Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Eating off the Hill: Air Canada's new Jérôme Ferrer, meal box

 Even if I'm not always hungry during the flight, if I'm going cross-country in particular I find a little nosh helps to pass the flight. And I'm a planner, so I will often pre-order my meal when I book my ticket to save a few bucks. This is what led me to have Air Canada's new meal box on a recent flight from Vancouver back to Ottawa that they've developed in partnership with Montreal chef Jérôme Ferrer.

Honestly, by the time the flight came around I had forgotten just what I had ordered, just that I had ordered something. When we settled into our cruising altitude the flight attendant came around w\ith an armful of long, thin boxes and one was for me.

Curious to see what I had ordered, I broke the seal and opened the box -- and was immediately underwhelmed. Inside the box was a vacuum-packed sandwich, a couscous salad and a slice of cranberry load.

The sandwich was not easy to open as there seemed to be no seam but, eventually, I did get the plastic off. And again, underwhelmed. I wish I had the presence of mind to take a photo. It was supposed to be a chicken salad sandwich, but they dolled out the filling so sparingly that the bread to stuff ratio was almost all bread. It was fresh enough but not great at all.

I didn't finish the quinoa salad. It needed more flavour and was just kind of meh.

The standout, surprisingly, was the cranberry load. Very tasty with the tart fruit.

All in all, I prefer the regular Air Canada bistro offerings like the cheese and fruit plate or the macaroni and cheese. If I was Jérôme, and I know nothing about him, I would not want to put my name on this. 4/10.

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Sunday, August 13, 2023

Eating off the Hill: My Seattle food roundup

 I spent a lot of time on ferries during my Seattle trip as, in search of semi-reasonable hotel prices, the Swifties made me flee town for Bremerton. But all my extensive pre-trip research wasn't entirely wasted as I did get to try some local delicacies and culinary specialties. It's a far from comprehensive review of the Seattle food scene, but here's what I did manage.

Piroshky Piroshky Bakery, Pike Place Market

I was a little apprehensive to go to this tourist mecca on a Saturday when Seattle was invaded both by baseball fans and Swifties, but it's a foodie must-visit and I was determined to start the day at Piroshky Piroshky Bakery, a Russian bakery known for its selection of sweet and savoury piroshky -- basically, a version of the famous Scarborough patties.

There was a deceptively long line outside but it moved quickly and efficiently. There was a staff member keeping it moving and telling jokes. And there were menus outside so you could just step into the very small establishment, get your pastry and move along. On my way I did pass by another location, but it was closed and seemed designed to cater to the local breakfast business crowd.

They have many different varieties but I decided on one of the classics, the beef and cheese. It was tourist priced, but it was warn am and fluffy and flavourful, and got my day started off right. I wouldn't have objected to some spice, but this was Seattle and not Scarborough.

Jackson's Catfish Corner

A lot of my Seattle food research focused on fish and seafood, as it often does when I'm visiting somewhere ocean adjacent. And that led me to Jackson's Catfish Corner, which was well recommended for catfish and other authentic southern specialties. 

It's outside of downtown proper and the wait for transit was too long, so I hopped in an Uber for the drive. It's an unassuming place on a street corner across from a strip mall and was fairly empty, although it was doing a steady take-out business on a Saturday evening. 

I decided to dine in, of course, being a long ways from my distant hotel, and ordered the half-pound of catfish strips with hush puppies and cole slaw. There were other fish on offer -- I do enjoy snapper -- but it wasn't Snapper Corner so I went with the namesake.

It was fried fresh and they were kind enough to bring the tray to my table. I passed on the tartar in favour of ketchup, although I did sample them naked first. The cole slaw was cool and crispy and mayo-based. The fish and hush puppies were fried in a corn meal batter. It was definitely a generous portion of cat fish.

It was OK, but I think I'm not a big cat fish guy. Was a little bready and could have used more flavour. But it was an enjoyable dinner off the tourist path.

Seattle Dog # 1

Many cities have their own take on the classic American hot dog. And in Seattle, apparently that's their namesake Seattle dog. Based on my food research, the Seattle dog is a classic hot hod on a bun with some toast served with fried vegetables and cream cheese. I know, right, cream cheese? The Chicago people must be losing their minds. But when in Rome...

I decided to grab one on a Sunday morning when I had time to kill before the ball park opened. There's a long long of food stands outside the stadium, some offering seating, so I ordered a Seattle dog and a water and plopped myself down on a picnic table.

I have to say, this was not a good introduction to Seattle's namesake hot dog. The toast was minimal, the bun was falling apart, and the mixed veg was only onion -- usually peppers are included as well. But they had a cream cheese gun, which was really cool. And the cream cheese did add an interesting creamy element. More a single than a home run -- I would need to try again somewhere else.

