Remember that Chumbawumba song from the 90s? The one with the chorus, “I get knocked down. But, I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down…?”
While the song is dated, its meaning isn’t lost when considering Ottawa’s growing food scene. Despite setbacks and challenges to stay solvent, independently-owned and -operated eateries persist, everything from mom and pop shops to finer dining restaurants. New ones open.
We find local chef/entrepreneurs and restaurateurs share several qualities: a great sense of humour; good organizational skills; and tenacity.
There are myriad reasons not to enter the food service industry as a business owner: unpredictable market forces, driving wild fluctuations in food and fuel costs; potentially worsening economy, making already conservative diners skittish; a government body making largely unfounded valuations on properties, increasing overhead costs; unruly weather destroying suppliers’ crops.
Moreover, ours is a locals’ scene. Everyone has their favourite restaurants. Dining out can become habitual, many patrons circulating a small sampling of eateries regularly. These can be destination (“visit on special occasions”) or neighbourhood (“regular stand by”) restaurants.
How can we break this malaise? How about better exposure via online and print marketing and tours; essentially encouraging culinary tourism by locals and visitors of the city.
Such is essentially the goal of Dishcrawl, which will be rebooted in Ottawa for the third time this coming week.
Originally called “Battle Dish,” Dishcrawl was launched in San Francisco, California almost five years ago. It came to Ottawa May 2011 when Caitlin Carrol organized her first tasting tour of the ByWard Market. Sixty-four of us were marched around, visiting five restaurants for cocktails and nibbles. There were a handful of hiccups during the inaugural tour that included Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar (18 York Street), Kinki (41 York Street), and the Cupcake Lounge (6 ByWard Market Square).
Afterward, Dishcrawl Ottawa was briefly relaunched last February (2012), without Carrol, at then newly opened Pressed Urban Gourmet Sandwich Bar (760 Gladstone Avenue). For that event, the organizer brought local businesses, including Morsel Desserts, to Pressed.
This time around, new grad Mat Wong organized two days of tours, spanning Preston and Somerset Streets. He will take groups of participants to four restaurants in Ottawa’s Little Italy and Chinatown neighbourhoods. It being winter, he promised there will be no more than 10 to 15 minutes of walking. The tour will begin at 7 pm. It will end at 9 pm. In typical Dishcrawl fashion, the restaurants have not been revealed. The first one will be released to participants 48-hours before the respective tour begins. It will be the starting location.
During our interview at My Sweet Tea Lounge (824 Somerset Street W.), Wong echoed his predecessor, Carrol. One of Dishcrawl’s intentions is to establish new food communities and grow existing ones. Another involves encouraging participants to develop familiarity with new neighbourhoods and discover new restaurants.
“[Dishcrawl is] a really cool and awesome concept,” Wong said enthusiastically. “In one night, you get to go to four restaurants.”
“[You get to] meet chefs; expand your tastes; try new foods; and meet other foodies.”
He also feels Dishcrawl can benefit restaurants.
“It’s a way to get the [restaurant’s] name out to the community. We can offer some press coverage.”
Wong claims there are many repeat “Dishcrawlers” as well. When he sent an e-mail to past participants, informing them of the February 6th tour, within days he filled 30 spaces at $60/person. Nearly sold out, he opened more space and organized another tour on February 5th.
When we asked why he chose Chinatown and Little Italy, he explained they did not seem to get the “foodie hype” enjoyed by other neighbourhoods like the Glebe or ByWard Market.
To some extent, he is right.
Little Italy is surprisingly multicultural. While there are longstanding ethnic Italian restaurants, bakeries (Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana), and food shops (Casa Nicastro and Luciano’s Fine Foods), there is also a Japanese sushi house (Kiko Sushi Bar), a shawarma house (Preston Shawarma and Cafe), and a good Korean restaurant (Le Kimchi). Formerly, there was a German restaurant on Preston, The Lindenhof. Recently, a smokehouse and sandwich shop opened on Preston.
But, the neighbourhood being Little Italy belies a stereotype, one largely shared by Chinatown. It is ethnic, so unapproachable. With its longstanding Chinese restaurants (Yangtze and Chu Sing) and oriental grocery stores (Kowloon Market and Manphong), Chinatown can seem foreign to unfamiliar visitors.
Dishcrawl can change that.
Personally, I hope newly renovated Hu Tieu Mi Gia (121 Preston Street) is on the tour. Located at the corner of Preston and Somerset, the eatery was once Binh Video and Submarine (a Vietnamese video rental with a banh mi bar). The video rental portion was not making money, so the owner decided to convert the place into a dedicated noodle house. It re-opened last May (2012).
At Hu Tieu Mi Gia, I was recently served a wonderful bowl of Vietnamese beef stew noodle soup. My bowl was both generous and heavily flavourful. It compared well with the Mi Bo Kho at Ox Head Restaurant (790 Kanata Avenue) in Kanata.
Both Hu Tieu Mi Gia and Ox Head are relatively obscure restaurants I would like Ottawa to discover.
Friday Appendix: #GoodEatsBlogs
As per last week’s round up, here are recipes from some local food bloggers. It being Superbowl weekend, they are fodder for game snack-age.
First, let’s start with slow cooker chicken tortilla soup by Candace Derickx of Life in Pleasantville. Everyone will be tucking into nachos. Why not kick it up a notch and make something warming with some leftover roast chicken?
Finally, there has to be a sweet option. Consider banana ice cream by Andrea Tomkins of A Peek inside the Fish Bowl. We do something similar with frozen bananas. There are always ripe bananas in our freezer, destined for bread. Sometimes, they end up as dairy-free ice cream.
Tags: #GoodEatsBlogs, bo kho, Dishcrawl, featured, Hu Tieu Mi Gia, My Sweet Tea, stew