Here is a concept that may confuse you: hot sauce, on your vanilla ice cream. Crazy? Not for Larry Russell, at least.
Russell owns and runs Meow! That’s Hot, a small hot sauce kitchen-cum-restaurant on Bank Street, along with his wife and another business partner. The restaurant, which had its soft launch back in April, grew out of Russell’s hot sauce company — the source of the Meow! That’s Hot name.
While the restaurant may be new, the line of hot sauces is more than a decade old, and has followed Russell from place to place through his restaurant career.“The hot sauce came way before [the restaurant],” says Russell. It’s a nomadic line of hot sauces, that have moved throughout and within Ottawa’s restaurant industry: While he was working at two restaurants on Preston Street (the former Il Piccolino and still-operating Il Primo) Russell and a coworker were making hot sauces to go on some of the pizzas they were selling. Eventually, they started selling them, and for “at least five years,” Meow! That’s Hot sauces were made there. Later, they would be made in the House of Targ kitchen, which Russell rented out on weekdays when Targ was closed.
Eventually, it came time to have its own kitchen, and out of that need grew the idea to start a restaurant. “We were looking for a few years,” says Russell. The concept sort of slowly developed, like, ‘well, let's open a little restaurant, because we're going to have a kitchen and we're gonna be paying rent.’”
Meow! That’s Hot hot sauces, Russell explains, are all fruit-based. “We’re going for flavour first. We don’t have anything that is hot enough for you to, you know, put in your roommate’s coffee and wait and watch, that kind of thing,” he says. “We’re going for flavour. The fruit lends itself to good flavours. A lot of the hot sauces out there — which are great, I love almost all kinds — a lot of them are pure pepper, with a little bit of spice and vinegar.”
The focus on fruit produces some ingredient combinations that might seem unusual: the Lynx Lava sauce, which combines watermelon and habanero; a cranberry and scorpion pepper sauce that they make for the Clocktower Brew Pub chain of restaurants; and a strawberry, habanero, scotch bonnet and mint sauce — one of the flavours Russell says is “really good on vanilla ice cream or pies.”
(And, though there was no ice cream at hand, the sweetness of the sauce means it’s an idea that holds water. The things you learn interviewing a self-proclaimed “chili head”…)
Russell says that the hot sauce line-up — which now comprises 11 different flavours — is “maybe about where we’re going to stay for a year or two now.” Making hot sauce, to scale, means a lot of tinkering with recipes. “It takes a while,” he says, for new flavours to get developed. “It takes us between a year and two years from the idea, to actually getting it where we want it, and then getting the nutrition tables, getting the labels made, and all that stuff.”
He jokingly admits that “it shouldn’t take that long” — but then again, Russell takes his hot sauce seriously. And, for that matter, hot sauce relies on a bit of undisturbed alchemy. One of the last steps in the testing process is to put the sauce in a bottle and let it sit for “a couple of weeks” before it’s ready to be properly tasted. Hot sauce doesn’t really respect a schedule.
In the meantime, Russell is hoping to see a bit of an artistic community develop around the restaurant. Every Tuesday, they hold a songwriters night, where local songwriters (or non-music writers too, they aren’t too choosy, Russell says) can come and play in an open mic with the “loosely enforced” rule that everything has to be original material. On Wednesday, they host a bring-your-own-vinyl night, where the restaurant will play “at least one side” of whatever you bring in — “any genre” says Russell. (Contributing will also score you a 10 per cent discount on your meal.)
All of that is part of ingratiating the restaurant within the local economy and arts scene. It is part of the business’ ethos: they sell local beer and spirits, try to eat local food, support local artists, and so on. By coming to the restaurant, “you’re supporting a local business,” says Russell, “but you’re also supporting other local businesses just by being here.”
Meow! That’s Hot is located at 519 Bank Street, and is open for dinner Tuesday thru Saturday, lunch on Wednesday thru Sunday, and brunch on the weekends.