Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Spoon Kitchen $35 Groupon

Spoon Kitchen on Urbanspoon

2014-Dec-21 Groupon appetizer trio posted by "Domo Is Craving" on Urbanspoon
Spoon Kitchen is on a traffic-busy section of West 4th street-parking-hell. Small 50-seater restaurant with fairly good table spacing. Chairs = revenue in restaurants (and airline) but they aren't putting you in an Economy Section squeeze. Place looked tidy and clean. I was too busy with my dining partner to really have a good look at the decor.

I went with a $35 Groupon Nine-Course Thai and Malaysian Tasting Menu, and although you will read my mixed review of the menu items, overall it is a good deal. At $35 for two persons, you will leave full but not stuffed.
You will also probably feel you got a very good deal for sampling so many items: After tax and tip you'll come out close to having spent $24 for a two person dinner (assuming a 15% tip on a $70 value dinner).
Nowadays, especially in a neighborhood like West 4th, a $24 dinner for two is a better deal than you'll get during Dine Out Vancouver or Taste of Yaletown, where the prices have been inching up year after year and you get only three skimpy courses. Here, you get to try eight (8) courses. Not nine (9) despite what the Groupon says--I'll explain later.

Of course, with Groupons you can't realistically expect full portions. Even the picture on the Groupon page shows that the three appetizers aren't full portions: A few (medium-large) rings of Crispy Fried Calamari can't possibly be worth $8! If it were, it'd be appalling. The other portions of items looked like they might be slightly scaled down versions of what shows on the menu as on-average $13 mains.

Mango Salad ($5) Shredded mango salad with lime dressing, cucumber, carrots, shallots and jicama. Served with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.
  • Nice and refreshing small salad. Somewhat sharp-sour mango slices and lime dressing really woke up the taste buds without making you cringe from the tartness. Just a little bit of crispy fried shallots for flavour and aroma was an unexpected but nice touch.
  • Colourful and flavourful salad. Highly recommended as a to-share starter to whet your appetite, but I wouldn't make this your main.
Roti Canai (full appetizer portion normally $6) Flaky layered naan bread served with coconut curry as dipping sauce.
  • I don't understand why many places need to sweeten the roti, unless they are expecting people to not use the curry. Those people are weird and shouldn't be ordering this anyway. Give 'em condensed milk for dipping instead.
  • Curry tasted very good and pretty much like what I remembered from market-stall purchased roti paratha with curry in a clear plastic bag. Sometimes you get a thick film of oil on top with this type of curry, but not here.
  • Overall, a nice appetizer. I rarely get that nostalgic longing for food from my childhood, but this was one of the items that did it for me.
Crispy Fried Calamari (full appetizer portion normally $8) Crispy fried calamari rings, served with a side of our sweet chili sauce.
  • Sharp tangy sauce, not at all spicy-hot.
  • Not oily feeling/tasting, which can be the case with some places.
  • Nicely battered, crispy as advertised, and the squid doesn't slide out of its battered shell.
  • Overall, really nicely done, but unfortunately, calamari is calamari in the end, it's also "nothing special". Unless you keep running into badly done small-ring soggy oily-tasting calamari and are dying for a properly done one.
Chicken Satay Skewers ($1.50 x2 skewers) Chicken marinated in exotic herbs with coconut milk and spices, served with homemade peanut sauce.
  • Chicken felt a bit too firm.
  • Taste was really good here, very reminiscent of what I had growing up in Singapore. Even the taste of the meat on the skewer (slightly sweet and some grill burns) separately from the peanut sauce is good, so don't feel you need to use the sauce.
  • The peanut sauce also tasted "just like back home" in Singapore. Either that or I've been away too long and will accept any reasonably good facsimile.
Kung Pao Chicken ($13) A spicy stir-fried dish made with boneless chicken, peanuts and dried chili, soy sauce, ginger and black rice vinegar.
  • Chicken was way too firm and somewhat dry on the inside. Easy to overcook white meat/breast meat, I guess. Good sized slices easy to find.
  • Not spicy at all, unless you grab one of the sticks of chewy dried chili and munch on it. In which case there is good heat but predominantly bitterness. Unless you like bitter chili with bland heat, not recommended you do this. Their obvious presence didn't really spice up the dish in any way for me, so don't be too worried about this dish being "spicy".
  • Also had chunks of yellow and red peppers.
  • Overall okay but nothing special, even if they hadn't overcooked the chicken.
Caramelized Ginger Black Cod (fillets only for Groupon valued at $14; normally $20) Black cod topped with black sweet soy sauce. Enriched with caramelized ginger, garlic, shallots, and rice wine.
  • Tasty sauce plus tender fish makes this a winner. I'm not gaga over this only because I'm not terribly excited by fish.
  • The Groupon menu gives you fillets, but the regular menu at $20 is apparently a whole fish.
House Green Beans ($12) Crunchy green beans stir-fried with shrimp and tomatoes.
  • It's some kind of shrimp paste so darkly brown you won't be able to make out any shrimp.
  • There's a sweetness to this dish that really helps kick it up a notch. I'm not a big fan of green beans, but the flavouring here really made this dish tasty and recommended.
Jasmine Rice ($1.50 x2 bowls)
  • Rice counts as one dish? Really? FAIL.
  • It does help to make the whole dinner filling, however. If you are a lighter eater, go really easy on this and take the rest home.
Black-Rice Pudding ($3 x2 bowls)
  • Not on the online or takeout menu but rated at $6 on the Groupon menu for two bowls.
  • Some versions of this in other places are more purple in colour from the purple rice.
  • Basically a sweet black rice soup with a generous swirl of coconut milk.
  • Simple and delicious dessert.
The menu is rated at $72 by Groupon before tax and tip, but if you rate the small portioned appetizers (Roti canai and Calamari) at a third of their normal value, AND if we assume the mains were full-portioned, the total is closer to $60.67. Let's round this to $60 for convenience. After 5% tax and 15% tip that is $72, or $36 per person. Possibly a bit pricey, but not terribly so. The Groupon works out to about $24 per person, meaning a 33% discount.

