Mill Street Launches its New West Coast Style IPA in Ottawa

April 27, 2016 3:00 pm
Mill Street's Ottawa Brew Pub  is located at 555 Wellington Street.

It was all smiles last night, April 26, at Mill Street’s Ottawa Brew Pub as staff doled out pints of Mill Street’s newest creation, the West Coast Style IPA. With the addition of some tantalizing finger food and a good dose of live music, it was quite the celebration.

And the beer is definitely something to celebrate. It has a sweet citrusy punch that balances out the bitterness of the hops IPAs are known for, making it a pleasant alternative to the extra-strong IPAs that have been all the rage in the last few years. Joel Manning, the Brewmaster for the new brew, said that this beer has been years in the making, and now, Mill Street is proud to make this their flagship IPA. It can be found in LCBOs around the city, and of course, at the Mill St. Ottawa Brew Pub on Wellington.

Flip through the slideshow below to find out what the evening was all about:

Dedication to Community and Real Food Fuels New OCCO Kitchen

April 11, 2016 12:43 pm
Candied Bacon Cheese Burger & Hamre Burger with Herb Fries.

All photos courtesy of Justin Counter.

Ottawa’s number one restaurant on Trip Advisor just got a big upgrade.  For the past year, Ottawa residents have been crowding a tiny takeout restaurant on St. Joseph Boulevard in Orleans called OCCO Kitchen. The restaurant is the vision of Chef Mark Steele, the former executive chef at the Hilton and currently an instructor at Algonquin College.  Featuring local, seasonal ingredients crafted into artisanal-style street food, OCCO Kitchen has quickly become a hot spot for residents to try Steele’s creative takes on fast food – including the best burgers in the city.

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Chef Mark Steele in the New OCCO Kitchen.

This is great news on its own.  Orleans welcomes infusions of city life to the area, which was once just a bedroom community for Ottawa, but now thrives as an urban neighbourhood.  In recognition of OCCO’s success, The Orleans Chamber of Commerce awarded the restaurant with the 2015 Best New Business award.  However, the takeout restaurant wasn’t designed to handle this level of success.  As word has spread and business has increased, the food storage and cooking space are at capacity.

“It reached a point where it’s maxed out,” says Steele.  Originally planned as a catering business (OCCO stands for Orleans Catering Company), Steele has spent much of the past year meeting the demand for takeout.

Late in the winter, Steele announced that the restaurant would open a new location, a full-service restaurant at 4240 Innes Boulevard.  Now open, OCCO Kitchen Innes can accommodate guests by reservation in 200 comfortable seats.  While the St. Joseph takeout kitchen remains open, he expects the larger location to solve many logistical problems and help bring the business to more customers.  On the day of the soft opening, OCCO Kitchen on Innes was a hive of activity.  Supplies were being delivered, the finishing touches were being put on the dining room and Steele was awaiting the liquor license.  The atmosphere was one of excitement and confidence, which suits a business that has done nothing but thrive since its inception.

A large part of that confidence comes from Steele’s leadership, and his background.  A Newfoundland transplant to Ottawa, Steele earned his Red Seal certification on the East Coast before working with Fairmont, eventually landing at the Chateau Laurier in the position of Chef de Cuisine.  His culinary and business expertise translate beautifully to OCCO Kitchen, despite its smaller scale.  He’s brought in experienced management, servers and kitchen staff. As for Steele, he’ll be dreaming up new dishes and overseeing the business as it grows – including an extension to its catering arm.

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The Host Station at the OCCO Kitchen Innes.

Worn from the administrative responsibilities expected of an Executive Chef, Steele is thrilled to be cooking again.  His love of food is apparent in the selections available on the new menu, which adds appetizers and large plates to the already signature street foods from the takeout menu.  Every dish shows the thought that went into its development; there are no careless choices.  And despite the street food aesthetic, every dish is a hearty, real meal.  You can get chicken and waffles for a starter, candied bacon Caesar salad for your main and wash it all down with a Bicycle Craft Brewery ale. You won’t go home hungry.

One of the key reasons for OCCO’s success is the personality – and values – Steele brings into it.  The slogan promises a “Craft – Local – Seasonal – Scratch” experience. Everything possible is made from scratch, to an almost unparalleled degree. At OCCO Kitchen you can enjoy ketchup made in house from locally grown tomatoes on your French fries, and craft pickles on your burger.  Many ingredients come from Ottawa and nearly all are from Ontario; Steele says his process is to look for ingredients first in Orleans, then Ottawa, then the Ottawa Valley, before selecting products from farther afield in Ontario.  OCCO Kitchen only serves beer from local craft breweries.  Even the coffee is roasted locally by Equator in Almonte, a fair trade, organic coffee company.

“Every time I buy something I’m casting a vote,” says Steele, explaining why it’s been so important for OCCO Kitchen to reflect these values.  He chooses local and seasonal ingredients for their flavour, of course; the difference is in every bite.  However, doing so also helps him support artisans and build a community, since his purchasing dollars help other local businesses thrive.  It’s good for the environment, too, because supplies and ingredients are not being shipped over long distances.  Steele is enthusiastic about being able to bring “real” food to his guests, versus the “mass-produced” items available at chain restaurants.  “I just want to make awesome food,” he says, but behind that simplicity is a passionate commitment to the impact OCCO Kitchen can make.

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The Street View of the OCCO Kitchen Innes Location.

This dedication and individuality have turned many of the restaurant’s patrons into dedicated fans.  Steele plans to host frequent special events thanks to the expansion. He’s even asked his Facebook followers to pick the sign for the new location, because, “This is their community.”

Despite its rapid success, Chef Mark Steele is not trying to take over the world with his restaurant. His perspective and focus ensure it will be sustainable in a competitive market.

“We’ve defined who we are,” he says, “We don’t try to bend for everybody.”  Those who love a relaxed atmosphere, community vibe and support for local suppliers – oh, and delicious food – will find a home at OCCO Kitchen.  If you’re looking for Coors Light and a reheated plate, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

Celebrating a Great Year for Local Pizza

April 7, 2016 4:09 pm
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Some of Zolas’ signature pizzas. Photo by Kelly Hotte. 

Zolas Restaurant has a lot to celebrate this month, so they’re inviting the community to the pizza party of the year on Thursday, April 28.

2016 is the restaurant’s 30th year serving up innovative pizzas and modern Italian cuisine, but there’s plenty more going on than just the big anniversary. Last summer, Zolas won best pizza in Bells Corners. That fall, Chef Tony Vacchio went up against chefs from all across Canada when he competed in Toronto’s Pizza Expo. He entered with Zolas’ rosemary crust pizza, and that submission led to him being featured in the fall edition of Canadian Pizza Magazine.

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A Zolas BC pizza. Photo by Kelly Hotte.

This past March, Zolas staff went to Las Vegas to compete in the International Pizza Convention with the best pizzaiolos from around the world.  They entered the non-traditional category, and earned a tremendous amount of recognition for Chef Tony’s creativity.  He introduced the Black Crust Pizza, which created a buzz with the Indonesian Coconut Charcoal he used in the crust. This little-known ingredient doesn’t affect the pizza’s taste, but it adds a unique ring inside the crust and provides a healthy boost.

This daring addition earned Chef Tony a feature in the American publication Pizza Today.

Zolas has also recently won the Pizza with Purpose award, and will be featured on the cover of Canadian Pizza Magazine with an editorial on the family business and their continuing efforts to support their neighbourhood and city with fundraising and community involvement.

All this excitement is what led to the upcoming pizza party. During the April 28th event, they plan to officially introduce the BC crust. BC not only stands for Black Crust, but also represents their Bells Corners community.

There are two seatings planned for the day with tickets priced at $25 per person. Tickets get visitors a variety of pizza options alongside a choice of Pelee Island wine or craft beer from Whiprsnapr brewing co., which has also made Bells Corners its home.  There will be live entertainment and an introduction to a new company, Flying Canoe Hard Cider.

Zolas is officially celebrating its 30th year in business this October. April’s pizza party is simply one of many celebrations leading up to the big date.

McDonald’s Delivers Experience to Remember

March 9, 2016 3:43 pm
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All photos courtesy of McDonald’s Canada. 

