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DESBRISAY DINES: Tomo

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Tomo interior. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Tomo interior. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Clarence Street is where people tend to go when they don’t care so much what they eat, so long as there’s a party vibe. We wander the street to soak up the atmosphere, gawk at the bikers and the beauties, then walk a block to Murray Street to dine well.

Clarence also has a long history of having a hard time getting eateries to stick. Lots and lots of turnover. But now there’s Tomo, which means ‘long time friend’ in Japanese, and for it we wish for some long time-ness. The food hits some high notes here and there. The room is a real beauty. And I’ve been hugely impressed with the friendliness of the service, led by part-owner Mark Ngo. What’s more, there’s no grating music to ruin my dinner.

Once home to two businesses (Wonton Mamma and a place called Spoon Frozen Yogurt Lounge) Tomo takes over both. A custom mural vibrates off one wall, a playful installation of sake barrels suspends off another, nautical ropes droop over the back booths. Harvested from the recycle, sake bottles are refitted into chandeliers. The room has a democratic seating arrangement that meets a bunch of needs — an inviting bar in the middle, high tops at the front, communal tables of polished wood that seat eight, and cosy back booths hidden from the patio action.

Salmon bites. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Salmon bites. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The Tomo menu is split in half — cold snacks from the sushi bar down the left side, stuff from the kitchen down the right. If you’re in the market for seasonal delicacies with complex layers of flavour and texture, you’re out of luck. This isn’t that sort of sushi. But for the usual suspects — lead by salmon, tuna, crab stick — the well-calibrated vinegared rice at room temperature with cool, fresh slabs of well-cut fish fit the bill. And the presentation goes beyond fake fernery and curly parsley. Golden beet chips, say, and some tiny pickled tomato lend eye-pop to everything.

Nigiri suishi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Nigiri suishi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Perhaps in the fullness of time the sushi and sashimi offerings will become more interesting. For now, the rice snacks and specialty rolls are adapted to Clarence Street palates.

We did find some treats among the appetizers. Edamame, the beer nuts of Japan (soy beans steamed in their pods) arrive lightly salted and go remarkably well with the Cool Cucumber cocktail the barman hands me — gin, aperol, cilantro, cucumber, lemon juice, falernum, yuzu, and lemon bitters … lovely! Then pinched and pan-fried gyoza, some stuffed with well-seasoned chicken, some with vegetable. Skewers of tender duck arrive dusted with shichimi togarashi (a peppery, citrusy Japanese spice mix). A dish called ‘salmon bites’ is pretty straight forward — sushi grade nuggets of fish cooked tataki style just to crisp them up, the flesh still rare and wobbly, dressed with a pleasant teriyaki sauce.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Soif — for lunch

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Mixed Marineau mushrooms (from Le Coprin farm) on toasted baguette. Served with a side of well dressed greens in bouncy condition. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

We add this one to The List of ‘Splendid Summer Patios on which to Drink and Dine Well’. It’s not a long list, so best take note.

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Soif’s back patio. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Soif is the Gatineau wine bar opened late last year by superstar sommelier Véronique Rivest, now with chef Jamie Stunt in charge of the kitchen.

You will remember Stunt from his days at Oz Kafe on Elgin Street. Seven years he laboured in that teensy space, putting Oz on the national stage when he and his team won the regional Gold Medal Plates competition in 2012, and then went on to win silver at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna the following year.

He also put Tibetan yak on the Canadian culinary map (from Rosemary Kralik’s Tiraislin Farm), and proved how well the Ashton Brewing Company can create a craft beer to match that exotic meat.

But those are stories for another column.

My first taste of Stunt at Soif was at a soup and salad lunch on that lovely back deck, shaded at noon with mature trees and with a view of some rooftop container gardening. Always a welcomed sight.

Stunt gave spring tomatoes some serious smack by smoking them before pureeing them into a rich red soup. It arrived seasoned well, lightly creamed, lightly oiled, topped with chives. Very nice.

And then mixed Marineau mushrooms (from Le Coprin farm) on toasted baguette. Garlic, onion, mushrooms, wine, dobs of ricotta and snippets of chive piled on good bread, then under the broiler until browned and burbly, served with a side of well dressed greens in bouncy condition. Does it get more perfect?

A wine was chosen to match by a charming server. Can’t for the life of me remember which one. But I do remember three ounces didn’t seem enough.

