Monday, December 17, 2012

Damn you, Moxie.


When you visit the website for Moxie's and you click on "About Us," the following schtick literally starts off the description: "Moxie's Grill & Bar operates 63 premium casual restaurants in seven provinces with yearly system sales over $200 million." If you're a construction worker, oncologist, folk museologist, executive coach, etc., you probably have no idea how "system sales" differs from just sales.

Moxie's mantra? Starts off: "What makes Moxie's unique and different from others? At Moxie's we believe our most strategic competitive advantage is the company's culture." That's pretty cool. It's straight out of a marketing textbook and completely alienates the diner, but I get it. This is an attractive statement for hooking potential franchisees who will take this Calgary-based premium casual chain eatery across Canada. If anyone from Moxie's reads this blog post, please check out Milestone's or McDonald's website to learn how to design for a good first impression. Pro tip: tuck the corporate stuff behind the diner's site.

The point I'm trying to make is that Moxie's is a restaurant run by those who spin and count beans, and unabashedly so. These are not food people running the show, but most Canadians are not likely to care. The urban surfer of the blogosphere might shake their heads in bewilderment, but the growth of so-called premium casual eateries makes sense. I lived in England for a couple of years and these eateries are everywhere; hell, even most pubs are chains. You have chain tapas joints and chain Parisian-style bistros and chains that are called "Pizza Express" which are surprisingly more upmarket than the name suggests.

It wasn't much to look at.
Sometimes it is about convenience - many outlets are located in suburbs. Suburban couples may want a quick date night without the kids and without a $200 babysitter bill. Sometimes it is because the food is unchallenging and consistent. There are lots of people who don't care for, or have not been introduced to, good cuisine and just want menu items that they understand. So in this light, Moxie's fits well into the evolution of Canada. The Moxie's location that I visited for this review (Riverside and Hunt Club) was only a ~5 minute drive from my office. They do brisk business lunch because the consistent, unchallenging food leaves the kitchen at good pace.

So I'm an urban yupster that likes to meet the cattle rancher providing the stuff that goes in my meat grinder. By definition I'm not supposed to go to a place like Moxie's. And I'm certainly not supposed to like the burger they serve me.

But dammit, I did. I don't know if this was the real deal, a fluke, or a set-up but the burger was actually good. I chose the Mediterranean burger, which included basil pesto, feta, and goat cheese.

Read on after the jump.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I flirted with excellence and she slapped me in the face

If you want to skip the sappy personal stuff, click through the jump.

I come from a tradition of solid home cookery. Growing up, my mother was expert with a spatula, writing a popular cooking column for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and running a successful wedding cake business for over ten years despite having a tactile allergy to chocolate. Ron Eade once did a big piece on her latkes that caused her to briefly be known as the "latke queen of Canada" because it was republished in newspapers across the country. My father was - and continues to be - a passionate backyard griller who probably ranks meat cooked on flame as one of the ten best things that Earth has to offer. He doesn't have a broad repetoire but what he does make, he makes with great pride.

So needless to say I am a very, very lucky guy that grew up ridiculously well-fed, and with the appreciation of quality, from-scratch food. It was only when I moved to the United Kingdom for grad school that I bothered cooking for myself, but when I did I went all in. In a year I went from boiling pasta to making paella valenciana, feijoada, Belgian rabbit stew with a rabbit I cleaned myself, and my very favourite dish, khoreshe fesanjan. I discovered food through my friends; each new culture brought their ingredients to the table and I used them with very, very mixed results.

I'm proud of what I accomplished because, as you probably know by now, I only have the use of one hand and two functioning hands is pretty important in the kitchen. Some things simply overwhelmed me because of my disability. Cleaning an octopus was the worst. I have problems removing fish skin and butchering a chicken properly. Scrabble would have been easier hobby.

I'll be honest though; even with my disability aside, I'm kinda just okay. I don't compare myself to Ottawa's extraordinary cadre of so-called "amateur" foodie-bloggers that our community is so lucky to have.  FoodiePrints; The Gouda Life; Sheltered Girl Meets World; If Music be the Food of Love, Play On; RoughChop; Simply Fresh - these are just a few places among many where you can read and see an unpretentious love for cuisine and drink. They travel and document everything from casual wall-holes to epic concoctions only for the faint of heart. As for recipes, they do a great job alternating between the quick, weekday gourmet foods for the 9-to-5ers, to serious projects for veteran home cooks. And, unlike yours truly, they can operate a camera at a level that exceeds a four year old.

I first wanted to join their ranks. This was a step in the evolution of me as Homo coquendam that started from childhood but I got gun shy, so I decided to just write about burgers. Given that I was occupying  narrow culinary space, I wanted to do right by the burger. One way of achieving that was to do an absurd amount of research like Kenji did, develop a signature blend, and following that a burger of untold magnificence that would shake the very foundations of burger history.

This was okay.
Attempt #1 was a home-ground oxtail and brisket burger with tomato and tarragon salsa (aka, tomatogon), manchego cheese, Belgian endive and topped with a Maudite reduction.

