QUEST: Easter Treats — let’s eat our way into spring

BY CINDY DEACHMAN

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Various Chocolates by Cococo & Truffle Treasures. Photo: Christian Lalonde

What with bunnies, hens, and eggs, Easter puts us in very good spirits. Of course, a little chocolate never hurts, right?

Ditch the theory that Easter eggs symbolize new life. Eggs in general might, but Easter time is another story — and a prosaic one. Because eggs aren’t allowed during Lent for the fasting faithful, they have to be gobbled down beforehand. Then, when Easter is at hand, eggs can be eaten to one’s heart’s content.
Special Easter treats are on the menu too. Sicilians sculpt darling little sheep, called pecorelle di pasta reale, sheep of marzipan. Over here in Canada, we can’t get enough hot cross buns. But don’t forget the chocolate!

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DESBRISAY DINES: Taylor’s Genuine Kitchen & Wine

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.

Coast to coast fish selection. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Coast to coast fish selection. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

“Yep, we’re done,” John Taylor @domuscafe tweeted on May 26, 2014. “Thanks to everyone for the last 18 years, it was a blast! But time to move on … !”

He moved on, as it were, to his second restaurant, the five-year-old Taylor’s Genuine Kitchen & Wine on Bank Street — which is where I had hoped to find him, there in his open kitchen, exactly ten months since that tweet told us he was shuttering his lovely Domus.

So off we went to Old Ottawa South on a frigid February night, and again on an even colder night in mid-March to find the man who had ‘moved on.’ But no luck. He happened to be off both those evenings.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Dim Sum at Hung Sum

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.

Hung Sum Steamed green onion ginger beef dumplings. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Hung Sum Steamed green onion ginger beef dumplings. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The dozen tables are glass topped and dressed in pink linen. The walls are robin egg blue. Hung Sum is a small, plain room that bears the bumps and bruises of a hard-working space. But we aren’t here for the ambience, we’re here for dim sum, and nobody does it better.  At least not in this town.

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DESBRISAY DINES: The Beechwood Gastropub

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.

Is a gastropub as straightforward as a nice looking bar with a kitchen that puts out tuna crudo instead of a chicken wings? Must it serve upscale British pub food in order to call itself a gastropub? Or is it just a name for anything goes in the kitchen? No limiting culinary theme: calamari, pierogis, hamachi, lamb bhoona, burgers, bouillabaisse — it all works!

Or doesn’t. In which case, the place may aspire to gastropub-ness, but if it isn’t ticking the right boxes — a convivial atmosphere, an excellent drinks list, solidly good food — it is a gastropub in surname only.

This one, the Beechwood, in the space where Farbs Kitchen used to be, is on its way to deserving the title. It hasn’t all been rosy on my visits — one meal had some hiccups, the welcome can seem muted, and one more warm body on the floor would help service flow — but the space is busy and jolly, there’s craft beer on tap, the wine list has been thoughtfully assembled, and the kitchen — led by chef Colin Lockett — puts up plates that mostly please.

Hot smoked salmon with kimchi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Hot smoked salmon with kimchi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

I provided a glimpse of the new Beechwood Gastropub in a lunch pick in December. I also promised a more detailed look, so this is that.

The Beechwood Gastropub is owned by André Cloutier (formerly of Arturo’s on Beechwood, and now owner of the long running Iberian restaurant, El Meson, also on Beechwood). He seems fond of the street and diners seem fond of him. The place has been packed at my every visit.

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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.

DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Kouign Amann at Macarons et Madeleines

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.

Kouign Amann. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kouign Amann. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kouign Amann … found at last, at Macarons et Madeleines.

I was going to write about éclairs — about the forgotten pleasures of bronzed choux pastry filled with pastry cream and iced with chocolate. And then I saw it, at Macarons et Madeleines, minding its own business in a basket next to the ubiquitous pain au chocolat, two away from the tray of éclairs.

When you haven’t tasted (nor even seen or thought about) in thirty-some years, a once favourite pastry, discovering it in a new-to-the ‘hood patisserie… well, you gasp. And you order it stat. And you wait for it to be warmed up and you sit in your parka in the sunshine and feel twenty again.

Macarons et Madeleines new shop on Wellington. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Macarons et Madeleines new shop on Wellington. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

And because it doesn’t look quite like you remember it looking, you ask if it’s the genuine article.

Is this really Kouign Amann, you ask the young woman behind the counter at (the newly relocated) Macarons et Madeleines?

Yes, she says, indulgently. We just roll it a bit differently.

It’s sort of pronounced ‘queen-a-mon’. In the Breton language, kouign means cake and amann means butter. Not sure what the Breton word for sugar is, but there’s no doubt that it’s part of the package too. This is a pastry-bread-cake thing that’s been around since the mid 1800s, apparently, and in some parts of North America, I’m told it’s seeing a revival.

