Monday, May 30, 2011

Back to Maurya for 1000 points

Maurya Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A little while back I mentioned 1,000 point tables from Open Table, the online restaurant table reservation service when I went to the Granville Room.

Another 1,000 point table (which puts you halfway toward a $26 voucher), and one that's very easy to get 1,000 points with, is Maurya Indian Cuisine. It's fallen off the map from Dine Out Vancouver now, but back in 2009, it came out well ahead of the competition, and it's most popular dishes on the Dine Out Menu are still proudly featured. I recently caught up with an old (vegetarian) friend there. Our order came out to...

  • Chaat Tikki (2009 Dine Out Vancouver Award for best appetizer) potato and pea cakes pan-toasted, served with chickpeas, mint chutney, tamarind chutney, and yogurt
  • Chicken Chettinad (2009 Dine Out Vancouver Award winner) marinated chicken in South Indian chettinad paste of coconut and poppy seeds; South Indian specialty served with rice and naan bread
  • Garlic and Basil Naan Indian leavened bread flavoured with chopped garlic and basil
  • Malai Kofta vegetable and cheese dumplings in a creamy cashew sauce scented with cardamom
  • 2 glasses of wine

The total was $66.10, $90 after tax and tip.

The Chaat Tikki was one large block of potato cake, about the size of a hockey puck. Despite the menu listing, it was a single cake, with a token salad on the side. Curiously tasty for a potato cake, even without the chickpea mix and chutney.

Chicken Chettinad was blocks of white meat swimming in an orange curry. It looked and tasted somewhat like butter chicken, though not quite. I ordered it spicy, and in hindsight I think that was a mistake as there was a bitter overtone to the spiciness that competed with the delicious curry.
On the plate it didn't look like much curry, but once you add in the bowlful of rice, token salad, and naan, you were stuffed.

The Malai Kofta was three large balls each slightly larger than a golf ball. Again, it didn't look like a lot, but the potato base helped to make it filling, and my dining partner was stuffed after savoring every last bite and drop of curry with her Garlic Naan. Although the menu says "sauce", it's actually more like a small quantity of thick soup in its consistency and the amount you got.
The Naan didn't look like it had any basil, but that might have been because she specifically asked for garlic naan without looking at the menu, and the server may have had the basil held. Not much of a cashew taste to the sauce.

There is a separate and, to me, very disappointing dessert menu with just three items, one of which was ice cream. We gave it a pass.

Overall a solid choice for an Indian restaurant and you're pretty much guaranteed to leave stuffed.
The room is one big high-ceiling dining hall that can accommodate very large parties. The square tables can fold out into rounds to seat even larger groups. We went on a Saturday evening, so there was quite a number of diners and buzz -- very much different from the half-empty room during Dine Out Vancouver 2010.

Something for everyone at The Eatery

The Eatery on Urbanspoon

With The Eatery's huge menu, it's not hard to claim having the largest selection of veggie sushi in Vancouver. You've probably at least heard of the place and it's funkiness. There are immense sculptures hanging from the ceiling, some made from hundreds of tiny toys mashed together.
It's worth a look, even if the ambiance isn't for you. And as for ambiance... It's busy and it's loud (even the music is loud, to blast over the buzz of the busy restaurant-goers). Personally, not my scene but at 25% off, what the hey?

Yes, 25% off. You probably missed it, but EarthSave put on a bit of a fundraiser for their organization. The deal was $2 for Earthsave if you weren't a member, and 25% off your meal at The Eatery. EarthSave's Vancouver Meatless Meetup does put on quite a few interesting dining events, so I highly recommend signing up (it's free to sign up -- no commitment to events, no membership fee) and getting their announcement e-mails.

Due to the horde of people that day (there was our group, plus two birthday parties in the lounge), each table of six had a single bill, so the vegans and vegetarians got herded separately to keep things straightforward, and the bill came with tip pre-calculated.

The food was okay. Our table ordered the "Garden of Eden" veggie platter (spicy vegetable roll, mango paradise, yummy yam roll, avocado roll, 3 pieces Imari nigiri). The regular price was $24.95. There were a couple of separate orders as well, and overall it was okay. Not bad, but not as funky as the restaurant, and nothing to write home about.

We finished off with a Pear (hazelnut gelato shaped like a pear and dipped in chocolate with torrone pieces). It was pretty good, a slightly different take on just having a couple scoops of ice cream. It was also pretty hard, so ask for a knife (yes, a knife) to more conveniently cut off chunks. The crunch of the chocolate coating to go along with the ice cream gives this dessert a pleasant texture in the mouth. A bit pricey for the quantity you get at $5.75 though. And probably not vegan, either, but we were at the vegetarian table.

