ANNE’S PICKS: Kothu Rotti

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.

Kothu Rotti. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Kothu Rotti. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

There are a few stools for perching at a counter, and one small round table, but most people use Kothu Rotti — probably with good reason — for take away or delivery. I’ve passed this one-year-old Dalhousie Street hole-in-the-wall many times, but this was the first time I noticed Kothu Rotti’s subtitle: ‘by Ceylonta Restaurant.’

We all know Ceylonta. It’s the long-serving Sri Lankan restaurant on Somerset West (with a second location in a little yellow house on Carling Avenue) that serves affordable, flavourful south Indian food and proffers a popular lunch buffet.

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ANNE’S PICK: More of a plea (buzz off!)

By ANNE DESBRISAY

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“And how are our first bites this evening?” Just 30 seconds ago, our server had dropped two plates in front of us.

“Fine, thank you.”

We carry on our conversation.

Three minutes later, she’s back. “Does everything continue to be to your liking?”

Yes, “Thank you,” we say through gritted teeth.

“Excellent. I’ll tell the kitchen.” And off she goes.

Delivered shortly after the next course, my favourite line yet: “And how are our flavours suiting your palate?”— I kid you not. That’s what she said.

It took remarkable restraint not to shoot back: “Actually, dearie, the first bites, the fourth bites, and the eleventh bites are all fair to middling, if you truly want to hear it, though you may read all about it in next week’s column. But if my soup happens to be stone cold or the salad studded with earwigs, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, kindly LEAVE US ALONE.”

When did these maddening quality check rounds become de rigueur in restaurants?

You would think the constant querying smacks of gross insecurity. (Do you like me? And what about now… Do you like me still?) And while service style in modern restaurants tends to be approachable, casual, personal — none of which I have a problem with, nor do I have a problem with a server describing my dish, or asking if there’s anything else I might require before leaving me to tuck in — this constant servility seems faux. More self-seeking than genuine.

Except, may I tell you, at Le Baccara. There, at fine dining room of the Lac Leamy Casino, the disruptive bob-ins were noticeably absent, and the lack of them noted and appreciated.

I would suggest a server at Le Baccara wouldn’t think (a) to interrupt a conversation and an appreciation of the dish, and (b) that the plate that’s just been created and assembled for me would be anything other than marvellous. You might find that arrogant. I think it’s more likely confidence from the kitchen, which in turn generates confidence from the eater.

My Baccara server and server’s assistant dropped by my table many times, quietly pouring wine, refilling water, noticing the house churned butter had been gobbled up and delivering, without a word, another round. I was not left alone. And I could have —  should I have felt the need — voiced a concern. (I didn’t. There were none.)  But at a recent five-course menu degustation, I was not asked, not even once, how were my first bites. And yet the service was attentive and polished, thoughtful and kind.

Which begs the question: when did we start training servers to be so much a part of our meal? Can we please be rid of the constant lickspittle quality assurance check ups?

How’s my meal?

We’ll let you know… buzz off.

ANNE’S PICKS: Gianduja at A Thing for Chocolate

By ANNE DESBRISAY

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Chocolate-hazelnut spread, otherwise known as gianduja , is made from scratch at A Thing for Chocolate. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Chocolate is having its day. Dark is best, and pure is super-best and a square (or three) of the dark pure stuff every day means you’ll live long and prosper. Or at least you’ll live what you’ll live but you’ll live it much happier.

There’s a new — to me — chocolate shop on Wellington West. I popped in to A Thing for Chocolate (such a clever name) for breakfast the other day. Had the bacon and egg made-to-order crepe, which was really very nice, though I’d have preferred it be served with fruit than greens (drizzled with what tasted like bottled balsamic), it being morning and all. But what really turned my crank was the stuff on the end of the spoon I was handed.

