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Bar Raval: Tapas in Toronto finally grows up

9 Apr

Good Spanish food. Wood paneling. Surprisingly, these things are related – they make me very happy, and they both exist in spades at Bar Raval. Grant van Gameren’s newest establishment demonstrates that food inspired by the Iberian Peninsula is here to stay – he apparently spent the equivalent of a moderately equipped Ferrari on said wood paneling! I definitely couldn’t miss out on a stop at Bar Raval on my Easter weekend visit to the centre of the universe.

Bar Raval has garnered significant praise for both its food and its interior design, so expectations were high. It’s been a while since a Toronto restaurant has brought me to culinary coitus when the hype was so great, but Bar Raval did just that. When I walked through the doors I immediately realized two things. First, Bar Raval shares very little of the edginess of its eponymous neighbourhood in Barcelona, but it more than makes up for it with an interior design that truly propels the Toronto restaurant scene forward. Second, the kitchen has done what very few Toronto kitchens do – churn out exceptional versions of traditional pintxos and tapas (think croquetas or simple plates of slightly sweaty Manchego) while displaying playful innovation in other dishes (the dulce de leche spiked with piment d’Espelette, for example).

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Working furiously behind the pass is Grant van Gameren, one of Toronto’s foremost meat men and chef extraordinaire.

This ability to respect the tradition of tapas is incredibly important, and it means respecting not only the food but also the way it is served. Sadly, the Spanish-food craze has led far too many restauranteurs to slap the word “tapas” on dishes that are simply not so, and to charge a premium for the privilege of eating off of a microscopic plate. Many restaurant-going Torontonians have been taken in by this trickery, and falsely believe that they should be going to a tapas bar for dinner because tapas means “stuff yourself with more plates of food because they are smaller”. Bar Raval is likely the first “fashionable” establishment to buck this trend. There are no sprawling tables for ten. The layout encourages standing instead of slouching. A giddiness-inducing array of food is laid out on the main bar. Seafood and cured meats figure prominently. In short, Bar Raval is actually a tapas bar.

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No finer thing has likely been hewn out of the wood of a mahogany tree.

A sampling of the food confirmed that Bar Raval pays proper homage to the tapas bars that line the narrow streets of Barcelona and San Sebastian. I can state with much conviction that the croquetas are the best I have ever had. Anywhere. The anchovies dressed in olive oil had a complex flavour profile that went beyond the merely salty. The octopus pintxos were piled on delicious, dense bread and dressed with a fresh, bracing citrus concoction so bright that I was instantly transported to the warm streets of the Raval itself. These were all dishes that lived up to the true meaning of the words “tapas” and “pintxos”, not merely smaller portions of what would have been a dinnertime main course.

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The most perfect croqueta in the world, accompanied by a plate of olive-topped anchovy fillets simply dressed in floral, herbaceous olive oil.

The ambiance matched the food. The crowd cut across the entire spectrum of Toronto’s population, from families with babes in arms to hipsters sporting superfluous beards. There were no hushed tones or fussy waiters. Grant has crafted an environment that actually promotes snacking as opposed to dining, which goes to the essence of a true tapas bar. With time, I hope that Bar Raval loses some of its new-car shine, because that is the only thing that stands between it and perfection. With a few shrimp shells on the floor and the appropriate patina on the bar, the transformation from Teatro to Toronto’s first genuine tapas bar will be complete.

4.31 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

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Ace Mercado: a culinary teleportation device

27 Oct

Ottawa has two types of restaurants: those that make you feel like you’re imprisoned in a bureaucrat’s bureau, and those that transport you to a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan place.  Ace Mercado is firmly in the latter category, and the Byward Market is immeasurably better off because of it.  Ace occupies the busy corner of Dalhousie and Clarence, and it replaced a universally lampooned Italian restaurant named Mangia, a restaurant that will only be missed by those who have a palate as bland as powdered mashed potatoes.

Ace is the brainchild of Top Chef Canada winner Rene Rodriguez, proprietor of nearby Navarra.  In my not-so-humble opinion, Ace is the real winner between the two.  Its menu has all of the innovation, creativity and boldness of Navarra’s without the sticker shock.  The atmosphere is essentially a cross between El Camino and Czehoski’s on Queen West.  This may sound like too much of a scene thing for some, but if you tune out the douchetastic conversations, the overall buzz is energetic and dynamic.  Ottawa needs this to counteract the whiff of dying souls that emanates from its overly ample suburbs.  More importantly, the Market needs this to drive out the tourist-trap, pedestrian slop-troughs that masquerade as restaurants.