As for vegan options, you have to look carefully and ask your server about the sauces. Some servers don't necessarily know enough, so if you're uptight about accidentally eating something that has an animal component to the sauce, you might want to pick a different place. Some sauces may incorporate honey or be a beef-stock based teriyaki sauce.

So far I'd have to say The Eatery is probably more about the space, the big tables to field big groups, and the endless menu for people who want to try different things. If you look hard enough, there are a few interesting eats, and I'll probably have to go back some time for something like the Panama Roll (avocado cream cheese topped with tempura plantain banana and dragon sauce) or The Figa Roll (figs, blue cheese sauce, tempura crunch wrapped with prosciutto).
Since this was a vegan/vegetarian dine-out, I gave those a pass this time.

The most disappointing part of the evening was the service. With three big groups coming in to the lounge, plus regular lineups for their regular restaurant side, you'd think management would have tried harder to arrange for a couple more servers to tend to the three parties. But no, instead we had just a couple of overwhelmed servers.

When was the last time you ate cactus?

Oi! I'll be playing catchup with restaurant reviews this week, after going to The Eatery and Maurya Indian Cuisine these past few weeks.

But first, I wanted to post a quick note about a fixed-menu dine-out put on by Earthsave this coming Sunday. You may even have gone to this fairly popular restaurant before, but you may not have had quite the same items.
It's an all-vegan menu, so everyone can enjoy:

  • guacamole platter with tortilla chips
  • cactus taco (medium size taco with with beans, cactus, cilantro and onion)
  • half of huitlacoche (corn smut) quesadilla
  • half of squash flower quesadilla
  • refried beans
  • mexican style rice

Prepayment by PayPal or credit card is required to secure a seat.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why customer service is a sucky job

It's been a stressful week wrangling with clueless customer service. It's not that I think the customer service person is an idiot necessarily, but they just aren't aware of what's going on and they're hapless on the front lines.

Case #1 - ScotiaBank and the Land Titles Office

My late father's home was fully paid off around 2005. Just recently -- six years later, and over a year after he's DECEASED -- ScotiaBank sends a form to be taken to the Land Titles Office. It is to notify them that the mortgage on his home has been paid off and they should take it off the property.

So, I go to the Land Titles Office and get some song and dance about how nothing matters except getting the processing fee. (Like, WTF?)
At the Land Titles Office, I am explicitly told I do NOT have to report back to ScotiaBank because "they already know the mortgage has been paid off".

I go back to ScotiaBank and ask them how come it took six years before they sent the letter. They tell me that they in fact did send it out before, but my father never got back to them that it'd been processed.

Huh? The Land Titles Office says we don't need to tell ScotiaBank. The bank says we do. And somewhere in there, this falls off the planet for six years and is left undone until he's dead. And even then, they mail it to him and not the other person on title, my mother.

Case #2 - Six months of "free" internet service from SHAW

I was using my home internet connection very, very little, so instead of paying something like $20 per month to update my anti-virus software, I decided to chop off the internet connection and completely insulate myself from internet viruses that way.

About a week ago, I get a call from SHAW. Because I'm a "valued customer" (I now pay $30/month for the land line phone), they want to give me 6 months FREE internet service. Obviously to entice me back to signing up with them.
The telemarketer insisted it was free. Nothing was said about any payment scheme or what not. Straight up free, apparently.
I said yes. Why not?

Yesterday I get the electronic bill in my inbox. They've charged me $14.50 in "charges since your last invoice".
I try to log onto to find out what it is about, but probably because of some sort of technical glitch, my account number "can't be found". So I wait till 7 am PST to try the chat.
On comes an utterly clueless customer service person. She apparently hasn't been told what telemarketing is doing or what billing is doing, because she first tells me that she doesn't see the $14.50 charge I'm talking about on my account.

Then I tell her about the "free internet for 6 months" offer. She tells me that no, it's not "free". It "works out to be" free. By having a second service, I apparently save about $10 off the land line phone. The internet service is charged at a special offer rate of $9.95, so it will work out that I'm not paying anything extra. In the meantime, though, she did say I would see a pro-rated charge for the portion of the month I've had the service.
I tell her that the telemarketer told me it was free and didn't mention anything about "working out to be free". I ask her to pull the call recording to verify. She tells me calls are only recorded for training purposes.
Great. So it's my word versus the telemarketer.
Also, I'm not sure how a promotional rate of $9.95 per month prorates to $14.50 for just a portion of a month, but I didn't bring it up at the time.

