UPDATE: HOT PEPPERS HAS CLOSED
The day after I submitted my largely happy review of Hot Peppers number two – open on Queen Street in the space that was once a Mayflower Pub – my husband rang from his bus stop.
“Hey, you know that Hot Peppers restaurant you like? Well I’m watching these guys putting up a Green Papaya sign.”
Spike that review.
It’s taken me a year to forgive them, but hunger has driven me back to Hot Peppers, the original, and now one and only, owned by the mother of the daughter who runs the Green Papaya chain.
This Hot Peppers occupies a space that was once the trendy Italian restaurant Zibibbo, and is now well embedded. If you aren’t familiar with Hot Peppers, or the space it occupies, you might be surprised by the dark, designery look, or the eclectic blend of music it plays.
You might also be pleased by the wine list, which actually makes an effort to match the character of this complex food with the bottles on offer.
You can look at the Hot Peppers menu as either yawningly familiar or you can approach it licking your lips in anticipation of all those familiar favourites. There’s the usual list of appetizers, noodle and rice dishes, curries of various colour and intensity, stir-fries featuring various proteins, including lamb, and sometimes specials that seem like the same specials offered everywhere.
We start with squid. It’s not unlike everyone else’s calamari – a frozen product, chewy, bathed in a peppery garlic sauce. The crab cakes are better, served with the usual too-sweet chilli sauce. There are decent spring rolls, and tender enough satay, rubbery but well seasoned fish cakes, and too-fishy mussels with that same chilli sauce.
Tom yum is always a good test. Hot Peppers’ version of this classic Thai soup can boast a solid broth – fragrant, perfectly seasoned, with straw mushrooms, coriander, scallions, and a fiery finish. I’d start with it. And then I’d highly recommend a salad. The beef salad is a winner, featuring rare strips (a rare treat) of well-marinated steak, and so is the mango salad, with juicy ribbons of sweet, perfectly ripe mango in a spiced-up jumble of crunchy cashews and shrimp.
Seafood tends to be weak in Ottawa’s Thai restaurants, and Hot Peppers isn’t an exception here. One night the weakest dish is the
salmon – steamed to dry, tough, tasting of its frozen start. But I give it another go a few weeks later, after extracting a promise from our delightful server Celeste that it is fresh, and my second stab at it reveals a much happier fish, moist and yielding in its gingery broth.
Noodle dishes, like the crowd-pleasing pad Thai, are moist and tasty, though tend to be on the sweet side. I prefer the racier pad ki mow.
It may not be very Thai, but the green curry with lamb curry is very tasty, the meat pleasantly muttony, the vegetables bright, the Thai basil and lime leaves in balance with the coconut milk, not deluged by it. The pad ped tar leay (seafood with chilli paste, basil, lime leaf) is described as hot, and for once this is not an understatement. Guaranteed to bring sweat to the brow.
There is a decent mango cheesecake with coconut ice cream if you want something sweet to temper the heat.
Service provided by Celeste is a monumental drawing card here – though at the close of my final visit here, she announces the menu is about to be completely revamped. These Hot Peppers People seem to delight in sabotaging accurate reporting at every turn.
Let’s hope the new menu steers away from the usual stuff, and gives us a short list of novel, vibrant and deliciously unfamiliar dishes. I think this kitchen is up to it. The stylish dining room, intelligent service, and cut-above wine list all suggest an adventurous spirit at play.