Saturday, January 28, 2012

It's pricey to go vegan

Follow Your Heart - Vegan Gourmet Cheese Alternative - Nacho
Every once in a while, my mom reminisces about her childhood days growing on the farm and how they used to have pigs. And invariably she ends up talking about how cruel it is to eat those poor pigs. Closet vegan? She still buys ham and bacon and she talks about how pricey all that phoney meat stuff is.

And going vegan can actually be pricey. Like "Nacho Cheese", the "vegan gourmet cheese alternative" from Follow Your Heart. It retails at Karmavore in New Westminster for $5.89 for a 284g pack ($2.07 per 100g). Compare with, say, a Black Diamond Cheese Bar ($7.97 per 700 grams at Superstore, or $10.47 regular price; sometimes as low as $4.97 at No Frills).

Still, I wanted to let my mom try it. In case she really did want to act on her don't-eat-the-poor-pigs mindset.

This soy "cheese" from Follow Your Heart is wet like tofu but firmer. It's orange, so you might expect a strong cheddar flavour, but the taste reminds me more of nachos than cheese per se. I'm not sure if that's cheating or not. But another way to look at it is whether you miss cheese or if you're too busy enjoying the taste.
The taste is not bad, if you like loaded nachos.

It also melts. Wetter than cheese and without the same stringy cheese stickiness, but at least it melts, so you can retain that experience of cheese.

Overall, however, I'd have to say if you're not vegan, you're overpaying. If you are vegan, however, and still in the early stages where you crave all the goodies you missed, then this isn't bad.

Gardein - the Ultimate Beefless Burger
I also got a bag of 4 Gardein Beef Burgers. After trying the burgers from Loving Hut Express which uses this brand, I thought I'd give it a go. I settled on the Ultimate Beefless Burger (sometimes available from Karmavore for $5.29, but more often than likely sold out), in part because our family has been off red meat since forever.

The taste was almost eerily beef-like! Although there was a soy after-taste to it. Firmness and texture were also pretty good if you were comparing it to meat; although it was a beef patty, it clearly didn't look like ground beef.

Do NOT throw this onto a griddle or into a frying pan. It comes with a coat of sauce that will melt off and caramelize like melted sugar. Without this, your burger won't taste good.

At $5.29, however, it works out to $1.32 per patty -- each patty approximately 85g, or less than a quarter pound (which would be 113.398g). Compare with a slab of top sirloin grilling steak at $11.00 per kilogram (or a mere $1.10 per 100 grams) at Save-on-Foods this week.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Superb Food and Service at Bishop's

Bishop's on Urbanspoon
Bishop's seems to have fallen off the foodie radar, but it is still an excellent little restaurant. Superb food, superb service.

It's been a long time since I went to Bishop's. My dining buddy and I talked about it since October, and finally set a date in early January. Bishop's did a quick January renovation, and our date got pushed back to January 25th -- And for this inconvenience, they surprised us with two glasses of champagne! Wow!

If you haven't been by in a while, it's repainted but still retains the Native American artwork theme which to me feels a bit out of place compared to the structure and colour of the room. It is all on loan from a gallery and every piece is for sale, although that fact is not crassly advertised with price tags. One of the waiters had a native american artwork themed tie, but the hostess informed us it was merely a happy coincidence and a gift from his wife.

Bishop's is a very different dining experience from any other restaurant, except maybe the William Tell (closed over a year now). It's unhurried service that allows for dining out to be a social outing -- that sometimes diners are meeting friends and want to chat a bit before, during, or after their meal. In fact, if you're used to a faster pace, you might think your server had abandoned you.

That said, it's a small room with a small staff. One hostess, one bartender who also tops up your water, and two waiters. At some point or other, everyone served our table, so everyone is working the entire room. When it gets a bit busier, their unhurried service also means more time in between. Be prepared to take your time there. If you're in a hurry, you might have to flag one down.
At 6.30pm on a rainy Wednesday, it was pretty quiet, but around 8pm there was quite a loud buzz from a full restaurant.

No dessert menu up front (why don't restaurants do that?) so we asked for it. I'm big of dessert and if I'm to share two, I'd like to know ahead of time...

We weren't nudged about the menu, and instead approached when it looked like we had come to some sort of decision (or, in our came an impasse). In the meantime, out came the amuse-bouche: A tiny beet jelly topped with just a little house salad.

A small plate of bread was next, with a large square of softened plain butter. One of the two types of bread was several slices of grey currant-caraway bread. It looked dense, but was quite light and very soft. Very nice aroma and flavour, nothing overpowering -- definitely not overdone with the caraway.
The other bread was a few small rounds of parmesan gougère. There was just a delicate amount of parmesan so that you knew it was there, but not strongly. If you've never seen a gougère before, it's like a small, empty, cream puff but a tiny bit firmer and chewier.

Not on the menu but available were Kusshi oysters. My dining buddy was sold immediately. She loved oysters, apparently. Myself, I'd only had them very rarely and admitted I wouldn't be able to properly appreciate it.

Other than the oysters, we aimed for more dessert so skipped any other appy. For the entrée, I had prior to going to the restaurant decided on the sablefish ($39; brandade cake, spinach, truffled sabayon). My dining buddy was torn between the spring salmon ($35; herb parsnip latkes, fennel, vermouth cream) and the Fraser Valley beef tenderloin ($37; pomme puree, mushroom ragout, red wine jus) and the waiter was no help at all, throwing up his hands and insisting the kitchen did everything wonderfully. Finally, she settled on the tenderloin, medium-rare.

The half dozen Kusshi oysters came on a plate with six divisions and sitting on ice. Two wedges of lemon were in binder clip style lemon squeezers. These had the unfortunate tendency to cause the lemon wedge to be pushed out toward the handles, but if you look closely, the metal edge is folded, so if you squash the lemon wedge so that it fits inside that edge, it'll be held in place.
Three toppings were presented for the oysters: Picked sea asparagus, pickled horseradish (shaved, not soft shreds that have been soaked forever), and a purplish vinaigrette.

I tried two oysters. I have nothing to compare it with. My dining buddy insists they were fabulous. I'll have to go with her word on that. At 22.50 for the half-dozen, I hope she really enjoyed it.

On to the mains! They came on plates that were nicely on the hot side of warm.

The tenderloin was medium-rare and sliced in half so you could see how red it was on the inside. I thought it was all right, but probably I didn't have enough jus for the full experience. My dining buddy insists that it was wonderful, especially as she really wasn't a beef sort of person normally. She loooved the jus so much she sopped up some with the last little gougère.

If there was one thing that bothered me in the entire meal it would have to be the "pomme puree" that came with the beef tenderloin. Ever since Griffins, I've been watchful about badly done mashed potatoes. There was a slight gummy feel to it, which my dining companion attributed to it having sat on the plate a bit long.

My sablefish was startlingly good. It was so tender it flaked apart very easily and I was actually a bit worried it was overdone. But no, it was definitely not. The fillet was tender and surprisingly moist and flavourful. My companion described the sensation as "velvety". She was definitely awed. It was, however, only a small fillet, definitely small enough to make you want for more.
But the plate didn't leave you hungry because of the slab of brandade cake. Which tasted awfully like just a cake of mashed potato to me, but it's supposed to involve salt cod and olive oil. Anyway, it was the size of a large burger patty, so the entire entree made for a comfortably sized meal.

Next up, dessert. We went with the almond brown butter cake ($14; white chocolate ganache and apricot sorbet) to start. What came to the table was a frightfully small slice of cake, almost smaller than the scoop of sorbet. The white chocolate ganache was a wide stripe smeared on the plate, easy to miss amid the orange sauce.
Small portion, but an explosion of flavour. Even in small pieces, the fragrant cake had a strong almond aroma. The apricot sorbet had a very intense flavour, and it was difficult to imagine the actual fruit being much tastier. It was also very smooth and creamy. Most sorbets I've had have had a very slightly icy grainy feel. Not here.

After a brief discussion, we decided to try another dessert. Nothing else really sounded particularly interesting except the bittersweet chocolate bar ($14; with strawberry pâte de fruits and coulis). "Chocolate bar" sounds like a hard slab you get after tearing off the wrapper. Here it was more like a chocolate truffle. It was about four inches long and a square inch in cross section. The base was chopped nuts and there was topping of airy chocolate cream.
If you tried the chocolate bar separately, it was bitter. If you tried the cream separately, it was surprisingly bland. But if you had the two together, it was excellent. Want it more bitter? Add less cream.

The squares of pâte de fruits (about 1/4" thick and 3/4" sides) were firm but not chewy, and much more flavourful than anything store-bought. They were a bit on the sweet side if you had them straight, but a half or quarter square paired with a bite of chocolate was very nice. I also found it nice on its own after the chocolate for a fruitier finish and after-taste to the dessert.

Including one glass of merlot ($12), the bill came to $155.12 after tax and before tip.