2011-May-24 shaw invoice

I then point out that the bill says I've been charged $14.50, and the net bill for this month will be over $50 after tax. Clearly it is neither free, nor does it "work out to be free".
She says I have to wait for the "final bill". Huh? It looks pretty final to me, especially when it's in my inbox and it says clearly what amount will be deducted at the end of the month by automatic payment. The bill doesn't say anything about an adjustment coming. It would have been helpful to see the full billing detail or at least a note about the internet offer.

Of course, what would have been supremely helpful would be for their front line customer service pawns to be told what the heck is going on by telemarketing (how they are talking about the promotion) and billing (how the bill will show up for the customer), so they don't look like idiots in front of customers.

I try to cancel the service right away, but am told I need to call a 1-888 number. So on top of customer service being clueless and of no help, I am being shuffled off to a customer retention line to prevent me from cancelling the service. Do managers really not understand how infuriating that can be to a customer, to be passed on to someone else?
Honestly, they're just throwing their customer service people to the wolves by keeping them in the dark and structuring the flow of calls / inquiries / complaints in this way.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How is My Portfolio Doing?

Still feeling confused and unsettled by one helluva wringer of a meeting with my financial advisor on Wednesday.

Every now and then, I try to tackle the question of "Is my financial advisor handling my mutual fund portfolio well?" or, more basically, "How is my portfolio doing?"

I have never really gotten a useful answer to this, and it's largely futile to ask another financial advisor to analyze your portfolio because they will generally angle to get you to switch advisors.
(That said, ScotiaBank will dissect your portfolio through an analysis tool that dissects it with MorningStar mutual fund reports, that show what you're invested in and how each fund performed over the last few years. You can at least take that with you for what it's worth.)

Mutual fund portfolio critiques have taken various forms, including simple "did it outperform index such-and-such", to "what is the quartile ranking of the underlying funds?"

Complicating my quest to find an answer to this is that speaking to my financial advisor about this often provokes more of an emotional response than anything. All too quickly it becomes a question of trust -- "It sounds like you don't trust me anymore!"
To be fair, though, I was grappling with what to ask and what would qualify as an objective measuring tool, and that caused the whole meeting to meander and stretch out far longer than it should have gone. We digressed into talking about risk and where else the portfolio could go, and that sidetrip cost a lot in terms of time and focus.

I was honestly baffled that there was no objective benchmark. I couldn't shake the sense that the portfolio should have done better somehow, but I couldn't illustrate it and the answers I got was hard to interpret.

Answer number 1: "It made you money. ___% is a good return."

We arrived at this by (Current Portfolio Value - Net Amount Invested) = Money Made.
(Money Made / Net Amount Invested) = Return%.

Since (Net Amount Invested) wasn't an initial lump sum, Return% is actually an understated amount because we are assuming that all the money had equal time to grow. That is, Return% cannot be evaluated as the total return after whatever number of years I have been with my financial advisor.
(By the way, given a starting and ending portfolio value and date, you can calculate an annualized rate of return using this handy online calculator, "Show Me The Return!".)

So far I understood where my financial advisor was going with this. But the answer was still mostly subjective/emotional. It seemed to be trying to elicit an emotional answer to questions like "Does this return look/feel good enough to you?"
Add to that the complication that my financial advisor honestly looked offended. Which I could understand if the Return% she showed me was in fact very good.
The problem was, I had no idea if it were actually a good percentage. I had nothing to compare it to.

Somehow I groped my way to expressing that question -- against what benchmark can we evaluate the portfolio's performance. Was 12.46% in 2010 a good return? -- That is, "good" compared to what?
The pat answer was that there was no benchmark because none of the basic benchmarks people talk about are relevant to my risk profile or portfolio composition. For example, if you pulled out, say, the S&P/TSX Composite which returned 17.6% in 2011, then it looks bad. If you took the S&P 500 which returned 9.5% in 2011, then it looks great. But since my portfolio had a chunk in Asia, the MSCI EAFE would have to be factored in, and it returned only 2.5% in 2011.

