Saturday, October 29, 2011

Taste of Yaletown 2011 - Hapa Izakaya

Hapa Izakaya (Yaletown) on Urbanspoon

Went for my third and probably last Taste of Yaletown 2011 outing last night. It's the Secret Souls Walk at Garden Park (East 2nd and Templeton) and possibly some poking around the Waldorf's Halloween Carnival of the Souls tonight, so that's it for my weekend.
Although there were a few hits and misses, it was mostly an excellent experience at Hapa Izakaya last night. Here's the menu:

$25.00 per person (excludes taxes, gratuities and alcohol)
Appetizer - Please choose two dishes:

1. Negitoro: Chopped albacore tuna belly served with garlic toast
2. Beef Tataki: Lightly seared AAA beef topped with sesame chili sauce
3. Tuna Carpaccio: Thinly sliced ahi tuna with yuzu dressing
4. Enoki Bacon: Enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon skewer
5. Bintoro: Lightly seared albacore tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce
6. Ahi Tuna Taco: Sautéed  ahi tuna, pickled serrano tartar sauce with guacamole wrapped in flour tortilla

Entrée - Please choose two dishes:

1. Chowder: Halibut, scallop, bacon and dashi in a creamy chowder
2. Karaage: Deep fried boneless chicken tossed with soy ginger sauce
3. Jerk Tsukune: Chicken patties drizzled in home made jerk sauce
4. Short Ribs: Grilled AAA beef short rib marinated in apple-soy sauce
5. Renkon Gyoza: Minced pork layered with lotus root, tempura style
6. Ebi Mayo: Tempura wild shrimp tossed in spicy mayo sauce

Dessert Please choose one dessert:

1. Matcha Brulee
2. Mixed Ice Cream
3. Cheesecake

We were just two last night, myself an a dear friend who was going overseas for God-knows-how-long, but obviously the optimal way to experience this Taste of Yaletown offering is a team of three, or possibly four as you can pick up an additional dish that appeals the most.

Our order was:

  • Appetizers: Negitoro, Tuna Carpaccio,  Enoki Bacon, Bintoro.
  • Entrées: Jerk Tsukune, Short Ribs, Renkon Gyoza, Ebi Mayo.
  • Desserts: Matcha Brulee, Cheesecake.
The Negitoro was very nicely done. It comes out more or less like a steak tartare: Raw and marinated in a hot sauce that gives a nice kick but doesn't overpower with being too hot. This is just two pieces of very lightly garlicked toast, so it'll be a bit tricky to share with three -- though if they are observant and kind, they'll throw in  a piece of toast for each diner. There's definitely more than enough mashed up tuna to generously coast three of the small slices of thinly sliced baguette.

The red ahi tuna, remember to look underneath the slices for marinated seaweed to put some on top before popping it in your mouth. Delicate flavour, a bit of crunch from the young seaweed stems. If you don't take your time to savour this one it'll be lost on you.

My friend was very impressed by the Enoki Bacon because it made bacon into a gourmet ingredient. This may be a novelty to you, but for me I thought the bacon turned out a big too oily. They could have patted it down a bit more, but there's definitely a strong bacon flavour that leaves the tightly packed enoki mushroom strands (so fine it looks almost like vermicelli) to be there as crunchy texture. Two skewers of two pieces here.

The creamy white meat of the albacore tuna in the Bintoro didn't seem to have any taste from the searing component, but the addition of shallots fried until golden brown (somewhat common in South East Asian cuisine) adds a pleasant flavour to the otherwise monotonous fish. Remember to put some on each slice.

Sorry to say, but Jerk Tsukune was, for me, a bust. It's chicken nuggets sitting on curry sauce. The crust didn't seem to be strongly flavoured, so the nugget on its own is pretty boring. The sauce was over-curried or something because it was hot to give it a kick, but predominantly unpleasantly bitter. And I really thought that just overpowered and killed the whole thing.

Short Ribs totally made up for it. Wonderfully grilled and dusted with a red condiment. It comes with a yellowish mayo which you should try a bit of, but which I recommend you give it a pass. The searing of the ribs was definitely not overdone, so it added flavour instead of a bitter burnt-meat experience.

