DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Hot chocolate at Truffle Treasures

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

Actually, DesBrisay Doesn’t Dine. At least not this week. For as long as I’ve done this job, I have resolved that pre-Christmas reviews must be charitable. They must be gifts. And about the places I’ve been lately I am nothing but grumpy: An Italian restaurant of long standing with graceless service, phoning it in and charging a big bill; a west end Indian restaurant where the flavour and fragrance are lacking; and a new place I’ll return to in a few  weeks, hopeful the kinks will have been worked out.

And so I’ll tell you instead about chocolate. Liquid chocolate to be precise. Belgium Callebaut dark chocolate bars — imagine it — melted into steamed milk that’s been infused with fresh ginger and orange zest, served in a big blue mug, straight up. Unadorned with cream. (I’ve never liked the peaks of cold whipped cream chilling the upper lip, undoing the effects of the warm creamy molten chocolate beneath.) There were other options for infusions — Aztec, with chilies and cinnamon; hazelnut; caramel; mocha; pumpkin; peppermint. And there was hot chocolate unembellished, milk, dark or intensely bittersweet.

Truffle Treasures is now owned by Céline Levo, of the great (Calgary-based) company, Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut and the newer Cococo Chocolatiers (of the ‘Good Clean Fun’ brand of bars and biscuits).

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Levo, it seems to me, after downing my hot chocolate and treating myself to a box of six truffles (for the walk home) has continued to honour the impeccably high standards of Truffle Treasures’ founder, Lara Vaarré, who opened her flagship Westboro business in 2002, and its sister location on Bank Street in 2007.

Lara died, far too young, on Boxing Day 2012. But I’d like to think she’d be pleased with the caring hands still crafting the exceptional TT chocolates, and pouring the sort of luxurious hot chocolate that makes you very jolly indeed.

Hot chocolate, $5.50
Truffle Treasures
314 Richmond Road, 613-761-3859
and 769 Bank Street, 613-230-3859
truffletreasures.com

 

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WHY EAT OUT? Shawna Wagman on The New Rules For Eating Out

This article first appeared as part of The Encyclopedia of Eating Now in our Winter 2014 issue.

Why eat out? It’s a question that challenges assumptions and calls restaurateurs to make their pitch, which is exactly what Shawna Wagman was trying to do when she invited five insiders from the city’s foodie scene to gather at Urban Element earlier this year. As Wagman wrote in her introduction, cooking for chefs — and probing them with questions about the industry — was an exhilarating and frightening experiment. In fact, the same words might be used to describe running a restaurant. This past year was a particularly tough one for the industry, but hard economic times don’t appear to be stifling the creativity in our city’s kitchens. While many were saddened to see the end of Domus, this year also saw the opening of five new restaurants on Bank Street alone. So it would seem Ottawans have plenty of answers to the question on our cover.

In this story, Wagman rounds up some of the comments made by her guests for a tongue-in-cheek list of directives for restaurant-goers.

Stephen Beckta, Shawna Wagman, and Marysol Foucault discussed the local restaurant scene at a private gathering this past summer at Urban Element. Photo by Miv Fournier.

Stephen Beckta, Shawna Wagman, and Marysol Foucault discussed the local restaurant scene at a private gathering this past summer at Urban Element. Photo by Miv Fournier.

1. Before you write a negative review online, contact the chef or restaurant owner to give them an opportunity to handle the complaint. Stephen Beckta (Beckta, Gezellig, Play) says, “If someone chooses to contact me directly, I will turn around their experience.”

Marysol Foucault. Photo by Miv Fournier

Marysol Foucault. Photo by Miv Fournier

2. Do not be afraid to ask for what you want. If you want a table by the window, ask for it. If you want to be left alone for 20 minutes before considering the dessert menu, tell your server that you are in no rush.

3. Order something you might not normally think you’d like. There is no other way to develop and expand your taste vocabulary, and it’s a great way to encourage chefs to be more adventurous. Marysol Foucault of Chez Edgar says, “People are curious, and that’s the best thing you can ask for.”

4. Do not expect every bite of restaurant food to transform your life. The Food Network is a fantasy, and it is warping our expectations of what kind of religious awakening should be happening in our mouths.

5. Say goodbye to the super-size mentality.Recognize the value of a little less of something that is top quality.

Stephen Beckta. Photo by Miv Fournier

Stephen Beckta. Photo by Miv Fournier

 

6. Recognize that food, cooking, and hospitality are human endeavours. As Beckta admits, “Sometimes we screw up.”

7. When you spend money on food, think like a European and factor in the whole package. In other words, think of it as a fee for renting a tiny piece of real estate and some hospitality for a few hours.

