Monday, November 10, 2008

Friday nights and Saturday afternoons in Ottawa

Saturday afternoon my mom took Chris and I out to lunch at Vietnam Palace on Somerset Street, in the heart of Ottawa’s Chinatown. There are approximately eight hundred restaurants in the area, and what I find most interesting is that, when I was a child, the vast majority were Chinese, but now that balance has shifted and I’d say fully half of the restaurants serve Vietnamese food. A sign that more of Ottawa’s immigrants come from there, perhaps.

In any event, there’s no shortage of pho and bun and other delicious Vietnamese specialties on this street, but Vietnam Palace is an old favourite of ours. We’ve been there on our own, with a big group of friends, and I think I even had dinner with my dad there once, but we’d never been with my mom. We were all in the mood for Vietnamese but weren’t prepared to face Merivale Road on a Saturday in order to get to Pho Thi, our usual weekend lunch spot. So the Palace it was, for what turned out to be quite a late lunch – we nearly had the place to ourselves.

The décor is low-key but pleasant, with white-clothed tables topped with a sheet of glass and then paper placemats, a photo spread of Vietnam on one wall, lots of windows and comfy chairs. The waitress who took care of us was friendly and kept our water glasses well topped up throughout our meal. It’s an inviting place with none of the basement rec room feel of some other places in the neighbourhood.

As it was lunch and not dinner, each of us ordered a bun (rice noodle bowl) dish, rather than sharing several dishes between us. Mom and Chris both went with the standard pork and spring roll topping, while I went out on a limb and ordered the stir fried beef with lemongrass, and it was a good decision. The generous portion of thinly sliced beef was still tender and a little bit juicy, with excellent sharp-citrusy flavor imparted by the lemongrass and a pleasing sweetness and caramelization from the sugar in the marinade. It topped a bowl of perfectly cooked rice noodles adorned with piles of shredded lettuce, carrot and cucumber, a tangle of bean sprouts, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The vinegary cha gio sauce brought alongside moistened the noodles nicely and gave the veggies some kick. It was good to the last noodle. Chris and Mom devoured their bowls with equal relish, and Mom even spared me a chunk of spring roll (yum).

We left full and very happy with our late lunch. I’m sorry to say that was not the case with dinner the previous evening at the Honest Lawyer downtown in the Byward Market. We went with two friends, one of whom was in town from the GTA for the weekend, in the hopes of having a light meal and some beers, and perhaps a spin at one of the pool tables. We certainly weren’t prepared for either the noise level or the popularity of the pool tables so early on a Friday evening, but we were hungry and they had tons of beers on tap, so we grabbed an awkwardly shaped high-top table and settled in.

I will give top marks to my draft Strongbow cider, as it was excellent, cold and refreshing. Our friend R tried out their latest acquisition, Sapporo on tap, and liked it enough to have at least two pints (I lost count). The food was another matter. M and I ordered an appetizer of veggies, bread, bruschetta topping and hummus to share, while R ordered mozzarella sticks as his starter. Everyone then ordered sandwiches for their mains. However, all the food arrived at the same time (after about a 30-minute wait; R was on his second beer by the time food showed up). Our small oddly shaped table could barely fit all the plates.

That might have been fine if several of the plates hadn’t been composed principally of various types of bread. The veggie and bread platter turned out to be three slices of fruit-studded bread, three huge hunks of pretzel bread, a tiny, salad dressing-sized container each of hummus and bruschetta topping, and a cone of raw veggies for dipping. What on earth were we supposed to do with all that bread and only a tiny amount of hummus? Plus, fruit bread with hummus OR bruschetta? Bizarre. We polished off the veggies, which were honestly pretty fresh and a nice assortment, but found it to be a weirdly proportioned dish nonetheless.

M’s sandwich was even more of a disappointment – it was meant to be chicken and pesto on a pretzel roll, I think, and there was chicken breast on it, and pesto, and lettuce, but it certainly didn’t fill the roll – very skimpy. My pulled pork sandwich had the same problem – the meat-to-bun ratio was way off, with a large Kaiser roll topped with a meager pile of nonetheless quite tasty meat in a slightly over-sweet sauce. No slaw, just a pickle spear and an olive. Sides cost extra at the Lawyer – fries, sweet potato fries (for an astonishing $3.50 premium – doesn’t anyone know sweet potatoes cost the same as regular potatoes?) or salad can be added to any meal. I chose not to, thinking the veggies and hummus would be enough, and I was half right.

R’s parmesan chicken wrap and mozza sticks were apparently “adequate” – he ate them and didn’t have too much to say about it – but the real winner was Chris, who found his “Mountie” burger to be both delicious and well-proportioned, with mozzarella, bacon and onion rings. He went for the premium sweet potato fries, and those were pretty decent too, if lukewarm, with two kinds of mayo for dipping. (In fact, I ended up borrowing some of his dips for my veggies…due to our lack of hummus.)

In all, a disappointing meal, and we never got near a pool table – the (we think) underage drinkers behind us just got too loud for us to wait it out any longer, so we attempted an escape to Memories for home-baked desserts and more alcohol. Sadly we were thwarted by the post-dinner crowds, and ended up at Oh So Good, an establishment I will probably not return to now that they’ve moved from at the very least locally baked desserts to trucking in Dufflet pastries from Toronto. My carrot cake was fine and blissfully raisin-free, but the icing tasted of shortening, not cream cheese, and Chris’s double-decker chocolate cake was dry, with a similar feel to the icing. For what those cakes cost, I want butter in my icing and a nice, moist crumb to the cake.

So what saved our Friday night? The company of good friends and two of the best games of euchre I’ve ever played in my life. The card gods were with me – I hardly ever play that well. Next time I’m just inviting everyone to my house for drinks, food and cards. At least then we’ll be able to hear ourselves think, and we may not have a pool table but I know we have a dart board somewhere….

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