Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cheap fine dining at the Argo Cafe

Argo Cafe on Urbanspoon
Since I don't watch TV anymore (no, not even the Food Network), I'm probably the last foodie in Vancouver to know about Argo Cafe. The one line on the website says it all: "Downtown food, at [an] East Van price". And oh -- CASH ONLY.

The location is remarkably unappealing with small windows that afford barely a proper glimpse inside. Right next door is the Pedal Bike Depot. Maybe ironically, just one street over on Quebec is Organic Lives. Not too far away is the Olympic Village and more new condos and gentrification, so if you have Argo Cafe on your list, I'd go sooner than later. Even with the building boom slowed down, it's likely that gentrification will eventually wipe out the entire block in which this comfortably priced greasy spoon presently resides.

The Argo Cafe is open 7am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, closed weekends and holidays. The kitchen switches over to the lunch menu at 11am. We were told the place is basically non-stop busy all day. Still, it's diner food and not candlelight dinner, so you can also expect to be reasonably quickly seated if you insist on a booth. Like an old-fashioned diner, the seating is generally arranged for foursomes, but there are a couple of arrangements squeezed in around a pillar that seat three.
We got in just slightly after 1pm, and the place was so packed staff overlooked a small free booth for three. My sharp-eyed companion spied it and we were seated immediately. By around 1.45pm, I noticed the capacity crowd was thinned out to about 1/3rd full.

One very nice feature of Argo Cafe is the friendly and laid-back staff. Our server today is a busy guy with play auditions and work with seniors on weekends in addition to five days at the Argo Cafe. Despite the buzzing restaurant, the server was generous with his time for us newbies, patiently introducing what the restaurant was about and giving us his recommendations on the specials. His attention didn't wander and he certainly didn't seem impatient at all. And there was no bragging about their 15 minutes of fame on The Food Network's You Gotta Eat Here.
Water was topped up and dishes were cleared very promptly. The tables have cutlery but are not set up with plates, and I was pleasantly surprised when one of the staff offered us a plate for sharing when he noticed us trading portions of our meals.

Did I already mention CASH ONLY? In our credit card world, this can be important if you're going for one of their daily specials. Lunch for two can end up being $40 including a drink and dessert. Without a posh address, fancy digs, or credit card machine charges, Argo Cafe manages to serve good downtown restaurant fare on their daily specials menu at basically about $2 to $5 less, depending on how you want to compare it (such as The Wallflower Modern Diner, near Broadway and Main, for instance). Plus -- so we were told by our server -- the food is organic. They do, however, charge an extra 25 cents for take-out boxes.

The daily specials can change literally every day, and considering there's about a dozen items, it's quite a fresh sheet to come up with every day. You're unlikely to find this at just any diner, but the Argo Cafe's Denis Larouche is a Cordon Bleu chef. So despite the digs clashing with the menu, and whatever you might think of a high-flying chef slumming in an East Van industrial neighbourhood, you can be reasonably assured what's on the plate will be above average.

On Monday, February 27th, the specials were:
  1. Grilled Miso Halibut with Rice, Veggies topped with Butter Squash Cream Sauce $13.00
  2. Boneless Duck on Salad with Oriental Dressing $12.50
  3. Putanecsa Bacon wrapped Cod with Rice & Veggies -- Spicy Tomato, Capers, Olives & Anchovies Sauce $12.00
  4. Bombay Chicken Piccata with Mash Potatoes, Veggies, Mango Chutney & Coconut Curry Sauce $12.00
  5. Pistachio Nut & Panko Crusted Sockeye Salmon with Rice & Veggies $12.00
  6. Dijon Lamb Shank with Mash Potatoes & Veggies $11.50
  7. Wasabi & Sesame Seed Crusted Albacore Tuna with Mash Potatoes & Veggies $11.50
  8. Chicken & Italian Sausage Pasta in Fennel & Tomato Sauce $11.50
  9. Garlic & Ginger Seafood in Cream Sauce on Rice -- Salmon, Cod, Snapper, Prawns & Scallops $11.50
  10. Pork Chop & Bacon wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Mash Potatoes & Veggies topped with Onion & Fig Sauce $11.00
  11. Ruben & Fries -- Rye Bread, Corn Beef, Dijon Mustard & Sauerkaut $8.50

All specials start you with your choice of a small bowl of soup. Monday's choices were Chicken Chowder; or Bacon & Turkey Borsht.

My dining companion and I went with one of each kind of soup, the halibut, and the duck. For dessert, I was intrigued to try their tiramisu ($4), which comes in a wine glass. My companion also had an after-dinner coffee  ($1.50) which she found "very strong" and a bit off-putting.
Since the daily specials change frequently, it's probably unlikely that you'll get exactly the same, so in a way it's useless to review here, but here goes...

  • Grilled Miso Halibut with Rice, Veggies topped with Butter Squash Cream Sauce $13.00
    • This is a pretty basic plate that looks awfully boring. The rice was substituted with mashed potato.
    • Although the portion looked small, it was really because of the big plate. You got a full meal here, especially if you consider the soup beforehand.
    • The mashed potato was basic with enough butter to make itself known but not to dominate.
    • The decently sized halibut filet was moist and tender. Basic food well prepared. Can't go wrong here.
  • Boneless Duck on Salad with Oriental Dressing $12.50
    • A patron recommended this, as well as the server, so I was sold. And happily, not disappointed.
    • Nothing heavy on this plate like mashed potato or rice, but there's a good sized salad here, plus about two tablespoons worth of diced pineapple on top. Somewhere in there was pulled duck, which I approximated to maybe a cup and a half worth.
    • Duck is duck to me, but my companion remarked that it had a rich taste. I think this dish could have been even better with some duck skin, especially if it were on the crispy side for both taste and texture. As it was, it was mostly a good salad.
    • Most of the dressing made its way to the bottom, which I discovered only once I was halfway through. The strongly soy-sauce tasting dressing pooled at the bottom made the second half of my salad a bit on the too-salty side. If you do order this or something similar, check for this and if you find the same, just toss your salad periodically to even out the taste.
    • For $12.50, it was a good salad with some duck/protein and still a good price.
  • Tiramisu in a cup
    • I was really confused by this dessert as I really didn't think tiramisu belonged in a cup. Tiramisu flavoured ice cream, maybe, but not the dessert itself.
    • There was evidence of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, but it was predominantly marscapone cheese. So if you like that in disproportion in your tiramisu, then this dessert will probably work for you.
    • It's a smaller portion than a typical square of tiramisu -- maybe a measuring cup worth -- but at the same time it's only $4. So it works out to a really manageable single-person portion instead of what can be a guilt-inducing experience for the waistline conscious. I think more desserts could stand to be half-sized and half-priced like this.

