Tuesday, September 16, 2008

High Fidelity

When you have a winning formula down, why mess with it?

That's how I feel about Le Pain Quotidien, the bakery I first fell in love with on our trips to Brussels. I've since been to outlets in London, NYC and now Toronto, and they all look, feel and taste the same...in a good way. You can always count on chatty diners seated at long communal tables made of weathered wood, artisanal breads, hearty soups and salads, frothy cafe au lait served in bowls without handles, and free wifi.

All summer long as I walked by the Toronto Reference Library, I'd glance with anticipation at the corner building across the street at Yorkville Avenue, with its large sign announcing Le Pain Quotidien's pending arrival. When I poked my head in last week to find it had finally opened, it all felt so familiar, bringing back pleasant memories of afternoons wandering along the Rue des Sablons. Before I knew it, I was sipping an iced coffee ($3) and tucking into a generously sized salad of sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy goat's milk feta and fresh mint ($15).

I wouldn't change a thing!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Add it to the List

I have to admit, Ottawa wasn't on my list of "must visit" cities in Canada. But when an invitation to a meeting there came with all expenses paid, I decided to arrive a day early for sightseeing. I discovered a user-friendly destination with just the right mix of art, culture, food and shopping to pique my interest in returning with nodrog in the spring.

Arriving was a breeze (just under 3 hours, door to door), thanks to clear skies and flights from downtown on Porter Air. With the Canadian taxpayers footing the bill, I didn't have a choice of hotels, but the Sheraton Ottawa turned out to be more than adequate and within walking distance of everywhere I wanted to go:

First stop: ByWard Market, one of Canada's oldest and largest public markets. Easily explored on foot, the market area is about four blocks square and contains a hodge-podge of flower, fruit and vegetable stands, bookstores, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and vendors selling jewelry and souvenirs. http://www.byward-market.com/

Uh oh - hunger pangs strike. Tempted by a sit-down seafood restaurant, I decide on a quickie lunch instead to give me more time to poke around. The Oh-Ya Cafe Plus & Mediterranean Grill in the market building fits the bill with a greek salad, spanakopita, iced tea and great people-watching from my outdoor seat.

Please, God, find me caffeine that's not Starbucks! Ask and you shall receive. The Carisse Studio Cafe at 495 Sussex Street - billed as "Ottawa's only Photography Gallery/Studio & Eurostyle Cafe" serves the real deal. I sip my extra-strength macchiato surrounded by photos of famous Canadian politicians taken by the owner's husband Jean-Marc Carisse. Don't even ask...the only one I recognize is Pierre Trudeau. http://www.carisse.org/

All juiced up, now I'm ready for a whirlwind tour of the National Gallery of Canada, http:///www.gallery.ca. Luckily, I caught one of the last days of The 1930s: The Making of "The New Man." 200 works of art from Europe, Russia and North America help trace the political and artistic consequences of the decade between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. I found myself drawn to paintings of DalĂ­, Picasso, Kandinsky, Ernst and Pollack, perhaps understanding them for the first time thanks to an extremely well curated exhibition and detailed audioguide. But I most enjoyed paintings by Canadian artists I had never encountered before - from Aba Bayefsky, with his haunting paintings of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp upon its liberation by British troops, to Takao Tanabe's dreamy landscapes of British Columbia. You could easily spend a whole day here! Finally, an art museum in this country worth the price of admission! (Don't get me started on Emily Carr and the Vancouver Art Museum...)

With a quick internet search and a desire for something a little out of the ordinary, I found myself having dinner on the back patio at Sweetgrass, Ottawa's first aboriginal cuisine - where summer doesn't end on Labour Day and where a solo diner couldn't ask for better service (or a more adorable waiter). I can't comment on the authenticity of the cuisine, but the food was interesting, delicious and reasonably priced. The Wabash Rillette ($11), came with three oval mounds of rabbit pate sitting alongside a tangy and colourful relish of pickled rhubarb and cherries. The Mariposa Farm Duck Leg ($28), moist and flavoured with citrus and herbs, resembled a confit and sat atop a crunchy stir-fry mixture of wild rice and shredded peppers, onions, bok choy, basil and mushrooms. 108 Murray Street, http://www.sweetgrassbistro.ca/

Time to contribute to the local economy. I hook up with a friend who's in town for the same meeting and we're on a mission: shoes. The Rideau Centre, your basic urban shopping mall, turns out to be well heeled, http://www.rideaucentre.net/. An hour later, we emerge with two pairs each but craving funky boutiques that aren't chain stores. Frou Frou at 11A William Street, totally satisfies. http://www.froufrouboutique.ca/.

We arrive at Murray Street Kitchen Wine & Charcuterie exactly an hour before our reservation, hoping they'll seat us and they can. It's no coincidence that we're next door to Sweetgrass - I scoped the menu out the night before!
We started out with cocktails ($8.50 each): The Q-Cumber (cucumber, watermelon, lime, Hendricks gin, and triple sec) and the Pear-Lip (golden pear, peach vodka, & fresh grapefruit juice with mint). So far, so good! Next up: "2 meats and 3 cheeses for $25", served on a wood cutting board with bread chips, olives, pickles, and three jellies: berry, pepper and pear. The venison-hazelnut terrine, white bean & garlic pate, and soft, hard and blue cheeses came in generous portions and were incredibly tasty. I can't for the life of me recall the names of the cheeses - even with the prompt of the online menu! (Recommendation: send diners out the door with a custom print-out of what they ate).

Moving right along, we shared two small plate salads that complemented each other nicely: The tuna salad ($14) - lightly smoked BC Albacore tuna, flash grilled cherry tomatoes, Ferme Floralpe goats cheese, tempura of Spicolli’s green beans, field cucumber “noodles” fresh marjoram vinaigrette and olives and the beet salad ($9) - roast baby red beets, pickled baby golden beets, fresh herbs, spiced pecans, Brent Halsall’s honey & Monforte sheep’s yogurt. Please open an outpost in Toronto! The meal would have been a steal had we not ordered a bottle of Condundrum from Sonoma Valley at $67 - an astonishing mark-up of 120% over the LCBO asking price! (I had no idea) http://www.murraystreet.ca/