Sunday, October 02, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Mac My Cheese Fest a flop

Macaroni and cheese has had something of a renaissance in recent years, perhaps capitalizing on people looking to relive their youths with a nostalgia kick. Festivals have begun to pop up to capitalize and make bank, which is what brought the Mac My Cheese Fest to Ottawa City Hall this first weekend of October.

After putting in a few hours of catch-up at the office Saturday, I walked over to get my Mac & Cheese on. My first thought on arrival was how empty the place was. There was maybe three people in the fenced-in beer garden, and maybe 30 at best wandering the trucks or sitting outside the garden on the picnic tables and adirondack chairs. Fine was my first though; no lines for that delicious cheesy mac.

I walked right past the irrelevant donuts and churro stands and proceeded to survey the mac & cheese on offer. It all seemed fairly standard mac & cheese fare -- a mac & cheese base with a selection of add-ons, from chicken and hot dogs to beef and, of course, bacon.

After doing the loop, I came back to Smokin' R&R BBQ. I very nearly went for the double smoked bacon mac & cheese -- I love bacon, and that second smoke makes all the difference -- but at the last minute I took a shot and instead opted for the bison mac & cheese. Because with that lean bison meat, this is practically health food, right? After forking over an insane $16 (plus another $2 for a can of Diet Coke) I waited five minutes for my order, and then headed to an aforementioned Adirondack chair to dig in tot he cheesy goodness.

Well, not so cheesy, really. It had a creamy sauce, but I think they forgot the cheese when making the sauce. Oh, there was some shredded cheese on top, but it's not mac & cheese without a cheesy sauce. And this sauce was bland and not particularly cheesy. Nor was it really macaroni. It was a long, twisty macaroni-ish pasta. If it ain't elbow macaroni, it ain't mac & cheese.

Let me diverge for a moment. I mentioned the macaroni nostalgia kick that many restaurants are trying to capitalize on. Unfortunately, many of them are cheating by using not elbow macaroni, but some other pasta like penne or rigatoni. That's a bald-faced lie that should be illegal. It's false advertising. You're not serving me mac & cheese as advertised; you're serving me a run of the mill pasta dish. Mac & Cheese means MACaroni, it's right there in the damned name. Stop it, people.

Anyways, back to the disappointing bison mac & cheese. Not overly cheesy, not macaroni, topped with ground bison in a tangy sauce with diced onions and peppers. The topping was tasty, but I could have used some more of it. Particularly for what I paid for this entree.

Deciding a palate cleanser was in order to hopefully allow me to leave the festival on a higher note, I went to Upper Deck and ordered the deep-fried mac & cheese wedges for $6. Cooked fresh while I waited, here's what I ended up with:

While still over priced (about the same as they charge for the same thing at Cineplex VIP, although they top it with bacon and bring it to my seat) it was at least cheesy, and appeared to be stuffed with actual macaroni.

Next year, I will have to give the Mac My Cheese Fest a past. Overpriced with poor execution. And frankly, with the poor crowd I wonder if they'll even be back next year. It's a shame; it's not a bad idea. They really need to find a way to bake it as it would make a big difference over just tossing some grated cheese on top; put a cooking salamander on top though.

I should have known better, though. They have a mac & cheese booth at the CNE food hall; I've had it twice over the years and each time it disappointed. I will stick to making my mac & cheese at home,.

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Saturday, October 01, 2016

Eating up the Hill: The Cattleman bring beef for lunch

While all the evening receptions on the Hill sound fun and glamorous, I'm an old man who, more often than not, would rather just go home, sit on the couch, and catch up on NCIS New Orleans on my PVR. But a lunch reception? That I can definitely do.

Having missed the Canadian Cattlemen's Association's recent Beer, Beef and Whiskey receptions, I've been looking forward to their end of summer Beef lunch BBQ in the East Block Courtyard. And it didn't disappoint; you could smell the delicious beef clear from Gatineau.

