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Ottawa's Byward Market - A Tasting Tour

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By The Gremotraveler


Seasonal Local Fiddleheads from the Byward Market

For those visiting Ottawa, two major foodie attractions get top billing by Gremolata. One of course being the city’s famous railway hotel and the other being the fantastic Byward market district. A weekend in this city incorporating the two is truly memorable and something we like to do every few months to indulge ourselves with a little sinful foodie pleasure.

The drive from the airport along the Rideau Canal is beautiful. Winding along the banks of this canal are some of the city’s loveliest residences, embassies, and parks. At the end of the canal, is the city’s iconic Chateau Laurier, an original property of the famed Canadian Pacific series of railway hotels. This hotel has been the sleeping quarters for almost every major dignitary who has ever stepped foot on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. And for good reason, The Fairmont Chateau Laurier has sat majestically next door to the Houses of Parliament for almost 100 years! It was opened by its namesake, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on June 12, 1912 and was once dubbed 'the third chamber of Parliament' in reference to the number of politicians roaming the corridors. In its rooms over the past century, political deals have been made, careers launched or destroyed and governments created and dissolved.

Today, it is an iconic hotel offering luxurious surroundings and a perfect location for any foodie visitor to Ottawa. Inside the hotel, one must stop for afternoon tea at Zoe's Lounge. Meanwhile Wilfrid's is probably home to one of Ottawa's best dining views. From the giant arched windows, guests can dine on contemporary Canadian cuisine while watching the Peace Tower from Parliament Hill and its majestic flag flowing in the day to the beautiful display of lights at night.

Dinner here is refined and you are sure to run into a diplomatic celebrity or two while you sip your wine and savor each course. When Gremolata comes to town, we love to start our day here with a lovely breakfast of eggs Benedict, fresh coffee, juice, and our newspaper. Sipping ourselves to perkiness, we catch up on the international headlines amongst the diplomatic corps while sneaking glances at the action on Parliament Hill from our table. For a typical day of food hunting through the Byward Market, you need your energy. With a belly full, we are ready to start exploring.

We visit Ottawa for the food and this is clear when we march out the front lobby onto Rideau Street and we make a sharp left while the diplomats and politicians turn right. Later folks, we have culinary adventures planned. Head one block east to Sussex Drive, and make another left till you reach George Street and make another right. This is where the market begins and our first stop, The Black Tomato. We discovered this little Ottawa gem by accident while walking through the Byward Market one morning. As we walked down George Street, we were overcome by the intoxicating smell of barbecue, smoke, and meat. Delicious. It happened to be from a green egg-shaped smoker on the sidewalk where the chef was smoking chicken for the daily lunch special. And that was it, we were hooked.

The Black Tomato is an Ottawa landmark and certainly a local favorite. They even have a unique story and a great BBQ sauce associated with the restaurant. When one of the chefs lost their eyesight, they thought his days were numbered in the kitchen. Instead, he persevered and they took his signature sauce, one he was able to blind perfect if you will, and created Blind Brothers BBQ Sauce, an Ottawa favorite. Besides the stories, the food here is fresh and the surroundings fun.

A block east and slightly to the north is the main market square and the central building at the center of this great food district. The Byward Market was established by Lt-Col. John By in 1826, and today, is one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets. Colonel By was the well-known builder of the Rideau Canal, and he himself laid out the street plan of the Market. In doing so, he designated George Street and York Street to be extra wide to accommodate the creation of a public market and gathering place. Running north-south between these two streets is the main market building, the first of our stops.

The two-level market building is home to a variety of shops, restaurants, and retailers. For those who witnessed the media frenzy over Barack Obama’s spontaneous visit to the Byward market, this was the building he touched down at and the legacy of his visit is everywhere. The place he bought his cookie to the gift for the girls back home. Giant signs show you when and where he shopped. You can even get a picture next to a life-sized President Barack if it is your thing! In the building, one of our favorite stops is Le Moulin de Provence at 55 Byward Market. This is one of the loveliest Parisian-style boulangeries we have seen in a long time and a favorite for us whenever in Ottawa. Here, freshly baked breads, pains chocolat, delicate pastries, and cookies line the display cases. They even have those great little baguette sandwiches with jambon, just like on the streets in Paris.


Get Your Obama Cookies! Fresh from the Oven!

