Dining Out: Sugar Marmalade’s Asian snacks and desserts were hit and miss
180 Rideau St., 613-241-1255, sugarmarmalade.com
Open: Sunday to Thursday noon to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 2 a.m.
Prices: savouries and sweets up to $10.49
Access: no steps to front door, washrooms
Regarding my first lunch at Sugar Marmalade on Rideau Street, my notes consisted of just four words — “So bad for you.”
That’s not to say that my dining companion and I didn’t enjoy what we ate at this Asian snacks and desserts eatery, which opened in the spring where Hooch Bourbon House had been.
My scribbles were meant as an admission of guilty pleasures — deep-fried savouries that went down easily but later felt heavy in the gut, plus drinks and desserts that were fruit-forward and sweet as all get-out.
One of the flock of small Asian eateries that have opened recently in Ottawa, Sugar Marmalade is a franchise, one of nine locations in Ontario that reflect the tastes (and budgets) of a clientele young enough to think that they’ll live forever despite their snacky, sugary diet.
Sugar Marmalade offer a massive menu with a staggering list of desserts ranging from mundane to exotic, including puddings, parfaits, panna cottas, cheesecakes, shaved ice, sweets-laden toasts, glutinous rice desserts, and desserts based on soya beans, sago and grass jelly.
Here they serve not just bubble tea, but also juices, Italian sodas and special beverages, the most daunting of which are “durian deluxe” and “brain freeze apple deluxe.”
Meanwhile, in this room whose walls are densely festooned with peppy pro-dessert slogans and catchphrases, there are a few meaty Asian dishes and snacks.
At that first lunch, we were pleasantly surprised by Sugar Marmalade’s Japanese-style popcorn chicken, which consisted of a massive portion of just-fried, super-crisp nuggets of meat and chicken skin, improved with drizzles of Japanese mayo and a sweet-tangy brown sauce, plus a scattering of julienned seaweed. Not any healthier for you, but irresistible too, were the crinkly, ultra-crisp kimchi fries, moistened with a Sriracha mayo.
Veering away from deep-fried crispness, we went for the gummy chewiness of Hong Kong-style steamed rice rolls, which were more plain than I guessed they would be, and simply dressed with another store-bought savoury brown sauce and sesame seeds.
From the special beverages category, we both homed in on mang0-based choices and were rewarded with Mason-jar mugs brimming with slices of fresh mango, mango juice and a chewy element such as sago pearls to impart that springy texture the Taiwanese in particular value. The creamier Golden Royal Drink was reminiscent of a lassi.
If I could be guaranteed junk food of a similar high calibre on future visits to Sugar Marmalade, I’d be popping by as frequently as my arteries could handle it. But at my two subsequent visits, a lunch and a packed-house dinner, as we dove more deeply into the menu, we also met with more disappointments.
The level of the deep-frying was never as exalted as it had been on my first visit. Honey garlic chicken wings were juicy and surprisingly tubular, but they were mild of flavour. Taiwanese-style (plain and unsauced, that is) popcorn chicken was alright, but not nearly as good as the superbly fried predecessors. Deep-fried calamari were oily.
An order of “mixed balls” (fish, squid, lobster, beef) was good for amusing the 14-year-old boys in our party, but was otherwise pretty pedestrian, as ordinary as the sweet-chili sauce from a jar that came with it. Ditto the Taiwanese-style fish cakes that came with a blob of wasabi, and for that matter, the sweet potato fries, which curiously came with no dipping sauce, unlike so many other dishes.
Among the larger plates served with rice and broccoli, a giant, pepper-salt baked chicken leg was well-seasoned, moist and suitable for sharing. Bone-in chunks of chicken with Chinese mushrooms were hearty and satisfying. But the deep-fried Japanese-style pork cutlet was so-so, and the Japanese curry that topped it was very mild, even as Japanese curries go.
I confess to feeling a little less adventurous than this job might entail when I visited Sugar Marmalade, and I passed on stewed papaya with white fungus sweet soup, as well as Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken cartilages.
The most outré dish that I did sample was Japanese-style eel on a slab of toast with melted cheese. The eel, while tasty, was very fatty, and the cheese was simply dismaying. Maybe the pulled pork or pizza toast would have been better, or, from the sweet side of the spectrum, the hazelnut chocolate or marshmallow toasts.
We sampled a few more interesting mugs. The strawberry and lime Italian soda was a nice, tart concoction and the chrysanthemum drink was simple and refreshing. A chocolate shake, topped with a towering mound of what seemed like aerosol cream, was mediocre.
More of that bland, texturally disappointing cream abounded inside the mango pancake, which was more like a crepe. Hazelnut mocha panna cotta included good ice cream, but much less good panna cotta, and, oddly, corn flakes. Chocolate egg waffle looked like a Jackson Pollock painting and tasted good, but would have been much better if it had been as hot and fresh and crisp as it might have been from a good night-market vendor.
I wish I could like Sugar Marmalade more, and look the other way health-wise to enjoy its over-the-top, trans-Pacific aspect. But too many inconsistencies and shortcuts make me think that lovers of deep-fried items and eye-widening desserts will have to open the eatery’s doors with fingers definitely crossed.