Maybe they were all on autopilot because of Groupons at every table, but service was a bit lacking. One look at my Groupon and the server just took it and walked away. I guess he knew exactly what to do and from experience really didn't see the point of trying to upsell us anything from the menu. Didn't even ask if we wanted drinks other than water. I'm going to excuse it this time because of Groupon mania: I think pretty much everyone at dinner was using a Groupon.

Reservations are not allowed for their lunch service, but you can use your Groupon at that time if you want.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Get a spoon at Hi Genki

Hi Genki on Urbanspoon Between Metrotown and Hi Genki are a mix of chain restaurants, Korean restaurants, and dead real estate waiting for tenants. It's a walk through a sadly dilapidated part of Burnaby. After Hi Genki, things pick up with new condos and a neighbourhood revitalized by newer construction. In a way Hi Genki is like one of the last holdouts of a generation on its way out, sandwiched between old and new.

Hi Genki is also "not" a restaurant. That is, it was probably never meant to be one. The size of the place makes it look more like an old folks home -- ahem -- seniors' residence -- cafeteria re-purposed into a fundraising arm for the Nikkei Place Foundation, a non-profit established by the two centres at the location: The National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre and the Nikkei Seniors and Health Care Society.
Hi Genki is basically the cafeteria at the ground floor of the Nikkei Seniors centre, separated from the sliver of a lobby by a wall.

There is no ambiance to speak of, really. It's like a cafeteria, but with no waiting area. You wait in a hallway next to the cashier/hostess on handily provided chairs. Washrooms are directly across from you but you have to get the key from the hostess. Since the place is open to the public, they are locked for "security reasons".

It is not really a restaurant, so I recommend not treating it like a restaurant. You are in effect in someone's condo-home. It's a weird context overlap, and the Japanese staff and residents will probably be too polite to say anything, but if you adjust your mindset from the start, you will probably have a less stressed experience.

I went on a Monday afternoon for lunch. It took maybe 15 minutes between getting a number and getting a table for one. There are smaller 2-seat tables and common 4-seat tables that can be pushed together for larger parties. It is a child-friendly place and baby seat/kid seat add-ons are available for the cushioned chairs.

