Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eating in Ottawa

The Blue Cactus
2 ByWard Market
(613) 241-7061

More of hipster joint for those who are slightly too young or too old to quite make the cut. It's loud. There's a line-up. And they give you a vibrator. They have a mixed bag menu worthy of any mid-scale chain. We shared the fajitas (you can get chicken or steak, or half & half); the meat tender, flavourful and surprisingly plenty considering the chintzy sides - a lackluster gathering of your typical toppings (guac, sour cream, shredded lettuce, cheese, fresh salsa, rice, and refried beans) - barely enough to accommodate one of the small warm flour tortillas (of four by the way). If it's for 2 people, ought we not to get sides for 2, or is this some strange compromise for low carb trends? Or did someone miscalculate the cuteness of the dish-ware over the demands of a hungry person; if I wanted something "light"and dainty, I wouldn't have ordered a messy do it yourself dinner. They were out of the 2 selections of red wine by the glass, but they made a nice bloody Caesar. With the plethora of other similar bar restos, I'll be sure to forget about this joint anytime soon.

Sandwiches starting at $10, entrees at $15, not including drink, tax, or tip.

The Swan
108 Falldown Lane
Carp, ON
Phone: (613) 839-7926

For all its marvelous ingredients: a great looking place --cozy but spacious, warm, rustic, displaying all the charm of you'd want from a traditional pub-- a boast-worthy selection of tipples, not to mention two Cordon Bleu chefs as owners, this concoction is a let down.

On my first visit back in January, I was looking forward the lunching at what is basically, your only option in downtown Carp. A few short picturesque streets, there are one of each of local proprietaries, with the Swan right by "fall down" hill looking quaint and welcoming with its small patio and antique looks. The decor is local and homespun. The bar looks laden and classic. The menu is simple, yet modern, and well-worded.

Impressed by ingredients of the smoked salmon sandwich (cream cheese, red onion, capers, and fresh dill), so was most of our party, 3 out of 4 choose just that. With a choice of daily soup, salad, or fries, I couldn't resist the clam chowder, one of my all time favorites. The presentation was fine. Everything looked fresh atop simple white dishes -- but what a mess. There was plenty of salmon in my sandwich, but it was overly salty and bland, not helped by the equally lackluster cream cheese. One could hope that a sweet bite of onion, or tartness of the capers ought to offset and save, but no. The onion slices were so thick and careless I had to pick them out. The dill was present but tasteless. It was as if I had a cold. I could feel the textures and taste the salt, but there was no flavour. My soup was just a tad more appealing, however, it could have given Campbell's Chunky a case of mistaken identity. I've had better meals at family chain restaurants - probably because head office enforces menu-tasting.

Still months later, with only a couple of take-out places in the area, it was the only place for a proper sit-down meal. I found myself once again perusing the lunch menu. The options were similar, except sandwiches were replaced by the more fashionable panini. Bypassing the smoked salmon this time, I choose the Reuben.

Not being a big fan of processed meats, I might be biased in thinking that the sandwich was again overly salty, with its melted cheese and sauerkraut less visible than wallflowers at a high school dance. The brisket was fine and fresh, but the overall thing needed some life - a fancier mustard or a bit more kraut? Or a touch of Russian dressing, even Thousand Island would have done it.

I ordered soup once again, tempted by the promise of a great sounding combination: tomato cream with artichokes and dill. Ugh. The tomato tasted straight from the can, acidic, salty, to the point of overpowering any fresh herb or cream, and made all the worse by the large chunks of sour and briny artichoke quarters. I'm not sure if maybe whomever is cooking hates food and tasting it, or simply has no concept of flavour balance, trained or otherwise.

I had a bite of my companion's chicken curry with fruit. Finally some much needed sweetness was found, but the spices were as detectable and exciting as salt and pepper (maybe they have to appease the Carpies?), and the thick nuggets of chicken breast were awfully dry.

The only thing that was decent was dessert. There is a good selection of homemade cakes and truffles. We tried the "Supreme" chocolate cake which was quite nice. It was sweet and rich without being too heavy, but its ganache layers weren't quite worthy of the label, and more akin to chocolate flavoured whipped cream. If you want to go out on the town while you're passing through, I'd hit the Swan for what's on tap or afternoon tea, but as far as a meal goes, I think next time I'll try Carp Pizza.

Lunch from around $12, $15 mains, not including drinks, tap, or tip.

The Blooming Onion
at York and Dalhousie

I couldn't quite well be in Ottawa and not get poutine now could I? Sure you can find it all over the place now, on fast food and restaurant menus alike, but bordering Quecbec, I thought I'd get something a bit more authentic.

Poutine or peu-tin as it's properly pronounced, has many die-hard fans who insist that it must be fresh thick, hand-cut fries, real white cheese curds, and special sauce, not just your basic brown gravy (although frankly, I can't really distinguish, or maybe that brown stuff has become ubiquitous). Although online searches mostly turned up with The Elgin Street dinner as the no. 1 local pick, finding that they served thin fries (hells no), and that most people preferred chip truck nosh, well, the Blooming Onion was it.

Walk along Dalhousie, and there are a variety of options to dine; but the truck is easy enough to spot. They offer hot dogs and of course blooming onions as well, and the poutine is very satisfying.

$4 for regular
$5 for large

note: Pictures are ripped from the web, chosen to best represent what I had, but are not of the actual product.

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