88 rue Montcalm, Gatineau, 819-600-7643, soifbaravin.ca

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Ola Cocina

BY ANNE DESBRISAY
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Ola Cocina’s plat campesino with pulled pork and a parking ticket. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Now, well into its second year, Ola Cocina has constructed a ‘tortilla tent’ so neither snow nor rain nor beating sun might slow down the business of al fresco pressing and grilling.

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Ola Cocina — Donna Chevrier’s little corner taqueria in Vanier. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Donna Chevrier’s little corner taqueria in Vanier continues to plate up two handed flavour bombs: tacos, enchiladas, tortas, tamales, cheese stuffed house pickled jalapeños, plus All Day Mexican Breakfast. Inside or outside. Rain or shine.

Particularly tasty was lunch last week, including Al Pastor tacos, the marinated pork cooked on a trompo, coloured red with achiote, soft, piquant, and tangy with pineapple. Quite a different animal than the pulled pork, with its creamier, richer taco mates and the gentle kick of the house jalapeño crema.

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Ola Cocina’s tacos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Duck confit and tandoori chicken tacos are a bit irreverent, but turn out to be winners. The duck comes with house pickled golden beets, dobs of goat cheese, and a cranberry coffee maple sauce that adds a sweet balance to the sour beets and bitter arugula.

The Alambre Plato is a heaped plate of steak — marinated meat, spiced up, grilled to medium rare with peppers and onions, bacon, mushrooms and house queso. It comes with rice, beans and guacamole. Tortillas arrive on the side, along with salsa verde.

On another visit — Ola Cocina’s Plato Campesino (rojo rice, black beans, mango salsa, pico de gallo, sour cream, pulled pork, jalapeno crema, pickled jalapenos, and a side of chips) is a well-balanced jumble of flavour and texture. I take it to go and eat it in the car, in the rain. It softens the blow of the Beechwood parking ticket.

Tacos, $4 each, mains, $12-$17
Closed Monday
62 Barrette Street, 613-746-6222
www.olacocina.ca

 

DESBRISAY DINES: The Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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The Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Yes, indeed, there were grumblings.

In late 2012 when news broke that The Whalesbone Oyster House group had bought the 1934 Elmdale Tavern, the bah humbugs about further gentrification of the Hintonburg neighbourhood and the muzzling of live music were loud and clear.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Mellos — still the same, but with better food

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

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Mellos’ Singapore Noodles with tofu — presented like the queen had ordered it. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

The last time I plopped down on a brown vinyl bench at Mellos it was for a Matthew Carmichael pop-up dinner. Before that, it was for bacon and eggs with some son-or-other’s soccer team — the full breakfast works, fabulously greasy, with a bottomless cup of thin black coffee, served with clucky no-nonsense charm by long time waitress (and manager) Leisa Bell (RIP).

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Mellos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

That was ages ago — back when Mellos didn’t serve things like the thing I had for lunch: Singapore Noodles, with tofu, presented like the queen had ordered it. All arranged just so.

Wide rice noodles — still with bite — carrots, daikon, bok choy, cilantro in a coconut-galangal-lime leaf-lemongrass broth with some chilli spirit, logs of fried tofu laid on top with a wedge of lime for some extra zing.

Very nice. I read my book while I slurped and gave silent thanks for the eclectic face of the modern diner, still gnarly, still nostalgic, still serving all sorts, meeting all kinds of needs, but now with better food.

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Mellos. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Mellos has always been and continues to be found at 290 Dalhousie Street. It’s open every day from 8am till 9pm, 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. It has no website. 613-241-1909

DESBRISAY DINES: Les Vilains Garçons

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Les Vilains Garcons. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Les Vilains Garcons. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

They are indeed vilains, these boys.

I was dotting the last i on a review of the one-year-old Hull restaurant, when the friend with whom I had just lunched sent me a link to Les Vilains Garçons’ Facebook page. On it, co-owners Cyril Lauer and Romain Riva wrote that they were closing. After much soul searching, the post read, they were so sorry to have to say this, but they were shutting their doors. Their final day would be in June. Merci beaucoup, etc…

With a heavy heart, I hit delete. The review was now moot.  And as sad as I was for them, I was sad for me too: back to the blank page, needing to book another table somewhere else to fill this space.

The few people I told in the restaurant industry that evening were shocked and saddened. They no doubt told others. Word spread of yet another failed restaurant.

The next day — April 2nd as it happens — ha ha hee hee ho ho. They weren’t really closing. It was their poisson d’avril, the trick they played on April first (to a hook-lined restaurant critic among others).

So call me a pooper but I wasn’t giggling. There’s been too much grief about shuttered restaurants, and I don’t find much funny about ‘news’ of one more.

