Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Cyber Scene in Ottawa - Tamar Alexia Fleishman

When you are considering a new meeting or convention locale, Ottawa is a great choice. The city has lots to offer, while being of a convenient and manageable size. The highly educated, bilingual population offers a great resource, no matter what industry you may be in. Plus, there are lots of fun and exciting activities for when you aren't at the grindstone.

We started our trip on Air Canada Jazz airlines. On the Toronto to Ottawa leg, a plane was substituted -- a plane normally chartered out to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every seat was first-class! It was really fun and comfy to be able to sprawl out.

In Ottawa, we got to stay at the fabulous Chateau Laurier ( ), on the Gold Floor, no less! If you are staying on business or an important occasion, you absolutely must stay on the Gold Floor -- your life will simply be so much better. The floor has its own front desk, concierge and lounge where gourmet breakfasts and happy hours are held daily. At night, the floor is accessible only by key card and freshly baked cookies are set out. The Gold Floor provides complimentary high speed Internet access to guests. When you need a wake up call, they ask if you'd like one or two calls and offer complimentary juice or coffee sent to your room. In the rooms, the bathtubs are really long and deep. So, when you are tired of the corporate rat race, I suggest you wash all your troubles away in the tub that will feel like your own swimming pool. The hotel does have a fabulous Art Deco pool in the lower level, along with a state of the art gym and business center. The business center has fax service, high speed Internet, color and b/w copying, computers, word processing, tape transcription, desktop publishing, newsletters and business cards, conference call facilities, mass mailing, and equipment rentals. Phew! Kinda makes you feel like you never have to go back to work again!

The food at the Chateau Laurier is wonderful. Their signature restaurant is Wilfred's, which has comfortable surroundings and is very gourmet. We loved such offerings as the duo of fois gras, the duck comfit and the adorably presented trio of creme brulee'. This included flavors of maple, cherry and Yukon Jack whiskey. Our server was attentive and nice, without being intrusive. We also enjoyed a terrific afternoon tea at Zoe's, the Chateau Laurier's lounge. While there are different afternoon tea options, we selected the Canadian High Tea, which features all Canadian products, from peaches to salmon savories to exquisite sweets. At tea, it would not be fair to call the server merely a "server", for she was a mistress of tea ceremonies. She rolled a cart by with dozens of loose tea selections, presenting them in a dish for you to smell before ordering. I enjoyed the "Icewine" tea, which is inspired by the local sweet wine product.

Now, for our first night out, we headed one block away to Sante', the Asian fusion restaurant. For your first night out after traveling, I would describe it as perfect, perfect, perfect. It is a restaurant/art gallery with low lighting; romantic without being furtive. Dress is casual. To start out with, Sante' has a number of exotic fruit cocktails and thoughtfully, a selection of exotic nonalcoholic drinks, too. That'll be the ticket if you are out with the boss. I'm my own boss, so I went high-test. We both ordered the special soup of the day, scallop with cream of coconut. It was fresh and soothing. For entrees, there are selections sure to please everybody, from mild to hot, from meat to vegetarian. Dishes such as the Bangkok rice noodles with chicken, shrimp and tofu came with lovely presentation. The herbs are fresh and the flavors are unusual, while remaining accessible.

Two blocks away from the Chateau Laurier is Ottawa's famous and popular Byward Market district. Consisting of blocks of food and clothing shops as well as outdoor stands in clement weather, this is where all of Ottawa comes to meet and greet. Byward Market is no tacky tourist trap; I was able to purchase fabulous raw milk cheeses (like Canada's Bluebry), silky dark-as-night chocolate, and high heeled sandals with rivets and studs (!). If you go to a cafe called The Black Tomato, you'll also find some breathtakingly obscure CD's for sale. North America's oldest store, the Hudson Bay Company has a branch there -- remember from grade school, the Hudson Bay Company sent fur trappers over to explore and conquer. Now, they are conquering mercantile interests. Their salesmanager/makeup artist at the Chanel counter conquered my spending willpower.

