Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Holy Smoke's Poutinerie

Saturday for lunch I found myself downtown running a few errands here and there.  Shortly after 11 I was heading towards Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws on Rideau Street. Before shopping, I thought I would stop off at a place that had intrigued me for some time but never got around to visiting, Smoke's Poutinerie (407 Dalhousie Street, Ottawa).

Tucked away on the southern leg of Dalhousie Street (that ends 1 block south of Rideau Street near Besserer Street) off main Rideau Street, this restaurant is almost hidden.  Add in being located where OC Transpo has a lay up area for their buses that begin and end at the nearby Rideau Centre stop and this storefront can be a little difficult to find for the average passing person.  Luckily, the nearby University of Ottawa campus and two major downtown hotels (Les Suites and Novotel) provide a decent sized clientele that both are geographically close (university and hotels) and in the right target market (university students).

I entered shortly after 11 a.m. to be met by one customer who had just finished ordering and the employee who immediately asked what I wished to order.  I politely, with a smile on my face, said "order?  I just got here and need to see the menu"  He smiled and said he would start preparing the other order and to let him know when I was ready.

I perused the overhead menu going over the extensive options of poutine.  Everything from just fries, to regular poutine, to beef, steak, chicken and pork variations are available.

After making my choice I waited for the employee to make eye contact and signal I was ready.

The Order:  1 Nacho Grande with a Coke.

Next came the interesting wait of anticipation.  One employee and, after three minutes, another three customers came in.  Great! Things seemed to be picking up for Saturday lunch, yet the single employee had to take orders, scurry around to the kitchen, make orders and bring them back up.  It really did seem this location was understaffed.

After a ten minute wait, things started moving.  First up the first customer received her order.  With a line up of receipts on the counter put there in order of arrival, the employee scurried through each one with the only question being "for here or to go?"  With each reply the orders were either bagged up to fly out the door or handed over to salivating customers like me.  

My order came up with a "Nacho Grande with Coke" and I was handed the nachos.  I stopped and waited, next order was called.  Um... where's the Coke? After the next order was dispatched the employee looked sheepishly at me and then went and grabbed it out of the fridge.

I'll chalk today's Coke forgetting episode up to him being overwhelmed by working alone.  The failsafe was there with each receipt in order and calling out the order to double check to make sure everything was there.  Just lack of an extra pair of hands seemed to be the issue

The wait was decent for what should be considered "fast food".  But was it worth it?

Nachos Grande with a Can of Coke
Presentation wise it was one of the better looking fast food style plates I'd seen in a long time.  But taste wise would it hold up?

I dug into the Nachos Grande with the required and duly issued fork.  The fries were thin supposedly handcut fries mixed in with all the usual toppings nachos would have including ground beef, jalapeno peppers, salsa and artfully drizzled sour cream.  With a touch of a spicy kick, you'd think you were enjoying a favourite plate of the mexican version sans le nachos chips.   The only other thing I thought was missing, besides the nacho chips, was a little cheese.  Perhaps that could be an add on option in the future.  Other than that, the nachos plus fries were delish!  Yes the fries stood up as, even fifteen minutes later, didn't suffer of over sogginess caused by all the other moist offerings coagulating together.

Overall, Smoke's Poutinerie is an interesting addition to the Ottawa restaurant scene imported from Toronto.   With several well thought out variations of the mainly Canadian dish of Poutine, this restaurant is decent see.  With the price bordering around $10.00 but decent portions provided there is some value here as well.  Tucked in on a somewhat side street, the location is a little hidden from the usual passing tourists and whoever walks by on Rideau Street.  But this place seems to have a following as even on Saturday lunch a steady stream of hungry customers arrived.  Smoke's may be the new favourite place on our list of downtown locales when in search of a bite to eat.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lots of Potential Missing at Torino Grill

Since opening in August 2014, the Rideau Centre's new food court has presented some interesting new food choices. Big Smoke Burger and MLT Down have provided some interesting dining concepts.