The "bill" was just a receipt with the two specials scribbled on it. When I pointed out that we also had the tiramisu, the server was really casual about it. He said we'd be asked if that was all, and that I could just tell the cashier. It's a strangely trusting honour system here, rare to find.
On top of that, all that courtesy and attentive service during our lunch was offered with no tip expected when I paid at the counter -- service because they are happy to provide service. Our meal came out to $33.04 after tax, before tip, which was pooled into a tip jar.

Free Pancakes from IHOP? Maybe.

Feb-28-2012 IHOP for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals

You may quite possibly have seen this picture shared on Facebook, via LikeACoupon. If you dig around, you can find some related links, like the IHOP National Pancake Day website and Facebook page, and Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

IHOP National Pancake Day - February 28, 2012 - Pancake Day Details_cr

Looks good, right? All set for free breakfast tomorrow? So why did I put "Maybe" on my blog post?

The problem I have with this is that USA is all over it. A Facebook share can go all around the world. Sure, there's IHOP in Canada, but what about Children's Miracle Network Hospitals?

Let's start with IHOP. On the National Pancake Day details, the "Find An IHOP Near You" picture/link sits on an outline of the USA. This, to me, suggests IHOP is US based, and possibly Pancake Day is a US thing. The search page has a country drop-down, but the search page is not on www.ihoppancakeday.com, either.

If you go to Children's Miracle Network Hospital and try the Hospital locator under the "Partners" tab, there is no country selection, only US states. So is this a US-only deal? Looks like yes -- but actually, no. Click the "Your Hospital" tab and if you're in BC, Canada, it should take you to a page talking about the BC Children's Hospital.

.ORG is not really country specific. If you Google Children's Miracle Network, in Canada you'll probably get http://childrensmiraclenetwork.CA/ as the first search result. Looks good. And if you go there the website looks very similar to the .ORG version, EXCEPT there's no mention of Pancake Day. AND under Partners > Corporate Sponsorships, IHOP is NOT listed.
(By the way, click on Your Hospital and it can't even localize BC Children's Hospital. It just redirects you to the Partners > Hospitals search page.)
If you go back to http://childrensmiraclenetworkhospitals.ORG and try it there, you'll find IHOP under "Sponsors". So are they sponsors only in the US? -- Meaning, is this pancake deal only in the US?

Let's have one last try to confirm whether there will be free pancakes on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012, for Canadians: Let's go to BC Children's Hospital, which would supposedly benefit.

As I write this, it's 0025h on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012. The promotion is TODAY, later this morning.

...And there is NOTHING on IHOP National Pancake Day on the front page.

If you're in BC, or anywhere in Canada, Swing by an IHOP this morning if you like. And I do hope you'll get a free stack of pancakes and that you'll give a little something to the Children's Miracle Network in return. But don't be surprised if you get a blank stare.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Strange Garlic Pizza at Campagnolo on Main

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon
I sort of gave up on "authentic" VPN Certified Neapolitan Pizza after Nicli Antica Pizzeria, but that didn't stop me from trying Campagnolo with the Vancouver Fine Dining Meetup. I initially wanted to get the pork-and-duck bollito misto, but it had been rotated off the menu (which changes about once every two months) to align with what's available seasonally. Then I spotted the lemon-and-garlic pizza.

If you didn't already know, there are two Campagnolo restaurants. There's Campagnolo Roma on East Hastings and Campagnolo on Main Street in Strathcona. The menus are slightly different. Neither are VPN Certified, and in fact, due to building codes the one on Main Street cannot have a wood fired oven, which is one of the requirements for certified authenticity. Campagnolog on Main turns out the same style of pizza with the same look and feel, so you're not missing much. The pizzas here are chewy and think, and the edge crust seemed to me rather a bit too wide at over 1" in some places.

