Friday, November 29, 2013

Butternut Squash Flatbread at Establishment

Establishment Lounge on Urbanspoon Back to Establishment! It's probably the restaurant I've brought the most guests to and I've had yet to have a really bad experience there. Value for money is generally good (a bit steep on the tapas, though), and it's overall a really safe place to bring guests. The combination of good food and the restaurant not being too busy makes it very convenient for groups big or small.
Plus Chef Bongo's Famous African Chicken Peanut Soup is still a winner. They are also still making it very convenient to share their large-portioned soups so you should not be shy about asking a single order to be split into two bowls. (I totally forgot to try the vegetarian version. Drat.)

Chef Bongo's Chilled White Asparagus Soup ($11) creamy white asparagus with crab & avocado, drizzled with truffle oil
  • I felt this was a little overdone with the truffle oil because it really covered up the other flavours.
  • I guess if you like chilled soup that smells like truffle oil, that's okay. Otherwise, pass, or wait for them to change it up a bit.
Chef's Tapas Tasting Plate ($24) consisting of a sampling of the famous African chicken peanut soup, shrimp & lobster cake, lamb slider, wild mushroom risotto ball, and black truffle saccottini pasta
  • You basically get one bite of each item. At $24, this is steep for the portion, but remember that the items come from their appy/tapas selection. Trying to get volume from appys almost never works out.
  • For some reason the look of the plate seemed sloppy somehow. Maybe it was the lamb slider's torn-open-bun look that influenced the overall presentation. It was interesting, but it felt inferior to a cleaner sliced bun. The lamb patty sat neatly inside, however, and did not try to escape when you bit into it, which sometimes happens with mini-burgers.
Butternut Squash Flatbread ($15.50) maple-roasted butternut squash, white garlic cream sauce, caramelized onions, figs, finished with gorgonzola cheese & fresh sage
  • This was really nicely done. It was about 12 inches long and maybe 5 inches wide. Not exactly covered with toppings to the very edge, but the toppings were quite generous, to the point where the middle slices needed both hands to prevent toppings from flopping off.
  • The crust was a real winner here. Really fun-crispy on the outside, airy on the inside so as to not fill you up with just bread, and without too much chewiness.
  • Do NOT wait too long to finish this. Like most pizza, the flavours fall flat when it gets cold.
  • Really nice touch with the small figs, giving it a light sweetness.
I was there at 5.00 PM and maybe they were still fuzzing around with getting things open, but the washroom felt like it needed more of a cleanup and it was low on toilet paper. No matter how lovely a restaurant looks at the front end, a scary washroom always leaves me with a icky feeling.
The wine list had a few items crossed out. This felt sloppy to me: Could they not just print out clean copies of the menu?
To me, these are worrisome indicators. Establishment is in sort of a black hole, and most of the menu items really deserve attention, so it's sad that their dinner service still seems under-attended. Slacking on routine things (washroom cleanliness) and presentation (wine list) can't help.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Gluten-Free Afternoon Tea at Neverland

Neverland Tea Salon on UrbanspoonNeverland Tea Salon offers a gluten-free and dairy-free (but not vegan, since it still uses egg) option on its $30 "High Tea" menu. I'm not gluten-intolerant but I was curious about it, so when we went last Saturday, that's what I opted for. This option comes at no extra cost. The selection on the tea tower is slightly different, however.

Neverland is a smallish place and can be quite busy. Our table was for 4:00 PM and there was a card marking this as the third booking of the day. 4:00 PM tea can feel quite late, especially in this fall/winter season when shortly after it will be dark. However, if you want an un-rushed time (especially if you have a party larger than four), it's probably the best reservation option. When I arrived, it was still buzzing with people, but there apparently weren't many 4:00 PM reservations because the place quieted down quite a bit; and we had a lovely conversation at our table until closer to 6:30 PM.

The flowery decor and the teapot logo lends itself more to Alice in Wonderland imagery than pirates-on-a-tropical-island Neverland (and the website even sports a framed picture of Alice), so you'd be forgiven if this confuses you into thinking "Alice in Neverland". Even so, there really wasn't enough fantastical Wonderland to theme it that way, so the net result was a tea salon neither Neverland nor Wonderland, but just trying to emulate an elegant teatime. Which it does well enough with older furniture and of course beautiful teacups and saucers.

They bring out a lit of teas in little containers for you to choose based on the aroma, but there is a full tea menu as well. The box are just the most popular ones, which interestingly doesn't include their Captain Hook tea. Maybe Vancouverites just aren't all that adventurous when it comes to tea.

If you are not gluten-intolerant, I do NOT recommend you opt for the gluten-free option unless you insist on it for other reasons. Gluten-free bread can have a grainy feel to it, which may be off-putting (or at least distracting). There are techniques to mitigate this, but at Neverland, the predominant experience of their bread was, sadly, the dryness and graniness. Also, because the gluten-free option is also dairy free, you won't get a croissant and no butter to your scone.

For afternoon tea, I am used to sandwiches where the filling comes through strongly, either because of richness of taste, sheer quantity, or both. Here, maybe because of the distracting bread, it was the bread that dominated. In particular, I felt this with the little brioche bun with crab salad. The poor salad was lost in the dry bun. (If you go, I recommend opening up the bun, putting the salad onto one half and eating that open-faced, and using some jam on the other half).

The pastries/desserts were OK on the gluten-free tea, except the one biscuit that tasted like dried prawns. Maybe some combination of something else I ate mixed badly with it, but that certainly turned out very strangely.

