Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Toast To My Hometown's Better Eateries - Murray Street and Whalesbone

In case you haven't guessed yet, I'm from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Now, for those of you who read this and are unfamiliar with Canadian geography, Ottawa is Canada's capital. The Ottawa-Gatineau "metropolitan area" is Canada's 4th largest, while the city itself (without counting all the 'burbs) is the 6th largest. We clock in at about 1 million people.

Anyhoo, because of it's "government town" nature, Ottawa can get a bit dull. Perhaps we also have an inferiority complex due to our proximity to Montreal and Toronto which prevents some of our best aspects from shining through. That being said, we have a great, albeit tightly-knit, music scene, a whackload of excellent museums and galleries, and we're surrounded by natural splendour. Seriously, you can get lost in the woods within minutes of the downtown core.

But what I really love about this town is the FOOD! Since it's a tourist-friendly town and home to movers, shakers, lobbyists and leaders, naturally there are some really classy joints with old school flavour, where a guy like me would stick out like a sore thumb. But with the advent of the "foodie" movement of the past 15 years or so, we're seeing an upswing of restaurants that have a much more laid-back feel, but that have unbelievably good food.

Seriously, you know life is good when you can sit down and eat a gourmet meal wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt. And this is food that's so good you might find yourself gripping the table in amazement. Now, all good food comes at a cost regardless of the casual ambiance. Most of this places serve larger plates ranging in the 25-40 dollar range, and don't expect portions like the ones you get at Denny's. This is high end food that is hard to get, is usually produced by smaller local farms and environmentally sustainable fisheries and is of tremendous quality. This isn't the stuff you eat to fill you up in a pinch, this is "event eating".

Over the past few years, I've had the good fortune of eating at some wonderful places around this fine city and today's post is going to describe some of those places and talk a little about some of the plates I've had there. Also, I'm going to try my hand at cribbing and reprinting a recipe here and there. It might be a dismal failure, it might work out great. But be forewarned, I haven't actually tried any of these in my kitchen as yet.

1 - Murray Street  - http://www.murraystreet.ca/

Murray Street is a very "homey" type of restaurant nestled along Murray Street in the Byward Market, which I discovered just today is also called "Gastro Alley". Which makes sense considering that it houses this place, Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro (more on that later), Khao Thai (some of Ottawa's best), Domus Café (which I've not had the pleasure of trying - yet) and a few others.

I first went there in 2008 shortly after its opening for a friend's birthday and there were a lot of growing pains in the experience (apparently the words "pork" and "duck" sound very similar in a noisy resto), but the food was tremendous and I did get my meal comped because they got my order wrong. I was a bit 'meh' about the whole thing, albeit well-fed. A couple of years passed and it was a Friday night and my lady friend and I decided to pop in for what has to be the highlight of their menu: duck confit poutine. For ten bucks, there really isn't a more "bang-for-your-buck" treat out there. If you don't know what poutine is, I'll give you the basics: it's french fries smothered in gravy topped with cheese curds. Now, the evil genius chef at Murray Street (Steve Mitton) took the gloves off with his take on it. And I quote their menu:

Poutine: Hand-cut herb spatzle (Spatzle is a kind of egg noodle), shredded duck confit, roast duck gravy, fresh cheese curds.

Now, I've never confited a duck in my life. But for those of you who are now intrigued, duck confit is basically pieces of duck meat braised/baked in duck fat. You can buy it pre-made at higher end butcher shops.

Anyway, this is a dish that is so tasty and rich, most people couldn't finish it. And it's a small plate. Definitely a "must try before you die" kind of dish.

Now, on a recent Saturday morning I went for brunch there and had a smoked fish/veggie scrambled egg. It was quite tasty, but not quite as mindblowing as my girl's duck confit cassoulet (again with the duck confit!). But if you want to impress at breakfast (as I keep the conceptual thread of my last post going), make this!

