Monday, May 20, 2013

C Restaurant Overwhelmed?

C Restaurant on Urbanspoon
It's the third year that C Restaurant has offered a tasting menu through Groupon. I'd been there in 2011 and 2012, and

This year, the advertised menu was...
  • Compressed watermelon and pickled rind with side strip shrimp eschabeche
  • North Arm Farms beets with balsamic gel and crisp goat cheese
  • Leek-and-potato soup and a mini baked potato with sour cream, green onions, and pancetta
  • Seared albicore tuna with fingerling potatoes, sunny-side quail egg, and lobster cream
  • Pan-seared scallop with braised red cabbage, caramelized apples, and Calvados froth
  • Pan-seared Louis Lake steelhead-mussel coconut broth and green-papaya salsa
  • Cucumber sorbet with feta cheese and black-olive powder and tomato chips
  • Farm House cheddar with poached pear and saffron gel
  • Chocolate cake with mint ganache and toasted marshmallow
  • Peanut butter-and-jelly macaroons
I forgot to snag the menu this time, but the advertised menu isn't exactly what you get. There are minor substitutions here and there, such as with the cucumber sorbet. On the night we went there, it featured a crisp basil leaf and what seemed to be a candied slice of tomato. There were also the usual substitutions available for a few items, such as an extra $12 to have lobster bisque instead of the soup.

Overall, at $55 per person through the Groupon, it's interesting eats, well-prepared food, beautiful plates, and good value. At $110 I think it would have been rather overpriced in a competitive foodie town like Vancouver, especially when the first course is like an amuse bouche and the last course is a small macaron. It's really more like 8 or 9 courses. Maybe there's a lot of special work involved, but in the end it comes down to what goes in your mouth and  Service from the waiters was professional and there's nothing to complain about there.

Sadly, what stood out most this year was how overwhelmed the restaurant seemed to be, and its effects on service.

In previous years, I'd made reservations over a week in advance using Opentable, and I'd always clearly stated that I would be using a Groupon. This year I did the same. On the day of our dinner (a party of four), at 11.30 AM, I got a call from the restaurant saying that they cancelled my reservation. A reservation that had been made about two weeks ago, with a note saying I would be using my Groupons.
The explanation from the somewhat angry and panicky person I spoke with was that I hadn't called in my reservation. He cited the stipulation on the Groupon that I had to call instead of making an online reservation. My reservation was for a Saturday night, and he went on to say that they were booked solid that weekend and the following weekend, and it was "impossible" to give me a reservation. Unfortunately, the busy professionals I was dining with didn't have the luxury of adjusting their schedule on the fly. One person was over an hour's drive and had already booked a hotel room -- non-refundable at over $300 for the night.

So I didn't call in my reservation. Fine. But could the restaurant not have given me a bit more warning than 11.30 am on the day of the reservation? I ended up taking my friend who had booked the hotel room to a captivating dinner at Diva at the Met. I also booked a reservation with C Restaurant for two weeks hence, this time by phone. They asked to nudge my reservation from 7 pm to 7.30 pm. No problem.

This time, the reservation did not get cancelled. I even called the day before to confirm and remind them that I was using my Groupons. I arrived early, as I usually do when I am hosting. At 7 pm on a bright Saturday evening, the restaurant wasn't even half full, but the patio was quite busy. Staff were buzzing around. The maître d at the reception table looked stressed out and losing his cool. He asked one of the servers passing by if she could handle another table and she said no.
That was my first suspicion that they were understaffed for the evening. Presumably she had declined so as not to compromise service quality to the patrons who were already there. Quality control is a good sign, but that didn't really help the maître d that evening.
I don't think he meant it, but he just about snapped at me saying my reservation was for 7.30 pm and it was only 7pm. No problem. Since I was early, and he didn't say that any of my party had arrived, I told him I'd come back later. Maybe someone else might have made a stink about expectations of service in a high-end restaurant, but my feeling is that when someone seems that stressed out, asking for anything really doesn't help things at all. I decided to give them breathing room instead.