In quantity, this afternoon tea felt a little lighter than the others I've had at Soirette and The Secret Garden, but that is not necessarily the measure of afternoon tea. My personal expectations are for exquisite bites rather than a light lunch. Maybe the regular (non-gluten-free option) tea service may yield a better experience.

Arabic Golden Age at The Shangri-La

Got this in my inbox just the other day: Looks like the Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Vancouver has gone with an Arabian theme this holiday season. Click here for the full brochure, including Afternoon Tea service, spa treatments involving coffee and dates, Christmas and New Year dinners (though without mention of whether it, too, will be Arabian themed or turkey-traditional), and hotel packages. Hint for page 7, "mignardises".

Friday, November 22, 2013

Coast Happy Hour

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon Unlike Joe Fortes, Coast does accept reservations for half-priced Happy Hour, and it can see large groups sit down for it. Instead of being shuffled off to the bar, you get tables and sit-down meal service. Nice! They also call to confirm TWO days before, which was a little disorienting for me and I ended up confusing the hostess by trying to confirm the reservation for "tomorrow".

Happy Hour at Coast is everything on the left side of the menu, except Sides -- Soups, Salads, Hot, Steamers, Flatbreads. There was also something about taking off the lower-priced of two entrees, but you'd best ask about that more carefully to see which items qualify.
We sat down for Happy Hour at around 4.30pm and it wasn't terribly busy, but attendance was steady and slowly picked up. We were seated sort-of near the kitchen at the back, which had a more enclosed feel probably because of the lower ceiling. I would have thought it an advantage as being close to the kitchen should (?) have meant hotter food hitting the table, but strangely, that was not the case. Our food was generally on the hot side of lukewarm, but didn't seem piping "hot from the grill" -- even the lobster poutine served in a cast iron pan.

Crispy Garlic Fried Calamari ($13.95) fresno chilies, cilantro, lime aioli
  • Large slices of breaded calamari. I think this one sat at the counter a bit too long because it wasn't particularly crispy on the outside.
  • No spicy-heat contribution from the chili content (was there even chili?).
  • Sort of tame and OK. Goodly amount and the large chunks make it more convenient to eat instead of chasing scraps -- a good choice for presenting calamari.
Prawn "Mac'n Cheese" ($11.95) tarragon, mascarpone gratin
  • Enough prawns in there to make their presence know, but not really studded with it. Tasted sort of tame.
  • The tarragon I tasted intermittently, which added an occasional interesting flavour to each bite. Sadly, I don't actually like that flavour (along with star anise and biting into cardamom), so you'll have to judge whether this was a good choice.
  • This was OK. Portion was also OK for the price if you wanted it as a light entree on its own; it's a decent price at Happy Hour rates.
Lobster Poutine ($18.95) smoked bacon, sunny side up egg
  • There was bacon?
  • The shell of the small half lobster tail used is added to the small cast iron pan (6 inch?) for decoration. It's easy to miss the white pieces of lobster, especially if you chop up the egg white.
  • Nothing too special here either, and sure you get lobster, but the price feels pretty steep for what you get. Good at Happy Hour price I guess.
Smoked Salmon Flatbread ($14.95) dil crème fraîche, red onion, capers, arugula
  • Beautiful presentation and carefully cut based on how much salmon ends up on each piece. I thought the ends could have used a bit more salmon since one end was about 1.5" of just flatbread.
  • Not enough contribution from the dill. I think this lacked a little something to kick up the flavour.
Overall I wasn't too impressed with the items we tried, but it's also hard to argue value for money when they're already giving it to you at half price. Everything was at least done decently, so at some point I should probably go back with a Coast fan to give the regular menu a proper try.
Service and bussing was attentive, which is something that often doesn't get stated unless you're missing it.
Something I keep forgetting is to tip based on the original price instead of the discount price. Remember: Happy Hour is half off, so your tip should (?) be approximately double what you normally give, maybe less a few percentage points for the non-discounted drinks.

Also, eat strategically during the day! Often, when we get together for happy hour, someone will have already eaten lunch. Duh! Have a snack for lunch.

The super-hot Filipino hostess also had an interesting name involving fried rice. Don't tease her about it though -- she's wearing a wire and will call for backup. (Is it just me or are all the waiters there six-foot-plus?)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sweet grilled squid at Kibo Sushi

KiBo Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon Before I got the $30 for $60 Groupon, I didn't know about Kibo Restaurant and Lounge's half-priced happy hour. Definitely go for happy hour if you can fit it in during that time. Otherwise, the Groupon is a great deal, but it is only for tables of four or more. If your friends are flaky, you could be stuck.

It's a huge restaurant! With a huge patio!
Inside, it's dimly lit and has a cool lounge vibe. Definitely a nice "date night" sort of place. Sadly the dessert selection is lousy (deep fried banana and ice cream makes up their entire dessert selection), but for late-night you can still zip over to the Hamilton Street Grill for their should-be-famous gingerbread pudding (still a steal at $8) or Bistro Sakana for their deeply chocolatey brownies.

I should say that I still find savouring sushi challenging. For the most part, sushi is sushi unless they do something to really stand out, like the refreshing fruitiness of the rolls at Honjin Sushi. And I have no appreciation for sashimi. It's just raw slabs of stuff, right?

