Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beautiful Cakes and Strange Lemonade at Bel Cafe

Bel Cafe on Urbanspoon
After a somewhat disappointing dinner at Section(3) on Friday night, my dining companion and I zipped over to Bel Cafe at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia for a civilized and decadent dessert.

Many years ago, when there was still the mainstay jazz venue The Georgia Street Bar and Grill, there was a patisserie (?) here as well, but with much less seating and long counters filled with goodies -- operating mostly as a take-out place. Can't even remember the name now, honestly. Now there's maybe a third of the selection but much more seating. The walls are lined with cushioned seating and the space between the tables is very generous. The space in front of the counter, however, is squashy and has to be shared with kitchen staff coming and going. Still, it's a fair enough compromise if one is aiming for business-class patron seating rather than a table arrangement where you're walking sideways to get anywhere between tables.

You can order and pay at the counter, of course, but there's actually full service if you eat in house. I was so surprised when our order came with proper cloth napkins and a very polite server (who, at that hour in the night, was also the cashier behind the counter).

The selection is, compared to a larger establishment, rather small. There are, however, quite a few macarons to be had, though at $2 to even $2.70 a piece. (In case you didn't know, macarons are actually quite hard and time-consuming to make, hence the price).

We settled on a White Chocolate, Kalamanzi, Coconut cake and a Dark Chocolate, Raspberry, Vanilla cake. They were about the size of a half can of Campbell's soup.

The richness of the chocolate and creams here isn't as tiring to devour as the near-solid masses of chocolate you might end up with at Giovane, so one can easily handle a full cake without having to share to avoid sugar fatigue. I'll leave that up to you whether it's a good thing or not. Overall, there's a lighter feel to the desserts, which I thought was very nice.

The Dark Chocolate, Raspberry, Vanilla cake was very strong on the raspberry flavour and the softness was complemented by a crunchiness from what may have been a wafer at the bottom and the sprinkling of fine chips at the base.

The White Chocolate had a nice citrus taste from the Kalamanzi (a type of orange), so you got chocolate plus a refreshing feel. I highly recommend this as a way to finish off a meal on a lighter note.

There were also bottles of lemonade in the counter with a cute dog picture on them: Fentiman's Victorian Lemonade. It's supposedly non-alcoholic, but there is an alcohol-like taste from the fermented lemons. The flavour is strong and sharp and definitely wakes you up if you're into that sort of thing. Not super-pucker-inducing in sourness. I don't drink at all, so the alcohol-like taste was a turn-off for me. And though the alcohol content is tiny (~0.5%), this British drink has sparked controvery over it, apparently.

My dining companion generously insisted on picking up the bill, which came to just over $13 after tax, if I remember correctly.

While you're at the Bel Cafe, I definitely recommend sneaking out the back way into the Rosewood Hotel Georgia if you've never been there. It's a beautiful dimly-lit dark-wood space that affords a certain amount of privacy even in plain sight; there's an eye-bending 3D portrait on the wall that's a neat conversation piece if nothing else; and on December 31st there was a grand piano in the lobby -- something I hope they'll keep around if just for the ambiance.

Section(3) - NSFW menus and other things

Section 3 on Urbanspoon
I dropped by Section(3) last night with a foodie buddy who lives downtown. It always looked like more of a bar scene to me from the outside and I subconsciously avoided it, but the menu had some intriguing things on it, like an interesting sounding Baked Brie, Coca-Cola Braised Rib (apparently one chunk of meat about the width of a can of Campbell's soup and half as tall). So finally I decided to give it a go.

I had opted for an early dinner (5pm) to avoid any dinner rush or the usual Yaletown crush. At 5pm, most places there had just a handful of diners and you pretty much had your choice of seating (but I made a reservation anyway... just in case of private parties or what not monopolizing the establishment). Theoretically, this means prompt and attentive service, right? Well... not always. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you haven't been to Section(3), you probably don't know the history of having had a mere 48 hours to change their name or be sued. Most of that info is online as well as on their menu.

There's also a big "nerd" sign right over the bar (presently decorated with gold bears for the holidays). That was from their more frugal days when they found an old Budweiser sign and were hoping to make it spell something related to the restaurant. They came up with "nerd". Somehow it stuck, and certainly adds character and makes a neat conversation piece.

Decor is eclectic with gold buddhas sprinkled here and there with pictures of pinups. Every menu has a pinup. The dessert menu has a naked babe. Too bad for the kiddies who are allowed in but presumably not allowed to peruse the dessert menu!
The room is also more or less chopped in half so you get quite a bit of seating while still retaining a lot of privacy in each booth.

When you walk in, you are basically blocked by the hostess's table which very clearly says you are to wait to be seated. The sign can cleverly be turned around to let would-be patrons know if they are at capacity.
Yaletown being what it is, one can expect at-capacity restaurants on occasion, of course. Be aware however that Section(3) has a cancellation policy. I made my reservation on OpenTable and the confirmation came with this warning:

From the restaurant:
thank you for booking with Section (3). We require 3 days notice for cancellations on Friday or Saturday. 48 hours for Sunday through Thursday. No-shows or failing to cancel with specified notice will result in a $10 charge per person applied to your credit card. Parties of 8 or more are subject to an 18% gratuity charge. we look forward to seeing you! please leave us your email to be entered into winning the monthly draw for dinner for two PLEASE NOTE - for tables of 6 or more your ENTIRE party must be seated within 15 mins of your reservation or the extra seats may be given away to other customers.

When I walked in a couple of minutes before 5pm the table was unmanned. A waitress with a beer in her hand immediately attended but I didn't want to delay her and offered to wait. Which, incidentally, let me have a look at the array of business cards on the table. Definitely take a quick look at these! In the dim light at the entrance it's hard to make out details, but there was one for Scottish chef Ben Dodd that features a strawberry toppped with what look like frolicking cherubs.

Shortly after I was seated and patiently waiting for my guest. The usual was brought to the table: Water and menus. No sign of the $20 canapé set menu (listed under the set menu section on their website). Drat. It would later be confirmed with our server that it was not presently available. (Why? And why wasn't the website updated? Urgh.)

My companion arrived very shortly after 5pm and we were ready to go. Except we couldn't find any servers and couldn't really catch anyone's eye. Hmm... It just seemed they suddenly vanished or were maybe working the other side of the room divide. And everyone was wearing black, so it wasn't clear who was who. Finally, after 5 minutes (?) a gentleman came to our table -- someone whom I could have sworn was actually a patron.

Anyway, away we go! It still wasn't very busy so we quizzed him on the nerd sign, the canapé menu, the appys, and the desserts. My friend and I had made a pact on having a really decent dessert, so we were cautious about not ordering too much. We opted to start with two appys and browse the dessert menu.

She went with a Roast Corn and Chicken Chowder with Hickory Corn Chips sprinkled on top ($4). Creamy, and very thick with chunks of ingredients, in a regulation sized bowl (about the size of the bowl-like cups you get at Blenz when you order a "for-here" hot drink). Not a huge amount, but what do you want for $4? Also, the filling factor of having an bowl of almost solid food makes it a nice choice for the price point. It definitely wasn't as soupy as my experience at Burgoo, which gives you a slightly bigger bowl at a slightly higher price.
The downside of it was the slight blandness of it -- chicken being chicken I suppose.

I went with the Baked Brie ($13) with Spicy Brown Sugar Crust, Roasted Garlic, Mayer Lemon Chutney. At $13 in Yaletown you might expect a two-bite appy, but there was enough on the cutting board on which the Baked Brie appetizer was served to double as a light dinner for one.

The brie was a small cake of brie just over 1 inch thick and maybe 4 inches in diameter, cut into eight wedges, and served with more than enough crunchy baguette slices that had been drizzled with what looked like a stripe of balsamic vinegar.

The brown sugar crust portion of this was a disappointing gob on top, some of which at some point dribbled down onto the wooden cutting board on which the appetizer was served. We found that you had to deliberately cut a chunk of brie with visible sugar on top or you got none of it, and even then the flavour didn't come out strongly enough to justify its existence. Maybe if there had been more, it might have at least mattered taste-wise.

Nothing to comment about on the roasted garlic except that if you are garlic averse, you may find a clove just fine smeared on a baguette with nothing on it. The taste was mild compared to having a straight shot of raw garlic. So don't fret!

