Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ceylonta - The low down on dhal

I am a relative newcomer to Sri Lankan food. I was drawn to Sir Lankan food after returning from India and searching for my favourite southern Indian meal – the Masala Dosa. This crepe-like concoction should be stuffed with a potato-based curry and come with a lovely yellow flavourful curry soup (sambar) and a light green coconut chutney. As most Indian restaurants in Canada tend to serve more mid- to northern-Indian fare, I never was able to find an authentic Masala Dosa on the menu. However, when I tried stepping away from the restaurants of the sub-continent and ventured into a Sri Lankan restaurant, I found that I almost always could find the elusive Masala Dosa done in an authentic manner. The reason for this is that southern India often shares more of its cusine and culture with its tear-drop shaped neighbour to the south than with the tandoori and kormas of the north.

Ceylonta on Somerset is no exception and does the Masala Dosa well. The Masala Dosa, however, is best suited as a one-person, one-dish meal and was not the sought after #34 on the menu. Instead #34 proved to be Idly, a steamed dumpling-like dish made from ground urid dhal.

Dhal loosely translates into lentils, but as a word and an idea is so much more. To say that dhal equals lentils and to leave it at that is the same as saying that Wonder Bread is wheat. There are so many different varieties of dhal and it is prepared in vast array of different styles. Dhal is also a core staple as well as comfort food in south-east asian cuisine. I have been part of conversations where someone lamented that they really knew they had hit rock bottom when their kitchen was empty of dhal, while another person described all the different dhals and dhal dishes that she was forced to eat when she was sick as a child: one dhal dish for malaria, one dhal dish for colds. Maybe dhal can be loosely translated into not just lentils, but also “chicken soup for south-east asian soul”

But I digress. At Ceylonta the Idly is made of fermented urid dhal. It is white, steamed and frankly rather boring. Not unpleasant, but a good uninteresting base upon which to build a spicy flavourful Sri Lankan meal. To accompany #34 we had an eggplant curry and chicken palandi. The curry was very flavourful with spices that were not too hot, but which augmented the natural flavour of the eggplant. And the eggplant was cooked to a wonderful mush that only eggplant lovers could enjoy. The chicken was crisp and spicy. Unlike your typical roasted chicken, it appeared that this chicken had been smashed instead of chopped into pieces and you had to be careful to fish out the shards of bone while you ate it. The sauce over the chicken was quite spicy and, as with the curry, a little on the heavy side with the grease quota. The Idly also came with a sauce and chutney. These were the ubiquitous masala dosa sauce and chutney: nice light green coconut chutney and a light yellow vegetable curry soup/sauce (sambar). These, as always, were wonderful. The meal was nicely rounded off with a mango lassi that was not too sweet, although was made from canned or bottled mango pulp instead of fresh mangos.

Overall, this was not my best meal at Ceylonta. It tends to be a place where it can either be a real hit or miss. Sometimes the food is wonderful and we seem to have ordered the right combination of spicy, oily and fresh dishes with the assistance of a very helpful staff that provides attention that is usually found in only much higher-end restaurants, or we order a mishmash of dishes that do not go well together, everything seems too heavy and the staff seem to be generally annoyed that they have to serve us. I guess it depends on the day.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Pork Soup at a Halal Friendly Restaurant???

Rising for the ashes of Anatolian, the old Turkish lunch spot at Bank and Somerset, comes Pho Bó Ga Trúc, a Vietnamese Noodle House for the downtown lunch crowd.

Bringing a slightly up-scale approach to the traditional Ottawa Pho house, Pho Bó Ga Trúc has an appealing décor with rather large stone tables being the prominent element of the dining area.

With a nod to its mid-eastern predecessor, this Pho diner offers an original take on the noodle house experience and promotes Canadian multicultural ideals by offering Halal Pho and other Halal menu items.

I found this Muslim take on the Vietnamese noodle house quite surprising as when I looked down the menu and came to #34 I found myself confronted with a very non-muslim choice, Hú Tiéu Thap Cam or BBQ Pork Rice Noodle Soup. Hmmm ….. Pork in a restaurant offering Halal options? … something seemed a little incongruous. Maybe they have two separate kitchens? I just know that if I had strongly held beliefs about pigs being the dirt of the earth, I would not be too comfortable eating in a restaurant that had pork on its menu.

