Restaurante Sobrino de Botín

When I was in Madrid last month, one of the places I knew I had to visit was the Restaurante Sobrino de Botín (Botín’s Nephew’s Restaurant). This restaurant, which is very close to Plaza Mayor, is featured on Atlas Obscura, which is where I first learned of it. However, it’s in a lot of guidebooks and can be found on many websites because it has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest restaurant in the world still in operation. A certificate in the front window from Guinness reads, “The oldest restaurant in the world is Restaurante Botín, in Calle Cuchilleros, Madrid, Spain, which opened in 1725 and has been operating ever since; it even retains the original 18th century firewood oven. It is currently run by the González family.”

The restaurant is in what used to be an inn built in the 1500’s; it originally only took up the main floor, but now occupies all four floors. The current exterior dates back to a renovation in the 1800’s, when the large windows were added. Originally they displayed cakes and pastries, but now they showcase photos and articles on the left, and a miniature model of the interior of the restaurant on the right.

The large door to the right of the main entrance is carved with the year 1725, and it was installed at the time of the restoration that transformed the main floor into a restaurant. It would originally have been called an inn, then a tavern, under the name Casa Botín, because at first the proprietors were forbidden by law to sell the food, only to cook it for customers. Eventually the laws changed and they began to provide food as well as prepare it; the restaurant was passed down to Candido Remis, the Botín’s nephew, which is when the name changed (“sobrino” means “nephew”).

The miniatures in the window showcase all four floors, but for some reason I didn’t take a picture of the top one (which was showcased off to one side of the window).

The basement, with its vaulted brick ceilings, used to be the wine cellar.

The ground level is the original restaurant.

The second floor used to be lodgings (I believe the proprietors lived there), but has since been expanded.

On the sidewalk just out front of the building (you can see it roughly at the center bottom of the first photo) is a plaque installed by the City of Madrid. These plaques don’t stand out, but they’re out front of a lot of the city’s culturally important locations.

When my husband and I went for dinner, we were seated on the second floor. It was outside of the main tourist season and we arrived relatively early by Spanish dinner standards, around 8:00pm, so we didn’t end up needing a reservation. Even so, the restaurant was doing a very brisk business and table turnover was steady.

Given the mixed reviews that this place has received for its food (since the recognition by Guinness, a lot of people claim it’s just a tourist trap), I was quite happy with the food. The bread was fresh and tasty, with a crisp, flaky crust, and soft insides.

Since we had to be budget-conscious, we skipped appetizers and went straight for the main meal. It’s probably a good thing we did, because it was really filling! I had the suckling pig roasted in the restaurant’s original wood-fired ovens, served with boiled potatoes. It was plain but delicious, with the crackling skin being the most delectable part. The pork is a traditional regional dish and the pig itself was brought in from Segovia, where we were actually going the next day, and where I also had suckling pig. If I’d realized that these events were going to happen two days in a row I would probably have switched my dinner order in Segovia itself, but we had to decide weeks in advance what we were eating because it was a large group and a tour meal. The restaurant in Segovia was fantastic, and I’d say that the suckling pig at the two locations was comparable.

We declined dessert so that we could take a walk around the area around the main square to find ourselves a separate place for coffee and sweets. I had a lovely meal at the oldest restaurant in the world, and I can see why it has been in business for so long!

St. James Restaurante Juan Bravo

I am very happy to be able to say that I just spent ten days in Madrid, Spain! I prefer to write about trips after the fact because it’s generally not a good idea to announce to the world that your house is empty while you’re out of town. But I returned last night, jet-lagged as all get out, and now it’s time to write all about it.

Due to the jet lag I think I’m going to keep this one fairly short and sweet, and I’ll tell you a bit about the fancy group dinner that we had at Saint James Restaurante Juan Bravo. I believe that our hosts wanted us to get a chance to try some good, traditional Spanish food, which is the specialty of this restaurant. Most of us had paella, which is a slow-cooked, savoury rice dish with many variations. Above is Valencian paella, which includes chicken, rabbit, vegetables and snails.