8. Do not let parking or poor weather dictate where and when you eat out. Make dining out and socializing an important part of a balanced and civilized urban life. Sometimes the extra effort to make it happen makes the experience even sweeter.

9. Vote for hospitality with your dollars. Dine at the places that make you feel great.

10. Eat out early on weekends. If you go early, you get more attention from the server, the music may be quieter, and it’s probably easier to find a parking spot. Pat Garland says Absinthe has a no-7 p.m. reservation policy on weekends and adds, “The reason you can’t get a reservation at seven is because everyone else in Ottawa has a reservation at seven.”

 

DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Juniper Farm’s smashing sauerkraut

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.

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Juniper Farm’s sauerkraut. Photo: Anne DesBrisay

Kale is so yesterday. At least that’s what the smarty-pants people who purport to know these things are telling us.

The it vegetable of last year is losing its lustre. It’s worn us down with its perfect properties. I grow weary of seeing a kale salad (often requiring 68 chews per forkful) on every restaurant menu. With any luck it’s taken its toll on chefs as well…

We are supposed to be ditching kale, apparently, in favour of its cousin. Cabbage is the new sexy veg.

My grandmother would be laughing her head off. She grew many heads every year and dutifully put down the cabbage crop in brine.

But did she ever think to mix it with beets? Or fennel? Or with salted shrimp and fish sauce and menacing little red chilis? If she had, I might have eaten it.

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TASTING NOTES: Wines of great note, just in time for the Holidays

BY DAVID LAWRASON

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec print edition of OTTAWA Magazine

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The results of the 2014 WineAlign World Wine Awards of Canada were announced in late September. It’s a competition that focuses on value, with wines judged in three price categories (under $15, $15 to $25, and $25 to $50). They are further split among grape varieties and country categories, but the crucial tallies are the best values in the three price categories — and many of the notable wines are currently available at the LCBO.

I could simply have listed my personal best values for this article, but it is always fascinating to see what is revealed through blind tasting by several experienced tasters. And when those results line up with my personal assessments, all the better. So here I present some great values — double-checked, as it were, by a panel of peers. The selections, ratings, and comments are my own.

One final note before turning you loose on these libations. Blind tastings are focused on quality; i.e., purity, balance, complexity, and depth of flavour. Personal preferences are not what judges are asked to express. You, of course, are completely free to like or dislike what you please. I ask only that as you read each review, you try to decipher whether it is a style you prefer. If you do, you should be very happy indeed. And even if you don’t, these might win you over.

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QUEST: A crepe by any other name

BY CINDY DEACHMAN

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2014 print edition of Ottawa Magazine

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Masala Dosa from Coconut Lagoon. Photo: Giulia Doyle

When it comes to crepes, we might be forgiven for automatically thinking of Suzette. The theatrically flambéed dish gripped our collective unconscious years ago. But the pancake’s definition can be stretched, no? The Dutch pile their fine flensjes into a “cake,” filling the layers with grated Gouda, then serving wedges with molasses. We also have soft Norwegian lefse, flattened with a grooved rolling pin and filled with lingonberries; Vietnamese paper rolls, whose wrappers of rice batter are steamed, then dried; and Scottish wafer-like oatcakes, the homemade ones thinner than Walkers. And a documentary out there shows a Moroccan woman in a dark room crouching down to an overturned wok-like pot on a fire. She swirls batter on top and momentarily cooks it, producing her first filo-like werqa to make bisteeya, an extravagant chicken pie with saffron. Even back in France, pan-fried courgette fritters, thick as Canadian pancakes, are still considered crepes.

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DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Asian Alley

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 DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

Here’s to the curative powers of a steaming bowl of fragrant pho. The head throb eases, the throat is soothed, the spirit lifted, and the wallet lightened (but just a little).

The trick is finding good pho. The sort that doesn’t lift the spirits temporarily and then keeps you up all night, jittering and guzzling buckets of water —  nor the kind that requires many squirts of hoisin and hot sauce to find flavour. Last week, deflated and defeated, post-Christmas shopping for man-boys, bags bulging with athletic socks, I discovered Asian Alley on ByWard Market Square. I plunked down at one of its three communal tables, ordered rolls and beef noodle soup, and within minutes I was a new woman.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

It’s mostly Vietnamese on offer at Asian Alley, but they toss in a pad Thai (plus something they call a pad Thai summer roll), to be competitive, I suppose. Must. Have. Pad Thai. It’s the sweet noodle plate that is to south east Asian restaurants what butter chicken is to all Indian. The star player, the blue plate special, the must-have-for-the-occidentals dish. Why? I have no idea. But Asian Alley distinguishes itself from all other Asian fusion type places in this city by what it doesn’t offer — specifically, a seven page menu — and by the uncommon depth of flavour in its pho.