Caterpillar Roll ($13) Unagi and cucumber roll with sliced avocado and smoked salmon on top
  • One of the three server recommendations for what to order.
  • This was a beautiful green roll, that looks like a juicy green caterpillar. Otherwise, to me this just tasted okay (but see note above!).
Hamilton Roll ($14) prawns and cucumber topped with sliced tuna, salmon and avocado with special sauce
  • One of the three server recommendations for what to order.
  • Definitely do not use soy sauce and wasabi on this until you've tried the special sauce. It's way better with a bit of the reddish sauce on the plate.
Volcano Roll ($12) deep fried roll with spicy tuna and avocado
  • Interesting to look at and fun to eat if you like some crunch to your snacks.
  • Don't be put off by "spicy" tuna. Nothing spicy here.
Ika Sugatayaki ($11) whole BBQ marinated squid in our signature sauce
  • One of the three server recommendations for what to order.
  • Grilled squid is not just grilled squid at Kibo Sushi. You definitely want this: The signature sauce seared onto the squid makes all the difference, giving the seared/grilled flavour a slight sweetness.
  • Grilled till there's a slight crunch instead of chewiness. This dish impressed even the member of our dining party who normally didn't like chewy mollusks.
Shiitake Butter Yaki ($9) Japanese mushroom with seafood in foil
  • Fish on mushrooms, sitting in butter. Wrapped in foil and steamed that way.
  • This turned out to be rather boring -- Just steamed fish and steamed mushrooms. All the butter melted (of course) and flowed to the bottom, so if you want any butteriness you need to remember to dab your fish or mushroom in the sauce on the bottom.
The nice ambiance on the inside is probably Kibo Sushi's best feature. The grilled squid was the surprising stand-out, but for unsophisticated sushi palates like my own, the rest might be sort of ho hum.

Jimmy's Taphouse

Jimmy's Tap House on Urbanspoon Could Jimmys Tap House please update their online menu? It's not totally different, but it's not the same either.

Jimmys has a great location, large space, and well-positioned TVs so that pretty much wherever you sit, you can watch the sports. Which makes it lousy for date night or get-togethers with friends where you're supposed to be catching up with each other.

They have happy hour every day of the week, which is pretty handy because weekday happy hours can be pretty tricky to get to. I was invited to a get-together with some friends on Saturday and we dropped in for happy hour. At some places (like Glowbal Grill), it is not clear on the menu which items qualify for half-priced happy hour, and you have to ask your server. At Jimmys it says right on the menu.

Chicken Wings ($10) Buttermilk fried chicken, sweet chili sauce
  • I chose the intriguing-sounding "butter hot" sauce. It was neither buttery nor hot, sadly. No idea what happened there -- maybe kitchen error in slapping on the sauce.
  • Good value at $5 but if you wanted to put down $10, order something more interesting.
Island Chili Chicken ($10)
  • This was really decent and would be OK at regular price. In terms of happy hour choices, it is probably the best.
  • Tender chicken bites, good crunch on the outside. Sauce was sweet but not overly so.
Poutine ($9)
  • The portion size is actually pretty decent here, and for the regular price of $9 it is OK value if you consider portion size alone.
  • The orange cheese tasted like that milky-tasting individually wrapped processed cheese slice stuff (e.g., Kraft Singles Cheese Slices), which was really off-putting for me.
  • I think the gravy could have been tastier. Other than that, there was a goodly amount of cheese curds.
  • Overall, mediocre unless you are looking for volume for your dollar.
Steak and Mushroom Bites ($10)
  • Our server's recommendation for something that the house is known for.
  • This turned out rather nicely, with tender, juicy pieces of steak. Good value at happy hour price.
Truffle Fries ($7)
  • Thin-cut fries with truffle oil. OK, but the portion is smallish. Inferior in taste and portion to the Parmesan Truffle Fries at Joe Fortes, which, at $10, is still better value.
  • OK to snack on while waiting for your main, but even at half price, spend your money on a drink instead.
Chicken Pizza ($13 -- NOT on happy hour menu)
  • This turned out to be approximately the Island Chili Chicken, but on a thin-crust pizza. 10", if I remember correctly.
  • As pizzas go, this could have been more interesting somehow. Maybe some heat to give it some kick.
  • Crust could also be a bit firmer on the bottom so it's easier to hold. Plus I don't know how they cut it, but it wasn't cut all the way through the crust, so it's handy that the standard cutlery comes with a steak knife.
  • For $13, it's OK considering the location and free TV.
Price-wise, at full price the appys feel a bit overpriced. At happy hour half-price, they are good value (and that is also accounting for the fact that the food is generally mediocre). For the regular menu items, price is okay or slightly over.
Go to Jimmys Tap House for what it is meant to be -- a sports bar, not a foodie destination. Even after you factor in cover price for pay per view events, it works out to a pretty decent place for a large group of sports buddies to hang out for a game.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Get the Tacu Tacu at Chicha

Chicha on Urbanspoon Just back from Chicha. Our dining group was on the early seating (5pm) and with good reason the restaurant asked us to be done by 7pm as they were just about line-up-at-the-door busy.

Tables tend to be for groups and the bar is for couples, or so the seating seemed to be assigned. It's a small, tight place. The main lane between the tables and the bar can get traffic jammed, and your waitress won't be able to get past the people loitering there.

Happily they are no longer cash-only (but no AMEX, which is understandable as of the credit cards, that is the priciest option for businesses).

Going undercover as a food blogger has drawbacks, including not trying to steal the menu or take notes when I'm there. So I'm gonna have to go from memory here...

