Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tasting Menu at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie - part 3

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie on Urbanspoon
This is the third in a three-part blog post about Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and my experience of their tasting menu. In the first part, we talked about the restaurant in general. In the second part, I talked about some of the smaller plates that were part of our tasting menu experience. In this last part I'll go through the larger plates and remaining dishes.
The prices indicated are based on the May 2012. We had a set $30 + tax + tip tasting menu price.

The menu clearly evolves over time, so what you had months ago may very well be an unrecognizable variant now.

Petis Plats Chinois
  • Beef Tartare (picture) - $14 - Pemberton beef tenderloin, preserved mustard root, crispy shallot, ginger root, quail egg, watercress, burnt scallion oil and taro chips
    • This came early (right after the appetizers, I think) and wow was it tasty! Great choice to pair it with the crunchy taro chips for an overall lighter meal. It's a bit pricey and it's raw, but trust me, you want this.
    • Presentation was also very nice with the unbroken yolk of the quail egg sitting in a nest of three very thin round slices of radish (?).
  • Octopus Salad - $14 - Braised and wok charred octopus and scallions, crispy potatoes, kim chi cucumber, confit of garlic, watercress and preserved plum vinaigrette. This used to be more salad-like with no potato.
    • This "salad" was a mix of octopus bits mixed with chunks of crispy-in-the-outside-until-it-gets-cold potatoes. You have to pick out what's what to actually get any octopus. Hard to share with more than one or two people because of this since it's not as homogenous as a regular leaf-based salad.
    • I don't eat octopus on a regular basis, but shellfish-allergy-lady was apparently expert on properly done octopus, and she was very impressed this this dish.
  • Tofu - $10 - Cold soft tofu, black bean, green Sichuan peppercorn ground pork, shimeji mushrooms, garlic chips, and jade radish
    • Just the one bowl of this and it was meant for the member of our dining party who had the shellfish allergy in case there were too many things she couldn't have.
    • Looked like a bowl of ground pork with nary any tofu to be seen. Either that, or some keener snagged all the tofu.
    • Neither I nor the lady it was meant for got a bite as by the time it had made its way around the table, there was none left (possibly everyone thought a second bowl would be on the way).
  • Mantou - $9 - Steamed buns with pork belly, bean sprouts, preserved turnip and sugared peanuts
    • I like that they use very soft, almost spongy/fluffy buns here, which gives each of these small "burgers" a lighter feel that focusses more on the stuffing.
    • Lots of people really liked this but I thought it could the filling have used a little more something to heighten the taste. To me it was sadly just a soft bun with ground pork in it.
  • Noodles
    • Not on the May 2012 menu. Looks like a variant of char kway teow (basically noodles wok-fried with dark sweet soy sauce). Very dark, spicy with chili added, and pieces of duck way at the bottom, so toss the bowl of noodles thoroughly before eating.
    • We didn't toss this very well initially, so those who got the two heaping bowls after everyone else (like myself) found the duck at the bottom sitting in a bit of the sauce.
    • This is really very good, and if you can take even a little spiciness/heat, I would recommend trying it.
  • Sticky Rice Cake (picture) - $12 - Stir fried julienned pork, salted mustard greens, wood ear mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
    • For most dishes we had two plates, but there were three plates of this with really decent portions.
    • "Sticky Rice Cake" can mean lots of things, but in this case you can imagine a really short, thick rice noodle. You may have seen packs of these things in the Asian Foods section of a supermarket: Long white ovals that are remarkably hard.
    • There's a good quantity of the "rice cakes" here but also enough sauce and other things to accompany what would otherwise be a really bland plate. Basically this dish works out to be like a plate of chow mien, with really thick, fat, rice noodles. An interesting variation of getting you a filling quantity of noodles/rice.
    • There were little discs of something crunchy that tasted remarkably like baby bamboo, but were thought to be water chestnut. Probably the bamboo shoots now that I've looked at the menu.
    • Didn't see much pork or mushroom on this, but that may have been because it got swiped by everyone who got the plate first.
    • It's not bad on its own but it really so much better with some of the chili available in a small glass pot on the table.
  • Steelhead Salmon - market price
    • Two bowls of this interesting dish. It's a slab of salmon about the size of a small burger. Looks simply steamed on the outside but was quite rare on the inside. If you don't like raw, you may need to ask about this part.
    • It sat in a bright green soup that looked like that green matcha tea goop, only a darker, healthy-grass-green in colour. Didn't seem to taste like tea, though.
    • Came with a small bowl of rice and a bit of soy sauce. This was definitely interesting to see and experience, but I didn't find it particularly tasty. I only had a bit of the fish, so I didn't get to experiment with putting more soy sauce on it or maybe more green soup on it.
After the whole tasting menu, the items I would recommend (if they are still on the menu) would be the beef tartare and the noodles. Possibly the mantou because so many people like, even though I clearly don't understand it's popularity. There must be something to it if there's so much buzz about it.

Despite how things turned out, I still think the tasting menu was a great way to try Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie for the very first time. If I were to do it over, I would have a smaller group (no more than 8) and go for bigger bites rather than more items. Also, if the restaurant is still being flexible about things, maybe choose 2-4 items that you would definitely like to see and leave the rest to the restaurant. I'd also drop the appetizers and choose just one of the two desserts.

Maybe I'll bring a vegan next time. See what they can do.

Tasting Menu at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie - part 2

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie on Urbanspoon
This is the second in a three-part blog post about Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and my experience of their tasting menu. In the first part, we talked about the restaurant in general. Here I'll go through the appys, desserts, and a few plates. In the last part I'll go through the rest of what we had.
Yes, there really were that many items as part of our tasting menu that I'm separating it into two long posts. I'm even sure I'll end up forgetting one or two things. The prices are based on the May 2012. We had a set $30 + tax + tip tasting menu price.

The family table used for the tasting menu has two key items in the middle. One is what looks like a large, stainless steel desktop pencil holder, but its compartments are divided into chopsticks and Chinese style ceramic soup spoons. When a plate of stuff comes to the table, whoever gets it first should either grab a pair of chopsticks or a soup spoon to use as the serving ware for that plate as people can get uptight about sharing with their own chopsticks nowadays even though around the world that sort of double-dipping is pretty much the norm. There's plenty on the table, so use it.
The other item on the table is an easily overlooked and forgotten small pot of chili. It wasn't all that spicy, and it really did enhance the experience of very many dishes, so I recommend you at least try drizzling a bit of the oil, if not the actual flakes and seeds, onto some items, such as veggies, potstickers, or the sticky rice cake.

What isn't on the table is a paper napkin dispenser. You start with a very small share plate and a really large and sturdy napkin. It's not hard to make that last if you don't have a big spill, but you probably won't see another (unless you ask the waitress) until they clear the table for dessert.

