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.