Another of life’s pleasant detours brought me through the doors of the newly opened Back Lane Café under the wing of one of Ottawa’s best guides.
Its artful decor, high ceilings, aged plaster walls, colorful art, mix & match wood chairs and comfortably large wood tables paired with the sleekness of bits of brass, hints polished concrete and stylish lighting threw me. Am I in Ottawa, or am I in Paris?
Enough style to welcome me in my Bebe heels, enough causal attitude to embrace me in my sneakers. I felt instantly transported to a different place, a different time; a scene of my imagination, down a narrow cobblestone lane in pre-war Paris.
In this modern version there was a distinct lack of cigarette smoke and table of forlorn artists drinking cappuccino and complaining about money. Instead, conversation was peppered with optimism thanks to my lunch companion, Paola St- Georges of C’est Bon Cooking.
A welcome addition to Ottawa’s eclectic Hintonburg neighborhood, the Back Lane Café is the brain child of longtime restaurateur George Monsour. Recently returned from six years in Paris, Monsour had a vision that would offer Ottawa a change of pace; a nod to a time when life was lived in the back lanes of the neighborhood, in gardens and open kitchens and everything was made fresh, from scratch.
This vision is echoed in a menu that leans French but borrows from Mediterranean favor; with bright, sharp, contrast and fresh, fresh, FRESH ingredients. Everything at the Back Lane Café is made in-house, from the bread to the deserts. There is no such thing as “pop”, instead they offer Charlotte’s Lazy Back Lane Spritzers; made from in-house fruit syrups and sparkling water – truly a “must have”.
A tight selection of tempting appetizers, salads, mains and wood fired pizzas make for an easy to please menu. Eat light, share a pizza, have one of everything including fresh beignets (called yeast doughnuts on the menu) – up to you.
We had to start with the Almond, Garlic, Mushroom Pate ($9), Paola insisted on it. A wonderful vegetarian appetizer for lovers of fungus. Local Veg Heads take note; between this and the Margarita Pizza ($16), you’ll be well served at the Back Lane.
I was torn between the Lobster Omelet with Potato Salad ($14) and the Duck Confit Baguette with Goat Cheese and soup du jour ($16) – which turned out to be an amazing Gumbo. Not your typical “soup & sandwich”.
I’d forgotten how much I love corn until I started into the bowl of gumbo before me, filled with shrimp and gratifyingly void of okra with just enough punch to be a proper gumbo. The combination of savory duck against tangy goat cheese, sweet grape and slightly bitter arugula was a winner.
Executive Chef Evan Pritchard shows his love of local fare in every bite. Haunting the Parkdale Market in the early hours, he then sets the tone of the day with stocks and soups and steps behind the line for the lunch service. Pritchard’s passion for great food spills out as he chats easily about the new digs he enjoys daily, and not one but two wood-fired Le Panyol ovens from France, which they pieced together themselves.
“They arrived like a giant Lego puzzle,” says Pritchard “and the worst ‘Ikea’ instructions you’ve ever seen. They’re dome shaped and we had to figure out which piece fit where, with a key-stone at the top… but we got it.”
Those Panyol ovens are the secret to a 2 minute pizza at Back Lane. In fact the heat is so intense the pan is turned 180* after 60 seconds to avoid burning on one side.
Never turn a chef down when he/she offers a tour of the kitchen. You can learn a lot about a place from a few minutes spent in the kitchen, and this is a kitchen to be proud of. Unlike the moody ambiance of the front of house the Back Lane Café’s kitchen is gleaming white and flooded with natural light from… are you ready for it… windows.
Can’t say I’ve ever seen a commercial kitchen, anywhere, that is as bright and receptive as this one. While its lack of freezer and large walk-in cooler told me a great deal about its food; its meticulous attention to detail told me more about the man behind the vision that is brought to stunning synergy in the Back Lane Café - George Monsour.
“Oh George, you must be a chef at heart – what a beautiful kitchen!”
“No,” says Monsour with a smile “I’m not a chef at heart, I’m a dishwasher. I designed that kitchen for the dishwasher.”
With two big windows on either side, easy access to the line, the racks and the prep-kitchen I see his point. Being at this dish pit is almost like being at home, looking out into the backyard.
Because not everyone gets to step into the kitchen, ending this post with a mini photo tour and much thanks to the men & women in white under Chef Evan Pritchard; Jonas, Martin, Jason, bread baker John and dishwasher Tyler. Plus a taste of Pastry Chef Charlotte Burpree-Dagenais’ signature dessert; the Pick-me-up Chocolate Bar (walnuts, dulce de leche, espresso ganache, between two layers of shortbread, covered in dark chocolate) – we wants one.
Ottawa, go enjoy the ambience, the food and the service in a welcome homage to back lane living.
Back Lane Café, 1087 Wellington St. W., 613-695-2999