DesBrisay Dines

IN SEASON: Maple syrup, maple taffy, maple sugar…maple perfume?

The maple forest that inspired its own perfume. Photo credit: Jeannette Lambert

Last year’s sugaring-off season was cut short when we had an unseasonably warm spring. This year is another story. If anyone is happy about the lingering cold temperatures into April this year, I imagine it’s our maple syrup producers.

The funny thing is, the longer I live in Ottawa, the more I feel intimately connected to the rhythms of maple syrup season. It’s as if I can smell it in the air when the sap starts to flow.

I have already made my annual pilgrimage to my favourite sugar shack in the area, something that has become a family ritual — booking a table for 20 or more and then inviting an assortment of friends and family from Toronto and Montreal to join our Ottawa caravan to Rigaud, Quebec, to the Sucerie de la Montagne.

This was my fourth visit to Sucerie (I blogged about it last year), and I am happy to say that it is still a thrill. I love the fact that trees are tapped with a spout (instead of tubes) into a pail and the sap is boiled over a wood fired evaporator.

In fact, everything at this Quebec Heritage Site is done in the service of tradition.

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SIGNS OF SPRING: Ataulfo Mangoes — the only mango you need

So long Tommy (the common red and green mangoes). Ataulfos are the best mango — perhaps the best fruit — you'll ever eat

Under the category: you learn something new every day — allow me to share what was, until recently, a mystery to me.

Those large shiny red and green mangos we so commonly see in supermarkets — first of all, they are named Tommy. Who knew? Tommy Atkins to be exact.

Second, it’s thanks to Mr. Atkins that these are the mangoes on our shelves. He was the guy who, back in the 1950s, convinced commercial growers in Florida to take up the production of these attractive mangoes in spite of what appeared to be a widely recognized fact: they don’t taste good. We’re talking bland, tart, and unpleasantly stringy little suckers.

Yet those crappy mangoes keep beckoning us to buy them — I confess, I sometimes fall for it. And not because they are delicious (they are not). But then I just blame myself for not letting it ripen long enough on the counter. Instead they persist, quite literally, because they happen to be durable, disease-resistant, and have what supermarket managers seem to value above all else, a long shelf life. In other words, food industry puppeteers love them. To my knowledge, Tommy became — and remains — the most common mango sold in this country.

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OPENING: Introducing Richard’s Hintonburg Kitchen, poetry in motion

At home in his Kitchen at last, Richard Nigro started feeding the Hintonbourgeois on Saturday

On Saturday, Chef Richard Nigro, one of the founding chefs of Juniper, opened the door to his very own Richard’s Hintonburg Kitchen, a much-anticipated new take-out/home catering shop on Wellington.

I say much-anticipated because Nigro has been drumming up my interest with a series of stream-of-consciousness email updates from the chef detailing the progress and inevitable delays related to City permits, construction, building inspections etc. over the last several months.

During that time, I’ve had a glimpse into the chef’s creative mind, quirky sense of humour, and offbeat approach to business that will no doubt make his kitchen unique to the neighbourhood and the city. In the first email he wrote:

“I feel as if I’m writing from deep in the big empty… Little steps, little steps that together make a leap, a bound and a jump across the finish line… I am hoping that like a snowball at the top of a hill, the renovations will slowly build momentum and speed as the work continues and will rush to a conclusion. “

How many chefs do you know who would describe construction delays in such poetic terms? The next email continued this theme:

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BREAKING NEWS: Art Is In keeps its no-compromise promise. The bakery winds down its wholesale bread division to focus on the expansion of the bakery-café

Never happier than when he's searing foie gras to top a burger for guests at his bakery, Kevin Mathieson plans to continue to indulge his passion for cooking.

When Art Is In Bakery started eight years ago, it was a dream come true for Kevin Mathieson and his wife Stephanie. Their passion for the pleasures of handmade bread, done in small batches with constant care and attention, resulted in a line of breathtaking sourdoughs and savoury Dynamite baguettes that shook the capital out of its sliced-bread complacency.

