Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beautiful food at Gastown's Cobre

Cobre on Urbanspoon

After yesterday's disappointing inhaled-in-three-minutes burger at Romer's Burger Bar, I wanted to salvage my culinary vacation and finally got around to trying Cobre, tucked away past the main busy-ness in Gastown at 52 Powell. At 5pm when they open, there's practically nothing else open within a half block radius although in the very next block, a dozen or so restaurants are packed to the gills.

I got in shortly after 5pm, and there were a couple of small parties but nothing serious. By 6pm, things were pretty busy and they had reservations stacked up for the night. Although the server said the food would come quickly, it was paced out, and for my unexpectedly large order for one person, that turned out just fine.

No buxom servers here -- All guys in plain dark Ts and jeans (which I thought helped with the casual ambiance, but could still have been upscaled a tad to black pants, or at least all black jeans, eh?).

Important tips:
(1) Ask about dessert. It's not on the printed menu or online, but there is a small dessert selection and you'll need a good memory because it'll come to you verbally from the server. If you like rounding out dinner with dessert, you might want to at least scope it out early. Tonight there was a condensed milk drink, a chocolate dessert, and "coconut tres leche". I forgot to ask, but from the easy, confident way the server explained the choices, I'm willing to bet it's the same every day.
(2) The portions are not as small as you think. It might sound that way from the servers, and look that way from pictures online, but be careful! I would suggest ordering no more than two items per person and holding on to the menu. If you choose from the tacos (under the section "taqueria", or "taco shop", on the menu) and tapas, that might very well be enough as a light meal.
I was excited to try interesting food and ended up ordering three items. After the surprisingly large tapas third course, I was already thinking about cancelling my dessert.

My meal tonight was the ceviche of the day ("ceviche para el dia"; $13), lamb tacos ("lamb bondiga y mole, sardo parmesan browned garlic popcorn"; $12), boar belly ("Maple chipotle tamarind glazed wild boar belly, chicharon y patacones"; $15), and dessert (coconut tres leche; $7). After tax and tip it came up to $62.64. Yoicks! -- Considering two of these could have been gotten (with a dessert) for $28 during Dine Out Vancouver. Whether you would have gotten the same sized portions, though...

The ceviche tonight was a mound of scallops cured in sharp lime and sitting in a sweet sauce. There wasn't too much sauce, so you couldn't smother a slab of scallop without raising your plate to get enough sauce into your spoon. This was actually a good thing since the sweet sauce would have overpowered the raw scallops. Too little sauce would have left you with just a tangy scallop because of the lime. Overall, I thought it was just right.
The gorgeous presentation hid the fact that it was a good sized portion: The mound of scallops may have looked small because it was a pale colour on the white plate.

The lamb tacos were a confusing experience. On the good side, despite the lamb patties being generously sized such that you could just barely close the 4 inch wide soft tacos when you pulled up the sides, there wasn't any mess trying to eat them in just two bites. Nothing fell out, and on just one out of four tacos, some juice escaped onto the plate.
The ground lamb patties were thick and moist, but with varying amounts of pink inside. I wasn't sure this was how it's meant to be, but with thick patties like that, you're really trusting the chefs to do it blind--They are probably not prepared to chop it open and check. Some pink won't kill you, but if you're averse, you might want to ask the server to convey your request to the kitchen to make sure it's cooked through. This may, of course, get you slightly drier or overcooked patties.
The popcorn was clearly there, though sadly it made no difference. More of a gimmick than anything, I'm afraid.
On two out of four tacos, there was a bit too much burnt taste, probably from the toasting of the tacos or possibly one or two slightly burnt popcorn kernals. Unfortunately a distracting taste.
Overall, I thought it could have somehow used a bolder flavour somewhere. Not necessarily tangy or hot, maybe just stronger.
The clean and easy way they could be eaten makes this order an easy choice for a party of 2 or four.

The wild boar was a surprisingly larger order. There's a gorgeous picture of how it looks on their website, but from the angle, you can't tell it's a long row of cubes approximately 1-1/2" to a side. Each chunk will probably take 2 bites.
This plate is best shared or ordered as a standalone light meal.
If you eat like a size 6 pigeon trying to slim down into a size 0 hummingbird, you should know it's not all lean meat. They just sliced it off the boar, fat and all. If you strip the fat (which isn't crispy and really worth keeping), suddenly you've lost about a third of your meal. The juice (delicious and sweet, and barely any heat) is in abundance and even if you throw away the fat, you can smother the exposed remainder properly.
In hindsight, there is a lot of merit to cutting out the fat because it really didn't add so much to the meal at all, and the taste could lend a heaviness to the dish and your dining experience overall.

The tres leche ("three milk cake") was plated beautifully but unfortunately lacklustre. It was also a light portion: imagine a regular North American sized cake wedge, shrink it down to half, and put a 1-inch-diameter scoop of green ice cream on top.
If you're worried about the sometimes pungent aroma that comes from too much milk, worry not. That said, there wasn't anything outstanding in taste at all. At $7, you could have gone elsewhere for a slice of cake two or three times as large and just as boring.

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