Just to the west of the main building is Byward Market Street and a great collection of foodie stops with great histories. First off is House of Cheese, (34 Byward Market Street) home to what could be the biggest collection of cheeses in Ottawa if not the world. The collection is truly impressive, especially when it comes to Blue Cheeses, where they boast over 100 varieties alone! The pricing is incredible and you may be tempted to steal some cheese for the flight home. Just be aware of stinky cheeses and their impact during flight if your luggage is not checked. Next up is the Byward Fruit Market at 26 Byward Market Street. This shop has a misleading name, as not everything is fruity. They have a fabulous collection of vegetables and many local specialties like their selection of wild and cultivated mushrooms and truffles. They also sell organic rices, sea salts, dried spices, and gourmet preserves. However, generations of Ottawa foodies have been coming here for their produce, both non-organic and certified organic, and from locally grown and imported sources. For those interested in organics ONLY, they have an innovative club you can join on their Web site worth checking out.

Also along Byward Market Street is probably the area’s most historic purveyor of fine foods. Just before Canadian Confederation, a man by the name of Moise Lapointe established a fresh water fish and seafood store within the Byward Market. Opened in the spring of 1867, Lapointe Fish quickly earned a reputation for being home to the freshest fish in town. They moved to their current location in 1972 but have been a staple of the Byward market for several generations. Here, Ottawa residents can find the finest in fresh fish, lobsters, and other shellfish. It arrives daily and does not sit around very long. The Lapointe’s have a steady stream of customers and they can barely get a salmon gutted and cut fast enough before it is being wrapped up for a local chef, of home-chef. You can spend some serious time here watching the fishmongers do their work but we have more to explore, and some bellies to fill.


Fresh Salmon being prepared at Lapointe’s

Off to the north of the main market building is York Street and directly opposite our friends at Moulin de Provence is a great series of butchers and delicatessens. First stop is Aubrey’s (59 York Street), a butcher with over 100 years of history in the Byward Market. Since 1908, they have been supplying the freshest, most naturally raised, and locally grown meats in Ottawa. In fact, some of the relationships they have with their farmer suppliers extend back over 40 years! Here, you will find many choice cuts of meat including fresh bacon, ham, and poultry specialties like Mariposa Farm ducks and geese. You can even pick up some of their famous in-house made sausages. Next door, you can visit the first Polish delicatessen in town. The Continental Delicatessen (57 York Street) has been part of the Byward Market since 1955 offering naturally and smoked cold cuts, sausages and hams. There are also known for their soups, particularly the local wild mushroom. And of course, tons of homemade perogies, cabbage rolls, and other European delicacies made in the traditional manner.


Fresh Local Meats at Aubrey’s

By now, you should have worked up quite an appetite and a short two-block stroll north brings you to what the locals refer to as “Gastro Alley”, or Murray Street. Some of Ottawa’s best restaurants focused on local cuisine can be found here. The first one to make a name for them was Murray Street Restaurant located near the corner of Murray Street and Dalhousie. Ask any local resident where to find the best in local and seasonal cuisine and this place will certainly be on the top of their list. Paddy Whelan and Chef Steve Mitton opened this restaurant with a strong focus on "farm to fork" and "head to tail" in their cuisine and the result is pure magic!

What do we like? How about the varied assortment of local cheeses, meats, and fish from local producers clearly outlined on the menu? How about a great wine list and some of the best micro-brews from in and around Ottawa? Need another reason? Then certainly the back patio with its secluded gardens and water feature is one of the city's best-kept secrets. Local fresh food served with the finest attention to detail make this place a must-stop on any trip to Ottawa!

Across the street is another unique combination restaurant and bakery, Benny’s Bistro and The French Baker (119 Murray Street). Who doesn't love a good pain chocolat and an espresso in the morning? Or a mimosa with salmon gravlax, warm lemon, caper & fingerling potato salad, informata olive tapenade, and a sunnyside egg? Well, at Benny's Bistro you can enjoy the best of both worlds. A sit-down cafe in the rear of The French Baker, another of Ottawa's famed patisseries, is a great spot for brunch, lunch or simply a coffee mid-shopping through the many market stalls of the Byward. Gremolata likes it here because the food is fresh and innovative while holding true to some great French traditions. That, and we love grabbing a baguette on our way out the front door!