The Renkon Gyoza had a basic-tasting dumpling filling that came through clearly. The lotus root part added novelty to it an basically made it not-a-real-gyoza. It's flavour was also evident, but I thought that even though it the lotus root was thinly cut, it still dominated too much with the firmness and taste. For me, this was a mediocre dish. If you like gyozas, the lotus root component will be mere novelty.

I wasn't on the ball last night and forgot to eat the ebi mayo first. The deep fried prawns (ebi) were pre-coated in the special mayo, so if you wait too long the crunch is lost. And in any case, it would have tasted much better hot. If you've had ebi mayo at Hapa Izakaya before, but once upon a time, it's changed now. Instead of large, heavily battered prawns with sauce on the side, it now looks more like a sweet-and-sour-something type dish. Very tasty and worth a try. Also, there's no harm in munching the whole thing down, including a bit of the shell at the tail tip for extra calcium.

Dessert was no highlight but basically very competently prepared. I've had matcha brûlée before elsewhere, so it wasn't anything special -- which is not to say that it needed to be special here, since a place like Hapa Izakaya would not really be remarkable for it's dessert. The matcha brûlée is a bit less sweet than your typical crème brûlée and a good choice if you don't want too much sweetness.

Our cheesecake was a lemon one. Flavour was good, consistency was crumbly. Unlike the usual solid cream of a cheesecake, the fluffy looking cake feels lighter but is a bit harder to handle and you will probably benefit from having a second utensil to help you put it together with the bit of fruit and fruity sauce that comes with it, not to mention heaping the broken bits back onto your spoon. That aside, it's tasty enough to be called good.

At $35 it's okay value. The food isn't as beautiful as at Bistro Sakana, nor will you necessarily leave feeling full, depending on your usual appetite. But the flavours and a few stand-out items like the short ribs and negitoro make Hapa Izakaya still worth checking out.

At the bottom of their menu are three options for basically $10 a piece to buff your meal with a dish. It's not mentioned on the Taste of Yaletown menu, so keep and eye out and ask your server about what they are.

Reservations really are a must and they seem upfront and firm about when they need their table back if you drop in without one. Going a little later and during their busier hours may have you relegated to the bar.

If you do go this Halloween weekend, look out for Karl Lagerfeld and an eye-catching tiger woman!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Taste of Yaletown 2011 - Bistro Sakana

Bistro Sakana on Urbanspoon

It's only 7:30pm and I'm just back from another excellent Taste of Yaletown dinner! Not early enough to avoid the after-game skytrain rush, but definitely not sorry to have had dinner at Bistro Sakana.

It's a very fixed menu with no vegetarian option here, but the variety makes up for it. Here's the $35 menu:

$35.00 per person (excludes taxes, gratuities and alcohol)

Sockeye Salmon Miso Chowder
Atlantic Lobster Miso Bisque
Tai (New Zealand Red Snapper) Sashimi
with fresh ginger & ponzu sauce

All of:

  1. Wild Sockeye Jalapeno Aburi "Hakozushi": Sockeye Salmon layered with rice, box pressed, flame torched, and topped with jalapeño slices
  2. Toro Red Chili Aburi "Hakozushi": Albacore Toro marinated in Junmai sake & miso, layered with rice, box pressed, flame torched, and topped with red chili and key lime slivers
  3. Yuzu Black Sesame Encrusted Tuna Tataki: Albacore sashimi tataki encrusted with roasted black sesame and drizzled with tangy yuzu miso sauce.
  4. Ume-Shiso Smelt Tempura: Japanese butterfly smelt lightly fried in a delicate batter with Japanese plum paste and fresh "Shiso leaf"
  5. Shiro Miso Black Cod: Grilled white miso marinated black cod with pickled ginger sprout garnish

Hojicha Crème Brûlée
a creamy crème brûlée flavoured with roasted green tea

Suggested Wine Pairing
Koto Sennen Junmai Dai Ginjo Sake
Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc

Bistro Sakana is a tight restaurant with indoor and heated, covered, patio seating. Lighting is dim even at the bar, but if you position yourself at the end of the bar nearer the door side, you'll get the most lighting from behind the counter, plus a fairly decent view of the two chefs working up front (although you'll probably see the one chef continually churning out the Osaka-style boxed pressed sushi, or "hakozushi") -- two types of which will end up on your plate. Executive chef Etsuko Needham is on the other side of the cramped bar, nearer the kitchen entrance.

