Dear prospective diner:
Hi there. In a couple of weeks – mid-June, to be exact – we’ll be opening a restaurant in Ottawa – on Elgin Street, for those of you who know Ottawa. We couldn’t be more excited (or, to be honest, more tired) and can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on with everyone.
In between hiring people and attending wine tastings to set the wine menu (running a restaurant is not without its perks), town co-owner Marc Doiron took some time to answer a few questions about what the good citizens of Ottawa can expect from Elgin Street’s newest purveyor of good food, good wine and laid-back ambience.
You’ve described town’s menu as being “Italian inspired.” What exactly does that mean?
It means that the roots of the cooking come from Italy. The Italian philosophy of cooking is to take seasonal, fresh ingredients, not to mess with them too much and to present them in a simple, appealing way.
The whole idea behind what we want to do at town is to start from the Italian approach to cooking and add our own personal twist to it. We’ll be taking traditional Italian dishes and presenting them in a modern context. So, for example, we’ll have a traditional lasagna bolognaise. But we’re going to top it with braised greens, something like Swiss chard, and a poached egg.
What can we expect to see on the menu?
Our lunch menu will consist of what we’re calling “creative sandwiches,” as well as a pasta, a soup, and dessert. Everything will be very reasonably priced; nothing over $15. And we’re thinking about offering a prix fixe lunch too.
For dinner we’re planning on having many small dishes, to encourage sharing, alongside four mains. There’ll also be some plated desserts, like one that’ll blend tiramisu and a banana split, and some smaller desserts, like cupcakes.
I’m expecting that the desserts will be very popular.
The menu is not going to change every day: we want to be able to perfect our dishes and to keep people coming back for what they know. That said, we’re focusing on seasonal ingredients, so we’ll change a dish depending on the availability of the ingredients.
Tell me about your wine and beer list.
The wine list will feature Italian and Canadian wines. That sort of reflects the philosophy of the place: taking our inspiration from Italy while also supporting what Canada is doing, supporting our Canadian winemakers. We’ll have wines from Prince Edward County, the Niagara region and from British Columbia. The Italian wines will be mostly from the north, with a couple from the south.
We’ll have three local draft beers: Kitchissippi, which is a blonde; Beau’s, our lagered ale; and St. Ambroise Apricot Wheat Ale. And we’ll have a selection of bottled beers as well.
We’ll also have a cocktail menu, consisting mainly of Italian cocktails.
Who else is involved in the restaurant?
It was my dream, but it’s really been a partnership between me and my wife, Lori. She’s overseen everything. She’s the main designer of the restaurant itself. I gave her my vision of what I thought the restaurant should look like, and she fulfilled it.
Steven Wall is my co-chef. I first ran into Steve at Whalesbone, when he was the head chef there, and he’s become a good friend. Steve brings a real passion and energy to the place. He’s very literate: he doesn’t just cook a dish, he’ll research the products, and even the treatments, the best way to cook something. For instance, he’ll be making sure that all the fish we use were caught in an environmentally friendly manner.
And he’s a fantastic chef.
Lori’s sister, Jen, has contributed a lot too, from the very beginning. She’s taking care of our accounts, she’ll be working behind the bar and organizing our inventory and a hundred other things.
Our friends and family have also been incredibly supportive. Hope and Robert, Lori and Jen’s mom and stepfather, have been helping by painting the chairs and taking care of things that our contractor wasn’t able to. We’ve also been lucky to have the help of some other close friends. When we got the place, it really needed a good cleaning. It was filthy. And everybody just pitched in to get it to the point where it could actually pass all the health inspections.
Just to give you an idea: One friend, Jason Griffin, he spent a good week, a solid three days, full time, scraping the grease and dirt off the downstairs steps. Now you can walk down them without worrying that you’ll slip and break your neck.
What has the reaction to town been like so far?
There’s been a lot of interest and excitement, even though we’re not going to be open for a week or two. People are poking their heads in, asking when we’re opening. We get a lot of people saying, “Elgin Street needs something like this.” I kind of feel like we’re doing something at the right time and at the right location, where people are looking for something new on Elgin Street.
We’re being welcomed with open arms by other restaurants that we admire on Elgin, like Oz and the Manx. It’s been pretty amazing.
What do you admire about Oz and the Manx?
They’re like-minded in the way that they take the food they serve seriously, but at the same time, they’re not pretentious at all. When you go to the Manx, you’re going to a pub, but it’s a pub with great food. Everyone there is friendly and laid-back and they’re serving really interesting meals. The same with Oz.
That’s exactly what we’re aiming for with town. I’d like the place to be local in every sense. The art on the wall is going to come from local artists, and even the music is going to be chosen by us. And we hope that the people in the community respond to this.
We want this to be a place where everyone feels welcome: A laid-back place where you can have a really great meal. I really think that our customers will define the atmosphere as much as we will.
Can you describe the restaurant’s layout?
The restaurant seats 46. I always envisioned running a restaurant in a long, narrow space with high ceilings, and that’s what we have here. When we found the space, it seemed really crowded and dark, a lot of booths that didn’t really work in such a long, narrow space. So we tore out the booths to make it more open, and we’re using Edison bulbs to brighten it up a bit.
We have banquettes – which are incredibly comfortable, by the way – along the wall, so instead of having a table for two here, and a table for four over there, the tables are closer together. To my mind, it makes the space more convivial. The place has a more pub-like atmosphere.
Your kitchen set-up is a bit unusual. You have a somewhat open kitchen, but with a prep station in front of it, where you’ll be working. What was the thinking behind this design?
I like partially open kitchens; I think they make restaurants more vibrant. I don’t think you should be able to see everything that’s going on in a kitchen, but it’s nice to have some exposure. The open kitchen adds to the energy of a restaurant and gives it its own personality.
We’re also going to have a chef’s bar at my prep station. You’re welcome to sit at it and talk to me: it’s nice to have a bit of a dialogue with people when you’re working. Later on, we may offer off-the-menu dishes for customers who want to sit at the chef’s bar.
Why do you want to open a restaurant?
I’ve been working as a professional cook and chef for the past 20 years, and it’s always been a dream of mine to open something like this. I always wanted to create something for the community, something that reflected my personality and skills.
My first idea was a bakery, and then a chocolate shop. Over time, my idea has changed, and now it’s morphed into a restaurant.
And I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.
Did you know how much work it was going to be to open your own restaurant?
Yes. There’s been a couple of surprises, but it’s gone pretty smoothly. I mean, it’s been a lot of work…
How much work?
24/7. All the time. We talk about it when we wake up at six in the morning, and we talk about it, and deal with it until midnight. And you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about it. As soon as we got this space, over two months ago, it’s been non-stop.
Who designed the logo?
Andrew King, a local artist and friend of Lori’s, offered to help in any way he could. He came up with the original concept, and we just ran with it. We’ve really been lucky to have so much support from our friends, in everything we’ve done so far.
My favourite place in New York City is the City Bakery. To me the City Bakery describes what New York is: it’s urban with its own unique feel. The fact that Maury Rubin took the elements of a pastry shop and made it into something exciting, into a place where you can hang out and read the Sunday New York Times, was a big inspiration to me.
I’ve always wanted to open something in Ottawa. Now, Ottawa is not a big city. It’s a town. Hence the name.
So why the period after “town”?
Jason Griffin came up with that, and I thought it would be cool.