“Try this,” the charmer holding the handle said. The first taste was of rich, clean, creamy chocolate. And then the hazelnut hit me and my spirits instantly dropped, only to be lifted again once the purity of flavour sank in.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of gianduja. Which does, I agree, make me a bit of a freak, but there you go. I like chocolate. I like hazelnuts, I just don’t like them together. Too many cheap gianduja fillings perhaps, with added sugar and emulsifiers and so forth, are to blame, but man oh man, I liked this stuff — really liked this stuff — which is, I believe, a tribute to its quality. It was so fresh, so pure, and so clean.

Chocolatier Omar Fares uses only quality organic hazelnuts and toasts them until they’re golden and fragrant. There’s a bit of cream in there, as well as chocolate and puréed nuts, so don’t forget to keep it in the fridge. Once mixed, the smooth brown goo is jarred with a fetching green rubber ringed lid. So you won’t get lost in the fridge. My jar has a small spoon imbedded in it. To facilitate the quest to live long and prosper.

Gianduja spread, $8.99; breakfast special $6.99

A Thing for Chocolate, 1626 Wellington St. W., 613-695-3533 

 

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ANNE’S PICK: Takeaway from Brampton Meats

Barbecued curried chicken from Brampton Meats. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Barbecued curried chicken from Brampton Meats. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

BY ANNE DESBRISAY

 

It’s called Brampton Meats because the two families that own this new business are recent transplants from the city of Brampton — wooed here by Ottawa friends, I was told, and to escape the glut of competition they felt from the suburban GTA.

I rather stumbled upon this place when gassing up. I was hungry, it was lunchtime, and as I was feeding the tank on the corner of Woodroffe and Meadowlands, I spied a red and white sign that that read Brampton Meats.  A new butcher shop? And then beneath that big sign, a second, smaller announcement that required closer inspection: Authentic Indian Takeout.

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Chicken legs marinating at Brampton Meats. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The takeout I sampled — a vegetarian thali and a ‘non-vegetarian’ thali — though generous, certainly affordable, and with the exception of a fabulous goat curry, turned out to be pretty average. But in the display case were a half dozen trays of marinating chicken legs of various hues. A visual feast. I asked for an explanation and was led through the options.

I chose the darkest two:  Bhatti da murg and the Bengali dish murg (chicken) “chingari.” I took home my legs, let them marinade a few more hours, and then grilled them over low heat on the ‘cue.

The Bhatti birds were robed in a ginger-garlic paste with no shortage of red chilli power, and were fragrant too with cloves, cardamom, coriander seed and with a vinegar tartness. The Chingari was darker, soothed a bit with coconut milk, and tasted as though cinnamon were in the mix of spices. Still, both marinades tasted complex and both had plenty of lip tingling pow.

There were gentler versions — a so-called lemon chicken, say, and something called ‘mild BBQ chicken’ — but we were after authentic heat and flavour and feel we were delivered of both in immensely satisfying fashion.

They fed a family of four and cost $12.33

Brampton Meats, 178 Meadowlands Dr. W., 613-695-9915, bramptonmeats.ca
Open daily from 10 a.m.

ANNE’S PICKS: Ceylonta Buffet offers a variety of flavourful curries

By Anne DesBrisay

Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The Ceylonta lunch buffet features urid dahl cakes, with its coriander-mint chutney, as well as an assortment of curries. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

I’ve eaten quality dinners in this little yellow house with the neon palm tree jutting out of the snow, but had never considered it for lunch. That is, until I played hooky and went to the movies. A matinee. By myself. And for what I figure would have been the price of a small popcorn and a drink  at the food court, I had two heaping plates from the Ceylonta lunch buffet, before waddling down Carling to catch the two o’clock show.

This is the second (newer) location of the long-running Sri Lankan restaurant on Somerset Street West. The downtown location draws the noon office hungries. The west end Ceylonta seems to be busier in the evening. The space is quite pretty: tamarind coloured walls, batik tablecloths, windows framed with floaty panels of silk. There are upstairs rooms for private parties or overflow.