I went for the sashimi to start. It's a very delicate dish that does come with a bit of soy sauce on the side, but I encourage you to try it without. Each slice of snapper has a little bit of garnish that is just enough to flavour it but not enough to overpower it. Since the fish is thinly sliced to begin with, you'll kill it with too much sauce. If you need it -- as the taste can be a bit bland even with the condiments -- just dab it on with the tip of your chopsticks.
Presentation has the novelty of a small candle on your plate, which lends a romantic air to the dimly lit restaurant.

The heavy square platter with your dinner will probably surprise you with how beautifully plated it is. And then once you try it, you'll probably be astonished by how sweet many of the items are. Sweetness hasn't been the dominant flavour in my sushi-eating experience, so the condiments here were a refreshing change and made for an interesting and tasty experience. It's not overpoweringly sweet, and definitely it'll all be ruined by any soy sauce or wasabi.
(By the way, you can see pictures of  the Tuna Tataki and Black Cod on their Facebook wall photos).

Not too much rice here -- just enough from the four pieces of hazozushi to help make this a nice light meal that's not too filling (bigger appetites may want to browse the menu for a little something extra before dessert). The rest is fish and an interesting deep-fried fish cracker thingie -- the Ume-Shiso Smelt Tempura. This very thinly sliced fish is deep fried in a thick, porous batter that nevertheless comes out very crispy and not at all oily. It's really just to give a pleasant firmness to pick it up, and crunch for texture. It comes with a small dish of sea salt and a wedge of lemon. There's definitely too much sea salt here, so go easy (and the dish makes it hard to actually goof this up as it's tricky to mash the whole piece of smelt in and thereby grab too much salt-and-lemon-juice on it).
Something you can do with the leftover sea salt is to dab a bit onto your plate and rub a piece of hazozushi on it -- by far the most "normal" tasting and therefore somewhat bland (compared to the other items on the plate) selection on your plate.

Dessert was a pretty standard crème brûlée, jazzed up with roasted green tea. The flavour here is pretty subtle, tempering the sweetness of a basic crème brûlée. After having sight and taste dazzled by dinner, this was almost a letdown.

The beautiful plating, broad sample, interesting sweet flavours make this totally worth $35.
Staff were very polite (no surprise from a Japanese restaurant) but wait staff seemed a bit overwhelmed.  Going earlier instead of joining the scrum of a packed restaurant is probably your best bet.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Taste of Yaletown 2011 - Hurricane Grill

Hurricane Grill on Urbanspoon

It's time for Taste of Yaletown again! Now in it's 7th year, we sadly won't see Capones in the lineup. That mainstay of live jazz in downtown Vancouver has since folded despite an attempt to renovate and revive it. Another institution in Vancouver has folded, gone the way of The William Tell Restaurant, it seems.

I'm just back from an early dinner at Hurricane Grill down on the seawall in Yaletown. Honestly, I've never thought of going in there because of the tacky red-text-on-banana-yellow banner. It just didn't seem... classy?
Inside, it's hockey bar with lots of TVs on the bar side, just one medium-sized one on the sit-down-restaurant side. If you pay attention, you'll notice the flickering light of the wax candle brought to your table is inside the candle. No napkins here, just refills of cutlery wrapped in paper napkins, bar style. The whole place feels more bar than restaurant and trying to be both.

