Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't order these at Khai Thai Cuisine

Khai Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon It was the second Tuesday in as many weeks in which my works-downtown-friend and I failed to locate Guanaco Food Truck to use my VanEats GuanaCombo Dining Passes. Last week they had moved from their usual Seymour and Georgia (probably because of all the construction there) and we ended up at Finest At Sea. Yesterday, they weren't even downtown at all, and we ended up going to Khai Thai Cuisine because it was nearby and my friend was on the clock as she had a strict lunch hour.

One of the nice things about this restaurant is the interior. Looks sort of lousy on the outside, especially now that it is right next door to the shiny new-ish Dunn's Famous. However, inside it's bright yet cosy, and the table spacing isn't too packed. We were in at just around Noon, which turned out to be about fifteen minutes before a lunch rush that saw the place packed.
As mentioned, we were on the clock, but the restaurant said a quick lunch was no problem, and in fact we were out at just around 12:30 pm after two dishes.

I'd normally have taken more time to peruse the extensive Chinese-restaurant-like menu of about 100 items, but this time around I just went with the first curious thing that caught my eye: "Angel Wings". My friend chose a safe and familiar Pad Thai.

  • Angel Wings ($8.95) - "Deep fried boneless chicken stuffs served w/ Thai Sauce"
    • This was just two chicken wings -- wing plus wingtip. The wing portion had been emptied out and filled with a very firm, almost hard, mix of possibly white chicken meat and vermicelli.
    • It is my opinion that when you scoop out the meat from something and replace it with filling, the end result needs to be better than simply having eaten the meat. So whatever filling was put in these Angel Wings before deep frying had to make them better than deep fried chicken wings. It was so not the case here. The result was also dry and bland. "Wooden" would be a pretty good word. We're talking on par with supermarket frozen slider burger patties made with barely any recognizable real meat.
    • Two wings per order works out to basically $4.50 a piece. Compare one plate of this at $8.95 with 1 pound of interesting chicken wings from Wings on Granville at $8.18 and you can understand how disappointed I was.
  • Pad Thai ($9.95 or $11.95) - "Stir-fried Rice noodle w/ Egg, Bean sprout served w/ Ground peanut w/ the Choice of Tofu / Chicken / Beef or Pork / Tiger Prawn"
    • It's $11.95 with Tiger Prawn, $9.95 otherwise.
    • My friend went with chicken. It was really firm white (breast meat?). A bit wooden.
    • Nothing spicy here despite the flecks of chili here and there -- which is ironic because the menu brochure for the restaurant reads "authentic thai cuisine, spicy choice". It was actually a bit sweet.
    • There was a faint heat to it, leading to a slight buzz in the mouth, as we neared the last of t he noodles. It's possible that whatever they used had somehow made its way to the bottom.
    • Nothing wow here, and combined with too-firm chicken, I'd say give this a pass and get your pad thai elsewhere.
Although our lunch was at best lacklustre, I should reiterate that there was a lunch rush that saw the place filled, so there's probably something to the food here. Just not the Pad Thai (unless they forgot to ask if we wanted it spicy, maybe, or because they rushed it because we were in a hurry), and definitely not the Angel Wings.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Desserts for Sharing at Steamworks Brewing Compay

Steamworks Brewing Company on Urbanspoon After a disappointing dinner at House x Guest, I guess we were raring to salvage the evening with a decent dessert. It was already around 9:15pm and strangely, we couldn't think of a good place to go that was in reasonable walking distance. Miku Restaurant was tossed around, but the hours were 5pm to 10pm on Saturdays. Thierry was another option and they close at midnight, but it was estimated that they would be too busy to fit our party. Finally we decided to swing by Steamworks on the recommendation of one of our party, and if that didn't work out, we could always continue on to Miku, depending on the hour. We sort-of nominated a leader for the dessert portion of our dinner outing and after she previewed the dessert menu, decided we could give it a shot.

Overall, the sharing desserts were good in a simple way. Good vanilla ice cream comes with everything. At the same time, the core of the dessert looks pretty, but is actually sort of plain. There's nothing really "special" here, but it's a portion that's approximately twice as much compared to a fine dining establishment, at a comparable price.
What Steamworks has over "finer restaurants" is the simple comfort in their desserts. There's nothing fancy -- no exotic ingredients or adventurous combinations -- so nothing can go wrong. It's a very safe choice for a good time at a reasonable price.

Strangely, I can't remember dessert #5... Which brings up another issue: It's just really not that memorable. It's probable that you will walk out remembering the good times you had with your friends rather than anything "wow" about the food or dessert.

