House party

Karl Wells
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Dinner on Parliament Hill

I was seated under a beautiful domed ceiling supported by marble columns. Magnificent oil paintings depicting the Canadian landscape surrounded me. There was much about the room that made an impression, yet more than anything, my eyes were drawn to the small, gold-coloured engraving on the dinner plate in front of me. It was an engraving of the Canadian Coat of Arms. That symbol said everything about the significance of where I was dining. I was having dinner in the restaurant of the Parliament of Canada. Only members of Parliament and their guests are permitted to dine there.

So how did I end up dining at the epicentre of government in this country? I'd always been curious about where and how our MPs dined while carrying out the nation's business. (We foodies are curious about anything and everything to do with food.) Another reason for my interest was having met Judson Simpson, executive chef of Parliament during a visit he made to St. John's.

Karl Wells (right) with Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn.- Submitted photo

Dining out - I was seated under a beautiful domed ceiling supported by marble columns. Magnificent oil paintings depicting the Canadian landscape surrounded me. There was much about the room that made an impression, yet more than anything, my eyes were drawn to the small, gold-coloured engraving on the dinner plate in front of me. It was an engraving of the Canadian Coat of Arms. That symbol said everything about the significance of where I was dining. I was having dinner in the restaurant of the Parliament of Canada. Only members of Parliament and their guests are permitted to dine there.

So how did I end up dining at the epicentre of government in this country? I'd always been curious about where and how our MPs dined while carrying out the nation's business. (We foodies are curious about anything and everything to do with food.) Another reason for my interest was having met Judson Simpson, executive chef of Parliament during a visit he made to St. John's.

Simpson told me about the extensive food service operations on the "Hill," which piqued my interest further. Despite my curiosity, I didn't think I'd ever see things first hand. I'd never been to Ottawa and had no strong desire to visit. I'd heard too many stories about the sidewalks rolling up at night.

I live in the west end of St. John's. My federal MP is Loyola Hearn, Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans. During the last federal election we had a brief chat. Before our conversation ended, I half jokingly asked, "If you win, can you get me into the Parliamentary Restaurant, should I ever be in Ottawa?" He laughed and said, "Yes, no problem." I'm sure neither of us thought it would actually happen.

Nothing ventured

Recently, however, I found out that my partner would be going to Ottawa on business. I decided to tag along. That's when I remembered my conversation with Hearn. Thinking, "nothing ventured, nothing gained," I contacted Loyola Hearn's constituency office in Mount Pearl and asked if it might be possible to arrange a visit to the Parliamentary Restaurant. Within a day I received word that the minister had one free evening during my visit and would be happy to take me to dinner on Parliament Hill. That was much more than I'd expected. I was delighted.

There was one small stipulation. I was required to wear a suit and tie.

Hearn's executive assistant on Parliament Hill - a cheerful woman named Pam - made all the arrangements. When I arrived at Parliament my first attempt to get into the building was unsuccessful. By mistake, I entered through the MP's Entrance at exactly the same time as Jim Flaherty, the minister of finance, and his entourage of guys in suits were strolling in.

I was a guy in a suit too. If I had stuck with the entourage I think I could have easily swanned, Forrest Gump style, into the bowels of the building. It's when I broke away from the finance group to ask for directions that security police took notice of me. They looked a bit alarmed. I was promptly told to leave and enter through a door marked, "Parliamentary Business."

After I managed to get through the airport style security of the Peace Tower, or Centre Block, I was given a special pass and instructions on how to find the Office of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. A quick elevator ride had me in the three-roomed office and chatting with Pam about the view overlooking the front lawn. Workmen were busy constructing the stage for the annual Canada Day Concert on Parliament Hill. Pam was expecting to hear rehearsals of the concert through her window at least three times before the actual event.

Hockey wall

I hadn't eaten much that day and was hungrily eyeing a container of sugar-coated jujubes on a coffee table when the minister walked in from a last-minute vote in the House of Commons.

We shook hands and I commented on the impressive wall of hockey pictures behind him. With obvious pleasure, he began to point out specific photos.

There was a picture of Hearn with Paul Henderson, another with the late defenceman Carl Brewer. He also showed me autographed pictures of players like the great Bobby Orr and a rare Boston Bruins sweater signed by Orr. Apparently Pam and members of his appreciative staff had given the sweater as a birthday present. Now totally famished, I was about to ask if the sweater was edible when he said, "OK, let's go get something to eat."

The Parliamentary Restaurant is situated on the sixth floor of the Centre Block. It's a restaurant with plenty of Old World charm. It reminded me very much of the dining room of a very old and historic grand hotel like the Chateau Laurier.

The high ceiling had a series of domes that I was told catch the sound and deflect it downward to other parts of the room. That's why MPs are advised - if they have something sensitive to discuss - to sit in one of the alcoves that line either side of the room.