As I lined up for my beef and talked about the soy industry with a fellow from the soy lobby (he says there is a soy reception in the works, soy fans), my friend John from the Cattlemen insisted on taking my camera and snapping a photo of me and the beef for this blog -- my readership is small, but dedicated. So here I am, bringing home the beef:

And delicious beef it was. On my first round through, I sampled both salads -- because I'm healthy like that. The potato salad was standard fare but fresh and well prepared, and the quinoa salad with corn and other assorted vegetables was quite tasty. But this wasn't the quinoa reception. The beef on buns was tender, juicy and delicious. They couldn't slice it fast enough for the hungry hordes.

After listening to the speakers talk about Canadian beef, including its growing sustainable, hormone-free, ethically-treated beef program, and an appearance by Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, I got back in line for my second round of beef right behind Tony Clement, who insisted he was only on his first round. 

This time, I was focused. No salads, no buns (sorry, Canadian Grain Farmers). This time, I said, just slice the beef onto my plate. And they did. And it was good.

A fitting end to grilling season. Thank you Canadian Cattlemen.

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Friday is fish day

If it's Friday, it's fish day in Parliamentary cafeterias. Often that means fish and chips -- I usually sub out the fries for a salad -- but this Friday, it was a salmon fillet so I took the elevator up to the newly reopened Confederation Building cafeteria to fulfill one of the few remaining traditions of my Catholic upbringing.

One thing I should report is progress on the Parliamentary milk front. Since my first Hill food blog, I have lamented that only the little mini cartons of milk are available and wished they would stock the 500 ml. cartons. I often enjoy a milk with my lunch, and the little cartons just do nothing for me.

Well, perhaps I have a reader in the food services department (if you're reading this decision makers, please put the seafood chowder in heavy soup rotation and toss in some corn), as I can report that 2% and chocolate milk cartons are now available in the 500 ml. cartons for $2.13. I'd love if they had the skim in this size, but I know it's the less popular milk and this is definitely real (and welcome) change in Parliamentary milk delivery for which I humbly thank the powers that be.

On to the salmon. It was served with very lightly-seasoned rice with a few assorted peas, carrots and corn mixed in. I like rice with my fish, but I would have liked them to have stepped up the vegetable game with a more substantive veggie mix in the rice. As I took away my plate, it felt like a very small serving for a lunch entree. More veggies would have been a better value and more filling lunch.

Restaurant: Confederation Building Cafeteria
Meal: Salmon Fillet with Caper Dressing and Vegetable Rice
Price: $6.45 for entree + $2.13 for milk for $9.70 w/tax

The salmon, though, was the main course. It was seasoned nicely with caper dressing butter and dill, and cooked well to a flaky state. It was clearly, though, Atlantic farmed salmon. Which means it was moist and plump, but lacking in the strong salmon taste of wild salmon. I wouldn't expect wild salmon on offer in the Parliamentary cafeteria at this pricepoint (I believe though there is a salmon-related lobby reception upcoming though) but, for a west coaster, it's just not the same.

Still, it was a perfectly adequate, if somewhat lacking in portion size, lunch. And a nice break from fish and chips.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Tim Hortons and the saga of the devolving Apple Fritter

Like many Canadians, Tim Hortons is often a part of my morning routine. Not for coffee -- I'm not a coffee drinker -- but a few days a week I'll stop on my way to work for a bagel and/or a donut.

Or, to be more specific, a fritter. For more than a decade, the apple fritter has been my go-to unhealthy pastry from Tims -- for the past year, the location at Sparks and Bank that does a brisk business from Hill and other nearby office workers. I used to favour another fritter, the blueberry, but that was removed from their menu some years ago.

Also removed some years ago? The apple. Yes, there used to be actual apples in the apple fritter! Tender morsels of fruit bathed in delicious cinnamon, in reasonable quantity, were inside every pastry. Over time, the generosity of the apple infusion declined until, finally, we were left with a pastry oxymoron: an apple fritter with no apple. They still called it an apple fritter. But there was no apple therein.