These Norway lobsters (which are much smaller and more delicate than the American lobsters I’m familiar with from our East Coast) and prawns came on the side of a paella that also included chicken, vegetables, mussels and squid.

The crowning glory, at least for me, was the paella with Galician lobster, which is what my husband and I had. This serving was for at least four people (all of the paellas had to be ordered in portion sizes for two people or more), but I could have eaten all of that delicious lobster all by myself. The rice was also amazing, but it paled in comparison to the seafood. It was obvious to me that all of the dishes were prepared with care and pride, and the depth of flavour is where this showed the most.

This was the one and only time I tried paella in Spain, but it was absolutely delicious, so I hope that it was a good representation of the dish. It definitely makes me want to learn how to make it myself, especially since Spanish restaurants are few and far between around here. I think I’d have to keep the ingredients for homemade versions a little more simple, though; eating like kings while on vacation is definitely different than what we can afford to have every day at home. Maybe I should just keep an eye out for a sale on lobster…

Sansotei Ramen

Over time, I hope to try every ramen restaurant in Ottawa. What with ramen becoming more popular, this process has become more difficult, but I think I’ll manage! Recently I had the chance to check out the Sansotei Ramen location at 1537 Merivale Rd.

A few things you should know before I even talk about the food: they’re closed Mondays, they don’t take reservations, and they’re really popular right now due to positive reviews in the paper. The last two factors mean that even if you arrive shortly after opening for dinner, as we did, there’s going to be a wait. The line only gets longer as you progress further in to the dinner hour, with people squashed into the tiny vestibule awaiting their turn, and then a line going out the outer door and down the sidewalk. Although turnover was fairly quick (ramen is generally supposed to be a quick meal), the entrance looked like the above the entire time we were there — although to be fair, it was a Saturday.

Now to the food. I tried the tonkotsu ramen black (i.e. pork bone broth with black garlic oil) with chashu pork, which is one of my favourite dishes. It’s also one of the more complicated ones to make, so I find that it’s a pretty good test of a restaurant. I was very happy with my soup! The broth was rich without being too fatty, and bursting with flavour. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth. The noodles had just the right amount of chewiness. I have to admit that my favourite ramen place in Ottawa is still Koichi Ramen (formerly Ginza Ramen) in Chinatown, but Sansotei is definitely giving them a run for their money. I would definitely recommend this restaurant; it’s well worth the wait in line.

All-You-Can-Eat Sushi

One of the things that I really like about birthdays is that it usually means going out for dinner. When it’s a large group of people like it was for the dual birthdays this past weekend, that usually means a kind of place where everyone can find at least one thing that they like — which often means a buffet or all-you-can-eat kind of place. This year my friends chose 168 Sushi Buffet. We’ve eaten there for a number of other celebrations, and it’s usually pretty good food. I mean, it’s not fancy, no bones about it, but it gives everyone a chance to try a little bit of everything, and I really like that.

As a bonus, this meal gave me the chance to try out the little ring light that I had purchased during my visit to the US in the fall. Restaurant lighting is notoriously bad (it’s generally kept low for “ambience” — and often to conceal a multitude of flaws), and it’s not like you can set up a tripod in the close quarters between tables. One of my friends was nice enough to act as my light stand, though, so I think I captured a few decent pics. Above we have a group order of sashimi.

Shrimp tempura.

Rolled sushi (dragon rolls I think).

And seafood udon soup.

Every other dish went by me so quickly and was picked clean so fast that I didn’t have a chance to get pictures! I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t involved in that process or something, but I found it funny.

So, would I recommend this restaurant, and others in this style? Most definitely! Don’t go in expecting something high-end, but you will get your fill of good food. It’s also extremely popular! There was a long line from the time we arrived to the moment we left.

Playing Hooky

We played hooky on Monday and spent an extra day at my in-laws’ cottage. This close to the end of the school year, the report cards are already written, so it’s not like the kids were missing any important content. So we explored the lake:

And enjoyed a trail hike:

And Thing 1 and Thing 2 peered into the depths in search of minnows.