It’s possible you have to have grown up with fried sprats in order to really love them. But they’re loaded with Omega 3s and all that good stuff, so I take a small pile. The tiny fish are crunchy and paddling in an oily brew of cooked-down onion and chilies. I prefer the mildly addictive urid dahl cakes (lentil flour with onion and cilantro, shaped like mini donuts) that come with an immensely likeable coriander-mint chutney. I take a few donuts to dunk in the yummy green and nubbly goo, along with a bowl each of the soups on offer. Small bowls, but I return for a second round of the rasam. Tamarind juice based, with mustard seed, cumin and cardamom, curry leaves and chilies, it’s a clear, fragrant soup studded with tomato and a few soft vegetables, and has just the right bit of bite.

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ANNE’S PICKS: The Real Thing at SuzyQ Donuts

A six-pack of SuzyQ Donuts last, taste-tested and photographed by  Anne DesBrisay.

A six-pack of SuzyQ Donuts last, taste-tested and photographed by Anne DesBrisay.

By Anne DesBrisay

Yes, yes. Much has been written about the temptations of Suzy Q, a bit of it by me. But when my youngest son, with his freshly inked learner’s license, rounded a corner on Carling Avenue and very nearly smashed into the snarl of immobile cars queuing up for a drive thru double double and a chocolate dunker at Tim’s — I saw red. How is it possible people line up for these ‘freshly frozen’ flavourless rings?

The kid then made the mistake of admitting he quite likes Tim’s donuts. It was a learning moment if ever I met one. I made him drive straight to Suzy’s for a taste of the good life.

We picked up a six pack for us, and one for the carpenters at our new home — Tim Horton’s fans all. When we arrived to deliver the treats, the tile guy had beat us to it. The Timmy H boys had turned into Suzy Q fans. It was the maple bacon that clinched it.

Six donuts $10. 

SuzyQ Donuts. 99 Wellington St. W. 613-724-2451.

 

ANNE’S PICKS: Tongue tacos and other treats at El Camino

Matt Carmichael in the kitchen at El Camino. Photo by Miv Fournier.

Matt Carmichael in the kitchen at El Camino. Photo by Miv Fournier.

By Anne DesBrisay

It wasn’t for lack of trying only for lack of patience that I not yet supped at El Camino. The no reservation policy was the issue. I do hate that. But I suppose I get it. I’d just rather sing for my supper than queue for it — especially at thirty below.

Five-thirty may be an unfashionable hour for dinner, but it would seem the best time to snag an El Camino stool, ahead of the crowds clamouring for a seat in this industrial looking basement space.

So 5:30 it was. And by seven we were heading home, past the shivering masses beaming at our decision to vacate two seats. We were full and happy, and prepared to admit that notwithstanding the mild disappointment I feel when a hugely gifted chef turns to churning out tacos, El Camino is a marvellous addition to the Ottawa restaurant scene. And it’s a marvellous addition because an enormously gifted chef is in charge. The formula (heap-big flavourful food, fair prices, quality drinks, good kids on the floor) speaks of experience and confidence. There’s no shortage of nice staff here.

And now the bit I wish I didn’t have to write because it won’t help the queues. This is the best deal in town. After two tacos, I was full. Tacos cost four bucks. Sure, I kept eating, but I wouldn’t have had to had duty not called.

The take-out window at El Camino. Photo by Miv Fournier.

The take-out window at El Camino. Photo by Miv Fournier.

The Man had a pint of Muskoka Mad Tom and I had a wickedly good Margarita roofed with a thin sheet of lime zest and half rimmed with seasoned salt. We shared three kinds of tacos — tongue, lamb, crispy fish — and could have stopped there but didn’t. Shrimp dumplings and a steelhead trout tartare tostada were brilliant, while the salt and pepper squid featured beguilingly tender squid but needed another few seconds in the fryer: the end flavour was of flour.

The tacos were generously filled — the pulled lamb in particular — and though it doesn’t take much genius to build a great taco, these were those: true, clean, harmonious flavours and texture exactly where you want it.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for Carmichael. But this underground taqueria with its clever takeaway counter is a keeper.

El Camino, 380 Elgin Street, 613-422-2800 

Closed Monday, open late.