If you are right at the lunch rush, you can expect the kitchen to be overwhelmed and your food to come out slowly. Between getting seated and getting my single order took probably 20 minutes. There were two-and-a-half floor staff: One dedicated busser, one server who handled bringing food from the kitchen, and the hostess pitched in whenever she could, usually to clear and prep tables to keep the wait-list moving.
Everyone's pretty busy so you will probably have to wave. Don't wave the busser down for anything. She'll just redirect you to the server.
TIP: They may have your bill prepped already in the back. Instead of asking for it at the table, if you are going to pay with card anyway (yes, they take credit cards) and will have to go to the counter to do that, go straight to the counter if you are in a hurry.

On the Monday I was there, the menu was a six-pager plus 1 large page of daily specials. Quite a lot of daily specials! And you can tell which are the most popular items on the regular menu because they have a special icon and the original price has been whited-out for a hand-written price that is probably a whole dollar more than before.
Two such items are the Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi and the Ice Cream Tempura (Deep Fried Ice Cream). It was around 1 PM and they did NOT have Deep Fried Ice Cream. I was like, WTF?, but didn't make a fuss. Maybe it was a dinner-only item. But really, if it's a popular item, there should've been a big-ass freezer somewhere in the building dedicated to tubs and tubs of ice cream, right?

Anyway, I cautiously went with just a single order of the Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi, all the rage on Yelp reviews.
Karaage is deep fried. Tempura is also deep fried, but more heavily battered first, so you can expect more crispy fun here than with Karaage. Donburi (or just "don") is "rice bowl dish". Meaning the items mentioned before it will be sitting on rice.

Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi ($9.50 +5% tax)
  • Barely "spicy" to justify adding that word to the name of the dish. There is a very, very, mild buzz in your mouth and on your lips. If you are not paying attention you may not even notice it because the chicken pieces are predominantly sweet from the sauce.
  • It's generously coated/soaked in sauce. If you get any crispy crunch here it will probably be from the chicken skin which they left on.
    • Yup, skin on. More flavourful from tasty fat but gets you in trouble with your personal trainer.
    • The sauce cooling down your chicken may also be the reason it's not as hot or crispy as you expect it to be coming out of a deep fry.
  • LARGE pieces of chicken. We're talking two-bite pieces larger than a golf ball! And lots of pieces--No skimping here! This is more like grandma trying to properly over-feed you than a restaurant struggling to pay Yaletown rent by cutting corners.
  • The bowl isn't even half full of patted down rice (not fluffy to take up room) and a thin film of miscellaneous killed-the-heat vegetables. The bowl is heaped with chicken pieces slightly past the brim of the bowl. And it's a bigger bowl to begin with. This is a very filling meal all on its own.
  • TIPS:
    • Don't just start gobbling down the chicken. Remember you have rice. If you eat all the chicken (which is too easy to do because they are obstructing you from the rice) you will end up with a half bowl of rice and nothing but a few veggie leaves for flavour. This, however, isn't the total disaster that it sounds like because of the generous amount of sweet sauce that works its way down. Stir the rice a bit if you can to mix that in.
    • Ask for a spoon right away if they don't give you one. Unless you are a black belt at chopstick-fu with a specialization in picking up rice.
    • If you also ordered an appy or dessert and can't slog through this big bowl, ask for a takeout box. It's evil white styrofoam, so you will have to decide whether wasting rice is the greater evil and take your leftovers home.
  • Comes with a small bowl of miso soup that tasted strongly of pork (?). You get tea after you are seated as soon as the busser swings by on her rounds. Miso soup when your dish comes.
    • Go easy on ordering pop or other drinks unless you absolutely have to have them--In which case, you might want to tell them to hold the miso soup so as not to force them to toss it out later (it's cheating to re-serve food).
Overall, this is easy-to-like comfort food. Nothing fancy, but nothing done wrong. Add bonus points of generous portions (and not just filler portions of rice) compared to price and it's a winner.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Papa Drexler's Bavarian Pretzels

Last week, my desktop was down because I had to mail all my memory strips for warranty replacement to Mushkin Enhanced. So I had to find other ways to amuse myself other than Skyrim. It was then that I discovered baking!
And baking is total BS because all that lazy yeast takes so long to work.

Then I discovered pretzels! Less waiting, more instant gratification.

One very nice recipe I found was Papa Drexler's Bavarian Pretzels.