Most importantly, the food lives up to the hype and the scene.  When I saw the menu, I was faced with the pleasant yet stressful dilemma that every foodie faces at a good restaurant – how to eat all the things.  Fortunately, I was with other eat-all-the-things people, so we made a serious dent in the menu.  The deviled spot prawns were spot on (yes, I did that).  The prawns retained their juicy sweetness in the face of bold Mexican-inspired spices.  I could find nothing Mexican about the Mexican Fries.  In fact, they were more like a bipolar Francophone – the fries were cooked so well that a Belgian would have been proud, and they were covered in cheese and dotted with crispy fried pigs’ ears – music to any Quebecker’s ears.  They were so crazy that they were awesome.

The tacos were no less impressive.  The lamb taco could compete with El Camino’s, and I think that El Camino’s lamb tacos are the single greatest taco ever made.  The crispy pig’s ear tacos would not have been out of place in a cabane à sucre in Papineauville, which makes them some of the most whimsical tacos I’ve ever had.  The fish tacos were innovative – most tacquerias stick to the well worn path of stuffing a battered and fried piece of whitefish in a shell.  Ace’s version was stuffed with grilled and flaked red snapper, which gave it a decidedly meatier texture.  Hit with some lime, they were almost flawless. In fact, the only flaw with the tacos was the shell.  The wraps were tepid, dry and flavourless.  Sadly, they did not add flavour to the whole, as a good taco shell should.  This flaw is the single reason why I must declare that El Camino’s tacos are marginally – but universally – better.

Ace Mercado’s drinks list is as laudable as its food.  The beer list is tight, but features a blend of local and foreign beers that pair well with all the items.  The tequila list is excellent and covers all the right bases.  Be sure to have a shot of house-made sangrita, a concoction that is essentially a Caesar that took a wrong turn on the highway and ended up in Tijuana.

I will go back to Ace Mercado after a day when I have to deal with HR, IT or any number of other bureaucratic black holes.  Ace Mercado can fix you on days when you think you’ve lost your soul to the crushing dreariness of Place du Portage.  Given how many people work there, I suspect that Ace will be packed on most nights.


3.74 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Tennessy Willems: an unlikely haven for pizza lovers in Ottawa

16 Sep

On its face, Tennessy Willems sounds as much like a pizza joint as Toronto’s House of Chan sounds like a great steakhouse. I must admit that I judged this book by its cover and, still fresh off the boat (from Toronto), I had not yet overcome my Toronto food > Ottawa food complex. I mean, what bureaucrat worth his staunch commitment to mediocrity would really want top quality pizza? I was ultimately proven wrong, and thankfully so, since I’ve just moved back to the city of ill-fitting suits and soul-crushing winters. Tennessy Willems will henceforth be my go-to spot for pizza in Ottawa.

Once I sat down at the bar, I was faced with a menu replete with temptations of the insert-name-of-animal confit kind. I exercised remarkable self-control and ordered the margherita. After all, the truest test of any restaurant is its most basic dish, and a pizzeria with a middling margherita is like a brewpub with boring beer – utterly useless. The crust was arguably the star of the show – chewy in the classic Neapolitan tradition – and the sauce was loaded with fresh flavour and just the right amount of sweetness and heat. The latter was in perfect harmony with the copious amounts of aromatic basil leaves. The cheese was perfectly melted, but seemed pedestrian compared to the bursting flavour of the rest of the ingredients.

I must confess that I cheated by adding bacon, but this was after much pressure from my friend who was raving about it. I was not disappointed. The bacon was like meat candy in my mouth – huge chunks of well-cooked, lean, sweet-salty glory. This was not your store-bought, paper-thin, tasteless protein.

No great restaurant experience is complete without solid service. By that, I mean a snarky server who possesses equal parts sarcasm and skill. Sitting at the bar is the best idea at Tennessy Willems, because the bartender – and likely manager/owner – is the poster child for my vision of the perfect server. His sardonic running commentary about life in general was matched only by his cool, collected demeanour in the face of a busy dining room and glassware that seemed to want nothing more than to crash to the ground. His ridiculously hipster-practical glasses with built-in lights added a measure of quirkiness to the whole package.

I will certainly return to Tennessy Willems when I’m in need of a reminder that Ottawa does manage to keep concealed some true culinary gems. Tennessy Willems takes pizza (and sarcasm) seriously, and executes both largely without compromise.

3.59 brown thumbs up. I would give some sort of score for the service, but I haven’t bothered to dream up a rating scale for good service. Deal with it.