With new Guest Experience Leaders, cooks, Self-Order Kiosks, table service and a hundred new ways to make your burger yours, the golden arches are looking a lot different in Ottawa.

McDonald’s Canada has officially rolled out their ‘Restaurant Experience of the Future’ in 25 Ottawa-area restaurants. This experience comes with plenty of new features that put guests in the driver’s seat.

“It’s really been an overall transformation,” says Natalie Saulnier, the Regional Vice President for McDonald’s.  “It’s about changing and personalizing the experience of the guest.”

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A Guest Experience Leader shows one customer how to navigate the self-order kiosk.

When you walk into one of these restaurants, the first new thing you’ll likely notice is the giant, easy to use touch screen – similar to a tablet or Ipad. You can use these screens to order exactly what you want from classic favourites, like the iconic Big Mac, to something completely different like creating your own burger.

To make the ‘Create Your Taste’ option extra special, McDonald’s is now offering guests the choice of nearly 30 ingredients – some that they’ve never seen before. There are five cheeses to choose from, like blue cheese, and toppings like guacamole and the ever popular sriracha sauce (the lifeblood of students everywhere!) along with two new bun options.

“You can also choose to have it in a lettuce wrap instead of a bun, which is my personal favourite actually,” says Saulnier.

Perhaps another interesting tidbit is that if you’re someone with eccentric tastes, you can combine them in whatever bizarre way you want – it truly is up to you. You can have three patties on your bun with nothing else at all, or come up with a really unique masterpiece.

“[There’s] no limit!” says Saulnier. “The way you like it we is the way we will make it…the combinations are pretty endless.”

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There is a lot you can do with the new ‘Build Your Own Burger’ option.

If you do build your own burger, a cook who specializes in Create Your Taste will start working on it as soon as the order comes in. When the meal is done, a “Guest Experience Leader” will bring it right to your table. All of these features are launching alongside the McCafé Bakery, which appeal to a customer’s sweet tooth with French croissants, mini chocolatines and fruity cream cheese Danishes.

What might be most interesting about all these new additions is how they’ve challenged the way many people might view automated customer service. When we think of ‘self-order kiosks,’ it’s easy to imagine these restaurants will be cutting jobs, but with the new cooks, guest experience leaders and table delivery service McDonald’s Canada is actually adding about 10 to 15 jobs per location, which stacks up to about 300 new jobs across the city!

“Today we’re taking three giant steps forward, with not only the reate-your-own-burger concept, but with fabulous new pastries and the self-serve kiosks,” says Jeff Robinson, owner of seven McDonald’s franchises in the National Capital Region.

“It’s very exciting,” he adds, “another step in our transformation.”

You can find out more about McDonald’s new, fresh experience and ‘create your taste’ at mcdonalds.ca/createyourtaste.

LIFT Delivers a True Canadian Experience

January 29, 2016 1:52 pm
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All photos courtesy of Samantha Lapierre

Secretly, or, maybe now, not so secretly, I fancy myself as a bit of a foodie. I am not picky and I will try anything once. So, when Ottawa Life was invited to experience LIFT Resto & Lounge’s True Canadian Experience event, I jumped at the chance to attend. My perception of Canadian cuisine is admittedly limited. I love the two simple foods that I, like many, feel represent Canada the best: poutine and Beavertails. I was excited, though, to see just how this event would change and challenge this perspective.

Unbeknownst to some, LIFT is located on the second floor of the Delta Ottawa City Centre. As I entered, staff warmly greeted me and their smiles put me at ease. I was flying solo for the night, and I don’t normally cover food stories, so I was a little nervous. But I was also very hungry.

DSC_0432A two-piece band played some rock classics for the crowd, and the warm and buzzing atmosphere made the space feel incredibly friendly. Throughout the night, various guests, Delta staff, servers, representatives and chefs happily chatted with me.

LIFT is a strikingly open space with large windows that look out into the city. Blue lighting lit some sections, while soft lighting lit others. Comfortable couches, chairs and tables were scattered throughout the venue. Art deco inspired and chic, LIFT is tastefully decorated and hip.

Upon checking in, I quickly met Raj Mohan, the Director of Food and Beverage at Delta. This event, Mohan tells me, is in part to highlight how incredible LIFT’s space really is, and what it can offer. Many locals are unaware of LIFT, Mohan says, and the one-of-a-kind event was organized in order to change that.

Mohan kindly mapped out the event’s multi-province-themed food stations for me, and suggested that I DSC_0437head to the Maritime food station first. I agreed, and I quickly stopped to pick up a delicious sample of Flying Monkey beer.

While I am not typically a fan of seafood, Delta Beauséjour Chef Stefan Müeller’s offerings of caviar and lobster pleased my taste buds. While waiting in line, a guest told me to try the lobster with white chocolate sauce. After shooting back a fresh oyster, I happily obliged. The lobster with white chocolate sauce ended up becoming one of my favourite dishes of the night, and I was tempted to return for seconds.

ADSC_0461fterward, I made my way over to the Ontario-inspired station, where LIFT’s Executive Chef Jason Duffy was serving up Maroposa Duck Confit on a taco shaped bao bun and Ontario Pickerel Ceviche. I bantered with Duffy as he prepared some fresh samplings of the Ceviche. The Maroposa confit bao bun was absolutely splendid, soft and savory, and the Ceviche was spicy and innovative.

Moving over to the bar, I ordered up a SplitTree Lavender Lemon signature cocktail. The special cocktail was making its debut for the night. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and the lavender and lemon combination worked beautifully. Impressed, and with cocktail in hand, I journeyed toward the back of the venue, where Quebec and Alberta inspired food stations awaited.

ExecuDSC_0471tive Chef Robert Gendreau of Delta Montreal really knew how to make an impression on this foodie. A highlight of the night, I found myself surrounded by a lot of food: maple syrup sugar cookies, Quebec-style maple taffy on snow that instantly melted in my mouth, and a pancake stuffed with maple ham and maple syrup, with a side of baked beans. The red deer tartare and the pheasant breast topped with maple, cranberry and pearl onions were equally mouthwatering.

Truth be told, at this point, I was becoming a bit full. But, in the name of journalism, I still had one more station to try. Executive Chef Eric Larcom from the Calgary Marriott Downtown led the Alberta station, offering up a very meaty selection. Chef Larcom suggested that I dig into the Bison Carpaccio, and I happily indulged. It was delicious.

DSC_0475I ended my food and drink sampling with a hearty cup of Beau’s 80 Shilling Scotch Ale. A deliciously smooth beer, it was a great accompaniment to the stacks of brightly coloured macaroons at the beautifully arranged dessert station. I wandered around the event for a final time, admiring the incredibly life-like polymer clay sculptures on display by a friendly local artist, Maria Saracino. I also admired the beautiful landscape paintings on display by Margaret Chwialkowska. Chwialkowska was kind enough to stop and chat with me about her work.

This True Canadian Experience truly changed my perspective on Canadian cuisine. We are a country that is capable of delicacies beyond a run-of-the-mill poutine. The incredible service, hospitality, and food I received at the event mirror the great things LIFT will be bringing to the Ottawa food scene. And that, to this foodie, is priceless.

The Best Restaurants in Ottawa

January 20, 2016 3:00 pm
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A dish by Tomo. Photo by Lakyn Marie Felix Photography. 

We all know that Ottawans are attracted to great food, and luckily for us, it seems like great food is drawn to us as well. This city is loaded with fantastic places to grab a snack on the go or to sit down and give your evening to a great local restaurant. Everyone has their favourites, and here are 15 of ours, divided up by area. 

The ByWard Market.

The city’s oldest neighbourhood, the ByWard Market is where canal workers settled down after a long day for a meal and a pint. Fortunately for us, that tradition is still going strong. Since great food in Ottawa started here, we thought that it was only fair to start in the Market too.

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Some gorgeous Tomo sushi. Photo by Lakyn Marie Felix Photography.

Tomo Restaurant – Spectacular Sushi

Find them at: 109 Clarence Street or Tomorestaurant.ca.

Main Price Range: $8-$16.

