Dinner Debriefing: Sous Sol

Sous Sol is tucked away in a basement in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village. There’s barely a sign. I’d say you have to be hip to eat there, but then I’d have to explain how I snuck in.

The menu is small, and changes often, so I don’t know how long that link will work. The ambiance is candlelit. The art is consciously trashy, which pairs well with the dim light. The chinaware is ornate, but mismatched, as if it were bought at yard sales. The food is divine.

Caroline and I joined our friend Donna, our Winnipeg guide to out-of-the-way bistros.

I started with the French cheese selection: a sharp goat cheese, an unpasteurized Trappist and a bleu, with an apricot compote, a tomato coulis and crostini. I let the ladies eat the bleu in exchange for a sample of the Fennel Salad they shared.

Caroline had the pork tenderloin, paired with the mushroom ragout. The pork was perfect. I chose the beef noisette with king oyster mushrooms and Calvados barbecue sauce. I also teamed it with the mushroom ragout. Donna had the crab croquettes with remoulade, poached egg and caviar. Technically, that’s a side dish, but it was as generous as the entrees. She got an order of sweet potato gnocchi for sharing. Everything was excellent.

Donna ordered the wine, the Chateau de Gaudou Malbec Merlot. It was too dark to see the colour, and I draw the line at turning on my smartphone’s flashlight to check it out when other people are trying to enjoy a meal. It tasted rich and dark, and we enjoyed it.

Caroline and Donna shared the last slice of a chocolate cheesecake, but I don’t remember the details.

Would I go back? Yes, definitely. In fact, this was our second visit.

 

 

Dinner Debriefing: Inferno’s on Academy

We were in Winnipeg for the weekend: I was going to KeyCon, a convention with writerly stuff, and Caroline was planning to go plant shopping. We hooked up for dinner each day.

Inferno’s in St. Boniface is one of our favourite Winnipeg restaurants, but with our hotel near the airport, and my convention downtown, there wasn’t time to venture so far. Inferno’s on Academy offers a similar menu, with much less driving, making it possible for us to eat, drop Caroline off back at the hotel, and still get me downtown in time for the opening ceremonies at 7:00.

We went at around 5:00, so there was no need to worry about noise or a busy kitchen. The food was tasty: we had wonderful calamari, and I sipped a Bulldog beer, while Caroline had a glass of house Chardonnay. We made it a seafood theme, Caroline chose mussels and frites, I went with the arctic char with gruyere. Both were good, and Caroline got her frites extra crispy, as she asked.

Highlight of the evening was Caroline’s dessert, a chocolate fantasy that swept her away.

I don’t do ratings, I only say whether I would return. Yes I would. I still prefer the original Inferno’s Bistro location, because I like the ambiance a little more, and find the servers more knowledgeable and a smidge more attentive. But if I was in the neighbourhood, I’d happily go to Inferno’s on Academy again.

 

 

Eating in Ottawa

I spent a lovely weekend in Ottawa, attending a convention called Can*Con. This post is not about the convention. These are not the words you are looking for. This post is for my foodie friends.

There are a lot of nice places to eat in Canada’s capital. We stayed at the Novotel, across from the Rideau Mall and two blocks from Byward Market, which gave us a lot of options right by our front door. We’re also keen walkers, and we consider anyplace we can reach on foot in half an hour to be within range. That includes all of Elgin Street and most of Bank Street short of the Glebe.

Before I start in, I should explain that my doctors have urged me to eat more sensibly than in the past, and I have listened. I have grown accustomed to it, and it influences what I order and even what I enjoy. You’ll see an example or two below. I try to avoid sugar, salt and saturated fat. I’m also bordering on allergic to some hot peppers. They make my palate swell and itch, and I am told this is a warning that an anaphylactic reaction is a future possibility if I push my luck. What kind of foodie does all that make me? A reasonably healthy one. But I totally understand if you’d order differently!

Friday night we had a couple of hours before I had to put in an evening appearance at the convention; enough time to have an unhurried meal if we ate near the hotel. We picked Play. This is a tapas restaurant on the other side of the market, an easy walk. Without a reservation on a Friday night, you’d likely be out of luck, but because of my schedule we were eating unfashionably early, and while they were out of tables, they still had seats at the counter by the kitchen. That added a fascinating dimension all in itself. Because they are so close to the customers, the chef never raises his voice, even when the same mistake is repeated. Example: there was a diner downstairs who could not have onions. His first dish came back because it had shallots on it, and his server caught sight of chives on a later plate for the same customer. There was no shouting. Caroline is in the restaurant trade, so trust me when I say a kitchen this tranquil is unusual. Or read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

