Aboriginal Cuisine at Sweetgrass

As always, I like to focus on unconventional travel ideas and experiences, and food is part of this experience. So before I left for Ottawa I called up the ByWard Market Business Improvement Association to find out about any interesting dining establishments. Sure enough, they had a creative suggestion for me: an establishment named Sweetgrass Bistro that specializes in aboriginal cuisine.

So after my arrival in Ottawa and my initial explorations I made my way to the ByWard Market, Ottawa’s largest and most dynamic entertainment and restaurant area. Sweetgrass Bistro is located in a former private home on 108 Murray Street at the north end of the market area.

You walk inside and the place has a bar area with an open concept kitchen on the left and a dining room to the right. The atmosphere is calm and understated and aboriginal art is adorning the walls. I had a chance to sit down with Phoebe Sutherland, one of the co-owners of Sweetgrass. She and husband Warren opened this dining establishment in late 2003.

Phoebe Sutherland, co-owner of Sweetgrass

Phoebe has an interesting story to tell: she is of Cree origin and grew up in Northern Quebec in the James Bay area. She lived on the reserve until age 10 and spent her childhood camping, enjoying nature, snaring rabbits, and from a culinary point of view she got exposed to a lot of game meats including rabbit and moose.

At 10 years of age she moved and went to a private school in Quebec near the Vermont Border. She later attended Grenville Christian College in Brockville and after high school she enrolled at Algonquin College in Ottawa to complete a program in hotel and restaurant management. Following her graduation she wanted to expand her education in culinary arts and decided to pursue a degree program in this discipline. Since no Canadian university offered a degree in culinary arts she went on to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont where she honed her practical experience in two internship programs. Her first internship was at a four star French establishment named Hammersly’s Bistro in Boston and her second one was at the Asticou Inn in North East Harbour, Maine. The cuisine at this historic inn focused on seafood which was a great learning opportunity for Phoebe.

My rabbit dumpling appetizer

She met her husband Warren in her second year of school where he was studying a year behind her. Warren had given up his studies in electrical engineering to pursue a career in creative culinary arts. After graduation, both Phoebe and Warren moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she studied transcontinental cuisine, a mixture of South-Western cooking and world fusion. Phoebe went on to say that she was the only female in an all Mexican kitchen crew and through the interaction with her co-workers she learned a lot about traditional Mexican foods as well. That also explained why Sweetgrass has a Mexican Tortilla soup on its spring menu.

After this experience Phoebe and Warren moved back to Canada and decided to get married. Less than a year later, at the young age of 27, they started their restaurant business with funding assistance for Young Aboriginal Entrepreneurs. I asked Phoebe about the name of their restaurant and she explained that at the time they were considering two names: “Sweetgrass” and “Smoke Signal”. Sweetgrass, the final choice, is a tall perfumy grass that grows mostly in marshy areas and it has a long tradition in aboriginal culture. It is used in prayers, woven into braids and baskets and also used as a tea by a variety of aboriginal tribes.

The main dish, “Rustic Mahnoomin Siipai” (vegetarian)

Sweetgrass” is the only aboriginal restaurant in Ottawa and only the second restaurant specializing in native cuisine in all of Canada. Phoebe explained that they integrate foods from different aboriginal tribes from all over Canada, the United States and Mexico and they use a lot of herbs, grains and different types of meat such as elk, buffalo, duck, pheasant, rabbit and various types of fish. The menu changes seasonally to reflect the availability of specialized ingredients.

I had a chance to sample Sweetgrass’ unique cuisine and started off with “Wabush Dumplings” which are pan-fried rabbit dumplings in a honey mustard sauce with Bryson greens in a citrus vinaigrette. I am usually not a big meat eater, but the subtle flavour of these rabbit dumplings complemented by the savoury sauce was very pleasant to my palate. As a main dish I chose the “Rustic Mahnoomin Siipai”, a purely vegetarian dish consisting of wild rice dumplings filled with great northern beans, topped with wild greens and a spring vegetable sauce, a multi-flavoured, yet surprisingly filling dish. To cap off this exotic dining experience I had “Mom’s Indian Buudin”, a beautifully presented dense, dark-coloured cake, reminiscent of Christmas cake.

Dessert, the delicious “Buudin” aboriginal cake

Phoebe had joined me for dinner and told me a bit about her childhood, growing up on a reserve and then moving away to small towns in Quebec and Ontario. She says she enjoyed the simple life on the reserve and as children they would always play outside. One of her favourite activities was to search for wild strawberries. Today the lodge in her village has been turned into a conference centre and although 8 or 9 hours northeast of Ottawa, the area where she was born attracts a lot more tourists.

Phoebe and her husband Warren, originally from Jamaica, share a passion for food. Every year they participate in the ByWard Market Stew Cookoff and this year they won the People’s Choice Award for best stew. They also regularly participate in a local food show in a small town outside of Ottawa which is a true collaboration between farmers, who provide local produce and meats, and chefs, who turn these precious ingredients into mouthwatering delicacies. Last year about 600 to 800 people attended the food festival.

A comfortable atmosphere at Sweetgrass

Phoebe and Warren Sutherland’s creation “Sweetgrass” is a unique addition to Ottawa’s food scene and testimony to two young, talented and hardworking people who share an absolute passion for food.

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