Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Art Is In Bakery/Boulangerie- Ottawa, ON


You know the saying, "Friends for Life"? I literally have a group of friends in Ottawa who are just that: some who I have known since Kindergarten; some of them I knew since they were still in diapers. And unlike some fleeting friendships, I do not foresee myself ever having a period in my life without some sort of contact with each one of them. They are my second Vietnamese family. It had been quite a while since our "family" were all in the same town, with some of us studying Pharmacy in Quebec (and unfortunately unable to make this particular outing) and others (i.e. me) studying Medicine halfway across the country, and it was long overdue to have a proper family reunion. My friend and I had been talking about Art Is In Bakery (say it fast and you get artisan, quite a clever play on words if I do say so myself), and we both agreed that that would be the site of our lunch/brunch get together. Originally, we thought the boulangerie was in the Market (the "Market" being the Byward Market for those of you who are not O-towners), being such a popular new restaurant. However, we found ourselves pulling into a dingy, run down parking lot which looked more like a storage/shipping bay than anything that would host one of Ottawa's most up and coming restaurants. We actually considered turning around entirely because we thought we were in the wrong place!

We hesitantly walked into Art Is In after reassuring ourselves that we were in fact in the right location. As you walk into Art Is In, you have the feeling that you are walking into the back room of a bakery: the walls are painted an assuming concrete-grey, the furniture consists of  scattered wooden tables (and even some low coffee tables) and a mismatch of different types of seating including wooden chairs, plastic chairs, love seats, couches, and semi-recliners (we came this close to grabbing a lawn chair for our table). It also has a hodgepodge of accents, including what looked like a dead tree with tumble weed (see photo on left). Despite the less-than-flattering description, Art Is In has one of the most unique, and surprisingly charming feel that I have not experienced in quite a while. The random assortment of furniture and décor somehow comes together to create an amazingly cosy and intimate feel. It feels almost as if you have walked into someone's basement house party: diners are just lounging contently with friends talking over a coffee and families are sitting lazily enjoying their breakfast/lunch with other families around a large communal table. Our group was fairly large (being 7-people strong) but somehow we managed to drag enough furniture around a low black coffee table for our gathering.

Art Is In has a display counter of their speciality desserts which features everything from macarons to tarts to cheesecakes. The main menu, which is essentially a giant chalkboard, is also displayed at the main counter along with a smaller "specials" board. In addition to their sandwiches, soups, and sides, you can also order an assortment of coffees and teas. We decided to order various types of sandwiches (which is their main item of food), coffee/tea, and of course, their numerous desserts.

After ordering and taking a number for our table (by this I mean we literally took a small stand featuring a large number to place on our table), we settled back in our recliners/foot cushions/wooden chairs to enjoy our coffee and the first round of macarons. Art In Bakery used a true teabag, which looked strange to me at first; however, I quickly came to appreciate it much more than the "normal" teabags I was used to. The teas were surprisingly flavourful, with special explosions (literally explosions!) of flavour which accented the natural tea flavours (we all tried the honey-lemon tea and each had a delightful burst of lemon flavour in our mouth after the first sip). The cappuccino was quite good, smooth and just the right amount of bitterness and milk, and instantly took me back to my days back in Europe. To be fair, I am not usually the biggest fan of macarons, as I find them overly sweet and a strange crumbly texture, and I will be the first to say that I cannot accurately assess these macarons. However, with my limited experience with macarons, stemming mostly from the few I have tasted at Duchess, these macarons were quite comparable to the ones I tasted from Duchess. They had a nice jelly filling and were not overly dry. Otherwise, macarons are just macarons to me.

Top Left: Chai Tea Latte; Top Right: Cappuccino;
Bottom Centre: strawberry macarons, pistachio macarons, and vanilla macarons

Growing up, I was definitely kind of a weird kid when it came to lunches. I never liked peanut butter and jam sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, or even your classic Kraft macaroni and cheese, something my good friend and co-writer Shannon finds appalling (especially the macaroni and cheese bit, for some reason). I have tried fairly hard to like mac and cheese on a number of occasions, even so far as to venture to try my brother’s Kraft mac and cheese every few months or so, never with a different result then I don’t like it! As a result, I have never ordered “real” macaroni and cheese of any sort at restaurants. However, when Tram ordered the Chili Macaroni and Cheese ($12), one of the specials for the day, I could not resist testing my curiosity yet again. The mac and cheese came out in a small glass oven bowl, piping hot and fresh from the stove. The presentation, like the other dishes (and their décor) that day was simple yet strangely charming. My first bite of Tram’s mac and cheese was nothing like the Kraft mac and cheese I had ever had before. The cheese, which was a white cheddar, was smooth, creamy, but didn't have a strong taste which I appreciated as it didn't overpower the chilli  The chilli was cooked well, but nothing special as far as I could tell. However, together the combination of perfectly cooked macaroni, creamy melted cheese, and a solid chilli worked well for the dish. Despite the bowl looking quite small, the macaroni cheese was quite heavy and ended up being quite filling. I am no expert in macaroni and cheese (my comparison being Kraft dinner) and I would definitely need to try many more macaroni and cheese dishes before I can properly assess Art Is In’s take on a classic favourite, but this particular macaroni and cheese definitely makes me much more open to trying out other mac and cheese dishes at other restaurants, though I'm not sure I would order it as my main considering how heavy of a dish it is.