We had the duck tostadas, the rainbow trout with prosciutto, the gnocchi with mushrooms, the spatzle with duck sausage and saskatoons, and the hangar steak with mushrooms and frites. If you use the link above to visit the restaurant’s website, you can scope out more details than I’ve provided here. You’ll also see a warning that things change in subtle ways from day to day- the menu is not carved in stone. Everything was delicious, rising above the description to be harmonious and complimentary. A delightful meal, even in little and unexpected ways, such as the excellent bread and butter. Don’t laugh. The whole-grain sourdough made a terrific first impression and it let me know that this restaurant cares about the details. Caroline’s favourite was the duck sausage with Saskatoon berries. If you haven’t had Saskatoons, seek them out; they do for Canadian cuisine what Marion berries do in Oregon or Washington. Speaking of the west coast, I am a big believer in the wines from that area, while the sommelier for Play favours French and Italian wines, with a few regional wines from the Niagara Peninsula. So not many old friends on the wine list, but a nice selection. We’d eat again at Play in a heartbeat.

Saturday morning we felt like a walk, so we strolled over to Elgin and ate breakfast at the Elgin Street Diner. This is a vibrant and popular all-night eatery, with a big selection of breakfasts. I think it’s been featured on You Gotta Eat Here. We’ve eaten there before, so you know we like the place. Then again, Caroline isn’t a big fan of their hash browns, which go in a mashed potato kind of direction. We enjoyed our meal, but decided to try new places on our other days in town.

Saturday night I only had a short gap in my convention schedule, so we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. Before you cheerfully take that for granted, I should explain that we do not routinely eat in the hotels we stay at. We try to go where the great food is, not eat where we are. At the Novotel in Ottawa, dining is in the Albion Rooms. It exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. My tuna on lemon risotto was amazingly good. Not that there was anything wrong with Caroline’s charcuterie selection, but she totally had plate envy. I had to make it a quick meal, but it was a delicious one. The wine list is not especially lengthy, but it offers a wide-ranging selection, so there should be something agreeable to everyone. We had the Flat Rock Chardonnay, from Niagara. Quite nice.

Sunday I had more time. We started with a longer walk, heading over to Bank Street and almost as far as the Glebe to eat breakfast at Wilf and Ada’s. (This link is to their Facebook page.) I know this place has been on You Gotta Eat Here because a regular customer waiting to get in told us so. We had heard it was busy, so we arrived a minute before they opened, and it did fill up while we were there. We soon found out why. Like Play, Wilf and Ada’s uses locally sourced food, and you can taste the difference: farm sausage, free-range eggs, and even peanut butter they make themselves. Caroline splurged and ordered the weekend special, which was French toast made with walnut bread, and served with coconut, bananas and banana cream (okay, the bananas may not have been locally grown, but the banana cream was made from scratch) and a little maple syrup. That breakfast single-handedly raised the bar on French toast to a level that franchise restaurants cannot even see. My sausages and eggs were tasty, too, with a subtle spiciness to the sausages. Yes, sausages are a treat food for me. I don’t eat them at home, but I’m glad I made an exception for these, because they were, well, exceptional.

A short anecdote: somehow I snagged my finger on my coffee cup and didn’t just knock over my mug, I practically hurled it across the table on its side, aiming the whole cupful directly at Caroline and her white Capri pants. The only pair of pants she had brought, she packed mostly dresses. The weather was supposed to be warm, but it wasn’t. She needed those pants. She’s pretty agile. She leapt out of the way, and didn’t get one drop of coffee on her. The staff was very good about it. They cleaned our table and the floor and even allowed me to have more coffee.

By now, you may have noticed I don’t use a rating system. But I do say whether I’d eat there again or not, which sums up how I feel about a restaurant quite well. We made immediate plans to return to Wilf and Ada’s.

On Sunday night, we debated whether to return to an old favourite, The Buzz, or try someplace new. The Buzz was closed, although they do open on Sundays in the winter. So that settled it. We decided to try Absinthe. This is a nice little cafe with some of the same vibe as The Buzz. It would be about an hour’s walk, so we cheated and took a cab. There were lots of interesting things on the menu, but what caught my eye right away was the night’s special. A salad of mixed greens with warm goat cheese sounded like an old friend, and beef Stroganoff is a favourite that I tend to order whenever I encounter it. Caroline liked the sound of that salad too, but paired it with the locally sourced duck breast. Okay, now comes the tricky part. Remember how I said I avoid salt? It’s been a couple of years now, I’ve got comfortable with a low salt diet, and I’ve become quite sensitive to salty food. But I never had a salty salad before, so I was caught off guard. The goat cheese, which was coated in panko, was very salty, to the point where I didn’t like it, and it immediately made me thirsty. Caroline thought hers was too salty, too, and she’s more flexible about it. Oh, well. The rest of our meal was fine. Caroline got a delicious reminder that duck can be best when you don’t let medium rare sneak towards medium, and my Stroganoff came on hand-made pappardelle with chanterelles. We enjoyed a Niagara Pinot Noir, but the restaurant’s website does not include the winelist, and I cannot remember exactly what it was. Caroline ordered the desert selection, and all four items were beautifully done. She ate two, and we took the other two home in a box. Would we eat there again? Yes, if we were in the neighbourhood. I believe Absinthe deserves another chance; the salty salad may have been an accident, or a characteristic of a goat cheese that just wasn’t to my taste. Would we spend the money to take a taxi both ways? I have to admit we have no plans to do that.

