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EATING LIFE: Sweet treats, custom cupcakes, and our collective guilt

This article was originally published in Interiors 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine

Specialty treats evoke childhood delights and fulfill our need to individualize. But those cakes and shakes are also laden with guilt. Shawna Wagman explores the rise of the modern sweet shop

Illustration by Michael Zavacky

Illustration by Michael Zavacky

 

Standing in line for soft-serve ice cream at the Merla-Mae ice cream shop is still one of my fondest memories of growing up in London, Ontario. A dispenser, shaped like a mini Ferris wheel, crushed peanuts, which would then tumble evenly onto the chocolate coating of my chocolate-vanilla-twist ice cream cone. The delicately adorned dessert was called a tree cone for its resemblance to a Christmas tree.

That cone is still the image that flashes across my mind as a symbol of the way certain tastes take us back to the simple delights of being a kid. And the painted sign posted beneath the menu that read “Through these windows, we serve the finest people in the world, our customers” drew my attention to the people waiting in line. For the first time, I noticed the unique way people behave in a sweets shop. Children bounced and giggled; couples caressed and kissed — it was as if the mere thought of ice cream inspired affection. All these years later, living in an age when cellphone cameras often snap the first bite, I still find my inner anthropologist emerge whenever I’m waiting in line for sweets.

When I set out to write this column, I began with a bit of a bias. I wanted to investigate the conflicted love affair with sweets that has been unfolding around the city (and within myself). Ottawa is experiencing a dessert boom, an explosion of traditional and modern sweet purveyors tempting even the gluten-free and vegans among us with doughnuts, cupcakes, squares, chocolates, pastries, and whoopee pies. The latest addition is Macarons et Madeleines.

My hunch was that what’s in fashion in the world of sweets would reveal something about what’s happening in the wider cultural landscape. For one thing, we’re seeing a desire for novelty and an obsession with individuality. I might be reading into it, but reflected in the beer frosting of a cupcake and the DIY-toppings buffet at self-serve fro-yo shops is the notion that every individual is different and special — and desserts should be too.

The fact that treats are becoming more complicated even as they promise us the sweet simplicity of Grandma’s kitchen is an irony not lost on me. Consider the rise of a pastry innovation in which two distinct dessert worlds collide. I’m thinking, of course, of the famous croissant-doughnut hybrid, the Cronut, as well as things like green tea macarons, Nutella-stuffed rice balls, and s’mores pancakes. We are seeing both a desire for novelty and an obsession with individuality and customization (hence the rise of treats turned out in “limited edition”).

Cherry pistachio mini cake is one example of the rich desserts available at Holland's Cake and Shake. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Cherry pistachio mini cake is one example of the rich desserts available at Holland’s Cake and Shake. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Perhaps there is no better example of this phenomenon than Holland’s Cake and Shake in Hintonburg. Customers appear to be tickled by the idea of tasting treats from childhood in new, creative forms — a red licorice tart, say, or an iced vanilla cake crowned with Froot Loops brittle. Then there’s the cake shake, an idea that started as a joke by pastry chef Michael Holland, the shop’s owner. He decided to combine the shop’s two namesake items into one, allowing customers to choose among the weekly miniature layer-cake options as well as one of the day’s homemade soft ice cream flavours — that means at least 12 possible combinations. It all gets whizzed together into a milkshake.

For the indecisive glutton, Holland created The Overlord, a large cake shake adorned with a tower of extra treats, including a whole cookie, another cake, a chocolate brownie, and an Elvis truffle (made with white chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, topped with bacon bits). To make this caloric masterpiece into a true spectacle, it’s served speared with a lit sparkler.

“We always take their picture,” says Holland. “They look so happy when I give it to them.”

I marvel at anyone who has the nerve to order such a sugary beast, because I tend to sympathize with those who sidle up to sweets counters and find themselves muttering to the clerk, tossing out every excuse they can think of to explain and justify what they are buying. “It’s not for me — I don’t like sweets” or “I won’t have any dinner tonight.” Shame seems to ooze out of us like cream from inside a Cronut.

On my first visit to Cake and Shake, I stood awkwardly at the front, eyes darting between the chalkboard of daily offerings and the display case filled with a charming array of treats that look like something from the colourfully ornate world of Dr. Seuss. I’ve since watched other uninitiated customers walking in, maybe asking a few questions, and walking out empty-handed. Holland shrugs it off. He knows some people feel overwhelmed and have a hard time deciding. “They stand there sometimes holding up the line for 10 minutes trying to make up their minds, and they are telling us they really don’t know what to pick. It’s very honest.”