Reservations Bookings are available for tables of 8+, but once you get to around 10+ people, we discovered they imposed a set menu. Our numbers dropped to 6 confirmed, and we ordered à la carte.
I started us off with Crispy Ceci to share. For mains, our server recommended the Sloping Hill Pork and somehow her pitch about the fall-off-the-bone goodness won over half the table because we had three orders of it. The rest of us went with pizza. The lone vegetarian ordered the Funghi, the was an order of Salsiccia, and I went with the Carbonara. For dessert, I shared a Terrina di Cioccolato.
  • Crispy Ceci ($8.50; chickpeas, chilies, mint, citrus; picture)
    • This was surprisingly good! It's cripsy chickpeas (probably fried, if not deep-fried, but it doesn't come out oily), which normally have a boring taste, except this dish tosses them in mint and citrus. The result is a light, refreshing, salad-like taste in the mouth combined with the fun crunch of the chickpeas.
    • I'm not sure I'd eat a whole bowl of them non-stop in one sitting, but a few spoonfuls per person are just right for sharing with a small table.
  • Sloping Hill Pork ($22; with ricotta gnocchi, leeks, Swiss chard)
    • The well-done portions of pork were definitely tender enough to just tear apart gently. But the portion seemed to me rather stingy for $22, which could get you a 7 oz steak. The single chunk of pork was about 8 cubic inches.
    • Flavour-wise I thought it was okay. Could have used some jus to temper the well-done dryness.
  • Funghi Pizza ($15.50; chanterelles, trumpets, fior di latte mozzarella, pecorino)
    • Mushroom pizza. Pretty decent, but nothing special.
    • Rather soggy in the centre, which is a risk when using wet ingredients (like mushrooms, which can give out a lot of water) and very thin pizza crust (which is the Neapolitan pizza style).
      • EDIT (Mar-18): I spoke with the lady who ordered this pizza, and she attributes the sogginess to the slice I got being one of the last pieces. It therefore sat on the plate and may have soaked up the steam or sauce from the other pieces.
  • Salsiccia Pizza ($15; fennel sausage, arugula, parmigiano reggiano, chilies)
    • There's the same sparse-ingredients problem here which I saw with the Agnello pizza at Nicli Antica Pizzeria. The sausage chunks were few and far between. Flavourful, but you had to be picky about which slice of pizza you chose if you wanted at least one bite of sausage. This is the one feature of traditional pizza that North American pizzas thankfully corrected.
    • The chili here (possibly mixed into the tomato sauce) gave this pizza a nice kick to the taste. It might not be for everyone, though, especially if you're firmly in the mild- to very-mild category of spiciness.
  • Carbonara Pizza ($14; lemon, stessa, crispy garlic, egg)
    • "Carbonara" refers to the classic eggs-cheese-bacon pasta combo. If you order this with that in mind, you'll probably find this pizza completely alien.
    • Usually pizza come with tomato sauce. None here! If you order this, get ready for a different pizza experience.
    • The one slightly-undercooked pizza turned out to be mine and this one. The crust was cooked through, but pale unlike the other two, which had been baked long enough to blister and burn in some places. Just a bit more browning and maybe some burn would have added much to the flavour of the crust, especially since there was so much on the pizza edge.
    • There's a nice picture of the Carbonara pizza on Urbanspoon, but my order looked NOTHING like it.
      • There was a single egg baked on it, but it was off to the side and basically sat on one slice of pizza. This might seem contrary to sharing, but it's just the one egg sunny side up, you really want to handle it with the full yolk in the same bite so it doesn't dribble all over and make a mess. If you want more egg, you can ask for it at $1 each.
      • The stessa (bacon) was barely visible. Actually, I'm not even sure it was on it, except there were bumps that looked like white bacon fat. Definitely no brown chunks like in the picture on UrbanSpoon. Can't say I made out the flavour of it.
      • The cripsy garlic was scattered in clumps, so you either got too much in a bite or none at all. This definitely could have been done better. Same amount of garlic (it's a very strong flavour), but just distributed much more evenly. Because of the naturally clumping nature of this ingredient, it can take a while to manually separate and sprinkle onto the pizza, however. I can see why they shortcut this. Disappointing, though.
    • The crispy garlic was an interesting flavour here. If you've never seen it or had it before, it's basically a sort of deep-fried minced garlic. It's a deep honey-gold colour, and once it cools it is crispy for a long time. It can be on the oily side if not drained enough. The flavour isn't the same straight garlic taste, but softer. The aroma is wonderful. The taste can be domineering, so it's usually used in small quantities to enhance the flavour of something else, such as with stir fried vegetables.
      • Here, the flavour is clear in the pizza, but tempered and freshened with the lemon. A surprisingly good combination.
    • Overall, this is an interesting pizza to try, but I would have to caution that it's not for everyone, especially if the kitchen continues to leave the garlic in large clumps here and there. Too much of that in one bite definitely ruins the taste of this otherwise intriguing pizza.
  • Terrina di Cioccolato (chocolate terrine ; $8; coffee, nutella)
    • This was layers of cake and a dense, almost hard cream. The top layer of cream (the nutella portion) had crushed hazelnuts in it.
    • There isn't the same dark chocolate colour or rich chocolate flavour, to really count as a chocolate cake or chocolate anything. Sorry to sound like a chocolate-cake-snob, but at best it's a coffee dessert. It tastes somewhat like a brown Purdy's Hedgehog or a Coffee Crisp.
    • It's a good sized portion, but might be slightly overpriced at $8. If you were looking for a deeply chocolatey dessert or a "real" chocolate cake, this will disappoint. If you like nutella and the milk-chocolate and hazelnut combo, or if you count nutella as "chocolate", then this could work out for you.
    • The taste wasn't rich enough for me and I gave up after two half-bites.
My bill for one peppermint tea ($2.25), the entire order of Crispy Ceci, the Carbonara pizza, and half the Terrina di Cioccolato, was $28.75. $32.20 after 12% tax, $40 after tip.

Paella Breakfast at Cafe Medina

Cafe Medina on Urbanspoon
I wanted to try something other than ham, eggs, and toast for breakfast (since I can just as easily get that at home), and there just aren't that many interesting breakfast places. The Medina Cafe definitely has a different take on it, with its mix of international cuisine though originally (and apparently still) famous for its Belgian waffles, now ringing in at $3.15 each -- and that's without any toppings, which are $1 extra.
I feel it is a sad commentary on North American price inflation when a waffle is not overpriced at $3.15 in downtown Vancouver as a brownie in Starbucks might well be similarly priced. And that's without loading it with any expectations for that price tag.

There's often talk of a line-up at the Medina Cafe, and if you go a bit later in the morning (say, 10am on Friday morning), there will be. But my friend and I got in just after 9 am just last Friday, and although the main room was packed, there was still some seating in the "back room" -- which basically means going into the guts of the building to emerge in the back dining room of Chambar next door. Why they don't just open up Chambar as well is a bit of a mystery. Anyway, what you see through the window is only about 1/3rd of the available seating. In the back, the tables are tight together so that friendly neighbours might have to budge them a bit for you to slide your ass in and out of the narrow space in between. But at least the tables are wide so there isn't the Skytrain-seating feel.

The breakfast menu looks horribly overpriced, and some of it probably is. Bacon for $5? Really? Is that half a small pig? But everybody raves about this place, so okay, let's try it (uh, not the bacon, maybe). I went with the "served all day" Paella and a White Chocolate Pistachio Rosewater Mocha.

About the Mocha: Yes, that's what it says on the paper menu -- all three things supposedly in the mocha. I was a tad worried about how much rosewater would be in it, since I'm not good with too much rosewater and find it too pungent for my tastes.
Sadly, I didn't have to worry about it as all, since the mocha tasted like mocha. Not even a hint of rosewater or pistachio.
When the bill came later, it read, "12 oz Mocha 3.35" and on a separate line, "white choc 0.67". Where's my pistachio? Where's the rosewater? If the menu meant three separate options for the mocha, I think the server should have let me know up front, and in any case advised me later before filling my order.
Yes, it's a busy morning with lots of people waiting. But I read her the order right off their in-house paper menu -- which listed all three items on one line and with no commas -- so I think the restaurant has to take responsibility for how they worded the menu.
Anyway, before you order any special mocha here, ASK FIRST about what you're really going to get.

