Monday, 19 March 2012

Un peu de musique

Alexander Glazunov wrote this beautiful piece called Les Saisons. Marius Petitpa in 1899 choreographed the ballet. The Autumn is my favourite and it was the theme of a very famous television program in the 1960's on Radio-Canada in Montreal, a memory of my early childhood. The show was shown every night at 7:30pm, it was live and acted as if a theatre play, the actors were all famous, Jean-Pierre Masson as Séraphin, Andrée Champagne, his wife Donalda, Paul Des Marteaux as Curé Labelle, Guy Provost as Alexis. It was quality television programming common in the early days of television. It was so popular that you knew that for those 30 minutes no one would think of disturbing their neighbours unless it was an absolute emergency. The story was simple enough, it was based on the historical period of the late 19th century after the Government abolished the great Seigneurie ( French Farm Estates) established during the French Regime in Canada between 1600 and 1763. The poor peasants were given free land to farm North of Montreal in the Laurentians, also called Les Pays d'en Haut, those mountains which are such a popular ski area today. The land is very poor and not suitable for farming at all, this colonization ended in disaster and more poverty, many simply left and migrated south to the USA, mostly Vermont, Massachusetts, New-York State and New Hampshire.
The program was called, Les belles histoires des pays d'en haut and was taken from a famous novel by Paul-Henri Grignon, Un homme et son péché, ( a man and his sin). The theme was highly moralistic and was an object lesson on greed and avarice, it was also based on known historical fact and the life of a famous clergyman Curé Labelle who championed colonization north of Montreal. The Roman Catholic Church liked this television show a lot because of its Christian tone, we should not forget that in French Canada at the time was 94% Catholics, 5% were Protestants and 1% Jewish. The last episode of the show after 14 years running ended like the novel which was it's inspiration, with the death of Séraphin Poudrier, the greedy avaricious landlord-peasant who entered is burning house for the sole purpose of saving his gold and silver coins amassed in the basement. No redemption here, the viewers knew he was going to Hell. After all he had not provided for his very young and beautiful wife Donalda, she had all the qualities of a dutiful Christian wife dying young because her husband Séraphin would not pay for a doctor. This program was also a critique of the changing times in the 1960's, the new consumer society.  It was the favourite show of my grandfather, a police Captain who had been raised in a very wealthy family before 1929 who lost everything in the depression. His were the solid values of Old Canada, Family, Land, Duty and Faith. All this seems so far away now.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Interlude Musicale

I love this piece of music, it is so quiet and pleasant.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Restaurant reviews in Ottawa and elsewhere

I have taken up the new hobby of reading restaurants and hotels reviews I frequent. I have also subscribed to different sites like UrbanSpoon,, Trip-Advisor. By far my favourite is the hotel site,, for the last 15 years I have used it for all my hotel bookings around the world and have never been disappointed, given the amount of travel I do in Europe, Asia and North America, something could go wrong but not with If I select an hotel with an 8.5 point average or better and read the reviews and I also read between the lines, I find that I will not be disappointed by my choice of hotels. As for restaurants it is a different matter. I often will ask the Front Desk at the hotel about a restaurant they would recommend. However I always tell them that I want a good restaurant with local specialties and a medium price range or better, a good selection of wines and a restaurant that is known by the locals and not by the tourists. Is it family owned and how many years has it been in business.  Too many people make the mistake of saying, they want something fast and cheap, I don't want to spend too much or look at the menu and if they see lots of foreigners around at tables conclude it must be good. That's a big mistake in most cases, another mistake is too go to a restaurant or café or bar in a very touristy area, prices are always far higher catering to the tourists.

This week in Ottawa our local newspaper announced that the restaurant reviewer for the last 20 years, Anne Des Brizay, was retiring. She often suggested restaurants I really enjoyed. Then the CBC on one of their radio shows asked the following question; Do we need professional restaurant reviewers nowadays given that so many people can give an opinion on any number of sites on restaurants?
I would say, yes we do need professional reviewers. The opinions you find on many sites are often not very detailed and give you a very inaccurate idea of what the restaurant really is like. Per example this week UrbanSpoon in Ottawa featured 3 restaurants which are trendy at the moment. The Red Apron had great reviews, everyone who has been there loves it. But it is not really a restaurant, they only serve a light lunch and otherwise it is a take away shop with great offerings of the all prepared variety. The menu changes all the time and the ingredients and dishes are said to be superior to what you would find elsewhere. Another one that I like a lot is Parma Ravioli on old Wellington street, everything is fresh and can be taken away or eaten in a small area with a few tables. There specialty is fresh pasta, many daily fresh items and great sauces and breads all made on the premises.

