OTTAWA — I must say, Benny’s is looking a tad weary these days. A windowless backroom, it relies on the vibrancy of its walls for brightness and breeziness. But these days its signature crayon colours — orange, red and blue — could use a scrub, or a paint touch-up, or a bit of both. Benny’s black and white checkered floors are also looking worn. With good reason, mind. Sensible people walk over them.
Lunch at Benny’s Bistro is one of the best in town. Fresh, fun, seasonal, reasonably priced for the quality of the product, a return visit to Benny’s after four years away was an absolute treat.
In behind The French Baker on Murray Street, Benny’s is now in its 13th year. The team is solid. Chef Scott Adams left The Urban Pear nine years ago to run the open kitchen, and the amiable sommelier and maître d’hôtel, Yvon Foley (whom I remember from years ago, at the now departed L’Agaric Restaurant in Chelsea), has been running the front of this tucked-away house since 2001.
It was an early June lunch, and yet the day was blustery, cool, with horizontal rain squalls. Not a month for split pea soup, but absolutely a day for it. And what a soup! Perfectly balanced in texture, flavour and seasoning, and studded with quality smoked ham. Another day, another soup, another solid bowl, this one a silky purée of carrot and parsnip, thickened with a bit of coconut milk, swirled with chive oil and topped with chervil.
Devoted to local, seasonal, unhurried cooking, Adams’s lunch plates are still-life pleasures. He sources artisanal produce, then puts those good ingredients to good use in imaginative and technically sound ways. He pairs a mound of roasted mixed mushrooms — some delicate, some meaty, all clearly from Le Coprin Farms, all cooked just so — with open pouches of acorn-squash-stuffed ravioli, made in house and textured. He tops the pile with delicate organic greens in a truffled balsamic vinaigrette, matchstick raw beets — golden and red — and baby radish, and rings the plate with crème fraîche exotic with pickled spruce tips. The brilliant white of the creme picks up the white of the radish, and the earthy tones of the mushrooms, the vinaigrette, play against the vibrant red and yellow of the beets, the green of the arugula. Truly a splendid plate.
A sandwich of the day features salmon belly, the fish wet and unctuous, mixed with avocado, red ¬onion, arugula and peppery house-made mayonnaise, all between slices of The French Baker’s seedy bread.
My favourite lunch dish thus far was a couple of summer rolls: rice paper bundles of pickled vegetables mixed with sweet and spicy soy-braised pork belly, the rolls perched on a salad of paper thin rounds of radish and cucumber, with shaved fennel and a chiffonade of lime leaves. Perched on top of the rolls and salad were five grilled B.C. spot prawns (wild, sustainable, trap-caught) in perfect condition.
For dessert, strawberry tarts with an inch of pastry cream, chocolate mousse, rich and dark and lovely; blueberry mousse with a roof of cream cheese mousse, topped with blueberries and silver leaf, and served with thick squiggles of blueberry sauce. Good espresso to end.
Look for a small selection of wine, or beer, or a Kir Royale to pair with lunch.
My first review of Benny’s — perhaps 10 years ago — was of its dinner service. Since 2003, Benny’s serves only breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch. I’ve closed past reviews of this place with an entreaty to consider a return to dinner service. Solidly good French restaurants are vanishing in this region at alarming rates, and Benny’s surely has an obligation to step up! So why stop now?
The Ottawa Citizen
Outstanding brunch at Benny's Bistro always leaves one wanting more
For me, brunches are typically a social event where friends get together to chat about their week, compare hangovers, texts from last night, and enjoy a mix of breakfast and lunch foods at a reasonable "weekend hour." I love brunch. And I love Benny's Bistro. No brainer. Benny's is located at the back of the French Baker on Murray Street. Enter in the front and turning to the right you will enter a bright yellow back room with an open concept kitchen.
Typically there is a five- to ten-minute wait for a table as the bistro is small. I highly suggest grabbing a menu as soon as you can as each dish is quite intricate and making a decision isn't easy. The brunch is equivalent to a fine dining experience, not necessarily the service or the table settings, but the determined attention to detail for each plate. Peering over at your brunching neighbours, you can see the artistic and culinary integrity of chef Scott Adams at play.
