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