The Mayer Lemon Chutney was very... unexpected. The spelling is probably slightly off from Meyer Lemon, a particular type of lemon-like hybrid fruit. The chutney portion was not what I expected at all. Here we got rounds of a lemon cross-sections. No lemon juice and so much of the seed taken out that one can suppose what remained were overlooked refugees. It was preserved and chewy to cut, and the taste was only just short of eating raw lemon rind.
By "chutney" I had honestly expected something more diced, sweeter, and maybe still in some gooey syrup. In any case, it was yuck to eat it straight or on a baguette, BUT the bitterness was nicely tempered with a half wedge of brie sitting on top of it.

I probably wouldn't order this again, but at just $13 it's a nicely sized sharing plate.

Bill came out to be $19.04 after tax, before tip.

We were considering the Five Layer Chocolate Cake, but ultimately gave it a pass to try Ganache Patisserie nearby -- which was already closed at 6pm! ARGH! We trekked to Bel Cafe at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia instead.

Friday, December 30, 2011

THINaddictives Cranberry Almond Thin Cookie

I walked in for my usual Friday morning volunteering shift and happily there were still Christmas treats leftover. Among them were a few packs of THINaddictives almond thin cookies, doubtless picked up en masse from CostCo, where admin seems to get everything else. With over 200 volunteers, we buy bulk. :)

These thin cookies were biscotti-like, especially in how they are double-baked. The word biscotti itself is derived from a Latin meaning double-cooked/double-baked. Double-baking not only gives a bread or cake the crunchy exterior, but helps to preserve it for unreasonably long periods of time. And because it then becomes hard and crunchy, such things are typically jazzed up with some sort of creamy coating and dipped in coffee.

The very thin cookies (about 3mm thick) from THINaddictives were very strong with almond flavour and not so much with the cranberries, though it was clearly real cranberry baked into it. There was a slight chewiness to it which prevents the usual biscotti tendency to leave crumbs all over the place.

The tastiness of the cookies alone makes it a nice find, plus the porousness of it means you can still soak it quickly in coffee if you wanted to. The thinness makes soaking faster than a usual biscotti, plus you don't have to deal with a larger portion to start. They are not overly sweet and not overdone in that department with an additional coat of chocolate or icing or what not that is often done to jazz up sticks of biscotti.

What the company touts, however, is that "no two THINaddictives® brand cookies look exactly alike as well, and we too deeply pride ourselves in that homey non-uniform style as well". What this means is that you could potentially put them out and they'll look home-baked. In turn this has the dubious benefit of fooling your guests that you are an ace baker. Assuming they don't pay too much attention at CostCo.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Raw Vegan Pad Thai from Organic Lives has bite

OrganicLives on Urbanspoon
You may have heard that Organic Lives opened a downtown Granville location last week in the Chopra Yoga Centre. I had had a delicious chocolate cake ("The Ridiculous") from them earlier this year, and was curious about their non-dessert menu.

The menu is raw (with the exception of some few ingredients in select items -- I was told the maple syrup in some dessert doesn't classify as raw), organic, and vegan, but you may not notice.

The Chopra Yoga Centre front desk is now divided into two parts. The reception desk on the left, and Organic Lives on the right. Yes, the entire kitchen is right behind the reception desk in the spacious lobby. Run by a single chef. The ladies behind the counter have a peaceful serenity that borders on the eerie, but I'm sure that's harmless.
Because it's a small space, the full menu from their larger store/restaurant on Quebec Street near Science World isn't available. The all-important chocolate cake is there, and a decent spread of choices.

I wanted a take-home item that would survive the trip and still look beautiful for my mom, so I was eyeing either the pad thai or the sushi. The chef wasn't so sure about the pad thai going for a long trek, but I didn't have far to go and she also agreed to have the sauces on the side.

PAD THAI - $15 - This beloved dish of Thailand comes to life with our fresh Young Thai coconut meat and kelp noodles combined with fresh herbs and spices tossed in a beautiful sauce inspired by our Young Thai coconut water.

What you get is quite a large portion of, essentially, a salad. The $15 price tag looks pricey, but the overall portion is decent enough for a lunch.
The "kelp noodles" look so much like vermicelli that my mom kept insisting it was. It's crunchier and (to me) just as tasteless. It's a bit tricky to tell the coconut from the cabbage if you're not paying attention to the look and crunch, but it's there. Overall, there's a fresh salad-like feel to the basic mix. It of course looks nothing like a traditional pad thai, which is predominantly a mound of rice noodle.

If you do a take-out, you get little containers of things to mix in: two portions of what looks like peanut sauce, one portion of a slightly hot translucent sauce that may be orange and chili, and some chopped up nuts.

I didn't notice the nuts once they went in. The hot sauce was an excellent addition and wasn't too hot. The muddy khaki sauce has a strong kick of ginger taste, and may daunt you if you tried it straight. Whatever you do, go easy with this on the pad thai. I didn't think they'd give me excess sauce so I poured it all in, but in hindsight that was a mistake. It quite overpowered everything and I missed a lot of the subtlety of the mixed veggie flavour of the salad. Even so, the result was still quite tasty but mostly for the cool, fresh, salad taste and the bite from the sauces.

There's a bit of bench space in the Chopra Yoga Centre, but not much. The Granville location of Organic Lives is really a beautiful, high-ceilinged, posh-looking takeout window. You also get to watch the chef patiently prepare your meal on the impeccably clean counter. No rushed beat-the-clock chopping and dicing here, which is a nice change. (I did, however, swing by at close to 3pm in the dead-time between lunch and dinner.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Whoopie Pie at Starbucks

Starbucks (Robson & Homer) on Urbanspoon
Staggering out of the Christmas Market weighed down by profound disappointment (instead of what over $20 of food should have felt like in my tummy), my dining buddy and I closed our evening outing with a trip to Starbucks for proper coffee.

I got a seasonal Caramel Brulée Latte, extra hot, plus one Chocolate Crème Whoopie Pie for myself and one for my patient dining buddy. When the cashier went to ring it in, she asked which type of Whoopie Pie we wanted, only to realize there was just the one type in the display case. It's a bit harder to find on the website, but there is apparently a Red Velvet Whoopie Pie.

Each Whoopie Pie is slightly bigger and sandwiches more cream than your typical $2 macaron. IF you compare it to macarons, then at $1.60 they don't sound too expensive. But if you didn't know macarons were $2, then $1.60 for something smaller than a moist chocolate muffin must look like a rip-off.

The Chocolate Crème Whoopie Pie is quite soft, very moist, and very dark-chocolaty. In firmness they are very much like a moist chocolate muffin. Overall, there isn't anything particularly special about them. They're like an Oreo Cookie, but using cake to sandwich a softer cream. Happily, the softness of everything allows you to bite through it quite cleanly without the cream inside being squeezed out.

If you pop them open like you might an Oreo, usually the cream in the middle sticks wholly on one side. I encourage you to eat it that way, thereby giving you way more cream on one side and what seemed to myself and my dining companion to be a more satisfying taste experience.
As for the other, maybe dip it in your coffee.

I did like it quite a bit, but would balk at the $1.60 if I were thinking of buying it again since it's such as one-bite wonder. If you're the type who compares it to $1.50 specialty chocolates from Godiva, $2 macarons, and $4 organic vegan muffins from Edible Flours, then from that perspective $1.60 isn't too bad.

EDIT (January 1st, 2012): Okay, I take it back. $1.60 is probably a rip off. Macarons are a different animal and harder to make. Here, it's just a cake sandwich. One dozen HUGE whoopies (almost the size of a saucer) is $26. If you want to try your hand at it, you can get PC Chocolate Whoopie Pie Baking Mix from Superstore.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Feeling Ripped Off at the Christmas Market 2011

Just back from the Vancouver Christmas Market set up on the plaza at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre downtown. It ends on Christmas Eve.

I was curious about some of the "Traditional German Market Food and Beverages" mentioned on the Christmas Market website, but was wholly unprepared for the prices. $8 sausages? $9 waffles? My expectations were high. If it were a free event like Greek Day on Broadway, I might have toned down expectations. But this event seemed to be touted as being an authentic German import, and on top of any costs was $5 per adult in admission fees.

My dining buddy and I started with a big savory waffle from Das Waffelhaus, supposedly made with spices mixed in ($7.50). For $1.50 you could have bacon bits (real bacon, not bacon bits with artificially reddish orange fake "bacon" you can find in supermarkets) mixed in, bringing the total to $9 for a waffle just over 1 centimeter thick and maybe 6 inches wide.
It was surprisingly bland. If anything was even slightly savory, it would have to be the bacon bits, which cost extra. At $9? Pass.
There are also sweet waffles as well, which we didn't try. But at the prices they are charging at the Christmas Market, get the 10% off coupon if you're going to try anything at all.