The plates are generally small at Benny's and considering it's brunch - which means I have skipped breakfast, overlapped lunch, and probably won't eat until dinner - I would hope just for a little more to tide me over for the day. Also because the food is so amazing. The only drawback to the gorgeous presentation of the plates is that it takes a little while to get your food. You are given some bread and butter to "amuse," but unfortunately our bread was stale, which was confusing to me as we were basically in a bakery. Fresh compotes or whipped butters for guests to start with would be an amazing addition to the experience.
I ordered the savoury buckwheat pancake. More of a crepe, it folded over a delicious combination of smoked pork shoulder and Gruyere. On a bed of apple and Savoy cabbage slaw, and topped with a sunnyside-up egg (a Benny's signature move) it made this foodie very happy. My friend had the aged white cheddar stuffed French toast, smothered with roasted Royal Gala apple compote, a brown butter oat crumble, and finished with salted caramel. Needless to say, we both didn't talk very much.
Benny's is a superb place for exceptionally crafted cuisine for breakfast, lunch and of course brunch.
- Kyle Roerick
Tucked away behind the kitchen of The French Baker is a touch of Paris in Benny’s Bistro. Its unpretentious and humble surroundings throw the spotlight on the surprisingly delightful and delicious food.
Decisions are difficult when perusing their eclectic menu. I settled on the special sandwich of the day with a side of soup ($13). What arrived was salmon belly impeccably cooked and hidden with slightly spicy chili aioli, spongy avocado and crunchy Lebanese cucumber set between freshly-baked nine-grain bread: the perfect sandwich. On the side, was a soup (so thick it formed peaks) of celeriac, leek and bacon purée, all components sharing their flavors amiably.
On another visit, I ordered the mushroom and leek confit with Belgian endive and shaved butternut squash drizzled with lemon and truffled white balsamic vinaigrette ($15). Every bite was filled with textural contrast and layers of flavor, all working together to create the perfect bite. It was so delicious that the din around me went quiet, and all I could focus on was the explosion of flavours in my mouth.
Dessert choices arrived on a tray instead of a menu, each one calling out to me. I pointed to the dense lemon tart. It was both sweet and sour with a swirl of caramel garnished around it. A sip of suitably strong coffee rounded out this tasty lunch.
I only wish this sweet market bistro were open for dinner.
- Shari Goodman
Photo by Don Chow
Baked goods are a big draw at this Byward Market eatery tucked into the back of an excellent bakery
Two things have changed significantly since my 2004 review of Benny’s Bistro. For one, Benny’s is no longer open for dinner. All my supper-ish comments about roasted figs on a Stilton-smeared beef filet are now moot. The 2007 Benny’s is open for breakfast, brunch and lunch daily, but only breakfast, brunch and lunch. The kitchen closes at 2:30 p.m.
The other considerable change has to do with how diners approach Benny’s bread basket. Three and a half years ago, during the manic height of all the Atkins baloney (eat meat, shun bread), a meal at a restaurant attached to a bakery was spurned. The sheep who followed Atkins (and I know you’re out there) might have gone for the figs and the Stilton and the beef on Benny’s menu, but they’d have left the lovely bread to harden.
At my lunch here last week, people couldn’t seem to get enough of the bread. What’s more, they were lapping up the strawberry tarts and every crumb of their sweet shells. Which only makes good sense. Benny’s Bistro is not just attached to any storefront bakery. Benny’s (named for the house dachshund) is tucked into the back of The (most excellent) French Baker.
We tuck into the sourdough bread and move on to the baguette. It comes in handy for sopping up the last bits of the day’s soup — a voluptuous roasted tomato and eggplant soup. We manage every crumb of the olive-and-scallion scone as well, the one that comes with the luscious mound of salmon gravlax, a generous portion served with a goat cheese mousse perked with lemon and capers.
Five choices remain on chef Scott Adams’s one-page summer menu, and the vegetarian option appeals. The mix of organic mushrooms is magic. Roasted, oiled, seasoned and herbed, they are piled high atop a beet-dyed and beet-threaded “risotto” of barley (standing in for the traditional Arborio rice). Between the brown mushrooms and pinkened barley is a layer of grilled yellow zucchini, and, beside the construct, a cross-hatch of sauces: a roasted pumpkin seed pesto and a lemon-mustard crème fraîche.
