Monday, October 29, 2012

Taste of Yaletown 2012 - Chinois

Chinois on Urbanspoon
Chinois was a year old in the final week of the Taste of Yaletown. As it coincided with the weekend before Halloween, they also had Heaven & Hell Halloween night on Saturday, October 27th.

The restaurant opened to some buzz last year, although mainly what I heard was a lot of whining about the price. And as some of these tapas plates do come in at the $20-$30 range, that's not unjustified.

The room is rather dimly lit, but if you want a bit more light you can sit against the wall on the right side, which has lower-hanging lights.
Decor is interesting and how they do the Chinese theme is definitely worth a look. Far in the back is a cocktail lounge (Pierre's) where they completely drop the Chinese theme in favour of a curious classic-artwork-meets-irreverent-additions pieces of art on the wall. You'll understand what I mean when you see it.
Servers are all friendly hotties in tight black dresses. Our two servers, Jessica and Rebecca (Becky) were super, super nice and patient with us. Five stars for service (and separate five stars for being heart-stoppingly gorgeous).

Their Taste of Yaletown promotion was quite tame at a very modest price for this restaurant. In fact, the one appy we ordered (Jumbo Prawns) was $24 for a single sharing plate -- almost as much as the Taste of Yaletown three-course! I went with the FoodBloggers Meetup, so invariably someone pulled out the cellphone camera... which means pics, for a change!

Before I proceed with my review, I should say that I grew up eating Chinese food, so there's that mom-made-it-differently bias that can really skew things. For example, my non-Asian dining companions thought our meal at Fortune House was interesting and impressive, but I was rather bored with it.

2012 Taste of Yaletown Menu
$25.00 per person (excludes taxes, gratuities and alcohol)

Appetizer - ONE of
  • House Made Wonton Soup with Roast Duck Broth
  • Crispy Curry Potato Dumplings with Basil and Coriander Aioli
  • Wok Tossed Green Beans with Spicy Pork and Fresno Chilies

Entrée - ONE of
  • Wok Seared Beef with Gai Lan, Sui Chuy and Oyster Mushrooms; served with steamed white or brown rice
  • Vegetarian Crispy Noodles with Tofu, Peppers, Enoki Mushrooms and Baby Bok Choy
  • Sweet and Sour Fish with Ling Cod, Pineapple, Jalapeno, and Cold Cucumber Salad

Dessert - ONE of
  • Mango Swirl Ice Cream with Fresh Mango and Lychee
  • Coconut and Vanilla Rice Pudding with Condensed Milk Cream
No one ordered the soup, and I didn't get to try the Ling Cod, but had a bite of everything else. Here's how dinner turned out.
  • Jumbo Prawns with candied walnuts and creamy spicy sauce ($24! - not part of the Taste of Yaletown menu)
    • While we were poring over the menu, I ordered something outside of the Taste of Yaletown to nibble on. This was the server's suggestion, and she assured me that it was the customer as well as kitchen favourite, with chefs making "accidental" extras for themselves and the servers as well.
    • Totally, almost exquisitely, delicious. Large prawns, perfectly crunchy-firm. Interesting taste combined with the not-bitter walnuts, plus a bit of kick from the sauce. About six prawns or thereabouts.
    • Portion is that of a large appetizer or largish tapas plate. Cost is frightening and high enough to make you question whether something even that delicious should be priced at $24. We were foodies (and it was all on my bill) so everyone who tried it, loved it.
  • Crispy Curry Potato Dumplings with basil and coriander aioli (picture)
    • Hands down the winning appetizer and probably the second-best item that night.
    • Hot and very crispy and beautifully browned from the kitchen. The crunchy outside made the creamy potato insides an interesting surprise and change in texture.
    • Lightly curried, nowhere near spicy or bitter.
    • The Taste of Yaletown portion was 4 per plate. Didn't see it on the online menu.
  • Wok Tossed Green Beans with spicy pork and Fresno chillies (picture)
    • Barely any spiciness to this, but I'm used to hot curries like Rendang, so your experience may be different.
    • Could have used a spoon for the ground pork.
    • Rather boring, actually.
  • Wok Seared Beef with Gai Lan, Sui Chuy and Oyster Mushrooms; served with steamed white or brown rice (picture)
    • A surprisingly filling plate here, primarily because of the very full bowl of rice. Looked tiny, though.
    • Tasted a bit boring here, plus it waited a bit long in the kitchen while everything else was prepped, so it came lukewarm. The server offered to take it back to the kitchen to be re-tossed in the wok. Helped a lot, but some of us had concerns that it might toughen up the pork, and passed on that option.
  • Vegetarian Crispy Noodles with Tofu, Peppers, Enoki Mushrooms and Baby Bok Choy
    • We were seven at our table and no one ordered this, so I had to. The rectangular plate was slightly smaller than your 8-1/2" x 11" printer paper, and was filled almost to the edge with mostly the veggie component. Not the heaping amount of filler noodles that you typically get in every other Chinese restaurant. Quite a bit of sauce so you had to be careful or it would spill off the plate.
    • Overall this didn't taste particularly special if you've had a lot of chow mien.
  • Mango Swirl Ice Cream with Fresh Mango and Lychee
    • Pretty simple dessert. Nothing too special. A nicer, more refreshing dessert choice after an essentially comfort-food dinner.
  • Coconut and Vanilla Rice Pudding with Condensed Milk Cream (picture)
    • A simple and delicious rice pudding. Could be a bit heavy as a dessert especially if you had the rice bowl.
Overall I thought the Taste of Yaletown promotion was pretty sad (with the exception of the potato dumplings), and maybe they should have done a $35 and offered more interesting bites. If my order of Jumbo Prawns was any indication of what they can do and what the regular menu is like, then they definitely didn't show any of that potential through the Taste of Yaletown lineup. So I was glad I did try it (even at $24) just to know Chinois can really serve up some excellent plates.

Drinks were a bit tricky for a non-drinker like me. No fresh-squeezed fruit juice (but then, who does?). Mostly pop or very limited tea (nothing fancy here -- orange pekoe, green tea). Drinkers will have a better time with their interesting cocktails.


2012-Oct-26 Chinois coupon (front)


2012-Oct-26 Chinois coupon (back)


2012-Oct-27 Chinois Heaven and Hell Halloween night

Monday, October 22, 2012

Taste of Yaletown 2012 - Bistro Sakana

Bistro Sakana on Urbanspoon EDIT (2012-Oct-22) - Corrected various details in the post after hearing from the owner. Gosh, someone actually reads my posts?! O_O

 I went to Bistro Sakana last year for the Taste of Yaletown, and was very pleasantly surprised, so well ahead of time I made a reservation for this busy restaurant. Like Miku, they do the "aburi" style box-pressed and blow-torched. Here, they use a stick of charcoal (imported from Japan) to deflect the flame onto the sushi instead of using the direct flame jet, to reduce the chances of the sushi smelling/tasting like fuel.

There are three seating areas -- reservations go in the main dining room, walk-ins go to the covered and heated patio, or to the bar.

Our party was to dine at 6pm, but two dropped out at the last moment, two no-showed, and two were stuck behind traffic in Surrey after a wine tour. So there was just two of us and we decided to move to the bar. Which doesn't sound so great, unless you like watching the chefs roll and blowtorch sushi -- which we did, so it worked out nicely.
(Regarding reservations... Earlier this year I had tried to make a reservation for 8, but the restaurant policy for a party of 8 was a minimum spend of $500 before tax and tip! Parties of 6+ 8+ also have an automatic 18% gratuity figured into the bill.)