In most restaurants, you're lucky if your server catches your eye to thank you and wave goodbye. At Bishop's, the hostess inquired whether either of us needed a taxi. She also brought my companion's jacket to the stand by the door in preparation for our departure, and waited very patiently while she got ready so that she could open the door for us and bid us good night.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Delicious Shakshouka brunch at Zaatar

Zaatar Mediterranean Hummus Bar on Urbanspoon
EDIT: Jan-24th -- Price correction to $8.90 after tax.

I was on the Food Bloggers Food Cart Crawl when we walked by Zaatar Mediterranean Hummus Bar on Davie. The restaurant name has hummus all over it, but what caught my eye was the picture of Shakshouka on their street sign. It looked YUM and I knew I had to try it. It tasted... totally not what I expected.

The restaurant has been open for about 7 months. The owner is Israeli, but it's not a "family restaurant" per se. On this Saturday morning, the cashier was Ukrainian and the chef was French. Not the best start if you're looking for authenticity, but hey, as long as the chef can serve out delicious food, I won't complain.
The website is, sadly, rubbish. Zaatar even points to Urbanspoon for their menu (Huh?).

You may wonder why I went to a hummus bar but didn't order any hummus. I'm wondering that myself.

Anyway, if you don't know what it is, shakshouka is "a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, often spiced with cumin". Like ratatouille, it looks like a dish made of thrown-together leftovers from mass cooking. ("Leftover onion? Yup, throw it in!"). Conceptually it looks pretty easy.

At Zaatar, you get it in a metal dish about 6" in diameter and 1" deep. It comes with a small side of sour cream with some spice Labaneh yogurt cheese dip with zaatar and sumac spice on top, and two thick pitas. One fork, no spoon. No water or napkin either at this pay-at-the-counter place. The cashier is friendly enough, but this isn't a "restaurant" where you are waited on per se and where you pay tips.

The shakshouka looks quite soupy, but there's a good amount of onion in there to give it a stew-like consistency. That, and if you mush up the two eggs on top, you get a nice thickness to it.
I can't say I knew what to do with the sour cream. If you put it in the stew, it just disappeared. The stew itself had just enough spice for a kick, but nothing that is really "spicy" hot per se. And they didn't ask me just how spicy I wanted it. You might want to do that up front if you really need that burning-tongue sensation to be happy.

From the dark reddish tomato look of it, one might expect something on the sour side, like spaghetti sauce. But surprise surprise, it is actually _sweet_.

Two pitas (and no spoon!) doesn't look like enough, but it really is. Treat the dish like a stew and save about a half-pita to wipe the pan of every last bit of deliciousness.

At $8.90 after tax (tip not required), shakshouka is a fairly nice price for a nice breakfast or brunch, plus you can just take any remaining pita away with you.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Surviving on Survival Food - An Experiment

A few days ago, I wrote about having purchased some survival food bars for my emergency readiness backpack. I also got a pack of the 3600 calorie food bars (feeds 1 person for 3 days) to try out.

Today, I decided to eat just the survival food bars, as well as only a moderate amount of water, to see how I'd make out. Each pack divides into 9 portions, each of which is about 5 cm x 5 cm x 3cm, or approximately two-thirds the size of a standard nanaimo bar. Three portions a day is the estimated intake for one adult person.
I further divided each portion into half, and aimed to eat one half portion every three hours, starting from 10 o'clock. The check-in times would therefore be at 10, 1, 4, 7, 10, 1.
Since I work graveyards, my "day" starts at 10pm. My job is pretty sedentary, with some walking about now and again.
Of course I did not gorge beforehand, as that would be cheating.

BAR #1
10 PM: Ate 1/2 bar. Had 2 cups of water (i.e., ~ 1 mug) of water.

1 AM: Not really hungry yet. By now I have only had a 1 cup of green tea. Ate 1/4 bar. Bored of the taste and texture already.

2:12 AM: Somewhat hungry. Ate another 1/4 bar.

BAR #2
3:24 AM Starting to be hungry again, but still quite mild. Ate 1/4 bar ahead of schedule.

3:42 AM Quite hungry. Ate 1/4 bar.

4:00 AM Hunger subsiding. Ignored it. Possibly because I was busy and took my mind off it. Drank one cup of green tea.

6:30 AM Noticed hunger very mild but constant. Ignored it.

7:00 AM Ate 1/4 bar.

9:00 AM Ate 1/4 bar. Drank 1 cup coffee.

10:00 AM Not hungry. Skipped.

1:00 PM Not hungry. Skipped.

BAR #3
1:25 PM Quite hungry. Ate 1/4 bar. Drank 2 cups of water. Still have 3/4 bar left.

Overall, I was surprised at just how un-hungry I was, considering I basically ate less than a whole nanaimo bar the whole day. It might have gone even better if I had been freer with water intake, but in an emergency, there might not be that much water.

True to the advertising, the bars really are designed to not induce thirst. However, boredom was setting in around halfway. Can't they make these things in other flavours, like orange? You know, to mix it up a bit? Fortunately, since a 1/4 portion is gone in a few bites, it's not like slogging through a stack of dry biscuits.

Overall, if I were to do it differently, I'd have 1/4 bar every 90 minutes instead. I think that would have kept the hunger more in check. Also, The tail end of things saw hunger tapering off, so I might even go with a longer interval later and give myself leeway to have an extra 1/4 bar around the middle of the day.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The story of Paella and Tapas

During the dine-out with the International in Vancouver Social Meetup Group at La Bodega on Saturday, our server popped by to check on us once our group paella order had come out. She offered to tell us the story of how paella ("for the lady") came to be:

Once upon a time, a beautiful princess was in love with a farmer, but forced to wed someone else. The farmer loved her and would have given her the world, but he was poor. He was a fabulous cook, however, and created this dish for her. In it, he put "the world" -- foods from the field, the land, and the sea (vegetables, meat, shellfish) -- as well as his heart, represented by slices of bright red peppers.

In our group we also had a young Spanish lady. She wasn't able to confirm the server's story of paella, but she offered to tell us the story of how tapas came to be:

In the distant past, there were occasionally flies in restaurants. To protect glasses of wine from flies, people would put small saucers over them. Much later, when hygiene had improved and flies were no longer a problem, this tradition endured. Since it no longer had a real function and looked boring, someone came up with the bright idea of putting food on the saucers -- with the aim that food would also encourage patrons to drink more. It worked, and to this day (except in some parts of northern Spain), tapas is free as long as you buy drinks. The better the drink (not just alcohol), the better the tapas offered to you.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Forced to share at La Bodega

La Bodega on Urbanspoon
If you dine as as group at La Bodega, you're pretty much forced into the Spanish culture of communal eating and shared plates -- at least that was how it turned out Saturday night when the Internationals in Vancouver Social Meetup Group went there. Somebody dropped the ball big-time here. DON'T let it happen to you!

Our dining group was pretty big: About 30 people turned up out of about 40 RSVPs. Although 30 sounds like pretty big numbers for a restaurant with a small storefront (which you can see on Google maps), it's actually not too bad. Inside, the restaurant is actually quite spacious: There's an upper floor and fairy tight seating -- as much as 8 to one of their slightly rectangular tables, and chairs sometimes placed literally side by side with no room in between. We were one of two very large groups, and there was still seating for smaller groups of 4-6. Downstairs it looked like it was mostly a long bar.

La Bodega opened in 1971, and apparently since then things have been allowed to be old-fashioned in terms of billing. This, in turn, has led to some limitations on how things are run. The restaurant expects, and in fact cannot accommodate, an excessive number of individual bills. Definitely not 30. They expect that diners are here for a communal experience with a single bill for each table. That's apparently how the Spanish eat, and they serve Spanish food, so they expect people to eat that way. It's almost exclusively tapas for sharing, especially for larger groups. You have to specifically ask for their very small dinner menu if you want to choose entree-sized portions.
Somewhere along the way, someone didn't tell the dinner organizer about the mandatory group billing. The organizer therefore didn't relay the information to everyone, who really didn't know each other well enough to do group billing or sharing. Or maybe she didn't want to try coordinating that among 30 people spread over two tables. Besides, what if some had alcohol and some ate more than others? It would be a nightmare to get everyone billed fairly.
In the end the server agreed to do small-group billing and split our long tables into 6 groups -- although she couldn't disguise just how big a chore it was for her and the kitchen.

La Bodega also has a $20 fixed menu for large groups. It is served in three courses and includes 8 of their best-selling dishes. The menu was only for very large groups and everyone had to be in on it -- it's probably meant to help the kitchen mass-cook large portions. It's a busy place and a busy kitchen with just 8 grills.
We weren't told about that either and at that late hour (i.e., when the organizer showed up at the restaurant) it was really too late to poll for an agreement. Besides, there might have been vegetarians or pescetarians, and that wouldn't have worked out.

After those hurdles, it was on to dinner, finally!