Ivar's ballpark fish and chips -- hold the fish

Ivar's is a Seattle-based fish and chips chain with a few locations in the city and stands at the ball park and the football stadium next door. Not being wholly satisfied by the pre-game Seattle dog, I decided some fish and chips were in order.

Hold the chips, though. No need to again belabor my lack of enthusiasm for french fries. They are empty carbs I can do without. I get annoyed when, if I want chicken strips, I need to pay for the fries as well. So this day I decided they can charge me if they want but I do not want the fries, and I made this clear on ordering.

To my delight and surprise, they told me well then you get an extra piece of fish. I declared that a great idea and gladly accepted. For ball park fish these were pretty good. Probably cod if I had to guess. And there were even a few rouge fried included.  Definitely a welcome change from strips, and I would trade the fries for more fish any day and twice on Sundays.

Ivar's on the pier for chowder

Long story short, getting out of Seattle's stadium district on Sunday afternoon was a nightmare. I had planned to dine at a fancy seafood place back in Bremerton, but I missed the ferry I wanted. So with a long wait for the next state ferry, I went down the waterfront to another Ivar's location

I ordered a cup of chowder and a water, as hydration is important, and took it to the glass-enclosed pier-side table area to enjoy. It was enclosed to protect from the seagulls but also made it feel like a greenhouse, which probably did help with table turnover.

Anyway, the chowder was creamy but not overly chunky and seemed pretty processed coming out of a big bag. Still, it was tasty.

Seattle dog #2

On my last day in Seattle, an overcast Monday, I dropped my bag at the clipper terminal so I didn't have to drag it around until my afternoon ferry and went to the Space Needle area to check things out. Most of the ticket machines were out of order, but finding a functioning one the price to go up was more than I was willing to pay. So it was on to plan two.

The claimed originator of the Seattle Dog was supposedly a Space Needle-adjacent hot dog stand, and I found it next to a souvenir store between the Space Needle and the Museum of Pop Culture. Conforming that they had proper grilled veg, I ordered the namesake Seattle Dog.

I still don't feel like they executive it perfectly. The bun held somewhat together bit just barely and needed more toast. While there was a variety of grilled veg it was a little overdone. No cream cheese gun this time; they smeared it on the bun. All together though, s satisfying lunch but not one I will seek to replicate at home.

Pike Place Chowder at Pacific Place Center

Finally on Monday, before heading back to the clipper terminal I had to try what my research claimed was the city's best chowder: Pike Place Chowder. And rather than brave the masses at the Pike Place Market, I took the monorail to the Pacific Place Center Mall in the heart of the commercial district.

The mall was dead but the top floor, with an AMC Cinema and several restaurants and food stands, was not. It was around lunch time on a work day and working Seattleans were hungry for chowder.

They have a few different varieties but I went for the original clam chowder, which came with a slice of plain sourdough bead. I could have gotten it with a sourdough bread bowl but honestly, that's just a mess.

The slice of bread did nothing for me. I'm not a dipper, so I could have used some butter. But the chowder itself was excellent. Miles ahead of Ivar's the day before. Rich, creamy, and more substantive. I polished it off and turned for the ferry in a satisfied stupor.

So that was the food I managed in Seattle. I only really scratched the surface, but I did have some good chowder.

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Sunday, August 06, 2023

Eating off the Hill: Is VIA finally upping its catering game?

 As I've mentioned I am a frequent train traveler, usually between Ottawa and Toronto. With them extending the eligibility during COVID I was able to achieve the highest tier of VIA's frequent traveler program this year. One of the perks? We get to choose our meal selection before everyone else so we allays get our first choice.

Seems like a small perk, but it is disappointing to get stuck with the pasta. I have noticed a lot of repetition in their menu offerings -- the same baked hake or cold chicken offerings seem to come up a lot. But while we're still waiting for the new train cars on this route, a new menu option was offered on a recent trip that I just had to try -- BBQ brisket with mac and cheese.

Now, I went into this with expectations properly aligned. Beef is hard to reheat on a train, and brisket is best served fresh at a bbq smokehouse. But this was so different from the usual options I had to give it a shot.

Let's dispense with the sides first. Bread selection as per normal, good. Pudding with grilled pineapple, meh. Burrata cheese with cherry tomatoes, new and excellent, refreshing. I passed on the olives.

On to the main. The brussel sprouts were a surprise but went well with the rest of the dish. The macaroni and cheese was actually macaroni, and it was hot and reasonably cheesy. The brisket, while a little overcooked and not to smokehouse standards, was within train standards, had some nice bark, and a tasty BBQ sauce.

All in all, a worthy addition to VIA's menu rotation. Would definitely order again.

On the other end of the new menu spectrum, on a recent trip I was offered a beef noddle stir fry. Recognizing another new menu offering I again decided to give it a chance. This time, it was not the home run the brisket mac and cheese was.