Spice-rubbed caramelized scallops are paired with a grilled corn-and-black bean cake and the pasta of the day is a generous bowl of penne noodles, dressed with spicy chourico, spinach, mushrooms, and olives in a strapping red wine tomato sauce.
There is a small selection of wines — an Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, a Pelee Island Pinot Noir, and four others, all by the glass — plus beer and fresh juices. And there is wonderful coffee.
Benny’s colourful wall units (with the art tucked into apertures) give it more life than a windowless backroom deserves (it really is tucked behind the bakery). But when the small room is filled, as it often is by those who know Benny’s offers an immensely satisfying lunch, the one server seems overextended. He is alone at my visits, seating, serving, bussing, bartending, cappuccino making, dessert tray displaying, and bill producing, all tout seul. Things can move slowly at peak hours. By one o’clock, it’s quiet again, and as we order desserts — a strawberry tart, a lemon tart, a wee chocolate cake, all splendid — the room has emptied and the normal bangs and clangs of a busy open kitchen subside.
On our way out, we buy another baguette for the supper basket.
- Anne Desbrisay
Access: fully accessible, including washrooms
Ottawa Xpress, July 2003
BENNY'S BISTRO, ONE OF OTTAWA'S BEST-KEPT SECRETS
Paying homage to favourite restaurants is a reviewer's joy - they deserve the recognition - but there is always the worry that popularity could undercut their charm and level of quality. Such is the case with Benny's Bistro. I eat there almost every weekend and dammit, if I can't get a seat after this review is published, I might resort to takeout but be too vexed to enjoy my croissant pur beurre from the front bakery section.
Benny's Bistro is open for breakfast and lunch during the week and for brunch on the weekends, and despite the small overhanging sign outside, it would be easy to miss it. Located at the end of a long hallway that leads from Le Boulanger Français, the bistro is a brightly lit medium-sized room that seats about 24 people. There are red, blue and yellow painted square forms extending from the walls, creating a setting reminiscent of the Spanish artist Joan Miró. Inlaid into the squares are artwork, Illy coffee tins, Valrhona chocolates, delectable jams and vinegars, all for sale.
The day's menu is written on two blackboards, with constantly changing selections. Generally there are about eight items to choose from.
Consider the rabbit confit in an aioli sauce with mushrooms and potatoes. Tender flavours from the morsels of meat give way to a hedonistic garlic sauce on a bed of fresh greens. Even a sensitive/pacifist friend now revels in eating cute, furry creatures since her introduction to this outstanding dish. The bad news is this remarkable repast tends to appear on the menu only in winter.
On a more recent visit for brunch, I had sliced duck breast with a perfectly purple interior, drizzled with an orange-port glaze. It was a delight. The accompanying watercress salad in a light but zippy vinaigrette offset the richness of the fowl.
The ham and gruyere frittata was tasty and as fluffy as a pillow, but slightly shy on the Swiss cheese.
The gravlax was one of those fine examples of a few quality ingredients that combine for a wonderful meal. Thick slices of Atlantic salmon atop fresh, thick grainy bread with sour cream and capers - yummy.
At lunch, a soup or salad can be included with the meal. My noontime starter of a lentil soup was sublime, a thick purée also containing carrots and infused with herbes de Provence flavours that tempted me to say, "Forget the rest of the food, just keep bringing the soup."
The principal plate was a foie gras torchon with baguette toasts and rhubarb-ginger compote. The sharpness of the rhubarb and ginger nicely contrasted with the rich, fattiness of the foie gras, although I would have liked to have seen the use of Grade A foie gras as this one revealed too many veins.
As if the food weren't good enough, the service is always friendly, attentive and helpful. This is a great place. As long as you save me and my friend a seat, you can come too.
- Aaron Shaw
8 am - 2:30 pm
Available evenings for private functions
Bank Street store best reached via Fourth Avenue
The French Baker is featured in the 2011 La Presse survey of the best croissants ... in Québec!