And I suppose, by its penny floor. One hundred and fifty thousand now-useless pennies, repurposed, laid out by hand, beneath a shiny lacquer, surrounded by a commissioned graffiti skyline by local artist Sssnakeboooy and friends. (Check out this post on the Ottawa Mag Facebook page for a peek at the mural.) “I gave them free rein,” owner Hoang tells me. The long, narrow room vibrates with colour and edgy-charm.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

A steaming cup of Genmaicha tea (green tea with roasted rice) arrives with the grilled pork and chicken rice wraps. Clearly made to order, the meat is fragrant and warm (makes all the difference) within the soft packages. Lettuce gives them crunch, green herbs (basil and cilantro) lend perfume, and the peanut sauce is more savoury than sweet, clearly not made from the usual Skippy jar.

The food on the one page menu (hurrah!) was good enough to bring me back for dinner — Bun cha ca and lemongrass pork, firecracker shrimp, and vegetarian spring rolls. Plus another bowl of pho, the dark broth brimming with those warming spices, the chunks of meat from the flank clearly a cut above, the big blue bowl filled in with al dente rice noodles, shredded cabbage, carrot, bok choy, and Thai basil, served with a  side of chili oil. Full marks.

Photo by DesBrisay

Photo by DesBrisay

We like the housemade fish cakes — thin medallions of minced fish and shrimp, flavoured with dill and chili oil — soft but with bouncy chew, though the shrimp within their over-sized crackling covers were small and tough.

The grilled meats had marvellous flavour. Boned and flattened, with big grand hits of lemongrass, ginger and garlic, the pork and chicken both had good char, and came with rice, salad and a bowl of nuoc mam.

Hydration (for now?) is restricted to juices, pop, and tea.

Soups, rice and vermicelli plates, $11 to $14

8 ByWard Market Square, 613-860-9889 www.asianalley.ca

MOST WANTED: Jamón Ibérico

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine.

By ASHLEIGH VANHOUTEN

Photo by Luther Caverly

Photo by Luther Caverly

A plate of sumptuous charcuterie is a treat any way you slice it. But if you’re looking to increase the decadent factor at your next dinner party, jamón ibérico is a must. This rare cured ham is made in Spain and Portugal from the meat of special free-range pigs — pata negra, named for their black hooves. The animals roam freely through the forests and fortify themselves mostly with fatty acorns. The salt-cured meat follows a highly regulated aging process, often drying for up to four years.

It’s pricey, but jamón ibérico is worth every penny: it is beautiful to look at and emits a rich, nutty aroma; on the palate, the taste is intensely salty-sweet. The creamy, acorn-enriched fat literally melts in your mouth. Be sure to enjoy it at room temperature, not chilled, with some simple bread and a splash of good olive oil. A robust Spanish red would pair well, as would a sherry, but a crisp beer will do just fine.

$199/kg.
La Bottega Nicastro,
64 George St., 613-789-7575.

 

DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Dumpling Bowl

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 Bubblicity Tea Shop on Somerset West once cornered the market on bubble teas. “But then everyone started doing them, and we began to lose business,” the young guy who delivers my lychee shake with squishy tapioca pearls tells me.

Don't worry, you can still get your bubble tea fix at Dumpling Bowl. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Don’t worry, you can still get your bubble tea fix at Dumpling Bowl. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

So the owner, I was told, munched his way through Montreal, came home deciding to change direction, and hired a dumpling maker for his shop.

Last fall, the Bubblicity Tea Shop reopened as Dumpling Bowl, with a food menu. Bubble tea lovers need not despair — customizable teas and smoothies remain on offer — but you can now pair your drink (nothing stronger than tea here) with nine varieties of handmade dumplings, served boiled or pan-fried.

We’ve scarfed down pork and cabbage potstickers (fried on one side), chives and shrimp (also fried), and ones filled in with zucchini, mushroom, and mung bean (boiled). The sauces provided may be housemade, but they could use some work: the peanut sauce is icky-sweet, the spicy mayonnaise nothing special. We splash on the black vinegar provided on the table and find it the best match with these doughy-treats.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Beef broth with ginger, Shanghai noodles, scallions, chiles, bok choy, and beef brisket. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We follow these with the house special soup, an aromatic beef broth filled in with chunks of ginger, fresh, chewy Shanghai noodles, scallions, chiles, bok choy, and marvellously tender beef brisket. Full marks.

