To our food enthusiast readers, do you ever tire of seasoned journalists referring to “flocking foodies”, “herding hedonists”, or “gathering gastronomes” in their pieces about new restaurants?
To our well traveled readers, do you ever wonder why food is only polarizing in the western world? There is no stigma ascribed to those who “live to eat” by those who “eat to live” outside of North America or much of Western Europe. In Eastern Europe and Asia, food is built into the culture.
In North America, if you’re a food blogger, you must be a Food Network fetishist who hangs on every word uttered by celebrity chefs, no matter how misguided or thoughtless. You eat-out more than you eat-in. You must know the swankiest places to dine.
Ask me my favourite restaurant in Ottawa and I will point you to a shawarma shack.
I think some of the best food you can eat is served on wooden picnic tables.
I was shocked when well-regarded Toronto chef Mark McEwan questioned Ottawa chef and Top Chef Canada 2012 finalist Jonny Korecki on his choosing to serve communal dishes for the final challenge of the Food Network reality television show. Is it fine dining? Ever tucked into a multi-course Chinese wedding banquet, Chef?
Both a food enthusiast and blogger, I have ventured into a number of restaurants of late, sat down, looked at the menu, and asked, “What’s the point?”
The newly christened chef of Ottawa’s Back Lane Café (1087 Wellington Street W.) echoed similar sentiments during an interview this week, “Food is fuel.”
Said Michael Hay over a bowl of tortilla soup at Corazon de Mais (55 ByWard Market Square), “Food can be full of ideas. But, the bottom line is that it fulfills a human need.”
Extremely literate and surprisingly articulate, he continued, “If I want to be stimulated intellectually, I’ll go to the art gallery or listen to Tchaikovsky.”
With a wry smile, he laughed, “I am entering my techno-emotional phase.”
In an earlier conversation when we ran into him at Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar (18 York Street), the 27 year-old chef said it is time to stop relying on evoking memories through food. It is time to create new ones.
When I first ate at then newly opened 10Fourteen (1014 Wellington Street W.) in the Hintonburg neighbourhood, I didn’t get it. That is, despite how warmly owner Rod Castro greeted me, he discovering I blog about food from my tweets at the table. There is no active kitchen at 10Fourteen. Much of its menu is either cold or reheated and, judging from the knife cuts on the charcuterie plates, dishes are plated by servers.
On the menu is hummus and pita ($7), bacon wrapped mushrooms ($8), grape tomato caprese salad ($8), feta-stuffed jalapenos ($7), and BLT on a baguette called a “BACT sandwich” ($9). Charcuterie options include some supermarket-variety fresh and dry cured sausages like spicy Italian, chorizo, or peppery salami. Artisan cheeses vary from more pedestrian cheddar to blue and the periodic appearance of la sauvagine. There is a selection of wine, everything available by the glass, and microbrewery beer both drought and bottled, including Mill Street Organic Lager, Mill Street Vanilla Porter, and Granville Island Pale Ale.
With 10Fourteen’s limited menu, the charcuterie boards I ordered on two occasions had me pining for Seed to Sausage‘s hand-made charcuterie and cheeses served by Murray Street Kitchen (110 Murray Street). At Murray Street Kitchen, for a bit more money, I can also expect French classics like rillettes and patés, artisan jam, and house pickles.
Then, I visited 10Fourteen sans camera with a supper club. I sat with strangers in one of the tall darkly lacquered wood booths, bathed in the warm glow of naked vintage light bulbs. We chatted, the conversation made easy by glasses of wine and bits of cheese. It dawned on me. Just as a dance club isn’t about serving the best drinks in town, this tapas bar wasn’t about food. It’s about people. People don’t come to 10Fourteen to fulfill a physical need. They go to 10Fourteen to fulfill a social one.
Usually, eateries offer fulfillment through a carefully composed menu and good service. Murray Street Kitchen, for instance, is where people go to get a taste of the region. Ottawa’s first charcuterie bar, its chef Steve Mitton cooks German-inspired creations, nose to tail and roots to leaves. Every ingredient comes to the kitchen whole and sourced from local producers. The restaurant’s decor and staff create a convivial atmosphere.