Last Saturday upon starting a downtown shopping trip, I decided to try out one of the other food court restaurants that seemed interesting: Torino Grill (50 Rideau Street, Ottawa). The restaurant is supposedly a Mediterranean inspired grill that specializes in grilled chicken.  The menu seemed promising with various grilled chicken and other Mediterranean inspired dishes.

It was a 11:30 A.M. on Saturday and I approached the counter.  One of the employees behind the counter trying to encourage passing customers to visit the restaurant's storefront by offering chicken samples.  If you fell for the bait, he would quickly get into his sales pitch to explain the chicken was in such a such dish and today's specials.   Nice salesmanship if you can encourage more customers to come forward during your slower times before and after the lunch rush.

Torino Grill Rideau Centre Storefront

I of course took advantage of the free sample and took the opportunity to order.  The only problem, the samples were handed out near the cash register at one end of the counter while the actual line up to order was the opposite side.  No worries, I was able to order with the lady standing beside the gentleman slinging free chicken pieces without interrupting the other two customers who had already ordered.

Club Sandwich with Cole Slaw & "Fries" with Coke

The Order: 1 Club Sandwich combo with two sides (1 fries and 1 coleslaw).

My order took a little time to prepare.  The club sandwich came out of the back of the restaurant as opposed to over at the grill.   No worries at least the sandwich was together.

A nice touch of Torino Grill is the choice of sides that are available.  There are an estimated ten different options to choose from with each menu item having a certain number (i.e. 1, 2 or 3 sides) available included in the single price.   Each menu item, of course, has suggested pictures to wet your appetite on the menu including what could be considered suggestions for sides.  In the Club Sandwich menu entry, for example, there were fries nestled next to the triple stacked sandwich pictured.

The so called "fries" pictured on the menu looked like shoe string cut fries.  So imagine my surprise when hashbrown sized potato wedges were served up. Not sure if this was due to a cutback by head office, over supply of hashbrowns sized potato wedges (garlic potatoes sans garlic?) or simple mistake by the staff.  Whatever it was, it wasn't the fries I had in mind.   I didn't complain just figured these wedges were worth a try.  Add in the offer of humus for no additional charge and it didn't seem to bad.

I took my plate to find a seat in the already filling up mall food court.

The sandwich was nothing special.  Straight plain white bread with average chicken, lettuce, tomato  put together and put on a plate.  No extra taste, no seasoning, no freshness, no nothing, just lackluster.

The "fries" were simple fried potato hashbrown wedges served up similar to any pub.  Nothing special here either.  No seasoning to make it just perfect, just simply cook it and serve it.

The hummus was also nothing special.  No "grandma's recipe" type take either.  Just straight bland hummus made from some corporate recipe probably.

Remember "Chicken Man" tempting passing prospective customers?  All throughout the time I enjoyed my meal he was still slinging his chicken samples.  Even when the counter was lined up with hungry lunch time customers he didn't stop.  He was even, at times, standing in the way of his coworkers trying to prep orders and move them towards the cash.  Instead of paying attention to the ever changing scene around him, he was more interested in slinging his chicken to passing customers instead of helping his coworkers to increase the pace of the growing line in front of him.

Overall, Torino Grill has plenty of promise  the chicken sample was good and an eager staff.  However, slinging chicken samples that disrupts the orderly pace of a busy lunch time.  Serving up potato wedges in place of fries is also a little questionable and probably borders on false advertising. A decent grill restaurant with a Mediterranean flair would provide a welcome addition to the Ottawa scene.  This restaurant has great potential but only if service and food is stepped up.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Waiting for Someone at the Airport? Grab a Timmies!

One of my favourite places at the Ottawa Airport is the arrivals area where hopeful people like me get to wait for whomever is arriving from distant lands to descend the escalators from the second floor, get a hug and walk past the waterfall feature to say hello to statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier.