Chicha Morada ($3.50)
  • The spice mix makes this taste like Christmas!
  • The spices also settle to the bottom, so stir it between sips from the straw. Slightly on the too-sweet side, but you can wait for the ice to melt more or water it down a bit.
Chicharrón Sliders ($13)
  • Only two per order.
  • Tasty and tender pork belly inside. This would have been a winner had it not been a disaster to eat. The thick lump of sweet potato had a tendency to get squeezed out with your first bite, and the burger then falls apart. Also, the bottom of the burger sat in some kind of sauce on the plate, making it unavoidably messy when you picked it up.
  • Maybe a bit too much sweet potato as it competed too strongly with the meat for flavour -- assuming it didn't outright fall out of your burger.
Tacu Tacu ($12)
  • Winner. And the veggie option, too (excluding the token quail egg, anyway). Delicious yellow sauce covering extremely flavourful lima bean patties.
  • I think there were only two large patties. Not sure because the yellow sauce covered just about everything, and the plate got passed around so I think I ended up with just a third or a half of a patty... <.<
Picarones ($7.25) peruvian pumpkin and sweet potato donuts with pisco raspberry sauce
  • Lacklustre. Whatever pumpkin or sweet potato was used in the donut seemed too weak. This tasted like donuts in raspberry sauce, with whipped cream on the side.
  • No hint that anything alcoholic went into the sauce.
Lucuma Cheesecake ($7.25)
  • Tasted like just cheesecake. Maybe I didn't clean my palate enough before trying it, but I didn't get any special Peruvian fruit flavour.
  • Strangely, the cheesecake layers (cream cheese (?) on top, cheesecake stuff in the middle, thick crust on the bottom) all wanted to separate. Not sure what this was indicative of, if anything.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Share your hot pot at Fire Pots

Fire Pots 東來火鍋 on Urbanspoon Waddled home stuffed from FirePots tonight. Soooo many mistakes on my part.

FirePots is very conveniently near Brentwood Mall and the skytrain station. (Incidentally, it's neigbour is the intriguing and delicious-looking Edible Arrangements). We were there for a 7:30pm dinner, and although there was no lineup at the door, the restaurant was busy till closer to 9pm when there were basically just bar patrons -- So for the neighbourhood, it handily doubles as a pub. Not much else in striking distance except Starbucks, and there's no alcohol at Starbucks.

The hot floor staff at FirePots makes it a lousy place for a date with a guy with the roaming eye. Our server was the friendly, energetic Wendy, who was very helpful to a first-timer for "modern" hot pot like myself.

My experience of hot pot was the charcoal-heated metal bowls with a chimney in the middle, and individual dipping sieves for food. This was long ago and far away when I was a kid, visiting my grandma on holidays. It was a family, sharing thing.
Hot pot at FirePots is like a huge bowl of soup, except the ingredients haven't been thrown in yet, because there's so much stuff that you couldn't fit it all in the bowl at once. At around $15, it's really more of a sharing bowl unless you eat like a champ. The two of us barely made it through our two appys and two bowls. No room for dessert, sadly. I was thinking of their chocolate fondue, but we couldn't have forced it down. When you scoop out the food that's cooked in the hotpot kept hot at your table, you can dip it in sauce.

The table arrangements are spacious, in part because each person gets a burner and because there's a lot of dishes involved in all the hot pot ingredients that come with your order. Each person gets a lot of table space. There's also very ample room to move about in this small restaurant. It's generally four to a table and it's not clear if they would be able to change the spacing because you need sprinklers above and electrical outlets for the burners below. (So in this way it actually is good for date night since there's space and your "private booth", so to speak).

The appetizers recommended as "most interesting" were the gyozas and the chicken wings. We tried both, and for the wings opted for "spicy cashew". For hot pot, our server's recommendation and her personal favourite was coconut curry. I assured her I was okay with any amount of spiciness, so for the sauce recommendation she went with sriracha aioli instead of hoisin.
Maybe it was just me, but the spiciness warnings turned out to be ludicrous. Spicy? Where? Just what kind of patrons come in here that they can't handle the barely-qualifies-as-mild spiciness of their sweet sriracha aioli?
If you demand hot-spicy, you might have to gently insist on that and see if the kitchen can throw in some chili.

On to the food -- and my mistakes...

To start, I ordered a pot of tea ($3.50 "specialty drink") and two appetizer plates to share. Completely oblivious to how much food a hot pot would involve. Nothing really wrong with this except a hot pot is a lot of food. Plus, once you're into the hot pot, you may not touch your tea because you're basically having soup. So your tea gets to sit ignored and cold. Duh. Save the tea order for afterwards.

