Oh, Canada, give me your best food

Another food and culture related entry from our guest blogger Phil LaMarche, who teaches English at SUNY Canton.

My grandfather, a friend, my father and an uncle on a fishing trip. These fish are for eating.

My fascination with French cuisine started in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens.  At the time I had no idea that all those venison pies and gravies and slow cooked stews and soups had any cultural relevance, it was just what we gorged ourselves on every night at the dinner table.  Even though my maternal grandfather was one of the first in his family to be born in the States, by the time my generation plunked down, we’d sufficiently stripped ourselves of all things Francais et Canadien, and aside from those awkward moments sitting wide-eyed in my great-grandmother’s house, listening to her prattle on in that alien tongue, we were quite sure of being American, then, now, and always.

But for the food.  Like that accent that lingers, we couldn’t shake the food.  And not only the dishes, but a general disposition.  Obsession might be a strong word, but my grandfather was known to pontificate on lunch and dinner before he’d even finished breakfast.  He’d drive hours to eat at a particular restaurant and he insisted on butchering our wild game with a fervor that bordered on religiosity.

It wasn’t until my wife and I spent a year on the west coast of France that I understood my grandfather, seeing that this lust for food threaded all the way back through Quebec to the motherland.

 

 

My mother, grandfather and uncle put together a picnic.

In France, I met people who cooked us ornate lunches that went on for hours until you had all you could do to bring the tiny cup of espresso to your lips.  We ate it all: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, quiche, rabbit, frogs legs, all manner of stinky cheese, horse, or maybe donkey,depending on the translation (it tasted just like summer sausage),  steak frites, moules frites, baguettes by the dozen, pate, fois gras (God forbid! Have you seen how they treat those Geese?  Yes, and I’d force feed a puppy if it produced something that tasted so good).

So on a recent trip to Ottawa (our first) I started feeling a tremor that reverberated down to the double-helix of my genetic code.  I’ve had some of the best French meals of my life in Montreal and Quebec City and I started imagining a little bistro with maybe a nice duck breast, seared to medium-rare, sliced and served up on a bed of baby arugula, or perhaps a smoked meat sandwich on a crusty baguette.

 

I was drooling like Pavlov’s dogs when we rolled into town, but unfortunately the trip was a last minute excursion and I didn’t have time to properly plot and scheme.  Despite how I detest being so obvious a tourist, we trudged up to two separate information kiosks where I grunted something about food, French, preferably, and on both occasions they pointed me towards the ByWard Market, to a restaurant knows as Chez Lucien on Murray Street.   I got a little nervous when one of the gentlemen mentioned something about hamburgers, but I figured two recommendations had to say something.

Cheese plate at Chez Lucien.

We strolled across town, at one point stopping to get our bearings.  As we looked back and forth between our map and the street signs, a man approached and said, “Can I help you?”   I had that immediate American suspicion that any note of kindness meant an oncoming swindle, but looking at the guy I quickly saw his sincerity and thought, Oh,right.  We’re in Canada.   With a little help from this gentleman we found Chez Lucien, a comfortable place somewhere between a pub and bistro.  The waitstaff wasn’t  terribly attentive at first, but once my nine month old son started working his magic, (he’s an incredible flirt), the waitress couldn’t keep away.

I wasn’t much impressed by the menu, an odd collection without any recognizable theme or organizing principle.  Much as it pained me, I found myself leaning towards the hamburgers, which were foregrounded in the menu and clearly the specialty of the house.  I ordered the Chez Lucien Burger, which came with bacon, cream cheese, and mushrooms, while my wife ordered the Hambourgeoisie, served with brie and pear.  In some vain attempt at resurrecting a French meal, we ordered the cheese plate and the escargot as starters.

The escargot at Chez Lucien.

The place had a friendly, neighborhood vibe with familiar conversation and folks plunking down loonies in the juke as we waited for our meals.  Everyone was terribly friendly to my son and we enjoyed our time there, so I don’t want to be too harsh in my judgment of the place, but in truth, the food was lackluster.  The escargot was buttery and garlicky and perfectly fine.  The cheese plate was well presented with a brie and a bleu, a chevre and maybe a swiss and a colby-ish number.  It was served with toasted baguette and while it was pleasant, it was nothing I couldn’t put together with fifteen minutes at my local Price Chopper.

 

 

The burger platters at Chez Lucien.

The hambourgois was a kick in the pantalons, with a feeble, where’s-the-beef patty that had been cooked to the consistency of something that could’ve been dropped center ice at a Senators’ game.  It was served with perfectly ordinary fries and a salad that looked like a condiment for the burger.   The saving grace was a tasty garlic-herbed aioli on the side that if applied in sufficient quantities provided some distraction from the arid meat and the ridiculous dirigible of bun.

Now, in all fairness, my experience might have been different had I not walked in with such high (and misled) expectations, but either way, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to rush back.  Luckily, all was not lost. On our way out we stumbled into The Boulanger Francais, 119 Murray Street, for a legitimate French pastry (L’Opera), and cup of coffee served up with just the right note of snobbery.  While there I noticed a door leading to Benny’s Bistro out back. With a pan roasted Lake Erie pickerel filet served with potato beignet, flat leaf parsley and preserved lemon gremolata, saffron aioli, and tomato boulaibaisse, this might be just what we’re after on a future visit.

After a pleasant skate on the Rideau Canal and a tour of the ice sculptures in Confederation Park, we were ready to return home, but please, NCPR Listeners, hear my plea: What’s the best that the Canadian Capital has to offer?  We will be heading back in late March and I need your help to get my gastronomical fix.  Indian, Asian, Middle-Eastern, French, German, Italian…. It doesn’t matter.

