Archive for March 2011

Play may just be Ottawa’s best restaurant. And that is saying a lot. Ottawa is home to many exquisite gastronomic options. Some of these include the oyster bar Whalesbone in Centretown, and the aboriginal bistro Sweetgrass in the Byward Market. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can Ottawa, a government town, boast so many quality restaurants? Let me tell you: I do not know. Yet, as a Montreal native having much “going out for dinner” experience, I continue to be amazed by Ottawa’s restaurant scene. From Beckta creator, Stephen Beckta, Play serves up an ever-changing selection of tapas-style dishes. It is conveniently located in the Byward Market, a few steps away from Parliament Hill.

I was first introduced to Play when my boyfriend selected it for my 26th birthday celebration. He also gave me a very appropriate present: the foodie film par excellence Ratatouille (Bird, 2007) on Blu-ray. During that visit, I discovered my favourite white wine, the Alsatian Zinck (2008). Produced from Gewürztraminer grapes, it features crisp and refreshing tones of citrus, honeydew and lychee. Sadly, due to a constantly rotating cycle of interesting wine choices, Zinck is not currently available at Play. Customers are allowed to “bring their own wine,” however, and we made sure we had a bottle of Zinck with us when we returned last week for our friend Myriam’s birthday.

Our evening started with carefully chosen savoury dishes. The standout selections were: impeccably seasoned, blackened chunks of flaky catfish wrapped sturdily in warm homemade tortillas; seared-to-perfection Digby scallops anchored in a purée of creamed celeriac and sautéed shard, drizzled with the earthy tones of a wild mushroom sauce that contrasted the smooth taste of scallop and celeriac; and plump gnocchi, edamame and mushrooms folded and blended into flavourful, thyme-infused truffle cream.

Next was a selection of local and foreign cheeses, served with thin crostini. From mildest to strongest: the ash enveloped Grey Owl, lingering with a pillowy sweetness, from Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec; the crumbly Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar (curiously wrapped in potato sack), with a sharp, rusty bite, from Prince Edward Island; and the barnyardy, transports-you-directly-to-the-farm-but-in-a-pleasant-sort-of-way Roblochon, from Savoie, France.

The best was yet to come: dessert. Again, we chose to consume the lightest selections before moving up to the heartier ones. First, our spoons crunched through crumbled amaretti cookies, melted through wispy coconut cream and into a thick foundation of banana panna cotta; next, the tanginess of a moist pineapple cake was coupled with the shock of cardamom infused within a date purée, all topped with a scoop of pineapple gelato; following that, a twist on the traditional crème brulée, made more sophisticated by the mild flavours of Earl Grey, further enhanced with the crunchy zest of a lemon-honey biscotti on the side; and, to top off the meal and desserts with a truly worthy finale, a luscious chocolate paté only just firm enough to prop up an angular shard of sponge toffee and drizzled with caramel salted with a tinge of miso. To accompany our final course, Myriam treated us to dessert wines that gave everything an even softer glow: light amber Madeira wine for me, Cabernet ice wine for him, and a rosy sherry for her.

If the descriptions above have not convinced you of this, I can attest that very few restaurants rival Play in its ability to surprise and delight in its unexpected combinations. Flavours go beyond simply complimenting one another: they playfully underscore, accentuate, contrast and offset. In fact, to say that Play’s kitchen is populated by chefs somewhat misrepresents the extent of their talent; they are more than mere chefs, they are artists whose medium is food. At Play, the concept of playfulness extends to more than just the food and extensive wine pairings: quite suitably, the restaurant features a colourful decor, and even manages to employ staff who discuss and serve the menu with an atmosphere of amusement and merrymaking. In all, when it comes to masterfully assembled dishes, and a leisurely evening of drowsy diversion, you can do no better than Play

Note: Click here for more information on the restaurant and its present menu.