Amuse Bouche - Taiwanese Pancakes ($0)
  • Two mini yam pancakes with sweet sauce and token sprig of greens on top.
  • Yup, more starch to fill you up. You really have to watch out for the size of the hot pots afterwards.
Gyoza ($8) Pan fried with an earthy five spice sauce and a creamy sriracha aioli
  • Tasty and quite interesting with a slight vinegary sourness on the inside, juxtaposed with a curry-like aroma from the sauce. Smaller but fatter/rounder (and therefore slightly cuter!) than potstickers typically served elsewhere.
  • Works out to about a dollar a dumpling. This is a decent sized order.
Fried Chicken Wings ($9) spicy cashew
  • There are various flavours available but we went with the intriguing "spicy cashew".
  • The cashew sauce is sprinkled with a bit of black and white sesame seeds, so you might immediately ask if they got your order wrong and gave you some funny sesame-dusted wings.
  • The sesame gives it a nice presentation touch. The cashew flavour is definitely there and not overdone. But... spicy? Whether the adjective meant chili-hot or flavourful spices, where was it? Still, pretty tasty for about a dollar a wing.
Coconut Curry Chicken ($15) Chicken, potato, and cloud ear mushroom in coconut curry broth
  • One plate of thinly sliced chicken, maybe a cup worth. The raw chicken shrinks during cooking in the broth, of course, but there is a heckuva lot of veggie (broccoli, carrots, cabbage, and bok choy/chinese cabbage) and mushroom. Thankfully not much starch, maybe just a cup worth (which expands after soaking up broth).
  • The potato is thinly sliced and FRIED (but not crispy chips). This turned out to be a very interesting flavour combination with the coconut curry.
  • The coconut curry broth was really decent, but lacking in heat/spiciness to really make it a "curry". I don't like too much heat, which can kill a curry by focussing your experience too much on your tolerance for spiciness instead of the flavours in the curry, but this could have used more kick.
  • The sriracha aioli turned out to be rather useless in this particular case because the curry was thick enough to adhere to whatever you scooped out of it, and in that way was its own sauce. You could still use it, but I found it competed with the curry in a non-complementary way.
  • In case your server forgets, for the curry broth, turn DOWN the heat all the way to "keep warm" or the thicker soup will start to burn at the bottom of the pot.
  • Starch in LAST because it takes forever to find and scoop out. And also because you might not want it if you are too full. In fact, you might want to just refuse it when it first comes out.
Custom Hot Pot ($5 Tom Yum Broth, $4 wontons and meatballs, $5 lamb, $5 beef, $4 sliced pork)
  • My dining partner wanted to skip starch and veggies so she put together her own hot pot. The tom yum soup I've had before has been typically quite sour and mildly spicy. This had both attributes very toned down. Not that big a deal because at the end, after cooking the meats in them, the flavour of the soup changes anyway and at that point too much sourness might have blanketed the other flavours.
  • If I remember correctly, each portion of sliced meat was about a half cup worth.
  • Because this is a more watery broth, it made sense to have a dipping sauce because the broth naturally drains from whatever you pull out of the soup. The coconut curry really is a non-standard hot pot broth.
Two pots of tea, two appetizers, and two hot pots came out to too much food and $62, or about $30 per person, before tax and tip.
In retrospect, we should have had only one pot of tea and one hotpot between us, which would have brought the bill down to about $20 per person, and the food down to a more manageable and reasonable quantity for two persons.
Overall, Fire Pots offers really decent value for money with nice ambiance in a spacious-feeling room, situated in a newer-development neighbourhood.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Good value fast eats at La Tacqueria

La Taqueria on Urbanspoon Thursday afternoon was my very first time to La Tacqueria (Cambie location). 12 Tacos x 0-4 sauces x 0-2 condiments = 180 combination = big headache. I didn't really want to spend hours thinking about what amounts to essentially fast food, so I opted for "chef's choice" -- That is, I asked the person at the counter what were the four most interesting ones, and let him recommend condiments and how much to put on them.

The fellow at the counter was really welcoming and friendly, and especially for a first-timer like me (he asked if I'd ever been there), it was comforting that he had zero hesitation and great confidence in what to recommend. Not afraid to zap on the optional sauces for me either, and not seemingly haphazardly -- for each type of taco, he recommended a particular sauce.

For the condiments, it was up to me, and I opted to throw on some jalapeno (which turned out to be a big mistake). The tacos also came with a wedge of lime, which I used sparingly.

The tacos recommended were the Carnitas (pork confit with pickled red onions), De Cachete (braised beef cheeks), Chorizo (special of the day), and Tinga De Pollo (chicken with chorizo in a chipotle tomato sauce, topped with mexican cheese + sour cream). Each was gone in two bites, so I didn't really get to carefully dissect their flavour. Something had star anise in it, though, which is off-putting for me personally, so next time maybe I'll read the ingredients first...

The tacos one on two small round soft shells (probably because a single shell would have seen the wet toppings soak and tear through). Toppings are generous. You can just fold the tacos and pick them up, but generally it results in one side wider with filling than the other. If you're not careful, you'll explode the toppings out the other end when you bite it. No matter what you do, you'll probably make a wet mess of your hands but your clothing can escape unscathed if you're careful, though you might want to roll back your sleeves a bit.

There's nothing wrong with the toppings themselves. Not superlative in taste, but definitely not just soggy, pulled, meat.
Go easy with the spiciest of the sauces as the hot buzz in your mouth can cover up the flavour of what you are eating. Same with the jalapeno chilis. Maybe one or two small pieces per taco, maximum.

Overall, at $2.50 per taco, it probably comes in at slightly less filling than a cheap chain burger because of the tacos versus buns, but you get about the same but more interesting filling (and less chance of mystery meat) at a comparable price (comparing this with the current A&W two-for-four-dollar promotion). It works out to a fair-value fast-food meal.

If you want to carefully dissect what you like, then eat them slowly without sauce or toppings. For the sauces, until you know what you like, ask for recommendations and maybe put it on yourself, on half the taco so you can taste the difference.
But this isn't sit-down gourmet stuff. This is fast food with a ton more variety than a burger joint, and at good value, so don't agonize over it.

The recommended Mexican drink, a Jarritos Tamarindo, wasn't as spicy in flavour as suggested, but no complaints at just $2.

Happy Hour a great deal at Joe Fortes

Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House on Urbanspoon The last time I was at Joe Fortes was years ago, for a vegan prix fixe special dinner. (No, I'm not kidding). Food was good, service was great. Neither have changed.