I retrieved the review from the trash bin. ‘Naughty and Nice’ had been the general theme. It seemed pretty bang on now.

The last time I tasted Romain Riva’s cuisine was at The Wakefield Mill Inn, where he had worked his way up to executive chef. Before that, he had apprenticed at Oncle Tom in Hull. The boys opened Les Vilains Garcons in early 2014, in the upstairs space vacated by Gy Resto when it moved to rue St Jacques.

They’ve done a nice job with the interior – tables have been plastered with wine labels, walls covered with chalkboards, and splashes of red add drama. The atmosphere is buzzy, welcoming, and service has been uniformly kind. The food, however, has been inconsistent.

For every dish I’ve liked — and there have been a few — the next two have been troubled.

 

Paella. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Paella. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Presentation is one key problem. It’s fussed over, to be sure, and there’s no shortage of playfulness on the plate, but the look is contrived, flavours and textures don’t always add up, or else they collide in the mouth.

I’ve liked some things: the steak tartare with puffed mustard seed, charred toast and a minted pea salad (served in an enormous stainless mixing bowl.) The calamari was fresh tasting and very tender, though its batter was unseasoned. Oysters have been luscious. A ratatouille (of sorts) was fine.

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Steak tartare. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

These dishes have been part of the pintxos selection — bar snacks from the Basque region — that lead the blackboard menu. (The menus are all on the wall, which typically requires leaving your table to wander over for a read and a think, and then returning to your chair to wait for your server and then trying to remember what you thought you wanted when he arrives. And then getting up again to read the wine list. Bring a notebook.)

Pinxtos. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pinxtos. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

One night the 3-pintxos-for-$15 deal arrives on a three-tiered cake stand, Oysters on top. One is fine, one is gritty. A scallop crudo with avocado cream is on tier two. It tastes better than it looks, and it looks inexpertly hacked up. Mackerel sashimi with torn sheets of nori and a pretty pedestrian wakame salad anchor the bottom.

Octopus arrives dangling like socks on a clothesline, cooler than ideal and a bit rubbery. An unseasoned, bone-in tempura frog’s leg hangs next to it, along with plantain crisps that taste like they were crisped quite a while ago. Beneath the stringed up food is a treatment of beets, including a Pepto-Bismol coloured beet purée (mixed with mascarpone) which tastes okay but looks like it ought to be icing a cupcake. That same pink anchors a whole sardine on another plate of pintxos, its flesh unpleasantly mushy.

Salmon tartare with an avocado cream and tempura fried onion is marred by an over generosity of cheap-tasting red caviar. One night the paella special is a bust — the seafood overcooked, the pea-dotted rice tasting very ordinary and saffron-free. Much better is a main dish of braised ris d’agneau (lamb sweetbreads) served with a mustard sauce and grilled zucchini, and with sweet potato crisps adding colour and crunch.  I could have done without the avocado purée on the bottom. One element too many.

Octopus and frog's leg on a line. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Octopus and frog’s leg on a line. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

There are some things to like in this upstairs lair — atmosphere, service led by the affable Lauer, and the price point is pretty reasonable. But I’d like to see these Vilains Garcons reign themselves in a bit. Get rid of the gimmicks, and favour simplicity over theatrics.

And I’m not joking about that.

Les Vilains Garcons

39A rue Laval, Gatineau, 819-205-5855 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DESBRISAY DINE: Lunch at Tante Carole

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships. 

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Found in the Chelsea space where the former vegetarian restaurant Café Soup’Herbe used to be, Tante Carole (so named in honour of an invented auntie) isn’t operating at full tilt yet. It awaits its liquor licence — at which point dinner service will begin. My visit was for an abstemious mid week lunch and this post is a report on it, with a promise for a more filling review in due course.

So for now, I’ll just tell you the kitchen team of Jonathan Harris and Suyeon Myeong are plating some promising plates. And I’m raising a (water) glass for two of them — the smelt Caesar salad and the sweet potato pierogies. Both terrific.

Smelt caesar. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Smelt Caesar salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Moistened with a fennel cream sauce and toped with a pickled beet salad, the browned pouches of well-seasoned sweet potato were perfectly cooked, elevated by what was beneath and above them. And I can’t remember when I last ordered a Caesar. But I have a real soft spot for smelts, and these guys were big fellas, crispy-fried, flaky-fleshed, clean-flavoured. They topped crunchy greens, cheese and croutons tossed in a vibrant dressing.