Artisan Bake Shoppe on Urbanspoon
Next up, Artisan Bake Shoppe Ltd's Winzerschmaus ("winemaker's feast"): Organic Ciabatta bread topped and baked with a mixture of sour cream, cheese and ham. For $4.50 you got half a Ciabatta bun (about the surface area of a playing card and just under a centimeter thick). It's better hot, so definitely say yes if they offer to oven it for you, but before you walk away, test the cheese to make sure it is actually hot (ours wasn't). The taste was predominantly sour cream and some cheese, which for me flattened all the other tastes. Concept is good, tastes better hot, but was it worth it for $4.50?

Dussa's Ham and Cheese on Urbanspoon
Next we went by Dussa’s Ham & Cheese to check out their raclette -- tasty raclette (a type of cheese) melted on fresh baked focaccia bread served with cornichons (pickled gherkins) and bündnerfleisch (seasoned air-dried beef). A sample plate was on display, showing a small bun cut in half and covered with melted cheese. The bun was about the size of a dinner roll cut in half. Just two slices of bündnerfleisch and two cornichons. For this, they wanted $10.
The cheese smelled good, but we quietly gave it a pass.

We also skipped Das Deutsche Nudel Haus, which offered a "German Pasta". It didn't look or sound as interesting as the online blurb, so we basically didn't see what was special about it to command the prices advertised, especially when I saw the size of the bowls. Still, the Schupfnudeln at least sound interesting and you may want to give it a go: "Schupfnudeln are traditionally made from a special type of wheat flour called Weizendunst or rye in combination with eggs and several spices that give them their delicious taste. They are traditionally given their distinctive shape (similar to an elongated American football) through a process of hand shaping and rolling. They are then served in different ways: as savory dish with sauerkraut and bacon, or sweet with sugar and cinnamon. If really hungry, you will also be able to enjoy the noodles with a hot bowl of soylanka soup or hot apple cider or tea."

We were looking for something more filling for our money and decided to try an $8 sausage-in-a-bun from I think it was Black Forest Meat & Sausages. There were four types of sausages on the grill. Two white, two red. We tried to suss out the difference between them, but all we got was that one of the red ones was predominantly beef, the rest were "traditional German". Oookay. It randomly choose the Weisswurst, here served up like a hot dog (grilled) rather than boiled. It was then popped into a bun and topped with fried onion and surprisingly bland sauerkraut. Even the sausage was bland. Tender, and nicely prepared that way. But bland. For $8. Packs of 6 sausages were being sold frozen for $12.

The last thing we tried was a pork knuckle sandwich from Hendl & Haxn Rotisserie. The multi-tiered rotisserie showed beautifully crispy whole chickens and pork knuckles, and it smelled wonderful. I was considering a whole pork knuckle ($12) but in the end we opted for a more presented and balanced presentation with the sandwiches. It's two slices of bread with no crust. Topped with assorted veggies you might find in Subway. And -- I kid you not -- maybe two (2) tablespoons worth of meat. Not even heaping tablespoons.
Yes, that little meat.
If you pulled out the meat, you would discover it is moist and tender, very well done. But for $6? Really?
Get the whole chicken or whole pork knuckle. That way you'd get more meat, a HOT meal, and some crispy skin/fat.

Something I really liked about the Christmas Market set up was the many sheltered tables where you could stand around and have some where to put down your plate for a moment. On each table are directions to the nearest recycling station as well. This means saving on chair space, plus people eating can be herded aside to keep the human traffic moving along. Plus, the sheltered space also means if it's a rainy day, you can eat without getting wet.

We ended the evening at the rather interesting Käthe Wohlfahrt, Germany's top Christmas ornament and decor company. You can ask the staff there to relate the story of how the curious inconvenience around looking for a music box for American friends led to starting a company that is Christmas year-round. Some of the prices in there will astound you -- like a furry little brown bear, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, with a $63 price tag. But a lot of the items, especially the Christmas Tree decorations, nutcrackers, and glass bird are just plain beautiful.

Deliver local papers... for $60/month?

A flyer came to my home advertising for a local newspaper carrier on Wednesday, December 14th. I can only suppose the perpetually spotty deliveries had spurred this.

Carriers Wanted
The NewsLeader is currently looking for carriers in your area. Here's a route that's available for you!

Route: BB22622653
Papers: 99
(Door-to-door delivery to dry and wind-safe locations)

The NewsLeader is delivered every Wednesday and Friday to the residents in yoru neighbourhood.
The papers are dropped off at your home with the flyers pre-inserted and ready to go!

24-Hour carrier insurance
High school graduation credit
"Carrier of the Week" awards
Seasonal carrier activities
Referral & Replacement Bonus Programs

$60 per month approx. Additional pay for special deliveries.

If you are interested in delivering newspapers in your area please call 604.436.2472

Okay, let's do the math here:
($60/month x 12 months) / (52 weeks x 2 days per week) = $6.92 per day.

Assume you take 1.5 minutes per house x 99 homes -- remember that you can't just throw the paper because it stipulates "door-to-door delivery to dry and wind-safe locations" -- that's about 2-1/2 hours of time without any breaks, or about $2.80 per hour.


NewsLeader carrier job flyer 001

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Different Sort of Christmas Feast - Raw Vegan at Indigo

Indigo Food Cafe on Urbanspoon
If you're tired of turkey or are vegetarian/vegan and can't stand Tofurky, this Christmas consider trying something different -- but still gourmet.

Indigo Food is offering a seasonal menu, albeit during the very few Christmas Days not yet booked by private parties. All foods are dairy-free, and wheat-free, vegan, diabetic friendly -- and RAW (see menu details at the bottom of the page).
  1. Holiday Nut Nog OR Spicy Chai Masala OR Hot Chocolate with Orange or Mint
  2. Coconut Cheese Trio OR Coconut Dumplings with Coconut Cheese
  3. Curried Carrot Soup
  4. Apple Fennel Pomegranate Salad on a bed of Arugula with Orange Poppy Seed Dressing and Candied Pecans.
  5. Mashed No-tatoes* with Ravey Gravy Holiday Fantasy Stuffing
  6. Cranberry Relish Stuffed Portabello Burger
  7. Ganashe Cake OR Pomegranate Cheese Cake OR Pumpkin Pie
* No-tatoes are like mashed potatoes, but made with lower-carbohydrate foods such as cauliflower.

$39 per person or $74 per couple, available for take-out. Reservations: 604.537.7288
From December 12th to January 1st, Indigo Food is closed Sundays to Wednesdays for private events.

Price-wise it'll look steep if you are omnivorous, but during the Christmas crunch, every establishment's going to try to gouge you for Christmas Dinners. There's no doubt that the high-end hotels will put out some very nice spreads, such as the five-course Christmas Dinner at The Sutton Place Hotel or the "T'was the Night Before Christmas" all you can eat mega-festive-buffet at Griffins in the Hotel Vancouver. Both weigh in at about twice the price, and probably twice the food (more if you go to Griffins prepared to eat like an elephant). But if you're vegan, those will be worth only a fraction of their value because of your restrictions.

Indigo Christmas Menu 2011 items

Marble Slab Creamery - Free Ice Cream Cupcake Giveaway

Got this in my inbox Monday morning from Marble Slab Creamery:

FREE Ice Cream Cupcake Giveaway

Thursday, December 15
4 - 7 PM
Limit one per customer. First 50 customers.

Valid at participating locations only.
While supplies last.

