Monday, April 23, 2018

Eating OFF the Hill: Donairs and seafood in Halifax

Spending a few days in Halifax last weekend for the Liberal biennial convention, I decided to make the most of my limited outside meal opportunities by focusing on the local specialty -- the Donair -- and the proximity of the ocean to eat as much seafood as possible. The nearer I am to saltwater, the more fish and seafood I eat.

My first seafood meal came not long after arriving in town late Thursday evening, as I wandered down to Stayner's Wharf in search of what my grandfather always told me was brain food. I had expected a more extensive seafood selection, but settled on the Cajun haddock with pineapple salsa. It came with rice with black beans & tri-coloured bell peppers. I don't care for beans so the rice didn't do much for me, but the haddock was excellent. The cajun spice was spicier than I expected but no complaints from me, and the pineapple salsa was a nice tough. Alas, in my hunger I neglected to snap a photo.

While box lunches were on offer Friday in the Laurier Lounge at the convention, I opted to order in from Tony's Donair and Pizza. One regular (medium) donair, and three donair egg rolls with donair dipping sauce (two were for a friend).

I'll begin with the egg rolls. While the meat was good, the dough was too chewy to be enjoyable and I found the sweetness of the donair sauce a bit much when dipped with an egg roll -- it's better dispersed at a lower ratio in a donair.

Moving on to the donair, my only negative note is too much chopped raw white onion, bunched up together -- it distracted from the experience. The meat was tender, succulent and tasty, the pita fresh. And there was tomato for variety. It was a lot of meat for a medium, and after the egg roll was more than I could eat. Will hold the onions next time and it will be perfect.

Usually when I visit a steakhouse, the steak is mandatory. But after afternoon appies in the Laurier Lounge and Peace by Chocolate at the Judy Party, when I joined friends at The Barrington Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, I opted to go for something a little lighter -- the Lobster Mac & Cheese. Hey, in my mind it's lighter.

It was truly delicious. Decent amount of cooked lobster, actual elbow macaroni (restaurants putting mac & cheese on the menu but actually serving penne or some damned thing is a long-running pet peeve), creamy cheesy goodness, piping hot, bread crumbs, mmm delish. It was the steak of pastas.

On Saturday for lunch, rather than trying for donair delivery or venturing to one of the recommended donair shops (all a taxi drive away) I decided to go to an establishment a block away: Johnny K's Authentic Donair. After Tony's the day before, I immediately regretted not sticking to the recommended options (King of Donair was next on the list).

The regular (medium) was smaller than the Tony's regular. While I held the onions which was great, it's all about the meat and the meat just did not hold up to Tony's. There was enough of it, but I found it processed-tasting, lacking in flavour and a bit dry. In the Ottawa shawarma world, we've long known too many places will try to compensate for dry meat with more sauce. In a good shawarma, you don't need to go heavy on the sauce when you have tender, succulent seasoned meat that can be the star. I think the same holds true with donair.

Speaking of which, with shawarma I always go for the garlic sauce over the sweet, and the sweet donairs served to confirm this choice for me.

For dinner, after the Prime Minister's speech I met a friend down the street at The Five Fisherman, where they had a more extensive seafood selection than Stayner's.

I began with the Nova Scotia seafood chowder, and it was the best chowder I've had in recent memory. Creamy and packed with quality fresh seafood. Tasted home made and not processed. Flavourful broth, chunky scallops. shrimp, clam, mussels and scallops -- the in-shell clam was a nice touch. A chowder I would fight to make sure you say it right -- chowdah!

Next up for the main was more haddock -- they like their haddock in Halifax. So did I, though. I cannot find the menu description online, but it was a delicious creamy sauce with plenty of haddock and fresh veggies. Delish.

Going for a walk behind my hotel in the evening I came across a desert place specializing in cheesecake, called the Sweet Hereafter Cheesecakery. They had me at cheesecake. My slice of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake could have used more peanut butter, but it was sinfully rich and, washed down with a tall glass of cold milk it was a great cap to the evening.

Finally, on Sunday, after touring the excellent Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21 and walking along the waterfront, and discovering King of Donair doesn't open until too late for me to get my shuttle and taking a taxi to Pizza Corner seemed an unjustifiable expense, I turned to Google for Lobster Roll recommendations and kept walking down the wharf -- making sure to step out onto a pier for authenticity's sake before taking the obligatory Barret's-themed photo -- to visit Salty's.

Yeah, so I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold?
Its waterfront location offered a great view, but I got a bit of a tourist trap vibe I didn't get from my other seafood stops. Still, after inquiring of the market price I went ahead and ordered the lobster roll.

It came on a croissant, which doesn't seem traditional though it was a tasty pastry. I was not impressed with the paltry amount of lobster I got, maybe half of what I had at Barrington's for roughly the same price. It was tasty, but not great value. The salad was a standout, highlighted by the stewed red peppers and a tasty raspberry vinaigrette.

