Dining in: Idriss Mediterranean introduces flavors of Algeria to Ottawa

“Opened a few months before the pandemic began, Idriss is Ottawa’s only Algerian restaurant, and so it immediately piqued my curiosity.”

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Idriss Mediterranean
319 St-Laurent Blvd., 613-421-4008, idrissmediterranean.com
Open: Monday and then Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 8pm, closed Tuesday
Prices: main courses $ 17.99 to $ 24.99
Access: steps to front door

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At Idriss Mediterranean restaurant, the conical ceramics next to the cash are both decorative and functional.

It is one of many tagines used to prepare some of the tasty Algerian dishes that emerge from Idriss’ kitchen, placed in front of hungry customers with steam still floating. When I paid for my takeaway order, I commented to co-owner Wafa Abouhadjar that it was too bad that I had to take home the food her husband had prepared, in its much less atmospheric styrofoam packaging, instead to enjoy it as freshly prepared as possible in Idriss’ 30-seater dining room.

In the last week I have had lunch and dinner made at Idriss. Both meals were commendably homely and comforting. I made my visits after encountering Idriss on a Google map. Opened a few months before the pandemic began, Idriss is Ottawa’s only Algerian restaurant, and it immediately piqued my curiosity.

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Couscous Royal from Idriss Mediterranean.
Couscous Royal from Idriss Mediterranean. Photo by Peter Hum /Postmedia

Of course, Ottawa has had Moroccan restaurants since at least the mid-1980s, and there is an overlap, at least in the menu descriptions, between the dishes of all North African neighboring states. You will find couscous, tagines and other dishes from this region of the world on both Moroccan and Algerian menus. Meanwhile, there is a Merivale Road food truck called Couscous that serves similar Libyan items that are worth trying.

When I asked Abouhadjar about the simplest distinction between Moroccan and Algerian food, she replied that Moroccan chefs would mix sweet and salty flavors in the same dish. “For us, sweet is in itself and salt in itself. That is the most important thing, ”she said. “We share many common names, but we do not share the taste.”

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I made other Algerian discoveries, big and small thanks to Idriss.

Rechta noodles from Idriss Mediterranean.
Rechta noodles from Idriss Mediterranean. Photo by Peter Hum /jpg

A very pleasant first for me was a main course with rechta ($ 17.99), which was a deep portion of light and delicious homemade Algerian noodles that came topped with a tasty and tender chicken thigh, slices of turnips and chickpeas. On the side was a cinnamon-scented sauce that we could choose to add or not. Abouhadjar said that in Algeria, some rechta eaters will add more cinnamon or even orange blossom water to the table.

Mahjeb (two for $ 5.99) was a square, stuffed crepe-like flatbread stuffed with sweet onions and a juicy tomato sauce. While the Eastern European bouraks I’ve had before were delicious filo-based cakes filled with meat or spinach, the Algerian versions from Idriss were much closer to spring rolls in terms of their appearance and packaging, and they contained melted mild cheese and ground beef (two for $ 4 , 99) or chicken (two for $ 4.99).

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At dinner, we received containers of what seemed to us to be something like salsa. By consulting Idriss’ menu, we learned that the containers held hmiss, a loose and spicy salad of roasted peppers, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil that should accompany our tagines.

The olive tagine from Idriss Mediterranean.
The olive tagine from Idriss Mediterranean. Photo by Peter Hum /Postmedia

We tried two of Idriss’ four tagines. The Kafta tagine ($ 18.99) stuffed with yet another superior tomato sauce with delicious meatballs and two eggs. The very different olive tagine ($ 18.99) featured another premium piece of chicken in a sauce rich in green olives and carrots.

From three main courses with grilled meat, we chose the very satisfying royal grill ($ 20.99), which filled marinated grilled chicken, lightly spiced merguez sausage and kafta meatballs on fluffy rice mixed with vermicelli. For this dish were small containers of hummus and an exciting pumpkin-based sauce.

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Royal Grill from Idriss Mediterranean.
Royal Grill from Idriss Mediterranean. Photo by Peter Hum /Postmedia

Idriss’ couscous royal ($ 24.99) was another protein-heavy winner, with yet another well-bronzed chicken thigh, merguez and lamb ribs falling off the bones plus chunks of vegetables on a bed of soft, tasty couscous. More of the cinnamon-scented broth came on the side.

Idriss also offers two vegetable gratins: one with eggplant, ground beef, eggs and cheese in a tomato sauce; and another with cauliflower and ground beef in a bechamel sauce ($ 16.99). The gratin lover among us gave up two thumbs up, but I preferred the other main courses.

I have a short list of things I can try when I eat in Idriss’ dining room. The restaurant serves shakshouka, the Maghrebi dish with eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce that has spread across the Middle East and is available elsewhere in Ottawa for breakfast or brunch. I wish I had caught earlier that desserts like baklava, lemon cakes and chocolate pie were homemade. Algerian mint tea at Idriss comes with roasted peanuts and sweet sesame halwa, the Persian confectionery that became worldwide centuries ago, Abouhadjar told me.

Given the confidence that Idriss’ dishes inspired when we took them home, we expect to be even happier when we pay a proper visit.

phum@postmedia.com

Cauliflower gratin hmiss from Idriss Mediterranean.
Cauliflower gratin hmiss from Idriss Mediterranean. Photo by Peter Hum /Postmedia

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