Another way to look at indexes might be to say "that's where I should have been invested". But that's hindsight thinking and it doesn't take into account either portfolio risk management or positioning the portfolio to buy low now and sell high later.
And it would also mean that from 2001 and 2002, you would have to accept that (for example) a -12% return was average because that's how the S&P/TSX Composite did. Using an index doesn't evaluate whether your advisor adequately protected you by investing in bonds and softened the blow. It also won't tell you that because they had arranged your portfolio to protect you from that sort of thing, that it wouldn't achieve 17.6% in 2011.

So I was ready to drop the whole index thing as too simplistic and complicated. But my advisor's insistence that 12.46% was a good return still bugged me. How did they know it was a good return if they didn't have a benchmark? So what was their benchmark.

Answer number 2: "Out of my over 700 clients, you had one of the highest returns. The average was between 3% and 4%."

I was honestly stunned. We'd already gone really overtime and my head was spinning and the advisor's emotions were running quite high at the time on top of everything else, so I didn't want to call them on the obvious -- They used their own performance to gauge their performance. (And we aren't even opening the can of worms about being able to verify the statement -- which would really then be a trust issue and I didn't want to get into that).
That's like a teacher saying, "You are a good student because you scored an 'A' letter grade, while most students only got a 'C'". Nothing wrong with this per se, except the question was about whether the _teacher_ was a good one. What the statement doesn't tell us is whether I would have gotten a substantially different letter grade had I been under the tutelage of another teacher.
Would I have gotten a substantially better or worse return if I had been with another advisor?

I'm not sure I would have gotten a more useful response -- as opposed to a simply more hurt or hostile response -- if I had asked directly, "How do I know you are a good mutual fund portfolio manager?"
And maybe there isn't any useful answer to that either, since there could be various factors at play, just as there were for the use of indexes.

More poking around later on the internet turned up this article, written in January 2011: "How is My Portfolio Doing ... And What Should I do About It?"

It recommends building a benchmark of weighted indexes to try to mirror what your portfolio contains. I'm in the process of reading it now and will try it soon. I've touched on the complications of using any benchmark, but it's probably still worth the exercise to get another potentially useful metric.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

$7 Appys at the Granville Room

Granville Room Kitchen & Cocktail Den on Urbanspoon
I headed out for light dinner at the Granville Room on Wednesday night to help my bestest dining buddy get 1000 points with Open Table.

If you don't already know, Open Table lets you reserve restaurants, earn points with fulfilling reservations, and redeem those points for $26 Dining Cheques.

The Granville Room is a curious little hideaway on Granville. Even on the sunniest day, it's dark and basically black on the inside. Even the washrooms are very dimly lit and with shiny black toilet bowls.
And the music is loud. Not really recommended for getting together with your friend to catch up.

At around 5pm when we walked in, it was dead quiet with basically just staff there. According to the bartender, the hockey crowd doesn't swoop in till around 5.45pm, and they linger till around 9pm. Then there's a strange dead zone between 9pm and 10pm when the clubbing crowd comes in and stays till 3am.

On Open Table, the Granville Room offers 1000 points Sunday to Thursday starting at 4pm. Coincidentally, 4pm-7pm is also the time when they offer $7 Small Plates. "Everything" on their Small Plates menu is supposedly $7, and this is on top of their Weekly Features, which offer daily deals on selected food and drink items. And if all this isn't enough, our bill came with a customer satisfaction survey which promised a $10 coupon for filling it out.

We hadn't paid enough attention to the online menu to catch the $7 Appy offer and ended up with a mix of appys for dinner -- so it will be interesting to see if Open Table will still award my dining buddy her 1000 points because the 1000 point reservations come with conditions:

Please note these restrictions:
  • Bonus Points do not apply to all holidays or in conjunction with other offers or promotions.
  • Two or more people must be seated and each person must order a minimum of one entrée.
  • If you change your reservation or arrive outside of the stated qualifying Bonus Point Reservations schedule, your reservation may no longer qualify for 1,000 Points.
  • Bonus Points cannot currently be earned on OpenTable Mobile (OpenTable for iPhone or

Our final order was...
  • $15 three fine cheeses with accompaniments (dessert menu; yes, we had it before everything else)
  • $7 baked bocconcini (small plates menu; normally $12)
  • $9 steamed Saltspring Island mussels (small plates menu; normally $12 or $9 on Thursdays)
  • $7 breaded chicken wings (small plates menu; normally $12)
  • $6 Frangelico crème brûlée (dessert menu)
  • $12 two glasses of red wine (Wednesday special -- all wines $6 per 5 oz glass)
Altogether $62.72 after tax but before tip.