My dining partner hauled out her cellphone for pics and vids, so we have some footage this time!


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

Appetizer
  • Wild Sockeye Salmon Miso Chowder - a rich creamy salmon & miso chowder
Entrée
A Signature Sample Platter including all of the following: (picture)
  • Wild Sockeye Jalapeño Aburi "Hakozushi" - sockeye salmon layered with rice, box pressed, flame torched, and topped with jalapeño slices
  • 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
  • Teppan Roll - fresh tomato, Hotate scallop sashimi, fresh bocconcini mozzarella & home-made shiso-basil pesto, rolled up with rice, lightly sauteed and plated with a rim of aged balsamic reduction and unfiltered extra virgin olive oil
  • Nasu Dengaku - traditional baked Japanese eggplant with aka miso sauce, served on brown rice risotto
  • Ginger Citrus Hamachi - fresh yellowtail sashimi layered with pink grapefruit sections and drizzled with a soy-balsamic vinaigrette
Dessert
  • Oka San's Rich Chocolate Brownies - rich dark chocolate brownies served warm with dark chocolate sauce & vanilla bean gelato
As was the case last year, the sushi had a touch of sweetness to it, which I do like as a nice change from "regular" cheap-ass sushi that comes with soy sauce and wasabi for dipping. Overall, the stronger tastes combined with the more subtle taste accompanying the rice pieces made the Taste of Yaletown menu a nice, light dinner of interesting flavours.
Sad to say, I rather prefer going only during their mixed platter fixed menu offerings during Taste of Yaletown because you're not committed to a full roll, but get a variety of interesting items. Each time they make a box-pressed sushi, there's enough for 8 pieces. And to maintain quality and freshness, they can't really sell two to four pieces and blindly hope that someone will make another half order in the very near future. Assembling a group of four would be the way to go, with each person getting two pieces of each order, but you still wouldn't have the chef making the selection for you in the sort of whole-meal way you get with the Taste of Yaletown everything-for-$35 three-course.

Here's how our dinner turned out (including extras not in the Taste of Yaletown menu that we ordered):
  • Yam Fries ($7.50) picture
  • Soft shell Crab Tempura ($13)
    • These came out a bit oily tasting. Otherwise pretty basic -- battered and deep fried crabs.
    • Go easy on the soy sauce ponzu sauce, otherwise you'll smother the crab flavour.
    • Came with a small amount of chili paste which was sadly worthless as far as adding heat and bite to this. Would have been nice, though. What looked like a small dab of chili paste was in fact "momiji oroshi", a mildly spicy dab of grated daikon.
    • For $13, I'd pass on this. It's hard to dispute the cost of crab/shellfish, but combined with the oiliness and the nothing-very-special quality of this item. Instead, get the Soft Shell Crab Karaage at Miku for $10.
  • Wild Sockeye Salmon Miso Chowder
    • Looked pretty basic, and basically delicious. Not much to say here.
  • Wild Sockeye Jalapeño Aburi "Hakozushi" picture
    • I don't recall getting much heat from the jalapeño here.
    • This one sort of passed me by in terms of being interesting, but my companion was so impressed she ordered an additional full roll ($11).
  • Toro Red Chili Aburi "Hakozushi"
    • "Toro" is a fatty part of a fish used in sushi.
    • The owner mentioned they had to get their own chili for any sort of heat here. Apparently, before they sourced their own chili and chopped it up themselves, the chili they used didn't have any bite to it at all.
    • There is a bit of chili heat which contrasts nicely with the lime slivers. Otherwise, this didn't really catch my attention.
  • Teppan Roll
    • The light burn from being sautéed, combined with the touch of sweetness from dipping in just a bit of balsamic reduction made this a winner with me. The few pieces of this sadly went all too quickly.
  • Nasu Dengaku
    • Eggplant on mushy rice. Uh... yup.
  • Ginger Citrus Hamachi
    • The lighting is sort of dim in the restaurant, so look carefully and try to pick up both fish and grapefruit in the same bite -- I think I screwed this part up and it should have been a tastier experience for me.
  • Oka San's Rich Chocolate Brownies picture
    • I've had some really nice chocolate cakes, such as at The Wallflower and Bandidas Tacqueria. The rich (but overpriced) chocolate cake at Heirloom (minus the goat cheese) is also a contender for top spot, but this cake-style brownie dessert is my new number 1 choice for bestest chocolate cake ever.
    • I think it could have done with less ice cream, or have that more separate, because the soft gelato melted very quickly and as often is the case with ice cream that melts quickly, you get an unappetizing goop.
    • The brownie here is deeply chocolately, very rich and moist.
    • The Taste of Yaletown portion is about one cup's worth (plus a scoop of ice cream). Not sure about the regular order, but on the dessert menu it is listed at $6.50.
  • Chestnut Panna Cotta ($6.50)
    • This was in the restaurant menu but not on the online menu at the time I am writing this blog post.
    • Light and refreshing, but a bit bland for my taste. Very soft and creamy.
    • I wasn't clearly experiencing the chestnuts here. If you're not up for a too-rich dessert, or if you're more sensitive to subtle flavours, then this could work. It's certainly one of the more interesting desserts on their regular menu.
Service was a bit uncoordinated. Everyone works the entire room, so if orders are a bit slow, sometimes you will end up being asked by multiple servers if you've ordered. One of the owners (Peter Needham) was on the floor that night and he chatted us up briefly -- possibly because our orders were still on the way. It was interesting to hear his take on the Taste of Yaletown, however: It was a chance to introduce diners to more interesting items on their menu, whereas quite often patrons ask for safer choices.
If you sit at the bar, the chef there can actually take or relay your order. For example, she prepared the Salmon Aburi and just handed it to us right after the finishing touches with the blowtorch.

Yuck chocolate cake at Heirloom

Heirloom Vegetarian on Urbanspoon Chocolate cake with stinky goat cheese! Yuck! But Heirloom Vegetarian does have inventive fare, if you're not just vegetarian-curious / committed-vegan / gluten-free-mandatory, but also an adventurous diner.

It hadn't been open long at where Primo's Mexican Grill used to be when my chicken-permissible-vegetarian friend and I walked in on Friday. (No reservations, but supposedly has a fast turnover; no lineup at 6pm, either, unlike the smaller roomed Acorn).
Inside, it's high ceilings, white walls, vintage farm decor, and noise noise noise from conversation. The left side has taller tables and bar seats, and is a bit quieter.

