Aiana Restaurant Collective is a new fine dining establishment in the heart of Ottawa. Located at the corner of O’Connor and Queen, on the ground floor of the Sun Life Financial Centre, father and son duo Devinder and Raghav Chaudhary had no doubt hoped their new upscale entrant to the capital dining scene would become the lunch and dinner destination for well-heeled bankers, lobbyists, public servants, and politicians.
Sadly, the core of our fair city is more ghost town than metropolitan hub these days, as Aiana has had the unenviable fate of opening at the height of a global pandemic.
Originally slated to open in the Spring, the restaurant suffered construction delays on account of COVID-19 and first began welcoming guests in August.
I had the privilege of being invited to their media night in late-August and getting to try the Chef’s Tasting Menu, an eleven-course affair priced at $185 per person.
The first thing that struck me upon entering the restaurant was the design. Easily one of the most beautiful dining spaces in the National Capital Region, Aiana is an architectural tour de force brought to you by the team at Linebox Studio, best-known for their design work in the Shopify offices and Riviera, amongst others.
The 86-seat main dining room (with physical distancing measures in place) inhabits the space formerly belonging to Hy’s Steakhouse. The only thing the two restaurants share in common are white tablecloths.
Aiana is elegance incarnate. Curved navy leather banquettes are centred around an oversized brass pendant light nestled in a canopy of hand-strung stones cascading from the ceiling – meant to reference the blossom from the restaurant’s logo. Beyond this show-stopping centrepiece you’ll discover an uninterrupted view of the kitchen – allowing you to take in a bit of culinary theatre as you dine.
The bar and glass-enclosed wine cellar are also a feast for the eyes.
In terms of the food, Chef Raghav Chaudhary has crafted a menu with a mission statement: “To reinvigorate pride in Canada’s multicultural background and shared heritage through seasonally-inspired food and high quality service.”
Having studied at Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America, and staged at an array of Michelin-starred restaurants including Michael Mina and Fäviken in Sweden, Chef Chaudhary brings an understanding of French, Californian, and Nordic cuisines to the table.
The creativity and considerable technical know-how Chef Chaudhury and the rest of the kitchen team possess shines through across the tasting and à la carte menus.
With the tasting menu experience priced at $185 per person, à la carte dinner options ranging from $35 to $65, and lunch plates coming in between $21 and $55 – Aiana is certainly one of the most expensive restaurants in Ottawa.
That being said, its called “Aiana Restaurant Collective” because the restaurant offers full-time, salaried positions to the entire staff, providing them with living wages, and service charges are included in the listed prices, so there’s no tipping.
On my first visit, I sampled the tasting menu (slated to change this month) and was most impressed by the first five courses. The corn velouté was decadent sweet corn dreaminess – almost dessert-like.
The tomato salad was simple but flawlessly executed with perfectly ripe tomatoes and bright acidity.
The sturgeon toast stole the show with its artful plating – sturgeon pate and caviar flecked with edible gold leaf served on brioche toast and dotted with molecular egg.
The foie macaron was an unexpected dish featuring a bittersweet chocolate cookie balanced with a rich foie gras filling – a delightful flavour combination.
The larger dishes were less successful. The halibut wrapped in crunchy Kataifi (shredded phyllo) made for a lovely textural composition but the plate cried out for a touch of acid. The wagyu was undoubtedly the course I was most excited for, and most disappointed in. My past experiences with wagyu have involved melt-in-your-mouth bliss, served rare. Whereas my first blush with the dish at Aiana featured a chewy, gristly cut of steak served medium.
I recently returned to the restaurant to sample their à la carte lunch offering and was delighted by each of the toothsome, approachable dishes I sampled.
Where the wagyu steak failed, the wagyu burger flourished. The pork belly sandwich was a triumph and the house-made pickles thoroughly impressed. The pumpkin scarpanocc (stuffed pasta) in Boursin crème was rich but not overwhelming – meaning you could have it for lunch and not fall into a food coma at your desk in the afternoon.
On both occasions, I was dazzled by beverage director and sommelier Alex Nicholson’s flawlessly curated wine list and her encyclopedic knowledge of each of its offerings. She took the time to understand my preferences and explained her suggestions without pretension – making ordering a glass of wine a fun learning experience.
The cocktail list was less exciting – primarily comprised of subtle riffs on classics like the Manhattan, Negroni and Old Fashioned, renamed after Ottawa neighbourhoods.
On my last visit in early November, Nicholson told me they were preparing to release a new cocktail list the following week featuring some barrel-aged spirit infusions. As such, I’m hoping for a bit more ingenuity from behind the bar on my next visit.
While the decor, wine list, and culinary creativity all dazzled, I was probably most moved by the impeccable service and hospitality in my two visits to Aiana.
On the evening of the media launch in late August, the restaurant was fully booked and we enjoyed the most seamless team service experience I’ve ever encountered. If done poorly, team service can result in forgotten orders and miscommunication, but Aiana excelled, our every desire was preempted and met with attentive, caring service.
Upon my return, Nicholson not only remembered me, but also the wine I’d ordered on my first visit months earlier. A true touch of class.
The only disappointment on my second visit was finding that my dining companion and I were the only people in the entire restaurant (mind you, they’d just begun serving lunch the day before).
Aiana and it’s team of consummate professionals are well-deserving of a visit or, at the very least, a takeout order which their accepting through their website.
Aiana is located at 50 O’Connor St. and is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday from 12-3 p.m. and social hour (cocktails and snacks) Tuesday-Friday from 3-5 p.m. and dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5-10 p.m.