We were six at House x Guest, but one dropped out to go to a movie, so only five of us went into Steamworks. After a bit of a wait on the busy night to get us an appropriate table, we were seated. The  "Desserts for Sharing" listed five desserts -- perfect. We ordered everything (pic). I love doing that. Turns out that was the wrong strategy.
The problem here is that ice cream melts at room temperature. If you don't eat it fast enough, you'll end up with an unappealing soup on your plates, which in turn dulls your enthusiasm to finish the plate. Instead, we should have paced ourselves and gotten one or two desserts at a time, finished it, and moved along.
  • Upside Down Pecan Pie for Two ($7.99) Sweet and sticky pecan filling tucked inside a puff pastry dome, caramel, creme anglaise, candied pecans, Mario's premium vanilla ice cream
    • Extremely sweet. Strangely, having it with the ice cream at the same time tempers that sweetness nicely.
  • Hedgehog Ice Cream Pie ($6.99) Layers of latte, almond, and hazelnut ice cream on espresso chocolate biscotti crust with chocolate sauce.
    • Starts out quite firm. Kind of like a slice of chocolate cake. For your chocolate fix, go for this instead of the Brownie Sundae.
  • Oversized Caramel Apple Pie ($7.99) House made apple pie smothered in warm caramel sauce, almond crumble, Mario's premium vanilla ice cream.
    • Uses flat slices of apple instead of chunks. The filling isn't as gooey/syrupy like most apple pies you can buy in the supermarket.
    • Nice crumbly crunchy crust on top. Of all the desserts, this was the most interesting. Something in the texture of it.
  • Brownie Sundae ($7.99) White chocolate chip brownie, fresh whipped cream, Mario's premium vanilla bean ice cream, hot fudge.
    • When I think of a sundae, I think of some sort of ice cream mixture, usually layered. This is NOT a "sundae". What you get is ice cream, whipped cream, and a bar of dense, chewy/fudgy, brownie.
    • The "hot fudge" is a very thick chocolate sauce in a gravy boat. Use it early because it starts to set and becomes thicker as time passes.
    • The overall experience here is chewing on the brownie and having ice cream separately. You can have both in your mouth at the same time, but the brownie is so firm and chewy that it has to be processed separately anyway.
    • If you need a chocolate fix, I'd say give this a pass and go for the more interesting tasting Hedgehog Ice Cream Pie.
  • #5 -- I honestly can't remember! Did we even get a 5th dessert?
    • EDIT (Aug-30-2012) - Dessert #5 was Tiramisu.
I asked for a peppermint tea, and they came out with a Tazo Refresh herbal infusion ("a bracing blend of mint with a pinch of tarragon").

Monday, August 27, 2012

Honey Toast Box Virgins at Pearl Drops Teahouse

Pearl Drops Teahouse on Urbanspoon Pearl Drops Teahouse sits at one end of Burnaby's East Hastings busy stretch of stores and a heck of a lot of eateries. By around 7pm, the immediate area around it is a ghost town, so on the up side you won't have to compete too much for parking. On the down side, you sort of have to know about this place for it to show up on your radar. Its neighbours are all closed by that time, and the nearest other place for drinks is the liquor store across the street (I suppose if you desperately need alcohol, you could buy something there to spike your bubble tea here).

I admit that I haven't gone to many bubble tea houses, so I can't really do a proper review here about their menu except to say whether I liked it or not. (Sorry David! <-- Yup, I am personally acquainted with the General Manager, but obviously this review isn't really going to help Pearl Drops Teahouse all that much.)

The short of it is, if you're used to Starbucks prices though, you basically get twice as much for the same price, and that's before a possible discount from their loyalty card or if you can find one of their sponsorships. Plus they have contests and promotions, such as this year's 2-day 50% (!) off Facebook Fans Exclusive Special in the first half of August. All this, I like. Even if you think their prices are a bit higher than everyone else's (say, way out there in Richmond), they do reward loyal customers.
We went on a 10%-20% discount and there was no quibbling or attitude from our lovely server Marika. She calmly checked the validity of it, and thereafter was very pleasant, patient, and helpful to what was essentially a bunch of people who'd never set foot in a bubble tea house. Out of the nine of us, there were just two Asians and one of them (me) was definitely a bubble tea noob.

Small pots of tea kept hot with small candles were under $5. Their popular "Oasis slush" (mango, lychee, passion fruit -- and it really is delicious) in what amounted to a Venti-sized glass mug was just over $5 with mango star jellies and some very dark pearls. No thanks to Starbucks we are paying about $5 for our coffees now. But thanks to them, everywhere else is cheap in comparison.

The hot food/savory food menu here is tiny -- just two items -- but very nicely done. For $4.25 each, you can get a plate of ping-pong ball sized deep fried and beautifully plated takoyaki; or five pieces of deep fried mashed potato (korokke). Crispy and beautifully browned on the outside, and not oily.

Pearl Drops Teahouse is a very small cafe-sized place, and a bit tight inside. There's a late evening rush, so go early or make a reservation if you need to seat a larger group of 6+ persons.
When we were there last Friday, there were just three girls working the restaurant. This meant they were responsible for everything, including table service, counter service, cooking, and dishwashing. At one point we were short of sharing plates and forks as they raced to wash the cutlery -- this on top of prepping three orders of Honey Toast Box. If you're caught in the late evening rush, be prepared to wait a bit.
The overall ambiance is a bit lacking due to what they have to work with in terms of the neighbourhood and the building and store layout), but there are signs that short of ordering an overhaul renovation they are doing what they can to make it classy, including curtains to block off the guts of the operation; a side table with internet access and books on tea; and an elegant shelf with tea products.

The main purpose of our little outing was to try the Honey Toast Box -- a Taiwanese invention that's making in-roads here, but it still not that common. Heck, it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry yet! Since none of our group had ever had a honey toast box, it's hard to compare it, but it was interesting to see what we did to it. (And obviously, the following isn't a critique of Pearl Drops Teahouse per se, but on the concept of Honey Toast Boxes in general).

Basically, a honey toast box is a loaf of bread that's lightly toasted and lightly honeyed so even if you just had the bread alone, there was a little bit of flavour other than "bread". Not much, though.
The insides of the loaf are pulled out, honeyed and toasted, and put back in. Then the rim is trimmed with custard, and it's filled with blocks of New York Cheesecake (without the crust), ice cream, fruit, chocolate-coated sticks, or other goodies -- of course different tea houses will have their own signature styles.

The cubic bread box one at Pearl Drops Teahouse ($9.95) is about the size of a regulation sized loaf of bread, cut in half and the mushroom cap chopped off. About six inches to a side. It's more or less as shown in the picture on the right, but the actual layout and contents will vary slightly as they continue to refine the composition (they only introduced it in February of this year).