Let’s start with some fine Japanese cuisine. For that you don’t need to look further than Tomo restaurant. “Tomo” in Japanese means long time friend, and that’s exactly what Tomo aims to create, long lasting memories for all its guests. The pan Asian dishes are made with great ingredients, and include weekly specials with fresh seasonal seafood from Canada’s east and west coasts.

The menu includes Volcano Rolls (cucumber, avocado massago, topped with baked spicy octopus) sushi platters (tuna, salmon, tako and crabsticks) and grilled squid and Gyoza (panfried chicken and vegetable dumplings served with light sweet soy sauce) among other dishes. This hotspot fills up quick, so you can make a reservation online or by phone.

Khao Thai – Swoon Worthy Seafood

Find Them At: 103 Murray Street or KhaoThai.ca.

Main Price Range: $12-14.

Thai cuisine makes some of the sweetest and most aromatic seafood on the planet, and the air is thick with the smell of it when you walk in Khao Thai. Lord of local Thai food since the mid 2000s, Khao Thai’s dim lighting and rich décor is swoon worthy, which makes it one of the best places on this list to bring a date.

Khao Thai has a ton of vegetarian options, and you can ask to have a lot of the meat dishes changed to veggies only. If you do plan on visiting, I’d say skip the pad thai, which is pretty great, but not quite as wonderful as the Thai curry dishes. The yellow curry Gaeng Karee Gai with potatoes in coconut milk is particularly delicious.

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The King Eddy’s quirky interior.

The King Eddy – Daring Diner

Find them at: 45 Clarence Street or KingEddyBurgers.com.

Main Price Range: $9-15.99.

One of Ottawa’s newest guilty pleasures, The King Eddy is the perfect spot to take care of your hamburger, fries and milkshake craving. Fresh as crest breath, this family owned restaurant opened in the Market last December and stays open seven days a week. Its menu stands on staples like the classic ‘King Eddy Burger,’ which consists of two fresh-ground patties, topped with Canadian Cheddar and your choice of toppings. For another 50 cents you can add sautéed onions and mushrooms, or add a bacon fried egg or chili for an extra dollar.

The Eddy also offers gluten free buns, or even no bun at all. Top off you burger with a side of hand cut or sweet potato fries, slaw or salad and wash the meal down with a classic milkshake, float, coffee or local draft beer. The restaurant gives off that diner feel, but also offers starters like salmon chowder. King Eddy doesn’t take reservations, but you can sit out on the patio, or find a spot past the two garage-style doors that overlook the bustling Market.

Mezzanotte Bistro Italiano – Classy Pasta

Find them at: 50 Murray Street or mezzanotte-bistro.com.

Main Prince Range: $21-44.

Daringly decored, Mezzanotte Bistro Italiano is filled with plush seats and wavy walls that make you feel like you’re sitting in the world’s comfiest submarine. The food is Italian, and their pasta menu goes on and on. With braised beef-stuff agnolotti, pine nut tortellini and rapini-filled ravioli, Mazzanotte’s pasta comes in every shape, and with every filling, you could ask for. Although the wine list is expansive, the restaurant’s best food pairing has to be the second-floor view over Murray Street.

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A beautifully laid out Empire plate. Photo courtesy of Christian Lee Photography.

Empire Grill Cool Comfort

Find them at: 47 Clarence Street or EmpireOttawa.com.

Main Price Range: $9-$49.

If the plan is to dress up and hit the town for a fancier night out, the Empire Grill is the place to be. After going through renovations, this swanky restaurant is all class past the front door. The modern interior makes it the perfect place if you have a date looking for tenderloin steak. It also offers up crispy pineapple chicken, Newfoundland crab and salt cod cake. Yum! Empire Grill also serves up brunch and a kids menu, and holds parties and live-music events.

Ahora Cusine Mexicain – A Fresh Surprise

Find Them At: 307 Dalhousie Street or Ahora.ca.

Main Price Range: $8-14.

Tucked into the long line of great places to eat on Dalhousie Street, Ahora makes you feel like you’ve found something secret. The inside is aggressively colourful, the walls and tiles are brightly painted and so vibrantly decorated it’s easy to feel like you’re standing in a jewelry box. Whoever did the interior designing must have been in a great mood that day, and the vibe is contagious.

The only thing more colourful than Ahora’s walls are the drinks, and it boasts an expansive bar list that includes fruity sangrias and a picturesque tequila sunrise. The food is authentic and defined by its fresh ingredients. Plates come fast and they arrive close to overflowing with the best Mexican food you’ll find in the ByWard Market.

Cacao 70 – Illegally Good Chocolate

Find Them At: 51-53 William Street or cacao70.ca.

Main Price Range: $7-32.

Topping off our ByWard Market section, we have Cacao 70. Think of it as the section’s dessert.

Boasting one of the sweetest menus in the ByWard Market and a website that’s so beautiful it nearly crashed my computer, Cacao 70 is about as new and cool as a restaurant can get. Settled in beside the historic ByWard Market Building, Cacao 70 somehow manages to simultaneously be cute and suave.

The menu balances savory options like the loaded veggie frittata with a cornucopia of chocolates and an eye-poppingly sweet breakfast menu. One of the morning options is their ‘illegal chocolate waffle,’ which is topped with melted Belgian chocolate and milk chocolate shavings and has two more kinds of chocolate on the side. You won’t find a place like Cacao 70 anywhere else in the 613. 

Elgin Street.

Elgin Street is the most popular bar and restaurant row in Ottawa. Settled in between Bank and the Market, Elgin balances the new and the old. It’s surrounded by monuments and it’s got far more great restaurants than a street its size ought to.

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Beckta’s stunning, historic exterior. Photo courtesy of Andree Alexander.

Beckta Dining & Wine – Top of the Top

Find Them At: 150 Elgin Street or beckta.com.

Main Price Range: $11-$95.

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An artfully arranged Beckta plate. Photo courtesy of Andree Alexander.

Beckta. It’s one of the newest names on this list but I’m sure you’ve heard it already. Built into the freshly renovated and historic Grant House, Beckta has been dominating downtown fine-dining since it opened last fall. Named after Stephen Beckta, a leading name in local food and the brain behind Play Food & Wine in the market, Beckta fine dining holds a privileged spot between city hall and the glass-encased Shopify building.

Lunch at Beckta is A-la-Carte and dinner can be taken in three or five courses, which cost about $68 and $95 respectively. I could spend the next thousand words going over Beckta’s brilliant menu, and another 500 talking about the wine, but I have a better idea. Presented, without comment, is just one of the second course options in their three-course dinner: “Grilled branzino, kohlrabi purée, fig agnolotti, shaved black walnut, fig jus, cured tomatoes.”

Wow.

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A view into Elgin Street Diner’s warm interior. Photo courtesy of Milan Ilnyckyj.

Elgin Street Diner – Retro Recipe for Success

Find Them At: 374 Elgin Street or ElginStreetDiner.com.

Main Price Range: $10-16.

Open 24 hours a day, every day of the week, The Elgin Street Diner is an Ottawa Institution, perfect whether you’re looking for a post-bar munchie stop, a popular and well priced lunch special or weekend  brunch. Voted best diner by basically every travel site that’s sauntered through the Capital, the Elgin is always nostalgic and inviting. Naturally, the interior is super retro with exposed brick, old-school upholstered diner chairs and booths waiting for you to happily sink into them.

The menu is hearty, with a loaded breakfast special that runs all day. For $13 you can change the normal special to the aptly named ‘hangover breakfast,’ which trades the meal’s home fries for the poutine that made ESD a legend. Word on the street is their Smokey Burger, topped with gouda cheese and in-house barbeque sauce is the thing to order, and I wouldn’t leave without trying the milkshakes.

El Camino – Nouveau Mexicano

Find Them At: 380 Elgin Street or EatElCamino.com.

Main Price Range: $9-16.

If Beckta fine dining is Elgin Street’s crown jewel, and the Elgin Street Diner is its reliable, cracked-leather wristwatch, then ElCamino has to be the shiny earrings it wears on nights out. People love ElCamino because it’s fun and the menu completely redefines how most Canadians see Mexican food. From the restaurant interior or the take-out window, ElCamino serves arguably the best tacos in the city, topped with everything from Japanese-style eggplant to tuna tartare.

