DesBrisay Dines

DESBRISAY DINES: Wandee Thai

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 Wandee Thai queue snakes along the woody side of the open kitchen and out the door on this mid-week noon hour. The sleet has let up, so that’s nice for the hungry hopefuls.

We have done two clever things: chosen to eat in and showed up at 11:30. Other than a table of construction workers (pad Thai and Cokes for all!) we have our choice of the five tables. There’s space for about a dozen to dine in, on benches and chairs, but given there is no table service, water is only available in plastic bottles, food arrives in take-away containers, and the only tea served is in a cold can from the beverage fridge, it’s pretty clear Wandee works better for take away.

What’s also clear, once we start tucking in, is that the food is very fresh, very good, and generously served. The queue is more understandable.

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Thai rice paper rolls. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Wandee moved in here back in late March, taking over the former location of the (short-lived) Beechbone Luncheonette (the fried-fish-in-a-bun, sandwich/burger shop run by The Whalesbone/Elmdale Oyster House folk.)

We over-order, as we do everywhere, and we like it all, as we rarely do anywhere: The freshly rolled, generously stuffed rice paper wraps with a peanut sauce of some depth; a first rate Pad Kee Mau, or ‘drunken noodles,’ which knocks any pad Thai out of the park; a garlicky stir fry of vegetables — lots of them — and firm tofu in a slightly sweet (but not too much) lightly fired up sauce. We like the snappy long beans and eggplant in the green curry but it’s probably the least memorable dish.

Pad kee mau or 'drunken noodles'. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Pad kee mau or ‘drunken noodles’. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The queue seems a bit chaotic from my vantage. The three women in the kitchen are juggling many demands. There is an option to pre-order for pick up, and this may be the way to go — particularly if April keeps raining ice pellets.

Welcome Wandee! Let’s hope she does well in a space that seems to suffer a bit from its tucked away location.

Lunch mains $8.50 to $8.75, combos $13.95

Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Delivery hours ($2 charge, waived if over $50) Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

40 Beech St., 613-237-1641

www.wandeethai.com

 

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Treats at Taqueria Kukulkan

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.

 Taqueria Kukulkan Churros. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Taqueria Kukulkan Churros. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Churros are as good as they are bad for you. And I’ve found some good ones at Taqueria Kulkulakan on Montreal Road.

Churros are Mexican/Spanish-style donuts, long, tubular, and ridged, deep fried and sugar dusted, typically served with a sauce of some sort. They are as ubiquitous to a Latino sweet at the end of the meal as creme brûlée is to a French meal.

They are also a good test of a Mexican kitchen’s prowess. I’ve had gorgeous looking churros that crunched right, only to reveal oozy dough in the centre. I’ve had tough churros, cakey churros, limp churros, soggy churros, and ones where the ratio of dough to sauce was off — some deluged, others thirsting for more. But a great churro with a great sauce is a rare treat, one found at the new Mexican restaurant Taqueria Kulkulkan.

You can have them with the ubiquitous chocolate sauce, or drizzled with the more interesting capeta, a Mexican caramel made with goat milk. If I had a complaint it would be for more of that. A pot of it, in fact, for dunking.

There’s much more to this new restaurant than churros, and I intend to return. But I started with dessert, this visit, and will work backwards soon enough.

1730 Montreal Rd., 613-680-5055

 

DESBRISAY DINES: Lunch at Quan Viet Fusion

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.

Quan Viet Fusion's House made sausage. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Quan Viet Fusion’s House made sausage. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

I quite liked ThaiPas, the restaurant/lounge/nightclub that used to call this address home. But I quite like its replacement, Quan Viet Fusion, too. Still with a clubby vibe about it — dark walls, dark tables, matching wooden benches and stools, a pink-lit bar, racy red bar chairs — though the ‘tapas’ formula of Thaipas has been replaced with an appetizer heavy, grazing-friendly, pan-Asian menu. More Vietnamese dishes, on balance, but the menu also delivers popular Chinese (salt and pepper squid), Japanese (sushi, sashimi, teriyaki salmon), Korean (bulgogi), and Thai (pad Thai) plates as well.

Salt and pepper shrimp from Quan Viet Fusion. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Salt and pepper shrimp from Quan Viet Fusion. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

Lunch was a filling pleasure and something of a bargain (at $12) given the shareable quantity of food. We ordered the Quan Viet Special — pho and rice rolls — and though the rare beef wasn’t rare, it was very tender and heavily scented with ginger. The pale broth tasted clean and meaty, perfumed with cinnamon and star anise. Rice noodles were firm. A plate of the usual stuff — bean sprouts, basil, lime wedges, bird’s eye chilis — added bulk and options. All lunch specials at Quan Viet Fusion are packaged with a choice of fryer spring rolls or fresh rice rolls, both impressive.

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DESBRISAY DINES: Pizza at Les Fougeres

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

Duck confit pizza with spinach, goat’s cheese, pear, thyme, and orange zest. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

I found myself in Chelsea last week, in search of white snow. Weary of the melting March mounds, crusted black and coughing up doggy detritus, I needed a reminder of how stunning early spring can be.

I found it at Les Fougeres, at a table overlooking the garden and woods beyond, the village of active bird feeders, and the snow maiden, with her mop head and lemon eyes, remarkably robust for late March. A groundhog loped by.

White snow at Les Fougeres. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

The snow maiden at Les Fougeres. Photo by Anne DesBrisay

And crouched over a smoker, a chef who wasn’t Charles Part. But someone I knew I knew, from somewhere. Turns out it was Lucas Hornblower — he of the fabulous name! — whose food I so enjoyed at (the late) Bistro St-Jacques, now part of the Part team in Chelsea.  

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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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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

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