Before all of that of course is the wait for either your visitor or your visitor's baggage to arrive.  Of course if you are grabbing OC Transpo's route 97 to downtown, there may be another opportunity to wait for the scheduled bus to arrive.  With all this theoretical waiting for time to catch up to you, a coffee shop may be in need.

Located on the ground floor opposite the baggage claim area, is a Tim Hortons Kiosk (1000 Airport Parkway Private, Ottawa) featuring a modest selection of Tim Hortons' regular fare.  For a more complete full service restaurant, another Tim Hortons is located on the third floor in the food court area.

Today, after seeing off my Mother-in-Law and enjoying lunch, I thought I would stop by for a quick cup of coffee before heading to the OC Transpo Route 97 bus to return back downtown.

I joined the line of about five people and slowly moved forward.  The major downfall of this Tim Hortons location is it is only staffed by a single person.  So if a major flight is expected to arrive or does arrive this Tim Hortons can be quite busy.  At other times, this kiosk is a ghost town with the Tim Hortons employee glad to see a warm body looking for a hot cup of coffee.  It really is hit or miss.

Tim Hortons Kiosk on the ground floor of Ottawa Airport.

I gradually worked my way to the front of the five person line and ordered.

The Order: 1 Medium black coffee.

A simple pour of the cup and adding of the lid along with the exchanging of some cash and I was on my way.

The coffee was fresh, probably due to the frequent turnover of customers this Tim Hortons kiosk was doing helping to make sure the coffee was also moving.  

Overall, this Tim Hortons is a nice touch to the Ottawa Airport experience.  Strategically located on the main floor as a snack option for those waiting for someone or to pick up their luggage before heading out the door.  I tend to stop by this location on a regular basis as it is conveniently located near where both OC Transpo bus tickets can picked up at the counter just to left and to board the bus outside on the airport road.   Service at this Tim Hortons is decent along with a quick grab and go menu, the line moves quickly.  So when I need to pick up someone at the airport, I stop by here and grab a Timmies!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Take off with Harvey's! Would You Like Cold Fries with that?

Tuesday saw me at Ottawa's Macdonald-Cartier International Airport to see off my Mother-in-Law after a short stay with us.

With her flight leaving at 5:30 P.M. I thought I wouldn't worry my wife back home about what time to make dinner.   Instead, after making sure Mother-in-Law made beyond my site through the security line, I headed up to the 3rd floor check out the Harvey's (1000 Airport Parkway Private, Ottawa).

With no line up of customers and pair of workers in the front and perhaps one in the kitchen, I walked up and ordered immediately.

Original Combo with fries and Pepsi
The Order: 1 Original Hamburger combo with fries and a Pepsi.

The order took no time at all and the burger was topped, fries presented and drink cup provided.  But no asking the usual if I wanted ketchup for my fries like at almost every other Harvey's I had attended.  There didn't seem to be an evident ketchup dispenser so I asked.  I was politely pointed to the other side of the cement pillar near the pop machine where the condiments, napkins, straws and other items were.   Interesting the pillar is set right in the middle of where the topping station ends and the condiment station starts.  I hope I was not the only to miss this step.

The hamburger was the regular original hamburger found at any Harvey's in Canada.  The usual overstuffed with toppings and a decent tasty burger.  Nothing special nothing bad either.

The fries were worse.  The restaurant counter was slow on a Tuesday afternoon meaning the turnover in fries was taking longer.  The temperature of the fries was unbelievably cold.  Yes they were cooked but no obvious attempt to ensure their warmth was undertaken.  The fries were the corporate approved version but just stone cold.