Noob tips:
  • Don't worry if you didn't soften your butter. Even if it's straight out of the fridge / freezer, you can melt it on the stove.
    • Put it in some metal dish and sit it on the stove for a bit, then take it off so it won't burn. Let the residual heat soften the rest. You're going to need to turn on the stove for the baking soda bath in this recipe anyway.
    • Microwave is also another option.
    • Completely melted butter (not just softened) is needed in this recipe as well for brushing onto the pretzels right before baking.
  • Get the yeast part started early. That takes an estimated 15 minutes under warm room conditions, so while all that lazy yeast is working you can measure out the rest and maybe even get the baking soda wash boiling.
  • If you are using unsalted butter, use more salt than the recommended one-quarter teaspoon--Either in the dough or sprinkled on top.
  • If you are using spelt flour (a type of gluten free flour), 1 cup of water should be fine. The extra 1/3rd cup makes the dough way too wet.
The pretzels hold up pretty well for a day or two but start to toughen noticeably thereafter, so it's better if you eat them the same day you baked them.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

PC® Candy Cane Eat the Middle First® Cookies

I have to admit that the "President's Choice" (and "No Name") brands sold at Superstore have long been for me and my mom synonymous with "cheap knock-offs". You typically find them as reasonable facsimiles stacked in the supermarket aisles next to name brands of the same type of item.

However, for many years now, around Christmas they have pumped out Christmassy items, and this year is no exception. At $2.48 per box this week, the President's Choice Candy Cane Eat the Middle First Cookies looked like a good deal as a Christmassy thing to have.

They were actually really decent. But let's start with what's bad with it:
  • The packaging on the inside still leaves them vulnerable to being jostled out of their plastic cradles. If you are hoping for a picture-perfect presentable item, this won't be it. As you can see from the pictures, they aren't bad, but aren't exactly perfect either. This would be a minor quibble any other time of the year, but it's Christmas.
    • If you are saving them as a secret treat for yourself or if your friends aren't going to take points off your Martha-Stewart-Score, then go ahead and stock up.
  • The "PC" brand may be synonymous with "cheap knock-offs" with other people as well, so you may feel embarrassed to actually put them out.
    • Things should go fine after they actually taste one. Fingers crossed!
Otherwise, this is a decent product. It has the time-tested Oreo formula and no skimping on the chocolatey look to the biscuits. The Candy Cane flavour is evident but not overpowering (though depending on your preference, might be on the weak side), and has enough mint to give this a product a refreshing feel in your mouth--which makes it dangerously easy to eat more and more of them, unlike regular Oreos which are straight chocolate an cream and can therefore build up to a heavy, tired feeling after too many.
Probably goes great with a mint-flavored coffee or cocoa for dipping.

I've arranged some of them into a Christmas Tree for presentation, using chocolate truffles for the trunk. Obviously, truffles are not included.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Breka (Homer and Davie)

Breka Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon I had had a good experience with Breka on Fraser before they branched out into Downtown Vancouver. Huge selection, great prices. Breka on Davie is still cheaper than having cake in a restaurant, but the selection is small compared to their Fraser Street location.

Selection size isn't necessarily a deal-breaker so long as you have great goods. Sadly I tried four of their items on Monday morning and only one was decently done. Which isn't to say the others were terrible, but rather they were in the limbo zone of disappointing to passable, either in taste, price, or both.