A little further west at 93 Murray Street is a great Spanish option for lunch or dinner, Navarra. When it comes to charcuterie, this place is one of Ottawa's top spots! Why? Quality and taste from locally-sourced suppliers is one thing but it is the presentation that will blow you away. René Rodriguez, the owner and chef, has been cooking since he was 12 years old. Born in Ottawa, he moved to Mexico at an early age where he was submersed into the world of food at his uncle's restaurant. Having cooked at several of Ottawa's finest restaurant, he now calls his own basque-focused restaurant home.

The food here is fresh, innovative, and focused on local. Navarra is where you can enjoy the finest of local ingredients prepared with the global influences from Chef Rodriguez's experience in Spain, Mexico, and San Francisco and beyond. Even if it is simply a glass of wine and some charcuterie, this place will impress!

Murray Street is a great place to take a break and enjoy a nice lunch but with so much to explore in the Byward Market, you should try to make it a quick one unless you have all the time in the world for exploring. There are several great side streets in and around the market filled with fine food purveyors, gift shops, and artisans. Everywhere you look, there is something new and innovative. We were blown away by the local flower stand operated by Carleton Growers, a local and sustainable greenhouse. That’s right, even the flowers here are true to the spirit of being fresh and local. Their farm, located in nearby Carp, Ontario produces roses, asters, dahlias, lilies, and sunflowers – just to name a few. We were so impressed that we had to ask ourselves how on earth a market like this could be so focused on local offerings in a modern North American city.


Local Iris from Carlton Growers

It turns out that it has to do with the rules of government more than anything. The by-laws of the market, which is owned and operated by the City of Ottawa, went through a significant change this year to ensure the long-term success of the market as a place where Ottawa’s local bounty could be celebrated. As a result, the local merchants of the market now need to provide adequate signage to clearly show which foods are local versus others grown abroad. In addition, priority is given to local farmers selling their own products versus wholesale imported goods through resellers. The by-law is new but we have already seen some of the benefits. While controversial, this by-law has helped to ensure that the market is a place where the people of Ottawa can celebrate their local bounty. That being said, the opportunities to explore great and local food finds here are limitless.

If you do get an afternoon to explore, we normally like to add a bit of caffeine to the mix to keep us going. Tucked into one of the many alleyways is Planet Coffee, a great place to get your caffeine fix. Here, fair trade and quality beans are roasted, ground, and brewed to perfection for enjoying inside, on the patio, or to go. Of course if it is a lovely summer afternoon and a cold beer is more your style, another great alleyway find is The Black Thorn Pub. This place is the best little pub in Ottawa, at least in our opinion. The food is affordable, the beer taps are varied, and the patio in summer is spectacular. Here you can enjoy some great traditional pub fare representing the entire country. Mussels from PEI and charcuterie from Quebec. Some salmon from British Columbia and Ontario-grown lamb, all available for pairing with a great local brew on a sunny summer patio. A great find in the Byward Market and a perfect representation of Canada in its capital! However, if you are looking for a place to enjoy a great glass of wine before you head back to the hotel, then a lovely new spot off Sussex is just the perfect spot.

One of the newest venues on Ottawa's dining scene is Play Food & Wine, a delightfully modern wine bar inside a very historic building in the Byward Market. Here, fresh and local ingredients are prepared in playful tasting-sized portions suitable for sharing and sampling multiple courses and offerings. The restaurant also offers an incredible wine list with each menu item paired to a specific wine. You choose the number of ounces in your glass and the tasty pairing and voila, your adventure begins.

Our choice? We certainly enjoyed the Mariposa Duck Confit with a lovely Oregon Merlot. Simply lovely together. But you don't have to be limited to duck. With so many wines and dishes the combinations are endless and a great place to spend a leisurely evening with friends as you hop from taste to taste to taste! Delish!

And so, with a belly full of wine, duck, beef, bison, or elk, you are a short stroll from Play Food & Wine back to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. If it is summer, enjoy the warm breeze as you slowly make your way up Rideau Street to the hotel. The Byward Market is a lovely way to spend a day in this city and we certainly only covered a small portion of it in this guide. One thing is for sure, when you walk back into the lobby after a day of eating your way through the market you will look and feel happier than your fellow diplomatic and civil-service guest coming from down the hill. After all, they spent their day determining what lobbyists to attack and which bill to sign. The hardest thing you would have had to do was choose the right fork at lunch! Isn’t that the life?



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