Monday. We had an afternoon flight, so we had ample time for a leisurely breakfast. We went straight back to Wilf and Ada’s. (This link is to their menu.) They let me have coffee, even though they remembered me. I was feeling a little guilty about my weekend’s eating straying too far towards saturated fats, so they were kind enough to customize their blackstone breakfast for me. They don’t usually make their variation on eggs Benedict with back bacon, preferring a local sourced side bacon. They found me some delicate ham instead. I admit that avoiding bacon fat while eating Bearnaise made with butter is hypocritical. I try, but sometimes I compromise. Wilf and Ada’s was a lovely way to say farewell to Ottawa.

So imagine my surprise when I got a really good burger at the airport! Thank-you, Byward Taps, for a great send-off.

 

 

 

Road Trip Wrap-Up

The last days of our trip were hectic, and I didn’t get a chance to write about them.

In Kelowna for one night, we didn’t have time to do anything fancy about dining out. We walked to Cactus Club Cafe. I don’t usually write up chain restaurants, because we’re more into finding the unusual or at least the individual. However, I will say that after visiting the franchise wasteland that is Federal Way, Washington, the restaurant scene in Kelowna was a breath of fresh air, even in the mass-market vicinity of the airport. The Cactus Club was comfortable and the food was quite good. The ceviche was nice; refreshing and delicate. I made one last attempt to have salmon on this trip, but they had just run out. I had the Ahi Tuna Club instead, and enjoyed it even though I ordered it without bacon. Caroline ordered the fish tacos. They were large, and she could only eat one. For wine we ordered something called Feenie Goes Haywire. It’s an odd blend of white grapes conceived by the company chef, but quite enjoyable.

Tuesday we slept in a bit, and the hotel’s breakfast buffet was packed. We drove to Cora’s, because you can get fresh fruit there, and we were craving.

Went for a walk, packed up and drove to the airport for our afternoon departure to Winnipeg. Car return was a snap. Check-in was fine. Once again, my suitcase weighed exactly fifty pounds. Robert J. Sawyer, this is your fault: I must not buy hardcovers for you to autograph when I have to fly. If I hadn’t ditched some toiletries, I’d have been paying an overweight baggage premium because of Quantum Night.

Security was lined up, and I managed to get myself singled out for an X-ray. They spotted something at my right hip, which was a loonie I had overlooked when emptying my pockets, and something in my left armpit area. I believe that was my stents. They don’t show on a metal scan, because titanium is not a ferrous metal. An X-ray, however, could detect them. Total Recall, anyone?

Airport food. Num. Boarding began early, but went on and on. I suspect some of the last to arrive were delayed by the long lines at security.

Jonathan was waiting for us in Winnipeg, so that was easy. He and Caroline went for pizza after dropping me off at my critique group for the monthly meeting. Yay, no late-night drive or work the next morning!

Drove to Kenora Wednesday, arriving home shortly after noon.

I’m going to sneak in one more book recommendation here. I mentioned Arabella of Mars the other day, and I actually read the whole thing while we were in Portland, which is home to the author, David D. Levine. He, however, was off at WorldCon, signing autographs and receiving much love for his book. I thoroughly enjoyed this Young Adult Spec Fic tale that mashes up Age of Sail, Clockwork, and Martians. You might want to check it out.

I’ll be back to work next week, and then next month we’ll be taking a long weekend to visit Ottawa for Can*Con 2016. I’ll be moderating a panel about exciting new books in different sub-genres, and I should be on the schedule for a reading, too. With the release of Avians less than a year away, I’ll be on the hunt for book reviewers that lean towards YA and SF.

 

Drive: Portland

No need to travel today, so we took a scenic drive and visited a winery we know.

Plan A was to visit Multnomah Falls, but the signs were not auspicious. The digital signs on the interstate, that is. They were advising the overflow parking lot and shuttle at 11:00 this morning. Weekend, hot, holiday.

