We went to the ByWard Market, wandering and wondering where to go for dinner. Buskers were performing on the William Street Mall, and the laughter and applause from the crowd attracted our attention to the area. That is when we noticed that Oregano’s successor was finally open.
Oregano’s Pasta Market had been there for almost 30 years, and was very popular with tourists, with its red-and-white checkered table cloths, and its inoffensive if uninspired Italian comfort food cuisine. I did enjoy Oregano’s lasagna, I admit.
But the owners of the popular Empire Grill and Metropolitain (I talked about the Met here and here) wanted to expand their branché empire in the Market, and they took over Oregano’s lease in August. Nine months letter, Gary Thompson, John Borsten and Dave Mangano gave birth to their new baby: The Grand. Appartently, they named the baby in honour of The Grand Hotel, which was the original occupant, in the late 1800s.
We walked in around 7:30PM, and unbeknownst to us, tonight was opening night for The Grand. So we walked in, and were told a table for two would be ready in 5 or 10 minutes. There was room at the bar, so we decided to have a beer while waiting.
The Grand has an interesting if limited beer selection. The usual Stella Artois, Grolsch, and pretty much everything the Mill Street Brewery has to offer. I ordered a Tankhouse ale (reviewed here) and was flabbergasted when the barmaid pulled a pitcher from under the counter to fill up my pint. I must have looked aghast, because she asked after noticing I was starring at my pint if I minded. ”I’ll give it a try,” I enunciated, stunned and not wanting to waste beer. But at 7.40$ a pint, you should expect better. Strike one.
Melissa ordered a Mill St. Organic Ale, a very light and crisp lager. She was very disappointed by the quality of the pour – the pint arrived with a 2 inch head. The attendee was a newbie and clearly had not mastered the art of pouring a beer from a tap. Strike two.
Mel was wondering aloud if she should ask for a top-up, as the head was quickly disappearing and leaving a 5/6th of a pint in the glass. I told her to drop it. Huge mistake: the beer suddenly splashed all over the counter, all over her, and a tad bit on myself. I thought she had actually dropped it, when I realized that she was still holding the top half! The friggin’ glass had litterally BROKEN IN HALF!!! Strike Three.
Drenched in beer, stunned, and still holding the glass, Mel was in shock. So were the people sharing the counter with us. ”Is this your first date?” a worried mustache-wearing man asked. Mel went to the washroom to clean up and dry herself (no mirrors in there yet), and the staff replaced her pint with a fresh one, which, I might add, was a much better pour. Perhaps we should have left then, but we were hungry, and our table was ready. So we stuck with it, and left the bar. A barman told me not to worry about the beers.
We sat at our table – a two-seater, in a corner. Mel had a view – the George Street patio, empty despite the line-up now forming at the door. I asked, and apparently, they were a bit overwhelmed and decided to close it in order to handle the customers properly. For the record, the restaurant can hold about 150 inside and perhaps another 150 outside.
I also had a view – the computer and the total chaos surrounding it. Servers were just piling up there to punch in orders (turns out some of the server’s handheld device were not working properly) and print bills, and some of them appeared confused by the software. Mayhem would ensue, and, at times, up to 10 servers, and the manager, would pile up in the area, basically surrounding us and mostly squeezing Mel further in her corner. But she had a view. And so did I, which made it easy to notice the staff’s dress code: blue jeans, black top, red accessories.
We looked at the menu, which is minimal and shows a willingness to do little, but to do it well. So far, it had not been so Grand, but perhaps things would turn around at this point? Italian cured meats and cheese, antipasti, salads, pannini (lunch only), pasta and pizza.
We decided to go with a starter, and after hesitating between the grilled and the fried calamari, my arguments for a healthier selection prevailed and we went for the grilled ones.
Now, this was well done. The calamari were fresh, tender, drizzled with oil and hot pepper flakes. It was also a very nice portion, with a good mix of body and tentacles.
