On Monday, February 1, 2010, a new set of Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) awards were handed out. Deserving winners in my mind included ZenKitchen (634 Somerset Street West) for Ottawa’s New Restaurant of the Year, Social Restaurant and Lounge (537 Sussex Drive) for Best Restaurant Design, Play Food and Wine (1 York Street) for Favorite Fine Dining Restaurant (our reccomendation for small plates in Ottawa), and the Works for Favorite Casual Dining Restaurant.
What surprised me was Chef Neil Mather’s win. He, the Chef of Graffiti’s Italian Eatery at Holiday Inn & Suites Kanata, beat out the likes of fellow finalists Chefs Marc Lepine (Atelier), Steve Mitton (Murray Street), Michael Moffat (Play Food and Wine and Beckta Dining and Wine) and John Taylor (Domus Café) . Everyone, save for Chef Mather are recognizable to anyone familiar to the food scene in Ottawa as either Chefs or Chef/Owners of higher end fine dining restaurants. Chefs Lepine, Moffat, and Taylor have even been fierce competitors or winners in past years’ Gold Medal Plates, a national culinary competition that raises funds for Canadian high performing athletes, future Olympians.
Confused, I checked with the ORHMA website to determine how nominees were selected, how finalists were chosen, and how finalists won. Accordingly
Ottawa chefs are judged by an independent panel including previous winners, culinary media and educators. The panel uses both objective and subjective criteria made up of: education and training, industry participation, awards received, work practices, artistry, creativity and ingenuity. Three finalists from ORHMA member establishments [were] announced
Finalists are then voted for via ballot to determine a winner.
When Jenn and I started dating, we visited Grafitti’s twice. Twice we deemed the restaurant about as authentic Italian as chicken balls and egg rolls are authentic Chinese. Essentially, the restaurant met, but did not surpass, my expectations for an in-house Holiday Inn & Suites restaurant. We found the food, on par with sit-down fast-food restaurants like Denny’s, Kelsey’s, or the former Olive Garden.
Curious that Chef Mather had had a positive effect on the restaurant during his tenure, we made reservations with Paola (@cestboncooking) and a pair of fellow local food bloggers, Shari (@whisk_food_blog) of Whisk and Rachelle of Rachelle Eats Food. I had high hopes Chef Mather had reworked the entire menu, offering more authentic Italian fare. What was I looking for? Food that is conservative on technique, but employs extremely fresh ingredients, including seafood.
What did we encounter when we returned? In the 6 years since Jenn and I set foot in Graffiti’s, the restaurant has not changed ostensibly.
The same yellowish beige stucco walls line the dining room and bar area (called a saloon on its website). The same floor to ceiling columns, encased in dark stained wood panels, stand between booths and tables. The restaurant still sports the same green patterned carpets.
The menu was a throwback to earlier days too. In it, we found a “1999 Sample Table D’hote” menu for $19.99 that included classic Caesar salad (yet it included no coddled eggs), linguine salsiccia, and tiramisu.
But, for a restaurant that boasts “modern Italian cuisine – complemented by Mediterranean influences”, I found the options rather pedestrian. Soups included a vegetarian option, a minestrone ($5.99). Appetizers included tomato bruschetta ($7.99), cheese crostini ($8.99), garlic mussels ($8.99) and calamari ($9.99). Pasta entrees included a pesto pasta, a spaghetti with meatballs (suspiciously described as “Bigga” Meatballs) ($14.99), cheese stuffed pasta, and potato gnocchi. Mains included a veal scaloppini ($24.99), a tusacani portfolio ($24.99), a focaccia burger ($13.99), chicken parmesan ($21.99), and an ossobuccu milanaise ($27.99). Also, the menu includes clay-oven-fired, not wood-oven fired, 12″ personal pizzas, topped with “Italian mozzarella cheese.”
What did we order? To start, the salad special of the day, a “classic” casesar salad, the minestrone, and the bruschetta.
While the Chef signed menu stated that the salad special included julienne capicola ham, my salad included what looked like processed lunch meat ham.
My fellow diner enjoyed her bruschetta with various toppings. My better half found the minestrone heavily flavoured with wine and another unidentified strong flavoured.
Graffit’s was also stingy with ingredients, the entire bowl having 9 pasta shells.
For mains, the tuscani portfolio, the ossobuco milanaise, the spaghetti (substituting “bigga” meatballs for chicken), the seafood linguine with pesto, and chicken parmesan. The tusacani portfolio did not come in a pastry crust as our waitress explained. The chicken supreme was tender. The accompanying starch, a baked potato the menu said would come with sour cream and chives, came dry. The osso bucco was braised tender. The truffle risotto that accompanied it was devoid of any truffle or truffle flavour, again contrary to what the menu described. The rice was also under cooked. The spaghetti was overcooked and tasted as if it had been washed prior to plating, having absolutely no starch coat.
The accompanying chicken was dry and bland. My seafood linguine was over-seasoned and oily, leaving a significant pool of olive oil on the plate.
The scallops were slightly overdone, just bordering on tough. The pasta, however, was toothsome.
For dessert, we split an apple pouch ($8), cooked apple in crisp filo, served with store bought vanilla ice cream (it melted very quickly). The filo was somewhat singed at the edges, but the dish was enjoyable.
What was the best part of our meal? The cheese stuffed bread that was served to us before any of the dishes.
It came with a nutty hummus and salted eggplant.
With cliche Italian dishes, sauces and soups that taste like they came canned, dishes that do not adhere to the menu half of the time, badly made starches, and overcooked proteins, I was left to wonder how the restaurant’s chef won his award. His cooks made mediocre dishes.
Did I mention our waitress hovered impatiently over us throughout the meal, hurrying us through the courses, impatiently busing our table and repeatedly reminding us new dishes were ready? No? Well I guess there are a number of reasons to find another Italian restaurant in Ottawa to visit.
Graffiti’s Italian Eatery & Saloon
101 Kanata Avenue
Kanata, ON K2T 1E6
634 Somerset Street West
Social Restaurant and Lounge
537 Sussex Drive
Play food & wine
1 York Street