Each alcove had the name of a province next to it, except Newfoundland and Labrador. The name of our province was situated immediately next to the restaurant's main entrance. With a quizzical look on my face I pointed to it. Hearn nodded and said, "Yes, we got the door." Appreciating the inherent humour, like two Newfoundlanders would, we looked at each other and burst out laughing.

White linens

Our table, like all the others, was laid with white linens and silver-plated flatware. Servers were formally dressed in white shirt, black tie and vest. In addition to a dessert table, another was laden with various salads. I suspected bottles of wine displayed in the restaurant foyer to be Canadian, which seemed appropriate and necessary. The wine steward confirmed this and offered me a glass of Pelee Island Cabernet Franc, the featured wine that day. The minister had water.

The Parliamentary Restaurant's dinner menu was small but appropriately "democratic." Every taste was accommodated. I ordered the Black Tiger Shrimp Tempura with dill mustard cream ($7.25.) Loyola Hearn ordered ConsommÉ ($2.25.) Unfortunately, he received a bowl of Tomato Vegetable soup instead. He made no complaint. However, his half-eaten portion told me it wasn't his favourite.

I couldn't help but wonder if they ever mix-up Prime Minister Stephen Harper's soup order. Probably not.

My shrimp was fantastic. It was fresh, light, crispy and juicy. The seafood was so good I couldn't wait for my main course of osso bucco with potato and herb gnocchi ($22.50) to arrive.

Hearn had cast-iron-roasted pork tenderloin with apple, thyme jus and caramelized organic fingerling potatoes ($24.75.)

Both dishes were beautifully presented. (Simpson is known for his eye-catching presentations.)

Hearn enjoyed this dish. I certainly had no complaints about my veal shank. It was tender and flavourful. I also liked the gnocchi (replacing the traditional risotto), as well as the perfectly cooked diced carrot and green beans.

Smaller cafeteria

Hearn told me he usually grabs something to eat in a smaller cafeteria in the building. There's also a very busy, large cafeteria in the West Block where most MPs have their offices. Caterings happen at Parliament as well. While I was in the building about 60 special guests were seated at folding tables in the wide hall outside the Parliamentary Library being served food and wine by uniformed wait staff.

For dessert we had the option of ordering from the menu or choosing something from the dessert table. We had cheesecake from the table. Mine was a blueberry-topped version of New York cheesecake that tasted delicious.

Coffee followed and a mini tour of Parliament with Hearn as my guide.

From the sixth floor restaurant, we travelled down to the second floor and crossed the foyer of the House of Commons. CTV's parliamentary bureau chief, Bob Fife, was there getting ready to go on air. I was introduced and waited while Fife chatted with the minister about the election readiness of the various parties.

Next we looked at the famous Chamber of the House of Commons. The room was large but seemed more intimate than I'd imagined. It was very brightly lit because of television. I got to sit in the prime minister's chair and the Speaker's chair. It was very much a Disneyland moment. Let's face it. It's pretty cool to be able to see and touch things of such historic significance and importance to your country.

Breath taking

The last stop on my impromptu tour was the Parliamentary Library. I believe it must be the most majestic room on Parliament Hill.

It was round, with a domed ceiling of enormous height. Books were stacked on shelves at levels of equal height from the library's floor to the rim of the great dome.

The glow from a series of incandescent lights throughout the room created comforting warmth. It felt like a sacred space.

Rising from the centre of the room (making it the focal point) with great prominence and beauty was the alabaster statue of a young Queen Victoria. The aesthetic perfection of the room took my breath away.

What began as a simple request to view the Parliamentary Restaurant had evolved into a dining experience far beyond my imagining. Loyola Hearn was a generous host.

He told me he intends to remain in Parliament as long as he feels he can be constructive and accomplish something. Personally, I don't think he'll be leaving politics anytime soon, certainly not before the next federal election.

When he does get out of the ring I believe he's already got a rough draft of sorts for a fascinating book.

As one of the key architects of the deal that brought the merging of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Alliance Party, he knew he was involved in an important chapter of Canadian history. Consequently, he made very detailed notes, in diary form, on everything that was said and happened during that period.

When Hearn does write about it, believe me, we're in for a heck of a read. Given the controversies he's been involved with over the past few years (assuming he's been taking some notes) perhaps Loyola Hearn should consider writing his memoirs. That would be a guaranteed bestseller.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Canadian Coat, Parliament of Canada, Centre Block House of Commons Boston Bruins Parliamentary Library Chamber of the House of Commons Disneyland Progressive Conservative Party of Canada Alliance Party Cuisine Canada University of Guelph

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Ottawa, Parliament Hill St. John's Canada Newfoundland and Labrador West Block New York

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