When we dithered over the time required to shuttle both ways with half-hour waits, a helpful park staffer recommended taking the old Columbia River Highway and visiting some of the other, less popular waterfalls. We did. It was lovely.

20160820_122528

We caught up to bumper to bumper traffic at the Multnomah Falls area. Cars were parked all over the shoulder, and police were towing those that infringed on the white line at the side of the road. There were lots of these, as the shoulders are narrow, rocky and steeply sloped. We ate sandwiches in the traffic jam while we waited for the tow-truck to haul one off.

Then up the Columbia River to to cross the toll-bridge at Hood River, to pay a quick but pleasant visit to the Jacob Williams winery. For a change, we came back towards Portland on the Washington side of the river, and crossed back at Bridge of the Gods. Love the name.

Returned for a second dinner at Bistro 23. We perplexed the staff by eating on the patio despite the heat. At least we didn’t have to worry about the pizza getting cold.

Tomorrow, back to Seattle.

Dinner Debriefing: Subterra

We decided to make a side-trip to an old favourite for dinner. Subterra is in Newberg, almost an hour away from our hotel near the Portland airport. We ate there some years ago and liked it.

It’s still good: you get fancy food at very reasonable prices. The restaurant is in a lower level; you could call it a cellar or a basement. You aren’t paying for the view, and it felt naturally cool.

Soup and salad are included, and there were two soups on offer. We hedged our bets by choosing different ones. Caroline thought the chilled tomato basil gazpacho might be acidic, so she ordered the black bean soup, and I took the tomato. It was very refreshing, and not acid at all. We traded soups half-way through; you can dress us up, but you can’t take us anywhere. We both liked the salad.

We were in the mood for seafood, so we ordered the potato-scaled halibut (Caroline) and the scallops (Tim). We’re red wine with turkey people, but for fish we like a big white. We chose the L’Ecole 41 Chardonnay. It’s not the kind of wine I’d usually put in an icer, but there’s a heat wave, so we did. Both dishes were tasty and interesting. My scallops came with a crab-stuffed tomato and risotto. Caroline immediately began reverse engineering the halibut’s thin shell of crispy potato slices. Her pinot infused mashed potatoes were a surprising dark colour, but a delicious change from the usual.

Caroline ordered a trifle: fresh local blueberries and strawberries, cream and a little layer of delicate cake. I helped her finish it.

The only negative was the coffee. Dreaming of the dark roast I got in Hope, BC, I ordered a large French Press to finish the meal. I found it weak, watery and uninteresting, and I only drank one mouthful.

Bill was very reasonable, in the same range as a nice lunch. The restaurant prides itself on the wait staff and the service lived up to that expectation. The food was sublime. Last time we were here, we said we’d go back. We did, and we’d go back again. That’s my highest praise.

Dinner Debriefing: Bistro 23

Our plans to wine and dine in the vibrant restaurant scene of Portland hit a road block. Our hotel is near the airport, and getting downtown takes more time or money than we expected. By train, it’s around forty minutes, and the trains are running slowly now because of the heat. (warping rails?) A taxi will set you back $40 each way. Driving is fraught with one-way streets and scant parking.

We decided to look for a nice place to eat near our hotel. It’s not easy to find good restaurants in the outlying areas, but we’ve managed it before. Hay J’s is hidden in an unassuming strip mall in Liberty Lake. Broken Plate is in a prettier strip mall in Calgary.

We succeeded. Bistro 23 is a fifteen minute walk from our hotel and yes, it’s in a strip mall. I had some qualms about that distance because of the heat, but we were able to walk on the shady side of the street. We navigate using Google Maps on one of  our smart phones, and I’m sure we look like we’re Pokémon hunting. We strolled right past Leatherman’s headquarters; I felt like I should make an offering or something.

Bistro 23 combines bistro cuisine with cafeteria service. You order at the till and prepay. We sat on the patio, and they brought the food to us. Bonus points for heavy three-legged tables that do not wobble. Patio restaurants everywhere, take notice!

20160818_192901

In the foreground, my caprese salad with burrata and two kinds of tomatoes. Nice. Pig in the Woods pizza at the right, thin crust with ham, mushrooms and fresh arugula. Very good. Caroline’s peach salad across the table. Amazing.

The restaurant offers a handful of local craft beers and a modest selection of wines by the glass or bottle. I had a lager, Caroline a Pinot Gris with salad and a Cabernet/Merlot with pizza.

If you want more drinks, you run back inside, which is why Caroline is not in this photo. That sounds inconvenient, but it also means you don’t have to try and catch a server’s eye. They ask you to clear your own table. Since you’ve prepaid, you can just do that and leave when you’re done: I quite liked that. We’ll do a fancy dinner tomorrow somehow, and then we’ll be back at Bistro 23 on Saturday. Affordable.