Monday, September 30, 2013

Great value at The Reef

The Reef on UrbanspoonAfter a painfully pricey dinner at Fresh, going to The Reef on Commercial Drive just made my experience at Fresh all the worse because of its great value. For just over half what I paid at Fresh, my friend and I had a very filling dinner for two.

The main drawback of The Reef is that it is sadly sort of a rather lousy place for dessert. They really only have the one fried banana dessert, plus maybe one more that varies. When I went last Saturday, it was mini dark chocolate ganache pie with coconut cream. We were pretty full anyway, so we gave it a pass.
Depending on what time you drop by, it can also be busy enough that you will have to wait for a table.

Here's how our dinner broke down:

Johnny Cakes (complimentary)
  • Free with your order is one Johnny Cake per person. This ping-pong sized donut needs to be remembered as part of your meal because in general the portions you get at The Reef are good for what you pay.
Tuxpan Tacos ($9) Two soft corn tortillas with island spiced fried tilapia, cho cho apple slaw, lime aioli & fresh tomato salsa - from the "Small Tings" menu
  • For $9 you get two large soft-shell tacos. The fish portion is a breaded slab of fish about 1 inch wide, maybe 1/2 inch thick, and roughly five inches long. Combined with the accompanying slaw, you've got between 1-1/2 to 2 burger's worth of food here. It works out to a nice, medium meal.
  • If you don't eat this fast enough, the wet slaw soaks the taco and then it becomes impossible to neatly roll and pick up without the taco breaking apart.
Jerk Tofu Roti ($11) Served with rice n’ peas and coleslaw
  • This is quite a large roll of basically a mild curry (the "rice n' peas") filling in a thin wrap. It's probably about two burger patties worth of filling. Throw in a drink and appetizer and you probably won't have room for dessert.
  • The tofu is a slab seared on the outside (presumably in jerk sauce), and cut into large slices. There seemed to be quite a bit of anise flavour to whatever was seared on the outside of the tofu pieces, and that was personally off-putting for me.
  • I think this would have come across better with a sort of tofu scramble style filling instead of the curry + tofu slabs style used. I suspect, however, that the kitchen assembles the roti from generic rice n' peas filling and whatever protein is chosen by the diner.
  • Overall, I didn't find this yummy because of the anise. Removing the tofu slabs made it tastier, but it was still too mildly spicy for my palate. Boring for $11, but it's hard to argue with the portion size.
Kola Champagne ($4.50) "Jamaican cream soda"
  • Nothing to write home about. If you are looking for a Jamaican drink, the Tiger Malt is more interesting.
Plus one order of plantain chips ($6) as an appetizer, and a diet coke ($2.25), our dinner-for-two came to only $32.75 before tax and tip.
Price varies a lot with some menu items at $20, but even their under-$10 "Small Tings" menu can provide a filling meal.

Date Night at Fresh Restaurant and Lounge

Fresh Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon When just one or two things go wrong with the food, it's very easy for the disappointments to overshadow an entire meal, and it becomes harder to be objective about it. That's what happened to me at Fresh last Friday. There's actually lots to like about Fresh:
  • Date night - Every Friday at Fresh has a special attached to it. Last Friday, being the 4th Friday of the month, was "Date Night Friday", where buying their $48 set menu also netted you a free movie ticket worth about $11. It's a ticket for Empire Theatres, of which there are only four in all of BC. But free is free, the nearest theatre isn't too far from the restaurant itself (big plus!), and they aren't some no-name theatre that only shows old reruns.
    • You can also order the items individually, in which case watch for differences from the regular menu. For example, the Beef Tenderloin which was featured as last Friday's (Sept-27) Date Night main course was $2 more than on the regular menu, but also included 5 tiger prawns and a glass of wine.
  • Comfortable cushioned seats - Everyone gets a comfy armchair! It's a bit hard to squeeze in and out if you're in between two chairs, but you are also guaranteed your share or elbow room and table space.
  • It's not that busy - Which means a sort-of empty dining room (at least it was quite empty when we sat down for a 7 pm dinner), which in turn means more privacy for your party, and a very non-rushed dinner. Yes, it's not that great for the restaurant, but it's still a benefit to you.
  • Really good service - Our server was friendly and helpful and very patient, and minimally intrusive to check on our meals and top up our water.
  • Honest service - This part was refreshingly shocking. I inquired about their "green prairie prawns" in the cioppino, and was told that they were like smallish prawns that were firm as if overcooked. And the server was dead-on correct.
  • They give you bread and aren't shy about the portion. And it's toasty warm! This is a fading tradition nowadays, and some restaurants even charge you as much as $3!
There were six of us and we ordered a variety of things, but I'll only touch on what I got to sample. Only one person went for the date night special because they also lived in Surrey and the theatre wasn't much out of the way for them.

