Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Toast to my Hometown's Better (and Newer) Eateries - Union: Local 613

I sometimes think that I was born under the astrological sign of "Lucky-ass Foodie" (with it's cusp in Venus of somesuch silliness). It was just a random Tuesday (that I happened to have off work) when I got an email from Kari showing that there's a new restaurant in town with some pretty intriguing menu choices direction. At least their Web site made it seem that way.

That restaurant is Union 613 and we just happened to show up on opening night, July 17. Their "vision" is "an Ottawa take on Southern hospitality" with a lot of interesting-looking takes on some of my favourite food. If you can get Southern food right, you'll make me a happy man!

The paint's barely dry!

Now, there was talk of the place being mainly "communal seating", but Kari and I were given a booth to ourselves. Admittedly it was pretty late on a school night, so the place had died down somewhat. But there was still a good crowd and you could see the owners were still feeling some opening night pressure.

Luckily, our server didn't seem too affected. He was a really friendly guy who took very good care of us. I'll be damned if a month later I can remember his name.

The decor was pretty cool with a lot of old pipes and an oddly industrial-yet-homey aesthetic. The drink-in-mason-jars was a nice touch too... But what mattered most, as with all restaurants I eat in, was the food.

 Mason jar of beer = claaaaaaassy!

Well, as a kind of complimentary starter, they provide you with a small dish of Boiled Peanuts. Basically, imagine your standard peanut in the shell, boiled. They're tasty, but a little weird in texture.

As we snacked on the nuts, we perused the menu. It's one of those ever-changing menus, so don't let the Web site fool you. There's a good chance what they have listed on there might be different from one night to the next. That being said, I'm sure there'll be some items that stay on all the time, like their "Yard Bird" (more on that later). The menu's divided into Snacks, Appetizers, Mains and Sides, but how they served it was the Snacks and/or Appetizers first, then everything else at once on a giant platter (actually, a baking sheet lined with butcher paper, which was kind of awesome).

So, first off was our Snack, and I couldn't freaking believe one of the items that was on the menu. If you've ever owned a dog, you know that Pig Ears are a treat for your pooch. So why they're on the menu of a hip new resto? Beats me, but you can bet your arse I was trying them! They came with a homemade Thousand Island Dressing that was super-tasty (lots of relish or pickles in it) and were AMAZING! Basically they had the flavour profile of bacon, but with a bit more crackle and firmness in the bite, almost like a potato chip. They were devoured in less than 5 minutes...

Pig Ears! Not just for dogs any more!

Next was time to order our Mains and Sides. Since we were sharing, Kari and I had to figure it all out together. There were a couple of sides we each insisted on getting (her the Cheddar and Roasted Garlic Grits, me the Lobster Macaroni Salad). We also figured we should get the Cornbread, because, well, Cornbread is kind of super-awesome goodness! And it came with Bourbon Brown Butter!As for the Mains, we decided we needed to try the "Yard Bird" (which is a Southern/Soul Food term for chicken, in this case, Fried Chicken) which comes with their in-house Pepper Vinegar. We weren't sure what else to try but they had a nightly pork special (Tenderloin cut in medallions with Tomato Gravy, I believe, but don't quote me on that) so we gave that a shot.

So how was it all? Well, there were some highlights and some disappointments. The Macaroni Salad was oddly disappointing in that it tasted EXACTLY like the Macaroni Salad we'd get with a bucket of KFC back in 1983, but with chunks of lobster in it (which itself was succulent). If that's what the chef was aiming for, he got it spot on. I personally was hoping for something more unique. The "Pork du jour" was slightly disappointing in that it had a bit of an overcharred quality on the outside (the inside, however, was moist and perfect) and it was WAY overpriced (20$ for three small-sized pieces). The Tomato Gravy that topped it was really good though. The Grits were good, but not my favourite. I found them a bit heavy. Kari, on the other hand, was in love, so it was a good choice. The Yard Bird was EXCELLENT! Moist and flavourful on the inside, crunchy and sizzling on the outside and not drowning in its own seasoning. Basically the way Fried Chicken should be. It came with the Pepper Vinegar, which was basically a better tasting ode to traditional Tabasco Sauce. The combination was pure Soul Food heaven. But what I enjoyed the most by far (well, after the Pig Ears) was the Corn Bread. The Bourbon Brown Butter on top helped it achieve a kind of decadent pudding-like quality. It was rich and delicious and buttery and just pure tastebuds-a-dancin' perfection!