Again, let's dispense with the sides. Bun good. Two cheeses with grapes, delish. I'm hazy on the dessert. I think it was the apple pie; I have had that a few times and it was delish. They don't skimp on the cinnamon, or the apples. 

On to the mains. I had an excellent crispy beef stir fry on The Canadian for lunch. This was definitely not that. Chunks of unseasoned and overcooked tough beef. The noodles were good and sauces though I would have liked the beg mixed in. And lima beans in a stir fry? Was there a sale?

Anyway, not on my have again any time soon list.  But keep the cheese in the rotation please.

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Friday, August 04, 2023

Eating up the Hill: The very Canadian catch of the day

 I don't find myself in the Parliamentary Dining Room very often -- I'm more of a cafeteria guy -- but back in May the boss and I were entertaining a visiting group of constituents and so I had the opportunity to enjoy a fancy lunch.

Usually I go for one of a few old stand-bys but, on this day, the special caught my interest: Crispy  pickerel in an orange beurre blanc with fingerling potatoes and fiddle heads.

A very Canadian offering indeed, well fit for the dining room of the Parliament of Canada, and so I placed my order.

And a tasty piece of Canadiana it was. I remember often fishing for pickerel with my Grand Father and watching him fry it up at home, to the annoyance of my Grand Mother for stinking up her kitchen.

This wasn't quite how Papa used to make it, but it was quite tasty, cooked well with a crispy skin and served in a generous portion. The fiddleheads were a fresh local delicacy and, while I'm not usually a potato guy, the thin cut fingerings with some crisp combined with the beurre blanc made them quite tasty.

All in all, as good a lunch as I have had in some time. Can't wait for my next excuse to visit.

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Saturday, July 15, 2023

Up in the air: Porter’s new transcontinental service

Many people “back East” as we westerners call Ontario will be familiar with Porter Airways. They fly turboprop Q400s out of the Billy Bishop (Island) Airport to nearby points in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US. I’ve flown them many times between Toronto and Ottawa, as well as to Halifax and Newark. Besides the ease of the Island Airport compared to Pearson, they’re known for their free booze and snacks and planes with no middle seats.

Far less known is their expansion to the West Coast with their new Embraer E195-E2 Jets, which they operate out of Pearson’s Terminal Three and an Ottawa base. Whenever I mentioned them to Vancouver friends they’re like, what, Porter flies here now?

They are really having a hard time getting the word out. I booked a red-eye flight back after spending some time in Courtenay following my cross-county VIA Rail trip in April. This flight ended up being cancelled and I was moved to an earlier flight, cutting into my limited Vancouver time. I assume because of lack of passengers. Still, my merged flight was less than half full, and I had a pair of seats to myself which was nice.

The experience was a bit uneven. I took the Canada Line to YVR which is awesome, and headed over to the domestic terminal only to find out that Porter was checking in from the international terminal. OK, fine. Not good signage when I got there though. I just had to bag drop but that didn’t seem to be an option.

Still, I’m an early bird so I got checked in, ate at Carl’s Jr. and got to my gate. They offer a Porter Reserve service with slightly more pitch and other perks, but I opted for the regular seats. Which, with no seat mate, were more than adequate.

They’re brand-new planes, still bright and shiny, seats familiar to Porter's regular customers. But in addition to in-seat power there’s also free WiFi, which was fast and easy to use. Just make sure you have your Porter frequent flier details handy. I was able to stream YouTube with no troubles. I am curious if this would hold on a fuller plane.

The roots of Porter’s service was there. There was a healthy complement of crew, and they did a drink service with the usual choice of snacks, as well as beer and wine served in glass. They also offered free selections from Porter’s cold meal service that are usually for charge, except for Porter Reserve passengers. I had the mango chicken; it wasn’t bad but wasn’t great.

But then that was it for the famed Porter service. I didn’t see most of the crew again – no idea where they went. I sat with my garbage for a good two hours. Eventually, one attendant came by to collect refuse. She did the front third, and then the back third – I was in the middle so had a long wait. She was working hard but her crewmates were MIA.

I expected much better from Porter. Air Canada or WestJet would have done two drink services – at the very least, a late flight water service. Porter needs to do better.

I few into Pearson’s Terminal Three for my connecting flight on to Ottawa, which ended up being on the same plane with a new crew. I received an op-up into their Porter Reserve seats, which did indeed have a little more pitch. This flight was quiet and uneventful.

Overall, Porter’s transcontinental service holds promise. They have good planes, and if they can provide the expected Porter service, they can capture a piece of the market less worried about chasing Aeroplan points. And right now they’re dirt cheap – I paid under $300 for one-way Vancouver-Toronto-Ottawa.

But they need to improve the YVR experience and the in-flight service and get the word out in Western markets. They’re a better bet than the shaky low-cost carriers but less well known.

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