Holland says he added little signs identifying the different cakes to help make decision-making less daunting. Still, he wants the experience to be personal, and he and his staff are always standing by to answer questions about specific items. But as Holland acknowledges, some people really want to talk and others prefer just to point and pay. The most trouble-free transactions occur on Fridays, when Holland posts a photo of a treat “available today only” on Twitter. He watches the wave of customers who come in to order it, revealing themselves because they don’t bother to browse the rest of the menu. If you tweet it, they will come.

I asked Holland if he has ever been surprised by customer behaviour. That’s when he told me about the couples who come in together and then return separately. He says these individuals express frustration about compromising on choice or sharing a certain cake with a spouse on their former visit. They say they have come back so that they can get whatever they want.

It makes perfect sense. Like hitting the “like” button on Facebook, we live in an age in which expressing personal attachment toward certain pleasures has become more important than the pleasures themselves. These days we not only yearn to find and share tasty treats, but we expect some kind of epiphany too — a moment worthy of being broadcast. That might explain our return to innocence when it comes to the anticipation of something sweet.

As for the more introverted sweet lovers among us, I guess I’ll see you in line.

TRENDS: Jalapeños make for a fiery hot summer

By SHAWNA WAGMAN

The 2013-2014 edition of Ottawa Magazine’s Eating & Drinking Guide is a food lover’s bible for everything local, with 80+ pages of restaurant, wine, food shop, and kitchen store recommendations. Look for it on newsstands or order it here

Photo by Giula Doyle

Café My House’s Jalapeño Mojito Photo by Giula Doyle

The recent craze over Sriracha hot sauce is evidence that spicy flavours are indeed hot. Fans of the put-it-on-everything condiment may not realize that the most popular brand used by North Americans is actually made with red jalapeños. In Ottawa, the humble green jalapeño is the pepper of choice. Art Is In Bakery ignited a passion for the flavour and relatively unaggressive heat of the pepper with its cheddar, chive, and jalapeño bread. Thanks to greater acceptance of spice in general and the instant addictive quality of dishes made with hot peppers, we’re happy to see that more chefs are willing to play with fire.

Café My House’s Jalapeño Mojito
When Briana Kim was preparing to re-launch her vegan-friendly and (mostly) gluten-free café in Hintonburg back in April, she decided to incorporate fresh homemade jalapeño-cucumber juice into a fun new cocktail. She came up with the jalapeño mojito, made by mixing the sweet and spicy elixer with muddled mint, gin, and celery bitters. The cool zip of the cucumber and mint contrasts with the kick of jalapeño to create a taste sensation that’s as warming as it is cooling. The smart, seasonal cocktail is part of a changing menu that is sure to attract and intrigue the new neighbourhood’s tastemakers.
Cafe My House, 1015 Wellington St. W., 613-733-0707

El Camino’s Tongue Taco
Matthew Carmichael once believed the ox-tongue taco would never fly. But it quickly became his most popular taco — behind the fish — at El Camino. “I was flabbergasted,” he says. “I’m so happy people have embraced it.” As for the jalapeños on top that accompany thinly sliced radish, basil, and avocado, he says buying them by the jar was never an option. He gets better flavour and texture by pickling them himself with a classic brine. That tasty liquid gets used again in other recipes.
El Camino, 380 Elgin St., 613-422-2800

Fraser Café’s Albacore Tuna with Jalapeño Poppers
While fresh albacore tuna is often treated delicately, as in sushi and sashimi, it stands up magnificently to powerful partners (think wasabi). Ross Fraser played with this dynamic when creating this appetizer at his café. He pairs lightly grilled tuna topped with olive oil, lime juice, and coriander with a hot-from-the-fryer jalapeño popper. The peppers are split and filled with scallion cream cheese before being breaded with a cornmeal-flour mix and sent to the fryer. Fresh tomato salsa and sliced green apple balance the heat.
Fraser Cafe, 7 Springfield Rd., 613-749-1444

Relish Food Truck S’Mac N Cheese
Parked on the University of Ottawa campus, Paul Bergeron’s gourmet food truck shakes up the classic student meal. His signature S’mac n cheese — named for its lip-smacking quality — has become one of his most popular dishes. Forget the reheated crusty baking dish — every S’mac is made to order. Real béchamel sauce is stirred together with elbow pasta, old cheddar, and tomato. Next come chipotle sauce, crispy onions, herbs, and a little buttermilk dressing. A tiny dice of crisp fresh jalapeño is the culinary kicker.
Relish Food Truck, Copernicus Street and University Boulevard, 613-266-0538

Spread Delivers’ “The Mexican” Sandwich
Julie Harrison says she’s a sucker for raw thinly sliced jalapeños — it’s a love affair that began with a plate of pupusas at a Salvadoran joint. Pickling these peppers has become another passion. For her sandwich delivery business, she wanted to capture the flavours of Mexico between two slices of potato bread from Nat’s Bread Company. Fresh pickled jalapeños play a starring role alongside queso fresco, a white Mexican cheese, and chunky salsa roja with a handful of fresh coriander. Not enough heat for you? She puts chili in her chocolate brownies too.
Spread Delivers, 613-860-3636