When I came back about fifteen minutes later with one of my guests, the maître d basically avoided eye contact with us initially. We were shown to a table upstairs, and he said he would bring us more menus "when they became available".
Avoiding eye contact is a way to not get flagged down for service by customers. I'd seen it before at Gurkha Himalayan Kitchen when two waitresses were overwhelmed with a full dining room. They were just running around so madly they couldn't handle one more thing. That was the impression I got at reception at C Restaurant that night. They were overwhelmed and that was the best they could do at the time without basically telling us we had to wait.

After our food and drink orders, they brought the usual basket of bread and softened butter topped with their signature volcanic salt. The bread was cold, despite being wrapped in soft cloth. It seemed another sign that the staff weren't able to keep up.

Our party talked about it a bit later that evening. One person was in sales and she was appalled at the treatment. Avoiding eye contact and projecting an attitude of "I don't have time for you" was bad. She suggested that they could have seated us anyway and explained their limitations at the moment. In that way, they might have maybe sold us a beverage from the bar while we waited for the rest of our party.
I suppose different people have different expectations and it's all 20/20 in hindsight. Someone else might have been upset to be seated and receive limited service. Who knows?

Overall, however, my experience of the restaurant this time was very different from the previous two times. Maybe their tasting menus have simply become too popular and they can't keep up. Half-empty room or not, they just didn't have the staffing to handle the dinner rush that night.
Or maybe the economics just don't bear it out. A long tasting menu could mean maybe just the one seating each night, and at the price point offered, maybe it's not working out.
Whatever the reasons, I think I'd be hard-pressed to drag my friends back there after what happened.

Pesky Crawfish at Cray

Cray Kitchen and Bar on UrbanspoonAfter reading the article in the Georgia Straight about where to get an authentic New Orleans crawfish boil, I went to Cray Kitchen and Bar to try it out. Disaster.

Cray offers three types of Seafood Combos:
  • The Pacific ($20) - Shrimp in the shell, Clams, Mussels, Andouille Sausage, Corn on the cob, and Potatoes
  • Cray-ving Crawfish ($25) - The Pacific, plus Crawfish
  • Crab Combo ($29) - Cray-ving Crawfish plus one BC Dungeness Crab cut in half.
There are three types of seasoning: Cajun, garlic butter, and lemon pepper. You can also ask for a mix of everything, and all the main ingredients do sort of stand out. It's tasty. The soup that's sitting at the bottom of the large bowl of boiled seafood you get -- it's tasty.
I need to emphasize this because when you read the rest of this blog post, you might think I hated my Crab Combo at Cray. That's not entirely true. I didn't really like it, but there's no denying the soup is tasty.
Also, after unlimited crab legs at the Grand Villa Casino it was hard not to be disappointed by the Crab Combo being just one crab, so I'm biased there as well. Basically, +$4 gets you one half of a crab at Cray. You'll have to decide if a few crab legs are worth $4 to you.
With these caveats out of the way, let's talk about Cray's Crab Combo.

About them pesky crawfish... You get a little pamphlet about how to eat it. It shows a remarkably large crawfish the size of a small lobster / large prawn being easily peeled.
Lies. All lies. (Or my manual dexterity sucks). The crawfish we got were smaller than a prawn and their heads were about the same size or bigger than the rest of their bodies. They have lobster-like shells, so they are harder to peel, and for less meat. Not worth the effort. Also, sucking the head didn't really work for me. Nothing came out. Maybe it all melted into goo into the tasty soup.
If you do want to eat it for the novelty, I recommend using scissors to cut the shell open lengthwise on top and open it up  that way instead of peeling off the segments of shell. You might have to bring your own scissors, though.
Or, you can (after you've twisted off the head) dip the whole tail (shell included) in the soup and eat the whole thing. The shell is crunchy and less chewy than prawn shells. Think of it as a cracker.