For reasons unclear to me, I settled on the raw cauliflower risotto, one of the two raw items on the dinner menu. I'm not hardcore raw vegan, so I really don't know why I did that. I think it was because I ran into my vegan friend Emma Smith (of Zimt fame) and she had mentioned she'd had it and it was good. Now that I've had it, I would caution non-raw-foodists that you might need help appreciating this. The best raw (and safest choice for the raw-curious) I've had would still probably be Indigo Food afternoon tea.
Compared to the other newish "modern vegetarian" Acorn, I would say Heirloom lacks the artistically beautiful plating and is much less salty, but definitely no less inventive. Price-wise a bit cheaper except for desserts.
  • Raw Cauliflower Risotto ($13, vegan, raw, gluten-free) pumpkin seed pesto, walnut cheese, watermelon radish
    • I don't truly regret ordering this, but I was glad we had something tamer at the table.
    • The "risotto" is the finely diced (food processed?) cauliflower, mixed with something that made the whole thing look more green that white.
    • Overall, really rather bland and boring. I was wishing for some crispy bacon to go with it, honestly. Or something savory, maybe some kind of yummy pan drippings. It just needed *something*.
    • Didn't come with a spoon. What is it with restaurants and their boycotting of spoons? Ask for a spoon right away. Otherwise it's like eating quinoa with a fork.
  • Dips ($14, vegan) beetroot sunflower seed tapanade, lentil pecan homous, vegetables, sangak chips
    • Very interesting here, with the sweet deep red beetroot dip contrasting in colour and flavour with the very thick lentil homous which leaned toward the savory side.
    • "Sangak chips" were nicely salty and deep fried even though lavash flatbread is generally just oven fired. Simple and tasty! -- These would have been great all on their own. A generous amount but you should still not be shy with the dips when spreading so you won't end up with dip and nothing to go with it. Came with a few baby veggies as well (radish, carrots).
  • Chocolate Semolina Cake ($12) cayenne, cane poached beets, chocolate ganache, sweet heart goat cheese
    • It said goat cheese but I still ordered it. I'm a sucker for a good chocolate cake, I guess.
    • The cake was really decent, but the two small rounds were barely more than a cupful... And for $12! Ouch -- especially as the goat cheese (which was probably the reason why it costs twice as much for a smaller portion than just about anywhere) rather ruined it.
    • Chocolate ganache was the brown chocolate in between the very dark and quite rich chocolate cake. Slight buzz from cayenne builds slowly, so wait for it. Okay, the cake itself was more than just decent. It really was a very nicely done chocolate cake. Not for $12, though. I want gold leaf for $12.
    • Beets were on the side. Pink lump of goat cheese on top. Have I mentioned that I hate goat cheese? Only Establishment has ever made it palatable to me. Here, on it own or paired with the chocolate cake, it was still gross. If you like goat cheese, you may have a very different take on this, though, so don't let me stop you from trying it. It's certainly an adventurous pairing, in my opinion.
  • Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock ($4)
    • One of two Fentimans choices. A bit of a small bottle for $4, but an interesting taste reminiscent of liquorice. Slight buzz in your mouth like ginger beer or grapefruit. Hardly any aftertaste, strangely.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why isn't this news? CCIT to pass WITHOUT a vote

I got this shocking letter from Elizabeth May, the MP for the Saanich-Gulf Islands, after putting my name on an online petition against the CCIT (Canada-China Investment Treaty). It basically echoes what the petition was about, and confirms that http://www.greenparty.ca/stop-the-sellout weren't crazy.
What *is* crazy is that this treaty will go into effect without anyone really knowing about it. I have highlighted some key sections... Who the heck thought up this ludicrous treaty?


From:Elizabeth.May@parl.gc.ca
Sent:October-17-12 3:54:46 AM
To:<masked>
Thank you for your interest in the Canada-China Investment Treaty. Although Stephen Harper prefers to keep Canadians in the dark about this Agreement’s grave implications for our sovereignty, security, and democracy, I am hopeful that we can force the issue into daylight. Your letter proves that you recognize the seriousness and urgency of what is about to take place behind our backs.

While the Canada-China Investment Treaty will likely be our most significant treaty since NAFTA, Stephen Harper plans to sign it into law as early as November 2nd, 2012, without any public consultation, any consultation with First Nations, any Parliamentary debate, or even a single vote in the House of Commons. I do not accept such blatant disrespect for either the will of Canadians or for our democratic institutions.

Sadly, in addition to the anti-democratic process to approve this Agreement, it is the actual content of this investment deal with which I am most concerned. For the first time in Canadian history, the Canada-China Investment Treaty will allow investors (including Chinese state-owned enterprises such as CNOOC or Sinopec), to claim damages against the Canadian government in secretfor decisions taken at the municipal, provincial, territorial or federal level that result in a reduction of their expectation of profits. Even decisions of Canadian courts can give rise to damages.

Realizing what the Conservatives were attempting to do, in secret and without debate, and realizing that we will be bound by this destructive Agreement for up to 31 years once it is ratified, on October 1st, 2012, I made a request in the House of Commons for an Emergency Debate to allow Canada’s democratically elected Members of Parliament to study the implications of the Canada-China Investment Treaty.

Although my request for an Emergency Debate was regrettably denied, we have not given up and are continuing to pursue all available options to stop the treaty’s approval. Given what is at stake, we hope that you will join us.

In addition to the tools found on our Canada-China Investment Treaty campaign site at http://www.greenparty.ca/stop-the-sellout, I urge you to push back against this sell-out of our sovereignty, security, and democracy, and help to educate Canadians by talking to your friends and neighbours, writing letters to the editor in local and national newspapers, calling in to talk radio shows, and filling up the comment boards of news website.

Crucially, this is not a partisan issue, and it is only by coming together to stand up for Canada that we will succeed in stopping this agreement.
Sincerely,

Elizabeth May, O.C., M.P.
Member of Parliament for Saanich–Gulf Islands
Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Premeditated Gluttony at Wildebeest

Wildebeest on Urbanspoon Wildebeest recently started their "Premeditated Gluttony" option in September, and with menu picks there for parties of 4-10, they were obviously extensions of their buy-to-share dining style.
The regular menu is generally small sharing plates, and depending on who you end up speaking with, they can come across as rather pushy about this sharing stuff.
Anyway, the idea of Wildebeest appears to be marketed as a Bin 941 tapas-for-sharing style establishment, and the Premeditated Gluttony menu is basically the same idea, but you're ordering much, much, larger plates.

Some special requests can be accomodated. For example, our party included one person with a dairy allergy, and although most persons with that are okay with trace amounts we went with the better-safe-than-sorry no-dairy-at-all option. Didn't really miss anything with what came to the table, happy to say.
No exotic meats here like alligator, for example, but it was mentioned to me that in the fall they might have access to venison.

From the get-go, you are advised to under-order from the Premeditated Gluttony menu so that you can round out your order with other stuff from the regular menu. For our group, I ordered the hay-baked leg of lamp (no, it's not one huge leg, but a good chunk of meat from the leg) for 6 and it came with (included in the final price of $125 before tax and tip) simple accompaniments of a lot of quinoa on the plate soaking up any jus, and roasted eggplant on a separate plate. We didn't have a party of NFL players, so it definitely was enough to feed six, but we had little room for much else.
Service was a bit uncoordinated here. I had asked well ahead of time for the lamb to be brought out immediately so we could get an idea of how big a portion it was and strategize about trying things from the menu and leaving room for dessert. Except for one person we were all on time, but it was still a half hour before it was ready.
I don't pretend to understand the timing in the kitchen, but in the meantime they pressed us to order something else even before the lamb came out. I was nervous about that because our party was only six and one person had stated early on she didn't want any lamb. This definitely felt pushy on their part, although you'll likely get the same at a serious steakhouse like Gotham and Black + Blue where they pretty much insist/force you to buy a side to go with your steak.
I normally wouldn't have gone ahead with the lamb order at all except our party was supposed to be 12 persons. There were a lot of last minute cancellations (out of 12 persons who initially said they wanted to come, about 8 dropped out and 2 joined in the last few days leading to the dinner, for a net of 6 showing up -- and one person had stated early on that she just wasn't into lamb) and in the end, we ended up with enough take-out of lamb and quinoa for one meal, so my holding firm on wanting to see the lamb first paid off in the end. I think in hindsight even the server realized that had been the correct strategy.

