Eating my way through Ottawa

Restaurant Review: Anthony’s 

Rustica – Cherry tomatoes, mozza, arugula, shaved parmesan and prosciutto

I am not a believer in the “All pizza is good pizza” motto. I’ve turned my nose up at many a tasteless and cardboardy mess masquerading as good pie. Anthony’s wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza is authentic, toothsome and peerless.

Apart from being quite tasty, many of Anthony’s pizzas are visually arresting. It’s hard to avert your eyes from the frescos of greens and reds. Owner Anthony Balestra has found a wide canvas on which to express himself, using pizza as his medium.

The emphasis is on clean flavours and fresh ingredients. The classic Margherita, with the sparest of adornment, allows the flavours of the San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil to come through.

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Interview with a Chef: Sheila Lynch of Three Tarts Bakery

White Chocolate, Cranberry and Toasted Pistachio Tart

I discovered Three Tarts Bakery a few years back. It started with one tart: White Chocolate, Cranberry and Toasted Pistachio. You would think that the sweetness of the chocolate would overpower the other flavours. Wrong! The tangy cranberries make themselves heard and the pistachios lend a nice crunch allowing an insinuation of nuttiness.

I then began my exploration of the cookies. While chocolate chip, oatmeal and shortbreads cookies generally get all the glory, I prefer the less vaunted “decorated cookies.” Three Tarts is a temple to the art of decorated cookies. Miniature edible masterpieces done in artful symmetry. There’s something about biting off a bunny’s ear or chomping on the tail of a whale that just fills me with joy. (more…)

Interview with a Chef: Chef Ric Watson of the Ottawa Mission

For the last 15 years, Chef Ric Watson has been at the helm of one of the busiest kitchens in the City, the Ottawa Mission Homeless Shelter. He was propelled toward the profession by a childhood determination to learn how to cook well. But, his stellar achievements at the Shelter were attained through a combination of hard work and an unwavering passion for those less fortunate.  It was a passion fostered by empathy, having himself overcome a perilous life of drugs, alcohol and homelessness. The Mission kitchen now offers him a platform on which to marshal the support of the community and to champion the benefits of a good, well-prepared meal. I sat down with Chef Ric recently to discuss his humble culinary beginnings, his groundbreaking food training program, the insane cost of celery, and the upcoming February 20th fundraiser, Coldest Night of the Year. (more…)

Family Recipes: Tourtière

I’ve come to realize that many of us have been bequeathed a cherished family recipe—a dish so delicious that we instinctively know it would be universally beloved. It may be elaborate and require the skills of a culinary savant to assemble it, or so simple, so unfussy, that even the most hardened of hacks can prepare it with ease. But when it is served, it is the unmistakable, reliable star of the meal, whether celebrating triumphs, comforting woes, or keeping family memories and traditions alive. It seems almost cruel to withhold such heirloom recipes from the world at large. Hence, I am championing the cause of the family recipe. I will entice the people in my universe to share favourite, nostalgia-infused family recipes, and I will give one of them centre stage in this very space on a monthly basis. In the end, we are all family, and these recipes represent the legacies of our shared passions. First up, the recipe for my mom’s tourtière. Enjoy!

A tourtière is a very traditional French-Canadian dish served by generations of French-Canadian families throughout Canada. As a child, I remember the smell emanating from the kitchen—that smell was a sure sign that the holidays were near. Not near like next week near, but near-ish like next month. Or the month after that. You see, tourtières are generally prepared early, weeks, even months before the holidays. And, then they’re frozen so that they can be enjoyed well into the new year. Also, they’re prepared in bulk. To muddy things further, my mom, the holder of the recipe, is not beholden to an actual written recipe. Thankfully, she has committed one to memory, just like her mother before her. But, that’s where the lineage ends. There is a faint recollection of the recipe belonging to this or that aunt, or perhaps, her great-great-great grandmother. But, since everyone aforementioned has departed this earth, origin cannot be verified.