Where to begin!?!? Clockwise from top left: Lobster Macaroni Salad, Cheddar and Roasted Garlic Grits, Cornbread with Bourbon Brown Butter, Pepper Vinegar, Yard Bird, Pork du jour with Tomato Gravy

Union's Pepper Vinegar, a homemade version of Tabasco Sauce

And that was that! The bill was fairly reasonable (just a little bit over 100 dollars for two people, including the food, two drinks each and tip), the food really good and the atmosphere a perfect combination of trendy and welcoming, with a very cool decor. I foresaw good things after this first visit and the subsequent reviews I've read seem to agree. All things considered, the quality of our meal and lack of major boo-boos for opening night demonstrated to me that they have a good thing going at Union 613.

Now I just need to try their lunch!

UPDATE: We went back last night (August 24) and indulged in some Bourbon Lemonade (probably the reason my head hurts today), Devilled Eggs (WITH BACON! GENIUS!) and Chicken Liver Mousse (totally like Grandmaman used to make, but with grilled peaches on the side!). Kari had Beef Brisket for her main and I had their Crawfish Boil (!!!!!). I got about halfway through before tossing in the towel and getting the rest to go... I foresee making a crawfish stock in the future. We also indulged in their Corn Bread (missing the Bourbon Brown Butter, major bummer) and Coleslaw, which was excellent (dill in slaw? Who knew?). The plating was more traditional, with everything coming on its own plate. Whether the "baking sheet" presentation is still around on request, I don't know. I hope so!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Hi there!

Alright, alright, I'll admit it, bacon is pretty much the most popular food in the world, at least it is definitely so online - it's all-frakking-pervasive. It's been written about ad nauseum and used in crazy, over the top food creations featured on Web sites like Epic Meal Time and the former This Is Why You're Fat, it's been the bane of vegetarians everywhere (seriously, it's the only meat product I know that hardcore vegetarians and vegans ever express missing), and it's probably making an entire generation of girlfriends a little crazy hearing odes to cured pork from their significant others...

Now, that being said, it's one thing to spout on and on about the stuff you buy at the store, it's quite another to talk about bacon made in your smoker and all its neat applications! As I've demonstrated before, I can make my own bacon from scratch *puffs out chest* and I like to do it once or twice a month. What can I say? Almost everything you make yourself tastes better!

An intrinsic quality of bacon (and really, any similarly cured/smoked/dried pork product like pancetta, prosciutto, speck and many others) is its versatility. Bacon is used in any the day's meals, at any time of the day and can be included in all courses, even dessert. Ever have Candied Bacon on a scoop of really good vanilla ice cream? Neither have I, but I betcha THAT is a dessert worthy of remembrance. (Note to self, make Candied Bacon. SOON!)

So, in order to celebrate the versatile goodness of our favourite pork product, I present to you three different applications that I put together using a slab of home-smoked bacon.

Application 1 - Spinach Salad w. Bacon, Strawberries and Maitake Mushrooms

One way to eat bacon that's a little more healthy than a plate full of strips is to add it to a salad. And a "traditional" application is in a Spinach Salad. Now, back in my salad days (i.e. when I was a salad cook), Spinach Salad was a mix of spinach, walnuts, sliced white mushrooms, strawberries, bacon bits and a raspberry vinaigrette. My version is similar, using Maitake mushrooms, pecans instead of walnuts and adding Parmesan cheese over top.

My dressing was a combination of blueberries (1/2 cup), balsamic vinegar (3 tbsp), olive oil (3 tbsp), salt and pepper (to taste), smoked paprika (pinch), lime juice (2 tsp) and lime zest (1 tsp). I just tossed it all in a food processor and that was that!

Spinach Salad

Application 2 - Bacon-Poblano Butter

Compound butters are a really neat way to express your culinary creativity and they're quite easy to make. Normally, a compound butter is a mix of butter and other ingredients, such as herbs and wine, that is then refrigerated, cut into rounds and goes on top of a steak. In this case, I broke from tradition and kept the butter soft so we could spread on some delicious Bread and Sons Sourdough Baguette. So here's how it was made:


- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tbsp cooked bacon, minced
- 2 tbsp smoked or roasted poblano pepper, minced (to smoke poblano, coat in oil and smoke at 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit for 2-3 hours, until flesh has softened and skin can be peeled with ease. You can roast the poblano in the oven at the same heat for the same time or increase to shorten cooking time, but you'll have to watch to ensure there are no flare-ups from the oil)
- 2 tbsp white wine
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- salt and pepper to taste (you shouldn't need salt, enough comes from the bacon)
- 2 tsp cilantro, minced (optional)

- Mix all ingredients together with a fork or in a food processor until well-blended.
- Spread on warmed bread

Bread and Bacon-Poblano Butter

Application 3 - Bacon Nachos

Now, one final awesome aspect of bacon is its ability to, if you're brave enough, be used substitute for ground meat. At least one restaurant chain has used ground bacon to make a hamburger. Ow, my arteries. But I do think a smattering of uncooked bacon mixed into the ground beef used in a burger would be an excellent touch. I'll have to put that on the to-do list...