On the edges of the Byward Market District is where the biggest nightlife scene is. There's something for everyone, especially if you are fairly young. My husband was able to catch an impromptu jam at the Rainbow -- where diverse acts of all kinds play. He described it as mostly Blues with an older crowd. He bought a compilation CD of acts that play there. There wasn't an evening gig scheduled that night, though. At night, we checked out the "over 25" Velvet Room, which would be the perfect place to go with a group of friends who were into dancing that night. Next door is Fat Tuesday's (no, not the chain!), which had dueling pianos and a huge crowd of all ages. We were lucky to quickly snag a little table.

The man who knows all about Ottawa's music scene is John "The Birdman" Westhaver. Proprietor of the Birdman Sound record (and I do mean record) store [ ] and radio personality on CKCU radio [listen live at] A native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, the Birdman started playing in bands when he was 13. Growing up in the late 1960's, he had a cool older cousin who played in a band and was his biggest influence.

The Birdman got his radio start at the University of New Brunswick and that led to his Ottawa gig. In his words, he has a "need to constantly hear stuff." Now the Birdman has the ability to pick out the best of the best bands for his store, "Whether you've heard of them or not, that's not my problem!"

I asked the Birdman about the Ottawa tradition of heckling bands. "I know two or three of the people who do it the most! They're friends. I have been known to heckle, as well. I have been privy to being heckled. Here, it's often people who know each other."

Ottawa's hottest barely-kept musical secret is the band Black Boot Trio. You can download MP3 files at They defy categorization, but think of them as acid-country with a heavy Johnny Cash influence. Two of their three members have PhD's, including lead singer Steve Fai. Geoff Taylor is their bassist and Stef Bennett is their drummer with her own Alzheimer's research lab at the University of Ottawa. Bennett has been a fellow at Harvard Med and named one of Canada's "Top 40 under 40".

Steve Fai is enigmatic: a scholar of ancient Christian architecture, he pens lyrics that made me blush about the first five times I listened to the songs. The unbridled raunch is backed up with his deliciously haunting voice. The tracks are like the traditional "killin' songs" of English ballads and bluegrass, but raw. Steve, on the other hand, comes across as gentle-mannered and modest. So, what gives?

A Saskatchewan native, his mom and aunt sang and played guitar. As a young kid, he learned guitar, along with keyboards, banjo and saxophone. Currently, Steve's band alternates gigs between Ottawa and Toronto. He describes the difference between the two cities this way: Toronto has about 5 million people, while Ottawa has a million in the metro area. Ottawa retains a small town, enthusiastic feel, whereas Toronto's audiences are a little more blasé.

How did ancient Christian architecture appeal to his sensibilities? No, it wasn't the monuments to civilization. Rather, it's the passion he discovered in the landmarks to everyday life. Steve ties his studies to the darkness of Black Boot Trio's songs thusly: "All things fall down!"

Steve and Stef also serve as researchers at Carleton University's Immersive Media Studio ( ). CIMS is a multidisciplinary think tank that has received national funding to use rich-media technology and the Web for enhancing research in architecture, urban design and heritage preservation. At the Gold Floor lounge, I met with the Director of CIMS, Michael Jemtrud. You can watch him on a Discovery Channel Canada video, highlighting the important work of historic preservation: The charming and very cool Jemtrud dispels any preconceptions I ever had about think tanks. An American and Canadian dual citizen, he let me know that Canada is really a center for new media arts: for example, the technology for the movie Jurassic Park was created in Canada.

Jemtrud is looking forward to the day when the materials that artists submit are able to be presented with the same grace and precision as the scientific materials. "It's just not there yet," he notes. Sony makes a projector that he'd like, but it costs $100,000 and he needs 12. However, his team is working on a form of broadband that will be able to handle the huge amount of data that must be sent. "It's bleeding edge!

Jemtrud has raised over $10 million for his department; he claims that he did this by surrounding himself with really smart people. "Ottawa's a great place for that," he notes.

This father of 3 has a modern esthetic for his personal life -- no tchtokes cluttering up things. But, he points out that he is "totally not a magazine architect, everything is lived in."

On Sunday, I had a great and cultured experience at the Museum of Civilization, just across the "border" in Quebec province. Robbie and I started out at the sophisticated Cafe' de Musee' (the museum has two restaurants). They put out a great French and North African buffet, complete with cheeses, smoked fish, carved rare roast beef, made to order omelets, fresh baguettes, salads and pastries. I kept thinking that my dad would have loved it. I understand that the Cafe de Musee' can cater corporate events on site for up to thousands of people with their elaborate treats.