After my stressful experience, my advice for the Premediated Gluttony menu is to definitely under-order. You have to give the restaurant one week of notice, so they are trusting that you'll show up to pay for it, and whatever you've ordered in terms of portion size, you really can't go back to downsize. This also means you really need to be sure your party will show, or bid really really low on your order so that everyone ends up with just half a meal or less from the Gluttony menu.
As mentioned, we were expecting 12 in our party (and there were even people on the waiting list) but ultimately for whatever reason this dropped to 6. The hay-baked leg of lamb is normally an order for 8-10 persons, and here the restaurant really did me a favour by allowing me to order a 6-person portion.
If you have a lot of flaky people, don't stick your neck out for them. Unless you're the ruthless asshole type who would stand up the restaurant and leave them hanging with a big-ass plate of meat and no one to sell it to.

While we were waiting for the lamb, we did cautiously try a couple of items:
  • Crispy pork skin, spiced salt ($4)
    • Very small bowl of pork rinds. Seemed very plain. Overpriced at $4. You can probably get a whole bag of this from the supermarket for $4.
  • ​Poutine, roasted duck liver ($16)
    • Also very plain. Just french fries in gravy, plus some small chunks of tender duck liver.
    • For $16? Are you kidding me? Nothing special here, plus if you are opposed to gavage in the production of foie gras, you might not touch this at all.
The lamb (pic) turned out very nicely. As warned, it wasn't a special composed or balanced dish, so whatever the restaurant gives you as an accompaniment is basically a favour on their part. Our lamb didn't look like much on the plate, but boy was it filling. Also tender and moist, and enough salty fat to help you with eating the relentless amount of meat. Definitely have a bit of fat with each bite, but if you are very grease-averse, you might want to try asking for some sort of condiment. If there was any jus on the plate, it had been soaked up by the quinoa.

We tried several desserts and... they were wierd! Plus the portions ranged from small to shockingly small for the price, which came in at 50% to 100% more than most restaurants.
  • 64% single origin Maralumi chocolate sorbet, celery root, co!ee [?] essence, walnuts ($9) (pic)
    • This looked like a lump of very soft chocolate with shavings of something (celery root, presumably) on top, and sitting in some kind of liquid.
    • If you didn't eat it all up in the first minute, it melted into water. Not that it wasn't mostly watery to begin with. An unappetizing result, unfortunately to a dessert that seemed lacklustre to begin with.
  • ​Composed cheese - baked Farmhouse brie, seasonal fruit jam, buttermilk ice cream ($12)
    • Interesting for the use of cheese. Stinky, though. I am biased against stinky cheese, so I can't fairly say this wasn't a good dessert. All I can say is I didn't like it, but only because I don't like stinky cheese.
  • ​Sun Jewel melon sorbet, verbena-infused charentais melon consommé, melon salad ($9) (pic)
    • This tasted like melon. I'm sure there was something special to it, but I missed it.
For the desserts, I think you really need to NOT share (or not with a lot of people; one dessert for two persons maximum). Before you order it, know what you are getting and hopefully know enough to appreciate what it is. When it comes, dive into it right away.

The room is long and narrow with a basement area as well. Plus it's dark. So dark that you're likely to walk by the restaurant if you're not paying attention. Inside, it's less dark if you're opposite the open kitchen but not by much.
And it's noisy. Noise level can vary as they adjust the volume on the music, but there's still the buzz of conversation from quite closely packed tables.
If there are no tables, you could try asking to dine at the bar. From how full their reservations book looked, I'd recommend you call ahead, though.

SPOILER Warning for Dark Table

Dark Table on Urbanspoon Before you go to Dark Table, you should really STOP ASKING QUESTIONS about the experience. Really. Here's why:
  • Have you ever asked a friend about a movie you're thinking of going to see? How would you feel if they gave away the ending to, say, a murder mystery?
Asking someone what they thought of their experience at Dark Table; or worse, asking detailed questions about what happens or how the dinner is conducted; or even worse still, asking how they coped in the dark -- ALL THIS CAN SPOIL YOUR EXPERIENCE.
I say "can spoil your experience" but it's probably closer to "will diminish your experience". Maybe you'll feel more competent and less anxious about dining at Dark Table, but think about it: This could be an adventure. A "safe", non-life-threatening, interesting adventure. It's one thing to go skydiving and want to know what to do once they throw you out of the plane. That's life-threatening and you need information on what happens and what to do so you don't kill yourself and your tandem diving partner. But Dark Table isn't going to get you killed. My advice is to know as little as possible and just adapt to what's thrown at you.

You're reading this on a food blog, so let's get at least the food part out of the way: For the price you pay, it's fairly good food at an OK price (basically $6 starter, $27 main, $6 dessert). Want superb food? Not here (or maybe not yet), and not for the price you pay. This isn't MARKET, people. The food is between good and good enough. This is a decent meal with the experience of being blind thrown in for free.

If you really want to risk ruining your experience at Dark Table, continue reading this blog post. Otherwise, here's the most you can safely know:
  • The menu is small and prix fixe (drinks are extra). If you have restrictions or allergies, tell them up front.
  • You can ask for a "surprise" main course. The surprise main (on the night I went) was not in the menu. It's not the same as random selection -- it's really a surprise. Because you're letting them figure it out, you can't really complain about what you get, and that's the risk here. If I were forced to base it on my one experience asking for the "surprise" main, I'd have to advise NOT to do it.
  • You can ask the hostess to put you down for a "surprise" drink even though that's not an option in the menu. You get a random selection from one of the mixed drinks (coffee, tea, or a simple juice would hardly be a surprise). I think they are nervous about doing this because drinks are an extra variable charge depending on what you get, compared to the surprise main course which is part of a fixed-price package.
  • There are two seatings. When I went just this past Sunday, they allocated two hours for the first seating, and the second seating was at 8pm. This was utterly unrealistic (although it can depend on how many people are on the first seating on the night you go). But you still have to be there on time because there's no telling when they will start. So, if you book yourself for the second seating on a busier night (say, Saturday), then be prepared to wait.
  • If you "need" alcohol, wait a month or so -- They don't have their license yet. If you can wait till after dinner, there's a pub down the street (Darby's Public House, a sports bar which can have too-loud live music in their smallish room) but otherwise the neighbourhood is pretty dead in the late evening.

SPOILER WARNING. This is your very last chance to turn back before I proceed to the rest of my review, which details my experience.
Still reading? Okay, here we go...

When you arrive, you convene outside in the heated patio area and receive a menu and complimentary, optional, blindfold. If you really don't know what you'll do with the blindfold after and would prefer not to accumulate unnecessary "stuff" or "souvenirs", you can politely give that back.
At this time, you are basically not allowed to go into the restaurant as that is mostly always utterly dark (I'll explain "mostly" later). If you need to use the restroom, someone would have to guide you there in the dark. So don't arrive there needing to go to the restroom. That'll just throw them off their schedule.