Appetizers ("Schnacks")
Overall, I think they should have taken a chance and gone with one or maybe two appetizers, but in larger quantities to allow for a proper taste of each.
  • Assorted Pickles - $4 - a variety of seasonal Chinese pickles
    • I can see how something sour/tangy at the start can help whet the appetite, but this is pretty tricky to share if everyone is focussed on making sure everyone gets to try everything. It's a selection, with nothing special about each individual piece, per se. So you end up with whatever is left on the plate (I got something that looked like a very tiny slice of an orange, except it was pink). On the up side, you aren't missing anything, really, even if you think you are.
    • Because of this sort of confusion, I would have preferred if they had dropped this and instead given us an extra plate of either the eggplant or the bean curd skin.
  • Marinated Eggplant - $4 - soy, garlic and ginger
    • All I remember of this was that I had a slice. Trying to share two small plates of this with 12 people sometimes means you don't get to properly appreciate what you end up with.
  • Bean Curd Skin - $4 - king oyster mushroom and truffle vinaigrette
    • Looked incredibly boring, but the use of truffle gives this an unexpected taste. If you really like truffles, this will probably score higher with you. I've had a disappointing run with truffles so far, so I can't really score this one without bias.
Petits Cadeaux
  • Steamed dumplings - $7.50
    • We got three small steaming trays of these. Not sure which type they were (presently two on the menu -- prawns and pork) because I didn't get any. I think because they were so small and bite-sized that some people picked up several to get a good taste of it (and maybe because they were just so tasty). Bad coordination on our part, I guess.
  • Vegetable potstickers - $6
    • Comes with sauce. Use the sauce. Otherwise a bit on the bland side. I think there were maybe three extra for our table of 12, so you definitely got just a taste of this and if you forgot to use the sauce, that's too bad. I always try to taste things at least once without any condiments, so I skipped the sauce.
We had one plate of token veggies, quite possibly spinach. Not sure what they were (not on the May 2012 PDF menu as far as I could tell). In some sauce and there were just two red chillies in it but no real heat. Everyone pulled off the leaves, leaving a plate of thick stems. Oy vey.

The official story here was that we were at the end of dinner, and their experience was that patrons who did the tasting menu were generally good with/had room only for just bite of dessert at the end. Since we didn't finish the rice that came with the last course before dessert, they probably figured they were right.
I think they were still aiming to give us variety, but in the process inadvertently sacrificed quality of experience. Two or three regulation sized small bowls of panna cotta divided by 12 people doesn't add up to more than a big spoonful.
Hard to say what a regular $7 portion was like but I think each plate that came to the table works out to one regular portion.
  • Youtiao (Chinese Donut) - $7 - condensed milk caramel, ginger and palm sugar soymilk
    • These came in fours, wrapped in brown paper tied by a red string.
    • Youtiao is commonly fried in pairs of long dough pressed together, but they tear apart easily and cleanly when you pull on them (and there's a historical reason why they are paired).
    • We got two pairs, stacked into a bundle of four, and cut in half lengthwise to end up with two packets of four short sticks. I could see how this could easily be one length per person, and you can dip each end in a different sauce. Problem was, there were 12 of us and not everyone knew they could be pulled apart, so we had clumsy attempts to cut them. In any case, I got just half a length (i.e., one eighth of a bundle).
    • Strangely, no one wanted to use the sauces as dips, but instead poured them onto their portion on their plates. Which turned out badly for both sauces (one a thick sticky sauce that doesn't pour well, the other a watery sauce that goes all over the place). In any case, pouring got you too much sauce, I think.
    • My advice is to treat this as finger food. Tear off a full length and dip.
    • The "traditional" style is more porous and chewier, but the more donut-like bread-like style at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie allows it to soak up the sauce (especially the watery soymilk) much more easily. As a treat, this is simple but delicious and theoretically easy to share.
  • Housemade Panna Cotta - $7
    • It was green, so my guess would be some green tea concoction. Just two bowls of this if I remember correctly, so I declined to have more than just a taste.

Tasting Menu at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie - Part 1 of 3

Meet The Neighbours - Tannis Ling, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie from This Space on Vimeo.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie on Urbanspoon
This is the first in a three-part blog post about Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and my experience of their tasting menu. In this first part, I'll talk about the restaurant in general. In the second part, I'll go through some of the smaller plates that were part of our tasting menu experience. In the last part I'll go through the larger plates and remaining dishes.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie can be a confusing place if you go in with preconceptions and expectations. A brasserie is "a type of French restaurant with a relaxed, upscale setting, which serves single dishes and other meals". Bao Bei is NOT a "Chinese restaurant".

Of course it depends on what you think a "Chinese restaurant" to be. Chinese (and North Indian) restaurants have very strong stereotypes going for them that can be hard to shake. In a "typical" Chinese restaurant, you'll get a menu with 100+ items, most of which will be a heap of noodles or veggies smothered in various tasty soups or sauces. You get large portions (especially for stuff like chow mien), and it's actually hard to find a place where it turns out badly. Even "posh" Chinese restaurants can be considered to serve up similar fare, but in nicer surroundings and with pricier seafood on the menu.
And then there's dim sum, of course, where you get time-tested recipes of interesting small plates and $20 can defeat you with the sheer amount of food, depending on where you go.

By these stereotypes, Bao Bei is not a "typical Chinese restaurant" and just a look at their Saturday night Yaletown-ish clientele -- in a very Chinese district of Chinatown and with the Chinatown night market literally on their doorstep on Keefer street -- should tell you more than anything that this is a boutique place for non-Chinese people who didn't grow up eating Chinese food. Except for the owner, Tannis Ling, the floor staff isn't Chinese either. Which really doesn't mean anything since the waitresses aren't manning the woks, but if you're looking for "ethnic", having culturally aligned servers tends to give a more comforting vibe.

That said, before I continue with the review of our tasting menu experience, I should say I grew up on Chinese food in Singapore and at home with mom's cooking. Many things on the menu look familiar or have familiar components, and it's hard to mentally turn off the biographical critic that immediately says "this isn't the way it's made".
For example, the "Chinese donut" is based on the "youtiao" ("you char kway" in Singapore) but is clearly more donut than Chinese. However that's really just because we don't have another word for it. Calling it a youtiao when you're using the same shape and style (it's still deep fried long strips that easily tear off from one another) is probably the easiest way of describing it. If you can turn off your cultural preconceptions, it's just an item on the menu and the restaurant can prepare it anyway they want.
It's not what I had growing up (more porous and chewier in a fun way, though also a bit oilier, sad to say), but there's nothing technically "wrong" about it. I think it is this biographical read (and maybe also a menu that isn't in Chinese) that pulls a different crowd into Bao Bei. It's a small restaurant that's busy enough to have to disallow reservations, so there's something good going on even if their immediate neighbours might not seem to eat there.
Interestingly, the decor might be "more Chinese" than most generic Chinese restaurants, and it's worth a quick peek at the vintage ornate knick-knacks that give it the sort of ambiance you see in old Chinatown photos. Glasfurd & Walker handled the branding for Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie -- identity, signage, print, and web design.