three fine cheeses with accompaniments
  • Morbier with shaved maple almonds is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese of france named after the small village of Morbier in Franche-Comté. The flavour is rich and creamy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste and a tasteless layer of black ash.
  • Bresse bleu with grilled balsamic pear. Its natural rind is soft, white, and edible. Inside is a creamy, blue veined mild cheese which is good all year round
  • Cave aged Swiss Gruyère with burnt lemon chutney a rustic, somewhat oily rind gives way to firm, smooth textured cheese which is slightly aromatic with a robust, assertive flavour
The star of the show, as far as I was concerned, for sheer interestingness. It's listed under desserts, but we had it at the very start while still perusing the appetizer menu.
The actual portions of cheese look very small, but each portion is rich with flavour and good for three or four tiny bites. Definitely sharable if you don't snort it down like a hog but instead take your time to piece the cheese together with its accompaniment into a portion that's bigger than a nibble but smaller than a full bite.
The plate came with a small bowl of what looked like original flavour Raincoast Crisps. This worked out well to help scoop up some of the cheese as we were provided with only three butter knives.

The Morbier was a bright white disk cut from the slab. No sign of the traditional layer of ash, which I had actually been looking forward to. It could have been a slab of goat cheese for all I knew. The shaved maple almond had hardened into a single chunk and had to be chipped/cut. I think the almonds could have been a bit sweeter, but this combination was otherwise okay.

The blue cheese was very mild. I'm not normally a fan of stinky fungus cheeses, but this one was so mild that its main characteristic for me was how soft and creamy it was. You don't get a full pear here. Instead, it is a round slab from the lower half of the pear, with the core cut out. This was an okay combination too.

The Gruyère came as a long stick. From a distance, it might look like a really fat French fry. Quite hard to cut with the blunt butter knife, but otherwise alright. There was nothing looking or smelling burnt about the "burnt lemon chutney". In fact it was sweet but not overly so and a tasty accompaniment to the cheese if you don't over-slather the cheese with it. There was also a single section of lemon peel which I expected to be very bitter, but was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn't so at all.

baked bocconcini wrapped in smoked buffalo prosciutto, on a square of foccacia toast; pesto sauce; tiny salad
Compared to the other small plates, this one looked positively tiny. We could also have used a steak knife on it to penetrate the prosciutto. Overall okay -- it was as advertised, basically. Nothing outstanding but nothing wrong either. The pesto needed to be applied gently, as too much overpowered the taste. Very light vinaigrette on the token salad; not sure what it was. I wouldn't order this at $12.

steamed Saltspring Island mussels, curry butter sauce with cashews and cilantro, toasted foccacia
We hadn't thought to do it at the time, but we really ought to have asked for each appetizer to be brought separately instead of all at once. By the time we had each finished one chicken wing, everything had gone cold. And cold mussels just aren't tasty.
The other option for sauce was or white wine tarragon sauce with garlic and shallots. If we had known the foccacia would have herbs baked in it, I think we might have gone with that instead. The curry sauce was honestly not very good. It was thin and tasted more like some kind of soup jazzed up with curry powder than an actual curry. In any case, it clashed with the foccacia because of the herbs, and there was a bitter aftertaste to dipping it.
Technically this should have been $7 as it was on the small plates menu and fell under the $7 appy offer, but there were a fair number of mussels, and I didn't quibble over $2.

breaded chicken wings, Maker’s Mark bourbon bbq sauce
Of the appetizers, this was the most surprising because of the sheer quantity on the plate: You got eight drumsticks heaped on the plate, well-breaded (which increases its volume) but still easily twice as large as the more commonplace scrawny wings and drumsticks on your typical order of flavoured wings.
This definitely needed to be eaten hot and while it was still crunchy. In hindsight, we should have had just this one dish come out on its own so we could focus on it properly instead of spreading out to try the other appetizers, only to come back to it when it had gone lukewarm.
There are two sauces available: spicy jerk with jerk sour cream and Maker's Mark bourbon bbq sauce, which had intrigued me enough to order it.
If you didn't know about the bourbon you'd probably not have thought much of it. I'm not sure I'd give up honey garlic wings for these, but it's different and not too sweet. Of all the appetizers, this was the one plate that might tempt us to come back -- tasty and an ample portion that makes it a good deal during the $7 appy hour.