One of my pet peeves with restaurants is the lack of staff when they know they will have a large group in. Tonight, there was basically just the one server for all 30 of us, and she may have worked half the floor in total, if not the entire floor. Later in the evening I saw two other servers bringing food from the kitchen. They may have been just bussers. Hard to say. In any case, service was intermittent. We were mostly left to ourselves, and we ended up asking for pitchers of water to serve ourselves. Which was okay, but not especially good.

The tapas menu has about 40 items and is basically $8-$12 per item. Depending on what you ordered, you might what looks like a very little portion, or a decent portion. For example, the Albondigas was about 6 small meatballs, each smaller than a ping pong ball. Lots of meat sauce and some cubes of potato thrown in, however. The Mejillones Frescos (fresh mussels in a wine peppery sauce) saw quite a few mussels and a lot of tasty broth, though the mussels were quite small.

Two plates of tapas might make a light meal if you had it all to yourself and you also one of the bread baskets to yourself. Bread was basic and cold. There was an excessive amount of butter (in those little round plastic cups with the pull-off lid) so no shortage there if you like your bread buttered. What I preferred to use the bread for, however, was to soak up the sauce/soup from the tapas, especially the spicy broth from the Mejillones Frescos and the meat sauce for the Albondigas.

Our group of five ordered four plates of tapas and two dinner portions of paella which came in a single one big pan.

  • The Albondigas (Spanish meatballs) portion looks very small in the metal dish. The meatballs were, however, very tender and tasty; and sitting in a meat sauce which would have been totally wasted without any bread to sop it up.
  • The Mejillones Frescos had fairly tasty soup with a bit of spicy bite to it, but not excessively so. Small mussels but a good number of them. The tasty broth isn't so easily shared without bread -- unless you're not averse to people double-dipping with soup spoons.
  • The Almejas Marinera (fresh clams in a savory white sauce) had a creamy tasting (but watery-looking) wine sauce and rather small clams. Again, the shellfish looked a bit on the small side.
  • The Conejo Riojana (fresh rabbit, tomato and wine sauce) was about the size of a small chicken drumstick-and-thigh. Tasted like chicken too. Quite a few small bones, so go slowly with this one. Bland tomato sauce. This was probably the worst order. Give this one a pass.
  • The two orders of Paella de la Casa (which we were told was Valencian style) added up to a rather sizable pan and what looks like a good stuff-to-rice ratio. Buried in the rice are small chicken drumsticks. Sticking out of it are mussels and pieces of chorizo. The rice was savory and on the salty side, so using the lemon wedges included may or may not help so much. Definitely the "best value" if you're looking for a filling dinner with rice.

The above, plus one beer and one glass of sangria, tax, and pre-included 15% tip, was $135. My portion -- the order of the mussels and rabbit -- somehow came out to just under $28.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Delicious Survival Food Bars

Have you ever tasted survival food bars? Now that the devastating quake in Japan has very decidedly fallen off front page news (possibly since the depressing news is that Japan is probably irradiated stem to stern), the topic of emergency preparedness is as tasty as stale bread -- But it doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared.

Previously I had written about Emergency Preparedness Kits, such as the ones from The Red Cross. Depending on where you get them, kits may come WITHOUT food or water.

The Red Cross ones come with a huge collapsible plastic container for water, but it's carried separately from the backpack, and not really that portable or convenient. Also, the plastic smell leeches into the water and makes it stale, so refreshing the water periodically is important.

You can get both food and water separately, and in surprisingly compact 3-day supply amounts. And if you are in British Columbia, Canada, offers free shipping with a $60+ order.

12 packs of Emergency Water costs $5.50. The estimate is that you will drink 2 packs a day, so 12 packs works out to 3 days for 2 persons. Each pack occupies about the same volume as a standard paperback novel, just twice the surface area and half the thickness.
  • 5 year Shelf Life
  • Withstands Temperatures of -40° C to 110° C
  • Drink 2 packets per day
  • Packets are purified, sterilized and sealed in airtight pouches to prevent bacteria growth.
  • Meets and exceed US Coast Guard Standards
  • Made in USA

There are two types of food options. The most common type is no-preparation-required no-water-required survival food bars.
  • 5 year Shelf Life
  • Non Thirst Provoking Formula
  • Withstands Temperatures of -40° C to 149° C
  • 3 - 4.5 days food supply (eat 2-3 squares per day)
  • Ready to Eat (9) 400 calories meals (3600 calories total)
  • Meets and exceed US Coast Guard Standards
  • Made in USA

The Mainstay brand comes in a vacuum sealed metallic pouch about half the size of a 500-sheet ream of printer paper. While vacuum sealed, it is a very solid block that is so hard and inflexible it might make you wonder how you're going to bite into it. But once the seal is broken, the block is easily snapped into portions, and the monotone yellow food bar is somewhat crumbly and grainy.
As food, there is enough of a lemony taste to make it pleasant but not sour. It is sweet enough to count as a dessert but not overly so. It is surprisingly moist and true to the advertising, does not make you want water after. Overall, I was expecting a sober taste experience, but it is actually tasty, like a dessert or sweet biscuit.
Typically you eat 3 squares per day, so a pouch of nine portions ($9) works out to a three day supply. There are 3600-calorie (400 per square) and 2400-calorie versions. There's nothing stopping you from eating just half a portion, though. And don't expect it to be filling or anything.

There's not that much to choose from in terms of survival bar formulation, so it's hard to really be critical about it -- beggars can't be choosers, after all. However, inside the pouch, it's a single solid block rather than individually packed portions, so once opened, you have to keep it protected. It is pre-scored so you can roughly break it off into squares and it does break off quite well, but there's no guarantee of it, and if you're rough with it, you could potentially end up with a bag of large chunks and crumbs. Even breaking it off or cutting it tends to make it snap off instead.

Another even more compact and concentrated option is a type of "space food" developed in the '60s. This is a big plastic jar of pills -- yes, pills -- that give you enough proper nutrition each day if you take about 12 of these "survival tabs" a day (20 calories per tab). Again, don't bother with that filling feeling: We're going for the bare bones of survival here.
  • Serving 12 tabs/meal (240 cal.) or per day.
  • Gluten Free
  • Nutrient Dense Food Concentrate. High in Vitamins, Vegetable Blend Base.
  • 15 day supply/bottle at 240 cal/day. 5 day supply at 720 cal/day.
  • Highly Nutritious. Packed for long term -- 10 year shelf life unopened! Up to 1 year shelf life opened.
  • Avoid temperatures 120 degrees F. & up. Store cool, dry and dark, if possible. 60 degrees F. is optimal.

As for radiation... So far we don't have nuclear power in BC, but if you're reading this in a country that does, and god forbid you end up in a Japan situation, you may want to consider apple pectin, which can reduce radiation levels. If you have to get it through eating apples, that's like 10 apples A DAY though.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Large Dessert Portions at Cosca

Cosca on Urbanspoon
I had the opportunity Tuesday night to try three of the large-portioned (but $8) desserts at Cosca. This is the third and last review post for the January Food Bloggers dine-out at this restaurant. In the previous two posts, I talked briefly about the restaurant and staff that night, and the pastas we tried. Finally to the good stuff: Dessert.

No chocolate cake! Argh! They even ran low on tiramisu, which our Food Blogger organizer/host and EATMarketing principal Ronald Lee has long raved about as being the best. He even bragged about having discovered the "secret ingredient" in the recipe -- something so classified he'd have to kill you if he told you.

Uh, yeah. Okaaay Ronald.

Only three desserts were available that night. There's no dessert menu -- ask your server. If I remember correctly, they were $8 each on the final bill, before tax and tip.

The Bananas Foster here has chocolate drizzled over it. Very quickly the one big scoop of ice cream melts and takes the chocolate with it, leaving a black pool in the dish. If you don't eat it quickly, it looks ugly. Not very sweet, and the chocolate presence wasn't that great, in my opinion.
Yes, chocolate and ice cream can make a nice combo, but it seemed to me it was wasted here, especially when the banana can't really soak it or scoop it up as the melted ice cream is too liquid. I've had a nice table-side service Bananas Foster before, at the now-closed William Tell, formerly at the Georgian Court Hotel. For a few dollars more, it was still much better, even if you omitted the included-in-the-cost showmanship.
Pass on this. With chocolate to compete with the other flavours, it's not a "proper" Bananas Foster anyway.

The tartufo is a simpler version of the dessert (no chocolate shell or nuts, single sliced strawberry simply sitting on top), but quite tasty without too much sweetness or richness. The Cosca version is a very large round (between the size of a tennis ball and a baseball) of very smooth chocolate ice cream, cut into four slices and allowed to fall open. On this is soft vanilla ice cream. The chocolate ice cream had a pleasant softness to the bite and velvety smoothness in texture. Italian gelato can be even softer than that, but I think here the idea was for the chocolate to hold its shape on the plate.
The tartufo is very nice and not too heavy feeling for a chocolate-based dessert. Conceptually it probably seems a bit simple for $8, but the portion size is large, especially if you are eating it alone.