The one time Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie will take reservations is for their "family table" at the far back of the restaurant if you give them a credit card to hold the table. There are two seatings, at around 6pm (out by 8pm) and around 8pm. It seats about 8 in booth style seating. Two stools can add another two. A third stool and a tight squeeze all around will fit in 12 and that's really the limit. At 10 the servers already have a hard time accessing the table, and in any case someone will need to pass the dishes down and empty dishes back up. Our dining group this past Saturday was 12, and I wouldn't recommend that size of a group again.

Their $30 tasting menu is very flexible and more or less done on the fly. Even on the day of our reservation, they were ready to adapt the menu to whether we wanted safer choices or "more adventurous" menu items. It covers a good selection of the menu, and after 12% tax and 18% tip (automatic for parties of 7 or more), it works out to basically $39 before drinks.

Another bonus to this flexibility is in how they can accommodate tricky diners who might have restrictions or allergies. We had one person in our party with a shellfish allergy, which I had miscommunicated to the restaurant as a broader "seafood allergy". The kitchen pulled out their "tofu" (cold soft tofu, black bean, green Sichuan peppercorn ground pork, shimeji mushrooms, garlic chips, and jade radish) to make sure she had something to eat and wasn't missing out because she had to pass on too many things.

In our next two posts, we'll go through the food that came to our table as part of the tasting menu. The restaurant estimates 80% of their menu is covered by the tasting, and approximately 2 plates of orders per person in terms of food. Also, depending on how a group handles the plates, what one gets in a big share-fest like this might not be the same as ordering a la carte. For example, I completely missed out on the steamed dumplings as I somehow got missed with the stacked trays were being passed around. And there were bowls with noodles and some greens on top. Contrary to server instructions, the initial persons who got this didn't stir it up thoroughly enough and many of us didn't discover the tender duck chunks way at the bottom.

The food came quickly except for the final two items, and we were done in a mere 90 minutes or so out of the two hours booked for our early seating.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Coffee for Connoisseurs at Revolver

Revolver on UrbanspoonPosh Pudding was back from vacation and all settled in, so it was time to go through the travel pics. She suggested a little coffee shop called Revolver (named either for the legendary Beatles album or because their coffee selection revolves over time).
Revolver is deep in grungy Gastown. It's a smallish yet airy space with a very interesting neighbour in the basement--Why Knot's Curiousities--that has, among other things, a fun unicorn costume in the window (from Josie Stevens by J. Valentine) reminiscent of Earth, Wind, and Fire for some reason.

Since Posh Pudding offered to treat, I splurged and also got a cookie to share. There were three types. One chocolate, one "power bar" ingredients type cookie, and a simple cookie with a bit of red jam in the middle. $1.75. No thanks to Starbucks, a single cookie in a coffee shop costs the same as a dozen cookies in a supermarket. They might even have been supermarket cookies for all I know.

Revolver is a coffee shop. I got a coffee.
But I was also painfully aware that I was desperately in the wrong place and not because of the off-putting high-school chemistry lab look to the drinkware. The small menu includes two "flights" of coffee for $9: One coffee brewed three ways, or three coffees brewed one way. The default way appears to be pourover.
If you're a coffee snob who can really can taste the difference in coffee beans and how it's brewed, then clearly this is a good place to go. For everyone else (like me) it's just a convenient place to go.

At Revolver, the chemistry set like glass reflects a chemistry-experiment style of brewing. They carefully measure every portion of coffee beans (yes, down to adding or discarding individual beans for proper weight). They brew your coffee only when you order, and use the slow pourover style. It comes in a small flask that has a lid so that presumably the rest of your coffee can stay hot while you savour the amount you have poured out into your cup.

At the back of the store there are packets of sugar including Rogers. Curiously, there appears to be some sort of epidemic at the moment where packets of Rogers brown sugar may contain barely any sugar in them at all.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rich Indian Food at Tasty Palace

Sai Tanvi South Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon
EDIT: August 21 - The restaurant name recently changed from Tasty Palace to Sai Tanvi South Indian Cuisine.

At the time I wrote this, UrbanSpoon lists Tasty Palace Indian Cuisine as "closed". It may possibly have closed but just this past Thursday evening when I ate there with a dining group, the owner said the "grand opening" was officially on Friday, July 27th.
In any case, it's awfully easy to miss this place and walk by it even if you are looking for it. At the Old Orchard shopping mall, look for the liquor store in the corner. Tasty Palace is just next to it on the left.

Unless you go for "fusion" Indian, Indian food can often blend into a sort of same-ness, especially if you simply do buffets. I'm no Indian food connoisseur, so this post won't be about comparing Tasty Palace Indian Cuisine with other Indian restaurants. Many Indian restaurants are "North Indian" and there is no shortage of staple curries at Tasty Palace. However, they also have South Indian items such as dosas and Chicken 65. There is even a section of the menu which lists South Indian specialties. However, the average person isn't likely to really appreciate the difference, so let's just move on to the food.

The Culture Sponges dining group let the restaurant choose some appetizers for us while we decided on mains to share. It worked out to about 1-1/2 appetizers, one main, and on average one drink for everyone for $25 including tax, excluding tip. We were all pretty stuffed and we couldn't finish everything (in part due to the rice and constant supply of poori).
  • Poori
    • Instead of naan, we got quite a few baskets of this deep fried bread. Looks sort of like naan but thinner and oilier because it is deep fried instead of tandoori oven baked.
    • Because this is somewhat oily, I am not partial to it. Often I prefer bread to the typically more filling rice, but this time around I went with less rice instead.
  • Papadum
    • Very plain here, nothing really embedded in the mix, which also means it's not salty or bitter, which other papadum recipes can sometimes be.
  • Deep fried onion
    • Sort of boring. Unlike onion rings, the batter here is lighter and doesn't always entirely coat the short lengths of onion. Comes with a hot dipping sauce.
    • This was OK, but there are more interesting appetizers.
  • Chicken 65, Paneer 65
    • The "65" refers to it being battered, deep fried, and coated in a hot red sauce that is the same for both the chicken and the paneer (separate appetizers).
    • The paneer was strangely firm, and because of the firmness and texture, many of us initially thought it was chicken! Overall, quite a few people really liked the novelty of the deep fried paneer. Worth a try if you've never had it before. Eat it while it's hot to catch the cheese soft.
  • Apollo Fish
    • Tasted like battered and deep fried fish to me. Not thickly battered like fish-and-chips, though. Nothing to really write home about.
  • Ginger Fish
    • The chopped up ginger plus the sauce here made this smell and taste strangely like a western sweet-and-sour sauce. That the fish was battered and deep fried made the similarity so much more striking.
    • Other than the novelty of it feeling like a Chinese dish on an Indian menu, the only thing to recommend this appetizer is the ginger. If you like it, then it gives this fish appy a bit of a buzz without overpowering anything.
  • Curry
    • There was some lamb and goat curries and one or two others. The problem was that it seemed the base sauce was the same, so one bowl looked like another.
    • The sauce here is rich and somewhat thick, quite like a stew. Not watery at all, which is what you sometimes get in Indian restaurants.
    • Comes in two deceptively small bowls (one curry, one rice) but it's a filling portion for one person because of the rice.
  • Daal
    • Salty! No, really. It was surprisingly salty. You may want to consider asking them to go easy on the salt.
  • Biryani
    • Surprisingly good here, if you remember to dig deep into the large bowl that comes and mix the rice at the bottom (where the sauce and meat has typically settled) with the rest.
    • Doesn't have to be spicy to be tasty, but it can come with some heat-dissipating raita if you need it.
The menu is basically around $9-$10 for both appetizers and mains. Remember to choose your spiciness and try to convey it properly to the restaurant. Otherwise you might get cautious staff serving you "white girl spicy", as one of our dining group put it.

