It’s 4:00 a.m. My eyes jolt open as the shuddering motion of a Greyhound let loose on a dark, open highway comes to a sudden halt. I have arrived at my destination, more than an hour early. Ottawa, so welcoming at other times, is cold and silent at this ungodly hour. I park myself on a hard bench at the bus terminal, huddled against the bitter wind that sweeps in every time the doors open automatically, sometimes presumably at the arrival of invisible ghosts. I alternate between trying to make myself comfortable and enviously regarding the large massage chairs (!) that earlier birds have appropriated as their temporary nesting grounds.
The B&B I’m staying in doesn’t open until 7:30 am. I give up my vain attempt at sleep after an hour, hop into a cab and direct it to the Elgin Street Diner, which I know is close by and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (My nerdy ways of researching any place I’m visiting does have its advantages.) The diner opened its doors 11 years ago and has become an Ottawa institution. It’s known for its poutine, milkshakes, burgers and breakfast, but what I’m looking for right now is a warm refuge and I find it here. I’m greeted with a welcoming smile and before I’ve even taken off my coat, a steaming cup of coffee magically appears – one sip and I feel almost ready to join civilization again. It’s not as deserted as I’d imagined it to be and despite the early hour, a jovial spirit hangs around the place as the servers chat with the cops and other regulars, trading jokes and even friendly insults (over hockey, of course. This is Canada, after all.)
I gratefully sip my coffee and take in the green booths, the old tables, brick walls and the smells emanating from the open kitchen. Much to my surprise, I’m suddenly starving and decide to order the breakfast special – two eggs done the way you like, bacon or ham or sausage, home fries, baked beans, toast and a bottomless cup of coffee or tea or milk – for $7.99. I skip the baked beans (I have some restraint after all) and ten minutes later, I’m happily tucking into my perfectly cooked sunny side eggs and home fries, which are exactly as they should be, crisp and almost caramelized on the outside and meltingly light on the inside. The food is good, but it is the attentive service (my cup is refilled every time I start hitting bottom), the unhurried pace, the welcoming banter and the casual vibe of the place that takes me in completely. There is a palpable shift in my mood and I feel ready to take on the day.
If you’re in Ottawa for only a few days, it is probable that all the places you’re visiting are localized and if you know where you’re going, the Ottawa Transit system is reasonably easy to navigate. A single ride costs $3.25 but a $7.50 day pass allows you to ride on all routes all day long – if it’s a weekend or a statutory holiday, an entire family can ride on a single day pass, a feature I love even in Toronto. My bus ride takes me right through the centre of downtown, past majestic buildings and across charming bridges. (Ottawa sits at the confluence of three major rivers: Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau, and the water and several bridges and river roads add to beauty of this city.)
If you have the money to splurge, you would do well to stay at the Fairmont Château Laurier. A part of the original Grand Trunk Railway hotels and with architecture reminiscent of a French château, complete with fairy-tale turrets, the Château evokes an unmistakable sense of grandeur and romance. Overlooking Parliament Hill and host to kings, queens, presidents and other distinguished figures breaking bread and negotiating deals under its copper roof, the hotels is sometimes called the third chamber of the Parliament. If you’re fortunate enough to be staying here, keep an eye out for the ghost of Grand Trunk Railway chairman Charles Melville Hays, who on his way to the hotel’s opening perished on the RMS Titanic and whose ghost is still reported to roam the hotel hallways.
If, like me, you can only afford to admire the Château from a distance, Ottawa still has a number of extremely pleasant accommodation options. Apart from the numerous hotels, there are several bed and breakfast places that provide a cheaper, and according to me, a more personal and attentive alternative. Cynthia welcomes me at Shirley Samantha’s Bed and Breakfast, a charming home located on a quiet residential street just off the Rideau River. Despite the early hour, she takes me upstairs and as soon as I spy my room with its light and space and giant cozy bed, I want to snuggle in and not leave. There are books and magazines and CD’s laid out and the adjoining common room has more books, board games, cold drinks and homemade cookies. But I have other things to do and after a hot shower, I head out for the main purpose of this trip – the open house at Le Cordon Bleu, Ottawa.
The school is the Canadian offshoot of the famed original in Paris. The campus is located in a mansion adjoining the Rideau River and the building invites you in with its cheery yellows and blues. I’m joined by 60 other people from all walks of life gathered here because of a common passion for food. A presentation by the staff and students and an enthusiastic Q&A in one of the demo rooms is followed by a tour of the school. The tour begins at the school’s restaurant, the Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @Signatures located in a sunny room that continues the building’s yellow and blue theme. The space is elegant without being claustrophobically so and makes the most of the morning light streaming in through the high windows.
The cuisine and pastry kitchens are state-of-the-art with a work station for each student. The space is quiet today but you can imagine it bustling with students as they whisk their sauces, sear their meats or perfect their pastry creations. We do get to see the Superior Pastry students’ final pulled sugar creations and it is a visual array of art and creativity. The tour ends with a demo of Crevettes à l’Armoricaine with the chef encouraging us to ask “Why?’’ Why do we put the shrimpon ice? Why do we sauté them separately? Why do we add the cognac in the end? Why are we only simmering the sauce for 5 minutes? (“Because Peter, the admissions officer, talks too much and we don’t have time.”) The demo is a good example of how an actual class would interact with the chef and the shrimp is delicious in spite of its short simmer time. Peter stays back patiently to answer more questions from those of us who’ve just not heard enough. I leave the campus suitably impressed, but for some reason I still cannot shake off the slightly touristy vibe that the Le Cordon Bleu exudes in general.
But it has been a very productive trip so far and I happily look forward to the next part: Food. Or dare I say more food?