Report from a Weekend in Ottawa
My husband and I went to Ottawa this weekend for the first time together.
Friday night - Town - 296 Elgin Street and Social - 537 Sussex Drive
We made a reservation at Town about two week's in advance. The restaurant was quite full when we arrived, but a few tables were still available. We asked to be seated at a particular table (one with normal chairs, not stools), and got a bit of 'tude from the hostess. She ended up seating us at the table of our choice, however begrudgingly. Our initial impression did not exactly live up to their Elmo-esque motto of "Town Loves You and Wants You to be Happy".
The menu is broken up into small dishes, large dishes, cheese and sweets. We ordered a series of smaller dishes with one large pasta to finish the meal. Our server was quite sweet, and inquired about how we would prefer to sequence the dishes. We started out with a green salad with pears, taleggio and hazelnuts. The cheese had been substituted for something else, perhaps pecorino. Regardless, the salad was very good, and in fact, I think the harder cheese was likely a better choice.
Next up, the mortadella mousse crostini. I pretty much had to convince my husband to get this as the sound of emulsified bologna was not so appetizing to him - I'm a mortadella diehard, so I had to order it. Good thing we did, as it was absolutely delicious. A large, toasted piece of bread, with a pate made of mortadella, a little bit of bacon, a jam of some kind and a fried egg on top. Absolutely delicious!
Next up, we got an octopus salad and the chickpea fries. The octopus was probably the most tender we had ever had. A few fingerling potatoes, some greens, a nice lemony dressing. Very good dish. The chickpea fries... well, it's not like they weren't good. Maybe it was because we were expecting something else, but ended up getting falafel sticks.
Finally, we received the pasta bolognese. The dish was described as having traditional Quebec spices, pie crust and marinated cheese curds, so it piqued our interest more than the stuffed meatballs for which they are known. We were so happy we did. The sauce was essentially tourtiere meat with tomato - it tasted like my grandmother's recipe, with the hint of nutmeg and savory. In the end, Town really did make me happy.
After dinner, my husband and I walked off our meal and headed to Byward market. We ended up finding a beautiful courtyard in an alley way with a large patio. We were seated, no problem, on a lounge set. I ordered a piece of cheese (La Liberte, only $8 with apples, spiced pecans, cranberry bread, apple butter, and grapes - what a deal!) and my husband got a piece of chocolate torte with creamsicle ice cream. Delicious, and a lovely romantic setting.
Saturday and Sunday Brunch - Benny's Bistro on Murray Street
What can I say about Benny's Bistro? It is the best brunch experience I have ever had, which is why we went twice. And if you think I am just saying that, I am not. My former #1 was the Magnolia Place B&B in the Finger Lakes. I now have a new champion - Benny's Bistro.
Benny's is at the back of a bakery. It opens at 10:30 on the weekends, but they allow you to come and sit down in advance of the opening. During that time, the servers provide coffee and freshly baked slices of baguettes (very good). For a fee, you can also get a croissant (amazingly buttery!) or any other baked good offered by the bakery. The whole thing was so civilized. Coming from Toronto, where I'm used to lining up outside of my favourite brunch place, in the hopes of getting a table. And here, well, they just let you come on in. They even serve you. Imagine that. I feel like I've been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome with the Toronto brunch scene.
The food, the food. Here's where I gush. The first day, I ordered the tuna confit with a poached egg, these tiny chorizo panko fritters, and a fennel and radish salad served in a smoked tomato water. It was $19. It was unbelievable. I've never come close to getting such a well composed brunch entree in my life. The tuna and egg were perfectly cooked. The salad was refreshing. The fritters gave a good smoky and crunchy bite. And the water... sounds so frou-frou, but it ended up becoming a silky, smoky egg sauce at the end. Quite possibly the best dish ever...
Until I tasted what my husband ordered. A buckwheat crepe stuffed with smoked pork shoulder, sitting on a savoy cabbage and apple remoulade, with a sunny side-up egg. Oh my god. Unbelievable.
We just had to go a second time. My husband ordered the special this morning - a black bean and bacon puree, smoked pork shoulder, an avocado salsa and a fried egg. Wow. The salsa was amazing. Finely diced avocado (how do they do that??) with finely diced tomatillo and cucumber, a litle cilantro. I had the potato gratin with pork loin and poached eggs. Again, unbelievably amazing.
The service is quick, very professional. Always there with the refills, very accommodating. You pay at the cash, which I generally appreciate. As we were leaving, we saw their kitchen set-up. Only two chefs back there, hammering out that food for the about 30 people eating.
Saturday night - Sidedoor - 20 York Street
We booked reservations here a couple of weeks before we arrived. When we got there, we found the hostesses to be accommodating, but perhaps not exactly welcoming. We were seated, as requested, in a quieter part of the restaurant, which ended up being a great call. The restaurant is already quite large, so it was nice to not feel like we were on a double date with a couple we had never met.
We ordered a series of smaller dishes, and were generally quite impressed with the food. We started out with the lamb with funky chili tacos. Not sure where the funkiness was supposed to be coming from, but it was delicious nevertheless. Next up, we received the salmon ceviche. Perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as the salmon was sliced like smoked salmon. In fact, we suspect that it was just plain ol' smoked salmon, sitting on a pool of reduced coconut milk, topped with julienned apples. It was actually really good, our favourite dish of the night. But it wasn't exactly ceviche.
Next up, the pork belly with chili soy sauce. Delicious! Rendered down, very tender, nice kick in the sauce. The shrimp dumplings were also good, in a vinegar sauce. A small note about the pacing - we were told when we ordered that the food would come when it was ready. Fair enough. I will say, however, that they just started coming one after the other in very short order. No one wants to eat that quickly. By the time we asked them to slow it down, we were already on our last dish. We also had to flag down our server a couple of times for refills, and for wine that we had ordered that didn't make its way to the table.
Peking style chicken - I'm not normally one to order chicken in a restaurant, but we were definitely intrigued by the dish. It did not disappoint. THe meat was really juicy, the skin was crispy. We ordered snap peas with miso and parmesan on the side, plus a bit of rice on our server's suggestion (utterly forgettable). On the whole, the food was very good, but the service was a bit of a downer.
Sunday - La Bottega
While the new EnRoute service stops are a vast improvement over their predecessor on the 401, my husband and I were not too keen to eat Burger King after our amazing culinary weekend in Ottawa. We went to the counter in La Bottega and ordered a couple of made to order sandwiches. For about $5 a pop, these were really good. A lot of thinly sliced mortadella and provolone on baguette, with dijon mustard, pickled eggplants and hot peppers, plus lettuce and tomato. You can choose whatever toppings you want. Very good, almost as good as Mazzarro's in St. Pete's.
In all, I would heartily suggest a weekend away in Ottawa for any culinary enthusiasts.