Our trip wrapped up with a visit to the Whitewater Brewing Co. Lakeside Brew Pub in Cobden. We’d been to their Riverside Brew Pub some years ago (Thing 2 was just a toddler), and we’d been impressed by their fare, so we wanted to give their newer location a try.

The place definitely has a hipster vibe; for one thing, there are very few plates, with most of the meals served on wooden planks. I know they’re trying to appeal to the white water rafting crowd that dominates those parts in the summer months — young, athletic twenty-somethings out to have a good time while “roughing it”. The food is anything but rough, though, so it kind of sends mixed messages.

Lack of plates and faux-rustic decor aside, though, what I really come to this pub for is the food, and that was exceptional. (I know most people go to pubs for beer, and I’m told that Whitewater’s brews are exceptional… But I don’t drink beer.) The Things and my husband had the Whitewater Burger, which was smokey and juicy and overall delicious. I went for the fish and chips, which I honestly would have been satisfied with at half the size (and I have a big appetite). I guess the intended customer would have been out in the sun all day doing lots of physical activity — which I most definitely did not. The fish was tender inside and crispy outside, the house tartar sauce was full of tangy dill, and the thick-cut fries were lovely. I didn’t even get the chance to try the grilled toast or the mushy peas, I simply ran out of room!

That fullness was due, in part, to having split a Scotch egg with my family. I only had a few bites, but it’s not a light dish! I’d never had one before, but they seemed like the kind of thing that I would like: essentially, it’s breakfast in one deep-fried package. The smoky bacon aioli was a nice touch.

I especially liked the runny egg in the middle, which was soft-boiled to perfection.

Now that I’ve tried a proper Scotch egg, I want to try to make a Pork Belly Onigiri, which Tasty Japan made look so, well, tasty… (You can find the English translation in the video comments.)

Breakfast Bagel

I noticed the other day that there was a Cadman’s Montreal Bagels open now at the intersection of the Vanier Parkway and Montreal Road, so I thought that I’d try it out. Bagels are a staple in our household, whether I make them myself or buy them from a bakery or grocery store. When I was a kid, my parents would take us almost every weekend for breakfast at Bagel Bagel at the corner of Clarence and William in the Byward Market, where I believe the Cornerstone Bar and Grill is now. I’ve also been lucky enough to visit Montreal frequently and try fresh bagels there from a variety of restaurants and bakeries. The signs outside of Cadman’s proclaimed that they were the best Montreal-style bagels in Ottawa, so I was intrigued.

I purchased the All Day Breakfast Bagel Combo for $6.59 (plus tax), with an additional bowl of fresh fruit salad for another couple of bucks. The sandwich is on any of their freshly-baked bagels (I chose pumpernickel) and is topped with an egg, cheddar cheese, and bacon, and comes with a latke and a drink. One of the things that my photo fails to convey is how absolutely huge the portions are. The bagels here are especially massive. I came out of there stuffed after a late breakfast and didn’t need to eat again until dinner.

But are they the best Montreal-style bagels in Ottawa? Personally, I don’t think so. A good Montreal-style bagel is, to me, quite chewy, and these bagels were very soft. They also didn’t have the slightly sour tang that I associate with that kind of bagel. Perhaps they’re not working the dough long enough, boiling them long enough (or at all?), or using a high-enough protein flour. Whatever the reason, these bagels are really light and fluffy. Now, I know that some people prefer theirs that way, and there’s nothing technically wrong with a fluffy bagel. However, to me a Montreal-style bagels should be chewy and dense.

That being said, overall the breakfast was quite tasty, and it was good value for money. It wasn’t the best Montreal-style bagel I’ve had in Ottawa, but it was pretty good in its own right. So I’ll probably be back.

