OTTAWA — The list of North America’s leading culinary capitals is long and (mostly) long-agreed upon: New York, Montreal, New Orleans, San Francisco, even Los Angeles … the list goes on and on. Fine dining almost always tops the to-do lists of visitors to these foodie meccas. People traveling to the continent’s national political capitals, however, usually have other pursuits — historical, emotional, commercial — in mind, although, of course, a world-class meal can be sniffed out in almost any city of any size these days. So it came as somewhat of a minor shock on a recent foray up to Ottawa — Canada’s compact yet quite cosmopolitan capital — that the city is home to a burgeoning gourmet culinary scene.
Superior dining can be had at restaurants across the city and the capital region but the front line of Ottawa’s foodie movement — and a lot of fun — can be found in the historical, restored ByWard Market district, which lies in the shadow of Parliament Hill in the city center. On the morning of this past St. Patrick’s Day, a lovely sunny Saturday, the good people at Ottawa Tourism hooked me up with gourmet guide Paola St-Georges of C’est Bon Cooking for a treasure-hunt of a traipse through ByWard Market. (C’est Bon Cooking also runs a cooking school, corporate team-building activities and culinary tours through Ottawa’s other favorite foodie districts, such as Westboro and Preston Street, as well as Eddy Street, across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec.)
Food is No. 1
The ByWard Market has blossomed into Ottawa’s No. 1 tourist attraction, attracting about 50,000 visitors each weekend in summer months. The area boasts a local farmers’ and artisans’ market with more than 260 stands, as well as over 500 businesses. The latter include more than 100 restaurants, 35 retail food establishments, 23 nightlife venues (including Chateau Lafayette, Ottawa’s oldest tavern) and some 25 cultural attractions, including the National Gallery of Canada and Notre Dame Basilica.
Cheery and chock-full of epicurean insight and expertise, St-Georges led me on a trek from cheese and cupcake shops to maple-syrup stands, greengrocers and a bustling and aroma-filled Italian salumeria, even popping into one of Ottawa’s most venerable eateries, the Courtyard Restaurant, for a brunch tasting. At each venue, we sampled specialties of the house — enough nibbles so that when it was finally time for lunch, I skipped it in favor of the exquisite yet relatively light high tea at my hotel, the nearby Fairmont Chateau Laurier. I did make sure to return the following afternoon for a burrito lunch at a Mexican food stand, Corazon de Maiz, that I’d not sampled on St-Georges’ tour. I successfully resisted the urge to dig into Ottawa’s signature dessert treat, the beaver tail, however.
ByWard Market by night
ByWard Market map
ByWard Market street scene
ByWard Market veggie vendor
Civilizations Museum & Parliament
Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Rideau Canal & Fairmont Chateau Laurier
Savour Ottawa seal
A tour of ByWard’s best
Here’s a rundown of highlights of my ByWard Market tour, from start to finish. Many of the shops and farmstands boast the Savour/Savourez Ottawa seal of approval, designating a certified origin in the capital region. Keep an eye out for it:
The House of Cheese: A family-run store specializing in Canadian and other cheeses. Here, we sampled mouth-watering slivers of cheeses such as Le 1608 from Laiterie Charlevoix in Quebec and Laankaster, from Glengarry Fine Cheeses in Ontario, some topped with ice-wine or chutney accompaniments. Owner Brad Joyal is welcoming, informative and an expert cheese authority. (Address: 34 ByWard Market St.);
ByWard Fruit Market: Just next door to the House of Cheese, this greengrocer offers the freshest Ottawa-area produce, as well as exotic fruits, mushrooms (including truffles), gourmet sea salts and more. We bit into snap-crackle-pop and/or juicy fresh veggies to our hearts’ content. (Address: 36 ByWard Market St.);
La Bottega Nicastro: An ever-expanding salumeria offering everything for a tour de force of a meal all’italiana. Interestingly, and in a multi-culti nod to St. Paddy’s Day, here we sampled Irish cheddar and blue cheeses served on freshly baked Italian breads. (Address: 64 George St.);
Canada in a Basket: Stocked with quality, artisanal gourmet products from around Canada, this little shop served us samples of homemade jams and preserves hailing all the way from Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. (Address: 55 ByWard Market St.);
Courtyard Restaurant: A brunch sampler here hit the ball out of the park. Outgoing executive chef Michael Hay (replaced by Murray Wilson June 24) made us fall in love with his salute to Dr. Seuss and St. Patrick: green scrambled eggs and sous vide smoked bacon, accompanied by rosti potatos (Address: 21 George St.);
The Cupcake Lounge: You’d think the cupcake craze was played out by now, but this place puts new and delicious Canadian twists on these icing-covered delights. The maple-bacon cupcake I dug into made my head spin. I had to give them props, so I told ‘em they’re better than New York’s Magnolia Bakery, of “Sex and the City” fame — which they are. I got a chorus of bewildered “oohs” and “wows” in reply! (Address: 6 ByWard Market).
We also sampled from and wandered about numerous outdoor farmers market stands, including local purveyors of maple syrup (the good stuff costs a fortune!) and cow- and goat’s-milk cheeses. The farmers’ names went un-noted, however. My bad! Next time, I’ll do better.
C’est Bon Cooking runs epicurean tours of ByWard Market every Saturday from May to October, and every Thursday in July and August, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tour participants meet in front of the Brasserie Métropolitain, at 700 Sussex Drive, by 10:20 am on the day of each tour. Tickets cost $55, including taxes.
Recently, treKKen’ headed overseas to southwestern Germany for a 10-day, culinary- and culture-themed trek from Mainz to Lake Constance, with stops in Freiburg, Stuttgart, Hohenzollern Castle and other towns, cities, vineyards and sightseeing spots well-known, and less so, across the Black Forest, the Schwabische Alb (Swabian Alps) and the states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg. [...]