On Wednesday our dining group popped down for their 4-6pm Happy Hour. The Happy Hour menu at Joe Fortes shows a list with daunting painful-to-your-purse prices, but which was OK at 50% off Happy Hour prices. Some items actually become a steal. Expect to be reminded that ONLY the Happy Hour menu is half-off as they apparently get people who get the wrong idea. NOT drinks, obviously, where restaurants make their moolah. Have a few drinks at your table to help them out, eh?

It all started with making a reservation on OpenTable. Apparently restaurants don't check the messages on these reservations till much later because a few hours prior to our Happy Hour reservation, I got a call from the restaurant saying Happy Hour was first-come-first-served at the BAR. Reservations for tables were for dinner only. They were evaded my question about whether the restaurant would be so busy that our party of an expected 10 persons would have trouble.
I'm sure the person on the phone was doing their best to be polite but firm about the rules of the establishment, but overall I felt like going to Happy Hour automatically makes you a second-class citizen in their eyes. Sort of like how some places make you feel when you have a coupon.

It would turn out that although the front of the room buzzed with diners at the bar and the barstool-height tables, the rest of the restaurant was understandably quieter in the pre-dinner-rush hours. Upstairs, it was dead. They may have felt it poor form to shove us upstairs when all the social buzz was downstairs, I suppose.
Still, good to know if you have a large group descending on them for Happy Hour that there are options. If you show as a large group you could possibly ask to be put upstairs so their precious downstairs dinner tables are still unassigned (?).
Anyway, our party of 7 drifted in over maybe a half hour from 4pm, and we were done shortly after 5pm, so I didn't see how that would really have affected their dinner seating.

Service is ace at Joe Fortes. Attitude is pro, bussing is prompt, and everyone is exceptionally well-mannered. They generally insist that you have the right of way. In the one or two times a server did accept when I yielded (probably because they had a plate of food and didn't want to keep their table waiting), they always thanked me. All this done calmly and courteously in a restaurant busy at happy hour and bound to get busier later in the evening. If you ever wanted a safe venue to take a guest, you can count on Joe Fortes to make no missteps with service.

The fact that our waitress Nicole was the one super-hottie amongst the servers was exceptionally distracting. Everyone else sort of blended into the background. Although she showed the same professionalism to be found in all the staff, it was harder to see that in her. I rather think this was a sad commentary on what details we I look for.

Food ranges from average to good, with one or two outstanding items. Where it feels even better than it tastes is in the presentation. Plus, they are NOT stingy with sauce. You get a small gravy boat worth of sauce. Definitely more than enough if you feel the need to bathe your food in them. If you end up not using much of it, obviously this will feel wasteful. But it is unlikely that you will have to ask for more, and there is an upscale feeling of affluence, generosity, and being taken care of. The plating in general also inspires a "Gawd, that's a huge portion" feeling. Joe Fortes is a safe place to bring guests you want to impress with your largesse.

Jumbo Tempura Prawns ($14.95 regular price) togarashi mayo
  • If I remember correctly, this was three really jumbo prawns. We're talking half an inch thick, maybe 9 inches long. Otherwise, they are just prawns. At $5 a piece if you had paid regular price.
  • Other than the wow presentation, however, prawns are prawns.
Joe's Onion Rings ($9.95 regular price) blue cheese dip (picture)
  • Each of these are about the diameter of donuts, but 50% thicker. Five per order. I find blue cheese disgusting but if you like it, you will probably like the sauce.
  • Again, other than the wow presentation, onion rings are onion rings. Batter was good, though. Good crispyness on the outside.
Truffle Parmesan Frites ($9.95 regular price) grana padano, herbs, sea salt
  • Really goood and a very good portion size. Totally worth it even at regular price (basically $10 regular, $5 during Happy Hour). Restaurants sometimes overdo truffling, but I found these fries really nicely put together flavour wise. Don't kill it with the tomato sauce. Don't relentlessly eat one after another, either, since that will lead to french fry fatigue. Instead, nibble intermittently to complement your meal.
Sweet Potato Fries ($8.95 regular price) chipotle aioli
  • Nothing special here except the generous overflowing portion barely contained in the cast iron frying pan. Strangely, the first couple I had were bitter. The rest were fine. Maybe some fluke involving residue from previous frying.
  • Hang on to the chipotle aioli for other things if you like a bit of bite in a dipping sauce.
Crisp Calamari ($14.95 regular price) chiles, sundried tomato aioli
  • Slightly sweet. Really decently done calamari. Not stellar, but "just" good. Painful at regular price of $15.
Oysters Rockefeller ($16.95 regular price) local oysters, spinach, pernod, hollandaise
  • HUGE deep shells. Again, there's a wow factor to the plating here.
  • We sneakily isolated the oyster and it wasn't huge. We isolated an oyster and it wasn't exactly huge. My suspicion is that the lovely shells were recycled for this order.
  • They looked beautiful and that set expectations high, but strangely the flavour here wasn't as strong as I hoped.
  • Our server advised us that the coarse salt on the bottom was for presentation only. Do NOT eat.
  • Lots of green goop left over on the inside. If you also ordered the Mini Lobster & Shrimp Rolls, you could tear off one half of the roll and eat the rest as an open-faced sandwich. Then use the half you saved to mop up the green goop here. Maybe also throw on a bit of the coleslaw from the plate of Rolls.
Mini Lobster & Shrimp Rolls ($13.95 regular price) shrimp, Atlantic lobster meat, classic remoulade (picture)
  • For some reason I thought these would be miniature spring rolls filled with lobster meat. Turned out they were dinner rolls stuffed with basically a lobster and shrimp salad.
  • Tasted good and not stingy with lobster or prawn, but I think it could be even better served with a cooler filling, and with a more refreshing taste. Maybe an optional orange wedge to very lightly drizzle on a citrus zip?
  • Three good-sized very-stuffed rolls plus token not-muddy-wet coleslaw on the side topped with a gherkin.
  • At basically $7 during Happy Hour, considering the lobster and prawn you are getting this is a great deal.
Fried Pickle & Avocado Ranch ($6.95) (picture)
  • NOT on the Happy Hour menu, but on the "Extras" menu section. NOT half price at happy hour.
  • Large slices of pickle in batter, deep fried. This treatment softens them and seemed to temper the natural sourness and bring more sweetness to the fore. Worth a try.
  • The avocado ranch seemed rather bland and pointless. You probably have to love avocado and want to pick out that flavour for it to do anything for you.
I'm not a drinker, so for my beverage I tried a Raspberry Vanilla drink. No Raspberry flavour came through for me so it was like drinking vanilla syrup. Sweet enough to require a glass of water to accompany it.