So was it excellent? Meh, not really. It was just okay; could have been better. The flavour combinations were very good but texturally, I failed to consider the need to grind the meat finely enough. I flirted with excellence and she laughed me off because despite all my swagger my fly was open (proverbially). It was a (again proverbial) slap in the face because despite my experience I let myself down.  That's okay though. Life's about learning from mistakes and moving on.

You can read on for instructions and learn from my mistakes.

Monday, November 5, 2012

When life hands you lemons, you make burgers

My wife and I had a peculiar evening last week. We were trying to get from our place in Little Italy to IKEA in the west end, but the universe was having other thoughts and decided to throw up a few roadblocks. We took longer than we had anticipated to leave, there was an accident on the 417, and subsequent traffic was miserable. Thing is, this was supposed to be prefaced by a burger and beer at the relatively new Big Rig Brewery. We attempted to at least scrounge a review by stopping at Mill Street, but it was packed to the gills. Nearly ready to give up and get some neighbourhood pho, I spoke words that very rarely leave my mouth: "Sweetie, let's go to the Market!"

I don't like the Market much, for reasons that are entirely my own. (It's not you, Market, it's me.) It's crowded with young'uns and malcontents, crappy drivers and BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM rabble rousing they call music these days. That's its identity and Ottawa needs that area, but few things draw me there. I'll put up with it for Murray Street - the restaurant and the street itself - which seems to be avenue that calls most to dames and fellas rather than characters from Jersey Shore.

It's taking a long time for me to get to the burger, eh? I'm liking the sound of my own typing today.

But lo, amidst much darkness there lies a gleaming jewel of food and beverage known as Brothers Beer Bistro. There you may delve into an artfully-crafted beer menu and order yourself artfully-crafted brew served with a side of artfully-crafted food. Located in the digs formerly occupied by a Japanese restaurant at 366 Dalhousie, Brothers has a slick yet understated decor and offers some of the best service you'll ever have. The kitchen serves up gourmet spins on comfort food, including one of the best burgers I have had in the capital.

This should not come as a surprise. After all, Brothers was up for one of the OpenFile/Ottawa Citizen best burger awards, despite it being a horse too dark for the proles. To many it seemed like this place came out of nowhere to earn accolades without even concentrating on the burger as a medium.

Just how was it so good? Read on after the jump. Unfortunately the dimness of the place meant that the pictures aren't very good. Sorry!

Friday, August 31, 2012

The place where everyone knows your name ain't Cheers

Twenty-five years ago this month, Jim and Mike Theossidou started a restaurant in the west end of Ottawa. Having arrived from Greece when they were children, the brothers Theossidou used a restaurant concept that reflected their own lives: Greek basics meet Canadian basics. The result, named in honour of the famed American painter, was Rockwell's Restaurant, located in the Merivale Mall. It serves good food 24 hours a day nearly every single day of the year.

Here I am! Rockwell like a hurricane!

Twenty-five years in the restaurant business is quite the accomplishment, especially without having to deviate from an overall concept. Rockwell's has endured the growth of Merivale from a boulevard to a teeming retail artery busting from the seams with motorists. Merivale Mall, a holdover from some extant era where small, interior-corridor shopping centres were profitable, hasn't fundamentally changed in character from the early 90's, and there is a certain steadfastness that it shows among the booming big boxes that surround it.
There are places like Rockwell's scattered across Canada; local joints that rear their neighbours on good quality, simple food for years such that they become an institution. People from elsewhere in the city might drive by a hundred times and passingly wonder what it's like in there, but surely they have 100 places that they still haven't tried and they won't use up limited restaurant budget on a place in a run-down strip mall.It's a shame, really. Despite the risk that a dive's food might match the surroundings, I always find reluctance to take a risk to be a bit tragic.

Here's the skinny on Rockwell's. When you walk in you'll be surprised by a decor that is updated, clean, and has just enough elements of cheese to be charming. The staff will smile, or if you're lucky welcome you with a bellow from behind the bar.  There are no pretentions with the service or the food on offer. We're talking sandwiches, deep-dish pizza, inexpensive steaks and roasted chicken. Rockwell's spices it up with Greek staples like souvlaki and moussaka that look really good. I actually felt a moment of regret for ordering a burger when I saw the moussaka come out of the kitchen. They serve up a great greasy breakfast deep into the lonely hours of the night for hard working shift staff or insomniac west-enders. The diversity of diners is really striking, from high school students to elderly couples and young mothers.

I didn't really have any expectations about their burger other than big and greasy. There are a few burgers on offer and usually one available on the specials at lunchtime. I opted for the Swiss mushroom burger, an old diner star that can be incredibly good or just meh.

Read on to see if the joint still has its magic after twenty-five years.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When a little goes a medium way: The Black Thorn

Ah, the Byward Market. High rents, spiky tourist traffic and the endless desire to be on trend characterizes Ottawa's busiest entertainment district. There are some Ottawans that pointedly eschew any of the Market's establishments under the pretense that they will be "busy" or "overpriced." It isn't true of course; I happen to believe that you have to take the good with the bad in a popular entertainment area. I think we fare quite well in the proportion of good places to avoidable ones. Historic Québec City or the Old Port of Montréal grapple with lucrative tourist traps feasting on the legions that go for their respective coolness.

