Friday, April 29, 2011

A Toast To My Hometown's Better Eateries - Jean Albert

Hey everybody!

It's time to let you know about another sources of tastiness in Ottawa. So, let's into it. I present to you Jean Albert  (no Web site available).

Jean Albert (pronounced like it's an English name - I thought it was French) is Ottawa's only soul food restaurant (so far as I can tell). It's run by a couple in their late-20s/early 30s, Jennifer and LeRoy Walden,  and the recipes are from LeRoy's grandmother from back in the heart of Georgia. This is the real deal. Ribs, Catfish, Fried Chicken (including Chicken n' Waffles!), Pulled Pork, Mac n' Cheese, so on and so forth. In case you hadn't noticed, southern food and soul food have been creeping their way back into the collective foodie consciousness in recent years and it's no secret that I've developed a bit of an obsession with this kind of cooking. Well, there's a fix for that craving, and it's just a few blocks away from my apartment!

Now, Kari and I decided on a cool March night to FINALLY give this place a try, only 6 months after learning of its existence. We were greeted with lots of enthusiasm from Jennifer, our server (and co-owner). After much salesmanship, we were convinced to order the speciality spiked drinks, I had the tequila-spiked lemonade while Kari had the rum-spiked iced tea. Both were delicious and we had two rounds each. Dangerously addictive stuff!

The menu is quite loaded with choices for appetizers and mains. So, we decided to go whole hog with the appetizer and try the Pork Smothered Fries (pun utterly intended).

The pulled pork was very tender and tasty and not too overladen with sauce (a problem with some pulled pork), although I suspect the smokiness came from liquid, not actual smoking, but that's understandable in any conventional restaurant kitchen. However, I'm pretty sure the fries came from a bag. If I'm wrong, I humbly apologize!

As an in-betweener side, we got a small sampler of Sweet Water (Corn)Bread. This was very different from the only other cornbread I've had, which is Kari's. Hers uses corn kernels and is very fluffy. The Jean Albert version was sweeter and spongier, having more of a texture akin to a mix of a pancake and a polenta cake. I liked the difference. Here's what it looks like:

But if the only foray into cornbread you've had has been at Jean Albert, I humbly offer up a completely different version in this recipe:

Kari’ s Cornbread (adapted from an old Martha Stewart Web post)

- Preheat oven to 350. put 4 tbsp butter in 8" square baking pan or 9" skillet; place in oven until melted.
- In a bowl, combine 1 cup flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt.
- Stir in one egg, 3/4 milk, and a can of corn until just combined.
- Spoon batter into prepared pan.
- Bake until golden. 30 minutes in pan, 20 minutes in skillet.

Next we ordered the exact same 3-piece plate of Fried Chicken each, with the same side orders of Candied Yams and Collard Greens. This was a bit funny because after discussing what we should get so that we can sample a wider variety of items, Kari vetoed me and said "Just get what you want". So I did, and it turns out we have identical wants re: soul food. I'll add that to the pile of reasons why that woman rocks all kinds of YEAH! Right, back to the food...

The Candied Yams and Collard Greens were served on the side in large ramekins

The Candied Yams has a very nice flavour, full of syrup and butter. Decadent, but what soul food isn't?

The Collard Greens were like nothing I've ever tasted, with a smoky flavouring (thanks to smoked ham hocks in the cooking pot, which the traditional way collards are done) mixed with the nutty bitterness of al dente greens was one of the most interesting flavour combos I've ever had.

I've only experimented with Collard Greens once and the version I made was anything but traditional. Essentially, I boiled them until they were almost nothing (about 15-20 minutes), sauteed them quickly in butter and garlic, and squeezed some lime juice over top. It was tasty, but not the same experience as collards done Southern-style. Of course, the traditional version would break a vegetarian's brain. At least mine could be served to herbivores.

On to the Fried Chicken! I've read a lot of negative reviews on various restaurant review site about the Fried Chicken being lacking in flavour, but I think the folks writing them are missing the point. Fried Chicken at Jean Albert comes with your choice of BBQ sauce for dipping (for 1.50$), or baked in (for 2.50$). THAT was the main "ka-pow" flavour element, the chicken is simply the vehicle. You want intensely flavoured fried chicken on its own? Go to KFC and ingest 3 days worth of sodium.

As you can tell, I really liked the less intense flavour in their chicken. Not too salty and very tender. I did find that the coating was lacking in crunch, but that's in comparison to my Mom's recipe. And no one's fried chicken is better than Mom's. (yours, mine, whomever's).

I got mine with the Whiskey BBQ sauce on the side. It was lovely and smokey with that distinctive whiskey tang that makes all food better, but a bit too mild for my taste. I likes it spicy! Still, really effing good BBQ sauce! Kari got hers with the Candy-coat Glaze baked on. That was reeeeeally sweet, a bit too much for taste.

We were too full about halfway through the chicken to finish, but it made one heck of a tasty cold lunch the next day!

More recently, I was at an event at Babyon nightclub called The Cook-Off, where I had the chance to try LeRoy's Chicken 'n' Waffles, albeit on a Stick. Imagine a carnival-style snack made with juicy fried chicken chunks and waffle batter. TASTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They also have an upstairs bar (I didn't see it, but I know it's there!) and serve breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.
One thing I REALLY liked about Jean Albert is that it appears to be a successful restaurant that doesn't take itself too seriously. It came across to me as being as much a labour of love as a business. I know that probably isn't the case behind the scenes, but it's the kind of food I'd like to prepare if I had my own place, and it shows there's a market for it. Not that I intend to offer competition to Jean Albert, my resto idea has always centered around a ski resort. So, Jennifer and LeRoy, your niche is safe! Well, safe from me at least...

So, do yourself a favour and get out there to enjoy some of the most comforting comfort food there is in this whitebread town! I also suggest, if you're having dinner, skipping lunch that day...

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