Our bill came out to $17 per person including drinks, after tax, but before tip. We were full enough to not want dessert. (Well, I had eaten strategically to have room for it, but no one else did, and we even had a small doggy bag to go).

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cheesecake Hot Chocolate at Leonidas

Leonidas on UrbanspoonAfter god knows how long, I dropped by Leonidas again last Friday to grab a hot beverage on a cold, rainy evening right before heading over to Peckinpah.

Turns out they have small round cheesecakes now, that the owners pick up from The Confectional in Seattle.

They were still serving their Hot Chocolate Festival offerings, though the menu has been trimmed down to about a half dozen of their most popular items.
The lonely storekeep holding down the fort on that dark, dreary evening was a Belgian import, and ecstatic to be working for Leonidas, the chocolates she grew up with. She recommended the raspberry cheesecake flavoured hot chocolate, made with white chocolate.

It was quite sweet, but not so sweet as to require a glass of water on the side or to give you a sugar burn at the back of the throat. I was warned that it would have some sourness, but this didn't show up for me. It did definitely taste like cheesecake, though without so much cheese flavour to make it more a cheese drink than chocolate drink.
It's a very different take on hot chocolate since it uses white chocolate. Definitely worth a try if you're curious or if you just like cheesecakes.

Their website hasn't been updated in a while and their Facebook page has vanished, so you may not know that they have extended their open hours a bit to 7pm.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Britney Spears and Bacon Jam at Scandilicious

Scandilicious on Urbanspoon OK, Britney Spears does NOT work at Scandilicious. But when we went on Saturday to the family-owned-and-operated Scandilicious, there was this friendly and helpful server behind the counter (Karlie?) who I swear was the spitting image of Britney Spears (well, more like Britney 10 years ago).

Anyway... About the restaurant...

It has a narrow store-front that might look more like just a take-out window. Inside, past the long walk past the service counter on one side and self-serve water / sugar / napkins on the other, are a measly 16 or so seats, including four barstools around two tall tables. Turnover for duos dropping in for a bite was quite quick, though. And despite the tight space, they didn't  try to maximize it with tight spacing, as some places are often tempted to do. It clean and bright and cheery inside.

Scandilicious boasts the best waffles in Vancouver, and their freshness does definitely make them a contender. They also have gluten free waffles in vegan and non-vegan varieties.
You may have picked up their brochure-menu, in which case you should know that the for-kids "Moo-ink", the spicy vegetarian chili "Some Good Karma", and the pickled herring "Dan-Rik" are off the regular menu. The ingredients, however, are still available for assembling or customizing your waffles -- yes, even pickled herring.

There are sample demonstration-model waffles in the counter, which may lead you to think that your waffle order is going to be enormous. Sadly, this is not so, because you only get HALF the waffle. It appears that they have a four-quadrants waffle iron, and you only get two quadrants, which translates into essentially a rectangular open-faced sandwich.
They do plate their house-combo waffles beautifully, and it's best to eat it fresh while the waffle beneath still retains its crispy crust.

Den Beste Vaffle ($9) cream cheese, smoked salmon, red onions, capers, home-made lemon dill sauce; additional toppings: pickled herring (+$1.50), one poached egg (+$1.50)
  • I was disappointed by the disappearance of the Dan-Rik, which seemed the most Scandinavian to me, and this was suggested to me as an interesting waffle incorporating the herring.
  • It turned out to be rather decent (though I should say I'm not put off by picked herring), but in retrospect I think it didn't need the cream cheese or smoked salmon, as those flavours got lost under everything else, especially that pickled herring.
  • The regular Den Beste (and their other combo waffles) don't look that loaded, but remember the waffle underneath and you'll realize you've got a meal there. If you want more "meat" with your carbs, then you may have to go with extra toppings (or just get a regular burger with a fat patty).
  • Value for money is pretty decent for what you get -- one tasty waffle plus an interesting meal. The regular Den Beste at $9 with no sides is priced at approximately the same as a burger (not a McDonalds sized slightly-small burger, but a regulation sized restaurant burger) and approximately as filling.
Valhalla ($7.50) home-made maple bacon jam, back bacon, bacon bits and maple syrup
  • The draw is basically bacon-everything.
  • I thought this a bit plain and on the boring side, but maybe it was because I only got a bite to sample from the to-share waffle generously purchased by one of our diners and I didn't get a good taste of the bacon jam -- a concoction I'd only ever had once, at the now-closed Fray.
For dessert to share, I asked for the most interesting option, and the owner brought out four samples of their made-in-house spreads. We opted for the Kokos Krem (coconut cream) and I just asked them to put together a dessert that went well with it. They came back with Kokos Krem, strawberries, white chocolate, and a dusting of sugar (another picture). After tax it was $6.83.
I thought this could have used a stronger contribution from the white chocolate, but otherwise it was quite decent. Portion size for price was also good. At around $6, you can generally expect a really decent slice of cake or pie, so this seemed good value for money.