Right off I have to say that the concept of a Honey Toast Box is seriously flawed. Warm toast + cold ice cream gives you cold toast + warm ice cream, neither of which are very appealing, especially if the ice cream starts to melt into a lukewarm milk, which it can do easily without any help from a warm toast box at room temperature.

There were three boxes at our table of nine, which turned out to be a good ratio as we ended up with not much leftover bread. For two persons (remembering that the dessert includes about a half loaf of bread) this could be a very light meal or a big dessert.
When eating it, you have to be mindful of your friends because you could inadvertently pick up most or all of the cheesecake, as it's very similarly coloured with the scoop of ice cream. Also, the fruits and sticks and other things could be scooped up by your friends, and you might be left hunting for custard, ice cream, and cheesecake -- which makes for a very monotonous flavour.

Team MMT dove right in and right away ate up probably half of the goodies. And although it looks like the box is probably filled with ice cream, this is extremely deceptive because it's all sitting on the toasted bread inside. What dessert you see on top is really all that you get, with nothing below (except toasted bread). Nevertheless, this is probably how the uninitiated would have handled it.

Team MSN nibbled at it but were largely held back by the initial lack of cutlery. We pulled out the chocolate sticks to start. By the time the knives and forks got there, our server was also on hand to show us how it was done. Initially no one wanted to take a full piece of a side of the toast box or chunk of toast from inside, but this was just time consuming and it tended to make a mess during the cutting. There are four sides of toast plus the bottom and the inside. It is easier simply to deconstruct the box right away and not be shy about taking a whole side of toast box since there's clearly enough to go around.

Team KEA hesitated and waited for the server, so they probably had the best and most balanced experience of pairing bread with filling. I didn't see watch too closely how they handled things but they ended up with some bread.

The best way to eat a honey toast box is to pair the stuff with bread -- unless you are willing to give up most of the bread, in which case, why are you ordering a honey toast box to begin with? It is almost $10, and instead of partially paying for the labour involved in toasting the box and assembling the dessert, you could go with about 3/4ths the price and just get a dessert with most of the filling, minus the box.

I think for convenience, the Honey Toast Box could use some deconstruction. The part that was trickiest, and which destroyed the dessert more quickly than anything else, was probably cutting the sides of the box off. It is easy enough to cut down the corners, but after that, how do you take off a side? Tearing was possible but because the crust at the bottom had been taken off, trying to tear a side off instead of cutting it off could have ripped the dessert apart and made it an unappetizing mess for your dining partners. A mix of scoring it with the tip of a sharp knife and then ripping it (if you couldn't manage to cut right through) probably works best.

It wouldn't be a box any more if you deconstructed it, but I would still be in favour of a deconstructed Honey Toast Box. That is, pre-cut the box into thin slices with the crust, and thicker slabs of the softer insides. Toast everything lightly with honey or drizzle the honey on later. Assemble that in whatever neat shape you want (like a jenga puzzle, maybe) and the the rest of the plate could hold the goodies to put, spread, or scoop on.
This method also has the advantage of making it easier to get at the inside of the box, since you no longer need to keep the box intact.
But, as mentioned, it would no longer be a Honey Toast Box, with the box novelty.

My experience of the Honey Toast Box at Pearl Drops Teahouse was only "okay" BUT that comes with qualifications. Clearly the dessert has fruits and a bit of chocolate from the chocolate covered sticks. Somehow almost all of those got devoured by the time I got my bread ready, and mostly what was left was ice cream. Which made things really monotonous and boring. After that was gone, we still had some bread left, and that was definitely boring.
So your experience of any Honey Toast Box (not just the one at Pearl Drops) will depend on how considerate (or mindful) your sharing buddies are -- There's a certain amount of politeness and yielding that needs to be present for everyone to have a proper taste. Also, unless you're ready to just let some bread go uneaten, pacing your pairing of bread and dessert filling is also important.
A Honey Toast Box has the disadvantage of being a dessert that gets more boring as you go along, unlike most desserts or even most dishes. With a slice of cake, slab of brownie, scoop of ice cream, or bubble tea, it's more or less good from the first bite to the last. Not so with this type of dessert.

Oily and Burnt at House x Guest

House Guest on UrbanspoonThis past Saturday I brought a small group down to House x Guest in Gastown. I'd never heard of it until I online-searched for "Vancouver restaurant with house music". Still haven't found something like that, but I did stumble over House x Guest.
The menu sounded interesting, and the decor sounded intriguing, so off we went.

The decor is curious to look at if you've never been, plus they have an outdoor space beneath their big open windows (which are closed in the late evening by actually installing the windows into place). Highlights include belongs-in-a-Gothic-movie candleholders with the solidified melted remains of past candles melted all over; and a wall of small antelope (?) heads. (Look for the mutant horns!)

