Monday, February 02, 2009

Foodie Facts

Hi all!

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my co-workers the other day. He asked me whether Chris and I have specific things we look for or evaluate when doing restaurant reviews. I said "kind of" - but really, I hadn't actually thought about this before and decided it would be a really good blog topic.

Well, first off, let me clarify that we at Digestive Tracks are in no way what most would call "experts", or professional food reviewers if you will. We are Foodies. So what's a "foodie" then? According to the all-knowing Wikipedia...

Foodie is an informal term for a particular class of aficionado of food and drink. The word was coined in 1981 by Paul Levy and Ann Barr.

So, we're aficionado's of food and drink - and funk too by the way. Overall, we really enjoy finding new, tasty spots, then sharing them with all of our awesome listeners. However, now that I've had a chance to really lend some thought to the matter, there are a few general qualities we look for in a good food spot. And a good food spot could be anything from a high-end restaurant, little pizza spot, bakery, take-out, you name it - if it serves good food we'll check it out.

So what are some of the characteristics/qualities/features/stuff we evaluate?

This is obviously huge. If we get bad service (and I'm talking, no hello, no interest in us other than the fact we're buying something at the restaurant, etc.) then it doesn't matter how good the food is - we won't go back anytime soon. Case in point: Groovy's Roti Hut. Not only did we not get a hello or even a friendly smile (I'm not asking a lot here, but I don't want to feel like I'm interrupting just because I decided to eat in your restaurant), but we weren't told that they had run out of a side that we should have received with our meal choices. So we paid full price and didn't even get everything we were supposed to. No offer to reduce the cost of the meal or compensate with something else - and I had to bring up the missing side myself, we weren't told about it. Not cool.

On the flip side, one of the big things we look for when we do a review is how excited the people at the restaurant are about their food and how welcoming they are. Case(s) in point: Canvas, Wellington Gastropub, Chez Eric, Caribbean Flavours, Shanghai and Oz Cafe. All of these places have wonderful people working there that would not only give great suggestions on what to have for dinner, but they were genuinely excited about the food they were serving and excited about you spending time in their restaurant to enjoy their fare. Always a fun atmosphere and it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

Where is the food coming from? Is it local? We're not huge snobs about this, but local is always great and as we try to review places that are local and not part of huge food chains, this is something we do like to see. Also, just as general points: Are the veggies used fresh? Is any meat used tender and not too fatty?

We also try to pay attention to flavour parings and how a dish has been cooked. For example, for a flavour-paring, the bacon-wrapped dates at 107 Fourth Avenue Wine Bar & Cafe was a fabulous taste combo, and our server was so kind as to tell us how to make them at home (which we've done, and it's amazing!). In terms of how something has been cooked, if you're having something like carrots or asparagus, are they mushy or have they been cooked so they still have that nice little crispiness to them still? Also, for meat, has it been cooked to a dry husk, or has the meat retained its juiciness? Depending on what we're eating, we obviously go into more detail, but these are some of the basic things we've learned to look for in a good meal.

This is something we find to be very important to the overall enjoyment of a meal. We've found in the past that having reasonably sized portions that leave you feeling nicely full and don't attempt to overwhelm you (i.e. look how much food you can get for $7.99!) is far more enjoyable than just getting a huge stack of food. Quality over quantity for sure....unless it's dessert....that better be stacked!

This isn't necessarily something that suits every place we review, but it is nice to see a fresh take on an old stand-by or an interesting way to serve a basic dish. For example, and old standby is poutine, but The Sam Jakes Inn has taken that basic dish and turned into a fantastic flavour experience with fresh-cut fries, tender duck meat, blue cheese, truffle oil and a rich gravy. And an example of an interesting way to serve a basic dish would be the onion rings at The Works. I love the little wrought iron tower made especially for stacking the onion rings. This method ensures you get lots (as opposed to five onion rings crammed onto a plate where you'd normally get a decent amount of fries) and they don't get soggy.

This is a very important aspect of anywhere we decide to go, be it greasy spoon, take-out or high-end. If the food looks like no one cared about how it was served, we've found that this generally doesn't bode well for how it will taste or how the dish was prepared over all. Case in point: Big Daddy's on Elgin. Not only did we have to wait for two and half hours for table, but when I finally did get my food it literally looked like someone had thrown it at my plate. It was a pasta dish, but all of it was lumped onto the left of the plate like it had just been slopped down and rushed out of the kitchen. As for taste, I've made better pasta using PC stuff from the grocery. On the other hand, a little spot like Fushian
Vietnamese Restaurant makes every dish look festively tasty, with small details and garnishes that jazz up even the most basic noodle bowl.


Generally, when it comes to value we take into account the overall cost for the quantity and quailty of the meal, but we always try to consider the ingredients being used (local is more expensive) and even the location of the restaurant (downtown location equals higher rent).

We're not huge sticklers for decor, but general things we like to see no matter the venue is cleanliness, good attention to space (e.g. are we sitting on top of the people beside us), lighting (especially in spots that are below street level), temperature which is important in Ottawa where you can roast in the summer and freeze in the winter and sound (e.g. is the place so loud you have to shout to hear the person across from you?). Again, depending on where we are, we may comment on different things, but these are some of the more important factors we look at.

Did they remember the water??
Ok, this is just a Yaz thing. I find that if I go to a restaurant and ask for water, whether the server remembers it or I have to ask a few times before getting one really illustrates how attentive the service can be. This doesn't necessarily mean the service is bad, sometimes they're just super busy, but I do find that when a server remembers this little request and follows through with it promptly, it reflects on how quick and attentive the service will be for the rest of the meal. Best way to avoid this issue altogether is when restaurants have water right at the table. Chez Eric and Aroma Meze both do this with clear wine glasses filled with chilled water so you can refill at your leisure.

Ok, so this is some overall stuff we like to keep our eyes and tummies on alert for when we do a restaurant review. What are some little, general things you guys look out for that we didn't mention here? Post or drop us an email at

Anywho, talk to you guys on Wednesday! Have a great Groundhog Day : )