However two other restaurants, one being the Hintonburg Public House, got terrible ratings, unfortunately the reviewers put in their personal comments without explaining what they did not like. Example one person wrote; we walked in we had no reservations and the staff was not friendly, we walked out. Or another person wrote: my 23 year old son did not like his salad. Ok what does that mean? Did he only have a salad? You go out for salad? Another one complained that the waiter did not introduce himself, did not do the usual, Hi him Bruce and I will be your waiter tonight and blah, blah, blah, how are you guys schtick, still to common in Ottawa. Who cares! Another one complained that the water glasses were not promptly refilled, really you go to the restaurants to drink water? Other complaints is that the food was not flavourful or the dishes did not blow them away, you mean you like terrorist chefs.  Many want many flavours in their dishes, one wonders what is it they are looking for in food? But no one said what they were eating or had ordered, no one said anything about presentation or if the dishes where appetizing or if it was good value overall. They will tell you they went out with this or that person, for this or that reason, on this or that night. Not really relevant, I am not interested in personal life details.
Far too many appear overly concerned with how much they paid, one person wrote that he had 24 oysters and a half bottle of white wine, paid $45 dollars and thought that far too expensive. Really two dozen oysters and wine, did this person have any idea of the cost of fresh good quality seafood? Considering also that oysters have to be imported. Words like awesome, amazing, very tasty are not good examples in terms of description of food or if it was prepared properly or presented well, though these are expressions that come back constantly on sites where people put in their impressions of a restaurant. You wonder about the quality of what they eat every day.

This is why I believe we still need good professional reviewers like Anne Des Brizay to guide us and give an honest impression. It has to be said that despite the fact that Ottawa has matured in terms of restaurants and quality of chefs and cuisine, it remains still a city where many people go out to a restaurant only for a special occasion and are often happy with mediocre food and poor service has long as the decor is nice. This last remark was one left by a person living here. Having said this, Ottawa does have wonderful new, young chefs like Marc Lepine of Atelier restaurant on Rochester street who won the Gold medal at the Pan Canadian Culinary contest this weekend. There are many other great chefs in this Capital but the public has to be made aware and educated to what exist. Here are there names:

-Ces Santaguida, Vittoria Trattoria-Michael Hay, The Courtyard Restaurant-Matthew Brearley, Castlegarth-Norm Aitken, Juniper-Michael Blackie, Le Cafe at the NAC***-Jamie Stunt, Oz Kafe***-Pat Garland, Absinthe***-Arup Jana, Allium***

-Jason Duffy,  Arc the hotel
-John Taylor, Domus Cafe-Yannick Anton, Cordon Bleu Bistro***-Steve Mitton, Murray Street-Caroline Ishii, Zen Kitchen-Charles Part, Les Fougeres-Michael Moffat, Beckta Dining and Wine-Matt Carmichael, Restaurant E18hteen 

-Clifford Lyness, Brookstreet Hotel-Chris Deraiche, The Wellington Gastropub-Trish Larkin, Black Cat Bistro-Steve Wall, Luxe Bistro***-Mike Radford, Savana Cafe-Matt Somers, It's a Matter of Cake-Michael Farber, Farbs Kitchen and Wine Bar-Matt Carmichael, Restaurant E18hteen

To think we have now in Ottawa so many good restaurants is quite a development for this Capital, which until 2005 had precious few good restaurants. The ones with *** are restaurants I know for having been there and enjoyed the cuisine.

                            Château Laurier Hotel, Ottawa (1911-2011)

Friday, 2 March 2012

30+ years

Today at coffee time I was honoured by my employer for 30 years of service, it is in fact 32 years now but that is beside the point. Our Director General and my Director said some very nice things on my achievements and contributions and how much it is appreciated. They presented me with a Long Service Certificate on behalf of the Prime Minister and our Deputy Minister, there was also a small gift. What surprised me though, was another Certificate in this presentation which read as follows: ''In recognition of your years of service to the Nation a tree has been planted in honour of your dedication to the government of Canada. Now your contribution will be forever part of the landscape of Canada''. I was very surprised by this gesture and was speechless, it means a lot to me personally to be recognized in such a way. I was told that the foundation Tree Canada which is involved in environmental projects has planted 75 million trees since 1992. The tree or my tree, in this case, is in Sudbury, Ontario and is part of a vast plan to reforest and restore the environment of the town devastated by mining for the last 80 years. So far 3200 hectares have been restored.

At the same time I felt a little old, when I joined the Service there were typewriters like the IBM Selectric and telex machines, the war in Vietnam had ended just 5 years previously, no computers or any of the gadgets we have today. Our way of working was so different, our Director General spoke on that and I did too, my colleagues are about 20 to 25 years younger than me, it felt a bit like a Jurasic Park moment. I also felt nostalgic, thinking of all the things I had accomplished and all the places I had been around the world, so many memories, I thought of Mountolive, Balthazar and Justine, the characters in the book of Lawrence Durrell, of receiving as a gift in 1983 the Satow which was written by Sir Ernest Satow and edited in its fifth edition by Lord Gore-Booth, a book I have often consulted during my career.
Someone asked, will you retire now, to which I answered, no I want to make it to 50 years of service because I hear they give you a brand new Subaru, everyone laughed, I have no such intention.

                                                    Non Sibi Sed Patriae!