Monday, June 11, 2012

Reunion with an old buddy: Earl of Sussex Pub

Twelve years ago, I had my first legal beer at the Earl of Sussex Pub. Back then it was a dive-y hole wall bizarrely occupying some of the richest real estate in Ottawa: the corner of Sussex and Murray St. Their plushy, worn highback chairs gave one a perfect vantage for watching tourists gaggling about the National Gallery courtyard. Shelves were stacked with weathered books (RIP Nicholas Hoare) you could take home with you. Saturday nights were mostly empty except a handful of patrons in their fifties wearing socks and sandals and listening to dubious live folk music. It was almost always empty actually, which was just bizarre for such an amazing location; it could have been a watering hole for tourists, bureaucrats, politicos and market locals, but it wasn't.

Earl of Sussex was awesome, and back in 1999 a lot of Ottawa was not awesome. Sussex shops were spotty and prone to high turnover. Café Wim - that darling Dutch coffee shop - made you wait interminably long for an espresso. Ottawa outside the core was a cuisine desert, save lone oases like the bacon-stuffed double Wiener schnitzel at Dalmatia.
I promise no English aristocracy jokes.

Oh what years Earl and I had together. My nose was glued to the window there when the Take the Capital protests clamoured by in 2002. The patio was the battleground where I debated politics with NDP staffers in 2003 (I won). I watched Greece win in 2004 and Sens lose in 2007. I got cheerfully drunk with friends, family, strangers, bosses, and girlfriends. Amy and I lived around the corner for six months, enjoying the dawn of our beautiful relationship over their nachos and beer (you read that right; I am the luckiest guy in the world). And I'm just coming in at the middle of the story; the Earl has been around for 31 years, which is also as long as I've been around.

Thankfully, twelve years of incredible hit Ottawa, fine food sprouted out of our sidewalks like weeds from my front lawn, and we are left with the Ottawa today, an Ottawa with a culinary maturity so developed that it even sports a blogger who writes about nothing but hamburgers. The Earl moved on too, with various local businessfolk trading shares of it and subtly prodding it in one direction or another. The books are gone, the ugly carpet is replaced, the chairs are new, there's no more bad folk, they're open later and the crowd is younger.

We haven't eaten there in two years, and since then my palate has honed its excellence at detecting winning burgers.  So it was nigh time to take their burger to the test. The Sussex burger is a 7oz all-beef patty with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and "burger sauce" on a soft white kaiser bun. I added cheddar and bacon to it.

How was it? Read on and I'll tell you.

The burger

The patty is 7oz of beef, formed flat, charred and cooked to a colour I like to call "Hopelessness Grey." It was ground finely, but maintained some measure of juice surprisingly, and as a result did not taste quite like the hockey puck that it looked like. Curiously the burger was very inconsistent in width, meaning each bite was quite different in moisture and thus taste. It was the burger equivalent to eating a box of low-end chocolates; some were ghetto-chic and others just kind of sucked.

Closeup. Look at that silly bun overhang. It's like a bready underbite.
The bacon had a good mix of fat and protein; it was charred slightly but still nice and tender.  Cheese-wise there was apparent and plentiful cheddar. I'm not so sure about the burger sauce however. I forgot to confirm its ingredients with the waitress as she was swallowed by the demands of a bustling spring patio, but I'm pretty sure it was mayonnaise, ketchup and relish, similar to "burger sauces" elsewhere. "Burger sauce" is a ridiculous name for this concoction. If I was going to think of a condiment that perfectly embodies a burger, it would be Jason Duffy's smoked cream cheese, or a really good tzatziki. Anyway, there was a lot of this silly, overly pungent condimentsplosion on the burger, which afforded the whole thing enough moisture but rendered it a bit one-sided.

Garnishes to round it out were the basics; shredded lettuce, slice pickles, a thin slice of tomato and a couple slices of onion. Not really worth devoting too many bits to, but they were all fresh and fine.

It's a good portion of bacon and cheese.

The kaiser bun wasn't actually that bad, only a bit underbaked. The crust was as soft as the crumb, but it was all very substantial and fresh. Had the burger been juicier it would have stood up to assault with aplomb. There was a wee bit of flour dusting the crevices, and it all looked rather nice. It never really touched a toaster however. Also, meat-to-bun ratio was off; there was too much bun for the meat, which probably wasn't a tragedy given the differences in quality between the two. I note that the menu stated that it was supposed to be a "toasted sesame bun," which it clearly wasn't either.

So the burger is very boring. It presents nicely but everything falls short from being good; it's textbook pub fare. Where it all falls apart is the price: $14. This can be explained only by the fact that they need huge margins to cover the rent. It is tremendously overpriced and not substantially different from The Rochester Pub's offering in quality. For that amount of money you can eat a burger at Chez Lucien, Hintonburg Public House or Petit Bill's Bistro and get a fantastic product. Obviously the option across the street from one of the capital's top tourist destinations is going to milk us on price. I'm actually okay with that.

See for years, the Earl was cheap for its location and now it isn't anymore. It's a touristy watering hole. I'm not just basing this off the burger; Amy had nachos and the cheese was mostly left unmelted. She used to love those nachos! This degradation is a big trade-off that's bound to happen, especially as the city matures and joins the ranks of other world cities with mediocre restaurants near their attractions. It's just the way of the world. Sometimes you need to trade ratty books for a packed Saturday night. I'll just limit how many of mine are spent there.

The Earl's a great guy to have a beer with and people watch, but he's not the guy for everything anymore. I shouldn't blame him too much. I've changed too. We were buds in high school that grew apart, and now have a healthy respect for each other, if not a true friendship. That is, until I dissed his burger.

You managed to get this far without me making a
stupid English aristocracy joke. I say!

The sides

The fries are good. Fried light brown, skins on, little residual grease. I had the burger served up with the real reason you go to the Earl: beer. They had Mill St. Organic for $5.50, a steal for such a great patio beer.


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