We’ve never looked back. In fact, many of us (myself included) became European shoppers when it comes to bread: with Art Is In Bakery, we finally had a reason to buy our bread fresh daily (or a least a few times a week).

As anyone who has come to know Kevin Mathieson personally can appreciate, he simply doesn’t compromise. Whether it’s the seasoning in the salad dressing or the sprig of rosemary in the French fries, no detail is too small to overlook. I have always found his dedication to excellence and the pursuit of great food inspiring. He told me recently the same thing he said when he started out eight years ago: nothing is more important to him than the quality of his products.

But here’s the thing about running a wildly popular bakery: Artisanal bread-baking is the work of human hands, not machines. As the company has grown to keep up with the increasing demand for Art Is In breads, it has been a struggle to keep that promise.

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OPENING: Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern, new history in the making (it may even open today!)

Elmdale Oyster House Co-owners Peter McCallum (left) and Joshua Bishop (centre) with Executive Chef Chloe Berlanga

You may have heard that Joshua Bishop the owner of the Whalesbone Oyster House has partnered with his restaurant’s general manager, Peter McCallum, to open the new and much-anticipated Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern. Well, the time has come.

I have been assured the doors will definitely be open by Sunday, but Bishop hinted that they might begin serving sooner — as early as today or tomorrow — without the full menu being available.

Last weekend, they held the Whalesbone staff party in the space, spinning vinyl and slurping oysters among the renovation debris. That night, a who’s-who of the restaurant industry did their very best to help christen the ship and prepare it for launch this week.

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IN DIGESTION: Discovering “Modern Montreal”—highlights from Ottawa Magazine’s Foodlab dinner

Chef Marek plates the black bass dish designed to evoke the lightness of spring

On Saturday night, I hosted a sold-out City Bites Live event at Urban Element that featured celebrated Montreal chefs Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek, the creative due behind Foodlab.

The name Foodlab can be misleading — is it futuristic food? Experimental? Test tube food? On the contrary. It’s revolutionary, even radical, raison d’etre is to be a place driven by a creative mandate, not a financial one — a restaurant built upon the  love of food, a deep respect for ingredients, and food producers, not profit.

If you think about it, pretty much everything we eat has been made with profit in mind. I have often wondered how chefs would cook if they weren’t under the enormous pressure imposed on them by thin profit margins and high-stakes stress of the food business. Foodlab gives us a taste of that.

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YOU’RE INVITED!: Celebrate Young Cuisine with an exclusive Sunday Supper at Table 40 with Ottawa Magazine, March 24

Table 40 is credited with introducing the city to the pleasures of communal dining in Ottawa Magazine's annual 'hot 10' restaurants issue. Photography by Chris Lalonde / Photolux Studio

CITY BITES LIVE presents…

Sunday Family-Style Supper at Fraser Café’s Table 40

Chefs Simon and Ross Fraser have designed a family-style menu exclusively for up to 40 City Bites readers!

Gather up your friends and family and join Ottawa Magazine food editor and City Bites blogger Shawna Wagman for an exclusive 4-course dinner at Table 40, the #3 spot on this year’s HOT-10 LIST of Young Cuisine.

Last year, brothers Simon and Ross Fraser, co-owners of Fraser Café, decided to take over a neighbouring convenience store to create a funky private dining venue  based on the trendy new dining concept was made famous at places like Ruby WatchCo in Toronto and Ad Hoc in California. Table 40 is Ottawa’s foray into the world of casual and convivial “family-style” dining. It’s inspired by the same things that make a great dinner party — great food, casual ambiance, and even a chance to make new friends.

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COFFEE BUZZ: New digs and a new chapter for Happy Goat Coffee Company

Henry Assad (L) and Pierre Richard (R) have partnered to meet the demand for Happy Goat coffee

Coffee connoisseur and a self-proclaimed perfectionist Pierre Richard built Happy Goat Coffee from the ground up (pun intended!!). He began roasting top-quality green coffee beans directly from small farms in very small, fiddly batches in his Mechanicsville garage a few years ago.

Coffee lovers flocked to the quirky address for some of the freshest, crisp and clean, utterly complex cups of coffee around. This is the kind of java that creates a cult following and gets people talking like drunken sommeliers — describing coffee’s floral aromas, hints of jasmine, and bittersweet dark chocolate notes.