 

ANNE’S PICKS: Festive beet pasta at The Albion Rooms

Fettucini, stained with beetroots . Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

Fettucini, stained with beetroots, is served with pistachio pesto and other green adornments that also pack a punch in the flavour department. Photo by Anne DesBrisay.

By Anne DesBrisay

Here’s a festive dish. Called “House Pasta” — beetroot stained fettuccine cooked right to firm, clinging to a pistachio pesto, further greened with parsley leaves, blobbed white with chevre, and slick with a pepita and pistachio oil. In addition to looking good, it had a vibrant flavour. The only thing missing was the gold bow.

Merry first Christmas to The Albion Rooms in Ottawa’s Novotel Hotel, and to its team, led in the kitchen by chef Stephen La Salle. Ottawa is the richer for this new place.

House Pasta $15.

The Albion Rooms, 33 Nicholas St., 613-760-4771 

ANNE’S PICKS: Dumplings for dinner

By Anne DesBrisay

Qian Yin Yin of Yen Fung Ding is a dumpling master. If you get the chance to peek in the back you may see her fingers — remarkably long and nimble — working the dough that wraps the fillings of pork and shrimp, pork and chives, chicken and cabbage, vegetable and mushrooms, water chestnuts and Chinese cress. The closest I have ever come to making Asian dumplings is the weekend I spent with Ukrainian friends in Regina “laying down” pierogies. And drinking beer. Yes, we laughed a lot and we filled our freezers and those of a senior’s residence, but I’ll not likely do it again. I wasn’t much good and it seemed so much damn work. But I have a deep appreciation for dumpling makers.

Shrimp and pork dumplings are but one of many kids on offer at Yen Fung Ding Dumpling Shoppe. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Shrimp and pork dumplings are but one of many kinds on offer at Yen Fung Ding Dumpling Shoppe. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Yen Fung Ding Dumpling Shoppe, a family-owned business, is celebrating fifteen years. From its little house on Somerset, it has freezers full of homemade dumplings, pork buns, won ton, and sui mai.  Our Sunday supper was a dumpling feast. I had bought three packages of dumplings from Qian and (roughly) following option two on the package directions — steamed the raw dumplings in a bamboo basket, then fried them in hot oil in a shallow pan. We sat around the table with a sweetened vinegar dip and ate them all.

It cost ten bucks and I didn’t have to do any work. Successful dumplings, in my books.

Yen Fung Ding Dumpling Shoppe, 628 Somerset Street West, 613-233-0660

 

ANNE’S PICK: Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates 2013 is tonight!

By Anne DesBrisay

Roger Andrews, from Relish Restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, chose to stuff squab with chanterelles and pistachios and cook the package sous vide. There were other elements on his competition plate, including a reduction of Labrador tea in his jus. It was a dish that secured the chef — quite handily apparently — a gold medal at the St. John’s Gold Medal Plates late last week.

St. John’s was number nine in the Gold Medal Plates cross country culinary competitions, in support of Canada’s olympic athletes. This makes Andrews the ninth contender who will be moving on to the intense duelling-to-come at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna this February. There he’ll face down regional champs from ten other cities — Vancouver/Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and St John’s, NFLD/Labrador.

Jason Duffy (silver) Jamie Stunt (gold) Jonathan Korecki (bronze). Photo by Greg Kolz.

Jason Duffy (silver) Jamie Stunt (gold) Jonathan Korecki (bronze). Photo by Greg Kolz.

Tonight, we shine the spotlight on our own. This is Ottawa’s night. I expect it will be quite the glittering party at the National Arts Centre — chefs and winemakers, small plates and matching drinks, along with a star studded cast of Olympic athletes, Canadian musicians, enticing prizes, merry auctions. Indeed, the event has been sold out for weeks, and tonight’s the night we wrest the title of Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates Culinary Champion 2012 from Jamie Stunt (formerly of OZ Kafé) who went on to represent us so well at the national level, bringing home a silver medal from Kelowna.  

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