Monday, June 01, 2009

Lunches with Lucy: Empanadas, Dolmades, Sushi – May 13, 20 & 22, 2009

* I’m going to start a new series for the summer: Lunches with Lucy. This will chronicle my lunch adventures while at work. I’ve set up a new tag called “Lunches with Lucy” for easier searching. Unless noted otherwise, all of the places will be in Ottawa’s downtown core. *

I have worked in the heart of downtown Ottawa for the past few summers. Now I can’t imagine working anywhere else. The bus ride isn’t too bad, and the collective pulse of the city is quite unique. Though Ottawa isn’t fully bilingual, you’re just as likely to hear a French conversation as an English one when you’re downtown. Ottawa is a government town, through and through.

Unfortunately, this means most of the food offerings downtown are purposely generic, in the hopes of appealing to the masses. A successful downtown (I’m referring to high-rise downtown, and not the Byward Market) eatery won’t be focused on authenticity or quality; it just wants to make quick, cheap food so they can serve more customers.

The lunch crowds are pretty crappy, too. Everyone takes their lunch at the same time, it seems. The lineups are the worst from 11:45 to 12:15. By 12:30, mostly everyone has been served, and you can see the lines start to shrink.

A small place I frequent is Café Deluxe at Metcalfe and Albert. A co-worker introduced it to me a few years ago, and it’s my standby lunch place when I don’t feel like eating the same old stuff. They have this great vegetarian panini that contains heavily herbed roasted vegetables. It’s so flavourful and substantial that you don’t miss the meat.

Their offerings change daily, so it’s like a roll of the dice each time I eat there.


This time, I ordered their chicken empanadas. It was served on top of Mexican rice, had a salad on the side (I chose sundried tomato dressing), and included three glops of guacamole, sour cream, and fresh salsa.

It was okay. I honestly can’t remember much, except for the creamy, unctuous guacamole and the perkiness of the salsa. The Mexican rice was appropriately salty, though not spiced, so it`s probably not authentic. The salad was totally overdressed, but it wasn’t soggy. Luckily, the salad was dressed just as the guy assembled the takeout container.

I think I ate each bite with all three sauces/condiments/whatever. I know this is gross, but I definitely finished off the rice by throwing a spoonful of sauce(s) and tossing it around in rice, making for substantial mouthfuls of saucy goodness. That part was fantastic.

The meal was a little pricey, coming in around $12, but it offers a nice change in pace. Eating lunch downtown can get you in a rut really quickly, so places that offer a variety of specials each day do very well.

~ * ~

One Ottawa favourite lunchtime haunt is the food court at the World Exchange Centre. Part mall, part office building, the World Exchange is always packed at lunch. Most of the time, I wander around until I get hit with a craving for something. This is where I end up getting my lunch 75% of the time.

This week, I didn’t want generic white food, so I narrowed it down to two places: Tasha’s Fine Foods which serves Middle Eastern-influenced food, and Kebob Kebob which specializes in, you guessed it, kebobs. Not much a selection here, but it was better than getting a burger or a sandwich from Subway.

I settled on Tasha’s Fine Foods because I felt like having my first shawarma this summer. Once I got in line, I had second thoughts. I had a few meetings that afternoon, and I didn’t want to be the idiot stinking up the room with my garlic and onion breath. I saw some dolmades and settled on that platter instead.

Dolmades Platter

When I got back to my desk to eat, I suddenly realized there would be garlic in the hummus. I felt pretty stupid until I actually tasted the stuff. The garlic was so weak, I wondered if the hummus contained any at all. I guess the folks at Tasha’s Fine Foods were thinking of us office workers when they toned down the hummus. I think I was more disappointed that the hummus tasted more of lemon than of garlic and tahini.