Last fall, during the campaign, while transiting a Tims drivethrough in the great riding of Scarborough Centre, the driver asked if I wanted anything. "Apple fritter," I reflexively replied. As we drove away and I bit into my canvass fuel I noted two things: there's a new crumble on this fritter and, what's this, there's apple in here! A generous portion of not just apple, but apple sauce. What wonder is this?

My next trip into a Tims told the tale. They hadn't returned the apple to the apple fritter, recognizing it's a stupid name without any actual apple. No, the apple-free apple fritter was still on the menu. No, they had introduced a seasonal, "premium" donut, the "apple pie fritter." So if you want an apple fritter with actual apple (and pie crumble) you can have it -- for a limited time, and an extra 50 cents.

Clever corporate overlords, no? But they weren't done yet. Fast forward to this year, and the return of apple pie fritter season. I've had two this week and, guess what? THEY'VE TAKEN THE DAMNED APPLE OUT AGAIN!

Yes, that's right. Last year's apple sauce bounty was a feint. This year, my apple pie fritters have averaged three measly specks of apple. What gives, Tim Hortons? Are you hoarding apple somewhere? Are store owners sitting in the back rooms gorging on our apple sauce?

Now you can buy an apple fritter for 99 cents or an apple pie fritter for $1.49 -- neither of them with apple!

This just won't do, Tim Hortons. Because it's 2016. Better is always possible. #BringBackTheApple

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Centre Block Club Sandwich

The specials at the assorted Parliamentary Cafeteria are often hit or miss, so if the special of the day doesn't catch my fancy I often fall back on a few standbys from the regular menu. And my most common go-to is the club sandwich.

Most of the cafeterias in the precinct (East Block, Confederation and Justice) are closed for the summer, but Centre Block (and Valour) is still open for lunch so, feeling peckish, I ventured up the Hill the other day for a club sandwich -- I've pretty well tired of most of the walkable lunching options outside the precinct.

Restaurant: Centre Block Cafeteria
Meal: Club Sandwich with chips
Price: $8.40 including tax

One thing they do right with their club sandwich is they toast the bread. Now, you're probably reading this and thinking "well of course they do, who the hell wouldn't toast the bread for a club sandwich? That's insane." And I agree. But some years back, while waiting for a flight out of Pearson Airport's Terminal Two, I wandered into the pub and ordered a club sandwich, which they served me on two pieces of un-toasted white bread, to my great dismay and disgust. So never assume anything in life, people. (They later tore down Terminal Two -- that may or may not be related).

But back to present day sandwiches. A wide variety of breads are on offer (toasted, of course) but my go-to is a light rye. After retrieving a fresh loaf, I was apologetically informed that the size of the slices in this loaf (and they did dive deeper into the load to check) were rather small.

They offered the chance to switch breads, but I opted to stay with the light rye. "Just don't short me on the fillings," I requested, and I was assured this would not be the case. I also described bread as a mere delivery vehicle for the fillings -- the heart of the sandwich.

The fillings were the usual -- lettuce, tomato, bacon, mayo, salt and pepper, and lots of sliced chicken. As you can see, they certainly didn't short me on the fillings. I did, though, come to regret not going to a larger bread option -- the small slices of eye were unfortunately not large enough to be a proper filling delivery system. I was forewarned though, so that's on me.

The sharp-eyed among you will note my sandwich is one slice short of being a traditional club, which typically has a middle slice of bread between the meat and the rest. This is deliberate. For reasons I don't fully understand, adding that extra slice would result in a noteworthy up-charge under the Commons sandwich pricing regime. Therefore I accept the standing recommendation to forego the expensive extra slice.

Because, at $8.40 with the kettle chips added (which were OK, but would have been better warmed), I'm already paying about $1 more for this lunch then I'd like. Hit the spot though. But next time, bigger bread.

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