On the Mediocrity of Pub Culture in Ottawa

12 Sep

A Treatise Tirade

I was recently sitting in a pub on Elgin Street. It was happy hour. When the waitress stared vaguely at me and visibly strained her intellect to recite the list of half-price appetizers, it struck me, as I recited the well-worn list with her in my head, that many of the pubs on Ottawa’s high streets are hopelessly and predictably mediocre when it comes to food. Surely in 2014, amid the resurgence of quality ingredients as a prime consideration, a basic pub can finally leave the factory-frozen chicken wings behind!

In many world capitals a fraction of Ottawa’s size, the main streets offer up an eclectic array of quality bars that serve simple yet high-quality food. For example, in Luxembourg’s capital city, a quasi-hamlet the size of a postage stamp, the bars and pubs focus on quality rather than quantity, and reflect the region’s culinary history. In Lisbon, a city half Ottawa’s size, the bars that do offer food serve the high-quality seafood and meats that are available in the region. Obvious tourist traps aside (read: Hard Rock Café, etc.), there is largely no recourse to frozen, pre-packaged industrial waste that masquerades as food. In Great Britain, arguably the geographical genesis of Ottawa’s pub culture, even the local public house in the remotest of villages serves inspiring food, to the point that such establishments routinely feature in leading publications on cuisine (e.g., the excellent British Regional Food by Mark Hix).

Sadly, in Ottawa, on streets like Bank and Elgin and in neighbourhoods like the Market, most of the pubs still serve the same tired, bland, lowest-common-denominator food that used to reign supreme before Canada’s cities were flung open to both the world and to the great farms that surround them. These pubs and their clinically depressing fare mirror the people I see walking by. People who wear Crocs to work. People who wear backpacks on suits. People who don’t quite grasp the fact that their clothes should fit them and not the obese geriatrics that they will likely become. Petits fonctionnaires. Melodramatic cynicism aside, I fear that the main reason why mediocre pubs continue to rule the high streets of Ottawa is that there aren’t enough people out there who would vote with their stomachs to expel them from the prime locations.

There are, however, pockets of hope along the avenues of mediocrity. For example, the Manx on Elgin takes its food as seriously as its beer, and hasn’t installed twenty flat-screen TVs per square foot. Chez Lucien in the Market follows much the same philosophy (I will forgive it for having two small, elderly televisions perched in the corners above the bar). Sadly, these gems are drowned in a sea of Royal Oaks and similarly styled McPubs that rely on their location, their 24/7 sports coverage and their lack of discernable soul to attract the hordes of bureaucrats who want nothing more than to avoid the march of culinary progress for fear of having to face any sort of change in their little lives.

I have some faith that quality pubs will continue to grow in number and stature in Ottawa. Alas, I don’t harbour real optimism that they will take over from the overly sanitized establishments that currently line the main streets, because this city simply does not have a progressive class on a scale large enough to truly change the face of its culinary scene.  Ultimately, I am too jaded to believe that, some day, John Q. Civil Servant will wake up and walk past the Fox and Feather and into the Manx. Ottawa’s baseline standard for pub food is sadly doomed to remain as low as its wintertime windchills. Those who want a pint and a plate that don’t diminish their hopes for a better world with every sip and every bite will continue to be relegated to the little pockets of quality cuisine that dot the city. It’s a sad statement to make about a world capital of a million residents.

#smugcouplestravel – THE CRONUT

31 Jul

You’ve heard about them on the news. People form queues for them in New York City. The name is patented so bakeries can sell the concept but can’t call them by the name. It’s created such a “craze” that a Toronto bakery has decided to make a “crookie.” 

HoM and I were in Ottawa and the bakery Boko on Elgin makes them daily. They’re about $5 each and come individually packaged. If I were going to prom today, I’d like my date to bring me one of these rather than a corsage. Our croissant-doughnuts had a pineapple filling and passion fruit topping. I am skeptical of hype. We once ranted and raved about Krispy Kremes … until we all put on 5(10)lbs from scarfing down boxes and boxes of that deep-friend heart clogging delight. So, the croissant-doughnut was unexpectedly delicious. It was messy. The granulated sugar that covered the pasty got all over your hands and face … and HoM’s beard. The pastry, from what I could discern was a deep fried croissant, was chewy and fluffy. You needed to put up a fight with it as you took your bites. The passion fruit was tangy but, like the pineapple filling, didn’t overwhelm. They emphasized the delicate pastry.

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Boko (280 Elgin, Ottawa ON) – the croissant doughnut

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Until that morning, I had been quite good with watching what I ate and daily exercise. I can’t think about how many calories were in that sugared-fried dough-ring. I’m not sure that the cronut has what it takes usurp the ubiquitous cupcake (which are so passé) because I think the dough requires more baking skill. You can’t just whip up a batch of these on the weekend with your girlfriend (in heels) and call it a business. I would welcome the cronut as treat in TO … though HoM and I wouldn’t mind running away to Ottawa for another weekend to sample this deliciousness.