Overall this is a solid choice for an Indian restaurant outing. The price is reasonable and like any traditional Indian restaurant (we're not talking jazzed up and/or fusion places like Vij's), you are taken care of by the owners and you can count on waddling off very well-fed for your money.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kid's Menu Pie at Save-On-Meats

Save On Meats on Urbanspoon To be seated at Save-On-Meats during their rush hours, the procedure is to put your name on the easily-missed whiteboard on your left, just after the non-functional vending machine and before the bar seating. No one tells you this, sadly, so you could be waiting a long time only to find out much later and be denied service.
My friend and I were in shortly after 1pm, which proved to be the tail end of the lunch rush on Tuesday. From there, the dining room quickly died down to about 25% capacity and sign-ups weren't necessary.

It's a long, narrow space but still quite spacious and feels even bigger because of the very high ceiling. It's bright and clean, a refreshing change from the dilapidated neighbourhood and dirty sidewalk just outside.

Service was strangely slow. Once we were seated, water came quite promptly, but it took several minutes before my friend's beer (Blue Buck) arrived. It was beer in a bottle--How long could that possibly take? We were both quite surprised because it's a busy place, so we expected faster service if only to keep things moving along and patrons fed and sent on their way so that those waiting in line could be seated.

I'd had my budget more or less obliterated by Black+Blue, so I deliberately kept myself to just a light meal, going for what sounded like their specialities.
  • Signature Chocolate Bacon Cookie - 2 for $2
    • The size is about the same as one of the large, approximately 4-inch diameter cookies you might see in Subway or Superstore (such as the Farmer's Market Ultimate Cookies, which were on sale this week at $2.98 for a dozen). Slightly but noticeably thinner. It's also a soft cookie, which I like.
    • There's a good amount of chocolate baked into this. As chocolate chip style cookies go, this is pretty decent.
    • You can clearly make out small reddish bacon bits. Not sure if this is real bacon or phoney bacon bits, because I honestly couldn't make out any bacon taste at all. It's got bacon but basically it's a chocolate chip cookie.
  • Fried Chicken Dinner - $11 - 2 pieces of crunchy buttermilk chicken. Served with choice of mashed potatoes, peas & carrots, fries, or green salad.
    • This was my friend's order. The two pieces of chicken are each about the size of a burger patty.
    • The batter isn't very thick on it. If you're looking for a big crunch with every bite, this isn't it. If you're looking for tender, moist chicken sealed in by batter, this will be alright.
  • Smoked Turkey Pot Pie - $10 - As seen on Diner, Drive-Ins & Dives. Winner, winner turkey dinner. Serviced with choice of mashed potatoes, peas & carrots, fries or green salad.
    • I got this because it was highlighted as "as seen on TV". So it's gotta be good, right?
    • I was honestly shocked when it came. Did I accidentally order from the kiddie menu? For $10, I got a side of fries (piping hot, so freshly done, presumably) and a very small pie. This pie is about 2/3rds the size of those little frozen pies you can buy in the supermarket. It was at most maybe 4-1/2 inches or 5 inches in diameter, and barely an inch thick. Which meant the crust on the top and bottom was probably between half and two-thirds of the total height.
    • Inside there's some creamy sauce/filling. I immediately cut it into half, then gave my friend a quarter to try. There was a chunk of slightly reddish turkey sitting under the sauce. The upper part of the pie was warm but the inside was cold. Not lukewarm cool from contact with the plate, but outright cold.
      • I'm not sure I should take points off here because the restaurant can't cut open your pie to check for done-ness, though poking it with a fork or satay stick would have worked with barely noticeable damage.
    • After a couple of minutes trying to catch our server's eye, we finally just grabbed the nearest one and I asked for them. Odd that I could have sworn we made eye contact several times. Maybe I should relax my rule about waving at servers to get their attention.
    • The other half of my pie eventually came back from the oven. When I cut into it, I discovered... there was NO MEAT. Just creamy sauce inside. Huh? Where's my smoked turkey? It was all in just in one half of an already tiny pie?
Way overpriced for just passable food. From the get-go, you're not going to Save-On-Meats for a fancy meal. But then you're also not going there for a pricey meal either. At a comparable or lower price, you can go to a much nicer neighbourhood to get more and better food with faster and better service at The American Cheesesteak Company or Loving Hut Express for example.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tableside Dessert at Black + Blue

Black + Blue on Urbanspoon Last time I was at Black + Blue, I was intrigued by the desserts -- 20-layer Chocolate Cake and tableside service for Crêpe Suzette and Bananas Foster. My friend Jenny's birthday was coming up soon, and in any case she was curious about the restaurant.

My last visit was on a Saturday, and it was packed. This time I went on a Sunday night, and things were winding down around 8pm. By 10.30pm when we were done, there were only a few guests here and there in the 320-seat restaurant (another 200 to open soon on a rooftop patio).

For drinks I tried getting a non-alcoholic ginger beer again. Instead of something put together by the bartender, I instead got Fentiman's Ginger Beer (which, strangely, showed up on the bill as "Red Bull" for $5). The taste isn't as sharp as the house-brewed ginger beer at Nuba at The Waldorf, and has a sweetness that competes (too) strongly with the ginger and makes it taste more like a soft drink.