In the meanwhile, I was somewhat obsessed with the next item in our bacon-o-rama: Bacon Nachos. It's no secret that I'm a HUGE pro wrestling fan and there's really no better way to enjoy freakishly large people pretending to beat each other up than with nachos and beer. So, it was Monday night, time for WWE Raw, and I wanted me some Bacon Nachos, goddammit!

Only problem was that there was no salsa in the house. Not to worry though! I made my own! Now, the following is a quick, in-a-pinch recipe for what I call "Pan Salsa" and it really only makes enough to one decent baking sheet full of nachos (a little over a cup). If you're looking for a more prolific salsa recipe, move along...

Pan Salsa

This is a fairly mild salsa suitable for just about all but the wimpiest of palettes for spice.


- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced

- 1 small onion, diced

- 2-3 ripe tomatoes, diced
- 1 small bell pepper, diced (I prefer red)
- 1 tsp chili powder (I used a home made mix of powdered arbol and guajillo chilis, cumin, coriander and smoked paprika)
- pinch salt
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1 tsp tomato paste (optional - if you like a thicker salsa)
- 2 tsp fresh cilantro (optional)

- Heat oil in a small saucepan on medium-high heat and sauté onions and garlic.
- Add tomatoes, pepper, seasoning and vinegar (and paste if using). Stir together and let come to a boil.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in cilantro, if using.

OK, moving on, it's time for the moment you've all been waiting for, BACON NACHOS!!!!!!


- 4-5 strips of cooked bacon, minced into "bits" size (add more if you like, be my guest!)
- 1 300g bag of tortilla chips (I like to use Neal Brothers Organic Blue Corn)
- 1 batch Pan Salsa (see above)
- 1 cup each grated Monterey Jack and Extra Old Cheddar cheeses
- 1 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
- hot sauce to taste

- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
- Set out a layer of tortilla chips (don't feel compelled to use the whole bag, I never do).
- Spoon salsa over chips, then spread bacon out evenly across chips.
- Top with cheese and bake for about 15 minutes, until top of cheese starts to turn golden brown.
- Serve how you like (on plates, on the baking sheet, whatever) and top with as much hot sauce and cilantro as you like.

Bacon Nachos. 'nuff said
 So, there you go, just a few ideas on how to get your bacon fix outside the same ol' BLT or bacon n' eggs.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Not Your Average Sandwich - GRILLED CHEESE!!!!

Let's face it, it's hard not to like a sandwich. A good sandwich often incorporates your four basic food groups and even the simple Peanut Butter and Jam has three of them (OK, well, maybe jam isn't exactly fruit, but it's close!). They're quick, easy to make and easy to make tasty! Sure, they can get pretty complicated, but simplicity is usually the name of the sandwich game.

There is, however, one variation of the sandwich that's maybe a bit more complicated than slapping some meat and bread together but might be the pinnacle of comfort food and is probably one of the first things we ever cooked as children using heat. I'm talking, of course, about the Grilled Cheese sandwich (I'll ignore that any suspense about that fact was ruined by the post's title).

I find it funny how we've tried to 'pretty up' the grilled cheese by using fancy machines and calling it a "panini" (just teasing, I know paninis aren't quite the same thing, but there is some correlation). When I was a kid, we'd use the flat end of a waffle iron, slather white bread with butter (because, thankfully, margarine was something my mother would simply not accept in her kitchen) and throw on processed cheese slices (ok, so we avoided margarine yet used plastic cheese, I'm still confused about it).

Since then, I've seen numerous sandwich presses come and go, none of which I could figure out how to use properly, and had basically given up on the grilled cheese as more trouble to make than it's worth.

But somewhere along the line, I was shown the simplest and best way to make grilled cheese and the only implements you needed were a pan and a spatula (and a stovetop, obviously).

