By Matthew Behrens
The long-vacant eatery at 8 Wilson Street East in Perth recently saw its grill fired up by a pair of restaurateurs who relocated here after a successful five-year stint in Deep River.
For owners Keith Saba and Brian Karl, the Rocky River Café is an opportunity to share a dining experience they describe as “gourmet comfort food in a relaxed atmosphere, made from scratch by down to earth guys.”
“We always have fresh mussels and salmon, but we’ll turn around and do a fried bologna or grilled cheese sandwich too,” says Saba.
When Rocky River opened a week before Christmas, word-of-mouth immediately filled the 30-seat restaurant for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch through the holiday season, even though their outdoor signage didn’t go up for another month. Since opening, Saba and Karl say they’ve been run off their feet, and Hometown News was only able to arrange a brief interview between packed lunch and dinner settings.
“The response has been just amazing,” says Saba, expressing relief at the location’s proximity to Ottawa and Kingston. “When we were in Deep River, every Monday we were making the long trip to Ottawa to get fresh supplies, and it was hard. Although we were always busy it was still relatively isolated.”
Karl agrees, noting a point of pride with Rocky River is their refusal to freeze anything. With a focus on fresh food, herbs and flexibility (offering gluten-free and vegetarian options), a typical day of specials includes fresh mussels sautéed in white wine with tomato, garlic, and spinach on a bed of linguini, Moroccan spice chickpea soup, a classic Cuban sandwich, roast pork, pressed fresh salmon, and a vegetarian tofu curry with naan bread. One carry-over from Deep River is their legendary coconut cream pie, a treat that draws many a visitor with an eye on ordering dessert.
“People like to eat out in Perth, and it’s great to see them sampling the different restaurants in town,” Saba says, praising a collegial atmosphere among his fellow restaurant owners. “We get visitors from everywhere,” he says, pointing to one customer from Point-Claire, Quebec, who “at age 94 insists that whenever he visits his kids in Ottawa, they must bring him out here because we make Dutch croquettes, which are very rare in Canada.”
This summer, 60 more seats will open on the Café’s shade-tree protected outdoor patio to welcome the annual influx of cottagers and seasonal tourists. In addition to opening up wall space to feature the work of local artists – including art by renowned Eastern Ontario watercolourist Adrianna Saba (Brian’s mother) – an expanding menu is expected by then to include charcuterie (a combination of cheese and cured meats) and more fresh seafood, including steam pots with crab, shrimp and clams.
The Rocky River Café’s owners are grateful to indulge their lifelong food passion, a commitment they finally made after Saba left behind 25 years in the construction business.
“It’s a lot more work than construction ever was, but it’s rewarding,” Saba says. “It’s wonderful to be in a business where every day you get to see people enjoying your work.”
This article first appeared in the April issue of Hometown News