Finally, the tiramisu. The most recent one I had was at Nicli Antica Pizzeria, and it was a very nice dessert. Light, fluffy, almost delicate-seeming. Properly strong with cocoa aroma and flavour.
Mostly the same here at Cosca, except it was wetter on the inside. The ladyfingers that go into a tiramisu are soaked in expresso or coffee, and possibly a liquor. The mushy texture on the inside of the Cosca tiramisu suggests a very thoroughly soaked ladyfinger.
It also stood up more reliably, even after being chipped away into just a fraction of its size. The Nicli Antica Pizzeria one, being fluffier, collapsed after a while.
The portion size varied visibly. If you got a cut from the middle of the batch, it would very possibly be square and 4 inches to a side, on top of being almost the same in height. If you got a side or corner piece, probably depending on how they divided it initially, it might be as much as an inch less on one side. Still a good-sized portion, of course.
Overall I'd say the tiramisu was very slightly inferior to the one at Nicli Antica Pizzeria, because of my personal preferences. It did not sacrifice flavour and experience by not having soaked the cake into what clearly felt mushy in the mouth. However, the ladyfingers there were not as clearly visible as with the Cosca cake, if you seriously score on aesthetics. (For food porn pictures, don't get a side piece because the cross-sections don't look as nice.)


Three pastas in the platter combo, three desserts, and one glass of wine by one of our team of three came out to $38 per person (x3 persons) after tax and a moderately generous tip (for the free appys and excessively generous make-up dishes).

Modest-looking pasta portions at Cosca

Cosca on Urbanspoon
As I mentioned in the previous post, the Food Bloggers had another dinner outing to Cosca on Tuesday night. I touched on the appetizers there. On to the pasta!

The regular price of the pastas is $14-16, and the portion you get is maybe two measuring cups worth of pasta.
No, really. Two measuring cups.
It looks like about a half litre in volume. If your pasta was $15, you might just balk at the portion size, especially if you're expecting something like what you might get at Spaghetti Factory or chow mien at a Chinese Restaurant. Pasta (and noodles in general) is cheap filler and anyone can cook it al dente. But what you're really paying for is the sauce: For the chef to know what they are doing and to put together a combination with tasty ingredients.
They can throw in more pasta to make volume, but if you think about it, that's not going to really be worth an extra $2 or so. At $14-$16 a plate, even if you think that is a bit on the pricey side, getting more volume isn't the real issue here. It's whether they did a good job with the sauce and ingredients -- i.e., how good does it taste?
Also, you may only *think* it's a small portion, in comparison to what you've had elsewhere. But for how it turned out, read on...

At Cosca, there is a "Pasta Platter" option -- instead of ordering an individual dish, you team up with someone else and put together three or four pastas to try. This works out to $16 per person for three types of pasta, or $18 per person for four types. We were three persons and we ordered three types of pasta.
Stop to think about this before you jump on the platter option. Three people could separately order three items at $14-$16 -- instead of being charged $16 (high end of their menu price) three times. Each of the three portions was about the same as an individual portion, from what I could tell looking at the other table of Food Bloggers. *Possibly* slightly less.
If we were two persons and three or four pastas, this might have worked out better and fairer for both restaurant and patron because the restaurant is now making only two meal portions, but has to do more work to pump out four types of pasta.

For food bloggers, this can be a particularly bad setup if you have too many people sharing because all the pasta comes side-by-side on the same plate. Depending on how carelessly your dining companions grab food, you can end up with a mix and mess on the plate where the flavours get mixed up. Finally, you get one plate where you put the food you scooped up. Sauce and stuff will end up as "residue" on that plate, so your next food item will sit on it and might have the flavour confused. Some of the dishes come with a LOT of marinara or tomato sauce.
If you find yourself in this position, one tactic would be to get a bit of everything at the start and keep them carefully separated on your plate. That, or ask for a new plate each time, which might seem really petty.

Finally, when it's just the one server trying to get God-knows-how-many orders from 15 people organized, mistakes can happen. And it did. The various platter orders got mixed up and one of the three pastas wasn't what we ordered at all. We didn't want to send the whole thing back to the kitchen (where they'd probably chuck it all), so we accepted the order anyway.
Our server, Wheldon, offered to make it up to us with extra servings after. We got what amounted to three orders of pasta, for free, on top of what we ordered -- including a repeat order of Taliolini Nero, which was correctly ordered and did appear on the initial platter.

What ended up landing at our table, make-up orders included, was:

  • Cannelloni Cosca ($16; roasted veal and root vegetable stuffed cannelloni, marinara, fonitna [fontina?])
  • Linguini Pesto e Gamberi  ($16; shrimp, sundried tomato, pesto-cream sauce)
  • Orecchiette Aspargi ($15; sauteed asparagus, prosciutto, fresh tomato, extra virgin olive oil, parmigiano)
  • Rotolo Carciofi ($15; pasta sheet medallions with artichoke, goat cheese stuffing in a sundried tomato and pesto sauce)
  • Tagliolini Nero ($16; squid ink pasta, diver scallops, pesto cream, BC salmon roe)

Cannelloni Cosca was surprisingly good. Too much marinara sauce provided, so go easy on that if you want a good taste of the tasty meat. You get two spring roll sized tubes slightly less than 1 inch in diameter.

The Linguini Pesto e Gamberi (pesto and shrimp linguine) was one of the make-up dishes, so we may have gotten a less-than-normal portion -- especially on the "shrimp", which turned out to be decent sized prawns, but only two of them. The few slivers of sundried tomato had very nice sweetness to them, but without it, the linguini and sauce was surprisingly bland. Almost like having no sauce at all, but not quite. Not enough pesto? Try to get sundried tomato with every bite.

On the Orecchiette Aspargi, I really shouldn't say anything because I don't think I got a proper scoop of it. It's small pieces of pasta and chopped up ingredients, and probably between using tongs and trying to keep enough on the plate for everyone to share, I didn't get a proper enough sample. I didn't find the asparagus , prosciutto, or tomato made a reasonable presence, but they may have just fallen off or gone off with someone else's tong portion. Yet another reason to get your own plate of pasta.

The Rotolo Caciofi ("artichoke rolls") I didn't like much, in part because I don't like goat cheese much. It's not very strong here, so if you're normally averse to pungent goat cheese, this may still be palatable to you. I found the taste of the cheese dominated everything else.

Tagliolini Nero ("black noodles") was my pasta choice for the platter, and only because it was, to me, the most interesting thing on the menu. The squid ink used in the making of the pasta makes the noodles come out very, very, black. Slick with sauce, from a distance it might look like very dark seaweed. The squid ink didn't seem to make a difference to me in taste, however. Two scallops. No sign of salmon roe, curiously enough. It's possible the menu is outdated and that ingredient has now been taken out of the recipe entirely.

As for how the portions turned out, we had leftovers on the initial platters. It wasn't clear whether people were carefully saving room for dessert, daunted by the messy leftovers on the platters (another reason to get your own order!), didn't like it enough, or genuinely had enough. Since a dessert portion is pretty big, the half-litre serving size may in fact be a good size -- if you are staying for dessert.
Still, if the price is going to be as high as $16, they could at least throw in some extra filler -- er, I mean pasta. As it is, my first instinct would be to say it's overpriced by about $1 to $2.

Finally, on to desserts in the next post!

Food Bloggers Cosca Dinner #2

Cosca is a small restaurant with a small storefront on Davie. Even with the wooden sign on the sidewalk, you may very well have walked by it several times without realizing it. Inside this skinny space is a bar, a row of tables, a single bathroom, then the kitchen beyond. It's a tight place, and on busy nights with a busy bar, one can well imagine the Fire Department might bust it for overcapacity at any moment.

The Food Bloggers organized a dinner at Cosca -- again. Not surprising as one of the organizers, Ronald, has been going on and on for literally months (even before the Food Bloggers group began) about how divine the tiramisu is there. There was a close call at Nicli Antica Pizzeria last week when he was almost loathe to admit the tiramisu there was really good too. (Maybe even... just as good?! Horrors!)

Dinner was at 6:15 pm. When I walked in at 6pm, it was dead inside except for a few diners who weren't part of our group. Not the usual packed-and-with-lineup crowdedness. This sort of thing apparently happens to non-sports bars on hockey nights. Want to go to a normally packed place like Cosca? Try hockey night.

Just two staff working the room tonight: Jacqueline who was mostly bar; and Wheldon, who did most of the frantic running around and trying to herd our group into some sort of organized order-your-drinks-and-food. Neither were dressed like typical servers. There's a nice put-you-quickly-at-ease vibe of friendliness here. It's also a small place, so a third person might have just gotten in the way trying to squeeze in between the tables and what not.

