Chatting with Paul Shevsky, head bartender at Stephen Beckta’s newly re-visioned flagship restaurant, the eponymously named Dining and Wine, we learned it’s Valentine’s “weekend.” While the wine bar at the rear of the lovingly restored Grant House on Elgin Street saw the usual traffic from people arriving early for their reservations, it remained largely empty. Conversely, the restaurant’s proper dining rooms were busy. Every “fine dining” table was reserved. The few couples that dropped in to claim the first-come first-served tables by the bar ordered drinks and bar bites. The bar area is the only room in the two-story restaurant that sports any of the former Nepean Street location’s “Beckta”-blue. We and our fellow few diners enjoyed a laid-back Valentine’s evening.
As he masterfully prepared our cocktails (hers, something customized to taste like “Christmas”), Shevsky explained the reservation book for the restaurant has been especially full since Friday. Staff were “powering through” until Monday, Family Day (an Ontario holiday). I managed a smile.
I wasn’t always anti-Valentine’s. A Hollywood-indoctrinated romantic, I used to adore finding creative ways to spoil my sweetheart during the ridiculously long-stemmed “holiday.” I used to defend the holiday from detractors who decried its strange compulsion to affix smartly-written greeting cards to everything. I used to argue the ludicrous merchandising, sold but once a year, was justified.
There are teddy bears dyed colours so unnatural one has to question manufacturers’ grasp of biology. Dragons, ordinarily mighty and fearsome, shrink to pose cutely with flowers in their toothless jaws. Everything is adorned with stylized hearts, something that may have more to do with the female anatomy than the muscular organ. There is dubious chocolate; much dubious chocolate. I fear the only other holiday that competes in flavourless plastic candy is Easter.
Speaking of which, Easter’s mascot is a bunny that may or may not lay fondant-filled chocolate eggs, now wrapped in hard Nestle-branded plastic. Christmas’ patron is a jolly man named Santa Claus. To achieve his nightly goal of gifting every “good” little boy and girl a present, Santa very likely commits criminal offenses: speeding (that sleigh isn’t registered commercial aircraft) and home invasion (break and enter via the chimney is still break and enter). Valentine’ Day? Well, Valentine’s involves Cupid, a winged cherub with a bow and arrow.
If you think my pointing out Valentine’s involves a minor armed with a deadly weapon is harsh, consider the following: a dozen roses can easily run you $100 on the 14th of February (a “desperation” mark-up).
I am very much against the presumption Valentine’s Day represents. Accordingly, we don’t have time for everyday romance in our hectic lives. Someone in the relationship will eventually neglect the other. Traditionally, it’s the “husband.” Let’s try him in the court of Valentine’s.
There is middle ground. For my wife and I, it’s a good meal at a fine restaurant the week before Valentine’s and spending some time together during the day of. This year, we enjoyed a wonderful blind 5-course dinner at Mena on Preston (276), an absolute steal at $65/person. On Valentine’s proper, we trekked down the canal despite the frostbite warning and I bought her a hot apple cider. We ended up at Dining and Wine afterward. Otherwise, it was business as usual.
And, business involved finally writing up our cooking with a butter chicken sauce retailed by East India Company Restaurants. A family-run operation, there are restaurant locations in both Winnipeg and Ottawa (210 Somerset Street W.). You can find East India Company-branded spice blends and sauces at grocery stores from Whole Foods to locally-founded Farm Boy. Anish Mehra manages Ottawa’s restaurant location. Nitin Mehra, a graduate of the culinary programs from both Le Cordon Bleu and Algonquin College, is chef. He is also a certified Sommelier.
[Speaking of Sunday Brunch…]
East India Company Restaurants started as a two-person family restaurant 4-decades ago by Kamal Mehra. An interesting bit of trivia, to introduce 1970s-era Winnipeggers to North Indian standards, the family patriarch had to serve Indian dishes as sides on more mainstream deli plates (corned beef and pastrami). The original Mehra’s became known for its Reuben sandwiches with a side of vegetable korma.
Last year, we submitted two recipes to the Mehras for East India Company’s second annual recipe competition: Coconut Chai Ice Cream (with the chai spice blend) and a Tandoori Bacon (with the tandoori spice blend). They impressed Nitin.
In fact, while we were promoting our book, Ottawa Food, last fall, we were invited by the City of Ottawa Markets Management to participate in a bit of a presentation during Farmers’ Appreciation Week at the ByWard Market’s Demo Corner. For our demo, we opted to fry up and serve tandoori bacon (a nod to Ottawa’s longstanding location of East India Company) made from Pork of Yore pork belly (a nod to local farmers Gary MacDonell and Ida Vaillancourt). Essentially, we sliced, fried, and served $185 of pastured heritage Berkshire pork; 15.3 lbs of bacon.
Despite a cock up by the abattoir not following instructions from Vallancourt for handling our pork belly, we managed to introduce a good number of people, passing through the ByWard Market, to the wonders of home-made bacon.
This year, we couldn’t get it together to create or test another recipe for the Mehras’ contest (entries due February 14th), but we opted to do something cheeky with their butter chicken sauce. Going vegetarian, we made “butter chickpeas.”
[adapted from ChefSteps’ Baked Beans]
What You’ll Need:
- 200 g dried chickpeas
- however much water is needed to completely submerge the chickpeas
- 370 mL bottle of East India Company butter chicken sauce
- water to dilute the butter chicken sauce as needed
- 5 g of baking soda
- salt to season
- Soak the dry chickpeas in water for at least 6 hours; overnight is best. Check every 3 hours and add more water as needed.
- Empty the bottle of butter chicken sauce into a bowl (preferably tared) set over a scale.
- Now, add to the bowl as much water is required for the combined mass to come to 570 g.
- Add the sauce and drained and soaked chickpeas to a pressure cooker.
- Add the baking soda to the pot and mix to combine.
- Cook at full pressure for 25 minutes, carefully shaking the pot every 10 minutes.
- Let the pressure dissipate naturally (i.e. do not use the pressure release valve)
- If the mixture is still watery, place the pressure cooker pot (uncovered) onto a burner set to medium heat.
- Cook the mixture to the consistency of baked beans, gently stirring often. The beans will scorch otherwise.
- Season with salt to taste.
Serve as a side or use for wraps.
Here’s the original technique and recipe.
Now, late last summer (2014), the Mehras purchased the property that once housed the Bells Corners (3817 Richmond Road) location of venerable Ottawa restaurant Al’s Steakhouse. A designated heritage site, the original building was once a stopover for farmers traveling via horse and buggy to the ByWard Market.
We expect great things from the expansion. Renovations are being chronicled on East India Company Restaurants’ Facebook page.
East India Company Restaurant
210 Somerset Street W.
Beckta: Dining and Wine
150 Elgin Street
Tags: #ottawaFood, Beckta, Beckta: Dining and Wine, ChefSteps, East India Company, East India Company Restaurants, featured, Mena Restaurant, vegetarian