Crab Bruschetta ($13 for four) dungeness crab, bocconcini, basil, roma tomato, white balsamic, brioche (picture)
  • Each piece of this appetizer sat on a rather small piece of brioche, about the diameter of a loonie. However, it was piled so high with stuff that in volume it was about the size of a ping pong ball.
  • The tomato:crab ratio varied from piece to piece, as the crab meat came in rather large flakes, so consistency in mixing cannot be easily maintained. That said, it was nice to clearly see large chunks of crab.
  • I felt the crab meat didn't have enough flavour, which was suspicious to me (yes, I pulled out a chunk of crab meat). Also, there was enough tomato to flatten all the other tastes.
  • Each piece of bruschetta sat on a strip of black sauce (black vinegar?) but the plate on which they were served was slightly curved, so that the brioche actually did NOT touch the sauce underneath, at least not on our plates. You might want to check to see if you get any sauce on the underside or not.
Gelderman Farms Pork Chop ($26) cold smoked; apple confit, red cabbage, peruvian blue potato
  • Dry and slightly tough, but I suppose that was to be expected for smoked pork chop.
  • It felt like a smallish portion for $26. Considering that their 6 oz. tenderloin was going for $30, I suppose I shouldn't have expected too much here.
  • The use of the Peruvian blue potato (which tasted sort of like a mildly sweet yam) made this dish interesting and it was the main reason I ordered it. It didn't quite make up for the lacklustre pork chop, however.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake ($9)
  • Basically a syrup-soaked cake with a pineapple ring baked in on the top, and sitting on a pineapple ring.
  • Tasted about as special as any other syrup-soaked cake. Which is to say, not that special for the price of $9. And it was slightly smaller than a tennis ball.
Marble Brownie ($9) praline gelato, chocolate crisps, peanut brittle, grand marnier syrup, caramel (picture)
  • This was part of the Date Night table d'hote that one person at our table went with.
  • The menu description was very misleading. "Chocolate crisps" turned out to be crunchy white chocolate beads, each about the size of a peppercorn. The brownie had a strong cheese content which, according to our server, was meant to give it a marbled look, but which somehow melted all together so the brownie was a homogenous brown colour -- I wondered why they still served it. There was also enough cheesiness to make it more of a cheese cake than a brownie.
  • For $9 it was a smallish portion that couldn't add up to a reasonably sized slice of cheese cake. And whether you call it a brownie or cheesecake, I didn't feel it was special enough to warrant being $9. Sorry. Fail on this one.
Overall, I felt the menu is overpriced for what you get. The food itself is between OK and good, but each plate seemed to be ruined by one or two missteps. Some were more serious than others -- for example, the scallops in the cioppino that one person in our party ordered were a sort of translucent grey and quite firm, rather than tender and eggshell white.
Portions feel undersized, especially compared to the price.
I had two orders of the bruschetta to share at our table, plus the pork chop and pineapple upside down cake. This came to a painful $61 before tax and tip.

Friday, September 27, 2013

1 kg Beef On A Bun Eating Contest

Hastings Racecourse is having a Customer Appreciation Day on Sunday, October 6th, 2013 that will include a "Beef On A Bun Eating Contest" involving a specially made one kilogram (1 kg) Beef on a Bun.

For online registration, waiver, and more event details, click here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Janes Pub Style Chicken Breast Strips

Janes Pub Style Chicken Breast Strips I recently came into a couple of awesome coupons (as in, get-it-for-free) for Janes Family Foods, courtesy of Food Bloggers of Canada. Coupons like these are really great for conservative shoppers like my mom. She pretty much NEVER buys anything "new" -- that is, once she figures out a brand or product she likes, she'll buy it forever. A coupon with substantial savings is just the sort of thing that encourages her to try something new.

I could have sworn that Superstore used to carry more Janes products, but to my mom's dismay, they only had chicken. Chicken Burgers, Chicken Nuggets, and Chicken Breast Strips. She had me double-check, and yes indeed, there was just one narrow freezer section with chicken products.
She saved one coupon for later in the year, in the hopes that more Janes products would show up. In the meantime, we tried the Breast Strips.

Normally my mom would never have picked it up from Superstore, because of the price. For her, things like the Janes environmental commitment means nothing. And the price is at a level where the taste really has to be superlative for her to consider it. Right now, she's pretty pleased by under-$5 frozen pizza, so you can see how she's set her benchmarks for value. Bottom line, she's a tough customer.