Knowing that this wouldn't hold me until a late dinner back in Ottawa though, part way through the main I ordered a seafood chowder. It was disappointing after the amazing chowder at Five Fishermen the night before. Bland broth, filler potato, not enough seafood. There were two shrimps, but otherwise it tasted generic and processed.

And with that, my meals were at an end. Farewell to Nova Scotia!

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Saturday, April 07, 2018

Eating in the Dominican: Oregano Dominican Fusion

I’m well outside my usual food blogging radius, currently spending a week at the Emotions Playa Dorada resort in the Dominican Republic, but there has been some interest in some food blogging from these warmer climes. So I shall attempt to indulge, as far as my packed vacation schedule (sitting by the pool, and then sitting on the beach), as well as my patience typing on an iPad permits.

There are several a la carte reasturants on the resort and no reservations are required, which is a nice change from other places. Last night I had dinner at Oregano Dominican Fusion, to sample the local cuisine. I’m told that Dominican cuisine is highly influenced by the immigrants that have reached its shores, and has Creole him characteristics with African, Spanish and Taino influences. Also, they apparently use lots of Oregano and this is what makes them so happy or something.

After ordering my three courses, they brought me a courtesy appetizer plate of mini empanadas, cheese balls, and some sort of croquette I was unable to place, with a lukewarm tomato soup for dipping. I liked the empanadas.

I began with an an an appetizer, described as a “long pork sausage with guava berry honey, aged rum and mashed yucca.” I have to admit I was expecting a little more sausage than the three little pieces I was served. As I would come to see though, they were serious about their plating. The sausage itself was tasty, with hints of Oregano, unsurprisingly. I could not detect the subtle flavours of guava and rum promised in the description of the sticky, syrupy sauce, but it was fine.

On to the main, and over several options I went with the “beef fillet with demiglace flambeed with mamajuana and accompanied with a sweet potato soufflĂ©.” The need was cooked to medium as ordered and was deliciously tender. I couldn’t get much out of the sauce other than an acceptable beef jus, and the vegetables were all cooked properly. It was enjoyable, and filled me up.

Thankfully, dessert was as small as the appetizer, so I had room left. I had ordered the “Dominican Fusion” and was presented three little spoons of direct pudding-type things. One was a rice pudding, the other had a corn base, and the third was a dulce de Leone. The ride pudding was passable, the corn one was a nice change as I cannot say I’ve had many corn-based desserts, and the caramel-y dulce was tasty too.

Tonight, either Mexican or Italian.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Eating OFF the Hill: Jollibee comes to Scarborough

The easy shorthand for explaining Jollibee to Canadians is that it's the Filipino McDonald's. But it seems to hold a deeper cultural resonance for those from the Philippines than McDonald's, so perhaps Tim Horton's would be a better comparative.

After opening its first two Canadian locations in Winnipeg -- Prime Minister Trudeau visited the first location, as well as one in Manila -- the hunger only built in the Greater Toronto area. It was great to see the borough win one for once, with the first location in Ontario opening this past weekend at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough.

I had the opportunity to attend the pre-opening event Saturday, and a tent was already set up in the parking lot for those expected to camp out overnight to be among the first in line for the next day's official opening. The first 40 through the door would win a "year's supply" (one bucket per month) of Jollibee's flagship Chicken Joy.

A Jollibee executive told me they were excited to finally be in Toronto, and many more locations are being planned in the region. The challenge has been finding suitable locations for lease -- many are reserved for other restaurant chains. They had hoped to be here much sooner, and should be in Mississauga soon. I was told they also recently bought American burger chain Smashburger, though there's no word on when they may bring that brand to Canada.

But let's focus on the food. We got to try three of their flagship mains once the formal program was completed -- the aforementioned Chicken Joy, their Jolly Spaghetti, and the Palabok Fiesta. Other menu anchors we didn't get to try included Hamburger Steak, the Yum Burger and the spicy version of the Chicken Joy.

Taking a plate to the buffet line (for the pre-opening only, it's regular fast food ordering usually) I  passed on the salad and added some of each offering to my plate. Staff also came to tables to offer gravy, sides such as corn, rice and potatoes, drinks including delicious pineapple juice, and peach mango pies for desert.

I'll start with the Chicken Joy. They only serve dark meat as they believe it's juicer (which I suppose it is), which puts me at a disadvantage since I greatly prefer white meat. On its own it was fairly typical fried chicken, heavily breaded and cooked through. I didn't find the breading particularly flavourful (no secret blend of herbs and spices) and it may have been a touch too crispy. I'd have liked to have tried the spicy version. I'm told what makes the difference though is dipping it in the gravy. It's a brown gravy, but with an extra ingredient I cannot put my finger on which gives it a little something more. It did indeed enhance my Chicken Joy joy, so consider it a mandatory accompaniment.