Serial killers have captured our imaginations for centuries. Some have even proposed that stories of mythical creatures such as werewolves arose out of efforts to explain mysterious strings of murders. Such gruesome interest has motivated the publication of countless books, not to mention the production of countless movies (for example, Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

I must confess: the ubiquitous serial killer literature piques my interest. However, I don’t have too much patience for the sensationalist fare written by crime-chasing journalists; I prefer to go to the source. Some of the most informative books on serial killing by serial killers include the philosophical The Gates of Janus (2001) by Ian Brady, and the confessional Panzram: A Journal of Murder (1970) by Carl Panzram. Of note is Jason Moss’ autobiographical The Last Victim (1999), which chronicles his attempts to interview notorious serial killers for his undergraduate thesis. I’m sure it goes without saying: making one’s way through each of these books is a disturbing experience, both viscerally and intellectually.

Thus, the more sensitive among us may be forgiven for indulging in less realistic, overblown depictions of serial killers, since their exaggerated details allow some detachment. For example, based on a series of books by Jeff Lindsay and adapted for television by James Manos, Jr., Dexter (2006 – Present) manages to make serial killing an almost respectable trade. This well-regarded series follows the seasonal adventures of a man attempting to harness his homicidal impulses to improve society.

Contrary to Brady and Panzram’s harrowingly factual accounts of their gruesome deeds, Dexter takes many, many artistic liberties. In fact, the criminal psychologists among its fans cannot help but cringe at least once an episode: think of the psychodynamic explorations of the protagonist’s motives, or his apparent lack of regard for his victims’ actual risk of reoffending. Still, Dexter’s universe is downright realistic compared to the one inhabited by John Wayne Cleaver, the hero within first-time author Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer (2010).

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a teenager with aspirations of becoming a serial killer were to face-off against a supernatural monster? Yeah, I hadn’t either. Yet, this is the question Wells poses, and answers, in his delightfully twisted book, the first of a three-part series.

John Wayne Cleaver would be your typical small-town teenager, if it were not for his undying passion for serial killers. Now, this may seem a tad unusual, but not necessarily alarming. The real problem is: John is resisting his own impulses to kill, serially. Have I mentioned that his deathly passions are compounded by the fact that he helps his mother prepare bodies for display in the mortuary below their house? When his hometown is plagued by a string of murders, he gets involved, naturally; after all, who better to track down and kill a serial killer than a (budding) serial killer himself? Alas, John’s purely theoretical knowledge of killing is no match for his very first chosen victim, whose practiced killing abilities appear to be, for lack of a better expression, out of this world.

As you can probably tell, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a ridiculous book based on an even more ridiculous premise. Yet, it works. And it works well. To be sure, it is a truly kitschy, pop-fiction type of book. But Wells seems to know this and runs with it, interspersing his otherwise outlandish storyline with genuine bits of drama and tension when needed. This self-awareness of sorts effectively raises the book above pulp literature into the “legitimate” realm of fiction. I Am Not a Serial Killer would make for a terrific graphic-novel. In fact, if it is ever adapted into a film, I believe its only chance of surviving the transfer from page to screen would be if the director treated the source-material as if it were a graphic-novel, by not taking John’s story too seriously and instead harnessing its pulp quality (much in the same way del Toro and McTeigue did with their excellent adaptations of Hellboy (2004) and V for Vendetta (2006), respectively).

Since its publication, I Am Not a Serial Killer has given rise to two sequels, and the first one, Mr. Monster (2010), is a worthy successor. In it, John’s hometown is once again assaulted with serial murders. Knowing more than he lets on about the initial spree, he attempts to help the police find the new culprit. As he continues to struggle with his homicidal impulses, John must also learn to cope with another variety of impulses: his attraction to love-interest Brooke. While plagued with a few too many distracting typos, the continuing story of John Wayne Cleaver remains engaging. The concluding installment, I Don’t Want to Kill You, will hit bookshelves in the spring of 2011. With Mr. Monster ending on a promising cliffhanger, I look forward to reading Wells’ next entry into the decidedly unique Serial Killer Thriller/Supernatural Fantasy genre.

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