Here I thought I was a bonafide, patriotic, true-blue Canadian. I’ve scarfed plenty a poutine at two in the morning, I’ve accompanied guys who’ve paid for the tickets to hockey games, I can spell Saskatchewan and sing the National Anthem word for word, and I’ve even seen Celine Dion in concert. Okay, those tickets were free too, but damnit if I haven’t been a loyal Canuck through and through. Except for the fact that until recently I had never set foot in our country’s capital of Ottawa. To disclose information I probably shouldn’t, my girlfriend and I have half-drunk-debated which province it was actually in (“Ottawa, Ontario just doesn’t sound right, dude.”) And of course, as per usual, I’ve been missing out.
Even though it’s a rather lame excuse, I’m a west coast girl and always have been. And being a west coast girl, I’ve become pretty acquainted with the beautiful city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. There’s something very proper-like about strolling through its cobblestone streets, admiring the parliament buildings and statues of monarchy I couldn’t name if I tried and soaking in all that Canadiana. Plus, tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria’s harbour is something every lady’s gotta do at least once. (Especially when that is also free.) So imagine my delight when arriving in Ottawa I realized it was just a giant, more official Victoria with parliament buildings and statues of strangers galore! There’s even a Fairmont that probably serves tea but I wouldn’t know because there was also wine!
Much more importantly of course, I cannot begin to tell you (even though I just did) how incredible the food is in Ottawa; they’re smoking something out there that is producing some ridiculously talented chefs. Cindy “the Buzz” Busby and I rolled into town for Ottawa Comic Con and only had three nights to eat, so we were barely able to scratch its little surface, but here are three special finds that are not to be missed:
Situated in frat boy-heaven, town is a cosy and elegant little place right in the middle of a cluster of sports bars that feels like it doesn’t belong there. Sorta like the girl dressed in Gucci drinking a cosmo at Hooters. But town is super special, showcasing a menu of modern-spun and locally-sourced comfort foods that are at once familiar and completely off-the-cuff. The menu is straight out of a JBS wet dream with offerings like a pretzel-crusted calamari BLT (pork belly stands in for the bacon), crostini spread with mortadella mousse and topped with a fried egg, burrata cheese with asparagus and poached leeks and lemon curd, and ricotta-stuffed meatballs that were so good I wanted to climb back into that kitchen and punch the chef in the mouth. Yes, the food is hearty and rich. But I like ’em rich. If I lived in Ottawa, you would mostly definitely find my Gucci ass parked at the bar at town three nights a week.
This place is right around the corner from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, so for us it was stumbling distance after all that (ahem) tea. Side Door is like taking a trip through South America and up and around through Asia, a night market version of a restaurant making their upper crust version of street food. The servers, while hip and charming, were a little fickle with their attention, but the food more than made up for it. The regulars seem to agree that every meal should start with at least a couple of their tacos, and each one just gets better than the last, so please do pig out and order them all (what? They’re small. Get over it.). Another not-to-miss are the strange but insanely addictive prawns wrapped in leaves and then deep fried to crispy salty goodness. And my very favorite, the “son in law egg”, a bowl of rice topped with sauce and the most delicious tempura battered and fried soft-poached egg you’ve ever had. Mix it up and stir it all together, and it’s like taking the stairway up to umami heaven. I would eat my whole bowl, and then start in on my friend’s. Which I may have done.
And finally, the best for last.
Restaurant 18 is pretty chi-chi and pretty pretty, just glitzy enough for a special night out but unpretentious and most importantly focused on creating expertly-made classic bistro-style fare. First of all, they were more accommodating than necessary for a party of ten idiot actors who were fifteen minutes late and all determined to be the loudest one at the table. Service is top notch and knowledgeable, and the menu is geared to please just about anybody. It’s hard to choose between a beautiful salt roasted beet salad with ricotta and a maple vinegar reduction, grilled octopus with caramelized pork belly, or beef carpaccio with “bread salad”, and those are just the appetizers. We had a fat and luscious crab cake, gorgeous duck breast with goat cheese gnocchi, a ridiculously perfect blue cheese crusted sirloin steak, but the best thing by far for me was a bowl of BC spot prawns atop squid ink pasta with sea urchin butter. Salty, rich, and just about the best damn thing I’ve tasted this year. I know I exaggerate a lot but I’m serious. And for dessert? Chocolate Mille-Feuille with coffee marshmellows and milk n cookies ice cream. I was so wooed, it was like that food was trying to date me.
If you’re like me and you’ve been holding out on making an appearance in Canada’s capital, stop committing treason and get thyself on a plane already. Preferably before it starts snowing, because I hear that happens a lot in Ottawa. But snow or no snow, it’s worth a venture just to roll yourself from restaurant to restaurant sampling pure Canadian love. We’re a loving bunch up here.
And before you start in on me, that Celine can SING, alright? You try doing My Heart Will Go On acapella and then inserting a very enthusiastic roundhouse-style kick during the bridge just because you’re that passionate.
Must be all that poutine.