Navarra – a region in northern Spain, southwest France, inhabited by the Basque. Nirvana – in shamanic thought, the state of being free from suffering. Both apply.Fine dining in Ottawa’s trendy Byward Market, parking is hard to find, a certain Gypsy refuses to wear her Italian shoes on slushy, salt laden sidewalks but worth the walk (in less attractive footwear) is a little piece of Basque heaven called Navarra.
It was a late celebration of Valentine’s Day, our first official night out on the town. Between me and my steady date, the French Chef in my life, the cooking’s so good at home we hardly have need to brave the northern Ontario winter, but he was determined to indulge, and indulge he did.
The (one sided) discussion on destination took two hours finally coming to rest on Navarra… untried by said Chef and myself… it seemed a taste adventure for a couple of food hounds like us.
We arrived for a late seating and found the tiny restaurant buzzing with conversation. The decor was austere but stylish, the art was quiet and the colour palette brought to mind an elegant grotto, cool on a hot summer’s night .
The menu was tight, offering a choice of a la carte items including duck confit and a simple salad. We were drawn to explore the tasting menu with a three course option and complementary amuse-bouche, choice of ‘savoury’ starters, choice of ‘slow foods’, choice of entrees, and finished with in-house truffles —$56/person.
If there’s one thing I do well… it’s order from a great menu.
If there’s one thing my guy does well… it’s order wine from a great list.
“You can never go wrong with Cirzna. Particularly the Lar de Barros, “for my money it’s one of Spain’s best offerings” so says Chef Benoit.
Right on so many levels, the vintage was rich without being overbearing and bright enough to perfectly balance the meal that came before us, cutting slightly the heat that is a signature trait of Navarra.
The in-house bread was accented beautifully with a ‘pineapple butter’ so bright and refreshing I wanted a jar for home.
The amuse-bouche, Aguachile Mexicano, a light marinade of fennel, onion, apple and chilli in lime juice – served in a small mason jar – refreshed and set the tone for a meal that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
I began with: the Simple Salad; baby arugula, dried apricots, fresh apple, lemon oil and Serrano ‘leather’. So fresh and bright it was like waking up the taste buds to say “pay attention, good stuff’s coming your way!”
He began with the Smoked Wild Salmon; pink peppercorn, ‘aguachile’ lychees, orange gelee, shaved radish with XV olive oil. In his words “The lychee was a bit overpowering… but the orange gelee, which melted away unlike a traditional animal-based gelatin, was a true delight.”
My Slow Food option: Paccheri Pasta Carbonara. His: House Cured Lamb Belly Pancetta.
My reaction: “Dear Lord!” His reaction: lifting away the arugula, “Look at this LAMB!”
Then he begs for a nibble of my pasta “Wow… the pasta is…”
“I was just going to say that” he smiles (and finishes my pasta).
’Perfect’ became the word of the night at Navarra. As if Chef René Rodriguez looked into at our collective consciousness and divined the exact meal to accent the palate and offset the cold winter night.
Creamy carbonara covering the fresh pasta cooked to just ‘al dente’ and topped with three generous chucks of house brined, confit guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon) finished with Espelette (Basque hot pepper).
Lamb belly pancetta, sliced thin and accompanied with shaved Parmesan, a salad of a baby arugula lightly tossed with lemon oil and a tomato jam.
I was glad for the leisurely pace afforded by a later seating, and for the wisdom of our waiter, Roberto, who took care to time our courses and offer breathing space as our meal progressed. Without this I would have required a nap.
Instead I was entertained by subtle ambiance.
The kitchen crew sang to a favourite song, the retractable heat lamp went up and down, fellow diners packed birthday gifts into bags, and a later seating straggled in as wine cleansed my mouth and some wonderful scent wafted my way.
That wonderful scent… was my entree… Confit of Crispy Pig Cheek ‘A Basque Classic’.
I closed my eyes and moaned… “It’s like Grandma… on CRACK!”
Yes, this is exactly how your grandmother would cook if she were a thirty-something Chef with Basque roots having lived for a time in Mexico, traveled extensively, and trained in fine, French technique.
She’d be all “what’s all this commotion about emulsion?!” whisking together a guajillo chili froth and pouring it over a puree of parsnip and roasted Brussel sprouts and adding a touch of Parmesan and herbs.
The combination of creamy at the bottom of the bowl topped with a crispy on the outside, tender on the inside confit of pig’s cheek… Pull-apart-with-a-fork-tender!
It was my first pig’s cheek, but fan of pork that I am, I could not imagine a delicate cut of meat, slowly cooked in fat being anything but excruciatingly amazing. I was not disappointed.
But I am not the hard sell… in fact, I am the easiest food critic going… the man across the table however is not one to offer compliments lightly (as any of his cuisine students would gladly attest) so when he says (and I quote):
“One of the most memorable Steak Tartare I have EVER eaten… anywhere.” That is not the wine talking.
He was at times, silent… as if praying to the plate before him.
Perfectly poised Serrano leather hung on a wire ‘bow’, rounds of fresh baguette, Mahon cheese to accent the minced beef, seasoned with piment d’Espelette and infused with a caper emulsion, topped with a layer of fresh finely chopped chives.
Both the sauce Gribiche and the Romesco sauce – standards in classic Tartare service – usually served with the consistency of a sauce, were served thicker, as a condiment. An out-of-the-box de-structured tartare that made for a big hit with the French Dude.
He danced back and forth with his plate, mixing and matching the perfect bite.
“An angel crying on your tongue…” he said with reverence.
I hate it when he cries over his food. (Man up! Just kidding Honey… weep away, must be a French thing.)
After all that… dessert?! Well, there’s always room for chocolate! The Petit Four, three-chili, dark chocolate truffles made in-house with the perfect cup of coffee.
And that’s when I tagged out. Could not possibly eat one more bite.
A word with Chef René and we waddled out into a cold, wet Ottawa night. Warmed by Espelette chili and coloured by the experience of being so perfectly fed.
My favourite part of this ‘perfect’ meal was the after-effect of having absolutely no taste of food in my mouth. No overpowering garlic, onion, cheese, chilli or salt. Nothing but a perfectly fresh, bright taste that left me in a state of awe.
Do I recommend reservations for Navarra? Yes I do. I would hate for you to miss out on a truly memorable Ottawa dining experience.
I now dream of Confit of Crispy Pig Cheek and he now drools when I mention Navarra. How… Pavlovian.
93 Murray Street