 

 

 

Best New Restaurants 2013: Ottawa’s best new restaurants are shaking up the scene

Best New Restaurants 2013

Blame television for perverting our little brains into craving things once reserved for the ranks of high chefdom and exotic street-food carts. When big chains like Jack Astor’s start serving kimchi quesadillas and the word “umami” appears on the menu of a ByWard Market Irish pub, it’s clear that global foodie culture has reached saturation point. Now that everyone is a locavore, a foodie, a would-be food-truck owner, a craft brewer, or a small-batch whisky connoisseur, we’re seeing the quality of food served in pubs and watering holes rivalling what we used to eat in traditional restaurants.

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 1. El Camino

Best New Restaurants 2013: 1. El Camino

If you need convincing that dining out has become akin to theatre, just stop by the corner of Elgin Street and Gladstone Avenue and stand at the top of the stairs that lead down to this buzzy new taqueria with an Asian twist. Witness a perpetual house-party scene made up of mobile munchers and sit-down revellers, as well as the kitchen crew in action through a transparent-box-cum-takeout-window. It’s mesmerizing to watch tequila cocktails being shaken, dough being kneaded by hand, fresh tortillas rolling off the machine, and fine-dining-darling chef Matthew Carmichael ruling his roost — at home in the heart of his very own kitchen at last.

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 2. Supply and Demand

Best New Restaurants 2013: 2. Supply and Demand

A passionate cook first and foremost, Steve Wall has had an intense kitchen career at the helm of Whalesbone, Town, and Luxe kitchens that has no doubt made him aware of the microeconomics of the city’s food industry. He seems keenly aware of what the local market can bear when it comes to casual yet refined restaurant dining. Unlike so many of his peers in the business, however, he just keeps raising the bar. He doesn’t ask, What does Ottawa want? He asks, What does Ottawa need? In spite of the restaurant’s name, Wall appears to place the most value on things that cannot be measured in dollars and cents: the blood and sweat that go into the plate, the paramount importance of treating ingredients properly (he wraps fish in linen at the end of the night), and the camaraderie among cooks inspired to share the same level of commitment. Before opening, he whisked his staff off to New York and set them up with apprenticeships at the restaurants he most admires, including Mario Batali’s Esca, a temple of pasta and piscatory delights. Back at home, he has created what feels like the capital city’s most modern dining experience to date. Wall makes visually stunning, labour-intensive, powerfully flavoured food that may be a first-time amalgam of Acadian sensibilities and southern Italian soul. 1335 Wellington St. W., 613-680-2949

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 3. Hooch Bourbon House

For better or for worse, the name Danny Mongeon has become synonymous with horse. The ambitious cook first served horse tartare as part of the tapas menu at Brut Cantina Sociale in Hull, where he came out of the woodwork as its opening chef. When he launched his new venture, Hooch, in the summer, some of us waited for the horse to appear. And it did. The meat is served on homemade brioche and topped with a golden quail egg yolk. It’s an appetizer at dinner or a late-night snack (Hooch stays open until 2 a.m.) to accompany a long list of bourbon and cocktail options. This is Rideau Street, after all, a corner of the ByWard Market where drinking trumps dining; it takes a lot of guts to try to turn the tide. At first glance, the menu reads like a greatest-hits album of restaurant trends — Southern molecular raw-bar gastro-tavern, anyone? The decor, too, mimics others more than it should, yet something pure and original shines through. Whether serving chicken and waffles, burgers and poutine, or Mongeon originals (smoked mackerel terrine, scallops paired with crackling, or a mushroom po’ boy that’s better than any authentic Creole cousin), this is food that hits a bliss spot rarely experienced elsewhere. Diners would be wise to look past its unpolished service and tattoo-parlour view to see Hooch for what it is: a diamond in the rough. 180 Rideau St., 613-789-1821

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 4. Two Six Ate

Best New Restaurants 2013: 4. Two Six Ate

if you happen to follow chef-owner Steve Harris on Twitter, sometimes you’ll see things you’ll wish you hadn’t, such as a photo of the “throwback” staff meal of sliced hot dogs mixed with boxed Kraft Dinner and peas. Then, a few days later, Harris will tweet about his snack of seared rabbit liver, morel mushrooms, garlic scapes, and puntarella (a bitter green rarely seen outside of Italy), and you’re left wondering how this could be the same person. His quirky 140-character broadcasts make for nerdy gastro poetry and tell us everything we need to know about what motivates and inspires the kitchen at Two Six Ate. It’s an unholy communion between naughty, nostalgic beer-sponge food and refined dishes that celebrate the art of nose-to-tail seasonal cuisine. It makes one wish more of Ottawa’s new guard were similarly fuelled by a passion for food rather than the need to feed overstuffed egos. We get the impression this is how Harris would spend his days and nights anyway, restaurant or no restaurant. With such a playful attitude toward cooking, it’s easy to picture Harris at the window of a food truck, but instead he has chosen to settle down in one spot, together with his main squeeze, Emily Ienzi, to create Preston’s hippest Italian-Canadian snack-food joint, where wings and burgers and a fried PB & J get the treatment of a nonna making Sunday ragout. 268 Preston St., 613-695-8200