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Restaurant Review: Wilf & Ada’s

While a small crowd huddles in the portico, some stragglers linger out front. Others, like myself, skedaddle and exploit the “we’ll text you when a table is ready” offer. You see, Wilf & Ada’s doesn’t take reservations. Waiting is the only option and there’s no way around it. Is the food worthy of such effort? Affirmative. This place should be on your “must get-to” list!

When you do finally get a table, try the “Eggs in Purgatory.” They will deliver you immediately to heaven. This dish is a carefully conceived idea with delicious results. Picture a small cast-iron skillet containing two eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, covered with a light dusting of Grana Padano, and topped with a heaping of arugula. Toast and homies ride shotgun.

You could also go for the breakfast hash. This particular one I tasted off the “specials” menu was made-up of a trio of roasted root vegetables—beets, squash and yams—tossed with caramelized onions, some crumbled sausage and Parmesan. The mélange was topped with two eggs and a side of toast. An unfussy breakfast, yet beautifully articulated and belly-filling.

What else is worth the wait? The servers. Instantly lovable, gabby and dedicated to ensuring that you have the best experience. The décor has the sparest of adornment yet is fitting for the space. And while the wait is a bit of a bummer, the food at Wilf & Ada’s earns high marks for sticking to the old rule book: make as much of the menu in-house, from scratch and source the best quality ingredients using local suppliers and products whenever possible. And, make it delicious!

Wilf & Ada’s is on 310 Bank Street in Ottawa and is opened 7 am-3pm on weekdays and 8 am-3 pm on weekends.

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The best thing I ate this month – November 2015

The best thing I ate this month was yet again a creation from Allium Restaurant. This time around, it was their take on biscuits & gravy.

When I sat down and looked at the menu, I was a bit unsettled to discover this classic Southern combo north of the Mason-Dixon line. I nearly dismissed it out of hand. I mean, what do Canadians know about biscuits and gravy? It turns out, a whole heck of lot.

The rich and peppery smoked pork and mushroom gravy was perfectly paired with the biscuits, which were buttery and had an airy flakiness about them. The chicken was classically Southern-style and ideally cooked. Crispy, light and never greasy.  The apple jam and hot honey added just the right touch of sweetness. The pickled cabbage and peanuts were a nice complement, bringing freshness and crunch.

This dish was a triumph and a contemporary exploration on one of the most revered dishes of the South. And it was the best thing I ate this month.

Restaurant Review: Restaurant 18

Sometimes friends fade from your life and you wake up one day and say, “Whatever happened to so and so?” There was no scrap or disagreement. Life merely got in the way. As with an old friend, this can also happen with some formerly often-visited haunt. Back in the day, for me, Restaurant 18 was the place to be. Then, for no apparent reason, it faded from my consciousness. So after Restaurant 18’s decade-long absence from my regular restaurant rotation, I decided it was high time for me to zip back in and visit my old friend.

Much has happened there since I last visited. After a company shake-up last fall, Kirk Morrison was installed as the restaurant’s Chef de cuisine. Now at the helm of one of the top restaurants in the city, Mr. Morrison reinvigorated the menu, displaying an impressive set of skills he’s been developing since he interned under superstar Chef Lynn Crawford at the Four Seasons. The dining room has been made over in muted earth tones, rendering the space dark, moody and elegant. Think Paris-chic with striking modernistic design influences. But, it’s the food that stands out the most for me at Restaurant 18.  And, there is no better way to test the mettle of a chef than to make your way through the tasting menu.

The evening started off on the right foot with an amuse bouche, Pacific northwest oysters on the half-shell. Although I was self-conscious about tossing back a few in such a graceful setting, I knew after the first bite that Restaurant 18 and I were taking up where we had left off all those many years ago. The initial slurp was briny and oceanic; the flesh of the oyster, robust. Then the flavours crescendoed to a fruity, cucumber-melon finish. Unfussy and flawless.