This dinner started with six appetizer plates for fifteen people -- a freebie negotiated on our behalf by organizer and event host Ronald. Can't really complain about something that's free, but I'm not going to bother trying to review the food: After it's mangled by everyone, I can't be sure I got a proper taste of anything. Definitely not the Proscuitto Melone ($12; San Daniele proscuitto, arugula and melon) as one of the diners at our table took several *minutes* trying to cut the one slice of proscuitto left, and must have given up because when the plate passed to me, there was just greens and melon.
WTF? Thanks for sharing, guys. Pfft.

There was also a Cosca Flatbread ($10; basil pomodoro sauce, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano; half of it under token greens), shaped into a long rectangle to match the serving dish. Undercooked flatbread. Busy kitchen, I suppose. It's too bad because a decent flatbread to hold the ingredients would have made a huge difference to the enjoyment of the appy. I'm not asking for wood-fired oven Pizza Napoletana, but hot, freshly-baked flatbread would have done wonders.

Also among the appys was Caprese Napoleon ($9; vine tomato, fresh mozzarella, pesto, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic reduction): Basically a tomato cut into layers, and with mozza and goodies in between. (And of course, when you see "mozzarella" in a proper Italian restaurant, you can expect it to be the soft milk-white stuff and not the yellowish stuff you get on your Pizza Factory three-for-one.) Pesto was on the side, in a ring on the plate. My unrefined palate didn't feel this was particularly special, although the presentation was cute and pretty. For me, it would certainly have not been worth the $9 price tag. Special thanks to Cosca and Ronald for allowing our table to try this one for free.

Finally, there was a Malanzane Arrosto ($11; roasted eggplant, basil marinara, smoked mozzarella). While carefully trying to make sure I left some to go around the table, I probably missed out on something here... I just got a chunk of mushy eggplant.

Then our table of seven split up into two teams of three and one loner who wanted a non-pasta item. She was the one smart one at the table. Turns out doing the "Pasta Platters" deal is a Bad Move for for food bloggers. (to be continued)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Best Pizza by the Pound - Western Family Rising Crust Pizza

2011-Jan 8-14 Save on Foods pizza offer
If you haven't seen this week's flyer for Save-on-Foods, you're missing out on what is probably the cheapest pizza by the pound without needing a Costco membership. In fact, in comparison to Costco, Save-on-Foods pays you to buy it with their points program. And last time I checked, Costco only had the one flavour -- pepperoni.

In previous posts, I talked about pizza wars between Save-on-Foods and Superstore. Well, surprisingly, Save-on-Foods has now undercut Superstore by a mile with $10 for 3 large pizzas. It's not uncommon now to find $5 per pizza or $10 for two Delissio pizzas. In the past, it had gone to as low as $4.

At almost 1 kilogram, the pizzas are big enough to cut into thirds for three dinners, or quarters for four lunches. That works out to about a dollar a meal!

But how does it taste, you ask? (Huh? You want bulk AND taste too? Next you'll be demanding actual decent nutritional value. Pfft...)

So far I've popped open just the Four Cheese Pizza. The picture on the front does not lie -- it's pretty much what you see is what you get -- so look at the picture carefully. It shows some tomato sauce and cheese creeping out from the main bed of toppings, but if you look carefully, the outer ring of crust is slightly over an inch thick after baking. The crust at the bottom can be about a centimeter in some places. The depth of the toppings here is maybe a half centimeter, with an almost squirts-out-when-you-bite-it amount of tomato sauce.

Good news: Lots of tangy sauce makes the like-bread-but-not-exactly crust more palatable.

Four Cheese can be a bit on the bland side with the cheese melting into one homogeneous taste. Whether getting that somewhat overshadowed by tomato sauce is a good thing or not is probably personal preference. I'd personally pass on Four Cheese and buy some other flavour instead. Even pepperoni would do better.

I recommend pre-cutting it and baking only what you need. Then, when it comes out, chop off the thick outer crust and use it like a soft breadstick. Here, you can either dip it or further cut it into small bite-sized chunks and drop it into a half-can of some cheap-ass Campbells soup to further "supersize" your already cheap meal into a more filling portion.

If you keep freezing and unfreezing, the dough can get funny on you when you bake it and it might not rise properly, so try not to do that. Hack it apart frozen if you have to.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Generous portions at The American CheeseSteak Company

The American CheeseSteak Co. on Urbanspoon
I was out and about with the Food Bloggers today with Food Persuasion and Posh Pudding on our way to Loving Hut Express, we passed by The American CheeseSteak Co. on Davie.

If you've never been there, it's a pretty small space with a very open kitchen. From the street and in front of the counter you can watch the cooks prep your food on a griddle. It's a great selling point and what you see is what you get, so there's no surprise when you get your order.

The prices here are very good for the portion you get: Basically $8-10 for a 6" sub, +$2 to supersize it to a 9" sub. You get so much filling that some of it is guaranteed to fall out of the sub. The subs come in a basket. Curiously, there are service stations with steak knives. To me, this doesn't really add up since you don't automatically get a plate even if you wanted to knife-and-fork your sub.

Their fries are double-fried, but even before any frying, they go into water with vinegar, which breaks down the starch and makes holes in the potato so that when they are fried the oil can penetrate the fry. The end result is said to be a crispier fry. Strangely enough, although the fries were really decent -- not oily at all -- they weren't particularly crispy on the outside. At least not in the way that some fries are crunchy crispy on the outside.
To try it yourself, you can read some research here or try Emeril Lagasse's "perfect French Fries", which uses a soaking-then-double-fried method as well.

At The American Cheesesteak Co. we tried The Cowboy and The Good Earth.

The Cowboy ($10 / $12; shaved prime rib, crispy fried onions, homemade spicy bbq sauce, bacon mayo and aged white cheddar) could have been great, but I thought the ingredients were just too separate. There's a lot of meat here, so there's no complaining about the price. However, it felt like everything was too layered: Meat at the bottom, onions folded in nearer the top, and then all the sauces and cheese sitting on top of all that.
There's a good amount of sauce, but it was all on top. Combine this with a really thick sub that you probably have to tackle by biting one end on top then on the bottom and you get one mouthful of some meat and all the good stuff on top; and one mouthful of just bread and meat. Fortunately, the meat itself is tender and moist, so that's not so bad and it's not like you're struggling with it so much even without any flavouring from sauce. All the sauce on top, though, meant that you got a salty mouthful there. If at least the BBQ sauce could be more mixed with the meat there would be a less night-and-day experience to eating the sub.
The BBQ sauce was also quite sweet and not much spicy kick to it. And overall, the sub gave a heavy feeling after eating it, possibly from the generous amount of meat to begin with.

The Good Earth ($9 / $11; sautéed portobello and forest mushrooms, roasted red peppers, sautéed onions, crumbled feta and pesto mayo) is a sub that I think seriously needs to be re-engineered. There is a decent amount of mushrooms, but they gave out a lot of liquid even after being prepped on the griddle. Then the whole thing was blanketed in a heck of a lot of feta. The taste was boring and more or less dominated by the mushrooms. The pesto mayo was somewhere in there but didn't have enough of a presence to provide any kick.

Vegan Burgers from Loving Hut Express Food Cart

Loving Hut Express on Urbanspoon

On today's Food Bloggers Food Cart Crawl with PoshPudding (who very helpfully took a picture of the menu) and FoodPersuasion, we started at the Vancouver Art Gallery and headed for the nearby Roaming Dragon. Our next step was to trek all the way to Yaletown for the vegan Loving Hut Express.

Once upon a time, Loving Hut was a small restaurant on Broadway that had really decent vegan pizza (albeit with that creepy-tasting Daiya cheese). It also had a TV with Loving Hut founder Supreme Master Ching Hai's channel on it. There's no TV on the Loving Hut food cart.

The Loving Hut Express food cart uses Gardein fake meat, which is really quite good in both look and texture to real meat. Taste-wise it was harder to tell, smothered under delicious sauce and veggies, but there wasn't anything odd about it either. Some fake meats might have a strong off-flavour because of the tofu content, but it was nothing like that here. (That said, when I carefully isolated a piece of the the "traditional style patty" of the BBQ Onion Ring Cheese Burger, it was slightly bitter.)

Why the meat is inside might be a bit of a mystery. With a "regular" burger, the meat or patty is prominent and mostly you can taste some of it. Here, it's probably for the protein content because you can't really taste it. In fact, you might not be able to immediately see it as it's buried under everything. The burgers have greens and delicious sauce, and that's mostly what you get. The burger adds mass to each bite and makes it a more filling meal. At $8, it's a delicious meal at a reasonable price for how much you get.

We tried the Crispy Gardein Chick'n Burger and the BBQ Onion Ring Cheese Burger. Both were very sensibly priced so that after tax they each came out to a clean $8 and no coins to handle. The size of the burgers were also very good: Stacked quite thickly, and they use oval buns that are bigger than the usual round burger bun. Two small basic burgers from McDonalds would approximately equal one of these burgers.