For a main, Melissa ordered the Papardelle alla Simi. Tomato sauce (they use 100% San Marzano DOP certified – considered the best of the best tomatoes by many), cherry tomatoes, fresh ricotta, parmigiano, sausage and basil.
I went for The Grand pizza. If you name it after your restaurant, it has to be the best you can offer, in my opinion. Tomato sauce, mozzarella, scamorza (which is basically smoked mozarella), fresh basil and prosciutto di parma.
Melissa’s dish arrived before my pizza. Unfortunately for Melissa, it was the wrong dish. They had brought the Papardelle a Casa, with mushrooms and black olives – not something she would order. Ever. Strike one. She returned it. Our friendly server, Brenda, came back with the menu, stating that what was brought was indeed what was ordered. Melissa showed the item in the menu, and Brenda realized that there had been in fact a mistake.
My pizza arrived 15 minutes later. We had been warned that there was a bit of delay for the pizzas, despite the brand new, state of the art, metallic wood oven. The Grand is going for the Napoletana style pizza. They will try to get certified from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the official non-profit association whose goal is to safeguard and promote the culture of the real Neapolitan pizza worldwide. The specifications are numerous, but the basics are that the dough must be made with hand pressed Italian flour, the sauce is made with Italian tomatoes and is spread thinly on the pie in a spiral motion, and the mozzarella has to be made from water buffalo produced in the region between Naples and Rome.
Melissa’s dish arrived about 5 minutes after my pizza. Melissa didn’t say a word, just pointed at the dish. ”Oh my God!” said Branda, taking the Parpadelle a Casa back once again. Strike two
So we shared the pizza while waiting for her Parpadelle. The Grand is going all-out on authenticity – the pizza is not even pre-sliced. The cheese combination was very tasty, nicely caramelized. The subtle smokiness of the scarmoza is present, but not over-powering. The prosciutto was of a nice quality, but could be sliced a tad bit thicker to make it easier to slice the pizza. As for the basil, I do not know why they bother listing it as an ingredient ahead of the prosciutto. Nevertheless, it is a minor problem and the end-result was very good, if you like this style of pizza as opposed to the american-style. Drizzled with the flavored olive oil, it was quite enjoyable.
Mel’s dish finally arrived after another 10 minutes, and it was a homerun.
“This is the best pasta I’ve ever had in Ottawa,” she categorically stated. Their pastas are made daily, with fresh eggs, which explains the quality. They were cooked “al dente”, the texture was rich, the taste was deep, and the freshness of the tomatoes and the basil gave the dish a very refreshing balance to the mild italian sausage. Well executed, but strangely there was little evidence of any actual tomato sauce as described in the menu.
With our meal, we slowly drank a bottle of Gabbiano Chianti 2007. At 30$, it is one of the cheaper wine on The Grand’s wine list (most bottles are around 60$), the Gabbiano Chianti is an honest, down-to-earth wine from the Tuscan winery. It is a simple wine, with some notes of dark berries and some cherry. Some spice flavours too. Not as dry as other Chianti, it did work well with our food. You can get it from the LCBO at 13.95$ or for 14.65$ at the SAQ.
The bill arrived, as I was pondering aloud the title for this post. A not so Grand opening, A Grand Disaster, The Grand Crashing… Some of the waiting staff smiled approvingly when they heard me. That was the saving grace – despite everything that happened, the chaos and the problems, the staff, and especially Brenda, was very pleasant usually smiling and laughing. The manager, on the other end, was sweating and stressing a little more in the face of all the problems arising.
On the bill, my Tankhouse was still there so I asked why, since I was told not to worry about the beers. The manager explained to me what the barman meant by “beers”: Mel’s first and second! We proceeded to tell him about our entire evening, and he gave us some gift certificates for our next visit to make up for it. Funnily enough, I had seen him distribute some earlier. I wonder why…
We ended up coughing 93.86$ before the tip for our excellent adventure.