The link to "participating locations" downloaded a PDF. For British Columbia, the locations listed were:

  • Vancouver, Cambie & West Broadway 541 West Broadway, Vancouver, BC V5Z 1E6
  • Burnaby, Marine Way Market 7527 Market Crossing Burnaby, BC V5J 0A3
  • Coquitlam, Pinetree Village Unit 60, 2991 Lougheed Highway, Coquitlam, BC V3B 6J6
  • New Westminster, Queensborough Landing Unit J150 - 805 Boyd Street, New Westminster, BC V3M 5X2
  • North Vancouver, Time Market #3, 180 Esplanade West, North Vancouver, BC
  • Richmond, Ironwood Plaza 155, 11720 Steveston Hwy, Richmond, BC V7A 1N6
  • Surrey, Grandview Corner Unit 50, 2245 - 160 Street, Surrey, BC V3S 9N6
  • Langley, Village at Thunderbird C105, 20159 - 88th Avenue, Langley, BC V1M 0A4
  • Kamloops, Summit Shopping Centre #D104 1180 Columbia Street, West Kamloops, BC V2C 6R6
  • Victoria, Bay Centre 1150 Douglas St, Suite 200B, Victoria, BC V8W 3M9
  • Victoria, Millstream Village Unit 143 Bldg C, 2401 Millstream Road, Victoria, BC V9B 3R5

2011-Dec-15 Marble Slab Giveaway

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Excellent Chocolate Cake at Bandidas Taqueria

Bandidas Taqueria on Urbanspoon
I'd heard of this place from vegetarian and vegan friends, but tacos didn't really excite me. I mean, how inventive can they be?
Well, it turns out that Bandidas Taqueria can turn out some really inventive tastes for tacos, and without using any meat at all. Although the theme is predominantly Mexican with tacos and burritos and the like, I can't say the tacos I tried tonight made me think "Mexican" at all.

The ambiance is very Commercial Drive, so it doesn't look like much on the outside and the decor (and the use of jam jars for glasses) on the inside can be off-putting if you're used to posh Yaletown restaurants, so suck it up and focus on the food. Our friendly and very patient server Heidi said the quietest time was between 3pm to 5pm. After that, you can expect lineups possibly well into the night.

Their tacos are corn-based, and therefore should be gluten-free. They are still soft and pliable, and you may very well not know any different, especially as the fillings will crowd out any taste of the tacos anyway.

I tried the Estelle (pineapple, black beans, cheese, fresh red salsa, romaine lettuce & sour cream) and the Camillo (spicy breaded walnuts, pinto beans, cheese, purple cabbage, fresh red salsa & sour cream). The mix-and-match offer means the more you buy the cheaper it gets, plus you don't need to have multiples of the same type of taco. The tacos are also assembled very quickly, probably because they are just throwing raw stuff onto already-prepped tacos.

When it hits the table, the first thing you will notice is that it looks like mounds of salad with no soft tacos. That is because there's so much filling it covers the entire taco, and without eating some of the filling first, you are likely to make a colossal mess if you try to fold the taco in half to bring it up to your mouth. This is very different from probably any other restaurant serving tacos, and it's hardly a complaint when you can't fold tacos because of too much filling.

The tastes worked very well together, sort of like a good salad but with more bulk to it from the beans and taco shell. If you're only going to have tacos for dinner, 3+ might be a more filling total. Since I was going to make sure I could fit in the chocolate cake, I stopped at two. (And I also had a largish dim sum earlier that day, at Fisherman's Terrace in Richmond).

Desserts are not on the paper menu nor on the website, but chalked onto a small blackboard near the bar. A vegetarian foodie friend of my dining companion that night recommended the quinoa flourless chocolate cake, which shows up as "gluten-free chocolate cake" on the chalkboard for $5. It is a very dark chocolate that is chocolaty without being either distinctly sweet or bitter. There is only a very thin later of chocolate cream on top, which will either be a disappointment if you're into cream, or a relief if you can get sick of too much cream. Other than that, it is a very tasty chocolate cake, on par with the vegan chocolate cake from The Wallflower, and scoring only very slightly less for having less chocolate cream/sauce, and for not being vegan.

The cake portion itself is a bit on the crumbly side (but generally holding together because of its nice moistness) but still solid and quite filling. There is also a grainy feel to it in your mouth, not unlike a spoonful of rice. The portion is quite large and if you weren't ready for it and maybe tried to get full on the vegetarian tacos, you might need a friend to help you finish it. An à la mode option here might have been nice, perhaps with a vegan friendly soy based ice cream that would still keep the overall dessert gluten-free.

There's an extensive drink menu (not on the website) that includes a few interesting non-alcoholic beverages, such as hibiscus tea and a tamarind drink (listed as tamarindo). This strange drink that's both sweet and sour at the same time might be interesting to try but I didn't really like it. It reminded me too much of lemons in brine that my mom sometimes made.

Our dinner for two came out to one "red devil" beer, one tamarindo drink, four tacos, half a House Salad (romaine lettuce, purple cabbage, cilantro, avocado, feta cheese, pumpkin seeds, and fresh salsa dressed with house balsamic vinaigrette), and one slice chocolate cake -- $28.75 after tax, before tip.

You can see some pictures of their menu items on their website.

$20 Food Overload at Fisherman's Terrace Seafood

Fisherman's Terrace Seafood 釣魚台海鮮酒家 on Urbanspoon
Saturday afternoon was taken up by an astonishing 30+ dish 2-hour dim sum lunch on the third floor of Aberdeen Centre at Fishermans Terrace Seafood Restaurant with the Vancouver Food Bloggers.
I don't get out to Richmond all that often. It's a different world with different priorities. For example, I could only find one type of Christmas cards (at Daiso). Nothing anywhere else in the entire mall. :sigh: The mall also doesn't have paper recycling -- boo! And, curiously enough, the motion-activated water and soap dispensers actually come with instructions in English and Chinese.

Since I grew up in a Chinese family and mom cooked Chinese food, I rarely bother to go to Chinese restaurants or dim sum, because, well, I grew up eating this stuff and mom makes it better (usually). Because of that, I also have pretty high expectations and am not easily impressed except by the most novel or interesting foods. So please read on with that caveat in mind. If you didn't grow up eating this stuff, you may find it far, far, more interesting and tasty.


The last time I went to a Chinese resturant for dim sum must have been at least three years ago, somewhere along Broadway. It was pretty typical:
  • Someone rolls a cart by your table and you tell them what you want.
    • Generally, unless you speak Mandarin or Cantonese, you are out of luck and have to hope something comes your way that you might like. Then you point at it.
    • If you do speak Cantonese or Mandarin, you could probably get away with asking for something to be brought.
  • The server sets it on the table and usually immediately cut it up for you (typically with scissors) so your table can share it, since each plate might only have, say, two or three buns and sharing is expected.
  • Then they put a little print on a sheet of paper indicating plate sizes and portions you ordered. Once you have been stuffed to the gills and can hardly move, they come around, take the sheet of paper, and return with the bill.
It's not the same at Fisherman's Terrace.
  • They have sheets with the entire dim sum menu on it. The white sheets are in Chinese, the yellow sheets, are in English -- thank God! (You can see pics of the English menu at the end of this post). Translation might be iffy (more on this later), but if you don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese the English menus mean you're not completely lost, which is a good thing that makes dim sum so much more accessible to an increasingly multicultural world.
  • You indicate on the sheets what you want, then the waiter collects it. Shortly after, they bring the food. Unfortunately, they bring EVERYTHING in a non-stop stream of food. If you run out of space on the turntable, too bad: They start stacking dishes, so remember to look underneath to make sure you ate everything. (e.g., Toward the end of our dim sum lunch, I discovered we had one untouched dish of sticky rice! It had gone cold, of course.)
    • Bringing everything all at once may be easy for the kitchen, but as a diner you're pretty much guaranteed to get a lot of cold dishes because they'll have sat at the table too long.
    • It's a bit unavoidable with groups larger than, say, 4 or 6, since with a smaller group you could share and clear dishes more quickly. To be fair, some of the dishes were okay at room temperature, but some really were more palatable when hot.
    • There's generally no big hurry with dim sum, so you can try taking your time here and ordering maybe just one item per person or per two persons each time and pacing yourself that way.
  • When they drop the plates off, they DON'T chop it up and you don't automatically get any utensils.
    • At the table you have blunt ceramic spoons in small soup bowls and you have chopsticks -- the standard at any Chinese restaurant. If you have a large group sharing many dishes, I recommend asking for forks and knives early on, and several sets. Scissors might be overkill and there's no guarantee the restaurant will have so many to spare.
    • Also get SPOONS. Some items have soups or accompanying condiments that are just too hard to pick up with chopsticks and that don't adhere well to the food items.

It annoyed me that the jasmine tea didn't appear to have been refreshed, just constantly refilled with hot water, so as time passed the tea got weaker and weaker, to the point where you were basically drinking hot water. Sure it's free, but it just seemed bad form for the restaurant to be cheap about it, especially when a table of 11 had to share the one same pot.

