Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cheap fine dining at the Argo Cafe

Argo Cafe on Urbanspoon
Since I don't watch TV anymore (no, not even the Food Network), I'm probably the last foodie in Vancouver to know about Argo Cafe. The one line on the website says it all: "Downtown food, at [an] East Van price". And oh -- CASH ONLY.

The location is remarkably unappealing with small windows that afford barely a proper glimpse inside. Right next door is the Pedal Bike Depot. Maybe ironically, just one street over on Quebec is Organic Lives. Not too far away is the Olympic Village and more new condos and gentrification, so if you have Argo Cafe on your list, I'd go sooner than later. Even with the building boom slowed down, it's likely that gentrification will eventually wipe out the entire block in which this comfortably priced greasy spoon presently resides.

The Argo Cafe is open 7am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, closed weekends and holidays. The kitchen switches over to the lunch menu at 11am. We were told the place is basically non-stop busy all day. Still, it's diner food and not candlelight dinner, so you can also expect to be reasonably quickly seated if you insist on a booth. Like an old-fashioned diner, the seating is generally arranged for foursomes, but there are a couple of arrangements squeezed in around a pillar that seat three.
We got in just slightly after 1pm, and the place was so packed staff overlooked a small free booth for three. My sharp-eyed companion spied it and we were seated immediately. By around 1.45pm, I noticed the capacity crowd was thinned out to about 1/3rd full.

One very nice feature of Argo Cafe is the friendly and laid-back staff. Our server today is a busy guy with play auditions and work with seniors on weekends in addition to five days at the Argo Cafe. Despite the buzzing restaurant, the server was generous with his time for us newbies, patiently introducing what the restaurant was about and giving us his recommendations on the specials. His attention didn't wander and he certainly didn't seem impatient at all. And there was no bragging about their 15 minutes of fame on The Food Network's You Gotta Eat Here.
Water was topped up and dishes were cleared very promptly. The tables have cutlery but are not set up with plates, and I was pleasantly surprised when one of the staff offered us a plate for sharing when he noticed us trading portions of our meals.

Did I already mention CASH ONLY? In our credit card world, this can be important if you're going for one of their daily specials. Lunch for two can end up being $40 including a drink and dessert. Without a posh address, fancy digs, or credit card machine charges, Argo Cafe manages to serve good downtown restaurant fare on their daily specials menu at basically about $2 to $5 less, depending on how you want to compare it (such as The Wallflower Modern Diner, near Broadway and Main, for instance). Plus -- so we were told by our server -- the food is organic. They do, however, charge an extra 25 cents for take-out boxes.

The daily specials can change literally every day, and considering there's about a dozen items, it's quite a fresh sheet to come up with every day. You're unlikely to find this at just any diner, but the Argo Cafe's Denis Larouche is a Cordon Bleu chef. So despite the digs clashing with the menu, and whatever you might think of a high-flying chef slumming in an East Van industrial neighbourhood, you can be reasonably assured what's on the plate will be above average.

On Monday, February 27th, the specials were:
  1. Grilled Miso Halibut with Rice, Veggies topped with Butter Squash Cream Sauce $13.00
  2. Boneless Duck on Salad with Oriental Dressing $12.50
  3. Putanecsa Bacon wrapped Cod with Rice & Veggies -- Spicy Tomato, Capers, Olives & Anchovies Sauce $12.00
  4. Bombay Chicken Piccata with Mash Potatoes, Veggies, Mango Chutney & Coconut Curry Sauce $12.00
  5. Pistachio Nut & Panko Crusted Sockeye Salmon with Rice & Veggies $12.00
  6. Dijon Lamb Shank with Mash Potatoes & Veggies $11.50
  7. Wasabi & Sesame Seed Crusted Albacore Tuna with Mash Potatoes & Veggies $11.50
  8. Chicken & Italian Sausage Pasta in Fennel & Tomato Sauce $11.50
  9. Garlic & Ginger Seafood in Cream Sauce on Rice -- Salmon, Cod, Snapper, Prawns & Scallops $11.50
  10. Pork Chop & Bacon wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Mash Potatoes & Veggies topped with Onion & Fig Sauce $11.00
  11. Ruben & Fries -- Rye Bread, Corn Beef, Dijon Mustard & Sauerkaut $8.50

All specials start you with your choice of a small bowl of soup. Monday's choices were Chicken Chowder; or Bacon & Turkey Borsht.

My dining companion and I went with one of each kind of soup, the halibut, and the duck. For dessert, I was intrigued to try their tiramisu ($4), which comes in a wine glass. My companion also had an after-dinner coffee  ($1.50) which she found "very strong" and a bit off-putting.
Since the daily specials change frequently, it's probably unlikely that you'll get exactly the same, so in a way it's useless to review here, but here goes...

  • Grilled Miso Halibut with Rice, Veggies topped with Butter Squash Cream Sauce $13.00
    • This is a pretty basic plate that looks awfully boring. The rice was substituted with mashed potato.
    • Although the portion looked small, it was really because of the big plate. You got a full meal here, especially if you consider the soup beforehand.
    • The mashed potato was basic with enough butter to make itself known but not to dominate.
    • The decently sized halibut filet was moist and tender. Basic food well prepared. Can't go wrong here.
  • Boneless Duck on Salad with Oriental Dressing $12.50
    • A patron recommended this, as well as the server, so I was sold. And happily, not disappointed.
    • Nothing heavy on this plate like mashed potato or rice, but there's a good sized salad here, plus about two tablespoons worth of diced pineapple on top. Somewhere in there was pulled duck, which I approximated to maybe a cup and a half worth.
    • Duck is duck to me, but my companion remarked that it had a rich taste. I think this dish could have been even better with some duck skin, especially if it were on the crispy side for both taste and texture. As it was, it was mostly a good salad.
    • Most of the dressing made its way to the bottom, which I discovered only once I was halfway through. The strongly soy-sauce tasting dressing pooled at the bottom made the second half of my salad a bit on the too-salty side. If you do order this or something similar, check for this and if you find the same, just toss your salad periodically to even out the taste.
    • For $12.50, it was a good salad with some duck/protein and still a good price.
  • Tiramisu in a cup
    • I was really confused by this dessert as I really didn't think tiramisu belonged in a cup. Tiramisu flavoured ice cream, maybe, but not the dessert itself.
    • There was evidence of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, but it was predominantly marscapone cheese. So if you like that in disproportion in your tiramisu, then this dessert will probably work for you.
    • It's a smaller portion than a typical square of tiramisu -- maybe a measuring cup worth -- but at the same time it's only $4. So it works out to a really manageable single-person portion instead of what can be a guilt-inducing experience for the waistline conscious. I think more desserts could stand to be half-sized and half-priced like this.

The "bill" was just a receipt with the two specials scribbled on it. When I pointed out that we also had the tiramisu, the server was really casual about it. He said we'd be asked if that was all, and that I could just tell the cashier. It's a strangely trusting honour system here, rare to find.
On top of that, all that courtesy and attentive service during our lunch was offered with no tip expected when I paid at the counter -- service because they are happy to provide service. Our meal came out to $33.04 after tax, before tip, which was pooled into a tip jar.

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