The Cripsy Gardein Chick'n Burger (with avocado, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and topped with house made apricot-jalapeno relish, chipotle mayo) was actually on the slightly spicy-hot side with quite a bit of bite from the jalapeno, but overall there is a slight sweetness and that light, fresh feeling from eating salad. A good amount of veggie here and not a heavy feeling from eating it, like you might get from eating some burgers.

The BBQ Onion Ring Cheese Burger ("traditional style patty", crispy onion rings, housemade cheese sauce, tomato, red onion, iceberg lettuce, BBQ sauce, vegan mayo) is a really stacked burger, in part due to the onion rings. With this burger, I have to say that it's best if you eat it RIGHT AWAY. The onion rings would still be crispy, and that can make a big difference to the overall experience.
Because of the generous amount of sauce, the onion rings get soggy really fast. Just walking from the cart to Roundhouse Community Centre so that we could have our burgers in the warm and away from the wet of the rainy day meant the onion rings had turned to mush. However, it was still a delicious burger. The vegan cheese sauce also lacked the heavy feeling and potential oiliness you can get from using real cheese.

Overall I'm very impressed, and I am very hard to please when it comes to food. Hopefully future experiences here will see consistent taste and quality.

Loving Hut also carries locally made Zimt Chocolates, which are raw, vegan, organic, and fair-trade. We tried a bar of Sweet Orange Nib'd ($6; dark chocolate, studded with crunchy cacao nibs, hints of sweet orange, cacao butter, coconut nectar, cacao powder, cacao nibs, coconut sugar, sweet orange essential oil). The chocolate has a very nice gloss on it. It doesn't melt in your mouth as easily as Belgian chocolate so some chewing is necessary here. There's a strong orange flavour, plus fun nut-like crunch from the cacao nibs. There was, however, also a lingering bitter aftertaste, probably from those same cacao nibs.

Adobo Sliders at Roaming Dragon

Roaming Dragon Food Truck on Urbanspoon

The Vancouver Food Bloggers met this afternoon at the Vancouver Art Gallery before dispersing into the city to try various food carts. I went with just two others in a tiny trio and discovered that dividing food into three is annoying. Most things divvy into two. At three, the portion for some reason ends up being awkward. We also discovered that rainy days are the best for visiting food carts because there's no lineup!

The first stop for us was Roaming Dragon, on Burrard near Robson, basically across the street from HMV. The theme here is globally-inspired gourmet food with a menu that changes every few months. We were grazing, so I just picked up a pair of Adobo Sliders for us ($6 for 2).

The Sliders are sold in pairs and they refused to sell us just one. It looked like basically the buns came in pairs, and maybe selling just one would have thrown off their count. And each bun was small enough that they dissuaded us from cutting it up to share with the three of us. One person bowed out this time to make things work out.

If you're not Filipino, you may not know that adobo is a type of marinated meat. At Roaming Dragon, they use a mix of chicken and pork meat, and it looks like the result is pulled so you're not getting chunks. Instead, you get a very juicy tender amount of meat under token greens (bean sprouts).

The presentation is neat, and pretty with the greens on top. The fluff of greens also makes the sliders look fat, but really it's not. However, for sliders, the amount of meat inside is fairly good in relation to the bun size, which is around the size of a dinner roll. The marinated meat tastes great. Also, the buns were toasted slightly on the inside -- a nice touch.

Considering that it's very nicely put together and it tastes great, at $6 for the pair the cost might feel a bit high, but not by too much. This isn't a really fancy slider like those from from Stackhouse Burger Bar that can run you over $15 each. A simpler slider like a square bun with braised pork from Terracotta Modern Chinese is $10 for three.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Three desserts at Nicli Antica Pizzeria

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
Even before our little Food Bloggers dine-out group tried three pizzas at Nicli Antica Pizzeria, I was asking about dessert. There was one chocolate cake "daily special" which turned out to be on the regular menu. That the server didn't know suggested it was a recent change (hey -- keep your servers updated, eh?).
There's no dessert menu online, so be sure to ask about it. And do it early because the light pizzas that are prepped quickly can lead you to ordering more to fill up, and then have no room for dessert. Eat strategically both to fit it in and keep your weight loss budget.

We tried three desserts (picture here): A Panna Cotta, a Chocolate Cake, and a Tiramisu.

The Panna Cotta came popped out onto a plate with what looked like red wine and softened (soaked?) chestnuts. There was a single ladyfinger on top. The panna cotta itself was strangely bland. Bland was the odd theme of the whole night, in fact -- so much so that I am suspicious that I was somehow ill and not tasting flavours as strongly as I should have. At least one of our fellow diners, Tess M. on Yelp, absolutely loved the Panna Cotta and calls it "AMAZING".

The Chocolate Cake was profoundly disappointing for me. After having some excellent real "cakes" at The WallFlower and Bandidas Tacqueria, and an excellent chocolate cream "cake" from Organic Lives, my chocolate cake standards had been elevated. At the very least, I expected a suitably moist, dark, very chocolatey cake.
What we got at Nicli Antica Pizzeria was barely a cake. It had the correct shape and okay chocolate flavour, but it was dry and crumbly, to the point of feeling powdery and tasting like flour in my mouth. It came with a bit of cream on top and some very thinly sliced caramelized (looked like lightly blow-torched) orange slices, but neither of those rescued the cake.

The most worthwhile thing that night was the tiramisu. It looked more like layers of cake rather than having any ladyfingers discernable, but the whole thing was light and fluffy, and strong with cocoa flavour. The first stand-out strong flavour I had all night at Nicli Antica Pizzeria.

The wrong menu at Nicli Antica Pizzeria

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
One of my pet peeves about restaurants with websites -- especially nice flashy websites -- is incorrect information on the web.

Prior to the Food Bloggers going to Nicli Antica Pizzeria, I had looked through the menu and even posted a rough translation for everyone so we would be quite prepared rather than helpless and time-consuming at what was said to be a busy restaurant. That turned out to be utterly useless because not only have the ingredients changed somewhat, but some of the pizzas were even off the menu completely -- no more Diavolo or Quattro Formaggio, for example.

Before we get to my review of the pizzeria and the pizza, you can get a brief primer on certified Neapolitan pizza from this blog post. However, if you genuinely don't care about tradition or certification or whatever, that's actually okay. If you've never seen it before, Neapolitan pizza is basically a type of pizza that uses a deliberately thin, chewy, plain naan-like bread. Sometimes the thinner centre will result in the pizza being soggy there. Hopefully, it won't be.

There are people who rave about this style of pizza, and a lot of them tout the genuine-ness and Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) Association certification. They somehow "get it".
Sorry, but I don't. I look at what's on the plate and taste what goes in my mouth. Then I look at the bill.

There are many Neapolitan pizza places, but only some are certified. Others just do it in the same general style, as opposed to the type of mainstream pizza you get in North America from places like Pizza Hut. I'd been to a Neapolitan pizza place long ago at Marcello's on Commercial Drive and was soundly unimpressed. Nicli Antica Pizzeria does their pizza better -- more evenly distributed ingredients, no soggy centre -- but I'm still unimpressed.
As restaurant spaces go, Nicli Antica Pizzeria is a small restaurant with just a few seats. If you're there before 5.45pm, you should have no problem just waltzing in with even a fairly large group and getting seated. Closer to 6pm, this no-reservations place will see lineups.The style of pizza leans toward fast preparation (depending on how hot the oven has gotten, your pizza may very well have been in there for literally less than one minute before it's properly ready) and fast eating. Fast preparation is guaranteed. Fast eating is not. This sort of stuff is casual eats and finger food in Italy. At Nicli, I've watched people take a knife and fork to it and cut small chunks out of a single pizza. They will probably be there for a half hour.

The restaurant has a lot of white and looks very clean. It's a sudden spot of upscale spotless white in an otherwise dilapidated and scary part of East Cordova downtown Vancouver and an oasis of gentrified safety in the neighbourhood. Once you're in, they pack you in rather tightly unless you're just two to a square table (our party of six was squashed into two tables and three persons to a side).

The menu is basically $12-15 with no meat ingredients, or $15-20 with meat. Most of the pizzas have in common the pomodoro (tomato sauce), fior di latte (special mozzarella), and fresh basil on top.
If you pay attention, you'll notice the basil they use is guaranteed to be fresh because there are pots of live basil right there in reach of the chefs around the wood-fired oven. Unlike some pizza places, they do not plop it onto the pizza to be sent to the oven, but cut a big sprig and put it down on your fresh pizza.

Each pizza is about 30cm across, which puts it on par with a thin crust medium pizza. At Nicli, the width of the edge crust was about 1 centimeter. Under no circumstance should it be more than 11 inches in diameter, per the certification rules.

