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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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Eating up the Hill: A taste of Nova Scotia

Last Tuesday was a reception I and many other hill dwellers had circled on our calendar weeks ago: the Taste of Nova Scotia reception. And with dreams of lobster rolls and scallops in our heads, we descended on the Sir John A. MacDonald building in droves.

Unfortunately, many of us were turned away. For the first time I can recall, the RSVP list was being strictly enforced -- even for pass holders. If you weren't on the RSVP list, with the exception of MPs and Senators you were turned away. Luckily, while I don't always RSVP, for this one I did (perhaps the fear of losing out on fresh seafood being too much to risk) and was able to venture inside.

It was a lot more upscale than I was expecting -- I'd been picturing a kitchen party with donairs and beer. Instead, it was much fancier, with chefs preparing small plates at a variety of food stations and a series of bars offering selections of Nova Scotia-produced beer, wine and even the harder stuff. The wine was decent, but the rum was quite nice. The food was the main attraction, though, and I definitely left full.

My favourite was the Seared Scallop Escabèche, which was prepared with pickled red onions and dukkah (hazelnuts, sesame seed, cumin and corriander) by Chef Renée Lavallee of The Canteen in Dartmouth. The ingredients nicely complemented the flavourful scallops, which remain one of my favourite non-fish seafood choices.

Of course, there was lobster as well. Here we have soft poached Nova Scotia lobster with a smoked corn relish, bisque fluid gel, vanilla bierre noisette, corn shoots, micro watercress and radish paper. I don't know what most of that is, but I do know it tasted delicious. I managed to get one, but this station was constantly swamped by demand -- they couldn't plate them fast enough.

I did enjoy several of these crab on toast thingies (I neglected to snap a picture of the station sign for this one, so crab on toast thingee is the description you get.) I thought the bread took away from the crab a bit too much, but otherwise, delish indeed.

It wasn't all seafood. I inhaled several of these wild mushroom ravioli pockets, which could have used a bit more sauce but were otherwise delicious.

And a meaty hit was the Meadowbrook Pork Coppa, which was sous vide and charred pork with a sweet potato puree, black mustard seed and silver birch glaze, prepared by Chef Jason Lynchg of LeCaveau Reasturant in Grand Pré and Chef Jeffrey MacNeil of Prime Restaurant + Wine Bar in Lunenberg.

So it wasn't quite an East Coast kitchen party, but when I bid a farewell to Nova Scotia I had enjoyed a great deal of local specialties and spirits, and left with a new determination to always RSVP.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Rob Jamieson's Liberal constitutional buffet

Last Monday I attended a briefing on amendments to the Liberal Party of Canada constitution at the Farmteam Cookhouse on Sparks Street. The party sprang for a few plates of appetizers, and Liberal carpenter Rob Jamieson strongly insisted I report on the nibbles.

There were a variety of cold appetizers, including veggies, meat and cheese, bread and crackers, and a fruit tray.

Veggies are veggies, they were fine. I enjoyed some fruit, particularly the pineapple. Usually it is cut in chunks, but the thin slices were a nice change. I'm not a big cured meat person, but it went quickly so the constitutionally curious seemed to enjoy it.

I do need to raise concerns, however, about the crackers. I was not a fan. They were not good crackers to pair with cheese. The texture and size were off, leading to a imbalanced cheese to cracker ratio. The cracker should never be the main show -- it is merely the cheese delivery vehicle.

Next time, I'd recommend less cracker, more crunch.

Now, on to Winnipeg. Hoping for pierogies in the Laurier lounge.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Indian buffet goodness

I know I haven't food blogged in awhile, but my free time to attend receptions has been limited, and many of the appetizers served we've seen before. But with the MP back in the riding, we ventured out Friday to try somewhere new for lunch: India Palace.

Maybe a five minute walk from Parliament Hill, India Palace offers an a la carte menu with a wide variety of options, from curries and tandoori to kabob, tandoor and biryani. I was there for one thing, however: the lunch buffet.

Restaurant: India Palace, 292 Albert Street (at Kent)
Dish: Over 30 advertised items in the lunch buffet
Price: $12.95 (before tax, tip and beverage)

So did a lot of other people, apparently, as the small restaurant  was packed with butter chicken-craving public servants, and there was always a line for the buffet. Our party of three had to wait about 10 minutes, and there didn't seem to be much organization in the order in which people were seated, but seated we finally were. I thought we'd beat the crowd by arriving early, at around 11:40. Going about an hour later may have been a better bet.

Given the high traffic for the lunch buffet, all the items were hot and fresh due to regular restocking. There were all the usual Indian-type staples you would expect, including plenty of vegetarian dishes. The one disappointment for me was the veggie samosas, which lacked spice and mainly had mashed veggies inside -- Scarborough samosas remain the best samosas.

Everything else I enjoyed quite a bit though, from the butter chicken and the spinach chicken to the pakora. But by far the standout was the perfectly done tandoori chicken. I could have just ate a plate of tandoori chicken and I'd have been happy.

I will definitely be back, and hopefully at a slower time so I can spend more time enjoying the tandoori goodness, and maybe have a nap afterward.

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