Here's the basic formula for Grilled Cheese:

For one sandwich:


- 1 tsp softened butter
- 2 slices of bread (I'm a fan of multi-grain or rye bread)
- 4-5 slices of Old Cheddar (or whatever cheese you like, but this is the most common cheese I use)


- Spread softened butter on one side of each slice of bread.
- Heat pan on medium-high heat.
- Place one piece of bread butter-side down in the pan.
- Add cheese and top with other slice of bread, butter-side up.
- Brown bread until crispy and golden. Flip and do the same on the other side. During this process, your cheese should be melting nicely.
- Once both sides are golden brown, remove from heat, cut in half and serve.

Fairly simple, right?

Now, while this might be sufficient a snack for any of us, who doesn't want to pimp their sandwich a little?

Case in point, I made a Grilled Cheese featuring Pulled Pork, Blue Cheese and Smoked Cabbage.
Let's see how it went!

First layer - cheese! Old Cheddar on one side, crumbled Blue Cheese on the other. The bread is a light rye.

Next, the Pulled Pork.
Layer 3 - the Smoked Cabbage.

Then I fried it up as normal and served it with a salad of mixed greens and pickled veggies.

The finished product!

Needless to say, it was decadently delicious, but I recommend only having one at any given time (unless you enjoy a protuberant belly).
And if you're thinking I'm being a Grilled Cheese show-off, I got nothing on this blogger:

Alright, that's it for today! Enjoy the cheesy snarfing!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Toast to my Hometown's Better Eateries - Brothers Beer Bistro

It's a good time to be a beer lover in Ottawa!

It first started about 20 years back with local restos introducing micro-brewed beer here and there. Then the Clock Tower opened its doors in the 90s and there were a few little microbreweries that opened in the early 2000s. In the past 6 or so years, however, it's like a floodgate has opened. This region has seen several new breweries open their doors: Beau's Brewery opened in 2006 as a fairly small mom n' pop operation and is now renowned across the region, Brasserie du Temps opened their brewpub in 2009, Kitchissippi is a recently opened local brewery, but they too are growing. More and more "micros" are opening across Ontario and Quebec every year. By the end of 2012, three new brewpubs will have opened in Ottawa: Mill Street Brewpub, Big Rig in the West End and Montréal standard Les 3 brasseurs will open a brewpub right in the heart of the government district in November.

Stemming from this "Beer Renaissance" is a renewed respect for beer as a worthy contender in food pairing to wine. Beer is no longer just for frat boys and NASCAR fans, it's come into its own as a beverage of depth, variety, quality and flavour. So, surely there's a market need for be a restaurant that caters to the beer-drinking gourmet and offers more of a variety to sample than the in-house product provided by most brewpubs (not saying what the brewpubs provide is bad or inadequate, it's simply limited by their own unique approaches to making beer). Enter Brothers Beer Bistro.

This place is fairly unassuming with a very bare-bones decor that's nicely accentuated by art on the walls, but it's clear that they're looking to attract the more casual upscale diner. I was also impressed that our server was a tattoo-sporting charming young Acadian lady named Marie (if you've ever spent time with Acadians, you know they're pretty much the coolest people in the country, even if you can't quite understand their French). Clearly, even though the menu looked pretty high-end (conceptually at least), pretension was not on it.

So, we got a couple of drinks to start our meal (Kari is one of those occasional beer drinkers, so she decided on a vodka-soda for her first drink, what can you do?). A nice touch at Brothers is their wide selection of beers; they have both a bottled and draft beer menu but it doesn't go into the "100s of beers" selection that some places have, which I always thought was a bit tacky... That being said, it is a fairly fluid menu as there are items on the restaurant menu that aren't on the Web site. Oh well...

I was lucky to find Cameron's Rye Pale Ale on the menu. Cameron's is one of those breweries that makes super-tasty beers that I don't drink nearly often enough, probably due to an instance many years back of ingesting too many too fast and getting extra-messy as a result. So, I figured I was due.

Now this was the second time I'd ever had a "Rye Beer", the first being at Pain Béni in March. That beer tasted like gingerbread, this one tasted more like a very light rye bread that somehow was baked with a lot of hops. It was freakin' delicious either way, but VERY hoppy, which when pairing with food can be a bit heavy-duty on the palette.

Cameron's Rye Pale Ale

Now, moving onto the food. We ordered a bunch of small plates, mainly because they tend to be more interesting fare and it's more fun to share, right? We went with the Asparagus Salad, the Pierogies, the Tuna Crudo and their Cheese Plate.

Marie started us out with bread and two kinds of butter. One was made with hops and it was a little sour but not remarkable. The other one, though, was a Roasted Malt butter that tasted of chocolate and angel kisses. SO GOOD!

