Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ottawa Food Review - Part 2

I know it’s a little delayed, but here is the remainder of my reviews of the food from my trip to Ottawa last month. But first, as a follow-up to my last post, Randy, a fellow blogger has posted his own thoughts on the issue and it is well worth the read. Check it out at http://wordsthateffect.blogspot.com/2011/07/finally-finished-my-thoughts-on-sex.html

Ottawa Rib and Chicken Cook-off

The week I was in Ottawa was the week of Ottawa’s Rib and Chicken Cook-off which takes place on the Sparks Street Mall, an event I mentioned in an earlier post. Day two in Ottawa was a busy one , working to set up our event leaving only a short period of time for dinner. As our hotel was right on the western starting point of the Mall, we decided we would have dinner at the ribfest rather than finding a restaurant and waiting for who knows how long.

Ribfest is made up of several independent vendors and competitors mostly from the United States with a few Canadian entrants. This event is part of a competitive circuit of similar events throughout Ontario during the summer. The competitors here proudly displayed their wins at all these various competitions, including one that takes place right here in Guelph, which will take place this year from August 26-28 - and I will be there. Judges give awards for ribs, chicken, sauce and pulled pork, and some stalls provide additional offerings as well. Particularly during the weekend, the lines at the best stalls were very long but when we went there on Friday afternoon, it was raining steadily, keeping many of the crowd away. The stall we chose was actually the first one we came across, though we did check out the others on that first block. One reason for choosing this one was that the smoke smelled much better and sweeter than at some of the other competitors, where one had almost an acrid smell. Also this stall sold, in addition to chicken and pork, beef ribs, which is my mom’s favourite and also a selling point since one of us did not eat pork. Finally, this competitor was a Canadian outfit, based in Chatham, Ontario. So Blazin BBQ was our choice. Between the four of us who went, we ordered most of their offerings, and I made sure to try as much as possible, ordering their “mighty meat” combo, which contained pork ribs, beef ribs, and chicken. The orders also came with coleslaw and baked beans, the expected sides for true barbeque.

This was the best meal of the trip. The beef ribs were especially impressive, full of flavour and meltingly tender. The sauce, which I believe was the same on all the meats, was absolutely perfect. It was smoky sweet tomato based sauce in the Kansas City style. I am very picky about sauce, since I find most to be unpleasantly sweet and sticky. While sweet, this one was not too sweet and was a perfect match for the meat, which in every case had just enough smoke. Also the meat was not oversauced, a common failing of lesser barbeque. Some of this team’s highest accolades were for sauce, so I’m sure I am not alone in this opinion. The chicken was perfectly cooked. This was especially impressive since I know how hard it is to have chicken fully cooked yet still tender and juicy. The pork ribs were very tasty, though I would have preferred them to be just slightly more tender. Still, they were not at all chewy or tough, they came off the bone easily and completely. It may even be that in competitions, ribbers are cooking them less because judges now prefer ribs that do not fall off the bone - those that do are considered overcooked. The sides were certainly decent, though not as good as the meat. They were definitely good, but just like others I have had many times before - nothing special. But anyway, the sides seemed to be an afterthought to them, and that was the way we approached them too. The portions were large and the prices, though not especially cheap, were certainly reasonable given the portion size and quality. My companions had simply different combinations of the same things: either beef or pork ribs with chicken.

Restaurant Review - Really Lebanese Food

I am a little conflicted about including this review because I do have, on some level, a personal connection to this restaurant. A relative of mine is closely involved with the establishment, which means that it is hard, if not impossible, to be fully objective in reviewing this place. But I honestly do like the food and I feel that, as long as the reader is aware that I have a personal connection with the restaurant, the review can still be of use.

In part because of this family connection, our family event all went for lunch at this restaurant, a group of about 40+ people. Really Lebanese is a small strip mall shawarma restaurant in the east of Ottawa, on Montreal Road. They call themselves “home of the garlic king” a reference to their chef, Adel, the self-styled garlic king. The promotional methods they use are certainly over the top and some have criticized them for this, but it certainly attracts attention, which I would think is the purpose of self-promotion. And it seems to fit with Adel’s engaging and “out there” personality. He rides around in a customized van that has to be seen to be believed.

Really, the picture doesn't quite do it justice. Oh, and that dome with the crown around it? That's the sunroof, so Adel can be on display, kind of like a popemobile.

I have been to Really Lebanese many times before, so my review will also be influenced by previous visits. The specialty is shawarma, a lebanese dish of spit-roasted seasoned chicken served in a pita with various condiments. It is somewhat similar in concept to the Greek gyro, but the seasonings, condiments and side dishes are different. While there are other offerings, including vegetarian ones, I must admit that the only thing I have ever ordered there is the chicken shawarma. You choose the size you want and can choose whatever you want from their array of condiments. My favourite is definitely the garlic sauce. It has a great creamy texture and, while it does taste intensely of garlic, it also has a certain mellowness. It is also available for sale in containers on site (at one time it used to also be sold at some Ottawa grocery stores but alas, no more). Another must have, other than your standard lettuce, tomato, cucumber, etc., is the pink pickled radish - excellent! The sides are a selections of typical lebanese offerings: hummus, tabbouleh, fatoush, and a chickpea salad. This group meal we had was originally intended to be a picnic in a park, catered by the restaurant, but because of weather we had to switch it to the restaurant. Because it was a large group, and we were running late, the meals had been prepared beforehand and set out waiting for us, which does affect the quality. Also, in my meal, the two salads I happened to get included neither of my favourites - the tabbouleh (theirs is the best I ever had) and hummus. Luckily my cousin, sitting next to me, did get those two sides and shared with me (thanks Max!). For dessert, there is a really good baklava and soft serve ice cream. Really Lebanese has been in business for many years, originally in a VERY small space in Orleans which used to be an eastern suburb of Ottawa and is now part of the amalgamated City of Ottawa. They moved to a larger location a few blocks away, and more recently to a still larger space on Montreal Road in the neighbourhood of Gloucester, still in the east end but closer to the centre of Ottawa than they were before. This is an exceptional place for lunch and a friendly environment.