A yeast-risen dough layered, puff pastry style, with salted butter and sugar and baked such that the butter puffs the dough, and the sugar in the folds oozes out, caramelizing the top and sides and bottom. At Macarons et Madeleines, it’s baked in spiral rings, a bit like a sticky bun.

Éclairs also available at Macarons et Madeleines. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Éclairs also available at Macarons et Madeleines. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

It arrives gooey and bronzed, crisp and oozing butter, served with a knife and fork. A big cake, eminently shareable. So bring a friend. And leave with an éclair for later.

$8 for a more-than-single-serving Kouign Amann. 

Macarons et Madeleines, 1323 Wellington St. W.
613-680-7887

 

 

 

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DESBRISAY DINES: Beckta Dining & Wine Bar

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.

The new Beckta at 150 Elgin St. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

The new Beckta at 150 Elgin St. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Unless you’ve just emerged from a cave you will know the most venerated fine dining restaurant in the capital has moved from a modest house on Nepean Street to a mansion on Elgin. The 140 year-old Grant House is where the 12-year-old Beckta Dining and Wine Bar has been reincarnated, in a space last occupied (for some 37 years) by Friday’s Roast Beef House.

The renovation is outstanding, done with elegance and deference. What hasn’t been remade, happily, is the comfort of the Beckta dining rooms, staffed by those who understand the art of running a welcoming restaurant.

When Stephen Beckta opened his first restaurant in 2003, it was notable for many things, good food and wine chief among them. But it also injected in our emerging restaurant scene a different way of doing the right thing. It delivered service that was as polished and professional as you’d find at any temple of haute French dining, but friendly and unpretentious.

That hasn’t changed. What is a bit different is the menu.

Sablefish. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Sablefish on roasted spaghetti squash and shaved cauliflower. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

In the two dining rooms at the front of The Grant House, there are now two options for dinner: a mix-and-match, five-course tasting menu and a three-course prix-fixe. (If you want a more casual approach, you head to the blue and brick wine bar at the back, which has its own vibe and menu.)

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DESBRISAY DINES: Meat in the Middle

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.

Meat in the Middle's smoked meat on rye with potato salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Meat in the Middle’s smoked meat on rye with potato salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

If you like your smoked meat piled high and served neat with ball park mustard on soft light rye, you shouldn’t look past item number one on the blackboard menu. If you like your potato salad not at all like Mom made it (that is, better), you’ll want to try Meat in the Middle’s skin-on red spuds rolling around in a great aioli with a gremolata topper. Put them together and you have quite a meal for $12.50. You can even wash it down with a Beau’s Lug Tread poured on tap.

But I was really taken with the slightly more complicated smoked pork sandwich. Thickish slabs of warm, fragrant, roast pork tucked into a ciabatta bun with a pile of arugula and superior lubricants — grainy honey mustard and more of that good aioli. I’d get rid of the wan January tomatoes in the wheatberry-kale-feta salad, and would love to eat it at room temperature, but these are minor moans.

Meat in the Middle pork sandwich with wheat berry salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Meat in the Middle pork sandwich with wheat berry salad. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Meat in the Middle. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Meat in the Middle. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Meat in the Middle moved in when a Quiznos on Bank moved out. The principals — chefs Jeremy McDonald and Bruce Robitaille — clearly take the brining, spicing, smoking, and roasting of meat seriously, and the proof is between sliced bread. Plus, there are veggie options that don’t feel like an afterthought.

Sandwiches, $7.95 to $9.50. 

Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

311 Bank St., 613-422-6328

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DESBRISAY DINES: Navarra Tasting Menus

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.

Navarra Octopus. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Navarra Octopus. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

In the past Navarra’s tapas menus sometimes confused me: $9 olives next to $24 ‘Macaroni Carbonara’; $22 ‘Rioja Potatoes’ and $29 for a bigger portion of beef tartare. Granted, it was all pretty delicious stuff, but what to order, how much to order, and the unpredictable size of the final bill all made me nervous.

So may I just say how totally delighted I am about Navarra’s decision to ditch its small plates menu in favour of a tasting menu. Two menus, in fact. One is more Mexican, the other Spanish leaning. One is four course, the other five. Snacking at Navarra’s bar is still an option if you can’t commit to the whole enchilada. But I think you should commit.

Rene Rodriguez’ food has always been avant-garde, sophisticated and technique driven. It deserves the choreography a tasting menu offers. It allows for a parade of plates that have links, a meal that has an arc to it, that explores flavour and texture, and has a logical beginning, a few middles and an end.

That’s how tasting menus ought to work. The worst make you feel like the prisoner of a misunderstood genius who delivers plate after plate of exhaustingly show-offy dishes, more about the chef’s pleasure than yours.

This didn’t feel like that.

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DESBRISAY DINES: The Canadian Culinary Championships Edition

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.