The first sandwich I tried was the Tuna Melt ($9.95), which consisted of flaked tuna mixed with diced pickles, onions, celery, carrots, smoked paprika, dill and mayonnaise served on a Dynamite dill, potato, and caramelized onion bread. I was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of my exposure to “tuna” in sandwiches. I had never tried a tuna sandwich until I was midway through high school. There is something about the simplicity of tuna sandwich that makes it so satisfying, and as a result, it became a staple of my high school lunches for the remainder of my secondary education. Art Is In Bakery takes the simplicity of tuna and puts a gourmet twist on it; instead of simple white bread, they use their own in-house baked-bread. The bread was fairly average, and I wish that there were more flavours that came out in the baking, but was a great medium for the tuna regardless. The arugula added a nice bitter contrast to the saltiness of the tuna. Although the cheddar cheese used in my sandwich was good, I only got occasional hints of the cheese, which was a little disappointing. I would have preferred it if there was a bit more than just a single slice of cheese in my sandwich or if Art Is In used a stronger cheese, perhaps an aged cheddar, in the sandwich instead. As for the tuna itself, it was fairly average and overall I could have used a bit more mayonnaise and onion in the mix for more flavour.

The second sandwich I tried was my sister’s Buttermilk Brined Chicken Caesar with Bacon ($10.95) composed of tender chicken pieces with bacon, Havarti, tomatoes, arugula and home-made Caesar dressing served on a Dynamite cheddar, Jalapeño  and chive bread. This sandwich combines some of my favourite cooking elements into one neatly packaged sandwich. The bread used in this sandwich was a little bit more interesting than my tuna sandwich, though, again, I wish the bread would have had a little bit more Jalapeño heat and flavour baked into the bread. Unlike the tuna melt, this sandwich does not hold back when it comes to the cheese; the Havarti cheese was used in a generous portion and melted to a perfect consistency. The Havarti melted and mixed well with the thick-cut sliced bacon and chicken to deliver an excellent bite of flavour. Though the bacon was good, a little more smokiness in the bacon would have made it perfect. The arugula added a light and refreshing contrast to what would have otherwise been a rather heavy sandwich. The best part of this sandwich was definitely the house made Caesar; although it doesn't taste like a Caesar dressing, it offers a variety of flavour notes which really makes the sauce special. This sandwich was one of my favourite sandwiches of the day and I would definitely order a full one for myself the next time I return to Art Is In.

Two of my friends – Tiff and Kalvin – ended up ordering the AAA Angus Striploin ($10.95) which, like the name boasts, features slices of House BBQ smoked AAA Angus striploin, topped with Provolone, tomatoes and arugula and dressed with red onions, Dijon, and horseradish mayonnaise and served on Art Is In Dynamite 12-grain and fennel bread. This sandwich, especially compared to the other sandwiches I tried that day, was a bit of a miss. While the AAA beef was cooked to a juicy medium-rare, the rest of the sandwich was a bit bland. The cheese, like the cheese in the tuna sandwich, was hardly detectable and overall I felt that the sandwich could have benefited from some more of the mayonnaise to make it less blah. Even then, however, the horseradish mayonnaise was a bit of a disappointment. Horseradish, which is used in two of my favourite condiments (Wasabi with sushi and Mignonette with oyster), normally has quite a strong and distinct flavour. Normally it brings quite a bit of kick to any dish. Unfortunately, there was barely any hint of horseradish in the mayonnaise, which was disappointing as it really would have saved the rather bland Angus striploin. Overall, there were no big flavour notes that elevated this sandwich to anything more special than a regular beef sandwich.