Really Lebanese Food on Urbanspoon

Food Review - Delta Hotel and Suites Ottawa

Saturday night was a buffet prepared for our family group prepared by the hotel. I generally do not have great expectations for hotel buffets or large catered banquets. The food is usually bland and/or boring and often poorly cooked. What they gave us at the hotel, though, was rather good, considering the difficulties inherent in a buffet. There was a goat cheese and spinach salad that was quite decent and an orzo salad that was actually quite good. I almost decided to avoid this, because a pasta salad is usually something put on a buffet because it is “supposed” to be there. It is usually quite awful and is too often a repository for whatever is about to spoil and must be used. In this case the flavours were lively and the orzo was correctly cooked. The main courses suffered from the more common problems that plague buffets, but they were still rather decent. There was a salmon in a creamy sauce that was overcooked to my taste, though for some they considered it correctly cooked (it was not dried out). Also I found the sauce just a bit too salty. There was roast beef with a mushroom sauce. I was very apprehensive about the meat, as I prefer my meat medium rare I saw little prospect of that being achievable with meat sliced in advance and sitting in a steam table. Yet, when I selected the least cooked pieces they were at least medium, if not actually medium rare - a pleasant surprise. The sauce was excellent. The vegetables looked at first glance liked frozen mixed vegetables, but when tasting them they were too correctly cooked for that to be the case. Also there was also some small amounts of less traditional vegetables that do not appear in frozen packets, and these batches varied a little each time the chafing dish was refilled. The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were bland and uninspired.

There was a marked variation in the quality of the dessert table, a must for private hotel functions. There was a great deal of variety, with several fruit-based tarts, cakes and squares, as well as fresh fruit. The desserts that had a pastry crust - the pies and tarts - were not very good as the crust was too tough. On the other hand, the cakes and squares were excellent. The sticky chocolate cake was probably the best, though a nicely spiced carrot cake ran a close second. The brownie-like dessert squares were also very good.

The overall success of this food, given the obstacles, I believe reflects very well on the overall quality of the hotel’s kitchen. We also had a brunch buffet at the hotel the next morning (this being the standard breakfast buffet for all guests) and that was very good as well. They make sure to keep the buffet stations constantly refilled and the food stays fresh. The smoked salmon was excellent (can’t tell if it was made in house or not - it could have been but there is excellent commercial product available too), the scrambled eggs were not overcooked and the bacon struck the right balance between chewy and crispy. It’s not like there was anything extra special - just the hotel breakfast standards. It was just well executed and care was taken. This is something often lacking in hotel buffets, so this was a welcome treat.

Restaurant Review - East India Company

We spent Sunday walking around Parliament Hill and the Byward Market, then all got together for dinner, in a group of about 11 or so people (don’t remember exactly). East India Company is an Indian restaurant (surprise!) on Somerset Ave. near Elgin street, in the south east end of downtown. This restaurant also features buffet service. I had been to this restaurant before many years ago when I was living briefly in Ottawa and even took part in a cooking class that they were offering. I remember that the food was fairly good then. The buffet featured a wide selections of the classics of Indian cuisine. One thing you will notice as soon as you enter, is the artwork and large decorative pieces that give the restaurant a very distinctive ambiance. Along one wall (where our table was), there is an intricate mural, which was built in India and shipped here at great expense.

The lamb curry was particularly good, as was the tandoori murgh (spicy chicken). The samosas and pakoras were a weak point, though I suppose I should have realized that small fried items are not at their best after sitting in a steam table. There was a good vegetarian dish, whose name I cannot seem to remember, that had vegetables in a creamy sauce, probably made with yoghurt. The butter chicken was also good and so was the chicken masala and lamb kofta (meatballs). Naan, Indian bread, costs extra but is very good, they also make excellent pappadums, a very thin flatbread that is more like a cracker and is wonderfully spiced. There is an extensive selection of pickles and chutneys as well. I’m not a big fan of these, but some of the chutneys, particuarly the mango, the coconut, and the tomato chutney were very good.

As for dessert, I really don’t like Indian desserts very much, the flavours and textures they tend to use are not really appealing to me. But judging from the opinions of others, some of the desserts were well received, including a mango mousse, a rice pudding, and the iconic Indian dessert, the gulab jamun, a specialty here.

The price is reasonable, twenty dollars per person.

East India Company Pub & Eatery on Urbanspoon

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