Banana Colada Latte ($4.55 for large)
  • Did not taste like banana or banana colada or anything really special. Don't buy this hoping for a banana colada experience. Buy this hoping for a slightly different latte experience. Price is okay unless you were hoping for banana colada.
Veggie Roll
  • Looked like unidentified dark veggies (some leafy stuff and olives?) in puff pastry. Tasted mostly like puff pastry. Not really a lot of filling here.
  • Didn't look bad in the counter, but what shows up after they heat it up (in a panini press?) looks very different.
    • Flattened. And with grill marks. Definitely heated through!
    • Oily. Am I allowed to say this twice? It's puff pasty, so if you think about it, you had to expect a half portion of the roll to soak about half your napkin.
  • Served with a slab of pickle, and you'll need it for the oiliness.
  • Pass on this one for the low amount of filling and the oiliness of puff pastry.
Strawberry Hannukah Sufganiyah (plural: sufganiyot)
  • Looks like a donut. And guess what? It is a donut. Don't buy this hoping it's something special, because it's not.
  • Strangely, tasted flour-y. Off-putting and made it inferior to regular donuts.
  • One glob of jam on top, various flavours available.
  • The jam on top shows about 1/4 of the total amount of filling used, concentrated at the centre of the donut. If you're hoping for a more extensively filled donut, look at whatever other donuts they have.
  • $1.75, if I remember correctly. Ouch. I still remember years ago when Tim Hortons donuts became pricey at 60 cents. Sigh.
Apple Danish
  • The one item that was rather nice.
  • Came out of the oven looking beautifully golden and glazed. Edge crust was crunchy without being fall-apart flaky. No need to sweep flakes and crumbs off my lap after eating this.
  • Apple filling not too gooey--no mess cutting or eating this one.
  • Not too sweet either. This will either be a disappointment or a pleasant surprise. For me it was the latter.
Cakes looked great. Stick with cakes and bread at Breka.

$10 Drink from Guusto

I got this e-mail (see picture below) from Guusto the other day. No idea if it is legit since I don't have a cellphone with which to try it out.

(Yes, I just said I don't have a cellphone. When I did have one, all the calls I got were from people saying they were going to be late. I'm not paying for that.)

Anyway, if you do decide to try it, no harm e-mailing "Skai" at to see if they'll give you a $10 drink.

The two links in the e-mail are:

Good luck and Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blue Water Cafe Chestnut Cheesecake

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar on Urbanspoon I'm totally a sucker for seasonal specials, so after reading about Chestnut-Flavoured Holiday Items by Follow Me Foodie, I decided to give the much-hyped Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar a try. Just the dessert, though.

I dropped in late-ish (past 8pm) last Friday night and it was packed in there. A few seats at the bar, though, and since I was solo on this one it was easy to just nip in and go straight for what I wanted: Chestnut Cheesecake, and some peppermint tea to wash it down.

Tea ($4) came in a heavy black iron pot which presumably kept the water not for a nice long while. No dribbling at the spout when poured -- which isn't always the case with every teapot, just so you know.

Cheesecake (Mont Blanc - chesnut cheese cake, poached okanagan quince, vanilla ice cream $11) was rather horrifying small for the atrocious price, so right away expectations were high.

Presentation was beautiful and chestnuttiness was evident -- so much so that it competed nicely with the cheesiness of the cheesecake. Often, when you get a flavoured cheesecake, the cheese flavour is still so powerful that you might as well have just ordered a plain cheesecake. Here, the balance between chestnut (not that strong a flavour to begin with) and cheesecake was almost in the middle, with a slight lean toward chestnut. You still get the richness of cheesecake, of course. And on top, there are "noodles" of chestnut paste that you could scoop up with the chocolate flakes if you want just chestnut.

Balancing the possibly heavy feel of a slab of cheesecake are the ice cream and a sharply flavoured bit of quince to alternate your bites and help things along if you are determined to keep all this to yourself. The richness makes this portion fine for two persons.

Overall a very nicely composed cheesecake. Price is horrific at $11 but you already know to expect that when walking into Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mary's Organic Crackers - black pepper

What's probably best about Mary's Organic Crackers (black pepper) are its attributes: organic, gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO. And if you go onto their website, you'll discover even more strict quality control: Dairy Free, Wheat Free, Whole Grain, Kosher, No Hydrogenated Oils, No Trans-Fats.
It's one of the lowest-common-denominator foods that everyone can eat.

The worst part is that it tastes mostly like sesame seeds--Where's my black pepper? You have to eat enough for it to catch up to you as an aftertaste of mild heat in your mouth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Snyder's of Hanover Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Pieces

We all know that burger ads look way better than the actual product you get because those advertisement burgers are expertly crafted to show everything that you do get, just not all carefully positioned on one half of the perimeter.

Nevertheless, it still always shocks me when product wildly differs from ad copy. Like Snyder's of Hanover Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Pieces. This is from their line of Flavored Pretzel Pieces.
The image on the bag shows rather nice somewhat-presentable nuggets hovering around the size of the first joint of your smallest finger. And every one thoroughly and thickly coated with cheddar-yellow savoury powder on the non-baked side. Not too shabby.
The reality is actually much closer to the images on their website which dhows a wilder array of sizes, some very small, and shapes that are more akin to what you get after smashing pretzels. Which may very well be what these are.