  • Stuffed Mushrooms - $15 - portobello, dungeness crab, béarnaise
    • Despite the name, it's just the one medium-sized portobello, generously stuffed with crab and sauce, and baked.
    • Quite tasty, with an overall creamy filling in the mouth.
  • Oysters Rockefeller - $14 - herb butter, pernod, hollandaise
    • Served in a  cast-iron dish lined with a good amount of sea salt and chili flakes. Four oysters.
    • My very first time having Oysters Rockefeller, so I don't really have anything to compare it with.
    • Very creamy. Quite delicious, but not anything I'd make a point of trying again. Soft, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth feeling.
    • Jenny finds oysters gross, but I still convinced her to give this classic a try. I found that there was only a mild "oyster taste" compared with to the other stuff baked on top, but she still found it too much and almost threw up. I gave her some ginger beer to wash the taste away but that didn't help enough. The waitress recommended a Coke and she tried a Diet Coke ($3.50). Jenny bravely held on, looking forward to washing it all away with a generous helping of chocolate cake.
  • Tuna Screamer - $15 - ahi tuna, serrano chili, daikon, tobiko, ponzu
    • Raw tuna, salty sauce, served cold. Nothing too special here. Not hot despite the chili.
    • A bit too salty for me, so go easy on scooping up the sauce that's enough to make a small soup.
    • For $15 you get a few slices of raw tuna sitting on a boring salad soaking in salty soup. If you want raw tuna, I recommend getting it from a Japanese restaurant instead.
  • Sunday "Surf & Turf" - $35 - 6 oz steak, lobster pate, roasted (?) potato, green beans, and tomato
    • The thing about steak is the more you buy, the cheaper it is. For 20% more you could get more than twice the amount of steak (e.g., 16 oz Bone-In Rib Eye is $44). A lightweight steak special is really only good if you can't handle a full-size meal.
    • This was Jenny's order. She went with Medium-Well-Done and it came looking red like a Medium or Medium Rare, but no blood. It looked like they even cut the steak open to check (but not completely cutting it through, so the piece was still technically whole).
  • 20 Layer Chocolate Espresso Cake - $12 - with whipping cream, brandied cherries.
    • It really is 20 layers if you count the cream and icing. Each layer is at most 5 millimetres.
    • It looks like a large piece, but it's also a narrow slice. Anywhere else you'd probably pay $5-$6 for that quantity, although there'd probably be less work involved in making it (assuming this is house-made and not shipped in from a factory).
    • A really decent chocolate cake. Moist. Not too fatty feeling despite half of it essentially being cream. Definitely a tasty and safe choice for a dessert.
  • Crepes Suzette - $12 - prepared tableside, cointreau, whipped cream
    • Apparently all the waitresses are taught how to do the tableside salads and desserts by the chef or pastry chef.
    • In this particular presentation, the crepe is soaked in the generous amount of caramel sauce and the whole thing is set aflame. After the crepe is plated, orange wedges are thrown in the remaining sauce, allowed to soften in it, and along with the rest of the sauce gets poured over the crepe. Scoops of whipped cream added after.
    • The oranges are mostly just sweet, nothing citrusy left after their treatment.
    • The very thinly sliced and sugar-coated orange peels sprinkled over everything gave a nice crunchy contrast to the dessert.
    • The plating definitely leaves something to be desired, but it's prepared tableside and a soggy crepe is sort of unwieldy, so that could be forgiven.
    • The cart used is at a convenient height for the person preparing the dessert, but too high for diners to actually see what is going on. Maybe I'm spoiled by my experience at The William Tell, but the presentation/showmanship/flair of the service really adds to the experience. The functional carts there (which take up more space, however) were also lower so you could clearly see what the server was doing, and there was more of a "cooking show" feel. However, times being what they are, it's entirely possible that the demographic that goes to Black + Blue isn't as interested in the process/journey and all that would be wasted on them.
    • What we got at Black + Blue was a very practical/businesslike person-cooking-at-your-table experience. Like sitting at a table with a peek into the goings-on in a kitchen, rather than getting treated to a pleasant interaction with your server and watching them expertly prepared your dessert. You don't pay extra for it, but I'd say not to bother your server with having to do it unless you're going to pay attention. I feel not paying attention would be rude.
The bill came to $111.50 before tax and tip, a few cents shy of $150 after.

Monday, July 16, 2012

They Lost my Lemonade at Mahony & Sons (Burrard Landing)

Mahony & Sons Burrard Landing on Urbanspoon Even if you allow for kilted female servers in an Irish pub (as not just the Scots have kilts, but so do the Irish) there is something that strikes me as just plain odd about an Irish pub that prominently serves up Thai food--including a Thai Panang Chicken Curry that our server said had won their chef an award.
Still, if the food is tasty, who cares, right? Well, let's see...

Mahony & Sons is a large pub/restaurant/sports bar on the facing-the-water-and-mountains side of the new Vancouver Convention Centre (West), a view shared by a closed-remarkably-early-on-weekends Club 16 that gobbles up a huge chunk of waterfront. Especially on sunny days, you can expect the place to be abuzz with drop-ins as well as larger parties, so don't expect to find a quiet nook where you can feasibly have a conversation with anyone who's not sitting adjacent to you. Around 9pm on Saturday, there was live music which was blasted through the speakers all over the place, and conversation got even trickier. If you have a smallish party of 6 or so, try to reserve patio seating if you want to have reasonable conversation. Besides, the view will be better unless you're ogling the mini-skirt-uniformed hotties that work there.

The layout is mostly bar space and movable tables, but some small reservations (like ours for 9 persons) can end up in a little nook here or there. Our nook had an okay view of the mountains because we were on bar-stool style seating around tall tables, and therefore could look over the other patrons on "regular" chairs. Also, there was a television embedded into the wall at one end of the two-table arrangement, so everyone just had to look to one side to watch TV if they wanted to. That evening the TV was on, but behind shutters (huh?), and in any case we were there for the company, so I think we were all glad to not have the distraction.

Other than the reasonable view of the mountains, another plus of having a little nook to ourselves was the relative privacy for group, which was sometimes noisy with conversation and laughter, so I suppose it was for the protection of other patrons as well. However, for unclear reasons, we saw more servers apparently designated for other zones than our server. Unless we went hunting around for her, we were essentially at the mercy of whenever she came by to check on us. There was pretty much no water-refilling or drink re-orders or the like. There were male bussers/kitchen staff helping with delivering food from the kitchen, but they didn't really help with tending tables or topping water.
I'm wary of blaming our server for neglecting us especially since those servers I did see were pretty much perpetually flying from one place to the next, clearly busy. So assuming our server was just as busy, then I'm actually inclined to give her a bonus point for always being cheery with us even though we did flounder around with ordering at the start.
If our experience was any indication, then for such a decidedly busy place, I think they could definitely add a couple of servers for the summer to keep up with the pace.

I was the first to arrive of our group, and being an non-drinker, things got off to a pretty dull start. I didn't want to go with peppermint tea yet again, so I tried to order a ginger beer, which seemed to be a reliable non-alcoholic standby at places like Nuba at the Waldorf Hotel, The Greedy Pig, and Black + Blue.
Nope, no ginger beer.
The server suggested I look at their list of non-alcoholic beers and proceeded to flip through their drinks menu for it, but apparently the list was not there (or no longer there), so she went off to check. Came back shortly -- we're out of non-alcoholic beer.
She next suggested cranberry and soda water. But isn't soda water bitter? I just wasn't good with bitter stuff (and why drink bitter water?), so I passed and told her I'd figure something out later.
After two more from our group arrived, I gave it another try. Did they have freshly squeezed fruit juice? (Okay, this one was me being really hopeful, I admit). Nope. But they had various fruit juices and pop. I went with a lemonade.
I was relieved, the waitress was relieved.
Funny thing though: It never came.