ElCamino’s green papaya salad comes in mountainous towers and the shrimp dumplings are wondrously crispy and served alongside sliced radish. The prices are also surprisingly low, considering the gorgeous food. The tacos go for $4.50 to $10 each, and the most expensive item on their sample menu is the $16 scallops.

Downtown and Beyond.

Ottawa’s fine-food scene certainly has its heart downtown, but that doesn’t mean there’s no good food east of Bank Street and south of the 417. All over Chinatown, Little Italy, New Edinburgh, Lansdowne Park and a dozen other neighborhoods there are local legends and future favourites waiting to be discovered.

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Tender MeNa steak, photo courtesy of Rick Livingston.

MeNa – Un Bon Arret

Find Them At: 276 Preston Street or MeNaRestaurant.com.

Main Price Range: $12-85.

A French restaurant in Little Italy, MeNa deserves praise for standing out on a street that made its name with brilliant food. Combining small plates with big ideas, MeNa serves fresh meals that are exquisitely cooked and elaborately displayed. The head chef is James Bratsberg, who’s given the menu a real ‘built from scratch’ feel. The scattered vegetable plates and small towers of beef manage to look modern and rustic at the same time.

Lots of restaurants brag about fresh food, but you can really taste the difference local-organic food makes in MeNa’s bright vegetarian dishes. This is also great to see in a French restaurant too, the last one I went to in Ottawa may have been a bit ritzier, but there’s wasn’t a single vegetarian entrée, and I don’t think that’s acceptable in 2015. Of course, if you want that more traditional, rich-meaty flavour, MeNa also serves a mean duck tagliatelle with orange.

So Good Restaurant Inc – Chinatown Champion

Find Them At: 717 Somerset Street West or SoGoodFo.com.

Main Price Range: $8-20.50.

Ottawa is known for a lot of things, beavertails, shawarma, even tacos, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone brag about our Chinese food. Wander through the gorgeous Chinatown Royal Arch though, and you’ll uncover gems like So Good Restaurant Inc.

So Good has a relaxed feel to it and one of the biggest menus I’ve ever seen. Seriously check it out here, So Good has more Szechuan dishes than most places have dishes period. The quantity doesn’t take away from the quality though, especially when it comes to So Good’s tofu and squid. On top of that, everything is as easy on the wallet as it is on the stomach, and I had to look at the menu for about five minutes before I could find a meal that cost more than $20.

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A colourful veggie plate from Fraser Cafe, photo courtesy of Fraser Cafe.

Local Lansdowne – Keeps the Gang Happy

Find Them At: 825 Exhibition Way or LocalLansdowne.com.

Main Price Range: $8-18.

The newly opened Lansdowne Park’s only representative on our list, Local’s style is definitely Spartan. It has dim lighting and an open, airy feeling. The outdoor patio is filled with plastic-looking patio chairs and tables that make the spot seem like your own backyard, if you were lucky enough to have a backyard sandwiched between a movie theatre and football stadium.

Like a lot of newer places, Local’s menu is all over the place. Look through it and you’ll find plenty of burgers, some Mexican options, Polish perogies, Jamaican jerk chicken and Szechuan edamame. They’re even tiptoeing into Ottawa’s taco scene. What makes Local different from some newer places is that Local actually pulls off a lot of the food pretty well. If you’re looking for Mexican or Chinese food I wouldn’t choose it over some of the other very specific places on this list, but if you’ve got a hard-to-please group with diverse tastes, Local should be the place that does if for them.

Wellington Pub – In Season and Always in Style

Find Them At: 1325 Wellington Street West or TheWellingtonGastropub.com.

Main Price Range: $14-28.

The word ‘pub’ might be a bit misleading in the name Wellington Gastropub. I’ve been to plenty of pubs in this city, and none of them served anything as wondrously organized as the Wellington’s plates of veggies, steak and fish. With a few small-plate options and some heftier meals to fit the pub name, the gastropub’s menu is ever-changing to stay with what’s seasonal and in style.

The drink menu features a surprising amount of local craft beer, including a stellar line up from the undoubtedly familiar Beau’s collection to some more local and less known options. One I’d never seen before, and absolutely love the name of, is the Calabogie Front Porch Kolsch. Say that five times fast.

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A look at Fraser’s seafood offerings, photo courtesy of Fraser Cafe.

Fraser Café – Food Wow Factor

Find Them At: 7 Springfield Road or FraserCafe.ca.

Main Price Range: $11-55.

Sitting just a couple blocks away from the Rideau River, Fraser Café is the only spot representing New Edinburgh on this list. The interior balances modern and quaint, and the food seems to fall more on the contemporary side. That’s not to say you should come here expecting molecular cooking, but even more traditional meals like pancakes or huevos rancheros (rancher’s eggs) find a way to surprise you.

Dinnertime at Fraser Café is all about seafood. There’s a bunch of great shrimp options and you can buy Whalesbone oysters for $3 apiece. You should also swing by for brunch, and make sure to give yourself enough time for desert. Fraser makes its ice cream in-house, and the fresh doughnuts, usually served with a gooey dark chocolate side, are a thing of beauty.

The Five Downtown Hot Chocolates You Have to Try Before Christmas

December 11, 2015 1:56 pm
Ministry Hot Chocolate

The Ministry of Coffee’s nutty Nutella hot chocolate. Photo by Samantha Lapierre.

We’ve all said it, there’s nothing better than a hot chocolate on a cold day. A good cup warms you from your fingers to your toes and can provide a head-spinning sugar rush or a stomach settling heartiness. As residents of the world’s coldest capital city (take that Ulaanbaatar), Ottawans take hot chocolate very seriously, and our local restaurants, cafes and chocolateries deliver year after year. This year, OLM brought together a few of our chocolate-obsessed writers to dish on the best spots in the city to grab a warm and sweet coco. So sit back, put your feet up by the fire, and let our list of ‘The Five Downtown Hot Chocolates You Have to Try Before Christmas’ warm you up a little.

American Hot Chocolate at Cacao 70 (53 William Street, ByWard Market)

Mireille's Hot Chocolate

By Mireille Sylvester

I like to think of myself as a bit of a hot chocolate connoisseur. My friends and I have even coined a hip term for the drink – HoCho. You heard it here first. I hope it sticks! I’ve sampled many a hot chocolate in the Ottawa area, but I often find myself returning to Cacao 70 in the ByWard Market. The restaurant almost exclusively serves chocolate-related items such as fondue, crepes, ice cream, and even gourmet chocolate pizza (the s’more one is my favourite). The hot chocolate, however, is on another level entirely. My favourite is called the American Hot Chocolate (pictured), which sounds like a regular, plain Jane drink, but I can assure you it tastes like you’re taking a sip of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. It comes with marshmallows and drizzled chocolate. For the adventurous types, Cacao 70 also offers Mexican style hot chocolate (spiced with cinnamon), a Cacao 70 spicy hot chocolate (featuring paprika and curry) and frozen hot chocolates. As an added bonus, you can choose between milk, dark, or semi-sweet chocolate. ‘Tis the season for hot chocolate, and I can guarantee you that Cacao 70 won’t disappoint!

Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate at Truffle Treasures (679 Bank Street, the Glebe)

Hot Chocolate

A very festive peanut butter hot chocolate. Photo by Sofie Sharom.

By Sofie Sharom

In the heart of the Glebe, Truffle Treasures is a local chocolatier serving up decadent chocolates, sinful gelatos and gourmet hot chocolates. The specialty peanut butter hot chocolate does not disappoint. Gently foamed milk is melded together with your choice of white, semi-sweet or dark chocolate, and mixed with the key ingredient – a scoop of real peanut butter. Topped with whipped cream in a generously-sized mug, the light chocolate peanut butter flavour is a welcome surprise. Their peanut butter hot chocolate is just one of many hot chocolate creations which also include peppermint, ginger/orange, pumpkin spice and banana.

Nutella Hot Chocolate at The Ministry of Coffee (279 Elgin Street)

Ministry Sign

Photo by Samantha Lapierre.