Roasted Malt butter... droooool...

We got everything all together and shared so I'll review it a plate at a time.

Pierogies w. Confit Pig Cheek, Sauvagine Cheese and Potato Broth

This was a fairly simple rendition of a staple of Slavic cookery. The pierogi dough itself was perfect, tender with just a little bit of elasticity and a slightly sweetish flavour reminiscent of pancakes. The cheese filling was tasty, if a bit understated and we both found the broth a little bland. All of this matters not a whit because of two words: Pig Cheek. Imagine the Food Gods decided to make bacon-flavoured perfection. Well, I think this was a pretty decent approximation of that divine concept. It was luxurious and buttery and utterly delicious. So, just for that element, the plate was a winner.

Worth it if only for the pig cheek!
Tuna Crudo (Radler Cured) w. Pig's Ear Crackling, Tarragon Remoulade and Dulse
OK, so you might be looking at the write-up on this one and wondering "what the eff does all this mean?", and I don't blame you, because I was wondering the same thing. So, I'll break it down for you. Tuna crudo, is essentially cured raw tuna. OK, that was simple enough. What do they mean by "Radler cured"? Well, Radler is (according to wikipedia) a German drink consisting of beer mixed with soda pop or lemonade, kind of like a Shandy. So, the tuna was cured in that, which nicely corresponds to the Bistro's vision of preparing a lot of their food with beer. The cure lent a nice brightness to the fish (making me think it was beer and lemonade they used in it). Next is the crackling, which is basically pig skin crisped up. This added a big dose of prosciutto-like saltiness to the dish. It was delicious, but kind of elbowed the delicate tuna in the face. The tarragon remoulade (the whitish little dots all over the plate) was a nice creamy touch and paired perfectly with the tuna. The dulse is a kind of algae (I KNOW, CRAZY!) that adds a nice salty, but complimentary, crunch to the plate. I found that the plate didn't actually need the crackling as an element (maybe on the side as a bonus?) simply because the dulse took care of the salty requirement. Oh, and the little pink dots were pickled radishes that added a fun little tang to the plate. In the end, I really enjoyed this one. Extra bonus points for the gorgeous presentation.

Tuna Crudo - So pretty!
Asparagus Salad w. Smoked Parmesan, Artisan Lettuce, Crispy Capers, Preserved Lemon and Anchovy Vinaigrette

As you read through the might be noticing a trend here: The Beer Bros. chef (Exec. Chef Darren Flowers) likes his saltiness! Well, it does make some sense considering that beer and salty food pair well together (more salt leads to more beer drinking!). But also, consider this: the salty elements of each dish are actually part of ingredients that make up the dish (capers, anchovies, cured pork) rather than the chefs just dumping a bunch of salt in the food.

OK, so as it relates to this salad, I found that it was a really fun play between the tangy citrus flavours in the vinaigrette and preserved lemons and the salty anchovies, capers and cheese. The mix of flavours was in danger of overpowering the flavour of the asparagus (which is supposed to be the star of the dish, after all), but it was just restrained enough not to. And then there were the Crispy Capers. Move over Doritos, potheads have just found a new best snack!

All kinds of fun going with this salad.

Next up was the Cheese Plate, featuring Tomme de Savoie (a semi-firm cow's milk, brie-like but creamier), Magie de Madawaska (sharp and creamy, very tasty), Valdéon (Spanish blue, smooth but potent), apple compote, and pickled ramps. It was all very good, as a proper cheese plate should be.

Not sure what the burn marks are for...

By this time, we needed a new round of drinks. I decided to give the Spearhead "Hawaiian-style" Indian Pale Ale (IPA). It was a very nice brew with a strong hoppiness, but countered with the sweetness of pineapple. A really good summer beer, I wager!

An added bonus on the wine menu was Kari's next drink: a glass of Velvet Devil Merlot out of Washington State. I've mentioned this wine before, but I feel the need to repeat: GODDAMN THAT'S GOOD WINE! Too bad you can only get it at certain restaurants. Methinks a bootlegging run to the Pacific Northwest is in order...

After we had our drinks and finished our food, we got the bill, which came out to around 100 bucks total. Not too steep at all considering the quality and variety of the food and drink. I won't say Brothers is my new favourite establishment, but it bridges the gap between 'pub fare' and gourmet very well without being "gastropub" expensive, and that's always a good thing! So, give it a shot, chances are you'll be well pleased, especially if Marie serves you! (What? Acadians are hot!)