Then, we had a very informative and fascinating tour of the museum with Nicholas, who's earning his Master's Degree, so he definitely knows his stuff. The museum has the largest collection of totem poles in the world and a special corresponding exhibit on Canada's First Peoples. While you could spend days at the museum, we focused on a few things. I was thoroughly amazed and enjoyed the collection of "Main Streets" that spanned colonial times to the 1970's. Plus, the museum has a terrific boutique featuring unusual Canadian arts and crafts.

I simply adore vintage stores, so I took a cab to Ragtime, which is on Flora Street. They have a range of clothes from Victorian times to the 1970's, along with those reworked t-shirts that have been so popular in New York. Unfortunately, quite frankly, I'm far too busty to fit their teeny little tops. Best of luck to y'all, though.

After Ragtime, we walked along Bank Street seeking out indie CD stores. I felt like I hit the jackpot at The Turning Point on Cooper Street. They had a large selection of used CD's from all genres. Their prices were terrific, too. I also picked up a CD at Compact, located on Bank Street.

On Monday, we had an unusual experience: we took a class at Canada's only branch of the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. Our chocolate class was located in a beautifully decorated townhouse. This was no Hell's Kitchen experience; Chef Herve' Chabert was knowledgeable, gracious and respectful of all the students. Chef Chabert is considered one of the world's foremost pastry chefs. A winner of many international pastry competitions, he hails from the culinary hot spot of Lyon, France.

So, what did I learn about making chocolate desserts? Well, first of all, it's probably best left to the experts! Chocolates are an exact science; get the temperature wrong one tenth of one degree, and you've messed up. Work too slowly or beat it too quickly . . . well, you get the picture. Plus, the clean up afterwards! I have a whole new profound appreciation for fancy chocolates now.

All things considered, though, I strongly recommend taking a class at the Cordon Bleu. If you have a business meeting, come a few days early or stay a few days afterwards for the chance to use another part of your brain and challenge yourself creatively. If you are the significant other of someone stuck at a conference, this is a fabulous way to spend your time. The Cordon Bleu even has a program in tandem with the Chateau Laurier to help you shop for ingredients in the Byward Market and fix them up into something special back at the school.

After cooking, we dashed back to the Chateau Laurier, scarfed some gourmet happy hour snacks and headed to Maxwell's Bistro and Club on Elgin Street. Elgin Street is another one of Ottawa's places to see and be seen. Maxwell's, an unpretentious pub, was hosting a chamber music concert! And believe it or not, the place was mobbed. The Ottawa Chamber Music Society was hosting "New Music in New Places," doing world premieres by Ottawa composers. The pieces were very interesting and accessible -- they didn't have that "Dr. Seuss" quality that people fear in modern music. Some of the works had distinct folk and jazz influences.

Many of the composers were present or had representatives in the audience: Rival, Badian, Martin, Jarvlepp, LeClerc, Ellias, Geggie, Rathburn, Finta, Murphy, Gellman and Herbier. I think it added a comfortable dimension to be able to have a drink during what used to be such a formal medium, and I told a Canadian Broadcasting Company interviewer as much.

After the concert, we stopped at the Elgin Street branch of a deli chain, Dunn's Famous. Dunn's Famous, a Jewish-Greek deli, is open 24 hours, where you can get anything from one of the local specialties -- the smoked meat sandwich -- to cheesecake. It has a warm decor for a deli, with lower lighting and exposed brick. The service was great and the prices are even better. Dunn's Famous is definitely "where people go".

Extra special thanks to: Jantine Van Kregten and Misty Wade Hovey at Ottawa Tourism 1-800-363-4465, ext. 116 ( ); Sante Restaurant 45 Rideau St., Ottawa, ON Tel: (613) 241-7113; Deneen Perrin at the Chateau Laurier, 1 Rideau Street, Ottawa, ON Canada (613) 241-1414 ; Susan Zilahi at Ottawa Chamber Music Society (613) 234-8008 x 241; The Cordon Bleu 453 Laurier Ave. East, Ottawa, ON Canada (613) 236 -CHEF; Air Canada ( ); The Museum of Civilization ( ) and the Cafe de Musee' ( ), call (819) 776-7009 for Sunday brunch reservations.