floor of the building, while Apothecary, a cozy lounge with pink velvet seats and exposed stone walls, is located in the basement, and the second floor houses YOW: York on William, a street food restaurant featuring international cuisines, with flags lining the walls. We also got the scoop that a wall in the basement will be taken down to hide a secret speakeasy, and the rooftop will open in the spring for casual drinks.
Starling’s home, 54 York, is one of the oldest buildings in Ottawa, erected in 1875 and last sold 98 (!) years ago. Marketing director and designer Sofia Santiso Borsten created the Starling concept and brought the design to life. She told us that she kept everything they found during the construction, including original barn doors that were concealed in a brick wall that was torn down to open up the space.
The doors were restored and now serve as a privacy wall for a table near the bar. Sofia also kept original lamps and painted them, to maintain the historical element of the space. The dining area features original exposed brick walls, playfully contrasting with wallpaper featuring colourful birds. When asked, “Why birds?” she laughs and simply says that her husband and co-owner John loves birds. It took Sofia a while to find a bird with a cool name, but in the end, she settled on Starling because of the beautiful shapes the flock forms in the sky when migrating.
The design is playful but elegant and stylish. Tall ceilings painted dark teal add dimension and allow the sound of a busy restaurant, coupled with upbeat music, to fill the space without overwhelming it. French bistro chairs offer a clue of what to expect from the menu created by chef Brett Arden, while the big social-media-moment birdcage booth in the corner makes a statement.
We started our experience with drinks. I opted for the dealer’s choice and, when asked which alcohol I’d like as a base, said “Surprise me.” The result was a pink mezcal cocktail with grapefruit juice, both sweet (my only request) and sour. My friend chose the Peregrine Negroni, which arrived under a dome filled with smoke.
It took us a while to choose our dishes and I thank our kind waitress for gently returning to the table multiple times to see if we’d made any progress. Finally, we decided on steak tartare, French onion soup with fried egg, and Kentucky fried calamari. The menu also features a vegan pasta dish, bourbon steak frites, PEI oysters, and charcuterie plates — Sofia said the menu is contemporary cuisine with something for everyone.
The steak tartare arrived on a big plate painted with vibrant beet sauce. The meat itself was the perfect texture — not too soft or too chewy — interspersed with small-cut onions. It had a mild but pleasant flavour. The beet sauce, on the other hand… a little goes a long way. The flavour is strong and can completely overpower the meat if you fully dip your bite into the sauce. My friend remarked that all the dishes were generous in size and it’s true — we were completely full after three appetizers shared between the two of us.
The most intriguing dish on the menu is the French onion soup with a fried egg on top. I really wasn’t sure how they’d work together, but what an interesting innovation on a classic. It was so satisfying to see the fried egg fitted perfectly to the size of the soup ramekin. The yolk was runny and added smoothness to the bread hidden underneath. The traditional flavour of caramelized onions came through fully, and my friend said the soup was “really good,” which means a lot coming from a diplomat who has tasted the finest soups of France!
The third dish was the one we were least impressed with — the Kentucky fried calamari. The dipping sauce was amazing — a thick buttermilk ranch with lots of dill. But the breading was SO crunchy and deep dark brown, so we couldn’t taste the calamari meat at all. Between the tartare and the soup, the calamari was a good palate cleanser, but perhaps fried a touch too long for our taste.
The service was wonderful. It’s hard to strike the right balance between attentiveness and overbearing, and Starling’s staff has it figured out. We truly felt like important guests, yet our conversation wasn’t interrupted every two minutes. A note about accessibility: Washrooms are located either a flight of stairs down to the basement, or a flight of stairs up to the second floor. And we can’t omit an important factor: prices! The steak main is $48, a pasta dish is $30, and appetizers range from $10 to $20 with cocktails in the same range, so definitely a place for special occasions.
Starling is now open for reservations at 54 York Street.