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Event: Ottawa Ribfest

Ottawa Ribfest is back in town. While your there check out Camp 31. Camp 31 BBQ was established by Larry Murphy in Alabama in 1986. They offer Southern style Bar-B-Que and their meat is slow cooked over hickory logs.

There are 17 ‘Ribbers’ to choose from along Sparks Street. Ribfest runs from 11 am-10 pm Friday and Saturday, and 11 am to 7 pm Sunday. Admission is free.

Camp 31 chicken and ribs

Camp 31 chicken and ribs

Camp 31 chicken and ribs

Camp 31 chicken and ribs

Q&A with Chef Kirk Morrison of Restaurant 18

Restaurant 18 has been a mainstay of Ottawa’s fine dining scene since 2001. After a company shake-up last fall, Kirk Morrison was installed as the restaurant’s Chef de cuisine. Drawn to cooking at a young age, the 30-year-old chef fondly recalls his initial toe in the water as a budding young chef, cooking alongside his dad. Now at the helm of one of the top restaurants in the city, Morrison showcases menus that display an impressive set of skills he’s been developing since he interned under superstar Chef Lynn Crawford at the Four Seasons. I caught up with Chef Morrison to discuss his culinary roots, his experience feeding hungry Olympians, his earnest stint as a butcher, and the evolution of his recent menu.

Do you come from a family of foodies?
My dad was actually a doctor, but he was an amazing home cook and that’s where I picked it up. He always had me on the counter when I was a kid. You know — making breakfast for the family in the morning or helping with dinner parties on the weekend, even watching the Urban Peasant on TV together — that kind of stuff.  That’s what I grew up with. That was one of the reasons I gravitated towards professional cooking because, through my dad, I acquired a respect and passion for food at a very young age. My mom still doesn’t cook. Can’t boil an egg to save her life.

Sometimes it’s just not in ya.
She [mom] never had to. My dad would always do the cooking. At the end of the day, that’s where I got my kick-in-the-pants to go and become a chef. I remember when I finished high school, my dad and I were talking and looking at possible universities, and I just wasn’t keen on anything. I didn’t want to go to university. It just didn’t look fun and none of the subjects interested me. I had been working in a few kitchens, but nothing on a professional level at that point. When my dad said, “Why don’t you go to cooking school?” I just never had thought about it as a career option. “Why don’t you learn to be a chef,” he said. And, from the time he said that, to the time that I applied and got accepted to George Brown, it was probably three months. It was incredibly quick. It was the year of the double cohorts when all these kids in grade 12 and 13 were applying to colleges and universities at the same time. There was so much competition. And, the fact that I got into one of the top culinary schools in the country was so incredibly surprising to me. It was a crazy experience and a bit of a whirlwind from that point. All I remember is that conversation, and then all of a sudden I was walking into my first day at chef school. Looking back on it, it was the first day of the rest of my cooking life, so to speak.

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The best thing I ate this month – March 2015

Restaurant 18 spring salad

I stared at it like I would an expressionist painting. What was his vision? His Motivation? Was he in pain? Troubled? Inebriated? No. Just “Inspired by spring,” I was told. As a visual, it was bright and uplifting, expressive and assured. It pained me to take the first bite and unravel the masterpiece but this canvas was made for savouring.

Layered on a brushstroke of pesto were little diamonds of young yellow beets. The earthy quality of the beets were a perfect match for the refreshingly tender peas, served alongside their shoots. Crisp little domes of pastry hid luxuriously rich duck pâté. The honeycomb gem was a treasure and provided sweetness and unique texture.

There was nothing not to like about this salad. Within a flash I had devoured it. I was sad yet ever so thankful to have enjoyed a wild-fully original gustatory chef-d’oeuvre. Bring on Spring.

This bright jewel of a dish was created by Chef Kirk Morrison for his tasting menu at Restaurant 18. And it was the best thing I ate this month.