Friday, August 31, 2012

The place where everyone knows your name ain't Cheers

Twenty-five years ago this month, Jim and Mike Theossidou started a restaurant in the west end of Ottawa. Having arrived from Greece when they were children, the brothers Theossidou used a restaurant concept that reflected their own lives: Greek basics meet Canadian basics. The result, named in honour of the famed American painter, was Rockwell's Restaurant, located in the Merivale Mall. It serves good food 24 hours a day nearly every single day of the year.

Here I am! Rockwell like a hurricane!

Twenty-five years in the restaurant business is quite the accomplishment, especially without having to deviate from an overall concept. Rockwell's has endured the growth of Merivale from a boulevard to a teeming retail artery busting from the seams with motorists. Merivale Mall, a holdover from some extant era where small, interior-corridor shopping centres were profitable, hasn't fundamentally changed in character from the early 90's, and there is a certain steadfastness that it shows among the booming big boxes that surround it.
There are places like Rockwell's scattered across Canada; local joints that rear their neighbours on good quality, simple food for years such that they become an institution. People from elsewhere in the city might drive by a hundred times and passingly wonder what it's like in there, but surely they have 100 places that they still haven't tried and they won't use up limited restaurant budget on a place in a run-down strip mall.It's a shame, really. Despite the risk that a dive's food might match the surroundings, I always find reluctance to take a risk to be a bit tragic.

Here's the skinny on Rockwell's. When you walk in you'll be surprised by a decor that is updated, clean, and has just enough elements of cheese to be charming. The staff will smile, or if you're lucky welcome you with a bellow from behind the bar.  There are no pretentions with the service or the food on offer. We're talking sandwiches, deep-dish pizza, inexpensive steaks and roasted chicken. Rockwell's spices it up with Greek staples like souvlaki and moussaka that look really good. I actually felt a moment of regret for ordering a burger when I saw the moussaka come out of the kitchen. They serve up a great greasy breakfast deep into the lonely hours of the night for hard working shift staff or insomniac west-enders. The diversity of diners is really striking, from high school students to elderly couples and young mothers.

I didn't really have any expectations about their burger other than big and greasy. There are a few burgers on offer and usually one available on the specials at lunchtime. I opted for the Swiss mushroom burger, an old diner star that can be incredibly good or just meh.

Read on to see if the joint still has its magic after twenty-five years.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When a little goes a medium way: The Black Thorn

Ah, the Byward Market. High rents, spiky tourist traffic and the endless desire to be on trend characterizes Ottawa's busiest entertainment district. There are some Ottawans that pointedly eschew any of the Market's establishments under the pretense that they will be "busy" or "overpriced." It isn't true of course; I happen to believe that you have to take the good with the bad in a popular entertainment area. I think we fare quite well in the proportion of good places to avoidable ones. Historic Québec City or the Old Port of Montréal grapple with lucrative tourist traps feasting on the legions that go for their respective coolness.

Amy and I went to see the excellent Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada with two friends of ours. Looking for a quick bite for lunch, we settled on the Black Thorn pub on Clarence, as it was close by and we had a serious case of museum legs. That's how a lot of people feel about this place; it was lovely decor, has an extended patio perched on one of Ottawa's prettiest squares, and has a respectable compendium of alcohol on order. I think the Thorn aims a bit loftier than the Irish village assortment of pubs in terms of decor and food offerings; their dinner menu certainly carries a level of sophistication that's just a bit higher than their competitors.

It's pretty underwhelming upon presentation.
I have to say that my expectations were hovering in the basement, given that this market staple is owned by the same folks that now own the Earl of Sussex, where I previously had a disappointing burger. It took reminding from my friends that I write a burger blog and must suffer the lesser to appreciate the greater. I can't just eat at Absinthe Cafe every night; both my financial future and the integrity of my craft forbid me. But here my expectations were kept basement-dwelling as the burger on the menu was pretty boring - it was a simple beef burger with garnishes and the dreaded "house burger sauce" I hear so much about. That's it. This won't be a very long review; you'll probably be able to finish it while riding the 95 between Bayview and Lebreton (check out my Ottawa reference).

Simple burgers like that rely heavily on the quality of the meat, bun and garnishes. Someone who selects specific cuts, grinds the meat themselves, bakes the buns in-house or at least procures the best and erects a two-mile "no iceberg" zone can pull this off. The Black Thorn? That dedication was so improbable for a pub that it was bound to be a disaster.

Only, it wasn't. Click past the break to find out why.