The food menu changes now and then, so your experience may vary. There is only one (1) dessert -- short, fat, churros with dips. The fruit component of their drinks uses Oasis Fruit Juice. A tasting menu is available for groups.
  • Popcorn ($5) - "please ask server for this [week's] special popcorn"
    • The is done in a pan with oil, rather than popped with hot air.
    • The seasoning is very well distributed and doesn't all just fall off, which can happen with microwave bags.
    • The volume is about half the volume of a bag of microwave popcorn.
    • We had a tasty cajun-ish salty and slightly sweet seasoning. Yummy in the way that you can't just have one BBQ-flavoured potato chip... but $5? It's not that special.
  • PMC ($7) - pimento mac 'n cheese croquettes, red eye ketchup (pic)
    • Go easy on the ketchup, if you use it at all, as it can just kill the already delicate flavour.
    • There's a bit of kick with the pimento which makes this item interesting. And unlike some of the other deep fried offerings we had, this didn't seem oily.
    • Normally 5 balls to an order, each about the size of a ping pong ball. That means each ball weighs in over $1 per ball.
    • Where's the cheese? Nothing orange here, so it wasn't cheddar. Could have been aged white cheddar, but we were hard pressed to discover any unambiguous cheesiness to this item. Combined with the price, I'd say give it a pass.
  • Avocado & Beet Home Fries ($10) - roasted citrus aioli, spiced pumpkin seeds & goats cheese, tempura crust
    • If I remember correctly, this turned out to be a long place with four wedges (about 1.5" long, 1/2" wide) of avocado and four thin discs (about 1.5" diameter) of red beets. At $10 for the plate, that's $1.24 per piece.
    • Maybe someone skipped a step, but the predominant aroma and flavour here was oil. Yes, the oil it was deep fried in. This, even though the tempura crust barely covered the avocado and beet.
    • Deep frying the avocado and beet didn't really do anything to them that makes this dish stand out. If you put on the goat's cheese, that just smothered all other flavours with the pungent goat's cheese. I really don't know how this item is properly enjoyed, except that if you didn't put anything at all on the "home fries", it tasted of oil and that was kind of gross.
    • Even if it weren't so oily-tasting, the price compared to what you got is daunting.
    • This came to the table first and maybe it set the tone for me because I was astonished with how bad it was. For me, this was Strike One.
  • H.S.O.P. ($29) - sharing board (pic)
    • This really needs to say it's meant for 2 persons, because you basically got two of each item.
    • It stands for  "Hot Sex On a Plate" -- No joke. That's what the server told us.
    • Corn on the Cob (2)
      • Inch-thick sections of corn on the cob, dusted with shaved parmesan. Probably the same as the item listed on "Primary" -- charred & spiced corn on the cob, grana padano.
      • I gave this a pass since there were four of us sharing the plate and it's a bit hard to share this time. I never was keen on corn on the cob.
    • Shortrib Sloppy Joe Sliders (2) - braised shortrib, horseradish schmear, brioche buns
      • This was delicious. The buns are very tender and slightly sweet on the brown top. The pulled shortrib was very moist to the point of being wet.
      • The regular menu item is $10, and even if it were just two buns, it's a fair deal for what is a delicious item, if you compare it to an inferior (but larger) bun from the Re-Up food cart, for example, which comes in at around $8 for one Portuguese Bun. If the La Brasserie food cart used the same bun, they'd definitely edge out in value.
      • For me, this was basically the only worth-it thing on the entire sharing boards, which is $29 (i.e., essentially $30). I recommend you pass on the sharing boards and go straight for a proper order from either the Primary or Secondary sections of the menu.
    • Coconut Prawns (2)
      • Very crunchy on the outside. Nicely done.
      • Regulation sized prawns slightly thicker than a pencil. Small bit of sweet sauce to go with it.
    • Marinated Flank Steak (small pile of maybe 6 or 8 slices)
      • I tried one piece of this. It didn't look burnt, but that was the overwhelming flavour. This was Strike Two.
    • Tomato, Asparagus, and Buffalo Mozzarella. (3 small sticks of asparagus)
      • Grilled asparagus, gem heirloom tomatoes, maldon salt, reduced balsamic, evoo (extra virgin olive oil).
      • This is basically a smaller order of the same listed under "Primary" for $9, using smaller/thinner sticks of asparagus.
      • On the one piece I had, they had burnt enough of it for that flavour to be dominant. This was Strike Three. At this point I basically gave up on the restaurant and though I was nowhere near full, I was basically waiting for the bill.
  • Carne Asada Salad ($15) - chimmichurri marinated flank steak, charred red onion, black bean & corn salsa, crispy flour tortilla, avocado, cilantro & yogurt dressing (pic)
    • I didn't get to try this except for the deep fried crispy flour tortilla, which was shaped into a cone to hold all the goodies.
    • The tortilla didn't look oily, but the main experience of it was oil. I think the oil had seeped into tortilla (plus the shape makes it awkward to dry out the oil on a paper towel after deep frying).
    • Unless you're willing to slog through the oily taste, its basically a write-off. Definitely do not eat the tortilla on its own without anything else.
  • Duck Doubles ($15) - indian curried duck, spiced potato roti, confit garlic, raita, cucumber & mint salad
    • Curried but not spicy-hot. Tasty. Sloppy -- Careful about dripping jus.
    • Basically three tacos of this per order. Made famous by their appearance on CTV News At Noon.
    • Along with the Shortrib Sloppy Joe Sliders, this is another item on the menu that's fair value.
  • Burger Royale ($16) - kobe beef patty, apple wood cheddar, crispy onion, horseradish schmear, house smoked bacon, ltp, crab tator tots
    • Didn't get to try this except for the tator tots. However, the crazy thing is I could SMELL the beef from the burger. The person having this was sitting next to me and I could get a pretty strong whiff of it. In any case, she said it was probably the best burger she'd ever had.
    • The crab tator tots were another story. They used to be on the menu on their own, but that is now off. With this burger you get about ten tots in a mini aluminum bucket. As tator tots go, they were good in texture. The seasoning seemed to be either too strong or not consistent -- salty, and there was one tot (out of 3 I had) that was actually bitter. Also, there just wasn't any unambiguous crab flavor I could identify in any of the tator tots I tried. If they show up on the regular menu as a standalone, I'd be cautious about ordering them.
    • It's a sizable burger at $16 and if it really is genuine Kobe Beef, then the platter you get here for $16 probably beats the $20 Ultimate Kobe Classic from Romer's Burger Bar.
Overall, I think you really need to know what to order when you go. We ended up with some pretty lousy-value items, and that experience easily overshadowed what good we had, which amounted to just small bites of the whole. My portion of the items shared was $25 after tax and tip (no alcohol, plus I completely forgot all about getting a peppermint tea during the meal -- duh!).
In hindsight I should have just stuck with my plan to get the Burger Royale, no sharing (well, except for the avaocado & beet home fries, which I ordered early to share because I was curious about it).

Friday, August 24, 2012

100% Wild Fish at Finest at Sea

Finest At Sea Fish Cart on Urbanspoon Maybe because I was too focussed on the menu on Thursday, but it wasn't readily apparent to me when I dropped by the Finest At Sea food cart that they catch their own fish. The food cart is an offshoot of Finest At Sea Ocean Products Ltd., which touts their product as "100% wild, and caught by our own fishermen through sustainable fishing practices". They have canned fish, and if you want fresh fish they have two locations locally and one in Victoria.

My friend and I tried the naan-wraps ($5.50 each, tax included). There were two kinds: One with curried halibut and basically a coleslaw on top. The other a rendition of tuna in mayo, with some sort of salad that included a marinated seaweed.

Maybe they ran out of actual naan, or they didn't toast it enough, but the "naan" we got looked suspiciously like pita bread. Not a big deal, though.
The assembly is pretty simple: Fish on the bottom, salad on the top, and fold the naan around it. They do wrap it quite tightly, but when you peel off the wrapper to get a bite at it, the naan naturally unfolds. The result is that unless you have a big maw, you'll probably either get a bite of salad or a bite of fish, but not necessarily both. I recommend smaller bites to get the combination of taste. Besides, you'll want to be a bit gentle with how you eat these wraps as it's packed well enough that the naan can't be so tightly wrapped to overlap and fully seal it. Also, it's open ended, so too much pressure means too much of the tasty filling can get pushed down and ultimately out the other end.

  • The curried halibut was quite good. Enough curry to let you know it's there. No real heat to it, though -- more there for flavour.
  • The tuna in mayo was also rather good. A bit soggy, which results in a leaking pita if you're not careful (so keep the end wrapped and as an extra precaution, have your napkin right there to soak up anything that escapes). The seaweed was more of a novelty than anything that strongly contributed to the taste. An interesting flavour was the bit of soy sauce added -- and happily there wasn't too much to overwhelm the other flavours.

For $5.50, you got an okay sized naan wrap that was generous in filling (compared to the size of the naan anyway). In price and portion it compares favourably in portion size with a half naan wrap from Soho Road Naan Kebab (which is $10 for a full naan or $6 for a half).

Drawbacks include that it's messier if you're not careful, and (at least this time) the naan wasn't naan-ish enough. Other than that, it's a solid choice that won't disappoint. Overall I feel that the naans are well made and tasty, but falls just short of that special something which would elevate it into a "must try".
That said, one of the main plusses of the Finest At Sea naan wraps is the entry price. At $5.50 (price includes tax), you have a good portion for a light lunch and if you're a lighter eater, you aren't committed to a larger portion that might leave leftovers that will either get tossed now or be sad later. Many food trucks are now weighing in at $8+ for their mains, which, in my opinion, starts to get into the territory of is-it-really-worth-it compared to going to a restaurant for take-out (which, same as at a food cart, spares you from the additional expense of a 15%-20% tip).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

$1 cake at Breka Bakery and Cafe

Breka Bakery on Urbanspoon Breka Bakery is interesting in many ways, and depending on what you are used to, it can be a refreshing change.

For starters, it's a 24-hour  café. Not special on its own, but add that everything is made by hand on site, and with no additives and preservatives. Now compare it with other places that typically either do their baking in the morning and ease off by afternoon because they'd otherwise end up with overstock at night; or cafés that ship in factory mass-produced stuff in the morning. At Breka, you are likely to get reasonably fresh bread and made-same-day cakes whenever you drop by.

When I was there at 8pm last Friday, they had a good selection of cakes, and each portion was fairly large at reasonable prices, typically under $4 if not under $3. There was just one selection of "day old" cake, going for a mere $1 per slice. If you're a Starbucks person, compare this with a single small $2 whoopie pie. If you've been in downtown Vancouver coffee shops for too long, you'll probably jump for joy at these prices.

Of what I tried, the quality of the cakes is on par with what you might get in a restaurant for $6-8. Not fancy enough to warrant more, unless you're in a fine dining establishment that has set the price point with $30 mains. Overall, it's reasonably priced, medium to large portions, with the added bonus of being hand made.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Superb Tapas at Establishment

Establishment Lounge on Urbanspoon I had such an excellent meal at Establishment Lounge that I wanted to go back to try more -- and this time, bring some friends. While I like many places, it's rare when I actually try to mobilize people to go. There's a combination of putting your reputation and credibility on the line, and hoping that things will go well at the dinner. The excellent food and service at Establishment Lounge did not disappoint.

If you're bringing a group down to Establishment, you should know that they can do a 6-8+ course tasting menu that roughly works out to $5 per course, all individually plated for everyone. It's a great way to sample the many very interesting artistically and expertly put together menu options. The tricky part of this is that everyone must have the same thing, and you must confirm about a week in advance, after which you will be charged for the number of seats you asked for. No shows or late cancellations are your responsibility.
It's a stiff requirement if you don't know everyone personally and they have no vested interest in being considerate about actually showing up. I couldn't get a firm commitment (and even on the last two days, 5 out of 17 people dropped off the RSVP list), so our group had to pass on the tasting menu. Maybe next time.

There's still yet another way to try many small bites of the delicious menu at Establishment: This September, the restaurant will join the lineup for the Vancouver Foodster Tasting Plates event.

As mentioned before, the portions are fairly big compared to other high-end tapas places like Bin 941. And except for the soups, most seem designed to be very easily shared, with clearly defined portions. This time around, with a larger group, I got to sample quite a few things and see what others ordered.
  • Chef Bongo's Famous African Chicken Peanut Soup (picture) - $8
    • Just about everyone tried this in one way or another, and there was consensus that this was really excellent soup. If you go to Establishment, you absolutely must try it.
    • They can split an order into two smaller bowls if you are sharing. At $8, the basic order is a filling portion of thick soup in a large, deep bowl that looks deceptively like a medium portion.
  • Mini-Trio Soup Sampler - $9 - consisting of our famous african chicken peanut soup, chef's daily feature soup & a cold chilled soup
    • This includes the African Chicken Peanut Soup, but the three potions combined might be 2/3rds of a single order of Peanut Soup, so you're exchanging quantity for variety. You do get enough soup for a proper taste of each, however.
  • Caribbean Thin-Crust Pizza - $17.50 - fresh jerk chicken, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, jamaican spinach, pineapple, mozzarella & feta cheese, finished with a signature jerk sauce
    • The price is a bit steep for a 12" pizza, but the crust is really thin and it's loaded with toppings, so you're not paying for pizza dough here. You can clearly see cubes of chicken. It's not smothered in oily cheese. Slight spiciness from the jerk sauce, enough to be noticeable but not enough to annoy or warrant a mild/medium/hot rating.
    • Cutting it into more than 8 slices is really stretching it, and although you do get a solid taste of the toppings, you'll be irked by not having more.
  • Okanagan Goat Cheese & Fig Soufflé (picture) - $13.25 - freshly baked soufflé served with golden beet carpaccio, drizzled with a maple truffle vinaigrette
    • I had this last time so I skipped it. Curiously, there were quite a few orders of this large portioned plate at our table.
  • Shrimp & Lobster Cakes - $ 16.95 - three almond crusted shrimp & lobster cakes, accompanied with chipotle sauce, miso sauce, & a jerk aioli
    • The three cakes are really bursting with flavour and this is a safe choice.
    • If there's a downside here, it's that the three cakes are on the slightly smaller-than-normal side, very possibly because there's no padding with fish, potato, or anything else which might dull the taste too much.
  • Proscuitto-Wrapped Prawn Spaghettini - $16.25 - tossed in a saffron & garlic tomato sauce, drizzled with basil oil & balsamic glaze
    • There were four fat prawns, at their thickest cross section almost about as wide as three pencils bundled together. Firm and fresh.
    • The spaghettini (thin spaghetti) was basically in a tasty spaghetti sauce, so overall this was probably one of the less interesting dishes, though still very tasty.
  • Mini Bison Sliders - $16.95 - tender & juicy bison slider topped with port-wine cheddar cheese, cranberry onion relish & a fresh beet aioli
    • I didn't get to try this since there was just one order at our table and two sliders to the order. Each was only slightly less wide than a regular hamburger, but quite tall. Overall, less a slider than a medium sized hamburger.
  • Black Truffle Saccottini Pasta - $17.95 - tossed in a vanilla galliano cream sauce, served with sweet pea puree, garnished with merlot micro-greens & fresh pancetta
    • Commonly when you see the word "pasta", you can expect something that looks like spaghetti or some funny tube shape or maybe a pasta in a twist shape. However, saccottini refers to a small sack shape, so what you get with this order is actually pasta sacks with stuff in it. At just $17.95 you can't expect the bag to be fully stuffed with black truffle, of course, but there's the aroma of it.
    • Overall this is an interesting item to try, and if I remember there are six pouches, each about the size of a wonton.
  • Wild Mushroom Risotto Balls - $13.75 - panko breaded & stuffed with canadian brie & truffle cheese, served over a garlic tomato sauce & drizzled with a balsamic glaze
    • Several (six?) deep fried risotto balls with good flavour on their own. It sits in quite a bit of tomato sauce (probably the same stock as in the spaghettini), which very few of us actually used on the risotto balls, curiously enough.
Desserts were good, but strangely boring (to me, anyway) after the very interesting plating and flavours of the tapas we had. There was a trio of small crème brûlées (picture), a trio of ice creams (picture) from Mario's Gelati, a marscapone cheesecake (picture), and a chocolate mousse cake (picture) ($9).
The cheesecake has changed since the last time I was there, into a round, about 2/3rds of the size of the large slice I had before (not sure about the price now). The chocolate mousse cake was also the same 3" tall 4" diameter column -- the overall volume is about a half can of Campbell's Soup. The dessert flavours change frequently, so it's luck of the draw when you're there.

The quality of the desserts is good -- good enough that you would be hard-pressed to definitely find something better in the neighbourhood -- but nevertheless not enough to be counted as stellar. With such an outstanding selection on the tapas plates, this would probably be the only time I would recommend skipping dessert in favour of an extra plate of dinner.

Our dinner reservation was for 6pm, and we lingered till past 9pm. There were a few other diners drifting in and out, but the room was never packed and one server was enough. Sadly, Establishment Lounge seems to be in a sort of dining black hole, as some good restaurants are in Vancouver. Location and marketing often mean more than food, and that may be the case here.
On the up side, unlike a busier restaurant where there are under-chefs helping, your food is prepared by the master himself (in this case, Chef Victor Bongo) -- and there's an excellent chance he'll come out and check on how you're enjoying the food. We were graced with his presence and found him smiling and friendly.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pirate Pak Day at White Spot

White Spot (Cambie/12th) on Urbanspoon Wednesday night was probably the one time I've ever seen lineups outside a White Spot so long that people were waiting outside. And it was 8pm! I'd never heard of it before, but apparently there is an annual Pirate Pak Day for grown-ups (you must be over 10 to buy it, otherwise it's the kiddie menu for you) and people love it.

Pirate Pak Day comes with your very own paper pirate ship, of course. It didn't seem like many people took them home, so I hope they weren't re-using those... Anyway, each Pak includes:

  • One drink. On the webpage it says soft drink, but I was allowed to pick a fruit drink instead.
  • A tiny, sad "creamy" coleslaw that was only slightly chilled, bordering on lukewarm.
  • "Endless" signature fries that were thicker (almost 1 cm thick) than fries you get at just about everywhere else. They were hot and presumably freshly done, but seemed pale and  slightly undercooked near the middle.
    • You could substitute (for about $1 more) a salad instead. My friend went with "The Spot's Salad". You get a small quantity of this, which is fine since your burger meal will be filling enough. Mostly this tasted quite boring except for the tomatoes, which were possibly sitting in the dressing or separately marinated. Whatever the case, the tomatoes were the very best part, with a good taste of the tasty vinaigrette.
  • Your choice of a burger. The "Legendary Burger" is a whole 2.50 less than the other premium choices. We both chose the Portobello Provolone Veggie Burger as it was my vegetarian dining companion's favourite veggie burger ever, and I was curious why she was so impressed.
    • The burger normally contains a chargrilled veggie burger with Provolone cheese, Portobello mushrooms, grilled peppers, zucchini, onions, and lettuce; and lemon basil aioli.
    • Turned out a bit dry-feeling. Also, by the time the burger hit the table, the cheese had already solidified.
    • As burgers so, this was quite well put together, with no slippery bits trying to escape from between the multigrain bun.
    • There was a nice smell and flavour to the veggie patty, and this burger is clearly designed to look and feel like a burger with the patty featuring prominently -- unlike the invisible-patty-there-for-protein-and-bulk burgers from the vegan food cart Loving Hut Express (not to say those aren't tasty -- just that the patty is secondary).
    • Can't say it's the very best burger, but it's pretty decent.
  • One scoop of "premium rich ice cream" -- vanilla, strawberry (with small chunks of actual strawberry), or chocolate.
    • We both picked strawberry, interestingly enough. When they came, it was one big round scoop, but it was also sitting in melted ice cream, which suggested that these scoops were pre-prepared to serve the masses looting White Spot for the Pirate Pak. Can't say melted ice cream is all that appealing, but at least most of the single scoop was intact and very round.
    • It was OK. What do you expect from a scoop of basic ice cream?

Price-wise, you can't simply say the Pirate Pak is a $13.50 burger. Even if you discount the token coleslaw and ice cream, you got a soft drink and a decent amount of salad side or endless fries. The latter is probably worth about $5 in total, so this burger actually weighs in at closer to $8, and if you could get just the burger for $8, it'd be pretty decent value.
Unlimited fries is also hard to beat (if you're not a french fry snob who might refuse to touch White Spot's Signature Fries) and theoretically makes their package deal well worth the cost.

From the regular menu, the Portobello Provolone Veggie Burger is $12.99 but no ice cream. So the Pirate Pak promotion is actually fair value in comparison, even before figuring that White Spot donates $2 to Zajac Ranch for special needs kids. (During the promotion, kiddie Pirate Paks also qualify for White Spot's donation).

If it matters to you, the staff are friendly young hotties, all female as far as I could tell. The front desk looked pretty worn out by the throngs, but kept their cool and were polite and organized. The Pirate Pak rush was more or less over shortly after 8pm and the line-ups were gone, so if you can have a later dinner, you can fit a larger party and have a more relaxed time if you swing by at 8pm. The Cambie/12th location closes around 10pm.

2012-Aug-15 White Spot Pirate Pak Day

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Too Mild Medium at Sutra Modern Indian

Sutra Modern Indian on Urbanspoon It's really hard for an Indian restaurant to mess up North Indian food (i.e., curries), so for an Indian restaurant to stand out for me, something must be exceptional. At worst, it usually turns out "okay" or just "nothing to write home about". And with Indian food typically being cheap, large-portioned, comfort food, a place like Sutra -- a downtown location charging Yaletown prices for Indian food -- has a tough job to start with.
Late last year I visited the restaurant when it was just a few weeks old. Now almost a year later, I decided to try it again. Looking back, the main plusses of the restaurant were the hosts and the ambiance. Food was good or at worst passable. For a downtown location, you can expect part of what you pay to be ambiance, so $50 for two persons was all right.
The price is still okay at Sutra (for a downtown restaurant), but this past Saturday, my dining companions and I had a remarkably strange experience at Sutra which one hopes was just some sort of fluky one-off. But you never know.

But let's rewind a bit. Really, the experience of a restaurant nowadays really starts online, where diners might find a restaurant, read a review or two, and then contact them. From the get-go, Sutra had an ominous vibe because the restaurant website, (still listed on their brochures) no longer works. The menu on their Facebook page was 11 months old, but apparently the restaurant is still using the very same menu, so in the end the website wasn't all that important. They did promptly respond to my phone call for a reservation, happily enough.

The restaurant still had a comfortable, lounge-like feel and background music, and the owner, Paul, was still a personable host. That was reassuring. New to the restaurant since last year is the opening of the patio and we got to sit outside (which was a bonus on that hot Saturday when the inside of the restaurant would have been stuffy). But things got weird after that.

We were a party of five, and we drifted in separately. While my first guest was browsing the menu, Paul came over and in a sort of familiar, we-are-good-friends way, said she wouldn't need the menu, that they'd be happy to make suggestions and help us decide. Uh, okay... We sort of thought that because we were a party of five, they were going to line up some kind of tasting menu with share plates. Maybe. We weren't sure, but not everyone was there yet, so I didn't want to necessarily agree to or decline anything. In any case, he relayed the information to the waiter (there seemed to be just himself, one waiter, and one busser working the floor that night).

When the waiter came around he first asked about drinks and four out of five of us ordered the Mango Lassi. At around this time, the person who had been with me when Paul said the waiter would "take care of us" and we "wouldn't need the menu" pointed that out and decided to ask about it.
Paul confirmed this and said he would remind the waiter. Shortly after, the waiter came out and in a very friendly and personable way threw out some suggestions for what to start with and what mains to order. To be fair, I wasn't sure what Paul had meant, but at the same time, this seemed pretty mundane. The waiter was basically offering a couple of suggestions and getting our feedback.
Some of us had preferences and one person had a severe shellfish allergy. I stayed out of it to keep the votes to a minimum, and somehow things got decided. The one person with the shellfish allergy was certain we ended up with just five plates (she had made a point to track what we ordered because she needed to be alert to what might have shellfish).
For spiciness, we initially wanted "hot" but one person paled at that, so we downgraded to "medium". (Here, I obviously forgot my rule about group-ordering Indian food, because I'm happier with a spicier curry).

Somehow we ended up with two salads, two cauliflower appetizers, one daal, four curries in four different sauces, and four orders of naan. WTF? We let it slide because there may have been some confusion during the negotiation/throw-out-ideas phase, so that might have been partially our fault.
In any case, if you do go to Sutra and they offer to "take care of you" with regards to the menu, pay attention!
  • Mango Lassi ($4; mango puree, yogurt, agave nectar, and a pink swirl of rosewater)
    • I haven't had many mango lassis, but I thought it a bit powdery/grainy feeling. The more experienced mango lassi drinkers concurred, and also felt that it was quite watered down.
  • Beets & Greens ($9; marinated beets + organic greens (arugula) + champagne emulsion)
    • Simply done and tasty. I'm not good with bitters, so I ate my way around the arugula and just had the very sweet chopped up red beet.
  • Cauliflower Frizzle ($8; scorched cauliflower + charred lemon + tamarind)
    • The scorching happens on the top (the tiny flowers), browning it while leaving the stem slightly shrivelled but essentially raw.
    • The charred lemon was a half lemon with grill marks which you could squeeze over the cauliflower.
    • The tamarind was in a thick dressing generously applied onto the heap of cauliflower.
    • I'm not a huge fan of cauliflower, but this was quite interesting.
  • Daal
  • Curries
    • One saag with paneer. One very tender chicken white meat in an orange sauce. One beef, and one pork.
    • Tasted OK overall, EXCEPT there was NO heat to any of it. We had asked for Medium heat. This wouldn't have even counted as mild because there was no heat to it at all!
    • Even more strangely, one of our party absolutely needed some spiciness and after we didn't spot any servers coming out to the patio, she went inside to ask for some chili. She got a small quantity of achar instead, which didn't help at all.
    • I think the curries would have been fine -- but nothing special, just around on par with what you could get elsewhere (such as a no ambiance comfort bulk food place like Tasty Palace) -- IF there had been even mild spiciness/heat to it. If you've never had completely flat-mild curry, it flirts with disappointing/disgusting.
    • All four plates (plus the daal) came at the same time, so although we could have sent it back, it would have meant throwing away everything, and I think there was an unspoken agreement not to waste so much food by calling it a kitchen error.
    • I really don't know how better to convey how disappointed I was here. And since I chose the restaurant, I felt so embarrassed afterwards.
  • Naan
    • This looked suspiciously like toasted/grilled pita instead of naan. Very hot, so freshly done.
    • The basket had maybe two large pitas worth of bread, pre-cut into wedges. Somehow, this quantity showed up as $12 -- four $3 orders of naan. We didn't know what a single order of naan looked like, so we let this one go without any quibbling.
As we pored over the bill, a complimentary plate of four chocolate samosas ($6; white and dark chocolate + cream cheese) came to the table. The waiter said something about having asked the kitchen to make five, but he ended up with four. Huh?
Anyway, I had had them before and passed.

There was a small billing error (one of the two beers became a mango lassi) if you don't count the naan  as being overcharged, and after tax and tip we each paid $35. The restaurant did not pre-include a gratuity in the bill. The after-tax after-tip total was $175, which included some leftovers to take home and a complimentary dessert.

Takeout boxes were not cheap cardboard throwaways, but rather, small black plastic boxes with transparent plastic lids -- the type of container that is sometimes used with microwaveable frozen food.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sloppy Chicken Sandwich at La Brasserie Street Food Cart

La Brasserie Street (West Georgia & Granville) on Urbanspoon The tiny VegFest 2012 on Granville this past Saturday featured a very long lineup under a roasting sun for Loving Hut Express. I didn't want to wait (yes, the lineup was *that* long) so instead I wandered off and finally decided to try La Brasserie's street food cart.

There's something about the food cart which has always dulled my interest in it. I can't really put my finger on why. Maybe it's just the colour and design of the cart, or the fact that they have just the one item -- an $8 pulled chicken sandwich.

There's lots to like about this sandwich. Except for the accidental large chunk of dry chicken breast, you get hot chicken slathered in tasty gravy. And you get a lot of it, plus a lot of crispy onions. The chef tries to squash it down so it doesn't spill all over the place, and it comes in a waterproof paper pouch. Remember to grab napkins because you'll need them. Their recommendation is to skip the mustard, and I can vouch that it's safe to do so and still have a  yummy sandwich.
Once upon a time you could have gotten it for $6.25. Now it's $8 after tax.

It's hot, so the thin paper pouch isn't really going to protect your hand too much. But it's not going to leave your hand red and raw, thankfully. More problematic is the fact that they are so generous with the filling. You get so much that it spills out just from trying to get it to your mouth. You'll probably have to finger out a third of the chicken and onion from the pouch after you're done with the sandwich. Grab extra napkins.

Other than the mess, it's tasty and feels fuller than a more neatly prepped sandwich from Re-Up, at comparable cost.