At Art-is-in Bak-ery at lunchtime, the scent is pure toast and crispy pig fat. The room is frantic and festive with hungry energy. A growing lineup stretches right out the door from the pastry counter, winding past a display of fine French tarts, beyond metal cooling racks filled with pizzas, signature rustic breads, and nubby baguettes that have become recognizable fixtures at farmers’ markets and sandwich shops all over town. It’s Thursday, and Facebook followers and bakery regulars know that burritos are on the specials board. Few need an excuse to take the downtown detour into the parking lot of an industrial warehouse off Scott Street, where the city’s bread fanatics are treated to a little slice of Brooklyn for lunch. Patrons who manage to secure a coveted seat at one of a random collection of tables on the loading dock are drawn instantly into the action. They are as much a part of the decor as the mountain of flour sacks, the churning industrial mixers, and the giant green grill that hatched the infamous fried-egg-crowned bacon cheeseburger that appears often on the bakery’s Sunday menu.
Art-is-in’s owner, the enigmatic baker Kevin Mathieson, has gone from cooking haute cuisine and mastering the art of French pastry to making some of the most lip-smacking renditions of made-from-scratch everyday food this city has ever seen. He’s waiting tables, scurrying back to the kitchen to hop on the line for the rush, filling and rolling up the parchment-thin flour tortillas he made that morning with luscious pork-belly confit — the key ingredient in his latest culinary obsession. The moist, juicy shreds of meat mingle with aromatic spices, their flavour boosted by a long bath in their own fat, followed by flavourful chicken stock and a beguiling glaze of maple syrup and lemon juice that creates tangy-sweet crispy bits on the flat-top. Like many local food gawkers, Mathieson noticed that trendy tacos were popping up everywhere, yet he felt none of them came close to the beauties he had enjoyed on his recent travels. And so he set out to bring together the spirit of California’s street-food darling with the secrets gleaned from time spent working in kitchens in Mexico. The goal? To create the ultimate burrito to please his harshest critic: himself.
Infusing Ottawa with genuine foodie swagger, Art- is-in’s lunchtime mob scene is evidence that the city’s culinary identity is changing. Or perhaps it’s a sign that restaurant chefs have underestimated the appetite of the dining public all along. It may not be a restaurant by classic definition, but by the end of each weekday afternoon, 600 people have been fed by Art-is-in (that number climbs to 1,000 on weekends), including several of the city’s top chefs. Daily menus rotate regularly and feature pleasure-giving fare that flips the bird to special diets (or any diet, for that matter) and feeds the same hedonistic spirit behind the trendy food trucks and pop-up restaurant culture that is sweeping great food cities around the globe. Consider it a drive-in, diner, and dive, all in one. It’s the place to go to be reminded, as Mathieson likes to say, that life is too short to eat bad food. And Ottawa wouldn’t be the same without it.
250 City Centre Ave., Bay 114, 613-695-1226, www.artisinbakery.com.