Because of the short cooking time and the thinness of it, it's ready to eat when it hits the table and it gets cold fast. For best results, eat it fast.
At Nicli Antica Pizzeria, they flatly refuse to cut it for you. They probably don't even have a pizza cutter. For sharing, you can basically score it with the knife provided and just tear it free. Whatever you do, though, it'll probably reach your mouth at most lukewarm and in the worst case on the slightly cold sides.

In general, because the pizza is deliberately thinner in the middle, it will be limp and you'll need to use both hands. The crust is intentionally soft and think so that you can fold it, which helps it to perk up and helps to prevent ingredients from sliding off.

Depending on the pizza, the ingredients will probably not be evenly spread out like North Americanized pizza. That means you won't a bit of everything in each bite. The Agnello (which had lamb sausage, goat cheese chunks, and whole garlic cloves) had ingredients dotted about and a single circle of lamb sausage chunks. In this rather extreme example, there is probably only one bite of a pizza slice which will see you get any sausage and/or any goat cheese.
Others, like the funghi (mushroom) were better, with mushrooms more evenly distributed everywhere.

Our group of six ordered three pizzas, with the intention of checking out desserts after. We got one basic Margherita (tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil), one funghi (lots of mushrooms on top), and one agnello (with lamb sausage, goat cheese, and garlic cloves). I didn't get a copy of the menu, and since it's different from what's online, I can't say for sure what all the ingredients are exactly.

All three seemed to be on the bland side for me, strangely enough. Even the goat cheese didn't have the usual sharp smell or strong flavour. There were enough chunks that I was certain I should at least smell a bit of it from a distance.
Even worse, I watch a whole clove of garlic go into my mouth and ... nothing. Roasted garlic has a softened garlic taste, but to have it not make a difference on the pizza was shocking by its absence.
Maybe I was somehow ill that night, but my taste buds weren't registering any strong flavours. This is extremely suspicious and you should read this review with this caveat. Maybe having four ladies at the table had my senses dulled by scents they were wearing? At the very least, I thought that a whole clove of chewed up garlic in my mouth should have done something. (I did, however, taste the very decent tiramisu dessert just fine later).

Is Nicli Antica Pizzeria worth it? Is the whole concept of Pizza Napoletana worth it?
It's a different experience from "regular pizza", so you need to decide whether that experience is worth any money. "Regular pizza" doesn't necessarily taste better of worse -- it's a different experience. You don't get the same focus on chewy bread and a lighter feel from eating the pizza.

If you are expecting $20 to leave you very full and satisfied, then this "special pizza" is the wrong way to go. For a comparable price, you can get a heftier pizza from Flying Wedge with interesting flavours and ingredients. Even cheaper than this is frozen Delissio pizzas which sometimes go on sale at $10 for 2; or ~$10 for three large pepperoni pizzas from Costco.
(This said, you still need to be conscious of what you're buying. For example, President's Choice frozen bake-it-at-home Rip-and-Dip pizza for $8 is a lousy investment, even if you are getting more weight in food per dollar, as it's mostly bread).

If you are looking for the lighter-pizza experience, then the next issue is cost. A certified pizzeria must adhere to ingredients standards from VPN certification: Only fresh, all-natural, non-processed ingredients (preferably imported from Naples or Campania region) are acceptable: Flour (Type 00), San Marzano (plum) tomatoes, all natural Fior-di-Latte or Bufala fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, x-virgin olive oil, sea salt and yeast. All this theoretically adds to the cost.

If you can't wrap your head around $12 for a thin crust pizza with just tomato sauce, mozza, and basil then price is going to be a problem. Bottom line: If you can't taste the difference superior ingredients make, you're paying too much.
For another take on Nicli Antica Pizzeria, you might try Tess M. on Yelp, who really liked the Margherita at least (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil).

And there's nothing wrong with not being able to value that difference. It's like wine: Sometimes, the difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle either escapes you or you just don't care to pay extra for what tastes like a small difference to you.
Not wanting to find out what the difference is may make you a Philistine when it comes to fine dining, but in the end your dining experience and your money is your choice.

I'll review our desserts in another post.

We had three pizzas, three desserts. Bill for our table of six was about $77 before tip. The organizer came up with a suggested contribution of just under $15 per person, including tip.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A primer on VPN certified Neapolitan pizza

Nicli Antica Pizzeria is a Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) Association certified Neapolitan pizza restaurant. If you don't already know what makes this type of pizza special, this post gathers some info and links for you.

If you just want the super-basic Philistine's version, Neapolitan pizza works out to basically toppings on bread that's very much like a thin, plain naan. Sometimes the thinner centre will result in the pizza being soggy there. Hopefully, it won't be.

The best place to start with more info is, of course, VPN itself, for what is required for certification.


Certify your pizzeria or restaurant and join the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

If you operate in full accordance with the following association rules:

1. A Wood-Burning Oven.
The real Pizza Napoletana must be cooked in a wood-fired dome oven operating at roughly 900ºF.
Gas, coal or electric ovens, while capable of produce wonderful pizza, are not conformed to the Pizza Napoletana tradition.

2. Proper Ingredients. Only fresh, all-natural, non-processed ingredients (preferably imported from Naples or Campania region) are acceptable: Flour (Type 00),San Marzano (plum) tomatoes, all natural Fior-di-Latte or Bufala fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, x-virgin olive oil, sea salt and yeast.

3. Proper Technique. Pizza dough kneaded either by hand, or with a low speed mixer (fork or spiral with revolving bowl. No planetary or vertical mixers are allowed).
No mechanical dough shaping, such as a dough press or rolling pin, are allowed. Pizza baking time should not exceed 90 seconds.

4. Proper Equipment. A proper work surface (usually a marble slab), a wood pizza peel to introduce the pizza into the oven and a long handle metal round peel to turn and remove the pizza from the oven.

5. The Final Product. Pizza Napoletana is not larger than 11 inches with a raised edge crust and thin center. The pizza should be soft and elastic, and easily foldable, .

you can have the possibility to become a member of our association and bear the prestigious VPN sign outside your store.

You can get a briefing on Neapolitan pizza from the Nicli Antica Pizzeria website (and on the in-restaurant paper menu):

Each region in Italy has its own version of Pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and of the SGT Specialità Tradizionale Garantita / Traditional Specialty Guaranteed.

The pizza is formed by hand and is cooked in a 900ºF wood-fired oven for roughly 90 seconds. This creates a pizza with the following:

A light and fluffy cornicione (crust) which has a patina of crunch
Flame blackened blisters may appear along the cornicione
A soft thin centre
27-30 centemetres in diameter

Fast cooking time: The addition of sauce, cheese and other toppings creates a pizza center that is generally soft and moist. This is a typical characteristic of authentic Neapolitan pizza. Because of this, Napolitanas traditionally tear their pizza apart manually and folded "libretto" style, please don’t be afraid to use your hands.

All pizzas are finished with extra virgin olive oil.
[1] Lip or edge of the pizza.

Here's more detailed information from Pizzeria Libretto:
Art. 5. Characteristics of the final product
a. Description of the product: Pizza Napoletana is an oven made circularly shaped culinary product , of a variable diameter which should not exceed 35 cm, with a elevated border (crust) and with the central part covered with toppings. The central part should be 0.3 cm thick, and the crust 1-2 cm thick. The pizza as a whole should be soft, elastic, easily folded as would be a pamphlet (aka LIBRETTO).
b. Aspect: Pizza Napoletana is characterized by a raised crust of golden color, typical of oven-made products. It is soft to the touch and taste, especially in the center of the toppings, where the red of the tomato stands out, and to which the oil or for the pizza marinara, the green of the oregano and the white of the garlic has perfectly amalgamated; In the case of the pizza Margherita, the white of the mozzarella should be in patches more or less close together, with the green of the basil leaves, more or less dark from the cooking process. The consistency should be soft, elastic, easily foldable. The product should be soft to the touch, with a characteristic taste deriving from the crust, presenting the typical taste of risen and cooked bread, mixed with the acidity of tomato, combined with the aroma, respectively of the oregano, garlic or basil, and with the flavor of the cooked mozzarella. The pizza, at the end of the cooking process, will emanate a characteristic aroma, at once perfumed and fragrant.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Nicli Antica Pizzeria Menu translation

UPDATE: January 5th, 2011 -- Forget this menu for Nicli Antica Pizzeria. It's different from the actual menu in the restaurant. I hate it when that happens.

It looks like the Food Bloggers are headed to Nicli Antica Pizzeria soon, but somewhat unhelpfully the authentic Italian menu online doesn't have quite enough of an English translation for hapless North American diners. Here's a rough translation. Pictures of some of the menu items at Nicli Antica Pizzeria are available on UrbanSpoon.