If you've had a paella at a Spanish restaurant, such as the supposedly-very-authentic La Bodega, you might be thinking that you're going to get for your $12 a good sized pan of flavourful rice and goodies stewed right in it. At Cafe Medina... not quite.
First, they use orzo, which is rice-like pasta. But it's not rice. It's lighter and softer. It's also not so packed and heavy as the broth-infused rice in a "regular" paella. So when the deep-dish cast iron frying pan comes to your table, don't panic at what looks like a heavy $12 dinner-sized portion because it's really not.
The orzo is fluffy and under the fluffy watercress salad, so really the whole thing looks a lot bigger than it is. There are a few slices of chorizo (sausage), but not so much as to make it a significant amount of meat here.
Overall it was quite tasty, and made for a satisfying and not over-filling breakfast portion. At $12, I think it's priced high enough to be fair, and not overpriced considering what's in it. Whether you're willing to pay this for breakfast is a different story.
TIP: If you order this, ask for a spoon right away when you order it. The table cutlery has a fork and knife; no spoon. It's better to have a spoon for the orzo.

I think the Medina Cafe works better as brunch than breakfast, especially if you're the type to substitute breakfast and lunch for a single brunch, since $12 for a single breakfast item, or $20 for breakfast with one beverage, tax, and tip is asking quite a lot.

If you're looking for an alternative, or just daunted by the lineup, you could walk a bit down the street to The Dirty Apron, also run by the folks behind Chambar and the Medina Cafe. They had a dead-quiet deli with an absolutely wonderful aroma in the air. It's less exotic fare, and the price won't be much less, but hopefully the quality will be there to justify it. I've put it down on my to-dine list.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Year's Supply of Eggo Pancakes and Waffles

Got this in my e-mail box today: Chance to win a year's supply of Kellog's Eggo Pancakes and Waffles.

The fine print:

†Contest sponsor: Kellogg Canada Inc. No purchase necessary. Contest starts on February 21, 2012 and ends on March 20, 2012. The contest is open to legal residents of Canada (excluding Quebec) only who have reached the age of majority in their Province/Territory of residence. There is one (1) Prize available to be won consisting of: One (1) Year of Eggo* Waffles/Pancakes to be awarded in the form of 52 free product coupons redeemable for Eggo* Waffles/Pancakes. Approximate retail value of the Prize is One Hundred and Fifty-Six Dollars Canadian ($156.00). Winner must correctly answer mathematical skill testing question to be declared a winner. Approximate odds of winning the Prize depend on the total number of eligible entries received by the Contest Closing Time. Full Contest rules are available online at http://kelloggs.ca/eggocontest.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Takeout from Shizen Ya (Broadway)

Shizen Ya on Urbanspoon
Last Friday, I dropped by Shizen Ya on Broadway to get some takeout for myself and my notoriously hard-to-please mom. My mom had for some reason become impressed with brown rice, so I thought I'd try out some brown rice sushi on her.

At other sushi places, you can sometimes substitute regular sushi rice with brown rice for about 50¢. Brown rice is processed less but costs more. Hmm... At Shizen Ya, USDA certified organic brown rice is standard. The seafood used at Shizen Ya also bears the round Ocean Wise sustainable seafood logo.

On this trip, I got a Sakura Blossom Roll, a Spicy Tuna Cone, and a bit of their homemade Natto.
  • Sakura Blossom Roll ($12.95; juicy fresh crab, spicy albacore tuna, cucumber, avocado, rolled with organic brown sushi rice, wrapped with wild sockeye salmon; creamy maple dressing)
    • This is a larger sushi roll, about 2" in diameter, compared to the typical smaller ~1" diameter rolls that sell for $5-$7. The bright red salmon on the outside gives this a nice presentation, although the salmon didn't always go completely around the sushi.
    • Not sure why they put down "spicy albacore tuna" because there was nothing spicy here at all. The maple dressing was creamy and gave some sweetness to it, but not so much as to overwhelm everything.
    • Do NOT get this for takeout for someone else! In the take-out box, the creamy dressing eventually found its way to the bottom of each piece of sushi. You didn't lose all of it, but it does make an ugly mess if you look underneath. If the mushiness bothers you, you could very briefly sear the bottom of each piece on a non-stick skillet.
  • Spicy Tuna Cone ($2.95; tuna, quinoa, avocado in a soy paper wrapper)
    • The first thing that happened when I picked this up is that some quinoa promptly leaked/spilled out the bottom of the cone. You might want to pinch and/or fold up the very end before picking it up off the plate.
    • I found this had too much avocado, in two large chunks, and that dominated the flavour of everything else. Nothing spicy here, either. If anything, the avocado gave it a blandness.
    • It also looks a bit small, but at $2.95, how much do you want?
  • Natto ($3.95)
    • A long time ago, I had a "natto bomb" at Alpha Global Sushi & Bar, where the server advised me to basically drown the thing in soy sauce. It naturally tasted mostly like soy sauce. I'd also had natto ice cream at the now-closed Shiru-Bay Chopstick Cafe in Yaletown. I think it was on one of their Dine Out Vancouver offerings. Strangely, that tasted vaguely like coffee, probably because of the caramel and vanilla. So I wanted to try natto just on its own. Big mistake.
    • The portion you get is about one measuring cup full for your $3.95. The Japanese typically have it with rice and dusted with sugar or drowned in soy sauce.
    • Natto is supposed to be good for you, if you don't retch it out. When you scoop it up, it makes web-like strings because of the goo it's sitting in. Heck, that's probably the bacteria that's infesting the stuff. Legend has it that some boiled soybeans went bad and soldiers ate it anyway -- and liked it! When you put it in your mouth, you can confirm just how slimy it looks.
    • They say it's an acquired taste. For me, it starts out initially bland, but has a slight bitter aftertaste. It's the slimy goo that gets me, more than the flavour -- so putting in soy sauce didn't help so much. The natto here doesn't smell very strong, but there's a slight stink to it too.
    • In the end, we seared the natto in a skillet to see if that would help with the goo. Then we put in something sweet. I tried honey and it just mixed with the goo, making it even slimier. My mom tried some Kraft Poppy Seed Dressing and claimed to have good results.
    • If you're in largish group of 6-8, you're pretty safe to try the natto as a novelty (just in case you actually like it) since no one will get more than a teaspoon to try. Otherwise, pass.
    Overall the sushi I've tried here at Shizen Ya feels like it comes in at a fair price, and has a good taste. Not "wow", but good. You get brown rice and Ocean Wise, so it's more like a decent sushi place with an interesting concept. I'll have to go back to try some of the other stuff to get a better feel for it though.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    It's Singles Awareness Day

    Happy Singles Awareness Day everybody. Good luck out there.

