Thursday, January 05, 2006

Aboriginal good times

A diversion, now, from the heavy stuff. I have just been to heaven, and that heaven is Sweetgrass, an Aboriginal restaurant in downtown Ottawa. I have come back to earth to bring glad tidings to all in the area, and beyond. This place, to continue the metaphor, is truly to die for.

It was the younger whelp’s seventeenth birthday, and we wanted to try something new. Restaurants in Ottawa are springing up like mushrooms, or undergoing makeovers--our old favourite Crepe de France, for example, now offers Lebanese cuisine; and our old friends at Chez Jean-Pierre are enjoying their well-deserved retirement. But digging into a restaurant listing in the local paper, we discovered Sweetgrass, and thought we’d give it a try, if just for the experience.

This is only the second Aboriginal restaurant in the whole of Canada, believe it or not, and Ms. Dawg and I have been to the other one, in Vancouver. We were, sadly, not impressed on that occasion: we ordered goat chops, which were tough and barely cooked, and further cooking toughened them up even more. The place was atmospheric, but not positively memorable.

Talk about night and day. We were greeted at the door of Sweetgrass, and made to feel welcome from the start. The place is decorated with local First Nations artwork, and Aboriginal music was playing in the background. We began by sampling some “in-betweens”: red deer short ribs, and Canadian goose dumplings. The rib servings were substantial, with a flavourful wild mushroom sauce; the goose dumplings were light and airy, with a cucumber mint salad and a piquant pine nut dipping sauce.

Our Vegan had a green salad with an Inuit crowberry tea and lemon vinaigrette; I had one with my main course, and can report that the dressing was unlike any other vinaigrette I have ever tasted, which these days tend to be a little
ho-hum: it was, in a word, scrumptious. All of us had Navajo frybread, Aboriginal comfort food: stinging hot, delicious, just the thing on a snowy evening.

But, lest I run out of admiring adjectives, let me turn to the mains, which were served with bannock. The birthday boy had wild salmon, which obviously pleased him, although he’s a young man of few words. The Vegan in the family had a brilliantly-presented Portobello mushroom accompanied by a smoked tomato cornmeal cake. The doting parents, however, decided on the grilled tatonka (bison) steak.

And that is where I realized I was being rewarded at last for having lived a good life. Tatonka! A word I shall never forget. A taste that is the Platonic ideal of red meat: deep, flavourful, complex--and I realize here that such words have been applied to red wine, but so what? Fork-tender, and, as a professional restaurant reviewer would say, yummy. I’ve simply never had anything so good. I was reassured by our pleasant and attentive waitperson that, while the Sweetgrass menu is seasonal, tatonka remains on it in suitably timeless fashion. I remember my last bite: I believe I wept a little.

Dessert? After all that? Certainly. The birthday boy had a sundae, on the house, by the way—nice touch—and the rest of us had a variety of special coffees. One included tequila, quaffed by our Vegan, who pronounced it profoundly satisfying. All made a satisfying end. We floated back to the car in a state of rapture.

Sweetgrass is not cheap, but in this case you truly get what you pay for. And I must say I am impressed with the First Nations ethic of the place: the wines have been chosen from countries with indigenous populations, for example, and most of the waitstaff are Aboriginal.

Go there. They will accept
even the undeserving, and for that, give thanks.

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