Antipasti e Insalate Antipasto and Salad
15 Antipasto Misto
30 Antipasto Misti per due
an assortment of meats, cheeses, peppers and olives
15 Mixed Antipasto
30 Mixed Antipasto for two people
an assortment of meats, cheeses, peppers and olives
7 Insalata Mista
mixed greens, roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes and shaved fennel drizzled with our red wine dijon vinaigrette
Mixed Greens salad
mixed greens, roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes and shaved fennel drizzled with our red wine dijon vinaigrette
12 Insalata di Rucola e Prosciutto
prosciutto, arugula, roasted pear, cambozola, balsamic-fig vinaigrette
12 Salad of Arugula and Prosciutto
prosciutto, arugula, roasted pear, cambozola, balsamic-fig vinaigrette
6 Misto di Olive
luques, mantquilla e castel vetrano in our shallot herb marinade
6 Misto di Olive
(?) green Castelvetrano olives and butter in our shallot herb marinade
Pizza Napoletana Neapolitan Pizza
12 Margherita
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, basil
12 Margherita
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, basil
9 Marinara
pomodoro, parmigiano, oregano, garlic
9 Marinara
tomato sauce, parmigiano, oregano, garlic
13 Napoletana
pomodoro, fior di latte, oregano, garlic, anchovy
13 Napoletana
tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano, garlic, anchovies
14 Funghi
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, funghi, basil
14 Mushroom
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, mushrooms, basil
19 Prosciutto e Rucola
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, prosciutto, arugula
19 Prosciutto and Arugula
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula
18 Prosciutto Crudo
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, basil, proscuitto crudo
18 Prosciutto
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, basil,  prosciutto
20 Capricciosa
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, proscuitto cotto, artichokes, mushrooms, black olives, basil
20 Capricciosa
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, ham, artichokes, mushrooms, black olives, basil
16 Diavola
pomodoro, parmigiano, fior di latte, sopressatta (hot), basil, finished with chili oil
16 Devil-Style
tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, cured dry salami (hot), basil, finished with chili oil
19 Quattro Formaggi
extra virgin olive oil, parmigiano, fior di latte, gorgonzola, emmental, basil
19 Four Cheese
extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, mozzarella, gorgonzola, emmental, basil
17 Bianca
extra virgin olive oil, parmigiano, roasted garlic, roasted onion, oregano, gorgonzola
17 Bianca
extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, roasted garlic, roasted onion, oregano, gorgonzola

Misplaced my Sushi Medley at Organic Lives

OrganicLives on Urbanspoon
The Organic Lives downtown location at the Chopra Yoga Centre wasn't open New Year's Eve, so regulars had to swarm their near-the-Olympic-Village location. At close to 5pm, it was very busy and there was quite the lineup at the counter. Between waiting to order, and then waiting for our order, there was enough time to get in a good chat with NeRai of The Star Captains, a local band that was scheduled to play that New Year's Eve night at the prestigious Fairmont from 10pm to 2am.

It turns out NeRai is into alternative health choices such as crystal healing and moving-toward-raw veganism. She had come by for one of Organic Lives's three types of sushi, and a large bottle of raw organic coconut water.

My friend and I were headed toward Van Dusen Gardens and the annual Festival of Lights (basically plants dead in the winter dressed up with dazzling Christmas lights) and wanted to pick up some finger food to snack on along the way for dinner. We opted for the Sushi Medley: All three kinds of sushi (but no discount, alas).

The Full Medley, all three of our fabulous flavours for sharing $ 21
  • Sprouted Pecan: A perfect storm with sprouts, veggies, avocado and mango
  • Sprouted Walnut: All about fresh cucumber, cilantro, avocado and carrots
  • Sea Veggie and Rice: A medley of sea and ground veggies wrapped in our "rice"

Each length of sushi cuts into eight pieces and they don't chop off the ends to make nice rolls. So, if you had length of cucumber or carrot that stuck out at the end, it didn't get wasted by being chopped off. All three rolls fit tightly into a large biodegradable take-out box, and come with two citrus-y ginger-y containers of dipping sauce. There's not too much heat/bite with the ginger, but the flavour of the sauce is still strong enough that you should not overdo it -- basically the same advice when using soy sauce on regular sushi: Too much and all you taste is soy sauce.

At the higher-end sushi places you will sometimes NOT get any soy sauce or wasabi at all because everything has been "made perfectly". With so much vegetable content, I found the sushi a bit too bland for my taste without using the provided sauce -- like eating salad with no dressing. You don't want to overdo it, certainly, but you definitely want something on it.

As far as portions go, the Full Medley makes a light meal for two persons as there's no rice to provide the usual filling feeling. The tastes mostly blended together and I couldn't always tell which was which except the Sprouted Pecan, which had a nice sweetness to it and stood apart from the others. There's also some sauce to them, and as they sit on their cross sections (so that you can see difference from the three types when you grab it, I suppose), if they sit long enough in a takeout box, some of that thick sauce will ooze out.

Price-wise, at $7 for 8 pieces of makizushi (roll sushi) it's on the steep size. You're paying almost a buck per piece for a standard small piece of sushi (rather than the fat 2 to 2.5 inch wide futozushi). If you're not keen on raw, organic, and vegan; or if you feel shellfish is the only thing that should up the price of a sushi roll, you might feel ripped off paying what can look like 2x to 3x regular price per roll (depending on where you go). That said, depending on where you go, some sushi does weigh in at $7 or more per roll. For omnivores making a price comparison, you might try The Eatery's mega-menu.

For drinks while we waited, I tried the "Brain On" shooter (Blue Green Algae with PEA Boost; $3), while my friend settled on a "Red Fire" (Carrot, Beet, Apple, Ginger; $7).

The Brain On is disgusting. Fortunately, it's a shooter, so it should go down fast -- the best way to take bitter medicine. It's not really meant to be tasty, but good for you. It's still gross, like tasting green pond water.

The Red Fire was on the milder side, not too sweet and not too much bite from the ginger. It also comes in a very tall glass which very nearly submerges the prone-to-breaking biodegradable vegetable cellulose bioplastic straws used by Organic Lives.

The busy-ness of the day probably contributed to the unreasonably long wait. There was apparently some confusion or lack of coordination between the service staff and the kitchen, because we saw what we thought was our order filled by the chef (at the bar you can peek into the spacious kitchen) and sitting on the shelf ready to go, but no one touched it. Was it for us or was it another takeout order? Finally NeRai and I inquired about our orders, but by then it'd been transferred from the shelf into the big walk-in fridge at the back. Fortunately it was sushi and it easily survived the wait time.

Lacklustre second visit to Karmavore

Karmavore on Urbanspoon
You may recall that I had written about a wonderful visit to Karmavore not too far back where I had made-in-house hot-and-delicious croissant'wiches. My vegan-curious friend from Berkeley was in town and I dragged her over there, hoping to give her the same experience.

Well, it sort of fell flat this time.

It may have been the different and possibly less experienced staff at the deli, but probably the fact that I forgot to tell them we weren't doing take-out was also a key factor -- the minimal-seating deli operation means they expect solely take-out orders. (On the up side, there's now a bit of decent seating! Two square regulation-height tables plus more chairs replaced the single low coffee table from my last visit. You can squash maybe 10 persons in there easily.)

The sandwiches of the day ($5.99) were the same as before -- tofu egg and smoked tomato Field Roast fake meat deli slices. We opted for the smoked tomato. It came cold and in shrink wrap. Oops -- Forgot to tell them we were having it there. I brought it back and asked if they could heat it up and melt the cheese. They were at a loss at that point, saying they didn't normally do that -- a sure sign that they just hadn't been asked to prep a non-takeout sandwich before.

In any case, the lady at the counter very helpfully tried to oblige saying she could pop it in the oven, but warned that the sprouts would get all funny (i.e., wilted). No problem. We gave it a try. She may have left the oven on toast instead of opening the sandwich to do a broil because the croissant came out not burnt but super-crusty and dry. The generous portion of thick cheese (maybe 4mm thick) was nowhere near melted -- she probably didn't want to risk burning the croissant -- and the meat was still cool.

The sandwich is not so bad cold, but still better hot with melted cheese over hot slices of Field Roast smoked tomato deli slices. So the lesson here is to remember to tell them up front you want to eat it there. I'm not sure how people who do take-out handle it if they want it hot. The cheese would have taken quite a bit of heating to melt properly, which in turn could easily dry out and crust-ify your croissant. And I wouldn't try microwaving it because that would kill the croissant into a limp, soggy, possibly oily mess.

We also ordered soup of the day ($2.99), which was a sort of bean chili. Very small bowl, very thick with beans and not so much soup. It's a solid filling mini-meal. Not too salty, not too hot. If you like a lot more bite to your chili, it'll come across as too mild.

Finally, we picked up an Edible Flours stuffed cupcake (mocha caramel with additional cream in the middle, hence "stuffed"; $3.99). My friend, who definitely doesn't have as sweet a tooth as I, found it too sweet and gave up after just one bite -- and that's not even working on the cream on top or in the middle. Hmm!
Be ready to share it if you buy it for someone else, I suppose.