Fast Food Ramen

I fell in love with ramen (restaurant-style, not the cheap instant packages) when I first went to Japan in 1998, and I fell back in love when I returned in 2005. There is such a variety of ways that it can be prepared, and such a plethora of potential toppings, that I could eat it every day and not get bored. When Ginza Restaurant opened in Ottawa’s Chinatown and focused on selling the best ramen I’ve had outside of Japan, I could not have been more ecstatic. (Seriously, try their hakata tonkotsu ramen, it is to die for.) For the longest time it was the only place in town where I could get this wonderful noodle dish. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the popularity of ramen is slowly growing, and it’s starting to be available all over town, much as Vietnamese pho came to be about ten years ago. If this means that we’ll end up with over fifty restaurants that serve ramen in Ottawa, I couldn’t be more pleased!

Here are a few of the ones that I have tried so far, all of which fall under fast food/takeout:

Umi Teriyaki & Sushi
Rideau Centre Food Court, 50 Rideau Street

This was the first non-Ginza ramen that I tried in town, and I was quite ready to be disappointed. The austere food court in the Rideau Centre mall isn’t exactly the place you go for haute cuisine — it’s where you go to grab a quick, mediocre bite. I mean, this is definitely fast food, but it’s cheap ($8.49 for the chicken teriyaki ramen that I had), flavourful, and satisfying. The noodles could use to be a bit chewier (a hallmark of good ramen is the chewy alkaline noodles, which don’t dissolve in the broth), but overall this was worth the money. Ask for it spicy (medium or hot) to clear your sinuses on a cold winter’s day.

Saigon Pho
232 Bank Street and 3722 Innes Road, Unit 2

At $13.49 for takeout and $12.49 for dine-in, this was the most expensive ramen so far. Heck, the most expensive ramen at Ginza is only $11.95! So for that price, I expected more. The broth is nice and the noodles are chewy, but they are really skimpy on the toppings. I did like that there were a variety of ways that you could customize your order. I had the tonkotsu black: tonkotsu broth with black garlic oil, pork belly, soft boiled egg, black fungus, and green onion. I just don’t think that you’re getting value for money on this one, though.

Nom Nom Kitchen
2160 Montreal Road, Unit 4

Nom Nom Kitchen is a little Asian fusion takeout place with a few dine-in tables located in a strip mall directly across from a McDonald’s. It’s not very glamorous, but the food is good, and it’s also very reasonably priced. Their lunch specials are usually around $7.00 and are generously portioned. Ramen isn’t one of their specials, sadly, and it isn’t on their online menu. It’s about $10.49 for a bowl of Japanese-style tonkotsu with pork, veggies, and soft-boiled eggs. They also offer a dish that is, I believe, a fusion of Japanese and Korean styles, and is a bit more spicy. Since this restaurant is aimed at a take-out clientele, the presentation is only mediocre, but the flavour is lovely, the broth is tasty, and the noodles are nice and chewy. I only wish that the eggs were more soft-boiled than hard. Even so, I have been back many times now and everyone I’ve taken with me has liked their food. If you value flavour over appearances, I would rank this ramen #1 of the four I’m reviewing today.

Bento Sushi
St. Laurent Mall Food Court, 1200 St. Laurent Boulevard

There are a lot of Bento Sushi locations, most of which you’ll find tucked into grocery stores peddling mediocre takeout sushi. But they do have a few standalone locations, one of which is in the food court of the St. Laurent Mall. Since this is a big chain that isn’t exactly known for its high-quality food, I went in not expecting much. However, as with Umi Teriyaki & Sushi, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the best ramen I have ever had, but the broth was nice and the toppings were flavourful. The noodles weren’t as chewy as I like, but they weren’t horrible either. I had their chasu ramen with tonkotsu (from their menu: “thin noodles in a tonkotsu pork broth with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and fish cake”), which was $9.99. Overall, their ramen was miles better than their sushi, which may be damning them with faint praise. But I’ll take their ramen over just about anything else in the food court — except maybe Jimmy the Greek‘s pork souvlaki and salad.

If anyone else has suggestions for ramen in Ottawa that I should try, drop me a comment with the name and location. I’d be more than happy to check them out! I have absolutely no qualms about eventually having eaten at every ramen-serving restaurant in this city.