When it comes to dining out, Ottawa has cornered the market
Ottawa's Byward Market offers a little bit of everything, from fresh berries to buskers to lots and lots of food. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram
Ottawa's commercial bus tour guides can play fast and loose with the facts. On a recent sun-drenched day, myself and about 15 other tourists (mostly Americans) were touring around Ottawa. We were on the top deck of an open double-decker straining to grab the most fleeting (if any) glimpses of Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, Stornaway and other historic buildings. Abundant evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubbery obscured most of the sites. The tour guide, perhaps to compensate for the lack of visual stimulation, was making commentary that had to be taken with more than a grain of salt.
For example, when we passed the austere National Research Council of Canada building, our bus guide told us that Velcro and the push-up brassiere had been "invented inside that building." Because I tend to remember trivial bits of information, I knew that Velcro had, in fact, been invented in France, not Canada. Also, the notion that Canada's NRC was involved with the development of any kind of bra sounded suspicious to me. After checking, I discovered that the push-up brassiere had been invented in Canada but not at the NRC. The Canadian Lady Corset Co. invented it in 1961.
When our bus took a swing through Ottawa's famous Byward Market area, the guide said something else that sounded a little off the mark.
"Byward Market has so many restaurants you could eat three meals a day here (that's three restaurants per day) for three months and not need to visit the same restaurant twice."
Having spent several subsequent days exploring Byward, I now believe the guide spoke closer to the truth on that particular subject. The Byward Market area is a series of streets with a large brick market building at its heart. Each street has a healthy share of restaurants. It's probably the heaviest concentration of restaurants in Canada. Not only is the number high, the variety in food styles is impressive too: Lebanese, Asian, Latin, Italian and so on.
Weather permitting, your first move when visiting Byward must be a long walk around the neighbourhood to soak up the atmosphere. Streets close to the relatively small market building are lined with lively stalls. Stall operators sell everything from fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers to carvings, clothing and cosmetics. There's even a stall where they'll write your name on a grain of rice and incorporate it into a piece of jewelry.
A steady supply of street performers add to the colour and fun of Byward Market. While I was there I listened to musicians of all stripes: jazz, pop, blues, classical and country. Some were quite talented, like a young classical violinist who played Paganini for loose change. Then there was the fire juggler who scared the bejeepers out of me every time he deliberately set the pavement alight. I'll never forget the quirky little fellow who had the least labourious act of all. He'd stand as if frozen. That's all. Sometimes his pose would include a tennis racket, which he'd have at the end of his arm as if stilled mid-swing. Believe it or not, the loonies and toonies rained into his cap.
Mostly Byward is about food. During your stroll you might want to purchase a container of fresh berries for munching. I saw many street vendors selling beautifully juicy strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. Inside the Byward Market building there's a cornucopia to satisfy tourist cravings. Plump vegetable and meat samosas went for $2 and $3 at Shafali Bazaar (Fine Indian Food and Spices.) Wang's Noodle House offered bubble drinks, as well as noodle bowls. The Farm House sold snacks with "no preservatives," the most popular being the schnitzel sandwich. I satisfied my urge for some good dark chocolate at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, where I ate a cashew cluster and haystack (chocolate with coconut.) They also displayed some tempting, freshly made candy apples of every description.
Eat-in pubs and restaurants are everywhere in the Byward zone. I enjoyed a perfect rare striploin at The Aulde Dubliner. Another quick and tasty lunch prepared at Vittoria Trattoria was called Pescatore. It consisted of delicious "fettuccine with bay scallops, tiger shrimp, P.E.I. mussels and red peppers in marinara sauce." Another day I lunched at Luxe, which served a tasty lobster/crab sandwich and the most amazing frites (better than McDonald's.) While there, unintentionally, I also enjoyed a dessert of sweet, juicy gossip from two loud, chattering mavens with the National Arts Centre.
One of my favourite dinners at Byward was prepared at Mambo Restaurante Nuevo Latino. Mambo specializes in Central and South American cuisine. It's a colourfully decorated bistro (lots of red and orange) where most patrons speak Spanish, in various dialects. The music is exclusively Latin with an infectious rhythm. The Tamarindo Ribs ("tamarind glazed pork ribs served with Latin rice and mango pineapple chutney,") were tender and succulent. The unusual tamarind flavour gave the commonplace dish special significance.
While Mambo had plenty of nice desserts, I decided to carry the precious contents of my brown paper bag back to my hotel and enjoy them instead. Earlier that afternoon I'd purchased a couple of cannoli from Aux Delices, a Byward Market bakery. The famous cigar shaped Sicilian confection was something I'd never tried before. The crispy pastries were filled with a combination of butter, cream, pistachios and bits of dried fruit. You can imagine how good they were. No, actually, they were better than anyone can imagine.
A rather smart chap named Colonel By founded Ottawa. That's why it was originally known as Bytown. He had great dreams for the town and made sure it was firmly established with a remarkable canal. Later, when it was chosen as the capital of the nation, it was given the name Ottawa. The colonel's name lives on in what has become the most colourful and vibrant part of greyish Ottawa. Long live Byward Market and the memory of its visionary Canadian founder.