Richmond is very cash oriented and (especially smaller stores) are not credit card friendly. Bring CASH. That said, we had I think at least two persons who wanted to pay by credit card and Fisherman's Terrace Seafood Restaurant didn't make a fuss about it, which is good. I've been to Chinese restaurants where they cap the number of persons who can pay with credit cards (probably because of the sometimes sizable amount the credit card company will skim off the top).

Now, on to the actual food! Very, very, few vegetarian options here. You should probably just write this place off if you're a committed vegan. We had easily over 20 items and multiple plates of some, so I'll only touch on some of the more noteworthy experiences. Remember to make room for dessert.

#16. Steamed Duck Tongue with Taro Root in Black Pepper Sauce.
Unless you've had it before you might not recognize this when it comes because it's a heap of thick meat slivers with a large bone in it. It's a pretty big bone, too. Bird tongues have a bone because they primarily use their tongues to position food into a swallowing position.

#55. Braised Pomelo Skin with Mixed Mushrooms.
Unless you have an acquired taste for pomelo skin, give this a pass. The pomelo skin is brown and looks like a thick slab of pork skin/fat. It is soft and very wet, and tastes bitter. Honestly, why do people eat this if they're not desperate? Maybe it's like beer -- it's bitter, but you somehow acquire a taste for it. Eating it with the mushrooms didn't help me at all. If you've never tried it, get it only if you're masochistically curious.

#19. Steamed Stuffed Fish Maw with Shrimp Paste.
Even the Mandarin speakers at our table weren't entirely sure what this was from the Chinese description. Although "maw" can mean stomach or mouth, fish maw specifically refers to a fish's swim bladder. It often appears in soups in Chinese cuisine, where it expands into a large, spongy mass that's typically a light dirty yellow in colour. The taste itself is pretty mild.
Although I ordered this, I had a hard time finding it in the jungle of dishes and when I finally did, there was just one slice of it, with no stuffing and no shrimp paste. ("Great. Thanks for sharing, guys.")

#60. Deep Fried Chicken Knee with Spicy Salt.
Looks like KFC popcorn chicken. Not oily at all. There's a small bit in each battered and deep fried nugget that's probably cartilage. You may be surprised that there's actually a chunk of meat here, on par with or slightly more than what you get with a KFC popcorn chicken.
The "Spicy Salt" turned out to be a mix of very salty bits of either crunchy batter or maybe deep fried and crispy garlic. I honestly wasn't sure, but either way, it was so intensely salty that whatever the bits were made of wasn't important.
This mixture also had some shredded chili, so if you had a bit of that, you got some heat, but not too much. The chili was also too inconsistent, so it was luck of the draw whether you got that or not. Here's where a regular spoon would really help. The ceramic spoon is okay, but a bit thick and clumsy to maneuver on the small plate without spilling things. Try to get both a nugget of Chicken Knee plus just a bit of the "Spicy Salt" mix.
At our table, most of the "Spicy Salt" here and on the #71. Deep Fried Squid with Spicy Salt was left behind. You can ask for a takeout box (which turns out to be just a white styrofoam box) and take it home for seasoning whatever you're making, such as fried rice, for example.

#38. Chilled Coconut Cake with Diced Taro.
The taro was so token as to be insignificant, but the coconut cake was a simple yet tasty cold dessert, not overly sweet. A safe choice out of a limited selection and a refreshing way to end a heavy lunch.

Overall the food is good, probably as good or slightly better than how my mom might make it. Nothing inventive here -- it's a lot of dim sum staples and there probably just isn't a market for inventive dim sum. None of the items appeared to be decidedly skimpy on ingredients, so you're not getting cheap fillers on anything you order. I'd have to score Fisherman's Terrace Seafood as a solid and safe choice for a dim sum recommendation.

It was super-busy at noon, so make reservations unless you don't mind dining at 1:30pm or later, in which case the restaurant had already started to empty from the Noon crowd and it appeared that dropping in and getting a table would probably not be a problem.

Prices are $3.45 to $5.65 per plate, more for the "kitchen gourmet" items that can run up to $8.80. We were stuffed but had little leftovers after our meal, which worked out to $20.02 per person after tax and tip. You can see a picture of the bill, and tons of pictures of the dishes, at Eat With Jenny.

In attendance was professional videographer Alex Yu the Ragin Ronin. You can see his video coverage of our dim sum at Fisherman's Terrace on YouTube and the frenzy of picture-taking whenever a dish came to our table...

2011-Dec-10 Fisherman's Terrace dim sum menu FRONT

2011-Dec-10 Fisherman's Terrace dim sum menu BACK

Friday, December 9, 2011

Portraits of Organs

Last Tuesday (December 6th) was the annual "Meetup of Meetups", put on once a year by mostly the Vancouver social media community. All told, there were probably over 400 people crammed into Mahoney & Son Burrard Landing. The first couple of hours saw everyone squashed like sardines.

I met some interesting people that night, but probably none more intriguing than Masha Tikhonova of Grafikavision. When she said she painted human organs, I wasn't sure I heard her right at first. I was utterly intrigued by it when she confirmed what I had heard, and I was quick to follow up after the event.

You can see some of her artistic and flowery renditions of human organs on her art blog, Anatomy. I like the interplay of the clearly human organ shapes with the frequently flowery and leafy designs. It seems to have a softening and recontextualizing effect on the subject of organs, which probably for most people conjures in the imagination what the raw organ looks like.

Check it out at Anatomy.

Croissants and Kombucha at Karmavore

Karmavore on Urbanspoon
If you've never heard of Karmavore, it's a vegan store with a deli and mini-supermarket downstairs. Upstairs there's belts and purses and shoes and stuff -- all vegan! Both upstairs and downstairs have chocolate bars. That says something about chocolate, I think.

Food orders (takeout -- although there is a bit of a seating space downstairs) are placed with Samantha who runs the deli counter, but everything is paid for upstairs with Sara at the till. You can also get a "karma card" points reward card to accumulate savings.

I only heard of Karmavore through hanging out with too many herbivores, so it was a wonderful surprise to discover how good their sandwiches were. That, or I was just starved for a really good, well-put-together sandwich.
Depending on when you get there and how busy it is (and how many sandwiches are in the display case), you may end up with a shrink-wrapped prefab. I didn't have that and if possible I recommend you give yourself a bit of extra time and ask for a freshly made one. Fresh always tastes better.
At Karmavore, it's "sandwich of the day", so offerings may vary. When I dragged my friend to it on Thursday morning, there were two choices: egg salad and smoked tomato, in either regular white or whole wheat croissants.

The croissants are shipped in as frozen dough croissants which are then allowed to proof (roughly, left out to rise) to about double size before being baked in-store. Not exactly made in-store, but baked in-store means you're liable to get a reasonably fresh croissant as the foundation of your sandwich. Our two sandwiches had beautifully baked croissants. Not as buttery and oily as a "real croissant" (and being vegan, butter is a no-no) but presentation and crunchiness was very nice.

The egg salad sandwich was, of course, not made of real eggs, but a type of tofu. I'd had bad experiences with "tofu scrambles" and the like before, so I balked at ordering it but went ahead in the end. The tofu base is mixed with mustard and veganaise (a vegan mayonnaise substitute). There was a generous amount of it in our croissants, about a centimeter thick in some places. The mustard and veganaise wasn't overpowering, and I think hid any of the usual bitterness from tofu nicely. It sat on a bed of alfalfa sprouts.
Reasonably fresh croissant plus tasty filling = very good sandwich.

The "smoked tomato" sandwich uses Field Roast Smoked Tomato Deli Slices -- basically it's a phoney salami sandwich, with a fair amount of reddish fake meat in it. The Smoked Tomato flavour slices are apparently not available locally and has to be brought in from the US by Karmavore staff who get it from a factory outlet. The texture and firmness is like meat, but the taste is not exactly meaty here: The predominant flavour is the smoked tomato part, so you can't really expect to compare it with meat. Still, beats tofurky style slightly bitter tofu meat by a long shot.
This sandwich was alfalfa sprouts, overlapping slices of fake meat, and some kind of melted milk-white vegan cheese which I doubt was Daiya mozza, since that has a certain smell to it after experiences of it on vegan pizza at the WallFlower. Possibly Chao Cheese from Field Roast -- worth looking into if you're vegan and desperate for cheese.

Again, here was a delicious sandwich freshly made on a reasonably fresh croissant. Presentation was good and assembly was excellent on both -- nothing falling out on each bite except loose alfalfa and a bit of crust from the sandwiches. Even the egg salad sandwich was devoured cleanly with no salad mess.

