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.

 

 

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.

 

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: Pimiento

The Pimiento Bistro & Bar is a simple fifteen minute drive from our hotel in Federal Way and it gets good write-ups on Trip Advisor. Once a month, they do a tapas night with a fixed series of apps and a matched wine flight. Tonight was that night, but we ordered from the menu.

We shared an excellent calamari. Tender, and accompanied by some breaded jalapeno rings. Caroline thought it was one of the best ever, I rate it neck and neck with Broken Plate from Calgary.

I loved my house salad, but Caroline thought her salad with burrata cheese would have the really runny kind, and it was more like a fresh mozzarella.

Both my lamb and Caroline’s duck were tender, but we didn’t think they were exciting. We figure they were cooked medium, and we’d prefer a little less than that. Perhaps the kitchen was unusually busy with the tapas thing.

It was a nice touch that the waiter spoke about each wine he brought as part of the tapas sequence, but we did get tired of hearing the same spiel delivered to three neighboring tables with each course. We stuck with the Sonoma Merlot.

One thing was fun: Blanca Rodriguez, the executive chef, spends time out front with the diners. I liked that, because some chefs never see past the end of their noses. Blanca’s interacting, thinking about your tastes and helping you find the best choice from her menu.

I might go again, but the seating is not in Pimienta’s favour: you must choose between a hard wooden chair or a flat wooden bench.

Dinner Debriefings: PZA & Chianti in Calgary

It was too busy to write these up as I squeezed dinner into my WWC convention schedule, but here goes.

On Friday, we walked to PZA on the Macleod Trail and ate on the patio. The food was quite good, but I ordered the wrong thing. I’m pretty sensitive to salt, and the pepperoni and mushroom was too salty for me. The staff were very good about switching us over to a ham and pineapple, but our replacement order hit the kitchen at a peak period, and it took a long time. The manager was very apologetic, and both pizzas were free. I might go back; the replacement pizza was good, the service was fine, and the patio was very comfortable.

On Saturday, we did pasta at Chianti on the Macleod Trail. It was another lovely evening, so we ate on the patio there, too. The bread and salad were very nice, but the service rather spoiled the meal. Wine didn’t arrive with our salads, and when we were only halfway through our salads, the pasta came. At that moment, the waiter told us the wine we had ordered was out of stock, so we finished our salads while our spaghetti alla carbonara and fettuccine supremo sat. Then we sat while our waiter took another tables order. Then the wine came and we ate warm pasta that was starting to stick together. The food was tasty, and we both approved, but presentation was plain. It took a long time to get the bill; we thought our waiter had forgotten us. We probably wouldn’t go back. On a quieter night, with a more experienced waiter, you might have a much nicer experience.

On Sunday, we returned to Broken Plate and had another terrific dinner there.

Dinner Debriefing: the BUZZ

For the last full night of our vacation, and our last chance to dine in Ottawa, we didn’t want to sit in a crowded pub on Elgin Street, so we returned to Bank Street to eat at the BUZZ again.

They had a table, which was no sure thing on a Friday night. Although we were close to the entrance, and right next to the bar, it was amazingly quiet – very peaceful. We decided to share a calamari appetizer. Chipotle dusted, they say. This is the best non-traditional calamari we’ve ever had. From there, Caroline stuck to the menu, ordering the duck. Ginger-laced mandarin cranberry sauce. Mmm. I took advantage of one of the nightly specials: Scallops with a roasted red pepper sauce, on a triple bed of risotto, acorn squash and mashed potatoes. Beautifully done. Lots of nice wines by the glass here, so I had a glass of the Clos du Bois Chardonnay. Caroline started with the Hogue Pinot Grigio and switched to the Blackstone Merlot, another Californian, for her duck.

Caroline had room for a little dessert, so she ordered tonight’s cheesecake, a maple/bacon one. She liked it, but I wasn’t feeling the love for bacon tonight, and only had a tiny taste.

A very nice dinner. We’d be certain to visit the Buzz again if we come back to Ottawa.