Garland and Currier Introduced at the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Garland and Currier Introduced at the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Eleven Canadian chefs from eleven Canadian cities converged in Kelowna, BC this past weekend and cooked their hearts out. Ottawa’s competitor, Patrick Garland of Absinthe Cafe didn’t end up on the podium, but he and his team should be incredibly proud of their performance.

Battling it out, from east coast to west, were Mark McCrowe (St John’s), Renée Lavalée (Halifax), Antonio Park (Montreal), Patrick Garland (Ottawa), John Horne (Toronto) Luc Jean (Winnipeg), Chris Hill (Saskatoon), Milton Rebello (Regina), Dave Bohati (Calgary), Ryan O’Flynn (Edmonton), and Kristian Eligh (Vancouver) — each were winners in their respective citys at the regional Gold Medal Plates culinary cookoffs.

The national competition began on Thursday night with the presentation of a mystery wine and an envelope of cash. Each chef was given $600 with which to purchase ingredients from Kelowna shops to create roughly 500 small plates for the Friday night crowd and a further thirteen for the judges. So a bit under a buck twenty per person.

Pat Garland of Absinthe Cafe made  2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pat Garland of Absinthe Cafe made an Irish stew with rich jus that incorporated the mystery wine for the first event of the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

We ate quite a few beets, which happened to go very well with the mystery wine. It turned out to be the 2012 Pinotage from Stoneboat Vineyards (Okanagan Valley, BC). The winning chef ended up using beetroot six ways on his plate. One chef gave us a beet and barley salad. Two chefs found blueberry notes, others smoke, and created plates with those flavour elements.

The Absinthe team — who figured out the wine, clever them — chose to make an Irish stew, braising lamb shank with warming spices (clove, cinnamon) and spooning the soft meat on a peppery rosemary-scented biscuit. The rich jus on the plate was a reduction of the wine, with the added campfire flavour of smoked hock. Tucked beneath the biscuit and meat, a refreshing  salad of snap peas, tarragon, and slivered fennel — a welcome belt of crunchy green. A perfect parmesan tuile lent the salty, rich umami the wine demanded.

Saturday morning, a bus load of bright-eyed chefs, sous chefs, and knife kits headed to Okanagan College kitchens for the Black Box competition. In past years, the six items found in the BB were all used to fashion two dishes. This year, the box was bigger. In it were ten ingredients, of which the chef was invited to choose any six, and make one plate for each judge.

The Black Box at the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The Black Box at the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 

What was in the box? Yams, fresh ricotta cheese, a bag of lavender, turnips, Golden quinoa, BC hazelnuts, seabuckthorn berries, Okanagan apples, a whole Muscovy duck, and two lobsters.

This was the year of pickled things on plates — the charcuterie craze, you know — and though one chef made pasta, another a soup, we had a lobster salad, and a couple played with surf and turf, most chefs handed us plate after plate of seared duck breast and puréed yam.

Garland was chef number eight to lift the lid on the Black Box. He worked with Absinthe sous chef Mark Currier, choosing the duck breast, turnip, ricotta cheese, apples, hazelnuts and those brilliant orange seabuckthorn berries with which he fashioned a gorgeous gastrique. He made a purée with the turnip and ricotta — into which he folded the (chopped, toasted) hazelnuts. His duck breast was seared, served very rare, and scented warmly with star anise, fennel, and cinnamon. Next to the duck, a perky, colourful slaw with beets, carrots, turnip, and apples. The final element on the plate was a very successful hazelnut brittle, lightly sweet and scented with rosemary.

Garland's Black Box plate. 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Garland’s Black Box plate. 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

 

Last night, at the finale, all chefs recreated the winning dish that had earned them a berth at the CCC, paired with the same wine. For Pat Garland that meant the Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Gewürztraminer (Vinemount Ridge, ON) with his quail two ways — the breast stuffed with foie, the thigh beneath, braised and aromatic, then lightly panko-ed, served with grapes (“lovingly peeled”). There were frittered rings of shallot and chewy cinnamon cap mushrooms on the plate, and wobbly jellied cubes of the wine (Garland told the judges he’d put “an ungodly amount of Gewürztraminer in the dish”) and in the reduction jus. It was a delicious plate of food and a great match with the wine — the saltiness of the fritter and panko crust tackling some of the sweetness in the Gewurzt.

 2015 Canadian Culinary Championships winner  Chef O'Flynn. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

2015 Canadian Culinary Championships winner Chef O’Flynn. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

At the end of it all, three chefs stood on the podium. Taking bronze, chef Kristian Eligh from Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver. The silver went to Montreal chef Antonio Park (Park Restaurant) and our 2015 Canadian Culinary Champion is Ryan O’Flynn, from The Westin Edmonton. (First time since Winnipeg’s Makoto Ono, who won the first CCC in 2006, that the prairies have been at the top of the podium.)

Congratulations to all the chefs. The cooking this year was highly accomplished. And I ate it all with great pleasure. Salads and green tea for me this week.