For a beverage I was determined to look for something strange, and as luck would have it, there was just one bottle of kombucha left -- GT's Synergy kombucha, GingerBerry flavour (blueberry juice and ginger juice). Kombucha is a fermented tea with the fermenting bacteria part still in it and apparently alive. DON'T SHAKE IT. If you do, let the bacteria culture ("mother") settle first.
Sounds yucky, and flavored or not, it smells like something's rotting in there, but kombucha is apparently good for you.

This particular flavour had enough berry and ginger to drown out anything that might taste gross about it -- it definitely drowned out anything that I might have identified as "tea", leaving a pleasant berry and ginger mix that wasn't too sweet or overly gingery. If you smell it, though, you can make out the fermentation, which is not unlike the smell of yeast.

Kombucha was $3.85. Croissant sandwiches were $5.99 each, which might seem a bit steep, but considering you get generous filling in a regular-sized croissant, plus made fresh for you, it's not bad. If you got a slightly refrigerated shrink-wrapped croissant sandwich, then it might be a bit sad and who knows what that might taste like.
Trust me -- get it freshly made.

Baked Goods from Blenz

Blenz Coffee on Urbanspoon
I dashed over to Blenz in New Westminster (at 6th and 6th) first thing in the morning to catch up with a dear friend at 9am. As I had treated her a few times in the past, she firmly put her foot down this time and insisted she have the bill. I capitulated and accepted a small seasonal GingerBread Latte. That still wasn't good enough for her, so she insisted on getting me some breakfast as well: A croissant drizzled with chocolate, and what appeared to be a blueberry bran muffin (should've paid more attention instead of watching them make my latte...).

I'm not normally into buying breakfast or deli items from coffee stores. A lot of stuff is typically prefab shipped-in goods (unless you get a hot panini, in which case places like StarBucks or Caffè Artigiano will prep it for you and it'll be hot and fresh) -- This means right off the bat I'm setting the bar low at it being at most mediocre quality and will feel lucky if it isn't too dry from sitting out all day. This time, however, the choice was made for me. And as we were in at 9am, it wasn't actually too much to hope for passably fresh fare.
Anyway, long story short, I'm starting off biased against cold breakfast items at a chain coffee store.

The blueberry muffin: Maybe it was this morning's shipment of muffins, but it was really decent. Moist on the inside, and quite generously dotted with blueberries. Something I completely forgot to do was check whether they were in fact real blueberries.

The croissant had plusses and minuses.
First, when I say "drizzled with chocolate", don't get too excited. We're talking about thin lines of chocolate zig-zagged over the croissant top, and not thick stripes slathered over it to form a coat of chocolate. And there was only token chocolate on the inside of the croissant: It appears that a thin strip of chocolate was rolled inside the croissant to bake -- If you bite the croissant at the wrong angle, you got no chocolate.

Purists might be a bit upset at it being called a croissant as it wasn't puff pastry material. Various drawbacks of using a "real croissant" would include the buttery oiliness, its overall fragility (lending to easily being crushed out of shape during transportation, plus the crust flaking off extensively), and its tendency to quickly dry out and harden.
The chocolate croissant I got from Blenz was more like bread. Quite firm on the outside without having to be baked to a dark crust, and porous on the inside without being too spongy. If it had been any other shape than croissant shape, I would have appreciated it more on its merit as bread. In short, it's a convenient recipe that retains shape.
The smooth crust didn't grab the drizzled chocolate well, however, and you are likely to find that each bite will cause some of the precious little chocolate to flake off.

Benefits of bread-like croissants aside, I would recommend that if you are focussing on the chocolate more than the croissant, to give this a miss. Just not enough chocolate to justify any extra cost for chocolate. If a bit of extra taste to your bread is what you are looking for, then I guess it's alright. You can also try dipping it in your coffee.

The Gingerbread Latte was quite tasty but cooled very quickly, strangely enough. When my friend ordered her drink she asked for confirmation that it would be "extra hot". I should remember to try that next time. They probably quit doing that automatically since the lawsuit against McDonald's hot coffee.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Strange find at the Urban Gypsy

I had Thursday off, and finally went to scout out Karmavore in New Westminster. Right next to it, at 614 Columbia Street, was the Urban Gypsy, a store with a strong Tibetan feel to the furniture and decor presently offered. If you go now, you'll probably see deep discounts on their imports, which can be from Indonesia as well as mainland Asia, all around India. The owner, Jason, personally goes overseas to shop and fill a container with acquisitions.

Something he didn't pick up overseas, however, was a pillory. Not a medieval antique, but a new-ish contraption that looks like it might have been made for a magician's stage show, complete with red trim and oversized cross-shaped handles (with an eagle motif) for tightening around the neck and wrists once the hapless assistant is inside the stocks.

This odd and decidedly non-Asian looking item is on consignment from a realtor contact who found it abandoned in a storage locker. This, plus a reproduction battle axe, and a sword that may or may not be an antique -- Jason is getting it appraised.

Go have a look -- it's downstairs, tucked away at one end of the store.
Right now there's a 25% sale on furniture, and some of the smaller ornaments -- which, interestingly, includes a lot of lizard-on-a-branch carvings -- are on sale as well.

The Urban Gypsy also does rentals to movies (10%-30% per week) and has loaned items for home staging as well.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Carbon Neutral Dining?

Chambar on Urbanspoon
Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company (Main St) on Urbanspoon

I got an e-mail from Chambar recently with various holiday-season related announcements such as gift boxes and catering. (You can check out the latest Chambar news here).

One of the items they mentioned was that Chambar had attained Carbon Neutral certification, making them the second restaurant in Vancouver to do so. If Google is right, then the other restaurant would be Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company, though probably certified through a different company.

In a nutshell, Carbon Neutrality is about having a net carbon output of zero, through a combination of reducing carbon output and offsetting it elsewhere. The whole thing was in vogue a few years back with companies talking about it and other companies selling carbon offsets -- such as Treebanking LLC, which had aimed to reclaim and reforest rainforests while selling carbon offsets and helping local economies with work and wood products to sell.

Nowadays, not so much on radar anymore, sadly.

Can't find cake at Giovane

Giovane on Urbanspoon
Well, it's not exactly true that I couldn't find *any* cake at Giovane. But the offerings had so much cream and chocolate. Many pieces were basically just layers of different types of chocolate cream.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Late Sunday afternoon I went out with some foodies and food bloggers to Giovane café and winebar (1038 Canada Place), which was basically at the end of the 8th Annual Rogers Santa Claus Parade. Because of the parade, there was a lot of spillover traffic for Giovane and many patrons looked wistfully at the tables and chairs set aside for us in the packed restaurant.

I think at some point or other, all of the attendees at our table had been there before, but just not so focussed on desserts and as a gathering of bloggers. Still, it seemed no one had heard of Sugar Buns at Giovane ($4 - a Giovane signature – sugared sweet bun filled with vanilla pastry cream) and that was one of the things our organizer, Jenny, had set up for us to try. The cafe supervisor, Mark, had set aside a dozen of the huge buns (about the size of a Kaiser, but more rounded) for us, in case we all wanted one.
Initial reception was cold with our group. I think basically no one knew what they were about and were hesitant to order one. To end the waffling, I bought one and had it cut up into four to share.

The Sugar Bun is very light and heavily dusted with sugar on the outside. It is mostly hollow on the inside, with just a thin crust to hold the very light white cream inside -- kudos to the Giovane staff who expertly cut it into four without squashing it or otherwise mashing it up.
First thing I tried was the cream, and for me it was light (good) but strangely bland (bad). Did I get a fluke bad bun? Did it sit out too long waiting for our group to show up? I dunno. A second bun was ordered to share a little later as some of our group of 12 didn't get to try my bun. When we left the café, half that bun was still sitting on the table.
Maybe the attraction of the Sugar Bun is that it could be fun to eat. It's a light snack, and you get to squish the cream out? I dunno. But for $4, it just seemed a bit steep.
Or maybe we just didn't understand what it was about. I spoke briefly with the supervisor just before we left and he said he'd sold the rest of the (~10) Sugar Buns already.