Harvey's Storefront Counter
Overall, this Harvey's is in a promising location in a psuedo airport "food court".  The term "food court" should be used loosely as the only other full restaurant nearby is a Tim Hortons.  However, there is a Booster Juice and a sit down Rideau Bar & Grill that has it's own sitting area nearby.  So "food court" may be a misnomer.   The food is standard Harvey's fare at Harvey's regular corporate pricing.  The only thing this restaurant needs is to pay attention to the food temperature. If that minor attention to detail is resolved, it really would be nice to take off with Harvey's in my tummy.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

1 for 1 Average Pizza

After a disappointing visit to Gabriel Pizza up the street, I continued my way down Rideau Street noticing the sandwich board advertising pizza slices and other pizza offerings outside 1 for 1 Pizza (195 Rideau Street, Ottawa).

Sure enough, the store was open and a gentleman behind the counter welcomed me and inquired what I would like.

The Order: 1 Pepperoni, Mushroom and Green Pepper (Deluxe) slice and a Pepsi.

The first thing that slice did was go from the display case to the oven.  I know I'm about to get a sub par slice of pizza when that happens.  If I'm lucky the pizza has just come out of the oven fresh and sliced.  I've experienced that at Gabriel Pizza's Metcalfe Street location where the pizza comes out fresh and is served up in a reasonable amount of time not needing to be reheated.

However, this 1 for 1 Pizza was not that busy, so asking for a fresh slice without ordering a complete pizza pie was probably a little much.

Once the slice came out, and I had paid, it was time find a seat at window overlooking Rideau Street.  Now I wouldn't want to hang out the long counter on a snowy winters day as this 1 for 1 Pizza is located at the intersection of Rideau and Waller Streets where the large transport trucks come off Highway 417, come north and make the right turn onto Rideau from Waller to continue down and then north (left turn) onto King Edward before wandering their way to wherever in Quebec they wish.
I could imagine either a regular car or transport truck miss that turn and slide through, this pizza joint may suddenly have Drive Thru service.

The pizza slice was average in nature.  Sure the cheese wasn't perfect, due to the reheating, but it was satisfactory and not terrible.  I've had cardboard pizza before and this wasn't it. The toppings were also satisfactory for a reheated slice.  Average slice of pizza at a take out restaurant, nothing more. Nothing special like a try at taste by using unique tasting cheese and the freshest ingredients like Gabriel Pizza, but not terrible either. That is why the slice and pop is about a dollar cheaper at 1 for 1 Pizza than Gabriel.

Overall, this trip was worth it.  I'll hopefully retry 1 for 1 Pizza in the future but more likely for a whole pizza rather than a slice due to the heating issue.  This location happens to be one of the pizza places I used to order pizza from when I was a student at the University of Ottawa.  Decent no fuss pizza for a student budget. Things haven't changed one bit.

Hey Gabriel Pizza Anyone Home?

January 1st, New Years Day, I headed to downtown Ottawa to get away from home for lunch and see how the new year was progressing.

With the Bell Capital Cup hockey tournament wrapping up and Ottawa being a tourist city I expected a few restaurants to be open to respond to the masses.

Sadly, I was wrong.  I toured the Byward Market area to find all the restaurants locked up and dark.  Dumbfounded bleary eyed tourists basically had two choices.  Go the McDonald's on Rideau Street or the overpriced Le Moulin de Provence.  I passed by the window of Le Moulin to see a bustling restaurant.  But overpriced pastries weren't really my cup of tea (which by the way was probably overpriced as well but I didn't check).

Over at McDonald's I cut through with possible intentions of a Big Mac meal.  I entered the long hallway from George Street and move through to find a line that wound itself over to front door with only two cash registers open and a overrun staff.   So much for the Big Mac.

I continued down Rideau Street thinking it would be a good time to try out the Gabriel Pizza (175 Rideau Street) that I had walked by plenty of times and never went in.  Failing that I couldjust call it day and go home.

But I was in luck, the usual A-Frame advertising different pizza deals was set out on the sidewalk.  I tried the door and it opened!  I ventured inside with hope! With excitement as no one else was there!  I waited patiently at the counter for about two minutes.  No one came up and no background noise could be heard, not even a mouse.   I even gave one last ditch effort.... "Hello!" I bellowed.  Nothing, only the sound of passing traffic.   The next sound in the store was me opening the front door and leaving.