By Samantha Lapierre

Since 2013, The Ministry of Coffee has been serving up delightful hot drinks and delectable treats. Its Elgin Street atmosphere is the stuff of café legend: homey, relaxed and full of friendly baristas who know their stuff. It comes as no surprise, then, that The Ministry’s Nutella Hot Chocolate is a delight. Standing in front of the counter, it’s easy to see that not a single packet of hot chocolate powder or drop of lukewarm water goes into it. From the moment I took my very first sip, I was blown away by its rich (but not too sweet) hazelnut flavor and creamy texture. It is often difficult to find a luxurious hot chocolate that doesn’t have a luxurious price tag attached. A great aid to help with the winter blues, The Ministry’s Nutella Hot Chocolate is a treat for even the pickiest hot chocolate connoisseur.

Signature Hot Chocolate with Coconut Whipped Cream at Thimblecakes (369 Bank Street)HC4

By Eric Murphy

Everything about Thimblecakes is absolutely adorable and sweet. Their famous treats are beautifully decorated, their plush chairs and couch look too cute to sit on and if you ask for their signature hot chocolate, the powder comes from inside an enormous glass jug. Like just about everything in the store, the cocoa powder is made in house. It comes with coconut whipped cream on the top and you can order it with coconut milk to make it dairy free. That’s great news for any lactose intolerant folks like me, because no one wants a hot chocolate made with just water.

Thimblecakes is known for their beautiful cupcakes, but once I’d taken a sip of the signature hot chocolate it was obvious that they really are masters of all things sweet. The coconut milk makes the hot chocolate light and gives it an unusually deep flavour. Naturally, the coconut whipped cream is so good you could eat it with a spoon. As light as the hot chocolate is, it ends with big chocolaty kick that makes your eyes pop and gets you ready to head back out into the cold, as any good cocoa should.

Aztec Hot Chocolate at Bernard Callebaut (256 Dalhousie Street, ByWard Market)

BC Hot CocoBy Kathleen Smith

When I discovered Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut last year during a cold January quest for some hot chocolate, it was love at first sip. I was transported back to the year I lived in Belgium, where every cup of rich, creamy hot chocolate sent shivers down my spine and made angel choirs sing.

Earlier this week, I returned to taste their god’s-nectar once again. I tried their Aztec hot-chocolate, flavored with cloves, cinnamon, chilli, and cardamom, with semi-sweet chocolate as a base. My drink was perfection.  The spices lend sophistication and complexity, while also adding to the drink’s warming effect. The chocolate was rich and flavorful, and the milk was perfectly steamed. I also stole a few sips of my boyfriend’s peanut butter hot chocolate. Imagine, if you will, a frothy, liquid peanut butter cup with a gourmet chocolate base — it was lovely. This is hot chocolate at its finest — rich, flavourful, and indulgent. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Glimpse Into ARC the Hotel’s New Winter Menu

November 25, 2015 4:02 pm
Hotel chefs prepare tacos for party guests.

Photo by Eric Vance.

Earlier this month ARC the Hotel celebrated their freshly-launched winter menu by treating a selection of local foodies to lunch. OLM was there and we have the low-down on what’s changed and what you have to try.

What’s New

The ARC Lounge menu hasn’t just changed under Executive Chef Jason Peters, it’s expanded. Formerly focused on fine dining, the lounge now aims to have something for every visitor. That means a menu that used to have four mains now offers closer to eight, and it has more for someone looking for a classics like a sandwich or burger.

“When couples or families come out to dine not everybody is in the same mood,” says ARC Hotel’s General Manager Cindy McLong. “We target different taste buds.”

The fancier options are still there of course, and the classic scallops or steak are cooked and plated to impress.

The ARC is also taking down walls and adding more tables to give their restaurant more of a lounge feel. Right now the ambience has two distinct vibes. The back of the lounge has more booths with dimmer lighting that gives it more of an intimate feel. The other side uses floor-to-ceiling windows and separate tables to capture a more airy dining experience. Like the food, the decor has a spot ready to fit with whatever you’re feeling.

ARCscallops

Scallops with farro, squash, pickled apples and pumpkin coulis.

What to Order

To get a sense of the lounge’s range I started by ordering two completely opposite dishes. My appetizer was a homespun-sounding split-pea soup and for my main I chose the more upscale scallops served with farro, squash, pickled apples and a thick pumpkin sauce.

The soup tasted just as homey and comforting as I’d hoped, and it was the perfect answer to the icy breeze rolling over Metcalfe Street. After only a few spoonfuls my fingers warmed up and it was like I’d never been outside at all. While some of the soup’s cubed ham was a bit fatty for my taste, the roasted croutons lounging in the middle of the bowl had a great crunchy contrast to the rest of the dish and brought the whole thing up a level.

The scallops arrived not long after with a presentation that was actually more daring than the flavour. Islands of scallops, barley and squash were scattered across the plate connected by darting lines of the pumpkin coulis. This was the dish that really showed off chef Peters’ focus on local ingredients, everything tasted fresher and healthier than what you’d normally expect from a scallop dish.

For dessert I chose the crème brûlée over ARC’s much-lauded cheesecake for precisely two reasons: 1) I find cracking the caramalized top of a good crème brûlée one of the most satisfying things on the planet and 2) it was spiced with chai.

That turned out to be a great choice, as the chai put a unique twist on a refreshingly cool brûlée that was never too sweet. I paired the whole meal with a sauvignon blanc one of the waitresses wisely recommended, and the wine was so smooth you could drink half a bottle without noticing. Naturally, it matched all of the food fabulously.

After I was finished my food I hopped over to eat with another group that ordered a little bit of everything. What really stood out from their collection was the lounge’s rustic truffle fries. I hadn’t ordered the fries earlier because you can find fries just about anywhere, but that turned out to be a huge mistake. The truffle flavour in these ones was out-of-this-world had the same ‘wow’ factor as the chai in the Crème Brûlée. I ended up bringing a container back to the office because it really isn’t right for anyone spending time downtown to miss out on such a unique take on a classic lunch staple.

You can find out more about ARC the Hotel and their winter menu at arcthehotel.com.

Find Great Food Faster at Two New Jack Astor’s

October 9, 2015 3:14 pm
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With drool-worthy new menu items and enough TVs to keep you in the game until… pretty much forever, two new Jack Astor’s are now open in Ottawa.

The first settled comfortably into the new Lansdowne Park development earlier this year. That location sits just a few steps away from the Redblack’s stadium, and if you live and breathe football, this is the spot for you.

Jack Astor’s at Lansdowne Park has 40 beers on tap, with some classics and a fair few I’ve never heard of. Spearhead Hawaiian Pale Ale is brewed with pineapple and could be the perfect drink to give you a break from that (well deserved) Barking Squirrel rut. The Lansdowne spot even has a VVVIP program that can get you into their ‘elite beer tasting squad.’

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Jack Astor’s picturesque board nachos.

Whether you’re watching the game or out with the work team, the Lansdowne menu is loaded with fresh spins on some classic meals. They make their bread every day in-house, their burgers are never frozen and are made from scratch. You can even order their locally-lauded board nachos topped with garlic shrimp.

The second and newest Ottawa Jack Astor’s is in Hunt Club. That location opened September 8 and provides a huge dose of flavour to the Nepean food scene. If you live around Merivale road and you’re looking for a night out or some great food to go with the game, you’ll want to check it out.

The Hunt Club Jack Astor’s sits at 310 West Hunt Club Rd. you can find out more about it at jackastors.com/locations or connect with Jack Astor’s on Facebook or Twitter.

 

Bier Markt Ottawa: Oktoberfest Without the Airfare

September 17, 2015 4:47 pm
Oktoberfeast

Strap on your lederhosen and dirndls and head to Bier Markt Ottawa for its annual Oktoberfest celebrations. Available from September 17 – October 4, Bier Markt Ottawa is offering an authentic Oktoberfest experience with a new, limited time only Oktoberfest menu including:

• Hangover Soup – Smoked pork hock, braised cabbage, Yukon potato, fall root vegetables, Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier broth & Bavarian pretzel.
• Oktoberfest Currywurst Poutine  – Chargrilled knackwurst, double fried Markt frites, house-made curry spiced ketchup.
• Bavarian Pretzel & Cheese Fondue
• Bavarian Bratwurst Burger – lb seared chuck burger, grilled Oktoberfest bratwurst, charred onion, apple braised red cabbage, Emmental cheese, dark Bier Mustard, pretzel bun, Markt frites.
• Oktoberfest Chicken & Dumplings – Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier brined & slow roasted ½ chicken, traditional handmade Bavarian pretzel dumplings, shallot, mushroom & white wine sauce.
• Schnitzel – choice of Hunter’s Chicken , Veal or Pork.
• Oktoberfeast – a smorgasbord of Bavarian favourites. Perfect for sharing!

