OTTAWA — I spent so much of the past month eating trendily — gourmet tacos, main courses of octopus and pig’s foot, dishes adorned with gels and powders, crab dumplings at a renovated, hipster-friendly diner — that when last week rolled round, my stomach cried out for something more homely and timeless, but tasty just the same.
In other words, schnitzel.
Why, I’ll you that when molecular gastronomers and other stars of fine dining get home from work, they’re similarly happy tucking into a thin slab of pounded, breaded and then crisply fried meat.
I found what I was looking for at the aptly named Schnitzel Works, a modest breakfast-and-lunch eatery in the industrial sector of east-end Ottawa. While I’ve only darted in for two speedy lunches, I’m guessing that doles out quick meals to contractors, trucking-business people and bus drivers who work near by.
Schnitzel Works has been around for three years, but previously its owner and staff ran the JIJ Beer Garden and Schnitzel House on Wellington Street where Absinthe Café now stands. In other words, it has schnitzel cred.
But if the food here is, broadly speaking, central European (its owners are, in fact, Slovakian), the central pillar of the menu also has a multicultural cast.
Under the delightful heading World of Schnitzels is a listing of 13 sandwiches ranging from the classic (Austrian Wiener schnitzel, German jäger schnitzel) to the more contrived (Greek schnitzel is topped with feta, olive rings, cucumber and tzatziki, Canadian schnitzel lies under a blanket of bacon and cheddar).
I like how the flags of the respective nations adorn the menu, but it might also have been helpful to have the sandwiches listed from lighter to heavier — some of the cheese-topped ones are truly daunting.
Again, we’re not talking high-end fare. The pork in the schnitzels is not from a heritage hog. But that’s not the criterion that I expect matters most to schnitzel-loving patrons. Rather, let’s evaluate the mushroom-sauced chicken jäger schnitzel platter that I had and my friend’s Weiner schnitzel platter by other measures.
How big were the schnitzels? Generously portioned and then some. The Wiener schnitzel, made of pork rather than the more traditional and expensive veal, almost covered the plate. The chicken schnitzel was smaller, but more than big enough, especially for lunch.
How quickly do they get to the table? Quite quickly, in the time that it took for a few songs to play on the restaurant’s Jewel 98.5 feed.
How crispy were the schnitzels? Nice and crispy.
How gristly were the schnitzels? Not at all. Au contraire — they were mighty tender.
How greasy were the schnitzels? Not greasy.
How salty were the schnitzels? Not that salty.
How were the non-meaty components on the platters? Not as good as the meat, but not bad. With the Wiener schnitzel came roasted potatoes that were more assertively seasoned than the pork and a standard salad. With the chicken schnitzel came a mound of purple cabbage and chunky spaetzle (egg pasta) that were fine, although neither cried out, “Finish me!”
Slightly smaller appetites could opt for one of the 13 sandwiches. That said, the ones that I delivered takeout style to office colleagues were large enough to a) mandate knife-and-fork eating and b) provide them with lunch and dinner.
Said a colleague who tackled the spicy Hungarian schnitzel sandwich with knife and fork: “I only ate a third of it and I’m falling asleep.”
Is there one sandwich that tops the rest? Apparently not. Our server told us that the schnitzels were equally popular regardless of “nationality,” that ladies liked the simplicity of the classic Wiener schnitzel, while young people liked the Mexican schnitzel’s salsa and hot pepper topping.
Some patrons, I was furthermore told, are trying to eat the restaurant’s world of schnitzel, checking off the stops of their globe-trotting meals as if their takeout menus were passports.
Apart from the schnitzel platters, I can recommend the cheese-filled pierogies with bacon and onions ($8.99), made by a Polish cook in Montreal and the German potato salad ($3.99 for a small bowl), made in-house and possessing the right firm texture and flavours, according to my dining companion of German ancestry.
The mammoth cabbage rolls ($17.90) served in a giant puddle of unseasoned tomato sauce appealed much less to me, due to an off-putting sour taste.
At only one of our visits, modest desserts were available — apple squares, sour cherry squares and rum balls that had made the trip from a Polish bakery in Montreal.
1400 Cyrville Rd., 613-695-9577, www.schnitzelworks.com
Open: Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Closed Sunday
Prices: schnitzel sandwiches $8.99 (pork) and $10.99 (chicken), platters $16.90 (pork) and $17.90 (chicken)
Access: a few stairs to front door, washrooms downstairs