The popular new venue replaces the FarmTeam Cookhouse and Cellar.
208 Sparks St., 613-695-0500, rabbitholeott.ca
Open: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sunday
Prices: pizzas $18 to $20, mains $17 to $26
Access: no steps to front door, seating upstairs and downstairs, washrooms on both levels
Given the perennial problem of enlivening downtown Ottawa once its offices shut down for the night, the hopes for Rabbit Hole on Sparks Street are especially high.
Located a few steps east of Bank Street, the bar and restaurant had its grand opening in mid-December and has attracted buzz and patrons ever since. If that evening ghost-town quality of Ottawa’s downtown dissipates this year as the weather warms, it should be due to places like Riviera, the fine-dining destination at the other end of Sparks Street, Queen St. Fare, the new food hall, and Rabbit Hole, bolstered by the none-too-soon opening of the LRT project’s Parliament Station.
Rabbit Hole’s owners are Aaron and Chris Juneau, who also own Central Bierhaus in Kanata Centrum. Having taken over the Sparks Street space that was FarmTeam Cookhouse and Cellar, the Juneaus have apparently put their finger on what this part of downtown needed.
Extensive renovations have created a two-level venue that stresses cocktails, oysters, pizza and a short menu of starters and mains, wrapping the experience in imaginative decor and a bustling nightlife atmosphere.
Rabbit Hole’s narrow upstairs space is set beneath a striking canopy of tiny lights, with an inviting bar running along one wall and leading to the small open kitchen. The downstairs space is more expansive and even more evocative of the venue’s name, with a large bar as a centrepiece surrounded by comfortable alcove seating and the original stone walls of the 122-year-old property. In all, both rooms are marked departures from the more generic look of pubs that dot downtown.
Chris Juneau, who oversaw a larger kitchen at Central Bierhaus, is Rabbit Hole’s chef. In my May 2016 review of the Kanata restaurant, I wrote that Central Bierhaus presented solid, simple, meat-forward fare that was better than what I’d expected. I had a similar pleasant surprise at Rabbit Hole. While I wasn’t wowed by what we ate, our food, with few exceptions, satisfied. Main courses, none of which topped the $26 mark, were strongest in terms of taste and value.
Rabbit Hole’s list of appetizers runs counter to the trend of more composed small plates. Instead, available here are small, basic items to nibble on (chips with dip, warm olives), oysters, an expensive, retro power order (a $25 crab claw cocktail), a charcuterie plate or several salads.
We tried some oysters ($3.50 each), which were small and likely P.E.I.-raised — the menu and our server could not say — and they were fine, fresh and brine-y. The Caesar salad ($16) was heavy on crisp shards of bacon, but lighter on anchovies and acidity, and large enough to be a small main course or easily shared at our table.
A dozen pizzas, which are also customizable, merit their own page on the menu, split into tomato-sauce-based and ricotta-and-cream-sauce-based options. We tried a white, wild mushroom, caramelized onion and arugula pizza ($19) and a red pizza fully loaded with grilled chicken, more of that crisp bacon, roasted red peppers, black olives and pickled jalapeños ($20). Both pizzas yielded respectable, enjoyable slices, although one of them was a touch too chewy.
Our mains were straightforward, and for the most part well-made, crowd-pleasers.
We appreciated the seasoning and proper sear on a slab of rare tuna ($24), offset by broccolini and a citrus-y condiment, although its bed of Israeli couscous struck me as a bit overcooked.
Fans of pork and beans should pop for Rabbit Hole’s succulent but crisp-bottomed pork belly with maple-sweetened beans ($21). Rabbit Hole’s burger ($18), decked out with aged cheddar, pickles and garlic aioli, and steak with crisp, impeccable frites and good carrots ($26) showed that there’s know-how in the kitchen to make meat-and-potatoes lovers happy. That said, the saltiness of the steak and its sauce could have been dialled down.
The massively portioned vegetarian pasta ($20) of wavy, ribbon-y noodles with wild mushrooms, peas, arugula, lemon creme, Grana Padano and mint crumbs was less than artfully plated but definitely hearty and tasty.
Rabbit Hole serves just one dessert, which is not made in house. It brings in cannelés, the small, in-vogue, rum-and-vanilla-flavoured French treats with a crackly exterior and tender crumb. They’re made by Ottawa pastry chef Adam Cenaiko, who personalizes them, perhaps to the dismay of cannelé purists, with add-ons such as peanut butter, banana or dulce de leche. We approved of the three cannelés ($14) that we split.
The wine list consists of a half-dozen sparkling wines plus roughly a dozen whites and 16 reds that roam through the varietals. More than half of the reds and whites are available as six-ounce pours ($10 to $18) and roughly a dozen of the wines are designated as organic, biodynamic or “made through … low interventional natural practices.”
Rabbit Hole’s dozen taps skew toward German beers while Ontario craft beers are available in bottles and cans. Its list of eight cocktails ($13 to $16) appealed with its eclecticism and creativity, although I found that a bourbon-based Aztec Old-Fashioned ($15) hit its sweet notes hard and its smokey and chocolate-y aspects less so.
For me, there are other restaurants in town with dishes or menus that inspire near-Pavlovian cravings. Rabbit Hole isn’t one of them. But even if the vibe is the most special thing here, the sum of its ambience, food and drinks would make me happy to return.