Boko Bakery on Urbanspoon

El Camino – a culinary beacon of hope for hungry Ottawans

9 Jul

Ottawa isn’t on many culinary can’t-miss lists.  The tourist-trap Byward Market is, for the most part, laden with dreary, overpriced and uninventive restaurants that cater to bureaucrats with government expense accounts who gave up their palates around the same time as their will to live.  However, a few enterprising Ottawans are making an effort to bring explosive flavour and a truly urban atmosphere to other parts of the city.  El Camino is the brainchild of one of these individuals, chef Michael Carmichael, formerly of Sidedoor, Social and E18hteen.

El Camino is located near the south end of Elgin Street, on a strip that has long been popular with Ottawans for its bars and nightlife. In an appropriate twist of fate, it replaced a shady shawarma joint that served up a decidedly mediocre version of the drunk food of choice for Ottawa partygoers.  It brings the now-trendy gourmet taco to a part of the city that was desperately in need of an unpretentious yet high-quality establishment that serves not only lunch and dinner, but also late night food.

Despite being a recent addition to the Elgin Street scene, El Camino has already nailed it in three important ways.  First, its tacos have four things that all tacos worth my time must achieve – a meat or fish filling that stands up to the other powerful ingredients, bright and spicy flavours from the sauces and toppings, a soft shell that doesn’t taste or feel like cardboard and, finally, a reasonable price. At first, I thought the crispy fish taco was by far the best.  The white fish’s delicate flavour came through and the batter stayed crispy despite the the generous heaping of house-made sauces and toppings.  While it remains a stalwart in their lineup, on my second visit (a mere 12 hours later), the lamb taco stole the show.  The meat had a deliciously distinct lamb flavour that bordered on the gamey, and it  was well accompanied by the bright flavour of lime and fresh, thinly sliced chilli peppers.  I can safely say that I’ve never had a better lamb taco.  The beef tongue taco is also worth a try, although you can’t get it from the take out counter.  Tongue is notoriously difficult to cook in a way that yields an appealing texture but the kitchen executed it masterfully.

All their tacos are $4 at the take out window, and $4 – $5 in the dining room.

Second, the dining experience isn’t just confined to good tacos, which generally make for quick meals or late-night food binges.  My first experience involved tacos, shrimp dumplings and squid, and we didn’t make it to half the menu.  The shrimp was fresh and the slightly browned and crisp dumpling wrapper was an excellent contrast to the tender, sweet and juicy crustacean.  The spicy sauce generously sprinkled with fresh chillis brightened up the flavour of the shrimp.  The salt and pepper squid wasn’t heavy on batter, which allowed the squid to remain the star of the show rather than merely an excuse to indulge in deep-fried goodness.  All this good food doesn’t break the bank, which is a relief in a city where properly good food usually does.  Most of the items are designed for sharing, which makes going there in a group the best strategy for experiencing all that El Camino has to offer.  The wine list also contains an interesting option for those who love to share – one of the more reasonably priced wine options is a magnum of Norman Hardie’s white blend.  This wine pairs well with a number of items on the menu and is the perfect option for a table of friends whose idea of a drink with dinner isn’t nursing one lonely glass through the entire meal until it gets repulsively warm.  If you order this and you happen upon the right server, as we did, he’ll tell you you’re “awesome” and offer to keep the bottle chilled.

Third, the space is designed ingeniously to encourage interaction, not just between friends, but also among diners, servers and the bar.  The highlight is the meandering bar, only a small part of which is reserved for the bartenders.  You can sit around the rest of it, and the waiters can actually walk within it to serve.  This means that you can end up sitting across from another group, but still be at the bar.  You can see and talk to the friendly bartenders who craft delicious but slightly pricey cocktails with house-made mixes and fresh egg-whites.  The space is also well designed for summer, with floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to make the dining room almost feel like a patio. Patrons feel connected to the hustle and bustle of Elgin Street.  Sitting near the front of the restaurant, whether at a table or at the bar, you can easily forget that the space is actually a basement.

El Camino is a beacon of culinary hope in a city that desperately needs one.  Great culinary experiences are too few and far between, and those that do exist usually price most people out of the equation.  I hope that El Camino sticks around, because the depth of the menu and its accessibility will stir the competitive pot and inspire other Ottawa restauranteurs to step up their game.

El Camino is on Facebook and has a blog!

El Camino on Urbanspoon