The worst part of what the actual product looks like is the horrible suspicion it engenders that these are leftovers from pretzels that didn't make it and they just smashed, swept together, and repackaged these overbaked or got-crushed-accidentally failures for you. Waste not want not?

Fortunately, this is unlikely the case because there isn't a product line that looks like whole, unblemished versions of Cheddar Cheese Pretzels. The closest thing to it might be the Nibblers, but those have their own distinct mini-loaf-of-bread shape. Why Pretzel Pieces don't have Nibbler shapes might be a mystery of focus testing and marketing -- or a matter of getting the flavoured powder to stick on the exposed dough side of the smashed pretzels. Snyders of Hanover has several products with the same crushed-from-something-else look, such as their Korn Krunchers product line. And all richly and evenly seasoned, which is unlikely to be the case with trying to dust pretzel leftovers with tasty flavour.

If you're not going to look too closely at the bag or pour it out into serving trays for your posh party, however, the Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Pieces do have decent tastiness (and extreme saltiness!), thanks to an honest-to-god generous amount of cheese powder. Just don't look at it between the bag and your mouth. With so many tiny pieces, a spoon is recommended.
But wait! you say -- I'm supposed to eat a bag of snacks with a spoon? Exactly -- look at the picture above and notice the ruler on the right side.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fig and Bacon Jam

Every season I get a recipe book (FREE) from All You Need Is Cheese, and this simple Fig and Bacon Jam Recipe is from the Winter 2014 issue. It's so easy even a kitchen noob like myself could do it.

Noob Tips:

  • If you read the recipe carefully, you will notice that just for the jam, you do NOT need blue cheese or crackers. Those are a serving suggestion.
  • After step 3 (bring to a boil), leave the heat as is -- just remove the cover to simmer. Otherwise it takes forever.
I found it lacking in bacon-y goodness afterwards despite three strips of the stuff. If you insist on clear bacon flavour, you might want to use more strips.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gluten Free and No MSG Chinese Food at The Change Dining and Bar

The Change on Urbanspoon
One of the problems with Chinese restaurants is that often, things are sort of samey -- everything looks like it was done in the same wok because it's got the same sweet-salty glaze over it. There are a few specialty ones, like 3G Vegetarian Restaurant, which has a vegetarian menu complete with simulated meats and seafood, but the food looks odd. So whenever someone asked me for a Chinese restaurant recommendation, I end up telling them that I grew up on the stuff and mom makes it better. Not any more!

The Change is new to downtown Vancouver in the black-hole location that has seen the Crime Lab and Sol Sun Belt Cookery and others come and go despite what appears to be a beautiful location and sort-of-monopoly of the local highrises simply because they are the closest dining place around.
Of particular interest to those who like Chinese cuisine will be the commitment to no MSG, a focus on being gluten-free for most items, and not being afraid to have some chili-spiciness to zing some dishes.
Plus, the chef (Jing Ze Hu) the chef is reckoned to be famous -- but you can decide based on his bio. It's JiangSu cuisine and includes specialties such as Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish and Nanjing Salted Duck.

On Saturday, Ronald Lee of Eat Marketing arranged for us to have a $24-per-person nine-course at The Change Dining & Bar, so we got to try a lot of mostly excellently-prepared dishes. He did NOT ask us to write reviews, and this was certainly not a free meal (came out to $30 per person after tax and tip) but the price was very good for what we got. The power of bulk purchase, I suppose, since there were about 30 of us in total spread over four tables.

