While obviously not the dining destination that is Montreal, two and a half days in Ottawa would find my mother, aunt, and I nicely sated by a pair of the capital’s best restaurants as well as some of the finest bakeries in town. Never one to shy away from sweets, whether for breakfast or for snacks each of the five stops was pre-planned based on the recommendation of friends and ‘foodies’ alike and whether an effect of modest expectations or the fact that each stop was truly quite good I have to say we came away quite impressed with each.
Beginning first with the famous, a stop at Beavertails seemed essential to the trip and after some discussion as to which location (and which Beavertail) was best we opted for the Byward Market location where a single coffee and a “La Quebecoise” with Maple Butter were ordered, prepped, served, and consumed in less than 10 minutes. Stretched and fried, crunchy on the outside and pliable within, sweet and large enough to share the overall experience was really no different than an elephant ear at the fair but the addition of the Maple Butter and eating at the original location are definitely something I’d recommend – though I cannot say the same for the coffee which was acidic and thin, like Tim Horton’s but slightly less bitter.
Moving next to more fried dough – and perhaps the most surprising stop on our brief stay – a spot called SuzyQ Donuts was recommended to me by a fellow gourmand and with the warning of “don’t let the outside dissuade you” I put the small shop on my list. Open at 9:00am W-Su and told that arriving early was a good idea since the best items sell out quick we did as suggested and arrived at 9:05 – the third group to enter the shop where familiar bakery smells wafted through the air and a friendly young man greeted us and told us which of baker/owner’s Susan Hamer’s decadent treats were on the menu for the day.
At $2 each or a half-dozen for $10 the decision for six was obvious but with such a variety of yeasted treats available the decision became which of the nine daily options sounded *least* good – a challenge that left scratching our heads for a while before making our choices, paying the modest tab, and making our way to the door with a bounty of Maple Bacon, Caramel Gravel Road with Pecans, Hibiscus Rose, Salty Caramel, Vanilla Bean Glazed, and Chocolate with Caramelized Fritos.
Obviously focused on less than traditional toppings but using a traditional European yeasted dough with plethoric rise yielding a delicate texture each donut was largely the same in texture thus leaving the toppings as the deciding factor and although I generally fancy a cake donut over the raised and glazed variety I will simply say that short of Doughnut Vault in Chicago and *perhaps* Dun-Well in Brooklyn these were some of the best leavened donuts I’ve ever had – the four sweet meets savory juxtapositions all showing a degree of balance oft reserved for more ‘refined’ desserts while the flavors of the vanilla and floral options were subtle, allowing the quality of the ingredients to shine. Unabashed in my love for salty caramel I will say that overall I probably enjoyed the Gravel Road the most of the group but at the same time, it would be hard for me to deny that the dense chocolate ganache flecked with Fritos that tasted as if they’d been crossed with Corn Pops was also ridiculously good. Sure some would say that a trip to Ottawa without Beavertails is a crime, but honestly if I could only have one fried treat during a trip to Canada’s Capital I’d be visiting 991 Wellington Street five times out of seven (and that’s only because SuzyQ isn’t open Monday or Tuesday.)
Moving on to the most well-known boulangerie in Ottawa (and supplier of many of the local bests’ breads) our trip to Kevin Mathleson’s Art Is In almost did not happen due to a GPS Glitch and the bakery’s location amongst a number of loading docks…and that would have been a damned shame because from French pastry and viennoiserie to American staples like cookies and cupcakes, plus sandwiches, eggs, and griddle items this was the sort of place I knew would be good walking through the door.
With baking space behind a rack of baked breads to the right, freely refilled coffee and water up front, and seating pretty much – well – wherever they can fit it the scene at Art Is In is most certainly ‘controlled chaos’ and even arriving just after opening the place was crowded (and soon to develop a line snaking out the door) as the crew of ten worked behind the pastry counter to the left. Set to divide and conquer as mom found a table my aunt and I approached the counter and ordering as we walked we quickly realized we had ordered too much yet at the same time we also didn’t mind as nearly everything could be packed ‘to go’ according to our server.
