Sitting in one of the roughest looking restaurants in Centretown, I can’t help but notice the walls have not been painted since it opened in 1991. The cracked mirror in the corner pieces ideas in my mind of a violent ruckus between patrons in the past. The menu has seen better days with its tapered corners over the roughly wrinkled laminate. It feels as though I don’t belong or only an exclusive group of shady characters come to dine here. I love this kind of restaurant. It’s where I can find food nobody else I know has sampled.
Ottawa is not revered as a flavour Mecca by any means and if you ask most chefs in this city they will agree with you. Sure, there are places like Atelier or Eighteen or any of Ottawa’s selection of high-end restaurants that are still clinging to the old ways of more prosperous times. But if you look for the restaurants that are tucked away or have not had a facelift since the time they first opened, you can find hidden gems in places many would never look. New foods can be intimidating but that sensation of fear is nothing compared to the thrill of discovering something new that you can love for the rest of your life. Even better, these hidden gems will be cheap for students as well.These are the places we should eat.
I grew up in rural Alberta. Our staples were tomato soup, grilled cheese, a ton of milk, and of course beef. I was picky and primarily would stick to the meat and potatoes diet that reflects the flat prairie culture. I discovered food in Ottawa. I discovered how to cook in Ottawa. I discovered how to enjoy food in Ottawa. Now I can stare a pig in the face and then eat it. It is delicious. Try the cheeks if you get a chance. I used to consider food as just a fuel, but from exploring ethnic cuisines and eating bits considered unappealing by most I now enjoy food and crave more varieties to expand my palette.
“People want to try a new flavour that’s out or listen to a new song that’s out. It’s just curiosity of constant gravitation to what’s new and different,” says food science student Pat Liu.
The best place in Ottawa to start your hunt for new and exotic flavours is at Murray Street Kitchen, a not-so-well-kept secret in the Market that still feels like only a small minority of those in the city know about.
“We’re basically trying to create Canadian cuisine,” is how owner and Chef Steve Mitton describes his fare. The dining is centered on locally produced nose to tail eating. A growing trend of using whole animals−not just the prime cuts−in the kitchen has been pioneered by British super-chef Fergus Henderson and endorsed by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations and the novel Kitchen Confidential.
It is widely considered that Canadian cuisine doesn’t exist. “It ends up being a mix of everything,” said Mitton. Examples would be: pig’s blood pasta in a carbonara or stroganoff with kidneys. “It can be Italian, it can be German, we even made a donair one time.”
This may sound like Murray Street Kitchen is the set of Fear Factor to some but the beauty of offal or some of the “nasty bits” this restaurant uses is it is so fresh, well prepared and presented that it is casual fine dining. Unlike a fine dining establishment, however, since the cuts Chef Mitton uses are cheap and butchered in-house it is possible to have one of the best meals of your entire life for under $40. The bar holds a wide variety of local wines and craft brews that match the stellar local-oriented menu.
My last visit, I had the “Offal Good” one of the ever-changing daily items on this menu that cannot be missed. For that day it was sliced ox tongue with rabbit kidneys in a hot sandwich covered with beast demi-glace . When my taste buds met with that ox’s it was romance. The thin-sliced tongue made up the bulk of the protein in the sandwich.
With every bite you get get the tiny kidneys that burst with even more savoury-sweet flavour all of that pressed in between angel food soft egg bread and a savoury demi that would put any grandmother’s gravy to shame.
Also in the ByWard Market is the Highlander Pub, known mainly for its selection of Scotch. It is also the home to what is the closest you can get to traditional haggis. The famous Scottish delicacy of oats nutmeg and a variety of offal: heart, liver, windpipe, button. All the offal is then encased in the sheep’s stomach and then boiled. This was traditionally to use up ingredients that would not last long.
The Highlander alters the traditional recipe using the heart and liver with lamb and sheep trim but encased in calf stomach.
Head Chef Jason Desjardins and his kitchen refer to it as “Scotland’s pad thai,” relating to the nutmeg flavour that shines through this dish and its appearance when prepped in the kitchen.
Once the plate was brought to me I was immediately surprised by how normal it looked and smelled. Haggis is supposed to stink, this did not. In fact the smell was quite pleasing when tones of nutmeg and demi combine with the beef and lamb. Sadly, due to preparation and serving time constraints within a pub kitchen they cannot prepare the stomach to encase the meat upon plating and is rendered rubbery and inedible.
It tasted pretty great–more of a lamb meatloaf with spicy nutmeg over sweet potato and potato mash. The dram of scotch that accompanies it does make the dish feel more authentic. As far as adventure eating goes, this is just nibbling into a world of endless flavours. What about some haggis instead of the same old cheeseburger with your beer or scotch?
For the very brave and not squeamish there is a fruit that has a smell that is infamously banned from public transit all over Thailand. This fruit is Durian. You can try to describe the scent as the outside of a full garbage bag that has had a couple days to ferment in the warm sun with almonds. “It’s not one of those smells that you think. Hey! I want to eat that!” says Pat Liu.
Durian obviously does not want to be consumed by humans. Along with the scent, the squishy fruit is encased in a hard husk covered in spikes capable of penetrating skin.
Of course humans, being a species who likes to make nature its bitch, find ways to get to the fruit inside. It is very popular in South East Asia and among families in Canada who originate from the region.
Once you do break through the husk, cutting along the growth seam with a sharp knife and using considerable force to tear it apart, you are welcomed to an even more grotesque image. The fruit is squishier than an over-ripened banana and looks like the diagram of a greenish-yellow teste in an anatomy textbook.
Upon first bite it is difficult to chomp a considerable amount as gag reflexes scream to keep the gelatinous matter out of your body. The durian tastes of banana baby food with almond but with a curdled cream texture. This would be great in a smoothie or a shake. Whoever eats this raw should be rewarded with free booze afterwards.
Care for a try? Go down to Kowloon Market on Somerset Street in Chinatown and grab one for about $6.
On Rideau Street near Nelson Avenue you will come upon a worn two storey residential building that houses a more appetizing ethnic delight. The weathered, yellow sign welcoming you reads: Horn of Africa. The restaurant that opened in 1991 has not seen much change aside from the painter’s-tape-coloured paint trimming the walls. The bar holds several empty bottles of dusty Vermouth along with coat hangers dangling from ceiling fans.
It has character here. This restaurant is owned by a man who has come to Canada and is now sharing his culture and food. It has a soul and a sense of despair from a lack of thousands of dollars of capital to over-furnish the establishment.
Horn of Africa is one of the only restaurants that serve Etruscan cuisine. Every meal is made up of liberally spiced stews of meat and vegetables called wat. The wat all sit upon injera: soft, pliable, foamy sourdough bread. Injera is also the utensil as it is ripped and then used to pinch wat. The beauty of this finger food is that every bite is different as you pick from the different flavours presented. Traditionally sharing is also encouraged, creating some of the most intimate eating a person could have as you literally feed each other by hand.
For only $10 and cheap $4 dollar beers, what’s not to like? There’s also delivery if you want a more intimate experience at home.
Some of us students take on some of the most radical changes in our life by building careers and gaining responsibilities. Why don’t we make another major change in our lives and eat whatever the hell we want? Looking in corridors of food we never thought about will build a passion undiscovered, and upon discovery will continue for the rest of our lives.
To discover is a basic human drive to satisfy our curiosity that is shameful to be feared. Not looking to new horizons of food due to your own misconceptions is saying no to living a delicious, interesting life.