Deep Fried Bread with Condensed Milk
  • Some of the best bread I've had. Not too porous on the inside, yet surprisingly pillowy-soft. Not oily on the outside. And the use of condensed milk as a dip is both simple and delicious. Crazy but true -- at our table a few people raved about it (have they never had condensed milk?).
Sliced Pork
  • Not exactly sure what the first item was. This was a cold appetizer of sliced pork. Nothing special, just tasty in a simple way.
Xiao Long Bao 小籠包
  • These small steamed "soup buns" have meat inside (of course) but also some soup. If it doesn't have soup, it's goofed up (like mine was, sadly). Don't poke it if you can since you'll lose the soup. Instead, try to bring it to your mouth and nibble it to get the soup out, or if you want to risk the contents being hot, you eat the whole thing in one bite.
  • Nothing wrong here, nothing too special either. Overall nicely done if everyone else's soupy dumplings were any indication.
Deep Fried Spicy Tofu 椒鹽豆腐
  • This was surprisingly excellent. The probably-rice-panko crust was very cripsy and not oily. The tofu was cut quite thin (maybe 4mm-5mm) so tofu-haters will hardly get any of the yucky slightly-bitter tofu flavour and can instead concentrate on deep-fried goodness. The crust was on the salty side and contended nicely with the use of chilies. If you're not lucky you might be a larger portion of chili and fire in your mouth, though. But for those who like and are not afraid of spiciness, this was a very nice dish. I hate tofu, but I actually really liked this one.
Spicy Chicken Breast 大千雞
  • Not-too-salty savory slices of chicken, firm enough to have a bit of "crunch" to it. Very tasty without being so salty that you reached for water or were inclined to ask for rice. Taste and feel in the mouth made this dish lovely to eat. Also another winner with our group.
Mongolian Cumin Slice Lamb 蒙古孜然羊肉
  • Served with some sort of token fried vegetable and deep fried vermicelli. Not so heavy with the spice that it overwhelmed the dish. Try to get at more of the noodles so you don't end up with just that on the plate.
Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish 松鼠魚
  • Couldn't find this on the little take-out menu brochure, but we definitely had this item and it was really tasty. The middle of the fish is filleted, scored into cubes to look like scales. The head and tail were still there. The whole thing was deep fried to a non-oily crisp but the head and tail weren't drenched in sauce, so you can pinch off the large fins and eat them like crackers (which strangely, no one except myself and the one Peruvian in our group did).
  • Do not simply pick at the meat but have someone cut the middle meaty part all the way through into strips as preparation of this dish typically involves leaving the skin at the bottom, keeping the fish whole.
  • Watch out for bones if you take the head or tail piece but the meaty middle should be fine.
  • Different restaurants do this differently so online pictures will vary if you are trying to research it. There's also an interesting story behind the name and the presentation. If you can eat fish, I definitely recommend this item for both taste and interesting plating.
Shanghai Fried Rice 上海炒飯
  • The final non-dessert item. Rather disappointing after everything we had. Also the first time we had rice all night. Surprisingly fluffly and beautifully done rice, but otherwise the ingredients added to it didn't do anything for it at all. Came in a hot stoneware bowl that remained hot for a long time -- so be careful with this one when moving it about.
Fermented Rice Balls in Wine Soup 酒釀小丸子
  • A disappointing end to the dinner, unfortunately. It's probably a cultural difference issue but I really didn't caree for this dessert. It tasted like rice and gelatinous chunks in sugar water. Nothing fermented or wine-like here for me.
Instead of automatically getting pots of tea, the possibly not-trying-to-be-like-every-other-Chinese-restaurant approach was to ask what sort of drink you would like. You could, of course, ask for tea and it comes in a big coffee press. Short tumblers are the norm so if you want a hot beverage, they have to get a mug with a handle for you -- therefore do not be surprised if they take a count of how many people want hot water or tea. This can be a bit odd and awkward for some -- jus' sayin'.

There are square tables as well as large round tables (but without lazy susans on the night we were there, which made for a lot of reaching across the table). I recommend going for the square tables if you are sharing, even if your party will be 8-10 persons.

Overall, the dishes were mostly nothing really special to write home about (except the deep fried spicy tofu!) but what made The Change special for me was how different it was from every other Chinese restaurant I'd been to. And maybe that was due to the absence of MSG combined with how tasty everything turned out anyway. If you're in Vancouver or Burnaby and don't want to run out to Richmond for more upscale Chinese dining, give The Change a try.
If you can't speak Mandarin or Cantonese to save your life, also give The Change a try: They are on OpenTable, so reservations are convenient and automated. There was at least one caucasian staff member (helpfully, that person was one of two front of house hostesses), so there is a clear effort to be convenient for non-Chinese speaking clientele.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Not on the menu at the Cactus Club

Cactus Club Cafe on Urbanspoon
So I finally dropped in at The Cactus Club downtown -- you known, the one at the 2010 Winter Olympics torch.