    I heard
    That you're settled down
    That you found a girl
    And you're married now
    I heard
    That your dreams came true
    Guess she gave you things
    I didn't give to you

    Old friend
    Why are you so shy
    Ain't like you to hold back
    Or hide from the light

    I hate to turn up out of the blue
    But I couldn't stay away
    I couldn't fight it
    I'd hoped you'd see my face
    And that you'd be reminded
    That for me
    It isn't over

    Never mind I'll find
    Someone like you
    I wish nothing but the best for you
    Too... Don't forget me
    I beg
    I remember you said
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead

    You'd know
    How the time flies
    Only yesterday
    Was the time of our lives
    We were born and raised
    In a summer haze
    Bound by the surprise
    Of our glory days

    I hate to turn up out of the blue
    But I couldn't stay away
    I couldn't fight it
    I'd hoped you'd see my face
    And that you'd be reminded
    That for me
    It isn't over

    Never mind I'll find
    Someone like you
    I wish nothing but the best for you
    Too... Don't forget me
    I beg
    I remember you said
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead, yeah

    Nothing compares
    No worries, or cares
    Regrets and mistakes
    They're memories made
    Who would have known... How...
    This would taste

    Never mind I'll find
    Someone like you
    I wish nothing but the best for you
    Don't forget me
    I beg
    I remember you said
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead

    Never mind I'll find
    Someone like you
    I wish nothing but the best for you
    Too... Don't forget me
    I beg
    I remember you said
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead
    Sometimes it lasts in love
    But sometimes it hurts instead
    Yeah, Yeah...

    Monday, February 13, 2012

    Still Around: 100-Mile Menu at the RainCity Grill

    Raincity Grill on Urbanspoon
    The 100-Mile Diet idea may have fallen off the radar, but it's still feasible and the 100-Mile Menu is still available at Raincity Grill. I knew I was handicapping the restaurant from the start, but I was too curious not to try it when I went to the restaurant Saturday night with the Vancouver Fine Dining Club.

    Once upon a time, before refrigeration and importing made everything available everywhere, people had to make do with what they could harvest and what they could preserve. If you try out some of the older "traditional" recipes, you may discover that everything you need for the recipe will be in-season at the same time: Precisely because the recipe was based on what was available to kitchens, without the benefit of shipping something over from the antipodes.

    Before evaluating the 100-Mile Menu at the Raincity Grill (or anywhere else), you have to give some leeway for what they can't use because it's not locally available. If something is on the bland side or if the veggies look boring, well, it's not like they can toss in just anything to pretty it up. Even something as simple as sugar can require a substitute. In some ways, it's like vegan cooking. When you can't use eggs or cream, you have to get creative and use flax or avocado. The result isn't exactly the same, but sometimes it's darn close, and if the chef knows what they're doing, no one will care about what they're missing.

    The bread tray here was four ping-pong ball sized chewy white bread buns, plain butter, and a light violet coloured salt. It was a bit tricky to get at the salt in its small dish. What worked for me was to have some butter on the tip of my knife, and use that to press into the salt, thus picking it up ready to spread on your tiny bun.
    It was a room temperature bun. Which seems to be the norm now. I don't exactly expect fresh-baked bread, but could it at least be toasty-warm? Heck, why don't restaurants just give out toast? At least it's be nice and hot.

    Raincity Grill 100-Mile Tasting Menu ($73, +$9 optional cheese course, +$34 with wine accompaniment)
    • North Arm Farm Beetroot Salad - farmhouse goat's cheese cannelloni, hazelnut mulch
      • North Arm Farm  is a certified organic farm in Pemberton.
      • The cannelloni looked like a tiny piece of sushi. It's smaller than even your standard piece of small sushi. Goat cheese inside, but not very strong. Really just a token piece.
      • The "mulch" was more like crushed nuts or crumbs, which is how it is described on the à la carte menu version of this salad.
      • The rest of the plate was a sweet salad of large chunks of root vegetables. Overall, the sweetness made the experience almost like eating a fruit salad.
    • Vancouver Island Manila Clams - gin & tomato broth, garlic, celery & chard, tuscan toast
      • I think someone swiped my toast because I didn't get any. Neither did the other person at our table who ordered the tasting menu. By this time, the four small, chewy, not-warmed buns that had been brought to our table as the usual bread starter was more or less gone, and in any case a ping-pong ball sized bun wasn't going to help a lot here.
        • That said, the tasting menu as a whole while not substantial and heavy with grain or potatoes; and although each plate has a smallish looking portion; adds up to a fair-sized meal, so toast here might have made it too much.
      • I didn't think there was anything too special here. Tasty enough, so there's nothing bad per se. Broth a tad on the salty side so I could really have used the toast. Watch out for shell shards. I had a little bit in the soup.
      • Something you can try here is to systematically scrape out all the clams. They more or less fall right off when you use the little fork provided, and once that chore is done you can have clams in still-hot soup. Instead of clams, then soup that has gone cold.
    • Fraser Valley Duck Proscuitto - endive salad, averill creek blackberry gastrique
      • If you're thinking papery-thin slices of salty duck, you would be wrong. Duck is a different animal from pig, so duck proscuitto is different.
      • On the plate there's the slices of duck proscuitto -- about 4mm thick, and so rare that it looked more like pork -- as well as a thick triangle of what looked like dark grey-brown pulled duck meat pressed together and seared.
        • The triangle of duck was very salty! Try it straight away and decide on your strategy here: Eat less of it, get more water, or have it with the meat and/or salad together. It's really that salty.
      • Other than that, duck is duck. Next!
    • Fraser Valley Roast Pork - smoked potato fondant, ‘north arm farm’ carrots, braised red cabbage, apple-chardonnay jus
      • The roast pork here was a very fatty chunk with hard and very crispy skin on. Instead of trying to cut it from the top, if you flip this slightly-more-than 1 cubic inch slab onto its side, you will find you can just take your fork and knife and pull it apart. It comes off cleanly in layers, possibly because of all that fat!
      • Fat. Urgh.
      • I'm tempted to also take points off for the menu wording as a whole as it feels misleading. This is just one example. When it says "roast pork", I really didn't expect to get so much fat. Maybe it came from a particularly porky pig?
    • Optional Farmhouse Cheese course - I skipped this.
    • Cranberry Semifreddo - elderflower broth.
      • This looked like a chunk of ice cream sitting in saskatoon berry sauce. Very sweet sauce, so definitely have it with the ice cream.
      • It's OK. The sauce definitely gives you a sweet finish to your meal. But at the same time, like the clams, there's nothing special here.
    I give them points for putting together a decent 100-Mile Diet concept menu, but sadly have to take points away for the boring clams, and disappointing duck and pork. Dessert was OK, but not a particularly great finish. Best part was the salad, which is a slightly smaller portion than on their vegetarian Regional Menu.

