Local Bites – Dining at Gray Jay – A True Culinary Gem

Quinn Abugov

When the iconic canal-front building at the corner of Hawthorne Avenue and Colonel By Drive became vacant in late 2020, many wondered what would become of the picturesque location. Previously occupied by the Royal Oak Pub for two decades, this location had become a cornerstone establishment in Old Ottawa East.

To the casual observer, the Gray Jay exterior looks much like its predecessor, the Royal Oak Pub, but the sumptuous cuisine served inside has come a long way from bangers and mash. Photo by Lorne Abugov

To the casual observer, the Gray Jay exterior looks much like its predecessor, the Royal Oak Pub, but the sumptuous cuisine served inside has come a long way from bangers and mash.
Photo by Lorne Abugov

Enter – Gray Jay Hospitality.

You might have heard of the Gray Jay before in Ottawa foodie circles. Owned and operated by chefs Dominique Dufour and Devon Bionda, the restaurant gained acclaim at their former Preston Street quarters serving some of the best-crafted plates Ottawa had to offer. In fact, Dufour was a competitor on the Food Network’s 2020 season of Top Chef Canada.

The new Old Ottawa East location will include two patios, a ground-floor dining area that can seat up to 60 patrons, and a second-storey room suitable for private dining. The patios and second storey room were still under construction when our party of five recently visited for dinner.


Seasonal food the name of the game at Gray Jay


While the location has changed, the Gray Jay’s food philosophy remains the same. Dufour and Bionda have a hyperlocal, Canadian focus for every dish on the menu. Simply put – if it can’t be grown or produced in Canada, they don’t serve it. They go to great lengths each summer to ferment exotic citrus fruits grown in Quebec, like Japanese yuzu, in order to preserve them for off-season use. Seasonal food is the name of the game at the Gray Jay.

Their menu offers many unique items not commonly found in the local restaurant scene, such as reindeer moss and sea buckthorn. These local ingredients, in tandem with the newly renovated dining room and bar, create a comfortable and understated dining atmosphere that is uniquely Canadian. The restaurant has a fireside cosiness ambience that was much appreciated on the brisk March evening of our visit. Of interest, the renovations were done entirely by the staff, making the quick turnaround from an English pub to a comfortable, fine dining restaurant all the more impressive.


Food menu bursts with creativity


As no one in our group had previously dined at the Gray Jay, our server gave us a thorough rundown of the food and drink menus. Guests can choose to eat A La Carte from the 11-item menu or from a five-course Chef’s tasting menu ($90 per person, wine pairing $60). The Gray Jay’s drink menu consists of an extensive wine list, locally sourced beers and creative cocktails that also track the Gray Jay’s ethos of using in-season, Canadian ingredients.

The food menu bursts with creativity, colour and unique ingredient selections. Two-thirds of the plates were smaller, bright, forward-thinking and crafted for sharing. For the heartier appetites, three of the dishes were larger and better suited for one stomach. The menu is rounded out with two dessert offerings, and a Quebec cheese plate served with their house-made Seeded Rye bread.

Our first course was comprised of a handful of the smaller sharing plates. The meaty charcuterie plate ($21) featured three house-made selections – basturma and lonza, both made from wild boar, and a venison saucisson sec. All three paired beautifully with the seeded rye bread served with an aromatic boar fat butter and house-made pickles ($7) and the aforementioned Quebec cheese plate ($12).

Two of the dishes sampled by our reviewer and his guests were the colourful Beets & Roots salad (L) and the beautifully-paired Rose Dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and tofu (R).  Photo by Carlee Duchenes

Two of the dishes sampled by our reviewer and his guests were the colourful Beets & Roots salad (L) and the beautifully-paired Rose Dumplings stuffed with mushrooms and tofu (R). Photo by Carlee Duchenes

A beautifully paired presentation of Rose dumplings ($17), stuffed with a decadent mushroom and tofu filling, served alongside a sunflower seed milk cream sauce, was a hit with our group. The consensus view was the dumplings were the most visually appealing of the menu items, as each dumpling was delicately shaped like a Rose – with beet root paste giving the dish a distinct red accent.

The vegan Beets and Roots ($15) salad was served warm with roasted beets, marinated turnips and rutabaga accompanied by a savoury black oil spread and a sweet berry jus. The flavours paired very well with the earthy tones of the perfectly cooked root vegetables, and the variety of colours presented on the plate was stunning.

The Cucumber Salad ($20), served with yuzu marinated cucumber ribbons, two types of mushrooms, daikon and an aged cheddar ‘folly’ cream sauce, was refreshing and cleansed the palate, but scored among the lower-rated dishes by our group who found that the folly cream sauce had overpowered the other elements of the dish.


Items were decadent and perfect for sharing


To round out the first-wave of the meal, we sampled the Boar Cheeks Tartelettes ($16), the Fogo Island Crab Tostada ($22) and the Mushroom Croquettes ($18). The Boar Cheek Tartelettes were simply fantastic and were stuffed with a luscious smoked, roasted pepper jam topped with reindeer moss. The Crab tostada was flavourful and fresh, with a bright tomato sauce enveloping the crab meat and crispy exterior. The croquettes were a smash hit, crispy, golden and stuffed with mushroom chunks and Stilton Cheese, served alongside a mushroom aioli. All three items were decadent and perfect for sharing.

After loosening my belt buckle from the onslaught of food already sampled, the large plates began arriving. My choice of the spiced Braised Lamb Shank ($38) was perfectly tender and packed a mean punch in the spice department thanks to the cumin, paprika, and harissa glaze. The dish was balanced by a squash puree and an apple and squash sauce, which added fantastically, sweet notes to the otherwise savoury lamb shank.

Two other main courses rounded out the feast – the Squash Glissantes ($26) and the Nova Scotia Scallops ($35). The Glissantes was a croissant-shaped weave of sheet noodles infused with squash and stuffed with a ricotta cheese kefir (fermented milk) and pea pesto sauce. The dish, while easy on the eyes, was an overly dense pasta lacking some of the aromatic punch delivered by other dishes on the menu. By contrast, the scallops were plump, juicy, and seasoned to perfection, accompanied with a sausage millefeuille, jalapenos and basil.

Rounding out our meal, my guests and I sampled the Gray Jay’s two dessert offerings. The texture of the Basque Cheesecake ($12) was light and airy, and the creaminess of the cheese shone through – similar in note to a classic Japanese cheesecake. The Salt and Sea ($12), made with oats, rice, caramel and caviar, was interesting and artful in its presentation, but had slightly less flavour than the cheesecake and needed a sweet note to pull the dish together.

Chef Dufour, as quoted in the Ottawa Citizen last year, mentioned that one of her goals was to bring the 100- yearold building “ back to its former glory”. From this writer’s perspective, the team at Gray Jay Hospitality has knocked that goal right out of the park, and in turn, has given the neighbourhood a brilliant new food destination and community gathering space. Prices aren’t for the faint of heart, but for a wonderful dining experience, the Gray Jay absolutely soars.

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