Carmichael’s Pop-up at Mellos
So what happens when your physical space is not fixed? What happens when you operate a popup at one of the longstanding diners in the city, juxtaposing higher-end food in vintage surroundings?
Food becomes the focus. It is “stripped down to its skivvies”, earnest and bare. Even the subtlest flaws can be painfully obvious.
There are no linens at Mellos (290 Dalhousie Street) when recognized chef Matt Carmichael takes over, now 3-evenings out of any given week (Sunday to Tuesday, starting at 6:00 pm). Dishes are served in everything from a limited number of custom bowls to diner plateware and aluminum take-out containers. Cocktails are original, but come in diner glassware. Patrons eat with paper napkins and diner flatware. Don’t expect bread or butter service. Don’t expect an amuse-bouche. This isn’t E18hteen (18 York Street), one of Carmichael’s former restaurants.
Social’s (537 Sussex Drive) Chef Jordon Holley is at the ancient Garland range and flattop, working simmering pots with ladles in them, well-seasoned carbon steel pans, and a wok over the burners. There are open kitchens and there is Mellos where the heat from the gas range and oven washes over you, depending which chrome accented padded swivel seat you choose. Part of the well worn bar and counter actually serves as the line and pass where dishes are plated and a sheet pan of freshly-made tagliatelle sits.
Temporary speakers pipe in modern contemporary music, but what you hear at Mellos are the people around you. The diner’s 37 seats hail from a different age when there were no smart phones, no Facebook, no Twitter. They are arranged almost uncomfortably close together. People actually talked to one another back then. And, patrons sitting at side-by-each deuces could start up conversations. Almost stepping back in time, couples not knowing one another met and exchanged laughs. Phones were slipped back into purses. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience, many watching impossibly high-brow food come from a kitchen that usually kicks out burgers, fries, bacon, and eggs.
I have to admit, I had misgivings about how the pop-up would operate in the tight space that is a 70s era diner that originated in the 40s. Kelly Landry is the host. Two experienced servers work the floor, deftly floating around patrons and navigating the very thin space between swivel chaired bar and tiny tables. Cash-only, patrons are also mobile, slipping out of the restaurant to visit a bank machine.
The food? Let’s just say I regret not saving up the money to spoil my better half with a date at E18hteen when Carmichael was its executive chef. His temporary kitchen at Mellos was highly disciplined and integrated, producing surprisingly consistent dishes. Save for some errant moisture between the 5 oz battered black cod fillet and tortilla in our taco, our orders were near flawless. Sauces particularly were spectacular, be it the ground yellow curry or the buttery white wine cream sauce served with our pasta.
The price point is seemingly high for the smaller-than-expected mains until you realize Carmichael is using the same supply chain he had when he was a regular fixture in the kitchens at 18 York Street. Proteins and veg are very fresh. Seafood is sustainable.
When attending a pop-up event, I always expect there will be a cost, some compromise for the novelty of dining in a space that was either never intended to serve food or, in this case, a space that has never seen higher-end dishes. While my wallet was lighter after a meal at Carmichael’s pop-up, I paid no such price. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and met some great people. But, in the end, I am a cook at heart. When I go to a restaurant, I go for the food. I appreciate honest good food. Carmichael and his team doesn’t disappoint.
We will be back!
Total Cost (after taxes, before tip): $65.54 (not including a glass of Matt’s Hard Lemonade – $9)
If pop-up fare interests, Chef Carmichael will be doing a stint at Tacolot (999 Wellington Street W.) this Sunday (July 8, 2012) from 1 pm – 3 pm. Tacolot is a cinder-block shack-based taqueria, located in what used to be a used car lot. There, he will be cooking and serving his interpretation of the best taco. Proceeds from sales will go to a charity of his choosing.
290 Dalhousie Street
Seatings are first come, first served. No reservations will be accepted.
Tags: 10Fourteen, ByWard Market, featured, fish taco, Lowertown, Matt Carmichael, Mellos, Michael Hay, taco