Whenever a menu lists avocado toast as one of its offerings, I’m always worried it’s a desperate attempt to appeal to the millennial palate. While Jackson, the new restaurant in the beautifully renovated Ottawa Art Gallery, may be cashing in on a trend, its version is well worth eating.
The newest addition to the Eighteen Hospitality Group, Jackson is the brainchild of co-owners Caroline Gosselin and Chef John Leung. You’ll likely have dined in one of Gosselin’s other establishments, as she is one of the co-creators behind E18hteen, Sidedoor, and other new kid on the block, The Clarendon Tavern (formerly the home of The Black Tomato).
The menu she and Leung have prepared is a testament to their shared commitment to health and wellness. Anyone on the carnivore diet would be sorely short on options at Jackson as the menu is strictly pescatarian. The small plates menu is an array of plant-based dishes, with a mix of seafood choices woven in, designed to promote a healthy body and planet.
The space itself is brilliantly composed by local interior design firm West of Main. At first glance, I feared the sky-high ceilings and open transition to the gallery would create a cavernous and impersonal dining experience, but my fears were quickly assuaged. Sascha Lafleur and her team have curated a restaurant that welcomes guests with rich textures, gilded accents, and warm touches of wood and leather. They have accommodated all manner of dining experience, whether its cultural tourists looking for a croissant after exploring the gallery, a group looking to lounge with cocktails and conversation, or an intimate dinner for two.
The plating similarly bears an artful stroke that restaurant namesake, A. Y. Jackson, would be proud of. Between my two visits to Jackson, the Squash ($14) was my favourite. In this dish, Leung elevates humble ingredients to culinary masterpiece. The combination of roasted butternut squash with pumpkin spice hummus, pomegranate and grilled halloumi is a pitch perfect autumnal delight. The sweetness of the squash is balanced by the salty, toothsome halloumi and tart pomegranate seeds, all nestled in a velvety bed of pumpkin spice hummus.
I was less dazzled by the Tuna ($17). I will almost always opt for tuna tartare if its on offer. My first experience of this dish, at the media preview and grand opening celebration, was just a mouthful but largely met my expectations. When I revisited the dish upon my return, I got to have a much larger portion and felt there was room for improvement.
The fish is accompanied by a mountain of ribboned cucumber, combined with pickled ginger, radish and jalapeño. While the latter three ingredients add a beautiful pop of heat and texture to play off the fatty, melt-in-your-mouth tuna, the sheer volume of cucumber overwhelms the plate.
The cocktail program from bar manager Jonah McPherson is split into three components. The first, “Originals”, is a selection of signature cocktails by Jackson, named after and inspired by artwork on display in the gallery. I sampled the Spring Song ($14), comprised of gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, lime, celery juice, and basil essential oil. It was refreshing and easy-drinking with a pleasant vegetal dimension. The four cocktails listed in this section employed either vodka or gin as the base spirit, I do wish there was more variety in the form of whisky or rum, for those of us who are partial to the darker spirits.
The second segment of the cocktail list is “Classics”, as the name would suggest, classic cocktails, artfully enhanced by the team at Jackson. I tried the Fall Old Fashioned ($14) which featured rye, cinnamon maple syrup, angostura bitters, and espresso tincture. This drink was thoughtful and dynamic, subtly enhanced by the spice in the syrup and bitterness from the tincture.
The final portion of the menu is the “Blank Canvas” – essentially dealer’s choice for the bartender to craft something just for you, informed by your preferred spirit.
Back on the food side of the menu, the Smoked Tofu ($17) is one of the most inventive applications of soy protein that I’ve encountered. The tofu is blackened to a beautiful char, served with a brush stroke of spicy piri piri sauce, topped with grilled broccolini and garnished with slivered almonds. I never get excited about tofu but this dish would be the exception to the rule.
The Soba ($14) features a generous portion of soba noodles, in a Thai peanut sauce with Napa cabbage, candied peanuts and Thai basil. While the mixture of flavours is timeless, I found it too saucy and overly sweet. The first few bites are delicious, but the overabundance of sauce and the candied peanuts leave your palate fatigued by the time you get to the bottom.
I always save room for dessert and wasn’t disappointed by the Churros ($9). The deep-fried pastry are rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with chili chocolate fondue and salted caramel sauce, which equated to pure, unadulterated joy. Because one is never enough, I chose to indulge in a second dessert, the orange blossom Crème Brûlée ($9). While this would usually be a clear winner in my books, I found the orange blossom drowned out the delicacy of the custard and imparted a faintly medicinal flavour.
I was well-sated after both visits to Jackson and never found myself wanting for red meat or poultry. I credit Gosselin and Leung for their health-conscious approach to restaurant dining and applaud their creative treatment of plant-based fare. Vegetarians can rejoice that the city now boasts another restaurant worthy of their patronage.
I look forward to seeing how Jackson will continue to hone its craft and change with the seasons. Undoubtedly, there will be more culinary landscapes here worthy of discovery.
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