With baked goods in hand as brunch items were prepped we filled our coffee mugs with a nutty and rich blend before returning to the table and on sitting down to indulge we began with a quartet of a Pecan and Walnut Sticky Bun, a Pecan Tart, a Raspberry Scone, and an Almond Croissant. Beginning first with the Croissant – a measuring stick of any bakery for me – I’ll admit that I first wondered if we had made a mistake as the first bite struck me as dry and dense, but once I got into the body of the pastry things certainly improved as the flaky shell crackled lightly while the inside was moist and flavorful, though certainly not as wispy as some of the best I’ve had. Moving next to the remaining options, let’s just say I think I got a bad croissant because each of the later choices were standard bearers – the bun rife with butter and raisins with the nuts wound into its core, the scone buttery with pockets of sugar juxtaposing softer pools of butter and berries, and the tart featuring a crisp crust and dense interior with sweetness held in check by the toasted nuts.
As we worked on the pastries a young woman with lots of ink arrived with our hot dishes and boldly announced that she thought we may have over-ordered (truth, considering the day’s eating agenda) but delivering the bounty too much immediately seemed like ‘just right,’ beginning with a perfect Croque Madame served on buttered white sourdough alongside a bright salad kissed with light vinaigrette and followed up by two sweeter selections; Hot Cross Bun French Toast with sauteed honey pears, a skewer of melon, and pure maple syrup plus hose made Cranberry Nine-Grain Bread Pudding with cocoa nibs, caramel, and crème Anglaise – both stellar examples of what happens when you take superior quality bread and smother it with house made concoctions of butter and cream, the bread pudding especially praiseworthy given the heterogeneous texture created by the toasty crusts and caramelized interior.
As a brief interlude between lunch and dinner a quick stop for gelato seemed appropriate and with mother and aunt attending mass I made a quick drive to Stella Luna Gelato – a place I’d heard was ‘good for Ottawa,’ thus making it seem to me a safe bet after SuzyQ and Art Is In both stood up admirably to donut shops and bakeries I’ve been to in other cities.
Part coffee, part café, and mostly gelato Stella Luna is shockingly large on the inside and with friendly employees and plenty of seating I took my time making my decisions and after asking for a few tastes (including a particularly boozy “Rum Raison”) I settled on a trio of Biscotto, Piemonte Hazelnut, and Ferrero Roche – each shining examples of their hallmark flavors with notes of anise and almond in the biscotto, smoky aromatics abound in the hazelnut, and the Ferrero Roche the best of all – a flavor identical to the signature truffles. With each hand made creation intensely flavored and densely packed with a texture as smooth as soft serve Stella Luna would once again prove that ‘good for Ottawa’ often means ‘good’ without qualifications.
Moving on to our final stop in Ottawa, breakfast before heading to Montreal, a prelude of all the French food to come was found at “Benny’s Bistro – The French Baker” where our 8:00am arrival was greeted by not only a plenty of sunshine, but friendly servers (and clients) chatting in French as two men worked in back kneading, folding, and baking myriad classic pastries and viennoiseries with top quality ingredients including Michel Cluizel chocolate, organic whole milk, and large mounds of locally sourced butter while the air smelled heavily of vanilla, cinnamon, and Illy coffee and espresso.
Realizing that the Montreal dining agenda was packed and curbing our order accordingly the selections of the day would feature a quintet including two croissants – butter and almond – plus a blueberry scone, pain aux raison, and finally a Chocolate Éclair. Beginning first with the almond croissant – always my personal barometer of a bakery’s quality – much like Art Is In I was disappointed…the crumb too dense, the almond flavor resigned only to those topping the pastry, and the quality simply lacking…yet just like Art Is In Benny would rally back with aplomb, first with a scone nearly equal to that of Mathleson’s and then with a butter croissant that shattered on mastication revealing ample notes of butter, a dense yet fluffy interior, and plenty of nuance from tip to tip making me wonder just where they’d gone wrong with the almond version to begin with.
Moving next to sweeter options, the pain aux raison selected by my aunt would prove to be perhaps the best version of the pastry that I’ve ever had with a boozy (rum, perhaps?) sugar glaze overlying a soft choux base with custard center and plump raisins – in any other situation it would have stolen the show and here it would have too if it weren’t for the chocolate éclair, a suggestion from the young lady at the register. Generally not wowed by éclairs or one to order a chocolate pastry at breakfast I will first admit that I am not an expert on the subject, but with that noted I’ll simply say that what we received was nothing short of ‘wowing’ – the choux crisp yet wispy with a bit of choux and the Cluizel 45% milk chocolate interior nicely paired with a 72% cocoa ganache on top with the end results creamy and sweet yet just slightly bitter; a lovely match the strong coffee and a perfect send-off to the boulangeries in Montreal a few hours later.