The dolmades themselves were okay. I can’t remember the last time I had any, but I’m sure it has also been toned down to appeal to the lunch crowd. They seemed to lack that unique flavour from the grape leaves that I love so much. I ended up smothering them in hummus. I’m sure that’s NOT how you’re supposed to eat them, but they were just so blah. Not bland, because they had flavour, but it just tasted one dimensional.

This platter also came with pickled turnips. The hot pink pickled turnips are probably one of my favourite pickled things to eat by themselves. I crunched on these happily.

Oh, and there was also a fluffy, samosa-looking pastry included in the container. I ate that first, curious about its filling, so there are no pictures. It was a soft, bread-like wrapper encasing a spinach filling (I think). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. Mostly, I just liked the carbs. I dipped it in hummus, too.

In the top right-hand corner, you’ll see that there was some tabbouleh. I’m not normally a big fan of tabbouleh, but this time, it was tangy and refreshing. Instead of tasting like I imagine Astroturf to taste, it was bright and lemony.

It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s something I would order again if I had a craving for “something different.”

~ * ~

About a week later, I got another craving for “something different,” so I headed toward Sparks Street instead. For non-Ottawa-peeps, Sparks Street is a pedestrian mall with a line of shops, restaurants, take-out food places, and souvenir shops. It also happens to be another one of the go-to places to eat if you’re working downtown.

I went to Sushi Shop last year, so I knew what to expect. Part of what I include in my evaluation of a place’s authenticity is who actually prepares my food. A line of white males, who were bilingual to their credit, assembling makis doesn’t exactly ring “Japanese” to me. Of course, authenticity doesn’t guarantee deliciousness, so I kept an open mind.

Instead of getting a premade sushi box filled with the usual California rolls and futomaki, I found one that also included inari-sushi. I have always wanted to try it, but didn’t have the chance or didn’t feel like trying something new.

Vegetarian Sushi

I bought the vegetarian combo which comes with an avocado roll, vegetarian futomaki, some sort of tofu roll, and two pieces of inari-sushi. This cost $8.95 before tax.

Vegetarian Sushi

The avocado was very fresh and ripe, oozing buttery goodness with each bite. I never thought such a plain roll could be so delicious!

The futomaki, renamed Sumomaki at Sushi Shop, contained yellowish pickled daikon, red pepper, shredded carrot and cucumber, avocado, and a few squirts of spicy mayo (Japanese mayonnaise and Sriracha sauce). It was also better than I expected it to taste.

I also enjoyed the tofu maki (front and centre) more than I expected to. This maki had ginger tofu (I couldn’t taste the ginger), shiitake mushrooms, shredded carrot, green onion (I didn’t taste it), lettuce, and ginger and coriander sauce. There were a couple elements I couldn’t taste, but the roll had a fresh, bright flavour. It wasn’t until I looked at their menu that all of it made sense.

The star of the meal, however, was the inari-sushi, pictured in the bottom left-hand corner. A fried tofu pouch marinated in sweet soy stuffed with rice, green onion, slices of shiitake mushrooms, and sesame seeds. The flavours sang out to me in perfect harmony! It was the perfect combination of nuttiness from the sesame, sweetness from the mushrooms, and savoury from the tofu pouch itself. The sharp green onions cut the heaviness of it beautifully. It’s something I’ve been craving since I had it.

I would get this again for sure.

~ * ~

Buying lunch downtown can be really tricky sometimes. You have to navigate through the crowds, wait in long lines, and pay some extravagant prices, but even all this doesn’t guarantee a good meal. The only way to be sure you get what you want for lunch is to pack it yourself.

Alas, if only I had the time….

~ * ~

Café Deluxe
77 Metcalfe Street
(Albert and Metcalfe, facing the bus shelters)
Ottawa, ON
(613) 231-2226

Tasha’s Fine Foods
45 O’Connor Street, 100 Queen Street, and 111 Albert Street
(World Exchange Plaza food court)
Ottawa, ON
(613) 238-2524

Sushi Shop
140-A Sparks Street
Ottawa, ON
(613) 235-8686

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