Frangelico crème brûlée with 3 hazelnut butter cookies
This turned out to be a disappointing finish to the meal, unfortunately.
We actually mistook the butter cookies for poor renditions of shortbread. They were alright, though the sugar sprinkled on them was a bit overkill, I thought.
On the other hand, the crème brulée wasn't very sweet -- the custard beneath was on the bland side in fact. They used the wide, shallow ramekin, and the dessert was sunken to almost half depth. The crunchy caramelized top had a bitterness that overtook everything, unfortunately.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

FREE Cinnamon Knot Day!

Hi Everyone!

It looks like not everyone knows (or cares) that it's FREE Cinnamon Knot Day today at a Bread Garden near you.
Yes, despite the direct mail blitz, there were no lineups this morning at BG Urban Cafés all over the Lower Mainland, apparently to formally announce the rebranding / makeover of The Bread Garden into a trendier brown-colour-themed BG Urban Café (your VISA receipt will still show "Bread Garden", at least at the 888 West Pender Street location).
And although the flyers show the website address to end in an accented "e", it is actually not necessary to type that special character for the web address.

The Cinnamon Knot is not a cinnamon bun at all, but a moist and chewy twisted bread. Simple and delicious, and definitely worth a try, especially when they're handing them out free today. No coupon necessary -- just show up!

I also took the chance to pick up a "Black Ganache Cake", which is listed in the flyer as a "Chocolate Conspiracy Cake". Mostly it is a smooth khaki cream in the middle sandwiched by a rich brownie-like cake, plus cream and soft chocolate "croutons" on top. Beautiful, but at $5.99 before tax, I thought the wedge could have been a bit wider. Not so rich to give you a heavy feeling or so sweet to give you a burning in your throat, but definitely delicious.

Anyway, stop reading and go get your free Cinnamon Knot at these Lower Mainland locations! (^_^)

Strange encounter at the Land Titles and Survey Authority office

Out of the blue, ScotiaBank sent a letter to my father a few days ago, saying that the mortgage on his home has been repaid in full and that we should arrange for a "registration of the discharge" as soon as possible. They sent us a form to this effect.
It doesn't sound special, except the mortgage was paid off many years ago and my father has been dead for a while now.

In any case, I took it down to the Land Titles and Survey Authority office. The teller took one look at the form and immediately announced that she (speaking on behalf on the LTSA) didn't really care about anything other than seeing the form filled with an applicant name, address, phone number, and signature; and getting the fee.

It didn't matter that the mortgage was long gone. It didn't matter that my father had died. It didn't matter who I was or who filled out the application. It didn't matter that Scotiabank be advised when it was done. It didn't matter who paid the $30.05 fee. In fact, the teller seemed to try to joke about it, saying that nothing mattered except that they got paid, and even then, the money could fall out of the sky for all they cared.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Vegan dinner at Goldfish

Goldfish on Urbanspoon
You may remember that way back, I attended a specially arranged vegan dinner at Joe Fortes.
The Vancouver Meatless Meetup arranged for another vegan dinner at a posh restaurant -- Goldfish (1118 Mainland).
The menu initially presented was horribly boring, but this time the restaurant selected wasn't rushed to throw something together, and the actual dishes were utterly delicious.

  • chilled mint pea soup,
  • composed salad (meaning NOT lettuce with dressing),
  • tofu with eggplant
  • risotto with asparagus
  • fruit tart with a seasonal sorbet

The somewhat grainy chilled mint pea soup turned out to be probably the largest course in terms of volume. It had a simple look to it, but sometimes simple things can be very delicious. Not overly minty -- just enough to give the chilled soup a refreshing quality and wake you up. If there's a criticism here, I think it'd have to be the portion. It was very generous, to the point where someone might find it a bit heavy because of its thickness. Fortunately, there weren't really any heavyweight mains in this menu.

The tofu was fried in a light flour batter, and laid on a wide strip of eggplant puree with just a hint of something chilli to give it a delayed bite. I found there wasn't quite enough of this sauce, and the kitchen was happy to oblige with more.

A "composed salad" was next, with a mix of vegetables (beets, arugala leaves), nuts (sunflower seeds, chickpeas), and fruit (blueberries, orange wedges), and raspberry dressing on the side. We could have used a spoon for this one to get more flavour / ingredients per bite. The sheer number of ingredients plus fruit to give it a freshness to contrast the vegetables made this salad quite memorable.

Risotto with asparagus and mushrooms was up next, nearly steaming hot from the kitchen and approximately one bowlful. It looked bland and boring on the plate, but was actually very savory, almost a bit too salty. Pepper optional and in hindsight, I think a turn or two of the pepper mill would have gone nicely. More than anything, the seasoning made it delicious, and there was some almost fruity tasting sweet orange-red sauce (supposedly some sort of chilli) gave it some playful flavour in the mouth if you mixed a bit of it in with each bite.