Smoked Fish Scramble


- 4 tbsp butter or 2 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp vegetable/olive oil
- 200 g smoked trout or salmon or other smoked fish
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- assorted chopped/sliced veggies - the one I had had rutabaga, onion and leeks (I think). I recommend onion and leek for sure, the rutabaga was a bit weird with eggs.
- 1/2 cup grated cheese (I'd say a sharp cheddar or smoked Gouda to compliment the fish)


- In a frying pan, melt 2 tbsp of butter or heat 2 tbsp of olive oil
- Sauté veggies until softened and put aside
- In a mixing bowl, crack eggs. Add milk and whisk with a fork until fluffy consistency reached.
- Roughly chop smoked fish into 1 cm pieces
- Melt 2 tbsp butter in a frying pan and coat bottom of pan
- Add eggs to pan and cook until they start to turn opaque
- Add rest of ingredients and cook until everything is well-heated

Serve on a plate or in a shallow bowl with fresh biscuits or multi-grain toast.

2 - The Whalesbone Oyster House - http://www.thewhalesbone.com/ -

I love seafood. You'd better like seafood. If not, this place won't be your cup of tea. But then again, let's peek at the menu, shall we?

Hey, Bone Marrow and Foie Gras? Beet Carpaccio? Roasted Veal Breast? Never mind, I'm almost tempted to go back soon and try all the non-seafood! Wait, no, let's not be crazy. But, it is ironic that it was here at a fish place that I first tried seared foie gras. And it was pretty damn delicious!

Speaking of foie gras, I feel it necessary to rant about this. My lack of previous exposure to foie gras (except in paté) is possibly because a lot of restaurants in Ottawa had been subjected to protests by uneducated animal-lovers who think that the gorging process that helps develop foie gras is cruel. So it was pulled from the menu at Beckta, Play and others. Methinks these holier-than-thou jerkstores have never actually visited Mariposa Farms where most restos in Ottawa get their foie gras. I'll betcha that those birds are treated a damn sight better than most people! Also, all farmed animals are born meat. The modern cow, pig, chicken and domesticated duck or goose only exists because it's going to be turned into food.

So, to all you political "eating meat is wrong and cruel" jackasses out there, I will simply say this: slaughtering farm animals is no more cruel than reaping crops. These creatures only exist to die and be eaten. Yes there are issues about how animals are treated in factory farms and they are valid concerns, but instead of tarring all carnivores and meat farmers with the same brush, why don't you find out where the factory farms are and conduct some sort of sit-in preventing their products from leaving, and allow the caring, conscientious farmer who loves and respects animals far more than you could ever fathom to carry on with their business.

And just in case I've not offended vegetarians quite enough, here's how I REALLY feel about this subject:

Now somebody get me a veal cutlet, some lamb stew and a tub of baby panda liver paté! (mmmmmm... panda liver... finger Ling-Ling gooood...)

OK, OK... PHEW! Getting carried away there. Back to the subject at hand: The Whalesbone Oyster House and its amazing food. I've only been twice and the first time I had the Seared Foie Gras plate followed by the Butter-Poached Lobster. What can I say? It's LOBSTER! Utterly delicious and perfectly tender. I had to stop myself from licking the plate.

The second time I went, I had a halibut dish as a main and it was gorgeous, but it was our appetizer that completely blew me away. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Big Eye Tuna Belly.

This was a special off-menu appetizer and there is no way I can imagine being able to recreate the dense, meaty, yet delicate flavour of this dish. I wonder if it was a one-in-a-lifetime treat and that breaks my taste buds' collective heart.

Oh wait, it appears to be on their regular menu now! Excuse me, I have to run to Whalesbone RIGHT NOW!

OK, now I have to rein it back in. I'm stuck at work, no point in imagining that my Cobb Salad is somehow going to magically become a lightly seared piece of succulent tuna. Dammit...

I can't even remember what it was served with, it was seared, dusted with coarse salt and some sort of creamy mayo-like sauce, and it tasted like HEAVEN! If you ever get the chance to try anything like this, get on that! I'm wondering where and how I could find a piece of tuna of that quality and am drawing blanks. Luckily, Whalesbone has that covered too! They have an office at 504 Kent Street that allows members of the public to pick up some of their own succulent piscatorial offerings. Not to mention the "brown bag lunch", which I have not taken advantage of trying. Which makes me feel moronic since I live three blocks away, but am planning to leave the neighbourhood in a few months! So the lesson here is to take advantage of nearby treasures since you never know when you'll be leaving them behind.

That's it for now. Many more posts to come, including Part 2 of my toast to Ottawa. Hopefully they'll be up before the New Year!


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