Happy Goat devotees (including all three Ottawa Magazine food writers) are bucking the trend in home brewing towards single-serve pod coffee makers by embracing and celebrating the craft brewing experience. In large part, we can thank Richard, who has made our coffee addictions easy to feed; bags of freshly roasted beans are available in good food shops around town as well as offering online shopping with free home delivery and subscriptions.

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SHAWNA’S PICKS: Bread & Son’s Hamantaschen — fruit-filled triangular cookies for Purim — or anytime

Have you ever had a hamantaschen? Here's the one to try: marscapone dough with a boozy blueberry filling.

What? You’ve never had a hamantasch? Don’t worry. Until this week, I would’ve said to consider yourself lucky. Purim’s traditional triangular cookies are not what I’d call one of the Jewish culture’s culinary highlights. They often consist of thick, bland dough and a cloyingly sweet gummy fruit filling. It’s the kind of thing you eat purely out of a sense of childhood nostalgia.

Kids get to dress up in costumes for their annual Purim carnival (what one friend calls Jewish Halloween), all part of the retelling of the Peach story featuring a villain named Haman. Joan Nathan, the authority on Jewish food, says Hamantaschen most likely originated in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, just two or three centuries ago.

This year Purim ended on Sunday evening but, due to popular demand, baker Yoav D’vaja, the owner of Bread & Sons, will continue to make his tasty twist on hamantaschen at the bakery. Jewish or not, it seems everyone who tastes them comes back for more. One bite and I could understand why.

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TASTE TEST: Disenchanted, disillusioned, disappointed… by Hintonburger’s breakfast burger

The hard-boiled egg on the breakfast burger was a big disappointment.

Hintonburger, the neighbourhood joint with a loyal following, recently began serving breakfast on weekdays, starting at 6:30 a.m. I decided to check it out.

When I called to see what was on the menu, the guy on the other end of the phone said they offer a breakfast burger in addition to a breakfast sandwich (essentially a BLT with egg and cheese). He said he also had a couple of crepes left and if I wanted one of the breakfast sandwiches he’d have to start cooking some more eggs.

Huh? Is he joking?

Isn’t this the beloved place with the tagline: “fresh, local and handmade”? Surely, the eggs are made-to-order. And a crepe made at 6 a.m. wouldn’t be served at 10, would it? I told the guy I’d be by in about an hour.

When I arrived, I was the only customer in the place. I ordered the breakfast burger — which the menu describes as a 3 oz beef patty on a bun with egg, real Canadian cheese, local maple-smoked bacon, fresh lettuce, and tomato.

When I took the first bite, I discovered not fried egg, not poached egg, not scrambled, but a few slices of  hard-boiled egg. For me, a fresh handmade breakfast sandwich must be made with a freshly-cracked egg. Cold disks of egg are an insult. Then I noticed the bacon seemed flabby: was it re-warmed? The cheese beneath the burger was barely melted, which made me question the freshness of the patty. Why don’t I smell any food cooking on the grill? Was this made in the basement?

I had asked for a cup of coffee but was deterred by what seemed like reluctance on the employee’s part to brew up a fresh pot. I told him to forget it.

Sitting in a booth inside the empty former KFC, looking out the window at the blowing snow, I began to meditate on this term “fresh,” a word that is a used to describe almost everything we eat: the philosophy of every restaurant, every loaf of bread in its cellophane bag, every slippery slice of luncheon meat at the supermarket. Its meaning is lost. Or at least open to vast interpretation. It has become the container into which we place our desires.

At that point, the guy poked his head through the pick-up window and offered me a free cup of coffee. He held up the pot that had presumably been sitting there since the first wave of customers arrived hours earlier and declared: “it’s still hot!”

I took one sip and tossed the bitter brew — and the burger — in the trash.

Cost: Breakfast Burger, $7.50.

Breakfast hours: Monday to Friday 6:30 a.m. – 11 a.m.

Hintonburger, 1096 Wellington St., 613-724-4676.

 

 

 

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