As for the seafood boil, we made a number of mistakes on how to tackle it, so here's my advice for a hopefully better experience...
  • First, ask for mini-samples of the seasonings to test for heat / spiciness. I found "XXX" to be too much on the bitter side but it was not super-hot. "Spicy" was closer to my expectations for something around Medium or between Mild and Medium, but everyone has their own tolerance. If you like it spicy, I recommend you get a sample of the seasoning first. You can get chili on the side later and you can also get a refill of soup (but this costs extra).
  • The orders come in a large basin for two persons. An order for three persons is possible but there's some sort of complication in measuring (they probably have the items pre-portioned into boiling bags for two persons) and your order could be delayed.
  • Ask them for plates and soup spoons. I would be rather appalled if they didn't give you soup spoons, but I recommend you try it anyway.
  • All that tasty soup with seasoning is AT THE BOTTOM of the basin. There's not enough seasoning on the items. DO NOT start eating. You won't get the experience of the seasonings. When your order comes, take stuff out and put it on your plate. You want to thin it out so that you can get at the soup.
    • For clams and mussels, you can use the shell as a spoon to get some soup to go with the meat you slurp down.
    • For prawns and crawfish, after you peel off the shell, dip it into the soup. Otherwise you're just eating boiled prawn because any seasoning that was on it got tossed along with the shell (duh...).
    • For potatoes, they roughly cut them into pretty big chunks. I recommend you cut them into smaller blobs, maybe about a cubic inch or so, and let them soak some more in the soup. If you cut them into too-small pieces, they could disintegrate. They should peel pretty easily and you might want to do that because the soup won't soak so well through the skin.
    • For the corn (basically one corn cut into two portions about four inches long), they are quite soaked already, but before you start eating you might want to roll them around to make sure its all coated in the sauce.
    • The sausage should be fine as it is, but you might have to be quick to find them. If your partner isn't alert, they might accidentally eat all of the few pieces in there.
  • Because of all that peeling that needs to be done, you probably won't even be halfway through when the whole thing gets cold. You can ask it to be reheated, especially if some of the potatoes are not quite cooked through and still crunchy on the inside.
  • After you're done, you'll probably be asked if you want bread to soak up the soup. Sounds like a super-awesome idea but $3 gets you 5 pieces of nicely toasted bread that barely add up to a single slice of thick toast. Remember I asked you to get soup spoons? Now's the time to use them. (You could, I suppose, use the mussel shells; but they have nice big soup spoons that they hand out for their gumbo and chowder orders). You'd probably need two orders of bread to get at most of the soup in a two-person seafood boil order, and at $3 per order, that's rather annoying to pay.
Cray isn't a big place, so it's probably safer to make reservations. Also, if you are looking for something specific and won't accept substitutions, call ahead for availability. For example, oysters were all sold out on the night I went, and we were in just around 7pm.

Staff is friendly (and cute!) and the place has a nice, relaxed vibe. I suppose the best part of the seafood boil wasn't so much the seafood or the soup, but the fun of getting messy eating. Not the best thing to order on a touchy-feely date night, but it's a great way to share food.

You get plastic aprons, but I still wouldn't wear white. Just sayin'.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Inventive Persian Food at Diva At the Met

Diva at the Met on UrbanspoonDiva at the Met presently offers a 5-course or 7-course "Persian Tasting Menu". If you've ever had Persian food and think you know what it is, you should definitely go. This is NOTHING like Persian food. Yet the ingredients and flavours give it a decidedly Persian / middle-eastern influence.

At this point, it is very dangerous to give too much away because what comes to your table is guaranteed to blow you away. From the starter snacks (complimentary, and do not count toward the courses) to the palate cleanser to the dessert at the end, you will be treated to dishes that have clear flavours which do not smother each other. There is a sense that nothing is without purpose and everything is exquisitely composed.
Plating will delight you with its prettiness, intrigue you with its often hidden-by-layers content, or surprise you with its simplicity or oddness. To show you any pictures here would be to spoil your experience.

When I go to restaurants, I immediately order the weirdest-sounding item because I constantly look for interesting, intriguing, surprising dining experiences. Often you get some sort of trade-off between appearance, taste, and price. Diva at the Met's Hamid Salimian has put together a tasting menu that brings all these elements together. If you're looking for interesting food, if you want a unique culinary experience, you must try this tasting menu. Go NOW because Hamid Salimian is due to leave Diva at the Met to teach at Vancouver Community College. There's no telling for how long the Tasting Menu will be available.

If you absolutely won't go without a teaser -- and know that it may well spoil the surprises that await for you -- here are a couple of blog posts that show some of the invention and innovation that you can expect. Your tasting menu experience will still be different, but hopefully not completely spoiled by these glimpses: We Need More Napkins. Follow Me Foodie.