Anyway I'm glad I went tonight because I was pleasantly surprised. Here's the Taste of Yaletown 2011 menu:

$25.00 per person (excludes taxes, gratuities and alcohol)

Trio Soup Sampler
Tomato basil, squash harvest, and caldo verde
Mama Roma Salad
Romaine hearts, roasted roma tomatoes, roasted garlic, and Romano cheese with Caesar dressing
Snow Ball
Snow crab and tiger prawn ball with lemon sauce


Poached Arctic Char
Saffron quinoa and Swiss chard, with tropical fruit salsa
Marinated + Grilled Lamb Chops
Potato soufflé, fig yogurt, dinner vegetables
Roasted Chicken Breast
Goat cheese risotto balls, guajillo and wild mushroom sauce, dinner vegetables

Tofu Cheesecake
With berry compote
Tux Brûlée
An awesome combination of traditional and chocolate crème brûlée

I opted for the Snowball, the Chicken, and the Tux Brûlée to come with peppermint tea.

The Snowball was an awesome way to kick off the meal because of the cute presentation. It was a large ball, almost the size of a baseball, sitting in a potato basket (a deep fried weave of shredded potato). Sticking out of the ball was one crab claw!
Other than that, there were plusses and minuses here. Big plus -- not oily. The crab-and-prawn-meat ball wasn't oily on the outside, and neither was the potato basket, which I did pick up with my fingers. Often, these things can end up somewhat on the oily side and I was pleased it was not so here.
On the minus column, only minor quibbles... Not much lemon flavour in evidence on the sauce. A half-sized wedge of lemon didn't cut it, either. The potato basket was stiff enough that it wouldn't snap off in large chunks if you tried it by hand unless you picked up the whole thing. Best to use a knife on it. A missed opportunity here, I think, since a side of lemon sauce would have made for a nice dip for the potato basket.
The chunks of meat in the ball were a nice touch in presentation and texture, plus the whole thing didn't just crumble into a mess when I cut it open.

The chicken was surprisingly good and filling. For $25 you are walking away very well fed here with two large chunks of chicken breast. The breast meat was firm but juicy, so it wasn't necessary to totally slather it in the sauce. The sauce itself was peppered enough to have a bit of kick to it, so you might want to pass when the server asks if you want more pepper cracked over it.
The "goat cheese risotto balls" were a cute touch and a neat way to put risotto into your meal. Typically it's a moist mush on the side, flavoured with some sort of savory sauce all too often a too-salty soy sauce. Here, they've patted it into ping pong ball sized spheres and quickly deep fried it -- basically a small arancini. The batter is thin and not oily, just crispy enough to hold the ball together. Even once you cut it open it holds quite well together considering it's not so densely pressed together that the grains are mushed -- for which I give another point for presentation. It looks more like rice, actually, and is quite plain except for the goat cheese.
I'm not a big fan of goat cheese because of how pungent it is, so I almost gave the chicken a pass. Now I'm glad I didn't. There's just enough cheese to give it smell and flavour, but not so much to turn you off or make you want to scrape it out. Definitely save some of the chicken sauce and wild mushrooms to go with your risotto balls instead of piling it every chunk of chicken.

For dessert I opted for a peppermint tea ($3 Tazo tea) and Tux Brûlée, which turned out to be two small, shallow dishes. One with a very soft custard, the other with chocolate cream. Crunchy sugar caramalized on top nicely -- tricky to do especially for the chocolate because you can't see if you've burnt it. Overall, however, kind of boring and certainly not the "combination" I expected since they were separate dishes. Token fruit came with it.

Considering that the place is basically a sports bar, I shouldn't have been surprised when my tea came with a pot of hot water and the tea bag still in the Tazo pouch, unopened. Still, I'm taking a point off for this. Could they not have prepped it for me? Isn't this a full-service restaurant?
Anyway, that's probably me being perfectionist again.

Overall, presentation trumphed the food here, which I would really like to give 4 out of 5 but have to say it probably comes in closer to 3.5. A bit more sauce on the side for the Snowball would have been nice. The chicken was tasty and the breast meat was well prepared, but not interesting enough to warrant full marks. Dessert was okay, but again not particularly interesting.