Tell us your favorite place to get down and don’t be afraid to pontificate.  Make your case, make us hungry, and give us all the delicious details that make this place tops on your list.

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6 Responses to “Oh, Canada, give me your best food”

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  1. Lucy Martin says:

    Wish I could help, but we live in the boonies of rural Ottawa and don’t eat out all that often.

    Truth be told, I have seldom (never?) had my socks knocked off by dining in Ottawa. Most of what we experience ranges from so-so to pretty good. But that’s about it.

    WIthout a doubt, this is partially because we are too cheap seriously pursue the options. And partially because our expectations may be impossible to meet in this part of the world.

    From everything I read, Ottawa is “coming on” in the foodie and restaurant scene. Readers who actually live in urban Ottawa, or eat out there a lot, should share their tips.

    Here’s an “Urban Spoon” food review site that could help.

    Mind you, they don’t even list “French” as a category in the food by cuisine lost. That should tell you something. (Try Gatineau. Or just go to Montreal.)

    Eating out is one of the areas where I really, really miss Hawaii! (My former home). Of course, that was what I grew up with, but gosh, is it good! (In my case, though, yes to two scoops rice but hold the SPAM.)

    Choices there range from plate lunches out of innumerable mom & pop trucks to high dining in trendy “fusion” restaurants. The blend of cultures – plus tourists by the millions – make for a good feast. Between the locals and the visitors there’s a solid economic foundation to do business and excel – at every price range.

    Living here, something my California-raised husband and I miss all the time is good Mexican food. Or what we think of as such, anyway. (I’m sure it’s not authentically Mexican at all!)

    We’ve tried a few Mexican restaurants in Ottawa and are usually quite disappointed. Our theory is that the average Canadian tends to be, shall we say, “conservative” when it comes to spices and bold flavor. The restaurants know that to be true, and serve accordingly. The best one we’ve found so far has been a small basement hole-in-the-wall called Ahora.

    If we want Mexican for dinner we mostly make that at home. It can be ridiculously hard to find corn tortillas in Ottawa. Flour tortillas are everywhere, but the corn type is either not sold or sold frozen. There is a good Latin Store on Montreal Road that sells a nice selection of unfrozen corn tortillas, but it’s a bit of a drive to get there. (Mercado Latina is reviewed here.)

    I actually make a point of stocking up on corn tortillas (and hot pepper jack cheese) whenever I get doen to Ogdensburg.

    Speaking of mobile lunch stands, Ottawa has long run a very tight ship on how many are permitted and even what they can serve. The city recently held a competition of sorts to award new permits, listed here. It sounds like a great step forward, but I wish the city would open that up even wider! (Although that would take business away from brick and mortar restaurants, which must be part of the conflict.)

    Bonne chance and buena suerte on your good restaurant hunt, Phil LaMarche!
    I know others can answer this better and look forward to getting some good tips myself.

  2. Lucy Martin says:

    Lo siento, make that “Mercado Latino” with an “o”.

  3. Bob Falesch says:

    I like Aroma Meze (Nepean St., Ottawa) a lot. Purists might have my head for comparing mezze to tapas, but take that as a guide. For Mexican, I always enjoy Feleena’s in the Glebe (NW corner of 2nd Ave & Bank) — corn tortillas on the enchiladas, of course! Very nice al fresco during the warm season. They have a respectable mole. The chile rellenos, a dish almost never done “right”, are decent. I usually go for good post-dinner coffee/espresso to the Bridgehead right across the street. I think that Bridgehead has a “Clover” brewing machine from which one outstanding cup of coffee at a time is made. The Bridgehead franchise only has one store with the Clover machine, but it might be the one further south on Bank St, yet it’s worth a try just for that. My fave Ottawa restaurant, Savana on Gilmour St, is closed. One big meow. I don’t know whether they relocated or bellied-up. An utterly delightful place is the Green Door. It’s totally vegan and wow, do they ever have an arsenal of spices and the knowledge to combine them in yummy ways.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    How could I have failed to praise the Green Door?

    It’s very good indeed. Sort of Ottawa’s own Moosewood -dearly beloved by vegetarians – it even leaves many carnivores impressed. (Quoting our now-grown son the last time we all ate there: “Boy, I wish you could get food this good, but made with meat!”)

    They make you want to go home and cook like they do. (It’s an impressive buffet line that charges by wieght of the plate, so maybe skip the more ordinary things and try the new stuff?)

    The Green Door is a bit off the beaten path for those visiting the Parliament Hill & Rideau Canal haunts. But it’s worth the small detour over to Main street.

    Thanks for the tips, Bob!

  5. Phil LaMarche says:

    Lucy, I feel your pain on the lack of good Mexican. Most of what I’ve found in this neck of the woods is heaped with yellow ‘cheese’ and sour cream with a sprinkling of sliced olives and pickled jalapeno rings for good measure. I will be checking in on Bob’s recommendation of Feleena’s for sure. Any place that can do a decent mole has to be legit. I appreciate both of your nods to The Green Door. While I spend a lot of time riffing on meat, we do eat and appreciate a lot of vegetarian fare in our home. Thank you both for the input.

  6. Hank says:

    In my experience (and I may get some disagreement on this, I know), the restaurants in the Byward Market are not the best Ottawa has to offer. The Market is too touristy and most of the restaurants thrive from volume, not quality.

    Areas with better restaurants can be found in Ottawa West and Westboro (along Wellington St between Bayswater and Woodroffe), in the Glebe (along Bank St. south of the Queensway), on Preston St (the Italian district) and in New Edinburgh not far from those famous Sussex drive addresses. Unfortunately, these are areas that are not on the “tourist path” and so it is a bit more difficult for visitors (especially those arriving and leaving by bus or train) to get to them.