Schnitzel for press release

Bier Markt Ottawa’s gorgeous schnitzel.

These meals combine the traditional with the unique, and come from Bier Markt’s Executive Chef, Michael Cipollo, who created the new menu to offer guests authentic Bavarian-style dishes. Prices for the new menu range from $7 – $55. All menu items are expertly paired with Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Bier – one of the six official biers of Oktoberfest. It comes directly from Munich, Germany and is pouring exclusively at Bier Markt Ottawa. Available in a 1 litre stein for $10 or a pint for $7.74. Bier Markt Ottawa is also featuring live, nightly Oompah-pah bands every Thursday – Saturday from September 17 – October 4. No cover charge. Plus Bier Markt Ottawa will be decked out in traditional Oktoberfest decorations, with some staff even garbed in lederhosen and dirndls! Throughout the year, guests can also enjoy delicious Europeaninspired cuisine from Bier Markt’s core menu. All menu items are expertly paired with over 150 brands of bier from over 30 countries at all Bier Markt locations across Ontario.

You can find out more about Bier Markt Ottawa through Twitter, Facebook and by checking out their website thebiermarkt.com.

Industria Strikes a Brilliant Balance

August 20, 2015 4:36 pm
Industria 1

Stepping into Industria Italian Brasserie for the new Lansdowne restaurant’s grand opening Wednesday night, I probably should have gone up to one of the hosts and asked about seating. Instead I spent a good few seconds staring at the building’s impressively looming ceiling, made up of painted-black pipes. The pipe-covered ceiling fit the restaurant’s overall décor theme perfectly. It was modern, rustic and very, very large.

Most of the interior seems to balance between a blue-collar aesthetic and a contemporary lounge feeling. On one side the walls are made of white brick, and it’s easy to imagine you’re sitting in a renovated mill or factory. Just beside this, the bar is slick, black and open on every side.

Although Industria has technically been open since Canada Day, Wednesday’s event really felt like an unveiling. My guest and I started the evening by each grabbing a Fresca Sangria from the bar. Industria’s most popular cocktail, the Sangria was big and yellow. Spiked with Bulleit bourbon and white wine, with Ciroc peach, gingerale and apple juice for flavour, the Sangria’s fruity boost perfectly offset the scorching day outside.

We parked ourselves at a table that looked like it was made of raw wood, and went to work on our drinks while admiring the décor. From that spot we were facing the restaurant’s more modern-looking half, and that view combined with the beat-heavy music made the open space feel like a club that was just waiting for the first people to start dancing. The only thing that seemed out of place was the giant television hanging above us. Being able to show games makes sense for a restaurant that’s so close to the TD Place stadium where the Redblacks play, but the screens didn’t really fit with Industria’s vibe.

Industria 2My second drink was a sweating glass of Peroni, an Italian beer with a flavour that’s smooth but still interesting. I love the Ottawa craft brew scene, but sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the hops for something a little more easygoing.

Food started hitting the tables around 5:30 p.m. in the form of easily-sharable sfizi. If, like me, you’ve never heard of sfizi, just imagine an Italian version of Spanish tapas. Designed for sharing, the sfizi plates are front and centre in Industria’s plan for world domination, and the chefs shared some of their best and most interesting dishes.

I made a beeline for an odd looking thin-crust pizza called the Industria that was coated in miced beef, iceburg lettuce and an orange sauce. The pizza had a maddeningly familiar taste that took me a few minutes to figure out. Finally, I realized that it tasted just like a McDonald’s Big Mac. A PR rep eventually confirmed that Industria’s Head Chef, Sergio Mattoscio, was going for that exact flavour when he created it. I thought the Industria pizza was a hit but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

Other sfizi samples included rustic-tasting meatballs in a tomato sauce, some well-executed calamari, and delicious lobster tacos served in a crispy deep-fried shell.

“Sfizi is just another way of eating,” Head Chef Mattoscio told the gathered crowd. “Trying different things and passing things.”

Mattoscio created a menu that uses simple ingredients, brilliantly put together. Some of the dishes taste like traditional Italian home cooking, while others, like Mattoscio’s signature gnocchi poutine, are incredibly daring.

Another thing that will definitely set Industria apart is its Fat Thursday option. Named after the last Thursday before lent, the weekly special offers four market-fresh sfizi options with a drink for $28.

“The concept is full, full sharing,” Mattoscio said, occasionally looking up at his young daughter who was yelling ‘hi Daddy!’ from the level above us. “If you’re alone at the bar,” he continued, “you’re going to get four different dishes. If you’re two, if you’re 10, you’re going to get four different dishes to try.”

We ate dinner beside a chandelier that looked like a waterfall of clear baubles. Nestled into an enormous booth, I wrapped up my evening with the sort of beautifully light and flaky pizza you can only get with fresh dough cooked in an open-flame oven. Fitting the rustic theme, the pizza came on a wooden plate with a pair of scissors for cutting out slices. Apparently Mattoscio used scissors on pizzas growing up, and I was surprised to find they did a much better job than the sharp knife you’d be given at most restaurants.

Industria Italian Brasserie really is a restaurant that has a lot going on. The menu boasts traditional Italian staples that feel right at home with more experimental meals. Some guests might find the décor a bit too busy, but I thought the blue-collar bricks and pipes struck a great contrast with the sleek bar and chandeliers. Whether you’re planning a date night or searching for something new in Landsdowne Park, Industria has what you’re looking for.

Still curious about the restaurant or its menu? Find out more at industriabrasserie.com.

Skip the Grocery Lines with SmartKart

August 17, 2015 2:18 pm
SmartKart Header

If you’re like me, the worst part of putting together any meal is finding that impossible-to-find ingredient at the grocery store. Whether it’s coconut milk for a curry, tahini for hummus, or an obscure brick of cheese for that French onion soup, digging through piles and getting lost in the aisles is an ordeal.

Fortunately, Karan Khanna knows your pain. Frustrated by grocery shopping’s inconvenience and wondering if others felt the same, he started SmartKart in Ottawa earlier this year to bring groceries straight to customers’ doors.

“Let’s face it, today people are super busy,” says Khanna, SmartKart’s CEO and co-founder. “The hardest part about cooking is not the actual cooking. It’s the going out and grocery shopping.”

Khanna argues that his company makes an easy and healthy alternative to waiting in grocery lines or ordering fast food.

SK shopper

One of SmartKart’s personal shoppers.

Once you’ve signed up for SmartKart, you can look in their ‘pantry’ to see a long list of available grocery store items with up-to-date prices. Once you’ve chosen what you need, you go to their checkout and choose what date and time you want the food brought to your home.

“The quickest time that you can get is two hours,” Khanna says. This means that for many commuters, you could order your food a few minutes before you leave work and it should show up not long after you’ve settled into your couch back home.

When you place the order, it’s transferred to one of SmartKart’s personal shoppers who goes to the best store location and picks up what you need. They’re also trained to call the customer if there’s an issue with the order. For example, if the customer wanted royal gala apples but all the ones the store has are looking a little haggard, the personal shopper will let them know. All the shopper needs get started with SmartKart is a car, a smartphone, and some training. A love of grocery shopping doesn’t hurt either.

“Think of SmartKart as Uber for groceries,” Khanna says.

So far, SmartKart offers products from Loblaws, Costco, and the LCBO, but Khanna is working on expanding their partnerships. He’s in the process of adding Walmart to SmartKart’s digital inventory, and finding ways to offer more local and organic options. Khanna is even looking into expansions into other cities, and has already secured two partnerships in Montreal.

So far, SmartKart’s customers seem to come from all walks of life, from seniors with less mobility, to single parents in a hurry to students. Whether SmartKart is someone’s weekly shopping staple, or just something to fall back on when your day runs long, it’s easy to see why people are so interested in this time-saving alternative to the traditional grocery run.