Amy and I went to see the excellent Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada with two friends of ours. Looking for a quick bite for lunch, we settled on the Black Thorn pub on Clarence, as it was close by and we had a serious case of museum legs. That's how a lot of people feel about this place; it was lovely decor, has an extended patio perched on one of Ottawa's prettiest squares, and has a respectable compendium of alcohol on order. I think the Thorn aims a bit loftier than the Irish village assortment of pubs in terms of decor and food offerings; their dinner menu certainly carries a level of sophistication that's just a bit higher than their competitors.

It's pretty underwhelming upon presentation.
I have to say that my expectations were hovering in the basement, given that this market staple is owned by the same folks that now own the Earl of Sussex, where I previously had a disappointing burger. It took reminding from my friends that I write a burger blog and must suffer the lesser to appreciate the greater. I can't just eat at Absinthe Cafe every night; both my financial future and the integrity of my craft forbid me. But here my expectations were kept basement-dwelling as the burger on the menu was pretty boring - it was a simple beef burger with garnishes and the dreaded "house burger sauce" I hear so much about. That's it. This won't be a very long review; you'll probably be able to finish it while riding the 95 between Bayview and Lebreton (check out my Ottawa reference).

Simple burgers like that rely heavily on the quality of the meat, bun and garnishes. Someone who selects specific cuts, grinds the meat themselves, bakes the buns in-house or at least procures the best and erects a two-mile "no iceberg" zone can pull this off. The Black Thorn? That dedication was so improbable for a pub that it was bound to be a disaster.

Only, it wasn't. Click past the break to find out why.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The goat that was meh: Clocktower Brewpub

North America: the marriage between burgers and pubs is not as healthy as we might like. This is a completely unscientific statement but my hypothesis based on nothing is that most pubs just don't serve a very good burger. The exceptions are flocked to, but for some reason the majority just don't seem to get the picture that overcooked beef cardboard  gives a terrible legacy to a fallen creature.What should be such a culinary no-brainer is not.

The problem is that I like pubs. I lived in England for two years and spent a lot of that time in pubs. Studying. Lots of studying. (Love you mum and dad!) Many English pubs offer poor burgers as well but for some reason I gave that a pass because most pubs served pretty bad food regardless if it was traditional local fare or imported Americana. When I go to a pub I want a burger because that fat-carb-protein mix is a perfect culinary foundation for an evening of responsible drinking. Then I get disappointed. That said, as part of my great burger quest I insist on hitting up some of Ottawa's notable pubs to see how they fare.

One of these things is more shrivelled than the others.

Amy and I went to the Westboro location of the Clocktower Brewpub, an outpost of the Ottawa brewpub institution located in one of the many new condos perched above Richmond. I love Clocktower's beer, and have been happily drinking it since my Carleton University days. A large location inside, it has this rather grand patio that stretches between a gym and a Running Room location, each with posters not exactly congratulating you on ordering your third kölsch. There we sat and ate burgers amongst the Lulu-clad regulars.

They actually offer six burgers for those looking, all fairly standard fare but a nice selection nonetheless. I had the so-called "Angry Goat" burger, which included a 7oz beef burger topped with herbed goat cheese, hot peppers and spicy mayo.

Was it angry? Read on to find out!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Beast of Toronto: Holy Chuck Burger

Amy and I took a whirlwind adventure to Toronto to see family and friends. I put that reason first to assure my family and friends that indeed we did not visit just because I wanted a burger review from the GTA!

Making a decision of which joint to go was the tough part. From the Burger's Priest secret menu to the very upscale Bymark Burger, the selection here is outstanding and I don't envy the task ahead for some of the 416/905/647/etc burger bloggers out there. The craze has completely enveloped the city. The deciding factor was that one of our friends is pescatarian and so we had to choose a noted burger joint that catered to her tastes in a creative manner.

There she is, freshly unwrapped. A very nicely built monster.
We settled on Holy Chuck Burger, a new but fiery competitor in the great jungle of Toronto burger joints. Open for less than a year, this modern diner at Yonge and St. Clair places its kitchen out in the open and its meat grinder in the fore of that kitchen. Chances are they are grinding your meat as you're staring at their menu considering what spin on the burger you want to try. It's quite the menu indeed. You can get a burger 'twixt two grilled cheese sandwiches or topped with a braised veal cheek or steeped in maple syrup and topped with foie gras or ground up with bacon, etc.

I of course settled for their signature burger, the "Holy Chuck", which is a double cheeseburger topped with thick-cut bacon and caramelized onions. There is a little note that follows the menu item asking the customer not to add any toppings on it, and since I'm not very contrarian I ordered the burger as-is.

So read on if you're a Torontonionian or TO-bound and want to know what the chuck's up with this cliche.