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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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Eating up the Hill: The Smoque Shack

I know I've been a bit less than diligent in my Hill and Hill-adjacent food blogging lately. So, in the spirit of public service, on the weekend I ventured to a BBQ place I've been meaning to try in the Byward Market: Smoque Shack.


As I've mentioned before, I've developed somewhat high standards when it comes to BBQ. Spending any time in Texas will do that. During a few trips to Austin with Dell I've had the chance to try some amazing BBQ -- Rudy's was my clear favourite. It doesn't look like much, but the food is amazing.

So I had high expectations, although I did try to temper them as Ottawa definitely isn't Texas. Still, BBQ isn't cheap and neither was Smoque Shack, so it had better be good.

Smoked BBQ is a little different than other cuisine in that you order by the pound. My first time at Rudy's, I under ordered and ended up with two ribs and half a sausage. Lesson learned. From then on, the rule has been to over-order and bring home the leftovers for lunch the next day. So that's why I went into The Smoque Shack and ordered one pound of Andouille  sausage, a half rack of St. Louis Ribs with a side of Honey Chipotle BBQ sauce, and a side of macaroni and cheese. "Would I like to add curds and bacon to my mac & cheese?" they asked. "Umm, yeah." I replied.


Restaurant: The Smoque Shack, 129 York Street
Dishes (before tax): 1/2 Rack St. Louis Side Cut Ribs $14, Side of sauce $1, 1/2 pound Andouille Sausage $10, side Macaroni & Cheese add curds and bacon $6

Let's start with the ribs. They were meaty, but dry. I don't just mean that they were served dry -- that's why I ordered the side of sauce; they were supposed to come dry. But they were also lacking in moistness. And while smoked, they didn't seem to pick up that much of the smoke flavour -- perhaps not enough time in the smoker. They were OK, a bit crumbly, but definitely made me miss the grilled ribs from Sparks Street Ribfest.


On to the sausage. It's not a typical BBQ choice, but it's one of my go-to favourites. It's hard to screw up sausage; this one was good though. It actually had a nice smoke to it, and a light bit of spice that didn't hit you until after.



The real star, however, was the mac & cheese. I'm a big mac & cheese fan, and this one ticked all my boxes. First of all, and this is important, it was actually macaroni. Too many restaurants are trying to capitalize on nostalgia kicks by putting mac & cheese on the menu but actually serving a dish with rigatoni or some other pasta. That is NOT mac & cheese. It's a run of the mill pasta dish. You can't have mac & cheese without the mac -- it's right there in the damned name. This actual macaroni was served in a cheesy sauce, topped with bacon, curds and shredded cheese and -- this is key, again -- baked, so the cheese on top is all golden and delicious. And you get a huge amount for $6 -- I was worried they had given me the dinner size until I got the bill and confirmed this was indeed the side. Amazeballs value and taste -- best part of the meal.


Finally, the ciabatta buns were interesting and fresh, but if they were going for authentic it should have been Wonder Bread. I know, but that's how they do it in Texas.

So, to sum up, mac & cheese amazeballs, sausage good, ribs were a miss. I'll give them another try in a month or two in case I caught them on a bad day, ribs wise. In the interim, I've sausage and mac & cheese for lunch today -- delish.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Sparks Street Ribfest

There are some days on the Parliamentary calendar that everyone circles. Throne Speech. Budget. Presidential visits. Those are big days. But there is one annual event that trumps them all: Sparks Street Ribfest.

For three weekdays, we're not Liberals, Conservatives, NDPers or journalists. No, we are Canadians. Canadians who love barbecued pork smothered in barbecue sauce. Walking in to the office each morning, you can smell the burning charcoal from blocks away, making for a long three hours of public service mixed with barbecue anticipation before we are finally disgorged from our Gothic office buildings like a swarm of barbecue-crazing locusts, descending on a narrow pedestrian mall craving those sweet, sweet ribs. The usual policy chatter in the corridors of power is replaced with talk of favoured ribbers, and plans for the next lunch.

Alas, I'm taking the train to Toronto on Friday, so my 2016 ribfest experience is over after two days. This is the story of those ribs.

Day One: Camp 31


When it comes to BBQ, I have some standards. My last job took me down to Austin a few times and, trust me, those folks know how to do BBQ. No one up here is going to approach that level of excellence. Still, these meat carnies do nothing but travel from town to town making ribs, so you're not going to get any ribs that suck at a ribfest.

I believe I read awhile back that everyone has the same meat supplier. And they all tend to use similar cooking techniques. For me, therefore, the difference lays in the sauce.

My first day landed me at Camp 31 and wasn't chosen for the best reasons: it had a short line and wasn't far down from Bank Street. But I was drawn in for a more positive reason: they had sausage. Now, I love me some ribs. But when I'm doing BBQ in Texas, sausage is one of my favourite meats. So I joined the line, and ordered a half rack and a sausage.


Returning to the office to eat BBQ at my desk and watch a Prime Ministerial press conference on TV (ribs with a side of sunny ways), I began with the sausage to cleanse my pallet. The fact it came on a bun, instead of with a piece of white bread, didn't argue well for its authenticity. It was a perfectly reasonable sausage, however. Well flavoured, though it could have used a little heat.

On to the ribs. The ribs were meaty and the meat was juicy, cooked to fall off the bone perfection with just the right amount of char. Everything you want ribs to be. As I foreshadowed earlier though, the differentiater is going to be the sauce. Some folks are wine connoisseurs. I'm a sauce connoisseur. I look for a sauce that reveals a complex but complementary combination of tastes. All I got from this one was ketchup and maybe a little brown sugar.


We can do better. We must do better.

Day Two: Billy Bones



I did two things differently on Thursday: I walked past O'Connor Street, and I choose the ribber with the longest line. Longer lines mean either they're offering really good ribs, or they're really slow at serving ribs. Or maybe both. But likely the former. Because like I said earlier, traveling meat carnies.

No sausage was on offer here today, and no sausage was on my mind anyway. Like some are focused on helping the middle class and those working hard to reach it, today I was laser focused on ribs. There were sides available: coleslaw and beans. No thanks. Only mac & cheese may have tempted me. You should never fill up on carbs at a ribfest, though.


So I waited out the long line, and dodged a number of people driving those damned John Deere things down the pedestrian mall for no apparent business reason, and placed an order for a half rack.

It came fresh out of the flames above and into a box that was placed in my eager hands. I grabbed some napkins and, after dabbing some on my finger for a taste test, gave it another shot of sauce before retiring to a nearby park bench. Still too hot to handle, I took an anticipatory pause for the ribs to slightly cool.


When I dug in, I again found beautifully cooked ribs. Perhaps 60 seconds under-cooked with the slightest hint of pink, but nothing to worry about. Again, juicy meat that fell of the bones, and just the right about of char.

And the sauce, you ask? Definitely an improvement over day one. Definite notes of pepper, and possible some garlic lurking under the surface. I would have liked stronger flavours (I think my last year of eating a lot of Middle Eastern food has changed my pallet) but it was a very respectable sauce.

Alas, my rib experience must end there. Having confirmed with the Whip's Office that Ribfest is a free vote, I cast mine for Billy's Bones based on the better sauce. With my limited sample though, your mileage may vary.

Happy Ribfest to all. Rib safely my friends.

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