Everyone finally arrived, we floundered with the menu and whether we were going to share, and finally got down to ordering. I suppose we were being awfully waffly and frustrating, but that's the sort of thing that can happen when you're a group of 8 and you barely know each other since you're all part of a dining group with no regulars. Fortunately, our server continued to be friendly and patient with us.
  • Mahony Platter - $24.95 - calamari, dry ribs, chicken tenders, fresh cooked potato chips, focaccia parmesan bread, spicy cayenne chicken wings
    • One platter for four persons was what the server recommended. It's an awfully small platter, so the recommendation was okay.
    • The price at basically $25 is pretty painful. Basically there were about four pieces of ribs, chicken, bread, and wings.
    • Typically when I think of focaccia, I think of a round bread that's pretty thick and topped with herbs or something. Here it's thin. Looks like flatbread, only even thinner than that. We're talking barely two millimeters. Only the top piece had any dusting of green herbs on it. The rest had nothing.
    • Not sure how the kitchen is organized, but I'm fairly sure there's some mass production and already-made stock that's assembled onto the plate, because the items weren't really hot when they arrived. Plus the cheese on the bread had clearly cooled and solidified so that they tended to fall off.
    • Three types of dip -- Chipotle mayo, tzatizi, and I think honey mustard.
    • Standard fare here. Not badly done, but also nothing worth writing home about and not worth the money, especially for the portion you get.
  • Papaya Salad - $16.95 (with chicken) or $18.95 (with prawns) - gingered pecans, egg roll crisps, fresh papaya, red peppers, cucumbers, romaine, honey garlic dressing (picture)
    • This was a bit steep for the price but pretty decent tasting.
    • Get a spoon. No, it didn't come with a spoon. And when we finally got spoons, they were soup spoons (does this place not have regular spoons?).
    • Except for the large slices of cucumber, everything is pretty much just diced in. It's cold and fresh-tasting. Portion is moderate and could possibly make a light dinner.
    • I wasn't really paying attention, but you have to choose either chicken or prawns. Neither is an optional add-on. So when I passed on both, we got basically a vegetarian salad with neither at the chicken price. Oops.
  • Irish Stew - $19.95 - slow simmered lamb shank and vegetables in Guinness demi-glaze, mashed potatoes (picture)
    • Most of it is the thick, sweet, salty demi-glace and you definitely need to pair it with the mashed potatoes when you're eating it, to temper the saltiness.
    • The lamb shank is about 1/3rd bone. The size is about the same as a turkey drumstick.
    • Salty, but delicious.
  • Thai Panang Curry - $17.95 (with chicken) or $19.95 (with jumbo prawns) - red coconut curry seasoned with lemon grass, lime leaves, Thai bird's eye chilies, on jasmine rice. Mild, medium, or hot. (picture)
    • I opted for prawns (about 4, each fairly large) and "hot". It was spicy with some kick to it, but I would probably have classed it as "medium" spicy. There was also a bitterness to that.
    • The curry comes already poured into the rice, so you don't actually see any curry sauce. It's all absorbed and tossed into the rice.
  • Mushroom Mascarpone Ravioli - $16.95 - with light lemon cream pinot grigio sauce, amorosa tomatoes and garlic foccacia.
    • I got just a taste of this (i.e., one square of ravioli). Small portion for the price, but good flavour here.
  • Smoked Salmon Semolina Thin Crust Pizza - $17.50 - fresh ricotta cheese sauce, fontina cheese, crispy fried capers, red onion, chopped dill (picture)
    • With thin crust pizzas, you can't really hope for a lot of toppings. It just doesn't work that way. You do, however, hope for a good assembly of toppings. This pizza would probably have worked out fine in taste if not for the sad crust.
    • It's thin-crust, but barely. There's no thick outer ring of crust, but the thickness of the pizza crust elsewhere is actually pretty standard, if not slightly more.
    • There's a salty taste to the edge crust which is probably a dusting of some kind of sea salt.
    • The smoked salmon here is sliced thin. I know what I said earlier about lots of toppings, but the salmon was really, really, thin.
    • For what you get, this is sad and overpriced. If you insist on paying extra for thin-crust pizza, get it somewhere else, such as from any of the numerous Neapolitan pizza places all over Vancouver, such as The Bibo or Campagnolo. You'll pay a comparable (or maybe even slightly less) price but get better taste and experience. Or for thin crust but not-authentic-Italian pizza, Urban Fare Shangri-La delivers a superior pizza at better portions.
  • Mahony Sundae Sampler - $8.25 (picture)
    • Three cups of sundaes that seemed to melt awfully quickly into an unappetizing soup, sad to say. The three types are from the three sundaes normally available:
      • Coconut Mango Gelato - with gingered pecans and fresh pineapple
      • Grand Marnier Strawberry Cheesecake Gelato
      • Chocolate - vanilla bean gelato, frangelico chocolate sauce, grand marnier strawberries, cashews and caramel
    • The sundaes look nice but overall aren't particularly interesting.
    • The portion you get for the price seems quite all right as far as having dessert in a restaurant. Obviously you can get much more premium ice cream than that by picking up a tub in a supermarket, so you might want to compare it that way and choose something else more interesting instead. If you insist on having ice cream, I would instead recommend a short walk up to Bella Gelateria and getting a cone there. Less ice cream, but better quality from a dedicated and award-winning gelato maker, plus more interesting flavours.
  • Chocolate Mousse Cupcake - $6.95 - house-made brownie cupcake topped with a duo of milk chocolate mousse and crème de menthe infused white chocolate mousse (picture)
    • The "cupcake" is about really half the size of a cupcake. The upper half is the milk chocolate mousse.
    • As far as brownies go, this one is quite soft, very much like a chocolate cake. A bit disappointing, but overall the dessert is quite nice for chocolate lovers.
    • Not a lot of mintiness in the white chocolate mousse, sadly. Would have given this a refreshing touch. Still, it was pretty tasty with its deep chocolatey-ness, and the price was OK.
Except the desserts, prices seemed somewhat higher than they should be, maybe about $2-$4 more. You're paying for the location and the view, so it's hard to quibble unless you're a local and get the view for free just by living here.

My lemonade never did come. I wanted to keep it quiet and see if it would ever come or if it would still end up on my bill, but about two hours in, one of my fellow diners snitched to our server and she brought me a weak lemonade. No apologies for the oversight, which I thought surprising (had we finally exhausted her patience and goodwill?) until I saw the bill, which listed TWO lemonades at $3.50 each.
Apparently she thought she'd delivered the first lemonade, and the one that came to the table was a second order. At this point we explained to her what had happened and that really, there had just been the one lemonade. She accepted this and went to tweak the bill, but came back saying she couldn't. Instead, she handed me $3.50 in cash.
There was the possiblity that she just didn't want to re-do all the billing (since she'd also split the two appetizer platters between all 8 diners), but I thought it was odd that she just gave me $3.50 in cash, so when she came back with the machine to process our credit cards, I again reiterated that we weren't trying to fool her, and that I'm sure she didn't intentionally forget the lemonade I had initially ordered; and I wanted to know if she were personally liable for the missing lemonade.
She said yes.
So it was coming out of her paycheque, as it were.

