When you’ve won the title of Top Chef Canada, Beat Bobby Flay, and helmed the kitchen at one of Ottawa’s first destination restaurants, expectations are bound to be high for your next offering. Chef René Rodriguez is back in the kitchen at Orto Trattoria in the Glebe.
Rodriguez won acclaim for his creative approach to Spanish food at his restaurant Navarra which inhabited an intimate space on Murray Street for nine years. It wasn’t uncommon to find diners there who had come in from Toronto or Montreal for the evening just to sample Rodriguez’s distinctive culinary flair.
Admittedly, I was amongst the small portion of the population that didn’t love Navarra. In my one and only dining experience there, I found the dishes to be overly complicated. Where less would have been more, buzz-worthy ingredients and scientific techniques combined to leave flavours muddled and overwrought.
Well, times have changed. In the face of much constructive criticism from the expert panel of judges during his winning stint on Top Chef Canada, Rodriguez was forced to pare down. The southern Italian menu at Orto is an ideal fit for his newly refined craft.
Southern Italian cuisine calls out for restraint – three to five ingredients, at peak freshness, masterfully prepared. That’s what you can expect at Orto, with a healthy dose of Rodriguez’s trademark ingenuity.
Of the many dishes I sampled across my three visits to Orto, the pappardelle al funghi ($25) is the clear winner. The pasta dish is brilliant in its simplicity. Thick ribbons of pasta are beautifully adorned with sautéed mushrooms and fried sage, punctuated by the salinity of bottarga – an Italian delicacy of salted, cured fish roe. Don’t ask to have cheese added to the dish, you’ll overwhelm the salty perfection of the bottarga and upset the balance of flavours.
If you’re being health-conscious, you might consider the Mediterranean White Anchovies ($16). The little anchovies are nestled into spears of red endive with pine nuts. Served alongside a mountain of arugula with dehydrated strawberries, beets and buttermilk dressing. The plating on this dish is quite appealing but maybe feels a bit disjointed when you actually set about eating it.
From the antipasti portion of the menu, the burrata ($19) is a crowd-pleasing option. The fresh buffalo milk cheese offers no resistance to your knife and spreads effortlessly across the grilled sourdough. The accompanying soffrito bears Rodriguez’s signature as he builds depth with an Nduja glaze and a razor thin garnish of charred red pepper skin.
The grilled octopus ($22) pays homage to Rodriguez’s passion for Spanish food. The octopus is impossibly tender and is matched with a small portion of pork belly. This combination of pork and seafood is typical of Spain (think paella) and probably wouldn’t have been out of place on the menu at Navarra. The cannellini bean and taggiasca olive salad is the perfect underpinning for the toothsome proteins on the plate.
The wine list serves up a delectable array of Italian options that won’t have you going thirsty or sober. For cocktail lovers, like myself, the bar team at Orto is working on their summer cocktail list.
This might be a matter of personal preference, but tuna steak doesn’t impress me much. I prefer my tuna raw, where the texture and colour of the fish can really sing. That being said, the tuna steak ($34) at Orto is worth ordering for the supporting elements of the dish alone. The side of spring peas are transcendent. Pickled pistachios, dots of saffron-artichoke emulsion, baby fennel and a fantastic charred lemon butter with a hint of gorgonzola make for a symphony of taste.
Finally, we’ve arrived at dessert. The Romeo and Giulietta is a study in contrasts. A flourless dark chocolate cake with almond brittle plays against a white chocolate pavlova with dehydrated strawberries and lavender honey. It’s a sizeable portion, suited to sharing or indulging your sweet tooth. In any case, Pastry Chef Marie Ford will have you wanting to lick the plate with this one.
In terms of service, my first experience at Orto was professional and attentive. On the second, I was served with the same professionalism but found myself parched after a longer-than-usual wait for a glass of wine.
Orto’s offering is proof positive that Rodriguez is continuing to evolve as a chef. His experience on Top Chef Canada has served him well. His dishes at Orto are well-curated and ring true to the style of cooking that is emblematic of southern Italy, all the while preserving his signature creativity. In all, his food continues to be worth traveling for – even if it’s just down the street.
151C Second Ave.
Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays