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.

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