Finally, the fruit tart... I was rather suspicious that this was a kitchen disaster. Quite possibly the cookie-like crust (that was sweet but not overly so, and strongly tasting of coconut) had disintegrated or burnt at the bottom (which can happen if the filling somehow leaks out, for example), so that you got a good looking rim on your plate but no base, just a lot of tasty strawberry-in-sweet-sauce filling. A scoop of very fruity sorbet gave this dessert a third component. I'm not a fan of desserts that are so sweet they leave a burn in the throat, and this one was thankfully not one of those. Overall, a fresh and cool way to finish a wonderful meal.

$50 before tax and tip -- well worth it. It's not on the regular menu, so if you do want to try this menu, you could try asking for the "May 13th Katie Kitson vegan set dinner" and hopefully they'll remember it. You might get a superior fruit tart, however.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Skip the Blinys at Barin Restaurant

Barin Restaurant Russian cuisine on Urbanspoon

Thursday night our Meetup Group (the Culture Sponges) went to the Russian Barin Restaurant (2141 Kingsway; menu).

First, the good news:
  • It's a big room and actually quite a nice space.
  • If you like hot servers, the two waitresses had black tops on that seemed to incidentally-deliberately expose their generous cleavage. A bit obtuse an overkill, I must admit.
  • Medium-sized TVs showing Russian (?) music videos! Fun Euro-pop stuff. A bit retro for a North American audience, but lots of fun and frequently sexy.
We were over 30 people and the restaurant had definitely arranged seating for everyone, but strangely they only had two quickly overwhelmed servers. Also, the menu was quite restricted -- no soups whatsover (no borscht!), and a few entrees dropped. Plus there was talk of no cabbage rolls and only 6 chicken tapakas.

Strangely, most of our group ordered Olivie Salad ($5.95) and a Beef Stroganoff ($14.95) prepared in the traditional way (not the North Americanized savory version with mushrooms and pasta). One or two ordered the Chicken Kiev ($14.95), which apparently turned out very well but I didn't get to try it.

The Olivie Salad and Beef Strognaoff came with token sides of potato chips (or rice, if you preferred) and salad. The actual portion was about one small bowlful, approximately 4 inches in diameter and 2-1/2 inches deep.

The Salad Olivier tasted more or less like potato salad, but with some kick from what was probably diced dill pickles.

The Beef Stroganoff was disappointing. The strips of meat were between tasteless and vaguely like pork, and in any case very chewy. For $14.95 I also expected a larger portion.

I wanted something very different, so I gave the Bliny a go. Basically these are crêpes with fillings. I initially ordered Bliny with red caviar ($18) but over an hour later, the overwhelmed staff reported that it was an "impossible order" because they had no caviar on hand. I switched to salmon ($14), and a dessert bliny with "special milk sauce" ($12).

The bliny with salmon came as four thin crêpes a bit limply stuffed with smoked salmon chunks and folded like spring rolls. There was a token garnish and white dipping sauce (sour cream?). Honestly, for $14 I was expecting much more than four small spring rolls.

The dessert bliny was folded into a wedge like a Crêpe Suzette. The special milk sauce tasted something in between condensed milk and caramel sauce. Four small wedges for $12?!

The bill with tax and apparently pre-included tip totalled $31!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

50% off at Sanafir on May 17th, 2011

50% off at Sanafir (1026 Granville) on May 17th, 2011, between 5pm and 8pm.
Here's the catch -- it's a FREE admission "Travel Lovers Tweetup". Here's the blurb...

Do you love to travel? Have you travelled in the past, have an upcoming trip or looking to plan a trip?

This is for anyone interested in meeting people who love to travel. Meet, mingle & chat with other fellow travellers about previous trips, upcoming trips, dream trips, etc.

Sanafir - Arabic for ‘meeting place’, will be the location for the inaugural Travel Lovers Meetup/Tweetup. The Moroccan-style richly upholstered beds in the mezzanine level overlooking the restaurant will put us in the mood to dream about far-away lands.

Sanafir will also have their entire menu at 50% off so be sure to munch on some tapas-style plates prepared with the flavours of the North Africa, Asia and Middle East, offering a mix of both regional and exotic ingredients.

This is an informal, casual event where you will mingle, find out where people have been or are planning on going; ask questions, get tips, advice and ideas for your own trips.