In addition to the bun, as a group we also tried one of their seasonal-only log cakes. There are two service counters at Giovane -- One near the street entrance, and another deeper in to the right, where the display case has savories on the left (pizzas, sandwiches, buns) and what appear to be small cakes and whole cakes on the right. Cakes are $30 for the very smallest ones (like the log cakes) but typically $34 to $39. And some of them are daunting in size, like the tall dome-shaped Peanut Butter Hedgehoge (some beautiful pictures can be seen at the bottom of their page, here).
There are smaller versions of various cakes, but even those are a fairly large portion, about the size of a mug of Tim Hortons coffee.

You have to look carefully and ask if you want actual cake, because many of the offerings, like the Peanut Butter Hedgehog (whole cake or mini version), or the seasonal log cakes, are basically all chocolate.
Yup -- ALL chocolate. Different types of chocolatey cream assembled into a cake shape. But no actual cake. You're getting a straight shot of chocolate with varying hardness and flavour. Imagine eating a full mug of chocolate. If you're going to get tired halfway through, it's best to grab a buddy or two before you go. Honestly, the portion you get plus the chocolate fatigue you may be hit with means each cake or slice is probably good enough for two persons. I saw so many plates with leftover chocolate cake that started out delicious, but basically exhausted the eater.

The hazelnut log cake ($30), unlike a "proper" log cake, had no cake in it. There was an outer shell (bark?) of deep brown chocolate, and a khaki coloured core of lighter chocolatey cream mixed with chopped up hazelnuts. The whole thing sat on a thing base of what seemed like sugar and chopped up hazelnut. Decorations on the outside were quite beautiful, including two macarons and a round, thin, plate of chocolate with festive wording and decoration. There was also a milk chocolate reindeer!

Another interesting offering was a cake with layers of some cake (yes, some actual cake this time), cream, and hard cherry jelly. On top was a red dust, cherries in syrup, and just a little bit of gold leaf. The overall taste was, surprisingly, dead-on as Black Forest Cake despite the rectangle of cake looking nothing like a traditional Black Forest Cake or the typical versions you get in supermarkets.

The Peanut Butter Hedgehog was also very nice. Basically like a soft Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (and a heck of a lot of it), even with the personal-sized mini cake version.

There are non-chocolate offerings as well, but not as many, such as a strawberry cake with lemon cream on the inside and a rubbery cream over on the outside. I'm not a fan of sugary rubbery cream coats, so this one really didn't agree with me too well, though the fruity taste and lemony core was a nice contrast against all the chocolate at the table.

I got my usual peppermint tea (Chamomille-Peppermint blend) -- $3, and a large bag of it in a very large cup, good for one or two refills (but there was, sadly, no busser to bring hot water). Not available in a pot, alas. I think we could have done much better with forcing down the chocolate slices with tea instead of the coffees or hot chocolates many people bought.

2011-Dec-7 UPDATE: There are some gorgeous pictures of the Sugar Bun, Log Cake, and Black Forest Cake at Caroline L's beautiful blog, Food Persuasion.

2011-Dec-13 UPDATE: More belated pictures, this time at Eat With Jenny.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Leonidas Grand Opening at the Vancouver Convention Centre

Leonidas on Urbanspoon
UPDATE Dec-5th-2011: Apparently the Grand Opening was extended to Sunday. The Convention Centre is a nice walking route, plus the possibility of free coffee makes it worthwhile to drop by all through December to see if they are extending their Grand Opening specials.

Just back from the Leonidas -- "Fine Belgian Chocolates" -- grand opening at Vancouver Convention Centre! (#29-1055 Canada Place -- squished between Bellagio Cafe, the big Italian restaurant with a lot of blue patio umbrellas; and Subway). Here's the blurb from their mini in-store flyer:

1,400 outlets in 53 countries, LEONIDAS fresh Belgian Chocolate is FINALLY in VANCOUVER. Flown in Fresh from Belgium, and using only the finest ingredients the world has to offer: 100% cocoa butter, natural ingredients like fresh butter & fresh cream; and delicacies such as hazelnuts from Turkey, Morello cherries from the Périgord, almonds from Italy and walnuts from Grenoble.

Fresh Belgian chocolate that has been enjoyed by gourmands and gourmets since 1913
100% quality, 100% cocoa butter, 100% fresh, 100% taste, 100% Leonidas

The tiny tiny store was open quite early, but there wasn't really a buzz there till after Noon. If you've seen the ads in the WestEnder, the promised promotions are definitely on:
  • $0 self-serve Lavazza coffee set up on a table outside the store
  • $1/piece Leonidas Chocolate from the in-store selection at the counter, packaged into classy gold-coloured 2-piece and 6-piece boxes free of charge
  • $2 Signature Hot Chocolate
  • $3 Liège waffles (a type of Belgian waffle)
The tiny store makes for a cramped experience on grand opening day (plus you have to share space with a DJ who, thankfully, didn't blast the music too loudly), but they do try to have in-store seating both just to the left and farther into the store.
The owners were behind the counter helping the new hires, and overall they tried their best to be polite but I think were a bit overwhelmed.

Best part I'd have to say was the coffee. I had the coffee straight with no milk or sugar, and it was entirely drinkable. Not too strong or bitter. Since coffee has a broad range of bitterness and flavour, your mileage may vary.

Lots of chocolate in the counter, all about average size. Seems pricey at $1/piece, but on this Grand Opening, it's actually a steal. Other specialty chocolate places (like Rogers or Godiva) can be more than a buck a piece even at "bulk"/box quantities. It remains to be seen what the regular price will settle on at Leonidas but if the prices on the US website are any indication, one can expect it to be on par and not worth too much time comparison shopping. (At the time I wrote this review, the Leonidas Vancouver website wasn't functional for "Shop Online").
Selection-wise, nothing really jumped out at me. You could probably get something similar at Rogers or Godiva, especially if you're not anal about looking specifically for something labelled "Belgian Chocolate".

The hot chocolate (which always give me gas, probably because of the milk, so I'm wary of buying it too often) wasn't anything to write home about, alas. Maybe you will be able to taste the difference and discern a notch up in quality, but all I can really say is that it wasn't thin, which may be the case at certain places. If you're looking for stronger chocolate flavour, you can try Mink somewhat nearby, where you can even get drinking chocolate -- basically a shot of hot, thick, melted, chocolate that can give you a sugar rush or even very mild nausea if you're not prepared.

The waffles were a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, they were nice waffles. Thick and crispy even after sitting under chocolate sauce for a long time. There's a small toaster oven in the back that appears to be used to ensure a toasty crispy shell on the waffles before they are served -- hence the wait time.
After that, it appears that you can drench it in as much chocolate as you like. There was apparently an earlier promotion at Leonidas at the start of November, and the waffles were just $1, had nuts, and just a lattice of chocolate striped onto them. Today I saw plates with waffles swimming in tasty chocolate sauce.

You may have seen thick waffles coated in chocolate for sale in bags. This is NOT the same experience. I've never understood why people did that -- take a hot, fresh, fragrant, tasty waffle fresh from the wafflemaker and immediately kill all those good qualities by dunking it in chocolate, allowing it to be soaked through and made chewy.
It worth a try at Leonidas, even at $3. But don't let it sit too long. It'll still be crispy, but a cold waffle loses its peak tastiness quickly.

Other things tried were a pastry and a very dark brown, almost black, brownie (which, strangely, was rung in the till as a "biscotti").

The pastry, which had some sort of cream at the bottom and was sprinkled with raisins was sub-par. It had been sitting on the counter too long, even protected under a glass dome. It was cold and tough. This, sadly, is quite the norm with any bakery that has to prep food and wait for it to sell. Just be careful, especially on a promo day like this when everyone's ordering the specials and regular items sit neglected far too long. Quality on pastries go down very quickly with time, I find, especially once they get cold.

The brownie was quite good -- very soft and moist even though it had sat in the refrigerated display long enough to leave a bit of a footprint when it was pulled out and put on a plate. Flavour-wise not chocolatey enough for me, so I take points off for that, but presentation and texture were very good.

There were also beautiful cupcakes with generous and beautifully decorated cream on top. Mostly a dark, rich, chocolate colour on the cupcakes, and I imagined they were really good, but in the end I gave it a pass. They were sitting on the countertop EXPOSED for god knows how long. With that many people passing so close by on a busy day in a small store, I think they should have at least tried to put it inside the counter or maybe slapped a glass dome over them.