Moving on to the Jolly Spaghetti, I was warned ahead of time it's not really like our usual spaghetti. It's described as a sweet spaghetti and I'd heard the sauce compared, I would guess not favourably, to ketchup. Now, it's hard to get a true sense of it because of the way it was uniquely served this time -- buffet, sauce on top -- made for a lower than usual sauce to pasta ratio, I found it only slightly sweeter than usual spaghetti. It also include diced ham and sausage, which blended well with the sauce.

The other noodle-based offering, Palabok Fiesta, was noodles with a garlic sauce topped with pork rinds, shrimp, sauteed pork and sliced egg. I moved the egg to the side and dug in, although I am generally wary of fast food shrimp. With the recommended packet of lemon juice adding more flavour, it was OK but wouldn't be a regular order for me.

In addition to the accompanying pineapple juice, which was a nice change over pop, the standout for me was the Peach Mango Pie. With the same form as a McDonald's Apple Pie, the flaky sweet crust revealed a delicious mixture of peach and mango chunks in a sugary sauce. Sugar does seem to be a recurring theme.

Expect long lines at Jollibee for some time to come -- I hear the first customer on Sunday camped out for some 17 hours, and Filipinos and foodies from across the region will be making the pilgrimage steadily for some time to come.

I'll be back for the Chicken Joy with gravy and to try the hamburger steak, and a Peach Mango Pie for desert, on some jolly day in the near future.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Eating up the Hill: Hungarian Goulash and Palacsinta

Ventured outside the downtown to the wilds of Nepean with friends a few weekends ago for a bake sale at the Ottawa Hungarian Community Centre and a traditional Hungarian lunch.

Hosted in a typical ageing community hall, emblazoned with memories of the old country and images of stern-looking Hungarian leaders past looking down on all who enter, our first stop was to the bake sale table. From the flyer advertising the event, I entered the room with interest in Sour Cherry Pie and Lemon Cake. Sadly, neither were actually on offer at this point in the day. In fact, a rather meager selection of sweets were displayed, none of which appealed to me. Apparently everything good had been reserved and spoken for earlier, although the flyer indicated only that cabbage rolls should be pre-ordered.

My sweet tooth denied, we retired to the table for lunch. The goulash game quickly and was warm. I believe I've written about my soup preferences before, and you may recall I tend to more favour the cream variety over the vegetable stock variety. So, fair to say goulash isn't my prime thing when it comes to soups. There was a plentiful helping of beef, potatoes, carrots and cabbage, but I would have liked a more flavourful broth. Peppers were available for insertion by those interested.

The next and final course was two apricot palsacinta, or Hungarian Crepes. Sprinkled with icing sugar, the crepes were thin and sweet and layered with a suitable amount of apricot jam. I ate one, and saved one for later.

My friend was kind enough to send me home with two cabbage rolls, which I later enjoyed for dinner and found a much more meaty and satisfying representation of Hungarian cuisine. Will need to order some of my own next time. 

Also, some sour cherry pie.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Eating up the Hill: Gnocchi with scallops at Metropolitain Brasserie

Left the precinct for lunch with a friend Friday at the Metropolitain Brasserie, a swanky French bistro on the other wide of the Chateau Laurier.

Popular with the political set, particularly with Conservatives, I've been there a number of times for standing receptions but never for a sit-down meal, so I was looking forward to sampling the menu. From my pre-meal menu scouting, I had seen it was largely oysters and French stuff. A few entrees were tempting but too heavy for lunch, but they also had a burger, crepes, tartare (no ways) and what not.

I was leaning heavily going in towards the Croque Monsieur, which of course would be a sandwich of country smoked ham & Gruyere baked with Mornay sauce. Maybe a soup or salad on the side, as a nice light(ish) lunch. Outside chance of flipping to a steak sandwich.

Then they told me the specials, and I was intrigued by the offer of gnocchi with scallops. I think I've written before about liking pasta, but not being quick to order it when dining out because as it seems like something too simple; it would be wasting a rare dining-out opportunity. I'd put gnocchi in the same category.

But sometimes, you just go for it. And I enjoy a good gnocchi. Also, scallops, even if The Met is dangerously far from an ocean. So, I went with the special.

Because it was a special not on the regular menu, I can't be super precise in my description. Five good-sized scallops, browned on one side and cooked properly. Tender gnocchi. Spinach, and likely some sort of cheese in what I'll guess was a wine wine and butter sauce.

It was delicious. A slightly heavier lunch than the sandwich I was going to have, but not overly so and I didn't get too sleepy later in the afternoon. Sauce was tasty, scallops and gnocchi too. No order regret.

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