That said, for a $25 Taste of Yaletown menu, Hurricane Grill is offering great value here. I would have expected the content and portions of my choices to have come closer to $35. Good food, filling portion, great price = winning combination.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tasty but overpackaged promotion from Kashi

Over a month ago, I wrote about a Kashi offer by e-mail. It offered a sample bar from their new line of healthy bars, and featured a little come-back-to-our-website poll about whether the new bars were tasty or not. I waited long enough for it that I had more or less forgotten all about it. But lo! Last Friday it finally arrived.

The bar I chose from their Fruit & Grain line -- Peanutty Dark Chocolate -- has a nearly standard-length package and is 32 grams. This will end up looking a bit shorter than you might expect from the package. The layer of chocolate sprinkled with chunks of peanut is almost 5mm thick, so that's mostly what you taste from the bar. If you like chocolate, this will be a tasty bar without as much guilt from an actual bar of chocolate. Sweet enough to burn the back of your throat, but not too much. You'll want a swig of water after, though.

What surprised me most about this "Laurie Timms' Cardboard Challenge" promotion, however, was the size of the box. It's a nice little package, especially when you pull out the bar embedded in it to reveal a $2 off coupon tucked in underneath. But wow, is it ever overpackaged...

2011-Oct-17 Kashi online promotion

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tofurky and Tempeh for Thanksgiving

This past Thanksgiving, I decided to try some fake meat "Tofurky" instead of real turkey. As a family we've always struggled with turkey -- specifically turkey leftovers and dry breast meat. So I went down to Whole Foods and got a Tofurky.

Tofurky is more or less a tofu-based fake turkey meat. It's round (think turkey, minus arms, legs, head, and ass) and has about a tennis ball's worth of wild rice stuffing in the middle. If you get the basic Tofurky Roast, you just get the round of tofurky and have to prepare the baste yourself.

The firmness of the "turkey" part is comparable to actual turkey, but the look is a dead giveaway (there's no fibrous look, as you do with actual meat) and the colour and taste is way off. The taste is the worst part -- there's still that mild tang and slight bitterness of tofu.

If you're looking for fake meat, this is a poor substitute. It's just too far off. Honestly, how some people say they might mistake it for real meat is beyond me.
If you're looking for something vegetarian and convenient for Thanksgiving, the vegan Tofurky does okay. It's got the main elements of Thanksgiving turkey, plus no animal products, so everyone can eat it (although the stuffing has whole wheat bread crumb, so wheat-intolerant folks are slightly out of luck). As for the bitter tofu tang, smother that with gravy or cranberry sauce.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, then well, beggars can't be choosers.


While I was at Whole Foods, I also grabbed a small packet of pre-marinated Tempeh, a soy product that can be used in many ways, often in substitution for meat.
Not very meat-like here, but its firmness is quite convenient, especially if you don't cut it so thinly that the soy easily crumbles as you can still see the beans though they are pressed together.

Whole Foods carries many varieties from Turtle Island Foods, from whom we get Tofurky. They didn't invent Tempeh, but they have products to try to make it as convenient as possible to savour -- like the Sesame Garlic Marinated Tempeh I got, which just needed quick pan-frying.

If you don't think of it as meat, it's interesting to try. Plus, Tempeh contains antioxidants, isoflavones, saponins, fiber, protein and every required amino acid. Tempeh aids digestion and boosts the immune system. (But too much soy can give you man boobs).

The Sesame Garlic Marinated Tempeh came out a bit salty/sour, and unfortunately couldn't be crisped in the frying pan. If I had it again, I wouldn't prepare the whole packet -- the sourness just builds too much too quickly on the tastebuds after a couple of strips. Instead, I might crumble it to mix with a salad or somehow have it as an accompaniment or ingredient.


Other than Yves and Turtle Island Foods, there's also Quorn, which is supposed to be "eerily meat like" according to some reviewers, but it's unlikely to reach Canada, possibly due to incidents of allergic reactions. Since there are allergic reactions to something as commonplace as peanut butter, that probably not the only reason, however. Way back in 2002 they were waiting to see how things go with introducing it in the US before marketing to Canada. Since we haven't seen it around here, it's probably safe to say it won't be here any time soon.