Johanna Read stops by Ottawa’s Sidedoor

Sidedoor is located at 20 York Street

Johanna Read is a long time collector of advice on where to eat around the world, and has recently decided to start sharing it beyond her family and friends.  You can follow her @TravelEater on Twitter or by visiting her blog.

Ottawa is blessed with many Vietnamese pho eateries, some traditional Thai restaurants, and some OK Japanese and Korean spots.  Ottawa needed an up-market Asian-fusion place to enjoy a cocktail and great eats in a hip space, and not be restricted to one country’s food.  Now we have one — Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen.  The great concept and food at Sidedoor remind me of Goldfish Pacific Kitchen, one of my favourite Vancouver restaurants.

Sidedoor’s leads, Chef Jonathan Korecki and Executive Chef Matt Carmichael, know how to make great Asian food.  Our server tells us that Carmichael recently returned from a cooking tour of Southeast Asia and it shows.  Tastes are authentic.  Flavours are complex.  The use of aromatic kaffir lime leaf and herbs is phenomenal.

The menu at Sidedoor is fun and interesting (and it ends with “make tacos not war”).  All plates are meant for sharing.  You can choose from soft-shelled mini tacos ($9 for two, although the online menu says $14), and 8-12 choices each of veggie, seafood and meat dishes.  The salt and pepper calamari ($13) was very nicely textured and flavoured and not a bit greasy.  The seared scallops ($14) sang of Thai basil and lime leaf, and the scallops themselves had that complex sweet buttery taste that is only there when they are perfectly cooked.  The crispy prawns in betel leaf ($12 for 3) were amazing – light, crisp, flavourful and succulent.  The taste transported me immediately back to Cambodia.  Every dish was just-made and was served piping hot — particularly essential for anything fried.

A king erynegii spring roll

The cocktail list is pretty good ($10 each, featuring premium spirits such as Sailor Jerry spiced rum and Hendrick’s gin).  There are a number of beers, sakes, aperitifs and digestifs to choose from.  I like a wine list where everything is available by the glass (here in both 3 and 5 ounce pours) and by the bottle.  There is good choice here, but beware the spicier dishes may not be very wine friendly.

When dessert is brought to any table, it attracts a lot of attention.  Sidedoor specializes in doughnuts, served slightly warm.  Many people order the sharing plate ($14) – a plank of 2 chocolate dipped, 2 white chocolate dipped with cranberry, 2 cinnamon sugar, and 1 chef’s feature (for us, bright pink spring rhubarb filling, dipped in white chocolate (which it didn’t need), and sprinkled with a lemon grass-infused sugar.  Gelato from Pure Gelato is also available.

Sidedoor’s space is beautiful.  It is in the basement of one of the Byward Market’s historic buildings, but because of the glass atrium looking out onto a square, you don’t feel any basement-ness.  The decor is minimalist and beautiful, suiting the Asian menu.  The kitchen, toward the back of the restaurant, is partially open and you can get a quick glimpse of the magic on the way to the washroom.  The restaurant and bar areas feel spacious and have a nice ambiance (although I can do without the TV in the bar – is that what kind of place this is trying to be?).

But while the food and feel of Sidedoor are excellent, key aspects of a great restaurant experience are lacking.

Lobster curry

I found the prices outside of the “good value” range for the type and amount of food on the plate.  I know that Asian food can take a lot of work, as herbs and spices need to be crushed and combined perfectly and ingredients sometimes come from afar.  But at the size provided, customers need a number of sharing plates to make a meal, and the prices of those dishes adds up very quickly.  $28 for a sharing plate of striploin with shallot jus is excessive.  And charging an extra $4 for rice to go with the $28 lobster curry is gouging, as tasty as they both were.  While many will come in to try Sidedoor’s excellent food, I predict they won’t be back as often as the food deserves unless the prices are dropped a notch.  There is food just as good, and much better value, elsewhere in the Market.

Regardless of price, Sidedoor’s concept and food deserve a service level that matches.  Our server was pleasant and punctual, but there were problems that should not happen at this price point: Servers didn’t know who ordered which drinks or dishes; our water glasses sat unfilled too often and for too long; no one thought to replace our plates or wipe up the table after a succulent but messy curry; and wine glasses should be carried on a tray, not by the bowl.

Typos and spelling errors on the menu show a worrisome lack of attention to detail (Piper Heidsieck, not “Heidsek”; betel, not “betal”; Greece has two Es; Campari is from Italy, not France).

I worry that the disconnect between the front and back of the house mean that Ottawa won’t be able to enjoy Sidedoor for as long as we would otherwise want to.

Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar is located at  20 York Street, and reservations can be made at  613-562-9331.