Come by anytime between 5pm and 8pm, stay as long as you like.

Please feel free to invite all your friends and family who love to travel. The more people that come, the more experiences to be shared.

Be sure to register so that a name tag will be prepared for you. Please include which continents you have been to or are interested in going.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me:

If you are on Twitter, the hashtag for this event is #TravelLovers

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tea time at ShakTea

Shaktea on Urbanspoon

I hadn't seen my friend from the UK in months and months, and as she had expressed an interest in afternoon teas and the like, I suggested we meet at ShakTea (3702 Main Street). She inquired into the price of the full afternoon tea service and was daunted by it, but was still so taken by the concept of the place (the word she used was "amazed") that she just had to meet there anyway.

It's a rustic/oriental looking place, with a sort of quiet, calming vibe inside that is totally different from bright, bustling Main Street right outside. On the counter were three glass teapots on little stands with candles lit beneath, keeping the teas nice and hot. Tiny teacups were plentiful in a basket nearby for all to sample these three teas. I tried the intriguing Blueberry Yogurt Rooibos, which really does have yogurt bits in it, and was not disappointed by the interesting flavour.

My friend and I sat down for tea, and she ordered a Pumpkin Spice Rooibos to go with her Cheddar Toast ("Sharp, 5 yr aged white Cheddar with our Apricot Peach Oolong fig compote"), which though tasty enough turned out to be a rather disappointingly small sample of baguette-slice sized toasts with shavings of cheddar and a generous glob of fruit on top. Nicely put together flavour-wise, but I can see how anyone might balk at the miniscule serving (old cheddar and special compote notwithstanding). And curiously, the Pumpkin Spice Rooibos tasted like pumpkin but in fact involves no pumpkin at all.
Tea was served in a red pot with its own knitted Tea Cozy.

I ordered a Organic Shaktea Chai Chocolate Pudding to share ("Made with our popular Organic Shaktea Chai, spiced black tea infused with Belgian dark chocolate. Rich and decadent, with a slight bite from chai spices"), which came in a small, tall ceramic cup. A bit claustrophobic for my spoon, but the taste more than made up for it. There was a minty coolness as it goes down, followed by a slight spicy burn (which I'm not particularly fond of). Still, overall, a refreshing flavour, which isn't always the case with anything chocolate as rich chocolate can have a heaviness to it. The portion was quite fair for the price.

Two teas, one savory, one dessert -- plus tax and 15% tip the total came to $23.70. That works out to just about $6 per item (or about $5 before tip.) If you're used to Starbucks prices, then ShakTea is definitely worth a trip just for the amazing variety (helpfully navigated by very knowledgeable staff) of interesting sips and bites to be had, in a calm oasis amid a busy part of town. In the late afternoon, when there are fewer patrons, it's a nice little spot for a get-together.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Election 2011 - Conservative Majority

The election is over and as of 1:30am Tuesday, May 3rd, the stats as reported by The Globe and Mail are:

166 Conservatives
102 NDP
35 Liberal
4 Bloc Quebecois
1 Green

Sad to say, we Canadians can no longer claim to be smarter than the Americans. We can no longer hold it over them that they allowed George Bush a second term, since we've allowed Steven Harper a third, and stronger than ever.

It took three elections -- that would be about $900 million taxpayer dollars -- but Steven Harper has finally spent enough of our money to buy control of Parliament.

On the up side -- The Greens finally, finally, have someone in Parliament! Just one seat, but hopefully their voice and vision will be more visible to Canadians -- though that might not be till the next election.

And the Bloc Quebecois will also finally quiet down in Parliament too, at just 4 members. Long have they had a decisive voice and vote, which was strange as they are the only party that selfishly watches out for just a single province. It'll now be interesting to see what else Quebec loses -- or if the NDP will try to buy Quebec's continuing loyalty.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Friends don't abandon friends when they're drunk

On my way home on the skytrain on Friday night, there were two girls (young women?) sitting in the skytrain. One, a blonde, was texting on her cellphone. Her friend, a brunette, had thrown up on the floor.

At Nanaimo station, the train was detained. Because one person had thrown up, the entire train (not just that one car, but the whole train) was taken out of service.

The blonde pulled her friend over and advised her to keep quiet and inconspicuous. For her part, she tried to not be seen as an associate of brunette, who threw up again. The skytrain attendants finally located her and asked if she were alright.
Another train came by. The blonde got in, leaving her friend behind.