I Had DINR with the Prime Minister in the North and with the Navy…Sort of.

I’m oblivious sometimes.  Sure, I can navigate through a number of websites searching so what’s hot in the restaurant world but I often miss things right in front of my face. I was in Ottawa for a conference recently and needed a quick spot for dinner.  As part of my search, I stumbled across DINR, a rather new app which revolves around last minute reservations at some of the most coveted restaurants in the country.  Luckily, Ottawa is one of the featured  cities so I managed to secure the chef’s table at North and Navy with a few hours notice. North and Navy is a relatively new restaurant which moved into the space left when Beckta switched locations. The concept plays on what the owners call similarities between the climates of Northern Italy and Eastern Ontario with a focus on local ingredients.

I was staying at a hotel down the road so it was nice walk to the Nepean street location. I noticed that the air was crisp indicating that fall was here.  What I didn’t notice was that there were a number of black sedans outside the restaurant.  We were quickly seated at the rail and waited for our last guest who arrived and immediately commented on the motorcade parked outside.  I laughed and offered to look around the restaurant on the way to the washroom in case the beloved Justin Trudeau may be in the house.  On the way back I made eye contact (well..maybe one way eye contact) which somebody who faintly resembled Sophie who was sitting with a man with flowing Pantene locks.  I didn’t dare stop or make eye contact to confirm given  I’m not sure of the Canadian rules around approaching a head of state in a dining establishment (although a shirtless selfie may have been in the cards), so I went back to my seat and mentioned I thought it was him. Another member of our party got up, walked past the table, did a 360 and quickly returned to confirm the sighting.

We were greeted by a pleasant employee who went through the description of the menu using the airplane safety speech that has become the norm for any shared plate eatery currently in existence.  We were encouraged to try the cicheti (ie. Italian snack plate) which featured grissini, marinated anchovy, oyster, mackerel and a homemade meatball.It was served on a silver platter worthy of let’s say….a prime minister.  We collectively destroyed the plate’s contents with good reviews.

north-cichetti
Cicheti $2-4 plus funky socks and crocs in lieu of a Prime Ministerial selfie 

There were four primi pasta courses on the menu and we ordered them all. The potato tortaletti with matching brodo was pleasantly plated with some pickled onions. The tender and unique pasta was spot on but the delicate but precisely seasoned  broth stole the show.  A bit more along the traditional path of Northern Italy, the bigoli con le vongole was another hit in its simplicity. Great pasta, great sauce and great seafood. I’m typically not a risotto fan but I thoroughly enjoyed  the pancetta and corn offering.  It provided cream corn comfort sprinkled with salty pieces of pancetta. The mint parpadelle with abundant mushrooms was an incredible concoction of earthy flavours.  The mint leaves offered a unorthadox yet pleasant freshness.  In the end, each primi choice offered textures and tastes that ranged from Harper conservative to flowing lock liberal.

As an intermezzo, we went for the raw zucchini with olives, mint and pecorino plus cured eggplant with house yoghurt.  I love chef’s tables, especially when dishes involve meticulous construction.  Both this dishes were assembled with a pinpoint precision which made then as appealing to the eye as to the tongue. The zucchini cleansed the aftermath of the previous dishes while the eggplant foreshadowed what was to come.

Given the sizable amount of food we had already consumed, we decided on two of the  available entrees; the trout with brussel sprouts and parsnip and the Quebec duck with fennel and pear.  The fish was brilliant.  Maybe it was my bias given the fact that I’m tired of every fish dish in a restaurant currently being served with some kind of tomato.  Instead, crunchy sprouts and a rich and pleasantly pungent parsnip puree were the perfect compliment to the pristine pesce. The red cabbage and the pickled squash (which was addictive by itself) added colour and another dimension to the dish.  Duck, especially Quebec canard, seems to be a staple in Ottawa and North and Navy was no exception.  There is an emerging trend coupling fresh fruit with protein and in this case, it was sliced pear.  It wasn’t my favorite dish of the night but still hit decent flavour and textural notes.

Since we were sitting at the chef’s table, we were able to get some great reflections and insights from the kitchen.  Adam Vettorel, North and Navy’s head chef, stopped his meticulous plating to chat for a bit.  He had a confident yet awkward personality which is seemingly quite characteristic among those with the role of chief cook.  We were treated to a story about a recent competition in which he opted for successfully pickling of squash instead of cooking it, a tactic which was transferred with some regularity to his menu soon after.

Dessert was classic Italian which nicely reflected the  general theme of North and Navy; traditional tiramisu and playful panna cotta. Like the rest of the meal, the fundamental execution was brilliant and combined old and new world ingredients and flavours.

My Take

Although I doubt Mr. Trudeau used nor needed the DINR app, it is a great tool for an unorganized, indecisive and whimsical food fan.   I would personally argue that a culinary celebrity sighting if usually more exciting than a political one but dining with the prime minister (sort of) makes for a good story, especially when chatting with friends and colleagues who figurative bleed red or appreciate good hair. That said, North and Navy made its food, especially the pasta, worth throwing into the discussion as well.  Adam Vettorel et al., unlike his famous guest,can effectively  execute a plan. North and Navy’s campaign promised Northern Italy with local influence and they delivered.  In the end, they get my vote even if I’m not a card carrying Liberal.

North & Navy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Chicago: Day 6: White Palace and Black Sabbath

My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight.  After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.

Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit.  My first stop was the White Palace Grill.  Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters.  I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene.  A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated.  It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days.  I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.

The banter in the place  was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before.  People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys.  There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working.  I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.

Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings.  I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.

Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast
Strawberry Banana French Toast
MMMM...bacon and grits.
MMMM…bacon and grits.

My Take

White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner.  It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not  top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

White Palace Grill on Urbanspoon

Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace.  During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street.  I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.

Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market.  True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches.  There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches.  Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.

I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato.  There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin  for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.

Porchetta Crescentine
Porchetta Crescentine
Meatball Sandwich
Meatball Sandwich
Zarlengo's Rum and Raisin Gelato
Zarlengo’s Rum and Raisin Gelato

I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient.  There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that.   Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis  in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out.  The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.

My Take

Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago.  Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Panozzo's Italian Market. on Urbanspoon

Zarlengo's Soft Serve on Urbanspoon

After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour.  I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.

Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept;  the fusion of burgers and head banging metal.  This is not a superficial claim.  Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme.  I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle.    Take their beer philosophy for example.  One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude.  Consider the possible lyric:

“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,

I’m a commercial lager killer.”

Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of  Apocalypse Cow  housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery.  Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.

The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well.  The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine).  There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg.  I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion.  I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good.  My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.

Kuma's Side Salad
Kuma’s Side Salad
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2

There’s a whole lotta burger.  The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together.  I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well.  If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top.  Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.

My Take

Kuma’s concept is a fun one.  I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out.  Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.

The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”.  Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon