John Borsten is indeed the picture of success when it comes to Ottawa restaurateurs.
Borsten is the visionary behind five Zak’s Diner locations, Zak’s Cantina, Grand Pizzeria, the Metropolitain Brasserie as well as the historic York on William (YOW) building, which encompasses Starling Restaurant & Bar and Apothecary Cocktail Lounge The latter are part of a multiple-dining concept featuring a rooftop terrace and street-level patio. His wife Sofia handles marketing and advertising for each venue while his son Calvin runs the newest Zak’s in the Westboro neighbourhood.
I’ve now had the pleasure of dining at each of Borsten’s restaurants except for Zak’s Cantina and Grand Pizzeria. On this trip, we ate at The Metropolitain and Starling, the latter of which I will expand upon below. It was a real education to sit down with Borsten over coffee to get his backstory.
Born and raised in the Mississauga area, Borsten came to Ottawa when he was 20 years old. He initially slept on his sister’s floor and got a job as a busboy in the Byward Market, quickly moving his way to becoming a cook. When his good friend Bob Firestone decided to buy a diner called Siakley’s Grill, he was offered to come in on the deal. One of Firestone’s brothers had a son named Zak and so came the name for the diner in the market, which is still thriving 37 years later. Borsten also acquired a small percentage in the Blue Cactus, another eatery in the market. A decade later Borsten sold his share, bought all of Firestone’s actions in Zak’s and proceeded to open new locales on Elgin Street, in Kanata, Carleton Place and finally Westboro last winter. He has partners at Zak’s as well. Will there be more? “Every town need’s a diner,” he said, “so I’d probably say yes.”
Borsten opened the Metropolitain in 2005 (his partner now is Sarah Chown) debuted the Grand in 2009 and then came the spectacular Starling in the summer of 2021. The restaurant is situated at the corner of York & William in one of the oldest buildings in Ottawa, dating back to 1875. Early occupants included an undertaker, a baker, and a wholesaler, uses which reflects the diverse commercial activity of the ByWard Market in the 19th Century.
Starling is Ottawa’s new concept which elevates any night out with hand-crafted cocktails and a refreshing, modern menu that draws inspiration from bold flavors and fresh ingredients. Here you step into an inviting and stylish atmosphere, built for creating an incredible experience.
The 12,000-square-foot building was purchased in 2020 for $5 million. Borsten’s business partners in this venture are Pat Charbonneau and Ian Darveshali. It is spread over four levels, with Apothecary, YOW and Starling each catering to different audiences under the same roof and able to serve 500 diners at a time. The seasonal patios are big draws: one at street level can seat 50 while the rooftop has room for 60. Capacity for both can be increased for cocktail receptions.
We were delighted to get a coveted Rooftop table with a panoramic view of the market and were especially fortunate to have head chef Paolo DiBello visit us on a number of occasions that evening. The menu here changes seasonally. We found the ambiance, service and food all impeccable and we can’t wait to return for another visit. We will have to try Apothecary and down the line.
Apothecary is described as “a nod to medicinal cures of which bitters, tonics and spirits all play a role. Here they believe in using real botanicals, house-made syrups and tinctures, to heal the body, mind and soul.”
Starling brings you contemporary dishes from timeless classics to personal recipes with a fondness for locality—designed to be loved by one or shared by many. Their mixologists can serve up a broad range of tasty concoctions, either mixed, stirred or shaken and inspired by local ingredients and international techniques.
Starling is named after a highly social bird that likes to travel in large flocks. That is why you will see decorative bird cages in the restaurant. It was in fact Sofia Santiso Borsten who created the Starling concept and oversaw the design. Even the doors they inherited were restored and now serve as a privacy wall for a table near the bar. The same goes for the original lamps, which were repainted. Of course, the wallpaper features colorful birds.
We enjoyed a fabulous meal, starting off with some scarlet tanagers from the bar, three ounces of excellence: dillon’s strawberry gin, brut, apple simple syrup, lemon and strawberries. I also tried the Anthony, a tasty drink minus alcohol containing orange juice, lime, ginger simple and chili peppers.
Following a thorough study of the menu, we began with 12 oysters. They were of good size and did not last long on the serving plate. We then shared some terrific burrata toast, olive oil fried true loaf sourdough, local heirloom tomatoes, fresh burrata and aurelius fig balsamic.
For the main courses, we chose two absolute winners. The pan-seared six-ounce west coast sablefish was beyond extraordinary. It was served with mint, pea and fine herb risotto. This is a fish we have always enjoyed, yet it is so rare to find on an east coast restaurant menu. It was moist and literally melted in our mouths. The 14-ounce rib eye, medium rare, with loaded mashed potatoes on the side, was another excellent choice. Paolo cooked it to perfection and the Bordelaise Larry sauce was just right to add more flavor.
When it came to dessert we shared the ever-so-rich chocolate mousse, which included brown butter streusel, brunoise mango and strawberry.
Indeed this was a meal fit for a king and rooftop terrace we look forward to experiencing again and trying some of the other delicious-looking items we had to pass on.
Starling is located at 54 York Street in the Byward Market. Hours of operation are 4 pm to 11 pm Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 am to midnight Thursday and Friday, and 9 am to midnight Saturday and Sunday. You can call 613.421.0820 or log on to www.starlingottawa.ca.