If you do go, in the worst case you will experience a lovely restaurant in a beautiful hotel, very attentive service by knowledgeable and friendly staff, and maybe a seat looking in on the kitchen where you might see the master himself, Chef Salimian, working alongside everyone else crunching out the plates. If you do the tasting menu, allow yourself a couple of hours at the minimum to. This is unrushed dinner service to savour every bite and enjoy your dinner companions; not out-in-one-hour Dine Out Vancouver turnover.

Overbaked Christmas at Magda's Restaurant

Magda's Restaurant on UrbanspoonA genuine Venezuelan recommended this place, and in the late evening, around 8pm, it had a few tables of South Americans, so it looked like it was authentic, or at least close enough. I can't say I've been to Venezuela, but if this is the sort of food they have, I don't know if I'd be so keen on going there just for the food.

There's lots of meat involved here and plainly presented. Portion for price is OK. For example, we had an order of Tequeños (~4" long ~3/4" thick fried white cheese sticks wrapped in wheat flour dough); at $7.99, it came out to over a dollar a piece. An order of Mixed Parrilla (steak, chorizo, pork chop, chicken breast, yucca & Venezuelan guasacaca) was $25. Initially it looked like an enormous mound of meat, but it was really a layer of meat over an enormous mound of yucca.
Considering the 49th and Fraser neighbourhood, price for what you got was just okay but not really tipping over into expensive.

An interesting option at Magda's Restaurant are their made-to-order items which you need to pre-order at least a day in advance. The selection includes a $15 Plato Navideño, the traditional Venezuelan Christmas dish. I ordered this several days in advance. No one else in our dining group was interested in trying it, but the restaurant said a single order was fine.
Sadly, it turned out horribly. Not sure what happened here, but the long delay in bringing it out was a bad sign. When it did come, I was surprised they served it at all. An order of Plato Navideño includes various things:
  • Hallaca - A mixture of beef, pork, chicken, raisins, capers, and olives wrapped in cornmeal dough, folded within plantain leaves, tied with strings, and boiled or steamed afterwards - This seemed okay. It's interesting to try as the cornmeal dough comes out as slightly sweet. Not much in the way of fillings, and the chunks of meat were on the tough side.
  • Roasted Pork - A single large lump, slightly less than a tennis ball in volume. Rather dry and tough, which surprised me because the grilled meat on the Mixed Parilla was decently done.
  • Chicken Salad - Very much like a potato salad, but with chicken bits. About a cupful or slightly more.
  • Ham Loaf - A traditional Venezuelan Christmas bread with ham, raisin and olive - This is thin bread dough with sliced ham, raisins, and olives rolled into it. The loaf is then cut into slices. The Plato Navideño has one thick slice. Sadly, for unclear reasons, this was horrid. Either the loaf had been over-baked, or it was re-heated. Either way, the ham on the inside was extremely dry. The bread on the outside was very brown and crusty/crispy hard; on the inside, it was dry and crumbly. Why did they even bother serving this? I think I would have preferred to be told that there was a kitchen error and it was unavailable. Sure, I'd be disappointed that my pre-order wasn't available, but I think I'm more annoyed at having to pay for a badly done ham loaf.

Desserts were OK for the price, but not particularly interesting.

  • Quesillo ($3.95) - A square of rather firm crème caramel.
  • Baba ($2.50) - Not on the menu but available that day. This turned out to be just a very small piece of light cake soaked in syrup and smothered in whipped cream. At $2.50 for the portion I really expected something much more interesting, since you can get a really decent macaron for just $2.
  • Chicha ($4.95) - "Rice style drink" - This tasted like a sweet rice pudding, but it's a thick drink, almost as thick as honey. Once the ice starts melting it becomes a bit easier to suck up the straw. Instead of dessert, I recommend this tall drink instead. It's a good portion for the price, and good enough as a dessert for two.
Another option for desserts is the 24-hour Breka Bakery and Cafe close by.

Overall, service is polite but seemed inexperienced. Paying at the till was further complicated by their having to figure out whatever software they were using. Presumably this will be smoothed out in short order.