What now?
On the one hand, I only got one lemonade. I would have been fine with one, or even none, but here I was being charged for two. On the other hand, I was partially at fault for not inquiring about it earlier when it didn't come. Although it's possible that she might have rung it up already and one phantom lemonade would still be on the bill.
Still, I didn't want her to be on the hook for it especially as waiters aren't exactly well-paid to begin with (plus our group had been there for over three hours), so I gave her back her $3.50. The bill came with tax and tip included, and I paid the full amount.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Excellent Food at Establishment Lounge

Establishment Lounge on Urbanspoon What used to be The New Bohemian as recently as last year has changed management. They kept the name for a short while and tweaked the interior, but Establishment looks largely the same with its dimly-lit lounge vibe and the oriental feel to the furnishings. The recent (June 22nd, 2012) addition of Chef Victor Bongo from the Congo (no, they didn't make up the Congo part as a catchy rhyme) is also a definite plus. The chef's specialties on the menu feature delicious food and top marks for plating. Only two desserts at the moment but with a broader selection in the works.

As I write this, I'm just back from a late-ish dinner. It was very quiet around 7pm, with just a couple of people at the bar for drinks, and a table of four enjoying a quiet dinner. The lone server reports that the place still has more of a late-night lounge niche and it is open late (as is the kitchen).

The menu could use with some explanation: The red-boxed items are obviously the chef's specialties and definitely worth a look. The items with a red tick can be made vegetarian. It lists tapas plates, so you can expect less-than-full meals per plate, and probably three plates for two people will be a good amount (but see the caveat on the soup below). The food is more colourful, interesting, and better plated than, say, Bin 941; portions are comparable and price is about $2 less per plate.
  • Chef Bongo's Famous African Chicken Peanut Soup - $8
    • At just $8, you get a large, deep bowl of piping hot soup so thick it's more like a stew. The portion is so large that, especially considering it is thick with ingredients rather than mostly soup, makes it a light meal all on its own. The main "criticism" I have here is that the portion is probably too large without sharing if you intend to try other things on the menu. I think they'd do very well if they offered a half-bowl at $6.
    • It's strongly reminiscent of the peanut sauce used for satay. The chicken is visible in chopped-up chunks alongside the other ingredients, but doesn't really come to the fore and could probably be dropped or substituted with something equally neutral tasting such as tofu. The main thing here is the delicious peanut soup. If you go to Establishment, GET THIS and get someone to share it with you so there's room for something else. 
    • Presentation is beautiful with a colourful clump of minced veggies on top and encircled by a milky-white drizzle of what was probably coconut milk. I like that they worked on a pretty plating for the soup instead of just handing you a bowl of it as many places do. It's the extra touch here, plus the generally beautiful plating of the food tonight, that scores Establishment bonus points and makes it a safe choice if you need to impress or schmooze over food.
  • Okanagan Goat Cheese and Fig Soufflé - $13.25 - freshly baked soufflé served with golden beet carpaccio, drizzled with a maple truffle vinaigrette
    • Another of the chef's specialties. For the tapas plates, it was either this or the truffled pasta. I haven't had much luck with truffled anything, so I went with the goat cheese even though I generally find goat cheese stinky. (I was determined to only have chef's specialties tonight, hence my limited choices).
    • You need to know that I have a hard time with goat cheese. Since this was actually palatable to me, if you like goat cheese, you'll probably find this excellent.
    • It's a light souffle topped with a bit of colourful salad lightly dressed. Presentation was beautiful here with the pale grey souffle sandwiched between bright veggies on top and deep purplish red beet slices on the bottom, and ringed by gold and black sauce. Top marks for beautiful food.
    • The goat cheese soufflé smells stronger than it tastes. I could have used more fig in it to jazz up the flavour with more instances of sweetness since I'm not a fan of goat cheese. But again, I don't much like goat cheese. So considering I found this not bad, if you like goat cheese, you should definitely try this.
  • marscapone cheesecake - $11.25
    • Not on the menu. There were just two desserts which the server recited. The other option was a chocolate mousse thingie that she said the chef was still perfecting. Multi-cheesecake or mousse tastings are on the horizon. (The chef has been in residence only since June).
    • I didn't want to be too conspicuous and out myself as a blogger by writing down what the server told me, so I'm going from memory here as to how the dessert is composed. It's an unbaked cheesecake with marscapone. Feels fluffier than a regular cheesecake. Sits on a half-centimeter of what looked like tightly-packed cookie crumbs. Topped with an orangy sauce that was supposed to be peach and something but which oddly had a metallic taste. The plate was drizzled with some midly sweet sauce.
    • Nothing here was too sweet. Clear cheese flavour, which again wasn't too strong. It wasn't bland per se, but seemed to be trying to have cheesecake flavour without being overly sweet. Often, desserts will come across as being an opportunity to not worry about sweetness, and oftentimes the result is something that's too sweet to the point of being guilt-inducing. Not so here, though I think I could have used a little bit more sweetness.
    • Points for presentation here again. The round cake was made out to be the centre of a sun with rays on the plate formed by thin streaks of sauce. Kinda artsy.
    • The portion is about half a tin can worth. A good size for sharing but slightly overpriced at $11.25.
    • The sauce on top had a slight metallic flavour tonight which could have been an accident but that was really off-putting. I've had this experience before and it might have been carried over from an iron dish or utensil. More sweetness and no metallic flavour to complicate things would have given this dessert more points. Otherwise it was an okay cheesecake and okay as far as desserts go.

The one server on tonight scored points scored points with me for attentiveness, though she was a bit nervous and maybe over-attentive to the entire room. She tries to juggle attending to you, but it still feels rude when you're in mid-sentence and she turns away to check the other tables. The various demands of waiting can be tricky to balance, so I'm chalking this one up to inexperience.

The bill came to 32.50 before tax and tip, 43.68 after tax and tip. For one person, that's a bit steep, but it was a very big meal all in all, because of the generous amount of soup (and at just $8). I think there was enough of a medium-light meal here for two people.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Free Slurpee at 7-11

Hi Everyone! Just a reminder that today is 7-11's birthday, and they are offering a FREE Slurpee at participating 7-11 stores between 11 AM and 7 PM.

And with the sudden change to sunny weather, this freebie couldn't have come at a better time.

Thank you, 7-11!

Monday, July 9, 2012

No Tea at Bin 941

Bin 941 Tapas Parlour on UrbanspoonIt's a tiny place that's been around for quite a while. Still almost perpetually busy, so they must be doing something right -- enough to price their plates at $18 and still have lineups.