You can find out more about SmartKart on their website.

SmartKart

Kayla Pongrac: Bringing Local Flavour to Life with Art and Design

August 12, 2015 10:07 am
Kayla Pongrac

Photo credit: Blair Pongrac 

When you head to one of Ottawa’s top restaurants, like Ace Mercado on Clarence Street, you go for the experience. It’s not just about the great food, but also the atmosphere, smells and sounds.

A lot of thought, planning and passion go into creating that atmosphere and making it unique. A great restaurant entangles the owner’s vision and chef’s creations into a cohesive ambience through design and style—that is what Kayla Pongrac does for a living.

With a background in architecture, Pongrac started her own business a little over two years ago, helping local restaurateurs create interesting, dynamic spaces.

It all started with Ace, owned by Scott Porter and Phil Faubert, a project Pongrac says is still close to her heart.

Ace Mercado Photo credit: Kayla Pongrac

Ace Mercado
Photo credit: Kayla Pongrac

“For Ace, I worked with René (Rodriguez). He had just won Top Chef Canada and he was bringing the menu in for Ace. He described the food to me and how he wanted it to feel like street food-style and bring the market-feel into the restaurant, give it a little bit of wildness, a little bit darker and not so polished—that was also a reflection of his food. And Scott (Porter) had a similar vision as well,” she explains. “I worked with them to make it come to life.”

Since then, Pongrac describes a “snowball effect,” working on spaces for Tomo and The Waverley with more projects in the works now.

“Everyone brings in different ideas and I have to be the melting pot and also know what is trending in the design and art world to bring that into the mix. I condense it, refine it in a way that is consistent, fun and relevant to the product,” she says.

Pongrac likes to incorporate local art into all of her spaces.

“It’s one thing to design a space but if I can bring a lot of art into the restaurant, it brings a totally different vibe, I think.”

Working with muralists and street artists as well as the Ottawa School of Art (for some work at Ace), Pongrac gives each space something special and puts her signature on the project.

“I’ll do a piece for the space or I’ll actually physically go and paint on the walls or paint on the bar.”

Tomo. Photo credit: Kayla Pongrac

Tomo’s interior
Photo by Kayla Pongrac and mural by Dems & Doll.

The focal point at Tomo, for example, is a vibrant 65-foot-long mural—a collaboration with local artists Dems & Doll that puts a modern spin on the traditional Geisha with five stellar, eye-catching portraits.

With ties to some of the Capital’s favourite spots, Pongrac says she wants to focus on local businesses.

“(I am) trying to grow these smaller businesses and work with entrepreneurs, just to try to get their products out there because it’s hard when you have these big guys that come in with these massive restaurants and big budgets,” she says. “Everyone wants to go to these places but new restaurant owners have a lot of cool ideas and if I can work with them to get their ideas out there and to be competitive with these big chains, that’s what I want to do.”

And what are some of Pongrac’s favourite places in the city right now?

Social has always been a favourite. I worked there for a very long time. They just did a total revamp/redesign there and I think it’s awesome…the food is amazing.”

“And then I have some of my little favourite spots, like Wild Oat on Bank Street, and Benny’s Bistro at the back of the French Baker.”

To learn more about Kayla Pongrac Design, click here.

Quesada: The Taste of Success

June 17, 2015 3:11 pm
Steff in Store

Steff Charbonneau behind the counter at his restaurant.

Order up! Quesada, the Canadian-owned and operated Mexican fast casual chain, is busy building burritos as it continues to expand.

When Steff Charbonneau, a full-time Ottawa firefighter and father, tasted Quesada for the first time, the authentic flavours of Mexico captured his attention.

When he isn’t at the fire hall, you’ll find Charbonneau at his restaurant. He opened the first Quesada in eastern Ontario in Cornwall in 2013.

“I wake up some days and think that I’m the luckiest guy,” he says. “I’ve got a beautiful wife, two healthy kids and two great jobs.”

Charbonneau, franchise owner and area developer, loves to help newcomers with their first Quesada experience. “You can tell because they kind of scan the menu and I always stop and say, ‘First time?’ and they chuckle. I think–‘Oh god, I remember my first time. I was hooked!’”

BURRITO-SPICYCHICKEN-INGRED FADEAfter that first bite, Charbonneau was confident he found what he was looking for: “I really enjoyed everything about it. The more I looked into it, the more I really wanted to be part of it and the accessible cost of owning a franchise helped move things along.”

It’s evident Charbonneau’s passion, along with a consumer movement toward healthier eating and Mexican flavours, is catching on. In just two years, Quesada has opened five locations including Petawawa, Kingston and Brockville.

“It’s something that I believe in, so it’s easy to sell to other people,” he says.

Tom O'Neill

Tom O’Neill, president of Quesada Canada Franchising Corp.

Tom O’Neill, president of Quesada Canada Franchising Corp., says Charbonneau’s spirit is exactly what the company needs.

“He’s an entrepreneurial guy, even though he is a full-time fireman,” he says. “He gets it. He loves the product. He works with his franchisees to solve problems. He’s got it all.”

And the franchisees are part of what makes Quesada so successful.

“A franchisee has to understand that they have to be a hybrid of an entrepreneur and a manager,” O’Neill explains. “They have to be able to run the restaurant but also have to get out there and market.”

Quesada’s unique recipe for success is working. In fact, since the company began in Toronto in 2004 and opened its first franchise in 2010, the Mexican must-eat has flourished.

“At the rate we’re going, we are doubling every 12 months,” O’Neill says.

store 1There are currently 44 Quesada locations in Canada, with plans to reach 74 stores nationally by the end of 2015. And the future looks bright.

“We’re going to become a premier Mexican brand in Canada in the next 10 years, no question of that,” O’Neill says. “When we hit 300 restaurants, we’ll be well into the United States.”

Click here to learn more about Quesada.

Take a Bite

September 19, 2014 10:10 am
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One year after the opening of Café Urban at Saint Paul University, the kitchen is busier than ever. Handmade sandwiches, granola and soups are flying onto the trays of hungry students and faculty.

Urban Cafe WEB  (15)Café Urban aims to supply the university and public with locally sourced food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is a branch of Urban Element, a cooking studio and event space, located on Parkdale Avenue.

When Saint Paul University decided to end an existing contract with then-food service company, Urban Element submitted a proposal highlighting its focus on in-house made food.

Carley Schelck, Café Urban’s culinary events director, works hard to bring the vision of Café Urban to life every day.

“The welcome back over the last two weeks have been crazy. It just shows you what a year in the space can do. There’s a comfortability with it now,” she says.

However, Café Urban was not always popular with the Saint Paul crowd.

“It was challenging at first because it was a change from what they were used to here. We were more health conscious and focused but slowly over time we started to win them over,” says Schelck. “Who can really deny it—it’s comfort food, it’s home-made and prepared in-house everyday. People can actually smell the baking from the kitchen. That made a difference.”

In order to produce the mouth-watering options, morning staff start their shifts at 5 a.m. with baking and preparing for the morning breakfast crowd. By 7:30 a.m. lunch is being prepared. After the lunch service, afternoons contain events such as catering meetings, conventions and events before preparing for the small dinner rush.

Café Urban employees are hard workers and dedicated to their craft, says Schelck.Urban Cafe WEB  (35)

“We’ve been able to attract employees who have been in traditional restaurant jobs that find this work still interesting because you aren’t cooking typical cafeteria style meals,” she says. “You’re still challenged, people are receptive and then they are encouraged to cook creatively.”

Besides constantly creating meals from scratch, Café Urban admits to one other challenge. A new location recently opened at a first-year student residence on the University of Ottawa campus. Schelck says the café applied the same principles but received a completely different outcome.

“It’s interesting serving food to 17-year-olds. They have lots of different options on their campus. We just have to figure out their interests,” says Schelck. “The chef is torn between giving them exactly what they want and staying true to our principles.”

Perhaps the café just needs more time—after all, it took almost a year to see a big boom in sales at the Saint Paul location.

Meanwhile, Café Urban will be hosting collective kitchen workshops where students, faculty and the public can come together to produce a large amount of food and all share the outcomes. Cooking classes, such as the recent taco night, are also being held.

