Tag Archives: ottawa

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.


#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.


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


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


19 Jul

Dr. Sheldon Cooper wants to come too!

A quick teaser post: HoM and I are headed to Ottawa and Prince Edward County this weekend. It’s my first summer vacation in YEARS. I am packing a floppy sunhat. Grad students travel but it’s always school related. We’ve been exploring Ontario so much that the tourism board should hire us to write a blog called #smugcouplestravel. Things we’re planning to do: bike, museums, a lavender farm … yeah, we live the life of a middle aged couple. For this blog, fair readers, we’re planning to check out all this chatter about the “cronut” and check out MCyyz’s rec from a couple of posts ago, El Camino. I know, you can’t wait for us to get back and report our findings. Well, for your patience, I will leave you with this adorable note: WE HAVE MADE MATCHING T-SHIRTS FOR THE DRIVE! (I checked and Cherry has “no comment” on this feature of the road trip)

Bon weekend!

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