    That Saturday night, the restaurant didn't really get busy till closer to 7pm when it was full. Best bet for just walking in would be around 5.30pm, or after maybe 8.30pm.

    The bill, including one pot of peppermint tea and 12% tax, came out to just over $85 before tip.

    Saturday, February 11, 2012

    Undercooked? Flatbread at Cosca

    Cosca on Urbanspoon
    There's something funny about the flatbread at Cosca. I think the dough is undercooked.

    I rallied a couple of friends to go to Cosca to try the flatbread again after having gone once before with the Food Bloggers in January to sample the pasta. I'd had flatbread there too, and the diners at our table immediately remarked how undercooked it was. At the time, I thought it was a fluke. Well, when both our pizzas came with undercooked dough last night, I guess it's some new pizza fashion.

    Yes, I actually carved the dough open and touched the inside, which was clearly still sticky, though not so much as to have a raw dough look. The result in your mouth is a slightly gummy experience that can stick to your teeth. The taste of the ingredients isn't so strong to begin with, and this experience is now compounded with a texture/feel in your mouth from the dough that dominates.
    If they keep this up, I recommend skipping it and going to a neapolitan pizza joint. Nicli Antica Pizzeria, is one I tried quite recently, and the pizza experience there is way superior. Heck, even Pizza Factory would give you a better pizza experience.

    Also, Cosca uses a long rectangle shape, which means the area:perimeter ratio is lower than using a circle shape, which in turn means more edge crust. The pizza is maybe 12" x 4", you get quite a bit less area (and hence ingredients) for a $10-$12 pizza/flatbread than a $2-$3 more neapolitan pizza. If you don't mind frozen pizza, then it's no contest versus Western Family thin crust pizza, recently on sale at Superstore at a bargain basement price of $3.98!

    The two pizzas we tried were Cosca (basil, pomodoro sauce, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano; $10) and Funghi Selvatico (wild mushroom medley, pecorino – romano; $11). Honestly, for the price, go to a neapolitan pizza place, which has comparable price but, if VPN certified, MUST use the highest quality ingredients as well.

    Which is not to say Cosca doesn't have good food. It's just better to get flatbread elsewhere.

    On to desserts (all $8 each)! This totally saved dinner.

    My friends had actually read my review of the desserts at Cosca and decided on the Tartufo. I had gone with my eye on the torte, a hazelnut cherry chocolate torte, and was not disappointed. Not the huge portions as the other desserts, but it's rich and chocolatey enough that you'd be overwhelmed anyway. Two thirds of the way through, it started to give me a mild burning sensation in the back of your throat, which always turns me off the rest of dessert. I think I get that way from too much chocolate!
    The torte sits on a ~5mm crust of what looks like finely crushed nuts. The cherries are syrupy, like maraschino cherries, and you get a couple of samples on your plate along with some whipped cream. The rest is embedded into the chocolate torte slice.

    At $8 I think this is slightly overpriced, and I don't think I'd choose it over their delicious tiramisu. But if you need to end dinner with chocolate, this definitely satisfies your chocolate craving.
    If you don't like syrupy cherries, they are easy enough to spot in the torte, even in the dim candlelight of the room, and you can give them away.

    On your way out of the restaurant, look on the wall for a surprisingly dense Wine Map of Italy. It's also marked with where the chef is from.

    Sunday, February 5, 2012

    1927 Lounge at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia

    1927 on Urbanspoon
    After wrapping up dinner at MARKET on Saturday night, my companions and I dashed over in the crisp cold night to the Rosewood Hotel Georgia to continue drinks and chatting. Sadly, the Bel Café had closed and Hawksworth was packed, so we sat ourselves at the bar in the 1927 Lobby Lounge. If you like the look of big ice cubes, you'll get it here with 8 cubic inch cubes.

    If you've never walked through the hotel after it's revitalization, definitely go! I mentioned it briefly after a glimpse when I went to the Bel Café for dessert, but it deserves a good look in the late evening when all is quiet. In addition to period decor and some interesting flower arrangements, there's a collection of fine art right in the lobby. On the hotel main web page is a link to a PDF summarizing this art collection.

    The bar in the 1927 Lobby Lounge is very tight in the narrow but deep lounge. If you find it a bit busy, you are free to sit elsewhere in the hotel's long and spacious lobby, where small bites and drinks menus are available at each table. Having just finished a lovely light dinner at MARKET, I was in the mood for a dessert to share, but the Warm Soft Pretzels with Sea Salt and Ravens Cream Ale Mustard ($6) caught my eye as a novelty I hadn't had before.

    From the description I had expected several individual soft pretzels dusted with crystals of sea salt baked on. Even my companions, who had apparently had the same in Europe, were pretty sure of this. What was served was quite different and disappointing.