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 5. The Albion Rooms

Best New Restaurants 2013: 5. The Albion Rooms

Like a cross between spanish tapas and a meat smoothie, The Albion Rooms’ take on the bloody caesar dubbed “The Marcus Brutus” is lively with deep, savoury, sophisticated character. After nibbling away on the generous garnish of locally made capicola, chorizo, and salami, I looked around the stylish lounge and spotted a large glass case framing the Maserati of meat slicers and several hanging swine hocks. Did I just die and go to charcuterie heaven? No, I’m somewhere equally improbable: I’m inside the Novotel. It feels more as though I’ve stumbled upon a low-key London gastropub. Though I’ve travelled just across the road from the Rideau Centre, a jet-lagged hotel guest would certainly find this a comforting place to land. Clearly, someone with good taste and vision (and the coin to back it up) put this place together. Its collection of cozy refuelling stations includes something for everyone: a lounge, a patio, a dining room, and a bar. And judging by the concise modern menu based on our collective love of grazing at all hours, as well as a sincere and comprehensive use of local and seasonal ingredients, there’s a committed team of food lovers behind the scenes. Among them is chef Stephen La Salle, who proudly leads the kitchen. The 26-year-old dove at the opportunity after his three-year tenure cooking at Arc Lounge was interrupted by a character-building stint at The Whalesbone Oyster House under Charlotte Langley. If it can overcome its hotel-bar stigma, The Albion is poised to be for the city’s food scene what The Arc has become for fashionistas. 33 Nicholas St., 613-760-4771

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 6. Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern

The Elmdale Oyster House is part of the Whalesbone family that has made us the capital of oyster envy and ambassadors of hook-to-plate dining. Feeding the souls of homesick Maritimers and promoting endless urban hootenannies are at the top of the job descriptions for Joshua Bishop and Peter McCallum. The lifelong buddies partnered in the takeover of The Elmdale, a nearly 80-year-old tavern, and returned it to its former glory as a watering hole and live-music venue. By making minimal changes — enough to make the room feel welcoming as a place to eat and, frankly, less creepy as a hangout for the fairer sex — The Elmdale continues to fit into Hintonburg just fine. The installation of a magnificent wraparound 24-seat bar anchors the room and makes it a pleasant place for friends and strangers to pull up, day or night, for a pint, a lobster roll, and a bit of banter with some of the most charismatic staff in town. Executive chef Chloe Berlanga channelled her summer vacations to seaside Maine when designing the menu, which continues to evolve. In subtle ways, it is rougher around the edges than its Bank Street brother, but one thing remains consistent: bivalves rule. 1084 Wellington St. W., 613-728-2848

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Best New Restaurants 2013: 7. Bistro CoqLicorne

Best New Restaurants 2013: 7. Bistro CoqLicorne

If the instant popularity of an upbeat and charming new bistro across the river is any indication, our Gatineau neighbours are feeling proud. Here is a place where a team of first-time restaurateurs uses food and drink to celebrate their heritage and the creations of local artisanal food producers. The name CoqLicorne pays homage to a whimsical work of art by celebrated Gatineau artist Jean Dallaire that portrays a mythical love child between a rooster (coq) and a unicorn. Long-time local waitress Martine Boucher, along with Emmanuel Croteau-Benoit and Isabel Thériault, who worked for the edgy Outaouais arts festival, are the trio behind the feisty new hangout in the heart of Old Hull. Gastronomes should not be misled — this is simple, honest eating, featuring fresh salads, sandwiches, and a variety of grilled dishes. It’s a place where things such as pulled-pork nachos or lemonade made of muddled fresh citrus are treated with respect. Suppliers are neighbours: William J. Walter sausages, Ferme aux Saveurs des Monts chicken, teas from Cha Yi, and treats from Miss Chocolat. Three kinds of microbrews by the bottle hail from Montreal, Saint-Eustache, and Joliette. Tasty L’Eisbock de L’Alchimiste beer finds its way into the French onion soup. Fall-off-the-bone barbecue ribs are named after 19th-century French-Canadian strong man Jos Montferrand. In an age of globalized food culture, it’s refreshing to have a taste of local legends and lore. That goes for restaurants at either end of the Champlain Bridge. 59, rue Laval, Gatineau (Hull sector), 819-205-4344

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