After you have had some time to look through the menu, the hostess will ask you for your selection. In this way, the kitchen knows how much of what to make. During dinner, they will announce what they have brought, and if you ordered it, you just let them know and they serve it to you.
TIP: The food will come up chopped up for you if applicable (e.g., steak), and into large chunks so each time you stab something with your fork you get a reasonable mouthful. So don't worry too much about figuring out cutting. But a lot of people ended up frustrated with using utensils and switched to using their hands. (And then, strangely, they felt the need to publicly confess it -- as if looking for others who did the same? There's a psych thesis in there somewhere.) If you are a neat freak or are wearing white and afraid of spills, choose something fairly easy to eat.

You enter the restaurant in table groups. For our group of 13, we were split into two groups of 6 and 7, and each group occupied one table. I was the very last person -- the 13th guest, as it were -- and squeezed in a corner of a table of 6. It was a bit tricky doing this in the dark as the spacing was meant for even numbers. Probably it was two tables put together and meant for two on each side and one at each end, for a total of 6.
TIP: If you want to take off your coat/jacket/whatever, do so before sitting down. They can check your umbrella or other small items if you are afraid of losing them in the dark.

The tables have a rubber mat that helps prevent plates from sliding around. At this point, I recommend you immediately check for napkin and cutlery, which should be in the usual place (napkin on your plate, fork and knife beside your plate). If you drop something, you are instructed not to go groping for it.
TIP: Mentally map out your surroundings and the size of your plate. When your drink comes, position it in front of you and above your plate. That way, there is less of a chance that your neighbour will accidentally grab it, especially if you are right-handed and they are left-handed.

You are started with drinks, then bread and butter. We had warm bagel chunks, each about the size of a dinner roll. Here is your chance to get coordinated with something that's hard to make a mess of.
TIP: With your fingers, benchmark a location on your cutlery (e.g., where the knife narrows into the blade) and get a feel for both the length of your cutlery and how hard you have to press something to sense it through your cutlery. If you are utterly unable to feel through your cutlery, you might want to forgo the frustration and eat with your hands.
TIP: You can ask for another napkin if, at this early stage, you get butter over your hands or otherwise make a mess.

After bread is done and the baskets are taken away, your starter is served. Our kale salad had large mushroom chunks which were tricky to identify as they were somewhat meat-like. Our server commented later that there was a tendency on the part of diners to imagine it to be whatever they thought it was (chicken?). Who knows what the heck else was in it.

TIP: Especially if the starter is a salad, ask for a spoon. It's a bit of a cheat, but honestly, it helps with salad if you are anal about cleaning your plate and not using your hands.
TIP: Are you finished? To check, you can "scan" your plate from side to side with your utensils: Position your spoon at one end, and sweep your plate with your fork toward your spoon. Do this down the length of your plate. If you are really unsure, you could gently feel around your plate with your fingers.

The choices for mains were:

  • beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce, potatoes, vegetables
  • goat cheese and date stuffed chicken breast with orange gastrique, roasted potatoes, vegetables
  • fresh ravioli with jalapeño rosemary cream sauce
  • peppered garlic prawns with citrus risotto, seasonal vegetables (there were reports of 5 prawns to the plate)
  • Viennese style veal schnitzel, potatoes, seasonable vegetables
  • surprise

I opted for the "surprise" and got what was ultimately revealed to me as Chicken Kiev with potatoes and very large carrot?/beet? chunks. I may have mentioned before somewhere that I think chicken to be a tasteless meat that really needs to borrow flavour from seasoning. Definitely the case here. The chunks of (white?) chicken meat, divorced from the rest of the plate, were pretty bland and at first seemed like boring white fish.
And here was the main problem with dinner at Dark Table. I first suspected it during the salad starter, and the main really confirmed it: You really need to choose what you order carefully.
At a restaurant where you can see your food, whether you know it or not, you mentally map out a rough strategy for eating your food. Typically you will switch back and forth between main and sides. You definitely see this at a steakhouse where they practically beg you to order a side, not because they want more sales but because from experience, a monotonous chunk of meat becomes tiresome after a while if you don't break up the experience with different tastes in between -- i.e., take a nibble from your sides.
At Dark Table, if you can figure out where everything on your plate, you might be able to sort-of dine normally, but more likely it will be luck of the draw what you find and put in your mouth.

And more than just the order of what you are eating, there's also what you have with each bite. With a simple salad, every bite might be the same, but with something more complex like dessert, what you get with each bite can greatly influence your experience. For example, when you eat cheesecake, do you deconstruct it and have the crust separately? That's entirely possible to do accidentally when you can't see what you're doing. Maybe you'll cut it the wrong way and get mostly cheese or mostly crust.

Some people talk about your heightened senses savouring the food better, but I personally didn't find that. Or maybe I was too preoccupied with figuring out how to eat. I couldn't really smell much of anything off my main to figure it out or appreciate it more. And anyone who's gone to enough dinners with me will know I have an annoying habit of sniffing the first bites of my food before eating it.

I really wasn't sure what dessert was. Something creamy and lemony. Everyone got a different fruit on top, which threw people off a bit when they tried to share their experience. Here I admit I was preoccupied with something else: Not having a spoon.
The servers swore that there was a spoon on every plate, but I checked the rim and just inside for mine and it wasn't there. Ultimately, I would find that it had slid INTO my dessert. If that happens to you, don't panic. Just calmly check, and if necessary ask for a dessert spoon. You'll probably find it sooner or later.

However, this brings up another issue. If you're germophobic, are you going to freak out because fingers that have been God-knows-where have handled your spoon which has wholly landed inside your creamy dessert?

The washrooms are somewhat dimly lit with an orangish light. There's a rather high-tech toilet seat here that's worth a look if you aren't already familiar with such gizmos.
Sadly, the whole going-to-the-washroom procedure somewhat ruined the dark experience for me, because whenever they part the curtain to go into the washroom area, the light from that region suddenly rendered the dining space no longer perfectly dark. (Same with the coming-and-going from the kitchen by staff, but much less so). Your immediate surroundings were still pitch dark, but suddenly it's a different experience of knowing distance/dimensions. While being in perfect darkness, there's a strange claustrophobia from not knowing just what is around you and how far away it is to anything. I counted that sensory deprivation to be key to the experience, and being seated at an angle to see the occasional bursts of light rather detracted from that.

After dinner, when you are ready, the servers lead you to a curtained-off casher area. Here, they have a counter set up at the restaurant's bar (which is lit, but blocked off by black curtains). They ask you whether you had two or three courses, and what drink you had, if any. There's a curious amount of trust here, which I hadn't seen since Argo Cafe.

Overall, this experience would be tricky to recreate at home without nightvision gear or a coordinated team, so if you're at all curious, I do recommend trying Dark Table. I heard good comments about the food from everyone who chose their main, so it's quite a safe choice for dinner if you are focussed on value for your money.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Spacious Seating at Bacchus

Bacchus Restaurant and Lounge (Wedgewood Hotel) on Urbanspoon I've seen this place, walked by it many times, and even heard about it once or twice. It's hotel dining, and that often carries a stigma of being overpriced. Bacchus Restaurant and Lounge is the older places in Vancouver, a city known as being a tough place to start a restaurant, and I figured it was time to go before it gets renovated into something unrecognizable.

