Downtown Ottawa’s dining options are about to get a lot more interesting when Hooch Bourbon House rolls up its windows and opens its Rideau Street door – just steps from the ByWard Market – this week. Executive Chef and operator Danny Mongeon has transformed the former short-lived Levante restaurant into a casual yet impressive space that is as captivating as his clever, interesting menu. I’m pretty sure no other spot in Ottawa is offering stuffed pigs’ trotters, for example.
Mongeon has bounced around town, gathering knowledge and skills from some of the city’s most innovative chefs; among these are Warren Sutherland, formerly of Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro and national culinary champ Marc Lepine of Atelier. More recently, Mongeon put his energy into crafting an appealing menu at Brut Cantina Sociale in Gatineau.
“I’ve been wanting to open my own place for a while, so when the opportunity to run a new restaurant in this space came up, I jumped at the chance,” explains Mongeon. “It’s an interesting setup because Hooch shares a kitchen with the Lunenburg Pub, owned by the same people (the Purple Investment Group). The plan is for me to get Hooch up and running smoothly, then I’ll revamp the menu at the Lunenburg Pub to make it more East Coast-influenced, and I’ll run both kitchens.”
Mongeon is confident that Ottawa is ready for his kind of place – playful, with excellent cocktails and a menu that reflects a fondness for farm to table cooking. “My goal is to offer food that is fun, delicious and not pretentious, all at an affordable price.” He was tweaking the menu even as we met the day before his soft opening, but expects the small plates on his Raw menu to come in at about $8 – $12, while the main courses at dinner should be in the $20 – $30 range. Many, though not all, of the dishes have a southern influence, and there are a few vegetarian options among the protein-heavy list including an intriguing Mushroom Po’Boy.
All the dishes I tasted were truly delightful and left me wanting to sample more of Mongeon’s inventive fare. From his Raw menu, I enjoyed his beautifully-composed Scallop Ceviche which included a wafer-thin sheet of scallop, pickled shallots, powdered Scotch Bonnet pepper, caramel corn, orange foam, micro greens and smoked salt. It was a feast for the eyes, the nose and then the mouth.
I was also suitably impressed by the Albacore Tuna dish, featuring compressed watermelon, pickled jalapeno, burnt lime gel and roasted peanuts. Prettily arranged on a slab of charcoal-coloured slate, the dish had a balanced flavour that didn’t overpower the good quality fish.
My third taste was a splendid Duck Carpaccio, accessorized with chicken fried oyster mushrooms, shards of rhubarb and parmesan, micro greens and cherry gel. Other Raw menu items include razor clams, oysters, marinated anchovies and a bold offering that just might take Ottawa by storm: horse tartare.
Other lunch and dinner options worth noting include a fabulous burger featuring O’Brien Farms beef, chicken and waffles (a southern staple) and the aforementioned trotter, stuffed with housemade chorizo, grits and other tasty things; it’s slow cooked, cooled and pan fried in butter to crisp up the skin. The dessert menu is short but sweet and sure to tempt.
While it was the menu that really grabbed my attention, the décor shines as well. It’s composed of trendy industrial chic paired with lots of rough wood. Hand painted artwork by local muralist Sarah Doll adds visual interest to the muted space which is anchored by a brick wall which was an unexpected but welcome discovery during renovations. Service, anchored by experienced front of house manager Shannon Hargadon – who will wed Chef Mongeon next month – is friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. On top of all this, Hooch boasts a fabulous cocktail menu courtesy of bartender extraordinaire Jeff Taylor, along with a great lineup of local beer.
Hooch seats 46 and should have its 16 seat patio up and running shortly; it will be open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week and offer a late-night menu from 11 pm – 2 am. I suspect it just might become the new after-hours hangout for many Ottawa restaurant staff, a discerning and appreciative crowd if ever there was one. What does Mongeon hope people will say about Hooch? “This place is fun, unique and it kicks ass.”