Urban Cafe WEB  (10)“We hope to be able to expand this model,” says Schelck. “The school bought into our vision. They saw a common vision with us and they are really excited about helping us achieve those food goals.”

With gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan choices, Café Urban is offering an array of options for anyone who wants to stop by and take a bite.

Check out Café Urban at Saint Paul University on Main Street, open to everyone weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Want the Best Pizza in Ottawa? Head West to Stittsville & Kanata

June 12, 2014 2:20 pm
jojo

Horace Greeley, the nineteenth-century politician, author and proprietor of the then extremely influential New York Tribune newspaper, famously offered this sage advice: “Go west, young man.” One could argue that Greeley’s reasoning could also apply to the quest for gourmet pizza. Why you may ask? Summer is upon us and with it comes the patio and deck season. When your appetite sharpens and when barbeque just will not do, there is really only one place to turn to for truly delicious pizza: Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria in the fast-growing town of Stittsville, a suburban enclave on the fringe of Kanata.

Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria has served Stittsville and its surrounding area for over thirty years daily producing nutritious and delicious freshly prepared foods. Throughout much of that time, it has been owned and operated by the Kassis family. This remains the case today, as the business is now owned and operated by twenty-nine year-old Zeyad Kassis and his three sisters: twenty-eight year-old Fatina, twenty-five year-old Natasha and twenty-three year-old Rebecka. Together they manage the day-to-day operation of this popular gourmet pizzeria.

jojo1Three years ago, in June 2011, the company transitioned to its current, more youthful, ownership and managerial structure. It was then that Zeyad, Fatina, Natasha, and Rebecka assumed their father’s ownership stake in the company and laid the foundation for expanding the menu and the physical presence of Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria well beyond Stittsville. A professionally trained chartered accountant, Zeyad feels strongly that, “We’re a family-operated business, so we serve [our customers] as the extension of our family.” This approach results in both delicious pizza and bountiful charitable work in Ottawa’s west end.

The old saying that “the whole is only as good as the sum of its parts” can be applied to pizza. With this reasoning in mind, it may come as no surprise that good pizza cannot be crafted from poor quality ingredients. This fact is clearly recognized at Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria where premium food products are prepared using nothing but first quality ingredients. Zeyad is quick to point out that, “we use the best ingredients that are available to us in all our products.” More specifically, he explains that, “our ingredients are always fresh ingredients. Our vegetables are always cut everyday. Our traditional style pizza dough is made fresh everyday.” While the standard operating procedure for many pizzerias is a reliance on factory prepared and processed ingredients, Jo-Jo’s bucks this trend. It even uses real home-cooked sliced bacon in its Caesar salads as well as its pizzas and specialty sandwiches.

Christmas Day is the one day a year that the pizzeria is closed. With that one exception, the chefs at Jo-Jo’s prepare their own homemade tabouli on a daily basis. And every other day, those same chefs make their homemade humus as well as the garlic dressing that adds a unique flavor to their beef donairs and chicken shawarmas. But in the competitive world of pizza, the foundation for excellent pizza begins with the pizza dough and the pizza sauce. Jo-Jo’s traditional pizza dough is made fresh every single day. As for the pizza sauce, quality remains the primary concern. Unlike the many pizzerias using sauces that are full of corn starch and preservatives, Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria uses only its signature pizza sauce that is preservative-free and is made from vine-ripened tomatoes fresh from California. But it isn’t just the daily replenishment of fresh ingredients used by Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria that results in scrumptious pizza. A large and evolving menu also helps capture a foodie’s interest.

Over the years, Jo-Jo’s has added many new pizza toppings to its menu but the ever popular Jo-Jo’s Special — a mixture of pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, olives, onions, tomatoes, and bacon — is a classic. And this is not to mention Jo-Jo’s extensive array of creative submarine sandwiches, finger foods, and their quality Lebanese foods. One such popular new item that was “brought forward” is Jo-Jo’s gluten-free crust. As Zeyad explains, when a customer orders “our gluten-free crust, what they’re getting is a new, fresh, gluten-free crust that’s made for us by a local mom and pop shop.” He goes on to say that it is what “differentiates us from our competition, which uses a vacuum-sealed product that was made who knows when.” Again, quality is key.

But service counts too. “Our competitive advantage would definitely be in our product and our service,” claims Zeyad, explaining that, “We try to offer exceptional products as well as exceptional service, from the person who answers the phone, to the individual who delivers the pizza to your door.” The longevity enjoyed by this family business requires no further explanation.

Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Jo-Jo’s is an important part of the fabric of society in Stittsville, providing the pizza that students enjoy on pizza days. In fact, as Zeyad notes, “We’re privileged to serve schools in Stittsville, not to mention Kanata and Almonte.”

Beyond this, Jo-Jo’s is actively involved in charitable work in Ottawa’s west end by way of sponsorship and fundraising events. Last year alone, Jo-Jo’s sponsored sixty-one local youth hockey and ringette teams and was the principal sponsor of two hockey tournaments in Ottawa’s Goulbourn region. And this year the numbers are growing.

The pizzeria is also a substantial contributor to the community in other ways. In addition to its sponsorships, Jo-Jo’s underpins many charity fundraising events in Stittsville by providing the food that fundraisers rely upon when holding their raffles, book sales and picnics. Zeyad sums up the situation by stating that, “Within the community, especially in Stittsville, you would be hard-pressed to find some sort of fundraising activity that we’re not part of.”

Clearly, Jo-Jo’s is not merely another takeout pizzeria. It offers clean and comfortable modern dining facilities at both the original location on Main Street Stittsville and the new Kanata location which opened last August. Both locations can serve large parties as well as cater for businesses and private events. Expansion in the west end of Ottawa is the name of the game for Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria. “We would like to expand the brand recognition that we earned in Stittsville to a broader portion of the City of Ottawa’s west end,” says Zeyad Kassis. As for the future, he notes that, “we’re going to expand into Kanata and then work our way through Ottawa, and then see where that takes us.”

For additional information visit: http://www.jojospizza.ca.

Tapas and Theatre at Teatro Café

June 3, 2014 3:04 pm
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Take a walk down Wellington Street West and you will find an array of restaurants–all ready to feed a hungry stomach. So how does a new restaurant make the move to join in on the food fiesta and compete, let alone survive, in the area? Just ask Teatro Café owner Ziggy Margies.

“I had to create something that isn’t represented in the area,” says Margies. “I needed to be unlike anyone else.”

Teatro Café is a new, small plates restaurant specializing in Spanish tapas-style dining. The contemporary and inviting café is located inside the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) building–aiming to add to the experience of an evening spent at a theatre production. It opens on June 3.

The café was a long time coming, says Margies. Talks began years ago, but it was not until after a few unsuccessful attempts from others that Teatro was finally able to make the GCTC its home.

The restaurant will be open seven days a week for dinner, while the website promises a future with baked goods, breakfasts and sandwiches available throughout the day. Teatro will hit its high note on performance nights at the GCTC. Guests attending the theatre are encouraged to book a table before or after the show to create a social night out full of great entertainment and food.

The name Teatro–Spanish for theatre– is not the only thing that suits the beautiful building. The GCTC is known for its environmentally friendly decision making and the café wanted to compliment this way of life. Margies was proud to share information on his state-of-the-art appliances that use minimal electricity and to announce Teatro Café as the first Ottawa restaurant to serve wine on tap. This method eliminates the need for bottles, corks, labels and cartons from ever having to be produced–working towards a better environment one sip at a time.

At a preview event on June 2, guests were invited to sip on cocktails and nibble on an array of bites reflecting the Mediterranean influence Chef Mook Sutton brings to the table. Paprika-smoked shrimp, kale salad with blue cheese, bison and fig skewers and crab and pineapple kimchi were just some of the assorted samplings offered. In a kitchen smaller than my office, the Teatro team worked together to create delicious food masterpieces.

The results of the hard work put into creating a new, modern, tasty eatery certainly paid off for the preview. We wish Ziggy and the team at Teatro Café the best of luck and cannot wait to return for the full experience.

Be sure to check out Teatro Café at 1233 Wellington Street West or at www.teatrocafe.ca.

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