    The warm "pretzel" (which I think can only be properly called a pretzel if it has the distinctive pretzel twist) looked like a mini loaf of french bread about six inches long and pre-sliced. It was the proper brown colour and had the usual chewy and slightly sweet pretzel-bread composition, but it was not a "pretzel" per se.
    No visible sea salt on it, but there were flakes of salt that crumbled off the bread, so that was barely in evidence with each bite.
    And the mustard was slimy and grainy, and basically tasted like mustard.

    Bread with mustard. $6. Hmm... Easy to share, to be sure. But honestly, skip this.

    The drinks were a bit more interesting at least to watch.
    The "Cavalier" (Hennessy v.s. Cognac, fresh apple cider, lemon, rosemary maple syrup, jerry) includes a sprig of rosemary set afire over a glass. The fire puts itself out once the natural oils have burnt off, and the cocktail is poured right over this sprig and into the glass. Then the rosemary is used to stir the drink before it is sent off.

    The bartender Derek here was an attentive but stoic guy. It didn't look it, but he was listening and if you wondered about this and that at the bar, he'd bring it over unbidden and mention an informative thing or two. However, he'll not engage you as much as other bartenders, especially on the busy Dine Out Vancouver night we were there, so if you're looking for a more chatty time even in a busy bar, try Hawksworth in the same hotel. If you want to be left to your own companions, or are not going to sit at the bar anyway, then you'll have a more private time at the 1927 Lobby Lounge or just elsewhere in the lobby.

    P.S. If you do go to the bar at Hawksworth, have a close look at the bar. There's a strip where they prep the drinks, and there are round holes with what looks like a propeller. Do NOT press this. Trust me.

    Tapas at Market by Jean-Georges

    Market by Jean-Georges (Shangri-La Hotel) on Urbanspoon
    I wanted to take my friends from Chilliwack somewhere special as they don't come into town often. And they eat like birds. I settled on MARKET by Jean-Georges hoping that the small bites would be fantastically put together -- and fortunately I was right.

    Saturday February 4th was at the tail end of Dine Out Vancouver, but I still managed a reservation for three at 5.30pm, and was warned of a 2-hour dining limit. No problem. We took our time, but because we were just nibbling on small plates it turned out quite fine. Chatting the night away still saw us exiting just at 7.30pm, by which time the restaurant was buzzing.

    It's a tight semi-circular space with a smaller room and a bigger main room. In between is a bar, and additional seating all along the window. The very dim light in the smaller room near the stairway up from Alberni Street tends to blind you to the claustrophobic environment, however.
    Despite the business of the night, water was prompt and staff were impeccably polite. From the moment you walk in, you are treated like a VIP with a friendliness and professionalism that doesn't slide into too much familiarity.

    The restaurant was switched over to streamline the Dine Out Vancouver menu, but most of the menu you see online was still available (sadly, no Foie Gras Brulé). I was anxious about time, so I started us right away with a Black Truffle and Fontina Cheese pizza ($19) which I'd heard about from various blogs, while my guests took their time with the menu -- They're older, old school, and not into being rushed.

    What came to our table was a Beef Carpacio, Mushrooms, Arugula, and Parmesan pizza ($16). Oops. Our server sorted it out, apologized for the typo that sent the order to the kitchen, and offered it to us on the house. Thanks!

    The pizza here is sort-of chewy thin crust, like neapolitan pizza, but with a broader crust/edge for picking up. The arugula on top is fresh and just dumped on (and lightly tossed in a slightly sour/citrusy dressing) so you can have as much or little as you want. Thinly shaved parmesan. Enough beef carpaccio to cover it to the edge.

    The pizza here is also SMALL. Maybe six inches or so in diameter. Like a kid's pizza. Humph.

    Still, for something that LOOKS simple, the flavour was wonderful. Somehow, it all came together beautifully, especially with the dressing on the arugula to give it a nice contrast. My guests were astonished and wondered if the black truffle pizza could possibly compare.

    Next up, the Black Truffle pizza. Truffling anything typically raises it up a notch, but doesn't guarantee top marks. Same here. Normally I'd say it was really good, with a savory flavour and a subtlety to it that stood out enough not to be missed. The fontina cheese wasn't stinky, either. On top was sprinkled a gob of fresh endive.
    However, having just had the beef carpaccio pizza, I'd have to give the other a higher score.

    Because I had ordered the pizza so early, a basket of bread was only now brought to our table. Four chewy buns with very chewy crusts. Very slightly warm, still nice and soft on the inside. Not fresh baked, but probably not old either. A plain large triangle of butter. Nice bread, but boring presentation. Restaurants could do so much more in this department to jazz things up.

    My companions finally settled on their choices: three oysters, seared scallops, and the sashimi.

    I'm not big into oysters ($3 each) -- I just don't have an appreciation for the different types and invariably get a chip or two of the shucked shell in my mouth. It was okay. The sauces were a typical cocktail sauce (the red stuff you get for shrimp rings) and a red wine concoction that was like a vinaigrette. This latter was very strong and more than a couple of drops would have killed the flavour. The oysters themselves had a very strong seawater flavour, which my companion insisted was because it was very fresh.
    I have to say the Kusshi oysters from Bishops had that more mildly and therefore tasted better to me.

    The Seared Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion ($15 for three) was delicious, but I thought nothing to write home about. However, that may have been because one of my companions stole my seared cauliflower! She wasn't into scallops but was curious about that at least. :-( The scallop itself was very tender, and suddenly softer in the center, which suggested it may have been left slightly raw inside. It was dark in the dining room and the one small candle didn't shed enough light for a proper look.

    Finally, the MARKET Sashimi with Crispy Rice and Chipotle Emulsion ($14 for 3). Normally done with tuna but they had swapped it with salmon. I have to take points away here for the differently sized chunks of salmon. It's already a small piece of sashimi to start, with the rice being a rectangle of about 1-1/2" x 1/2" x 1/2". One chunk of salmon sitting on top of this rice was about 30% bigger than the others. I wasn't quick enough and ended up with the biggest piece, sadly. However, as one of my companions just about melted at how good this appy was, I cut my portion in half so she could have another bite.