Other things to look out for are small decorated tins of flavoured hard candy (lower shelves on the left side, just as you enter) and ice cream (!) -- end of the counter inside the store.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Alligator Nuggets at Jethro's Fine Grub

Jethro's Fine Grub on Urbanspoon
Just back from the cash-only-please Jethro's Fine Grub this morning, where we timed our breakfast drop-in almost-just-right with my foodie friend. We had thought to skip the breakfast rush and go around 9 am to 9:30 am. The restaurant had lots of empty tables around 9am, and there was no wait when we walked in 9:30 am. By 10-ish, however, the small restaurant was packed and a line-up had formed. The brunch crowd, I supposed -- and on a Friday morning!

You may know Jethro's for their enormous pancakes -- they are big enough to literally cover an entire dinner plate. For sheer quantity for your breakfast dollar, plus reasonable to good quality, this makes Jethro's Fine Grub a good place to go.
I was amused but not curious enough to order a huge bite of what I've had before, so I looked a bit harder.

My friend ordered the Crab Cake Benedict ($11 - house made crab cakes with poached eggs and hollandaise; served with hasbrowns [sic] and toast). I had my eye on the South of Denver omelette (smokey pulled pork, sauteed onions, peppers, smoked gouda and jalapenos; served with hashbrowns and toast) but took a chance and asked for the Alligator Nuggets ($10 - battered and flash fried 'gator over basmati rice; with blonde barbeque sauce and a tossed salad) which was on the website but didn't appear on the breakfast menu. Turns out it's a lunch item, but our lovely server Tiffany said I could order them anyway.

We also each had a tea. For $2 you get one bag of President's Choice tea steeped in a stainless steel pot.

Since hash browns can actually be many things, it's worth noting that Jethro's makes them as chunks of potato instead of a finer cut. Looks like roasted potatoes, except pan fried.

The Crab Cake Benedict plate was 1/3 potato, 1/3 two slices of toast with jam on the side, and 1/3rd two flattish crab cakes hidden under sauce and two poached eggs. Compared to other crab cakes I've had elsewhere, it's much softer and flatter. No chance of a crunchy bite here after being drowned in Hollandaise sauce. The sauce was strangely bland and actually turned my dining companion off the crab cakes, of which she basically only had a half of one.
I thought the crab cake was okay myself -- but didn't much care for the sauce either. I only had a portion of a crab cake to investigate, so I couldn't quite determine how much was crab and how much was filler. Whatever crab meat was used was mashed up so much you can't see any chunks.

My Alligator Nuggets were a profound disappointment. There was seemingly a lot of big, randomly shaped, nuggets (and I concede the herbed batter was savory and tasty) but I didn't order alligator nuggets to eat tasty batter. I tried to peel off the batter to have a look at the meat and try to taste it on its own, but I couldn't really separate the two. Honestly, it looked like mostly batter, or the batter was mixed with the gator meat. Either way, you won't get a taste of what alligator meat tastes like. You'll be hard pressed to find any chunk of it, in fact.
The situation reminds me of popcorn chicken -- you're sometimes (often?) hard-pressed to isolate any actual piece of chicken.
If you're thinking of ordering Alligator Nuggets to try novelty meat, give it a pass -- Trust me. But if that's not your goal, then what's in the bowl is actually pretty tasty.

The blonde barbeque sauce was sweet and tasted somewhat like Thousand Island Dressing, but not so sour. Nice with the batter.

The bill came out to $31 after tax and tip. CASH ONLY. It's a busy restaurant, but probably their way of running a tighter biz is to avoid paying credit card companies. There's a sign on the door, but it's easily missed -- my friend definitely did and had her MasterCard declined.

Overall, you get pretty good portions on the meals, if you're looking for pounds per dollar, especially for breakfasts that could probably last you through lunch. But that's somewhat taken back by the markup on the drinks -- which is pretty much the same everywhere ever since Starbucks trained us all to buy $5 coffees.

Get Water with your Fraser Valley Juice & Salad

Fraser Valley Juice and Salad on Urbanspoon
After a salty late lunch at the St. Regis yesterday afternoon, I found myself thirsty again not too long after. Maybe my body needed to get rid of all that sodium. Anyway, by around 5.30pm I was at Granville Island catching up with an old friend, and we decided to get some juice. Off hand, Fraser Valley Juice and Salad was the only place she could come up with for juice.

There's no fancy superfoods or other fads like matcha here to mix in with your juice. Mostly it's fruits and some veggies.

Right off the bat, something that I took points off for was that the juice wasn't made fresh when ordered. They were pre-mixed and just poured out into small plastic cups. A 12 oz cup (about the size of a tall drink at Starbucks) was $5.90. The two juices we ordered, plus tax, came out to a whopping $13.22!

My friend got the Tropical Fruit (Kiwi, Orange, Pineapple, Strawberry) mix, which was a pretty standard tasting sweet fruit mix. I went for the Ginger Mint Orange, which was, to me, more interesting.
The Mint component didn't stand out for me, but the ginger (which is apparently good for you) was strong enough to leave a brief burn in your throat after it goes down. And the orange was very sweet, enough that you'd probably want water to wash away the sweetness plus ginger burn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Salty Reuben at the St. Regis Bar and Grill

St. Regis Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon
I dropped by for a late lunch at the St. Regis Bar and Grill this afternoon, around 2pm. I ordered the Regis Reuben - $13 - Locally sourced "J. Beethoven's" New York style corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and 1000 Islands dressing served on toasted marble rye with dill pickle spears.

It comes with choice of soup, salad, or fries. I went with the soup, which is selected from whatever "soup of the day" is on that day. Today I skipped the spinach something or other soup and went for what I hoped was a lighter "spicy beef pepper pot". The soup turned out to be a waste of time. Tasteless meat in boring spicy broth that was on the salty side.
On the plus side, however, you got a lot of meat in the soup, enough to make it look more like a stew. The soup alone could have counted as half a lunch. Add the two halves of the sandwich and you have lunch and a half. By 6pm I was still feeling slightly stuffed, truth be told.
You're paying over $10 per entree, but any of the burgers will probably see you overfed and ready for an afternoon nap, especially if you drowned it down with the soup or ordered the fries. And definitely so if you further compounded this by ordering, say, a tall, cold, beer.
I ended my lunch with a peppermint tea (For 2.75 you get a weak Lipton tea), but I also had about an hour to kill in the slower 2pm-4pm after-lunch before-dinner dead time at the pub, during which I paged through the WestEnder and the Georgia Straight.

Anyway, on to the Reuben!
If you're used to corned beef being the mashed-up canned stuff, or what is actually corned beef hash, then you're in for a surprise with the Regis Reugen. Corned beef basically looks like very thin cuts of cured beef (thin cuts if they've "shaved" it right), as that helps tackle the toughness of the meat. There are various styles of preparing corned beef, and New York Style Corned Beef is just one. There's a nice article here that explains corned beef versus smoked beef, and talks about the J. Beethoven's New York Style Corned Beef mentioned in the menu.

As for the Regis Reuben, it's not far off from your basic Reuben sandwich. The minuses here are that there isn't as much meat and the meat wasn't sliced as thinly as I thought it could have to offset the generally tougher meat from which corned beef is made. The sauerkraut was concentrated in the middle and not held so well with the cheese, so that on one half of the sandwich it came spilling out and there was a bit of a mess. The sauerkraut was the dominant flavour and masked the cheese and dressing. The marbled rye was a nice touch visually, however, and I give a point for that.
The "dill pickle spears" was just one half of a long dill pickle this time. Considering the already salty sandwich, it was overkill and not necessary. What I really could have used was water (which wasn't automatically brought to my table nor anywhere throughout the meal), although with the soup, that would have really bloated me right up.

Overall, I think the salty Reuben is on the side of "acquired taste" even though it's not particularly exotic. Be careful with ordering this one, as you could end up with a lot of sandwich you don't want. If you are a fan of Reubens, this one doesn't have American portions of meat and therefore the proportion of sauerkraut to meat is higher -- and the relentless saltiness can turn you off. Ask for water even if you're getting soup.

Something that worsened my experience of the Reuben was the soup I had chosen. The soup was also quite salty, which made the entire meal salty salty salty. Urgh. Since I chose the soup from the two choices, I can't blame the St. Regis for this unfortunate combo.

Bill (Reuben plus tea), with tax and tip came to $20.

Service is casual and adequate. A nice touch is that at least one staff person will make sure they catch you as you're leaving to give you some sort of friendly farewell.
Music is quite loud in the pub, so sit further from the bar if you're looking for a place to chat with friends.