The lounge half of the restaurant has comfortable seats that invite you to linger with intimate company, and the generous spacing means despite the somewhat loud buzz of conversation, there's still a degree of privacy. A live pianist adds to the old school vibe of this place. The ambiance is more than just the decor -- the overall vibe is one where you are invited to stay and enjoy your time with whoever you came (or came to meet). As opposed to a more open layout where eyes are cast outward people watching or where you are on display. Which isn't necessarily bad -- it's just a different sort of lounge.

The restaurant half of the space is quite small and far enough removed from the Lounge to escape most of the noise there. Our party of just 6 were given the large table arrangement all the way at the back, and enough table space for 10 at many other restaurants. You are definitely not squashed in here. Lighting was dim.
You are waited on by male servers, served by female bussers. Our server was not the house sommelier, but nevertheless confident with the wine list to make suggestions; apparently all the waiters at Bacchus have some training. For the one more discerning (or, if you prefer, pickier) diner with our group, he did in the end call for the sommelier.

The Wedgewood Hotel, being practically a stone's throw from the courthouse, sees a goodly number of lawyers coming through, so you can guess at the clientele they are used to serving. Given that, the menu looks awfully cheap for where they are and who comes in.
  • Virgin almost-Moscow Mule ($8)
    • I was looking for a house ginger beer (not available), but settled for their recommendation of a palate-cleanser type non-alcoholic drink. I'd had a virgin mojito at C, so I opted to give a Moscow Mulet a go. It was the closest thing they could whip up to a ginger beer -- diced ginger with lime juice and soda water, if I remember correctly. A Moscow Mule is supposed to have actual ginger beer, but that was not available.
    • Not enough kick to this. Next time I'll get a real ginger beer or just choose something else. Maybe a fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
    • On the bill it showed "limonata" for $8. A bit steep, I thought, for a non-alcoholic drink.
  • We got two small bites for a complimentary amuse bouche. Can't really remember what they were. Oops. A bit of bread but mostly biscuit-hard very-thin flatbreads in the bread basket.
  • Bacchus Truffle Frites ($6)
    • Two of us put in an order each of these to share. Each order is one bowl-ful of regulation thickness fries and if used as an appy, probably good for just one person or two to share.
    • Slightly salted. Made to order, of course: Came to the table hot and crispy on the outside.
    • The aroma of truffle reached me over a foot away. Clearly present in taste but not overdone. Probably the best truffled anything I've had.
    • A bit sad to say, but I would have opted for two more bowls of this over my main course.
  • Chicken Liver and Cognac Parfait ($12) fig chutney, toasted brioche
    • Soft, very smooth chicken liver cut from blocks that were encased in what appeared to be a 1.5mm thick coating of pale butter.
    • The cognac didn't really come through for me, but the wine drinkers at our table assured me it was there.
    • Other interesting things on the plate were a lemon-yellow paste and a yellow jelly that was probably some sort of jellied consomme.
    • The portion is about 7 square inches, and a half inch thick. Not terribly much, but an okay price at $12 and fairly tasty. Smear it generously on the brioche, which is really just a vehicle to move it to your mouth. If you run out of brioche, there's the bread basket.
  • Kennebec Potato and Chive Gnocchi ($26) artichoke, oyster mushrooms, zucchini, kale, toasted sourdough gremulata
    • This was the only vegetarian option. Assuming that the sourdough crumbs didn't use dairy substitutes, this is not vegan.
    • With only one option for non-meat-eaters, I figured it would be either token, or they'd try really hard and make it great. I think it came out as being token (but I'm picky). Decent, but nothing "wow", which I had hoped for at the price point.
    • The "sourdough gremulata" was fine crumbs of toasted sourdough. Somewhat salty unless  you mingled it with the rest of what came on your plate.
    • If you're vegetarian or vegan stuck at Bacchus for dinner, I'd put together my meal with the sides. Definitely go for the truffled frites.
  • Dessert Platter for Three ($29; normally desserts are $10.50 each).
    • The server was quick to correct our misconception about the platters. They aren't a little of everything. Instead, you get either two desserts for $19 or three for $29. It just doesn't quite sound anything like that.
    • We opted for the Baked Lemon Souffle Pudding, Michel Cluizel Dark Chocolate Ganache Tart, and Peach Crumble (seasonal fruit crumble)
    • Desserts were decent and an okay portion size. Seemed slightly overpriced but the quality of what you get makes up the difference. Whether you appreciate that extra edge in quality will determine whether you feel each dessert ought to be $3 less.
    • Nothing in particular to note about the desserts, possibly because they were all good enough that no one in particular stood out from the others. I'm partial to the chocolate ganache tart (which came as a long chocolate bar) over the others, however, as the safest choice.
For me, based on my dinner choices, I'd say highlights were the truffled fries and dessert. The chicken liver parfait was good, but didn't strike me as exceptional enough to be worth a specific recommendation.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Cheap vegetarian eats at Anatolia's Gate Restaurant

Anatolia's Gate on Urbanspoon My vegetarian friend had gone to Turkey earlier this year and talked about having done well there without meat. The Culture Sponges dining group had had a good omnivorous experience at Anatolia's Gate Restaurant, so I dragged her there to rekindle memories of Turkey and show me the veggie way. She did the ordering, except for the "Sahlep Tea". Normally it's sort-of cheap to eat here, but somehow our bill ended up being $44.70 before tax and tip and we ended up with a meal's worth of leftovers.
  • Large Mixed Plate with Lavash Bread ($16.95)
    • What you see in the glass counter when you walk in the door is pretty much what you get. There were nine different things on the full-loaded plate, including stuffed grape leaves, mixed olives, hummus, chemen (tomato paste with spices and walnuts), and baba ghanoush. It's like everything on their cold starters menu except leafy salads.
    • Comes with one of their fresh fire-oven lavash breads. This thing is the size of two dinner plates and comes hot and fresh. Choice of white or whole wheat.
    • Really, we should have stopped right here since there's actually a lot of food here for just two persons. But it just didn't *look* like a lot.
    • Nothing too fancy here unless you haven't had many Mediterranean dips other than hummus. Then it might be exotic for you. A couple of items had a bit of spicy kick but not really hot. Simple, tasty, and cheap to boot. All vegetarian, too.
  • Cheese Pide ($9.95)
    • A pide is a bread with stuff in it. It looks like a canoe and is about a foot long and maybe three inches at its widest.
    • The cheese one is boring. If you want cheese on bread you can do that at home. For $9.95, you can probably get a whole block of cheese and a whole loaf of French Bread. This is way overpriced. Conveniently hot and fresh, but overpriced.
  • Lentil Soup ($4.95 x 2 bowls)
    • If you've had lentil soup in an Indian restaurant, this is not the same thing. The lentils are more finely ground, it's seasoned differently, and you can optionally squeeze your wedge of lime into it for zing.
    • $4.95 gets you a sizable bowl. This plus the mixed cold starter plate is already a very filling portion.
    • $4.95 is supposed to come with bread, but they may have lumped that together with the Larged Mixed Plate. In any case, we just one the one very big flatbread but our choice of bread (white) showed up in two places on the menu.
  • Sahlep Tea ($3.95 x 2 mugs)
    • I didn't see this on the online menu, but it was on the in-store print menu, which says it's made from some sort of rare orchid bulb. Too bad it tasted like the cinnamon that was sprinkled on the foamy top. And for $3.95? Pass.
$16.95 can get you a good amount of food for two persons, so your visit to Anatolia's Gate Restaurant needn't be anywhere close to the over-$50 after tip experience and scary-looking leftovers we had.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lacking ambiance at Sweet Revenge

Sweet Revenge Patisserie on Urbanspoon Everything here is made in-house, which usually means stricter quality control for better quality. If it's made in-house and still inferior to mass-produced shipped-in cakes, you're in trouble. So happily, Sweet Revenge Pâtisserie did not disappoint on this point.