However, being neither Muslim nor vegetarian this # 34 seemed like a great option. The soup broth had good flavour and the BBQ pork was a pleasant variation to the beef Pho soups. Hu Tieu soups, however, did not come with the side plate of fresh herbs and bean sprouts and the pork soup seemed more of a traditional Canadian winter soup augmented with cabbage.

Eating this #34 over a lunch hour and with a friend, I was surprised with how busy the restaurant was. At one point all the tables were full and we found ourselves sitting at the end of a group of tables that could accommodate eight. The wait staff were keen to promote the Asian tradition of sitting small groups of people together at one table, which the clientele seemed resistant to. Several times groups would move to other less communal tables, tossing the wait staff into chaos trying to figure out who ordered what and where it should go. I guess the Ottawa lunch crowd is still not ready for the Toronto experience of noodle houses like King Noodle or still have “Memories of Andy Scott” and overheard political conversations.

Pho Bo Ga Truc

275 Bank St.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Original #34

Evaluating a restaurant can be overwhelming. Where to start? Service? Atmosphere? Texture of the softsoap in the bathroom? Start with the food, you say? That can be even more fraught with potential problems. I mean, I enjoy eating out and I like to think that I can tell the difference between a great meal and a mediocre one, but the kind of specifics that are required for a good restaurant review, well they are largely beyond me.

And I’ve found that it’s particularly difficult at Asian restaurants. For one thing, I’m largely self-taught. I am a child of the seventies, growing up in Canada at a time when “Asian” equalled “Chinese” and “Chinese” equalled egg rolls and chicken balls. My love of Chinese Dim Sum, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian food developed largely through trial and error and rarely with an expert to guide me (more often my fellow explorers were as ignorant – and hungry – as I was.). Asian restaurants also often confound me with menus that have ridiculous numbers of dishes. Depending on the establishment they can run into the hundreds. Who knows where to start, let alone whether you’re hitting the kitchen’s high notes.

Never being one to let ignorance hold me back, I am trying my hand at restaurant reviewing anyway – specialized knowledge be damned! But if a learned background in the culinary arts and a comfort with foodie language is not going to form the basis of my reviews, what will set my writing apart? I need a gimmick, oops, I mean a starting point, a frame of reference for my experience.

Where better, then, to start than the Asian restaurant we frequent most often and, more importantly, the dish we always order. There is nothing that really sets Pho Thang Long apart from the myriad of other Vietnamese restaurants in town. Located in a strip mall by Lincoln Fields in the city’s west end, it offers the usual range of pho and other rice and noodle-based dishes. It has a unique décor, a “modern sparse” look that pairs hip lighting with framed prints of flowers from Wal-Mart. It’s clean (although, it must be noted that the bathrooms – the male one at least – doubles as storage area with everything from brooms and shovels to extra cleaning supplies piled beside the toilet) and the service runs the range from indifferent to polite depending on the night and the number of customers.

It is the place, however, that we first tried bun. It was our second, maybe third visit (five years ago, when the restaurant was under different management) and it was listed as a special (we came to learn that the specials on the board never changed and stayed the same visit after visit until they finally ditched the special board in the last round of renovations). In our ignorance (see above) we thought it was some sort of actual bun. I mean, we’d had Asian buns at dim sum stuffed with red bean paste and pork Our waitresses English wasn’t very good nor was our Vietnamese, so we went ahead and ordered it anyway. We soon learned, of course, that bun is a dish of vermicelli noodles with fresh vegetables (lettuce, sprouts, carrots) and a choice of grilled meats and spring rolls all brought together with nuoc cham, a sweet fish-based sauce that gets poured over the whole dish.

It was a great discovery, to say the least. There was enough good stuff to lessen the guilt normally associates with too much fried and deep fried foods. The cold portion balanced nicely with the warm portion. The saltiness of the fish sauce, the tang of the lime juice and the sugar’s sweetness in the nuoc cham added some energy to otherwise bland noodles. The price (7.50 or so depending on how many toppings you order) and the generous portion only helped make it an even better choice on busy nights when we wanted someone else to cook.

So, you’re thinking, we decided to run around town and try buns at the city many, many Vietnamese restaurants. While that would be fun, it feels too limiting somehow. We like variety in both our food and our restaurants. But how to pay homage to our beloved bun, but yet still get to broaden our horizons? At Pho Thang Long, bun is number thirty four on the menu. Thus, we have set it as our goal to eat our way though as many thirty-fours as possible at as many different restaurants as possible. If a restaurant chooses to number it’s menu, we’ll find it and report back.

Pho Thang Long

1315 Richmond Rd.