Would of loved a slice of Gabriel's pizza, but nobody was there to cook or serve it up.  Instead, I walked down the street to 1 for 1 Pizza and grabbed a slice of pizza there.

Overall, I'm not sure why this Gabriels Pizza was even open.  Sure someone went to the trouble of putting out the sandwich board, turning on the lights and unlocking the door.  But with no pizza at the counter and no staff present it seemed like false advertising pizza slices available on the sandwich board out front.  The only thing I was surprised of was that local homeless hadn't taken advantage of the open warm storefront with nobody in it.  Heck, they could have run the counter!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Slow Tim Hortons with a Side of Quality Poop

Earlier this week saw our family of three at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario's (CHEO) Emergency Room.  Before erupting in hysterics, of why were at the hospital instead of elsewhere in the healthcare system, let's back up a bit.

This week was a little quizzical for us in terms of health care.  Our daughter over the past weekend was having issues with bowel movements, or in baby terms, "poop".  Monday she finally erupted and filled two consecutive diapers within five minutes of loose pooh. We thought this was a little odd and felt it may be a sign of diarrhea.  As first time parents we wanted someone who knew to double check our daughter's systems were working correctly.

I called the doctor's office to see if they had room to take us in that day or whether we were better to head to the walk-in clinic associated with the doctor.  The walk in clinic was the best option according to the receptionist who took our call as our doctor was not in the office.

We trekked to the walk in clinic in the same building as our doctor to find a posted "3 hour wait" and that our doctor was on duty gradually working her way through the que in the overflowing waiting room.  Turns out that all the doctors had chosen, in the middle of peak flu and cold season, to take vacation time and all the doctors offices associated with our doctor's health care team were also closed.  Our obstetrician's office was also closed. So much for trying to find the nice nurse there, who also works at the Ottawa Hospital's maternity ward and also seen plenty of funky diapers, to provide an opinion.

Instead of waiting three hours in a cave of open hostile germs, better known as an overflowing waiting room, we decided to head elsewhere. The only two options were the Ottawa General Hospital, where our daughter arrived in to this world, or CHEO.  Previously we were told if anything was majorly wrong with our daughter, to head to CHEO, so we did to see what our chances were.

As well, we were reasoning that if we waited the 3 hours at the walk in clinic and our daughter survived the waiting room to be only found dehydrated we would be referred to CHEO anyway for follow up treatment only to have to wait again in the emergency department of CHEO.  So we felt it was better to head there and try our luck.

At the Emergency room the triage process took about 15 minutes to wade through and a nurse took a look. She was pretty sure we were o.k. but because we were at triage, a doctor would need to confirm before we could leave.  We were admitted and sat in our own emergency room.  The whole visit took about 4 hours.

The Pediatrician (Doctor who specializes in children) reviewed our daughter's vital signs and went over with us what the average poop looks like. Turns out our daughter was normal and merely passing a large amount of poop that she had saved up from the previous couple of days.  As her digestive system matures these off again on again poop sessions would be fine. We were discharged tired but satisfied.

The Review

While waiting to see the doctor at CHEO, the need for sustenance came up.  Normally hospital cafeteria food, never mind in hospital room food, is normally not overly great.  But the nearby Ottawa Hospital General Campus has a few tasty options including a Second Cup and Tim Hortons (501 Smyth Road, Ottawa).  A sandwich and drink seemed appetizing, so we decided to return to the Tim Hortons we had enjoyed during our stay while our daughter was born.

With my wife at CHEO, I ventured through the parking lots of both CHEO and the Ottawa Hospital General Campus to the Tim Hortons.  I was in luck as it was pretty quiet with only two customers being attended to by two cashiers and one sandwich maker.