Dumpling Bowl earns pretty high marks for ambience, too. Service is pleasant and food arrives quickly.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Dumplings, $6 to $7.50 for 10; $8 to $10 for 15.

Open daily from 11 a.m.

730 Somerset St. W., 613-845-0880, dumplingbowl.com

DIY GOURMET: Chef Part of Les Fougères shares his recipe for maple-soya salmon

This article first appeared in the 2014 edition of Eating & Drinking, which is on newsstands until spring 2015. Order the 2014 Eating & Drinking Guide, and we’ll mail it you or a friend in time for the holidays. 

The Chefx tagline says it all: Recipes. Ingredients. Delivered. Launched in the fall of 2013, the business is a brilliant partnership between local entrepreneur Jeff Heaton and the who’s who of chefs around town.  Here’s how it works: you subscribe to the service and Heaton shows up at your door each week with chef-tested recipes (with easy-to-follow directions),  a cooler-full of ingredients, and a wine pairing suggestion.

In other words, you pay a bit of a premium and, in doing so, get to forgo running all over  town sourcing the ingredients to create those dishes you drool over at the likes of Mariposa Farm, Les Fougères, Whalesbone, and Black Cat Bistro.

Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can try these yourself at home. Here, Charles Part of Les Fougeres shares a favourite, and versatile, recipe.

Maple-soya glazed Salmon
With Pink Grapefruit, Parsnip, Greens
& Toasted Hazelnuts

Photo by Christian Lalonde - PhotoluxStudio.com

Photo by Christian Lalonde – PhotoluxStudio.com

Chef Charles Part has been at the helm of the iconic Les Fougères restaurant in Chelsea for two decades now, serving up flavourful cuisine inspired by the bounty in the surrounding gardens. He chose this salmon recipe for Chefx knowing that the vibrant flavours would seduce the city’s home chefs. “You can use wild coho salmon, fresh arctic char, even trout. It’s a very versatile recipe,” explains Part. Still, don’t expect to find it on the Les Fougères menu every day. The chef likes to change things seasonally, challenging himself and keeping things fresh (though he does concede that he rotates a few favourites through the menu for the benefit of his gratified regulars).

  • 2 fillets sockeye salmon (skinless)
  • 1 pink grapefruit
  • 2 navel oranges
  • 4 parsnips
  • 2 baby bok choy
  • 6 hazelnuts
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 2 tbsp sherry
  • 1 /8 cup cream
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp + 1 tsp soya sauce
  • 1 / 8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • butter ( 1 tbsp + 1 tbsp)
  • vegetable oil ( 1 tsp + 1 tsp)
  • salt and pepper

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DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Ace Mercado

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.

 

Scallop ceviche. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Scallop ceviche. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

“There Goes the Neighbourhood” was the opening slogan of Ace Mercado, punctuated with cartoon dynamite booms. There went my ear drums that first visit. And the next. The volume of the music played at Ace has waxed and waned a bit over my three meals here, but is generally at ear ringing level by eight o’clock. We move to the back room and find we can just hear each other if we holler.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Do I like this? Nope. But maybe I’m just out of touch with the way the cool kids want to eat out these days.

Ace Mercado is loud in other ways. The wall graffiti makes a statement, the Day of the Dead decor is edgy, the service is almost aggressively casual, and the open bar scene can bully the room.

But none of these grumblings of mine should take away from the food at Ace, which is mostly very good. Or the drinks program, which attempts to take frat-boy tequila shots to a much higher plane, dispensed from a centre-of-the-action bar, crowded with premium spirits, house infusions, and handsome young mixologists.

The food menu, created by Navarra chef (and Top Chef Canada 2014 champ) René Rodriguez (executed by chef de cuisine Trish Donaldson) has evolved since that first visit. It’s a bit longer, and seems more focused on sides, sharing plates, tacos, and less on main dishes.

If you only order tacos here — we liked the braised lamb with queso fresco most and the bland and fishy red snapper least — you will miss the best bits. Sophisticated dishes like the scallop ceviche with passion fruit seeds and smoked hibiscus salt. Yes, a very pretty plate, but it was the balance of tart-sweet, soft-crunch, and chili-rev that was so beautifully judged.

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