Janes Pub Style Chicken Breast Strips are not neatly cut into perfectly shaped strips, so there's the illusion of real chicken breast. Happily, the meat isn't wooden-tasting like some other manufactured chicken products although I suspect it's not 100% breast meat either. The colour is good and the taste and firmness (if you isolate it from the seasoned breading on the outside) is chicken-like.

The instructions are to oven-bake for a total of 15-20 minutes, but we cheated and used a small toaster oven, preheated and set on Toast, and baked it just 10 minutes on a rack since no flipping was required. The output was really decent. Not exactly super-crispy on the outside, but the inside was moist and tender. If you had used a slab of regular chicken breast, it could come out dry, so depending on your personal skill at handling chicken breast, this may be a superior product.
The seasoning wasn't on the salty side so you could get away with no condiments, especially if you are watching your sodium.

My mom doesn't like to follow instructions too closely and with breaded products she often ends up pan-frying. In this case, it produced dryer chicken strips but darker, crispier crust that is maybe a bit more flavourful, at the cost of being oilier (depending on how much you grease your frying pan).

Overall, it's a quick, convenient, and idiot-proof product. Taste is decent, although most of the flavour comes from the mild but pleasing breaded mixture. But that's the same with just about any chicken recipe -- the meat itself is relatively tasteless. It's just there for protein.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Yves Original Veggie Ground Round

Yves Original Veggie Ground Round Yves Original Veggie Ground Round is vegan and kosher, so it falls in that helpful category of being a lowest-common-denominator can-feed-anyone ingredient.

As meat substitutes go, in look and texture it is quite good. The bits are a bit too smooth-looking to pass for real ground meat, but it's unlikely that anyone will look that closely.

The taste is bland, so it definitely needs to be just an ingredient rather than the sole ingredient. Adding something else to it also helps with the unfortunate sticky/slimy feeling in the mouth that this product has. Using it in a pasta sauce or chili should hide that nicely.

The package is actually deceptively small. The cardboard box holds four shrink-wrapped packs that don't look very big, but which somehow blossom into enough for 4-6 Sloppy Joe burgers, depending on how much you want to stuff into a burger. And that's before any additions you may prepare it with, such as onion, garlic, potato, peas, green pepper, and corn.
Also, unlike real meat, there isn't the same amount of liquid extracted from meat during cooking.

Overall, as an omnivore, I would recommend actual meat if you're looking for meat taste, unless the other ingredients have a strong enough combined flavour to cover up the taste of the meat you use anyway. For example, if you are using some ground meat in a tomato paste based spaghetti sauce, you might not notice the difference over the tart taste of the tomato sauce.

Yves Veggie Cuisine - Original Veggie Ground Round

Monday, September 9, 2013

Veggie Burger at Lux Lounge

Lux Lounge on Urbanspoon
When I dropped by Lux Lounge fairly early last Friday (around 5pm), it was still too early for any sort of after-work bar crowd, and I think I was the only person to order any food at the time (this will be important later).

The "Veggie option" for the burger was not on the printed menu, and I was told that they were in the process of changing the menu, and the veggie burger wasn't being phased out. There were a few veggie patties left, however, so it was still available.

De-Lux Burger $14.50 (Veggie option $12.50) House Made Beef Patty, Lettuce, Tomato, Sautéed Onions, Mushrooms, Bacon & Cheddsar Cheese topped off with House Mayo & a side of Crunchy House Cut Fries or Crispy Garden Salad
  • The burger itself was decently put together. Two things jumped out at me right away:
    • One, it was just lukewarm. I think mine was the only food order at the time, I guess I really had hoped for a bit more attention. Like, how about a freshly hot patty?
    • Two, if the patty were house-made, it was the most perfectly shaped house-made patty I'd ever seen. It was probably from a pack of something bought somewhere. This may or may not irk you depending on whether you expect every food establishment to make everything from scratch--but honestly, do you expect all buns to be baked on site too?
  • Sautéed onions was a nice touch and something I don't often see. Other than that, the burger itself was decently composed. The fries looked a bit dark (but not burnt) and were OK, but something about them was just not as good as your typical order of double-fried french fries.
For $12.50 it seems a bit steep for someone to put together a burger for you using some sort of prefab patty. In any case, since it's going to be off the menu, vegetarians may want to consider a $9 Three Cheese Melt (with arugula) from American Cheesesteak Company around the corner, or, if you are early enough, a vegan burger from the Loving Hut Express food cart.

For vegetarians, Lux Lounge may be better just for drinks, ambiance, and the free-to-use pool table.