    This was surprisingly good. GET IT. Normally, sashimi is a slab of raw fish sitting on a blob of rice and you dab it in soy sauce. Here it is a crispy rice cracker, slightly seared on the outside without making too much of the grains chewy.
    If you've ever burnt, seared, or deep-fried rice, you'll know that it has a tendency to get crusty on the outside, gummy on the inside, and then it likes to paste itself down on your teeth. Trust me, it's really irritating and the last thing you want to do in a posh restaurant is stick your finger into your mouth to scrape rice off your teeth.
    Well, nothing like that here. There's a nice crunch to the rice, and a sweet and very-slightly-spicy taste. Each bite-sized portion assembly was worth the almost $5/bite.

    My companions eat like birds (just like the last time they had to slog through a nine-course tasting at C) so after they finished their wine, they were done. The restaurant didn't LOOK busy from our vantage, but it actually had diners waiting for their seats. I nudged my companions gently to pack it up.

    As one of my companions was celebrating her birthday, they also brought out a complimentary dessert, what was probably a Chocolate Pudding with Softly Whipped Cream and Crystallized Violets (normally appears on the prix fixe lunch menu) on a plate with chocolate "Happy Birthday" and a single candle. There's a bit of chocolate cake underneath all that very smooth pudding. Thanks!

    The bill, including one bottle of white wine, came out to something like $165 after tax. I didn't see all the particulars because they insisted on splitting it, and definitely not letting me pay for the wine. Yes, even birthday girl whipped out her credit card, which I thought was a faux pas.

    We nipped over to the 1927 Lobby Lounge in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia after to continue drinks and conversation.

    Saturday, February 4, 2012

    Dine Out Vancouver 2012 - Salmon n' Bannock Bistro

    Salmon n' Bannock on Urbanspoon
    Overall, for a Dine Out menu of $28, Salmon and Bannock offers okay value and a sample of what sets them apart (bannock and game meat). If you're expecting aboriginal food to somehow be a very novel experience in taste and presentation, then you're already setting yourself up for disappointment and it can be hard to remove that element when you are evaluating the food, ambiance, and the restaurant as a whole. Seriously: What does "aboriginal food and presentation" look like to you?

    That said, the food is basically good edging up to very good. The novelty is really limited to the elk roast. If you're more serious about game meat then you might want to instead try one of the prix fixe fixed-menu feasts, which run from $30 to $50 per person, minimum 4 persons.

    The room used to be Habibi's, a hummus place. Now it's decorated with framed aboriginal art that seems to clash with the music that's played in the background (although, really, do you want to hear traditional aboriginal music?). Oh, and watch out for the low-hanging mini-canoe.

    • Indian candy on organic mix greens with bannock crackers:
      • "Indian Candy" turned out to be, as expected, candied salmon flakes.
      • The Indian Candy was flaked salmon meat, the largest chunk maybe the size of a 25-cent coin. But there was only a little of it, maybe two tablespoons. The rest is salad. Pick this and you're basically ordering a salad.
      • Dig into the salad to find chopped up nuts.
      • The bannock "crackers" were two slices of bread that looked like it had been shaped into a baguette and cut slightly on a diagonal, and the crust removed. Mine were slightly toasted but not crispy. Bannock is a slightly chewy bread that's denser than most breads, and typically fried. Nice to try as a novelty, but bread is bread.
    • Spicy mixed game chorizo skewer with peppers, red onions and double smoked cheddar:
      • The chorizo (sausage) was a single skewer on a long lettuce leaf. Those who tried it said they didn't find any cheddar on it, but that the meat was good.
    • Halibut consommé garnished with west coast toasted seaweed:
      • I didn't get to try the halibut consomme. It was a bit hard to share and only one person ordered it.
    • Elk roast with red wine and mushroom gravy, carrot and rutabaga purée and seasonal vegetables
      • Nothing too special on this plate. In fact, it looked like it might have been a plate of steak from any other restaurant. All the entrées looked like that, but to be fair, you really need to first let go of your expectations of what an aboriginal plating looks like.
      • Seasonal vegetables here were brussels sprouts and a half ear of corn. Everyone also got a half ear of corn on their plate, which works out to be a different way of adding mild sweetness to your main. You don't see this very often, so you could conceivably count this toward your aboriginal experience at Salmon n' Bannock.
      • Strangely, the pulled elk meat (not a single large slab, more like large chunks from a bigger roast) was thick and infused with jus. And strangely it was to me like duck both in taste and texture. Hard to say how much meat there was... Maybe about the same mass as two burger patties.
      • The carrot and rutabaga purée looked like mashed sweet potatoes, but was surprisingly airy and not as sweet. Interesting to try!
    • Wild Sockeye Salmon filet with dill beurre blanc served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables
      • I'm not huge on salmon, so this was just alright. Tender and juicy meat from what I tasted.
    • Ojibway wild rice and barley risotto served with asparagus, wild mushrooms and double smoked cheddar
      • Looked and tasted like any other mushroom risotto I've had elsewhere. I think here the flavour wasn't as thoroughly mixed because an initial taste was quite bland but it worked up to a more pleasing savoriness later.
      • Came with a lot of asparagus and if the initial portion of risotto looked small, look under the asparagus for the rest.
      • Didn't know where the cheddar was, although some people who tried the risotto said it tasted like there was blue cheese in there. I didn't find that myself.
    • Cinnamon bannock bites served with a hot caramel sauce
      • Can't say the bannock screamed cinnamon at me. The whole dessert is basically bread used to sop up a generous amount of caramel. You got four small randomly sized pieces of fried bannock, averaging about 3/4 of a cubic inch each.
      • To me, this dessert is less about the bannock than the caramel and having a sweet finish to your meal.
    Nothing particularly interesting on the beverage list for a non-drinker like myself. I did try a blackcurrant/elderberry cocktail ($3). It's quite a bit on the sweet side so keep your glass of water. The juices are not fresh squeezed.

    The restaurant didn't look it, but it was booked solid with a waiting list for both seatings. It's a small space that only seats about 24 and they allow themselves a half hour between the two 1-1/2 hour seatings, which should be plenty for a party of 2-4. Our party of 6 dragged on because of conversation and a some people who needed to pay by VISA. Apparently they couldn't or didn't think to bring the credit card machine around to the tables. Go to the counter.