We walked in probably shortly before 8pm on Saturday, which turned out very fortunately because maybe a half hour later, the place was full and the lineup was beginning outside (and, annoyingly, just inside the door, meaning outgoing patrons were sandwiched between people waiting).
The price for what you got was between okay to slightly expensive. My guess is that the neighbourhood doesn't have many options for a late-night café with pâtisserie offerings, which in turn means you get a clashing vibe for a café sort of place (yes, a café and a pâtisserie are not strictly the same, but if you run the latter like the former...). But that later.

We had just finished at The Acorn Restaurant where we did sample five desserts but were still excited by the prospect of even more dessert. I think there's something to that, but I'll skip the musings on psychology here.

I got to try...
  • Chocolate pudding cake ($7) Warm, moist and smooth, with real whipped cream. Optional scoop of ice cream to accompany.
    • Best of the lot for being a really good, rich, chocolate cake. Add equally rich, dark, chocolate sauce and this is a simple yet delicious dessert. Nothing fancy, just chocolate. Whipped cream and ice cream served on the side.
  • Zuccotto ($6) A domed cake covered with semi-sweet ganache, with layers of buttery white sponge, chocolate, & fresh berry mousse.
    • This was alright. Mostly you're eating cream and hardly any cake, so be prepared for it. Light cream on the inside, so despite the amount of chocolate and cream here, it's not a heavy-feeling dessert.
  • Tiramisu ($8) Mascarpone cheese with whipped cream layered over ladyfingers soaked in Kahlua & espresso, dusted with cocoa powder.
    • This came in a tumbler. I'm not really a fan of tiramisu-in-a-glass as they often seem more cream than tiramisu components. Still, the person who ordered it rated it highly.
Sweet Revenge is a safe choice for cake/dessert. Whether you feel the quality is a step above any other patisserie is debatable. Where it is severely lacking is ambiance. I can see reasons for it, but it doesn't really change your experience there.
For starters, this is a tiny, tiny place. It's so small that they have tables divided by a screen for two parties of two each. I'm not kidding. Nevermind that it's not exactly a classy set-up, but it also runs counter to having a particularly private time with whoever you came with. With them being so defensive about space, there's no telling what they'd do if you walked in alone.

This said, if we give them the benefit of the doubt, we can imagine that they are not trying to be uncouth and miserly, but instead trying to serve as many people as possible and minimize the line-up -- And essentially run a café in a space with too few seats to be a proper café. (Starbucks doesn't have this issue because it's a take-out place, rather than really being a dine-in -- do you see people waiting for seats in Starbucks?).
People walk into a café expecting a relaxed time, and the stated peak-hour time limit of 90 minutes is generous for your typical very small party of about two persons. Where cafés (and pretty much every establishment) can run into trouble is when people hog seats for a very long time. Yes, even when others are waiting patiently for their turn.
I remember an incident many years ago at Diva At The Met, during Dine Out Vancouver. The hostesses were flustered dealing with a line-up of patrons who had promptly showed up for their reservations, because a couple of ladies had lingered well over an hour after finishing dinner, and that (plus possibly others) threw off the night's reservations. We could be kind and imagine the diners were oblivious to time; and the restaurant was too polite to move them along. But that doesn't change the fact that everyone after them was now late. I offered to release my reservation, but the hostess I spoke with was mortified at that concession as I had patiently waited over an hour myself.

It comes down to establishments trying to balance hospitality and people being upset at having to wait too long. Various places have various techniques. Some lay down the law with minimum orders per hour (like Calhoun's Bakery, if I remember correctly). Others (like Vij's) try customer retention by giving out snacks to those waiting in line.

Ten-Course Tasting Menu at C Restaurant

C Restaurant on Urbanspoon Late last year I picked up a Groupon for a Nine-Course Tasting Menu at C Restaurant at half price. We'd had a good time slowly savouring the food, so when it showed up again this year as a 10-course, I snapped it up.

Familiar at the table was black volcanic ash salt (sea salt-like chips instead of fine ash this time) on the butter that accompanied your bread. And the bread was a mix of plain and some with a bit of seaweed in it. Gone were the chairs with the funny covers; they were replaced by something more unremarkable and very restaurant-typical.

The "Chef's Grand Tasting Menu" was this year featured the basic line-up, five optional subsitutions ($12-$22, $78 if you did all five substitutions), and two sets of wine pairings ($65, or a "sommelier's choice pairing" for $95). At $125 regular price ($125 for two Groupon price), it's tempting to divide it into 10 and call each dish $12.50, but that's not exactly right since you start with appetizer bites and finish with a light dessert. Also, if you examine the ingredients, you might (will) be getting a rather small bite per course, but the ingredients aren't exactly easily thrown together -- those two slices of red wine poached pear or the few pieces of octopus have their cost divided over several servings of the tasting menu, and there's additional cost factored for potential waste from not being used.

However, your experience will be based on what comes to your table and goes in your mouth, not the logistics of running a restaurant. And there will be winners and losers in any large tasting menu (since, as we all know, you can't please everybody all the time), so the tasting menu may or may not feel like good value at $125, but at half price my feeling is that it definitely falls on the cheap side for what you get to sample.

A Tasting Menu at C is not the same experience as a one-hour-time-limit Dine Out Vancouver 3-course. You are not packed in like sardines and processed with a keep-them-moving table service. Each item is best enjoyed mindfully -- that is, paying attention to what you are eating. Try not to have it as a business meeting, and definitely don't budget yourself an hour and a half and ask the restaurant to rush it. Three and a half hours (I'm not kidding) is a good pace to include savouring your courses and also an intimate time with your dining companion. And apparently lingering dinners are such a common occurrence that some of the waiters are no stranger to running around looking for specific cars and topping up parking meters.
  • Oyster - Chef's Creek oyster, lemonade foam
    • I was never a fan of using foams -- looks like either soap bubbles or spit. Yuck! The flavour is there, though.
    • Not too "oyster-y" or seawater flavoured, possibly tempered by the lemonade foam. Honestly, just one is fine and all you need. No need for a flight of six oysters.
  • Belgium Endive - red wine poached pear, roquefort
    • Two slices of sweet poached pear which goes well with the bitter veggies here and the blue fungus of the cheese, but you'll have to cut them and arrange your bites to get it all in one go.
    • I'm biased here because I hate blue cheese. If you love it, this item will probably work very nicely for you.
  • Consommé - chicken and sweetcorn, spiced popcorn
    • I thought this was a lacklustre entry in the tasting menu, but consommés are time-consuming to hand-make and probably under-appreciated nowadays.
    • If you will be absolutely unhappy getting a bowl of "just chicken broth", you can try the much more interesting-sounding lobster bisque with ginger cured salmon for +$12.
    • Throw in the popcorn. It'll soak up some of the soup and melt in your mouth.
  • Blackened Albacore - lemon olive oil emulsion, fennel orange salad
  • Salmon Croquet - truffled leeks, chive butter
    • This turned out totally ace. The description doesn't hint at it, but the croquet was like a falafel, and there was definitely a presence of curry. The salmon was clearly seen in chunks. The taste was wonderful.
  • Seared Scallops - tender honey octopus, red pepper emulsion
    • Chewy octopus bits! Nothing honey about it that I could detect. And scallop is scallop. Hmm.
  • Lamb Risotto - braised lamb cheek, mint salsa verde
    • Salty lamb, but not excessively so. Otherwise pretty solid as a "main". The largest plate on the tasting menu and beginning of the end -- after this, just desserts.
  • Farm House Cheddar - spiced walnuts, apple foam
    • A simple plate of a thin slice of white cheddar, walnuts without any bitterness, apple foam, and half a crabapple that had been soaked with something (syrup?).
  • Beet Mousse - raspberry fluid gel, chocolate crumble
    • A column of frozen mousse that immediately began to melt on the plate at its base. For the most part it retained its shape nicely, but it slid around on the plate as we tried to cut it with the provided spork.
    • Barely any sweetness here, and nicely paired with the chocolate for flavour as well as crunchy texture.
    • Best to have this in conjunction with the provided macaron because the latter was burn-your-throat sweet..
  • Pumpkin spice macaron
    • About the size of a loonie. Two of these might make single regulation-sized macaron.
Except for the salmon croquet, I'd have to say that while everything was well done, there wasn't anything really "wow" about it. It's fair value at $62.50 per person. Not sure I'd be up for it at $125, though.