It's quite a big place and with multiple exits that look like they could very well be entrances. Keep circling for the one with heat lamps warming a path to three to five hot hostesses ready to seat you (or turn you away because they are full).
I was by at around 3.30pm -- not yet their 4pm happy hour -- and the place was already busy. The server looking up the reservation for my party said they were always busy.
And reservations? Yes and no. If you know certain people, yes. No harm trying to call one in, though.

The layout inside looks expansive but the lanes are a bit tight. Any obstruction and you might be better off circling around to a different lane. They also keep it sort of dim, so if you want a really good look around, go during the day. It's actually rather nicely laid out in that there is a lot of non-window seating that have good views. Don't get hung up on a window seat unless you are some sort of misanthrope who mustn't have filthy homo sapiens drifting in and out of your field of vision.

When I go to restaurants, I always hope for freshly squeezed juice from a real fruit obliterated on-site, and this time the answer was actually "yes". Orange or grapefruit. And an odd, "I don't know where they squeeze it" thrown in. Eh? The server quickly added that she didn't know whether it would be squeezed upstairs or downstairs (huh?) but I gave the orange juice a go anyway.
At $4 it cost the same as a happy hour beer. Came chilled and with no ice to take up space in your tall glass. Looked cloudy and had pretty fine pulp. Didn't have the same artificial intensity as Tropicana or Oasis.

After sampling my friend's calamari appy (which looked more like a dinner plate of calamari in portion size, to be honest) that had a strange oiliness to the flavour even though it didn't look oily at all, I skipped straight to dessert. The very first item, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, was emphasized in a grey box. I inquired about whether it was something special and was expecting to simply be told that it was a Rob Feenie Signature Dish. Many items on the menu are marked "RF" to indicate this. Instead she said she didn't know why it was highlighted that way, and that, if anything, the menu should mention their current seasonal special, a pumpkin cheesecake.
I thanked her for telling me, though I also wondered that they were so busy I wasn't told of specials when the menu was brought to me.

  • The Pumpkin Cheesecake ($8.25, the par price for all their desserts) was a slightly smallish slice on a plate drizzled with caramel. The main flavour is the cheese and if you swab your bites with the caramel on the plate, you also get strong caramel flavour -- and the both combined wiped out any hint of pumpkin. Otherwise it was a really decently done cheesecake. Light in taste and texture, not crumbly. Price is either somewhat awful for portion or inflation has seriously caught up.

From the little I've seen so far, food isn't anything super special (might have to focus on the RF signature dishes next time). You are here (and paying for) for the convenient, location, the views, the happy hour, and the people watching. Speaking of which...

Every server is a confidently mannered young hottie. And every one of them "identical", someone remarked. Well, not exactly, but there is a dress code, and not one that shows a lot of cleavage or with a skirt so high you can get a glimpse of butt -- they are cute, but the hiring criteria apparently doesn't require D-Cups or Kim-Kardashian-worthy curves.
Heterosexual single guys might then think the Cactus Club to be a great place to go, but honestly, it ends up being more like a Hooters tease. Everyone has been staring wistfully at them and hoping to get their number, so they'll all have boyfriends already. It's an exercise in frustration. If you are there just to look, or to practice not stammering when talking to a Perfect 10, by all means go. If you have a date, better not, maybe. If you are a woman looking for a date, I suppose you could use them to test the attention span of your suitor-of-the-moment.

It can be hard to catch the eye of a waitress, so your bet bet might actually be to just sit tight until they check on you. And in such a busy place, they WILL check on you with increasing frequency if you are there for a while and your party hasn't fully assembled. Space is money and they need to see you drinking or ordering food.
If that is off-putting for you, go with a tighter group or assemble everyone first -- or go somewhere else. It's hard to demand better attention when they have well-to-do tourists and conventioneers and businessmen waving money at them from all sides.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Your Coffee Profile

I was digging through some of the older "recipe books" I had on hand and found an old booklet that was sent out by Van Houtte quite a while ago. In it were tips on making a "perfect" cup of coffee, as well as how to choose a coffee you will like -- your "coffee profile".