In past visits, this Tim Hortons has required patience, especially during the day when the hospital staff is starting, on break or ending their day causing lengthy lines.  Usually the staff opens four cash registers and keeps things moving if you have a drink and a donut.  But add in a sandwich, soup or chili and things take a while due to volume and the ordering system.  The ordering system means if a customer's sandwich is rung in at the cash register and appears at the preparation counter that is located in behind the registers to be made.  After being prepared the employee must transport it to the nearby pick up area closest to the cash where it was ordered.  This means transportation time for each order from prep area to cash must be included in the wait time for not only your order but each order ahead of you.  Normally if there are not too many customers, this isn't an issue. But a high volume location like this Tim Hortons, and the wait takes a while.   In other cases, this set up really isn't the issue, like my latest visit.

With two customers, two cashiers and one sandwich maker working away, I thought this would be a quick and easy visit to grab dinner and head back to CHEO's emergency room to eat.  Sadly I was wrong.

The first customer was trying to figure out what she wanted as she ordered.  The second customer at the other cash register was asking if certain items were in stock or not one at a time while the employee checked and returned, checked and returned, checked and returned...  I rolled my eyes at how I ended up in this predicament with only one solution, "somebody order something!"  Eventually customer number two ordered and I was next up to the cash register:

The Order: 2 Chicken Salad Sandwich combos with kettle chips, 1 medium coffee and 1 orange juice.

The order seemed simple enough, the cashier would easily get the drinks and the sandwich bar would easily make the sandwiches and load up the chips which are usually premade.

First order out was a chicken salad sandwich with some kind of bagel.  Turns out the first customer finally figured out what she wanted and, because she had started ordering.  No problem, with no one else but my order, things should move along pretty quickly.

Not so fast, I watch as the sandwich maker gets out one sandwich bun, cuts it, lettuce, tomato and then the premade chicken sandwich filling.  It was like watching everything in slow motion.  There was no urgency or professional level of speed there, just the slow movement forward.  Wash rinse and repeat for the second sandwich.  She then brought over both sandwiches in a paper bag with a smile on her face saying "2 Chicken Salad Sandwiches" and a smile on her face like she had just finished the most ardous task of all.

Except, two notable things that I know were typed into the system by the cashier...

"Where are the two potato chips that come with the combos I ordered?"

A disgusted look and slow return to the sandwich counter ensued where I was treated to a slow motion potato chip into bag demonstration. Followed by a waddle back to the cash and ceremonious dump of said potato chips into the bag with the awaiting sandwiches.

I took the bag and started the long return back the CHEO after what seemed was going to be less than five minute grab of food turned into a ten to fifteen minute ordeal.

To be fair, this seemed to be a one off.  Most of the staff at this location are courteous and quick on their feet to move the line along of waiting patients, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.  But the sandwich bar set up needs to be changed so that perhaps when sandwiches are finished, it could be picked up in a single spot perhaps long the front area that abuts the hospital hallway.  But that is for a future renovation.

The food taste wise was a little suspect.  Sure the chips and drinks were fine and to Tim Hortons' corporate standards, but the chicken sandwich was bland.  Not enough mayonaise or whatever sauce they use?  It was quite different from what I had previously experienced at both this particular location and other times at the Tim Hortons on nearby Alta Vista.

Overall, I'll chalk this poor experience up to single occurrence.  But concerns over wait times for prepared food from the sandwich bar is an issue. So if you are going for a soup, sandwich or even chili, be prepared for a wait.  Coffee, tea or other beverage?  This Tim Hortons does its best to get your favourite into your hand as fast as possible.

As for our daughter?  She's doing well so far in the poop department even after this incident. We are also happy that our regular doctor's office will be open after the holidays to take care of any questions we may have.  But the lasting question we have is why are many doctor's offices closed during Christmas break week which traditionally is the height of flu season in Ontario?  This I'll never know.

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