Service was... odd. Often you get wait staff that serve food and tell you what it is, check on you, and otherwise leave you alone. We somehow ended up with the chatty one who was very much a part of our table each time he dropped by, sharing personal anecdotes. I think even he wasn't sure how much he should participate, but my dining companion was the friendly sort and in any case interested in his stories of 50-course tasting menus including grapes carefully layered with flavour using a syringe; and trying to make his own ice cubes with liquer in them so they'd slowly release their flavour.
Like most of the highest-end establishments, there are no mini-skirted hotties here, but a crew of male waiters.

2012-Sep C Restaurant Chef's Grand Tasting Menu

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pretty salty at The Acorn Restaurant

The Acorn on Urbanspoon Last Friday I dragged a bunch of omnivores down to the new-ish vegetarian/vegan place, The Acorn Restaurant. Strangely, it's like a Yaletown restaurant with diner ambiance, complete with beautiful food, downtown prices, and hot waitresses; but no skimpy outfits or uniform per se. Table spacing is also pretty tight.

The line-up starts at around 5pm (even though they open at 5:30pm), and shortly after you can expect the restaurant to be full. You can reserve a "family table" tucked in the back. Minimum 6 persons, maximum around 14 but you're quite sandwiched and they probably have to pull over the nearby table. Reservations have a strict 2-hour seating. Our party was on time, done and paid around 7:15pm -- and we hashed out a single bill instead of asking for separate bills, which would have been complicated by the fact that we split five desserts. Our orders did come out quite quickly considering the restaurant was packed.

Lots of orders at the table, including every main and every dessert but I'm only mentioning what I got a good bite of. Medium to smallish portions for a price which is basically a buck or two shy of $20. Still, downtown fine dining prices on Main haven't dulled its popularity.
Overall, everything on your plate has a flavour and you should get it all in with each bite. If there's a smear of colourful sauce. Use that. It's not just decoration.
  • Vegan Beet (appetizer; $10) Macadamia Cheese & Beet Ravioli, Grapefruit, Sorrel, Cider Glaze (GF / V / RAW Option)
    • This was a startlingly tiny appy. Each "ravioli" was basically two thin slices of beet with tasty goop in between. The bigger red beet slices were on-par with a twonie and barely half as thick. I'm not kidding.
    • That said, the pink goop inside (macadamia cheese + grapefruit?) made each portion remarkably tasty. There were only six (?) portions. If you put it all together, everything on the long plate wouldn't fill a shot glass.
  • Mushroom (main; $19) Seared King Oyster Mushroom, Spelt, Cauliflower, Broccolini, Nasturtium, Peppercorn Sauce (GF / V Option)
    • Salty! Not as salty as the zucchini noodles, but overall they're not shy about salt here.
    • The round chunks of mushroom looked strangely like sections of pork sausage. Considering how the halloumi came out, we had a suspicion that this was intentional, to fool omnivores into not missing meat.
    • Overall, this was a boring dish, especially at $19.
  • Halloumi (main; $19) Beer Battered Halloumi, Zucchini Pancakes, Smashed Peas, Yogurt, Lemon Balm
    • The large chunks of Halloumi cheese were maybe two inches long and a square inch in cross section. It looked like a plate of battered fish. The person who ordered it said her batter tasted just like fish and chips batter.
    • The "zucchini pancakes" were shredded zucchini put together in a flat mass and fried like a potato pancake. They looked remarkably black to me. I didn't try it myself but I didn't heard about it being burnt either.
    • A bit of a novelty if you haven't had deep fried cheese. It doesn't come out melted, just softened.
    • Again, not really worth it at $19.
  • Peanut (dessert; $11) Chocolate Peanut Terrine, Berries, Coconut Whip, Raspberry Coulis, Lemon Thyme
    • Chocolate on a very hard bed of crushed peanuts. Careful when cutting this as it's liable to fly as soon as you force your utensil through the very solid peanut layer.
    • Too much nut here for my taste, but that may have been because the dessert just broke apart into chocolate and nut separately. Maybe it would have been easier to tackle and get a bit of everything from the plate to go with each bite if we didn't have to share it.
  • Vegan Chocolate Cake (dessert; $?)
    • Not on the regular menu. Chocolate anything is typically a safe choice and this was a really decent chocolate cake.
  • Ginger Beer ($4)
    • Didn't come in a bottle so this was probably made in-house. Not too much ginger bite. Around the same as a grapefruit juice.
Plating is very good here and inspires you to feel the price is right. Typically each plate is colourful and appetizing. There can be good flavours (despite some mains being on the salty side) but it depends on what you order. It's definitely interesting food, especially if you are a vegetarian-curious omnivore.
I guess my feeling of disappointment comes down mainly to price. Our bill came out to $42.25 per person after tax and included 18% tip (mandatory for parties of 6+), and while everyone had a main, not everyone had an appetizer or separate dessert order.

Yes, the price doesn't tip $20, and their price point is far away from restaurants where appetizers can weigh in close to $20 and mains are near or exceeding $30. But these establishments usually have more than just tasty food. They command a price which includes location, ambiance, service, and typically an unrushed experience where a duo could conceivably linger for three hours or so to have a patient dinner in comfortable surroundings. Not squashed into a diner with the pressure of a line-up outside the door to get you moving.
That said, the counter-argument could be that elitism is a different sort of way to screen your patrons. Acorn's price's can already seem daunting to some, and it hasn't slowed down demand. This is possibly as high as it will go without using meat.

Service was good. Prompt action on e-mail although sometimes there was no acknowledgement e-mail (I updated our party count by e-mail, didn't hear anything back, called them to confirm and it turned out they had already adjusted the count based on my e-mail). I didn't feel rushed by our waitress even though I sensed she may have been nervous about how long we took to figure out what to order.