Sweet potato pierogies. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Sweet potato pierogies. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We were two at lunch, and made it clear we’d be sharing. Without any muss or fuss, both the Caesar and pierogi orders arrived on two plates. Nice. The photographs reflect half orders, though its possible they were over generous with those smelts.

Apple pie still warm from the oven was on offer. How to refuse that? It came with soft peaks of cream and two forks.

I’m looking forward to returning…

Tante Carole

168 Chemin Old Chelsea, 819-866-3149

 

DESBRISAY DINES: North & Navy’s simple pleasures not ‘that kind of Italian’

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

North and Navy

Cicheti — Venetian tapas — features sardines and other small fish. Just one of many little treasures on offer at North & Navy. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Cichèti are pronounced chi-ket-ee.. I had to look that up. In fact, I had to look up a few things before visit one to North & Navy, unacquainted as I was with the tradition of bar-snacking in Venice. Still, there were questions required of our server before we felt ready to make our cicheti choices. And in the end, we just ordered them all.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Great British Pasty & Pie Co.

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Grant. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Matt Grant of The Great British Pastry Company. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

He was quite right. I went home and Googled it. The Cornish Pasty, like Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, has its own special designation, protected by the European Union as a special regional food. I hadn’t really believed him, but there it was.

“I didn’t much like pasties growing up,”  Matt Grant, owner of The Great British Pasty Company also told me. “They were made with minced meat, you see, not cubed steak like they’re supposed to be.”

But he likes them now. At least the ones he’s making. I like them too, particularly after learning more about their storied history.

Created out of necessity by thirteenth century Cornwall tin miners (or, more likely, by their wives) who needed hand-held lunch on-the-go for their deep dark work. And so the pasty was born. Essentially leftovers — cuts of meat, onion, potato, swedes (rutabagas) — wrapped up in a pastry casing that served as both container and handle.

Traditional British pastries are bought frozen and cooked for about 20 minutes. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Traditional British pasties are bought frozen and cooked for about 20 minutes. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Grant’s gone beyond the traditional Cornish Pasty, taking delicious liberties, making Steak and Guinness pasties (from his mum’s recipe), Sophie’s Cottage Pasties (Sophie’s his sister), and Pulled Pork pasties, which are particularly good. He even has a sweet apple pasty, though I didn’t try it.

“There’s no rubbish in our stuff,” he tells me. The vegetables come from Needham’s Market Garden, the meat is Alberta’s finest, the pastry is his mum’s secret recipe.

The Great British Pasty & Pie Co truck was parked at The Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne Park this past Sunday. You buy the pasties frozen and bake them off at 350 for about 20 minutes.

Or order them direct from Grant, 613-222-5121

 

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Wandee Thai

Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 The Wandee Thai queue snakes along the woody side of the open kitchen and out the door on this mid-week noon hour. The sleet has let up, so that’s nice for the hungry hopefuls.

We have done two clever things: chosen to eat in and showed up at 11:30. Other than a table of construction workers (pad Thai and Cokes for all!) we have our choice of the five tables. There’s space for about a dozen to dine in, on benches and chairs, but given there is no table service, water is only available in plastic bottles, food arrives in take-away containers, and the only tea served is in a cold can from the beverage fridge, it’s pretty clear Wandee works better for take away.

What’s also clear, once we start tucking in, is that the food is very fresh, very good, and generously served. The queue is more understandable.

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Wandee moved in here back in late March, taking over the former location of the (short-lived) Beechbone Luncheonette (the fried-fish-in-a-bun, sandwich/burger shop run by The Whalesbone/Elmdale Oyster House folk.)

We over-order, as we do everywhere, and we like it all, as we rarely do anywhere: The freshly rolled, generously stuffed rice paper wraps with a peanut sauce of some depth; a first rate Pad Kee Mau, or ‘drunken noodles,’ which knocks any pad Thai out of the park; a garlicky stir fry of vegetables — lots of them — and firm tofu in a slightly sweet (but not too much) lightly fired up sauce. We like the snappy long beans and eggplant in the green curry but it’s probably the least memorable dish.

Pad kee mau or 'drunken noodles'. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pad kee mau or ‘drunken noodles’. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The queue seems a bit chaotic from my vantage. The three women in the kitchen are juggling many demands. There is an option to pre-order for pick up, and this may be the way to go — particularly if April keeps raining ice pellets.

Welcome Wandee! Let’s hope she does well in a space that seems to suffer a bit from its tucked away location.

Lunch mains $8.50 to $8.75, combos $13.95

Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Delivery hours ($2 charge, waived if over $50) Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

40 Beech St., 613-237-1641

www.wandeethai.com