My brother ended up ordering the Spicy Meatball Sandwich which consisted of meatballs in a hot-dog like bread, topped with arugula and a spicy sauce.  At the counter I had waffled between the Tuna Melt and the Spicy Meatball sandwich, which happened to be a special for that day, and I was glad that someone from our group ordered it. This sandwich was definitely the biggest surprise in terms of taste that day. I admit, I have never tried a spicy meatball sandwich before, but after watching ten years of Friends, Joey has more than convinced me that a spicy meatball sandwich is a good option at any time of the day. I was expecting a spicy Italian meatball, something between a cross of ground beef and spicy marinara sauce. What I got instead was a surprising burst of traditional Indian curry flavours! The meatball was cooked perfectly and simply broke apart in your mouth on the first bite. However, the spicy sauce was not used in enough of an amount to make a big difference in my opinion and I definitely would have liked to see more of the sauce in the sandwich.

The last and final sandwich of the day was a Pan Seared & Battered Fried Foie Gras Sandwich ($19.95), which was a monster of a sandwich incorporating two types of cooked foie gras. I have always been a huge fan of liver pate (my favourite being duck and rabbit liver pate), especially since it is such a vital part of a good Vietnamese sub. When I travelled through France, I decided I would venture into trying the true French liver delicacy known as foie gras, which is traditionally a "fatty" liver obtained from a duck or goose fattened by force-feeding the birds corn. After trying it a few times in various restaurants/cities in France, I decided that I definitely did not like it. Foie gras had a strange texture to it and was almost always too creamy or too fatty (what exactly did I expect, right?) for me. And, unlike pate, it was usually seasoned much less than pate. Our group was fortunate enough to receive a personal visit from Art Is In Bakery's head chef and owner, Kevin Mathieson, who explained the story behind his sandwich. For his sandwich, Chef Kevin Mathieson cooked the foie gras in two ways: the first way was by straight pan-searing the foie gras; the second way was to first pan sear then batter and fry the foie gras. The pan-seared foie gras was perfectly seasoned and had a nice silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture to it. The battered foie gras was equally impressive with a light, yet crispy batter which was surprisingly devoid of that annoying greasy taste. In combination with the greens and served in a sandwich, the foie gras managed to both elevate the normal "sandwich" to a gourmet experience and temper what would otherwise be an "overwhelming" protein. This sandwich was easily my favourite of the day, and Chef Kevin has definitely convinced me to believe in foie gras once more.

After lunch, we were treated to a number of Chef Kevin's delectable desserts. The first dessert we tried was a essentially a "German Timbit." It was a donut-like pastry sprinkled with sugar, which was baked well, but was just a tad too much carbs for me after a fairly sizeable sandwich lunch. The second dessert I tried was the Banana Tart, which had a subtle banana flavour to it and was singled out by a number of my friends as their favourite dessert presented to us. The third dessert we tried was a flour-less Chocolate Chewy Cookie, which is a regular item at Art Is In. Although I am not a fan of chocolate (blasphemy! I'm a girl!), the chocolate cookie was extremely tasty. It had the perfect combination of sweet, bitter, and cocoa flavour. The chocolate cookie was my personal dessert favourite of the afternoon. The last two pastries included a special pastry from a region in France and an Almond Brioche Toast, which were good but nothing special. Again, like the Timbit, a little too carb heavy after a sandwich meal.
"German Timbit"
Clockwise: Chewy Chocolate Cookie, German Timbit, Banana Tart
Almond Brioche
On the way out, my brother and sister decided to grab two desserts for after dinner. My brother, as a die-hard fan of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups decided on the Peanut Butter & Jam Cheesecake, while my sister settled on something more fruity, the Lemon Tart. As aforementioned, I really do dislike peanut butter, and subsequently could not enjoy the cheesecake to the fullest. Objectively speaking, however, the cheesecake had a nice rich flavour and showcased the peanut butter quite well. I would have liked to have a little bit more jam-flavour, though that really is a matter of preference rather than any flaw in baking or execution. The lemon tart had a nice tartness which offset the sweetness of the tart overall. The outer crust was also cooked well, and did not crumble as fruit tarts are so apt to do. I definitely enjoyed these two desserts much more than the ones I tried on-site, though this may be just because I had an adequate "stomach"-break after lunch.
Peanut Butter & Jam Cheesecake
Lemon Tart
Art Is In (Artisan!) Boulangerie was a great experience. From the food to the feel, owner and head chef Kevin Mathieson has got it down pat. He creates a unique and cosy dining experience and compliments it with tasty gourmet sandwiches and delectable desserts. I will definitely be back to Art Is In and hopefully Chef Kevin will continue to expand his menu with his creative and playful approach to food.
Art Is In's Chef Kevin Matheison
Top Pick of the Night: Pan Seared & Battered Fried Foie Gras Sandwich


4.5/5 Erics'

Art Is in Bakery on Urbanspoon

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