Staff were friendly and helpful, and made an effort to be patient despite the place generally being continually busy. They are slow Mondays and I was told they would shortly go with the decision to close on Mondays and take that opportunity to do whatever catch-up needs to be done.
House spreads (including bacon jam) are available for purchase, but sales are brisk so you are advised to order ahead to avoid disappointment.

Good value at Peckinpah

Peckinpah on UrbanspoonSo I finally got around to trying Peckinpah last Friday. It's a tight no-reservations place that saw line-ups at the door and people waiting at the bar.
While we were waiting for the last two of our party, we placed our orders. Which was a good thing because some of the orders can take a little while (like the Baked Mac'n Cheese), which is annoying in a room with passive pressure to eat and go because of other diners waiting patiently for their turn.

The other stand-out BBQ places locally are Memphis Blues Barbecue House and the Hog Shack Cook House. Before you start comparing them, you should first know that not all BBQ traditions look alike, and Peckinpah is very different. Mijune Pak of Follow Me Foodie has a great primer on this in her review of Peckinpah. It's hard to avoid comparisons when it comes to whether it was tasty or not, you should at least recognize that you can't get/expect the same type of barbecue at Peckinpah -- Just as you can't take points off an apple for not being more like an orange. I recommend you look at the online menu which starts with an introduction to their Eastern North Carolina style barbeque.

Mac 'n Cheese ($12.95) freshly made, topped with Applewood smoked cheddar
  • Surprisingly bland to my palate. Hmm...
  • They very helpfully put this in separate bowls for our party to share! And on their own initiative -- we didn't even have to ask! Bonus points for service here.
Half of Everything (aka: "The Divorce") $59.95 Half order of each smoked meat, four sides, two pieces of corn bread.
  • Half of everything means pulled pork, beef brisket, pork side ribs, jalapeño pork sausage, beef rib. It doesn't look like much, but we were five and it was a decent amount after including the sides.
  • The sides are about 2 cups each of stuff. Considering that sides are basically $3.95 a piece, the meats work out to $44.15.
  • Meat
    • Overall, I didn't find anything particularly tasty here. The meat wasn't especially flavourful, strangely, and that's with or without the sauce. That, or I've been too vegetarian-fare-curious lately and have become disconnected with meat.
      • Didn't get to try the sausage. Where'd it go? -- Thanks for sharing guys. <.<
    • The meats didn't seem particularly tender, though definitely not tough or dry I remember prying and sawing and tearing at the side ribs to cut out a chunk. Thankfully they gave us a steak knife.
    • There are two kinds of sauce at the table which you are meant to use. I would try a bit of the meat without them first.
      • The "house-made sweet mild sauce" should be used sparingly at first, until you figure out how much you like on it (also, it pours FAST from the bottle). I was the only one who didn't prefer this over the "official" sauce, maybe because it just felt too "uncooked". It's different when BBQ sauce is slathered on meat over th grill where it has a chance to sear and bring out flavour. I found this kind of tomato-sauce-like.
      • The chili vinegar is meant to bring out the meat flavour, and in my experience it certainly does that. Again, go easy on this first so that you're not super-soaking your meat into vinegar sponges.
  • Side: Coleslaw
    • Not the soaked creamy stuff, but more like the tossed shredded veggie style.
  • Side: Southern Greens - collard greens, kale, and swiss chard sautéed in garlic and butter
    • Garlic? Butter? Where? The wilted veggies just tasted mushy and bitter. The one kale-lover at our table really liked this. If you're not sure, ask for a sample first.
  • Side: Cream Corn - whole corn kernels cooked in sweet corn puree
    • Not as sweet or creamy as I expected. Disappointing.
    • Best cream corn I've had so far is the one at Black + Blue, which has a bit of bite to it from jalapeño.
  • Side: Hush Puppies (3 fritters) deep fried corn bread fritters with honey bourbon dip
    • Just blow all your side order choices on this. Seriously. Best of the lot, fun to eat.
  • The order of The Divorce comes in two large plates, one with the meat and one with the sides and cornbread. It worked out to a light/medium meal for our party of five, plus we still had a bit left over for a doggie bag. If you are four hungry hikers, you might want to try The Honeymoon instead.
    • A meaty dinner for under $20 a head (tax and tip included) in the trendy part of Gastown is rather good value.
Service was mixed. The lead person at the bar dressed as a long-haired Daryl Hall (of vintage Hall and Oates fame) was friendly and very helpful, but the wait staff that night seemed disinterested bordering on surly. (Or maybe just tired after another evening scramble in a full room.) We actually had trouble trying to flag one down for drinks or to get our bill.

Table spacing is rather very tight, and if your party has an odd number, you can expect the odd one out to be squeezed in rather than another table pulled over.

They are also conscious of any line-up at the door, and if the rest of your party is late, you will be approached about the empty seats at your table. This is not a nice experience for either your party or the restaurant staff, so I highly recommend getting your act together and going in with your full party, or at least waiting at the bar until the stragglers arrive -- and let them know your party size so that they can strategically give away seats while preserving the ability to seat all of you together. If you have a big platter order, get that started as well.