This past Saturday evening was very sunny and the restaurant was empty when the Vancouver Fine Dining Club assembled shortly after 5pm. Our waitress attributed the slow start due to the pleasant weather, which apparently inspires people to stay outside and enjoy it more. I was personally glad to get out of the heat myself.

If, like our group, you came on a strangely slower night, you might find the server's defensiveness of their tables a bit off-putting. We were four at around 5pm, but expecting six in total, so we pulled over a table and a couple of chairs to ensure everyone could sit together. Although there was just a pair of diners who had taken the window seat, our waitress came over right away and re-confirmed our numbers, and also let us know that we'd have to give up the table if we weren't six persons.
If I were a restaurant that had line-ups and patrons forced to eat at the bar by 6pm, I suppose I'd be possessive of seating too.

I'm not a drinker, so I was shocked to be told that they didn't maintain a stock of tea, not even any cheap-ass Lipton bulk-quantity tea. Our server did, however, very kindly put together some hot water and a lemon wedge, than kindly refilled it a few times during the night (they do have coffee, and thankfully don't pressure to you buy bottled or mineral water, the latter often being bitter).

The online menu could use with a lot of updating: Prices are approximately a dollar more across the board, and there are various additions and omissions. What comes out of the kitchen is not necessarily in the order that it was ordered. So if there happen to be several orders of the day's special, they will likely (presumably assembly-line) pump that out first.
The food is at least interesting if not always particularly tasty. And there were a couple of very, er, "interesting" outcomes...

  • Homous, Kalamata Olive, Navajo Fry Bread - $9?
    • Somehow we ended up with two orders of this, probably because we weren't coordinated in our ordering.
    • The homous came in a block and looked like dessert. Definitely firmer than homous just about everywhere else, and there's points for the presentation for it. Three olives were stuck on top, making the whole look like a slice of cheesecake with three chocolates for garnish.
    • In terms of taste, it wasn't anything to write home about, I'm sorry to say.
    • The Navajo Fry Bread is kinda fun to eat. The style here looks deep fried to a deep brown (but is not oily), has a lot of cornmeal all over it, and is puffy and soft/spongy on the inside. It looks big but is mostly air and makes for a nice light appy.
    • Be generous with the homous or you'll be short of fry bread to go with it.
  • Goat Cheese and House Dried Tomato Salsa, Navajo Fry Bread - $10
    • If you think of salsa as the salty, watery stuff you get in glass jars at the supermarket, then this will probably take you by surprise. It's a lot of dried tomato that's a paste thick enough that it'll hold a shape. You get about a half tin can worth of salsa here, with goat cheese mixed in.
    • I'm not normally a fan of stinky goat cheese, but this combo worked out quite nicely. The salsa isn't very salty, and there's a spicy kick to it without being particularly hot.
    • Compared to the amount of Navajo Fry Bread you get, there's a lot of salsa. Unlike the homous, slathering on too much salsa actually ruins it. The flavour here is strong enough that it should really be paired with something. Could definitely have used more bread here.
  • Flank Steak with cinnamon chilli rub, maple syrup chipotle glaze, black pepper pommes frites - $18
    • The fries here are cut julienne thin into long shoestring fries. Not a lot of firm crispiness going on here. It's piled very high on the plate, and drizzled with a sweet black sauce (maple syrup chipotle glaze?) which mostly found it's way to the bottom, where whoever gets this plate last can get a very sweet mouthful if they toss the remaining fries in.
    • The "flank steak" portion of this order is about six thin slices of medium rare steak about 3 millimetres thick at the most. Not much steak, to say the least.
  • Venison with two types of mushrooms - $?
    • Not on the online menu as of July 9th, 2012.
    • Two orders of this came to the table. One order had the thick pieces of venison much redder than the other, so if you definitely don't want it on the rarer side, you might have to inform your server up front and see if they can do anything for you.
    • Very gamey. For me this was an off-putting flavour and with nothing much on the plate to help it go down.
  • Red Snapper with chilli rub on some sort of noodles - $??
    • Not on the online menu as of July 9th, 2012.
    • The noodles had some sort of green sauce. Not too tasty, in my opinion, but it did have some sort of thinly sliced pickled something or other that contrasted the flavour very sharply if you got some of it.
    • The first thing that came to mind when I tried the fish was "crab", strangely enough.
    • The skin was crusted with a chilli powder mix that didn't smell like much but was very strong in your mouth. The brief heat and bitterness obliterated every other taste. I would seriously consider peeling off the skin and skipping the chilli. Or just scrape some of it off to go with the fish.
  • Grilled Flatbread Picnic - $18 - handmade charcuterie, macedonian feta, french brie, sun-dried olives, pickled artichokes, caper berries, arugula, 25 year balsamic drizzle
    • Not a lot of bread to go around, so you need to think ahead a bit to what you're going to have with the bread and what you'll just pick off and eat separately.
    • Probably the hardest item to share since there's not a lot of each ingredient. If you're just two or three people it's probably not so bad. But too much politeness here and wanting everyone to have a taste of absolutely everything will just bog down the process.
    • It's an interesting idea, but $18 for an assortment of stuff thrown onto a long slice of flatbread seems a bit pricey.
  • Warm flourless Belgium chocolate torte - $9 - Cognac-soaked sundried cherries, chocolate truffle centre, caramel café latte sauce
    • This came very hot, in a deep ceramic dish slightly larger than the tall crème brûlée dishes. Probably straight out of the oven.
    • Also came with a small amount of crème anglaise (in lieu of  caramel café latte sauce). Didn't help the dessert much, unfortunately.
    • The overall taste of the torte was bitter from the chocolate, and very powdery. It was also very chancy whether you got any sundried cherry or not.
    • Very dry around the edges where it touched the dish, much more tender on the inside. Overall, I had the awful feeling that this had been accidentally overbaked, so you might have a better experience of it.
  • Ibarra Mexican Chocolate & Bailey's crème brûlée - $9
    • A much more straightforward chocolatey dessert. Nothing spectacular, but tasty enough and definitely better than how the torte came out.
  • Coconut crumb crusted mascarpone - $ 9 - white chocolate cheesecake, warm fuego banana rum spice
    • Best dessert of the three, and pretty good as far as cheesecakes go.
    • Very creamy cheesecake. The smell and flavour of cheese isn't as strong here, and even non-cheesecake persons in our group gave this dessert thumbs up.
    • The rum spice sauce was sweet, but not overly so, and definitely didn't give you that burn in the back of your throat when you have something that is overly sweet.
I was going to duck out early, so I was surprised when the bill came with everything on it. For our party of 7, they put down a mandatory 18% tip.
My portion was easily calculated, but the rest of the table took quite a while to figure things out, especially as some persons had wine and others didn't.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lukewarm at Turkish House & Bistro

Turkish House & Bistro on Urbanspoon Turkish House & Bistro is a colourful little space that's interesting to visit, and has that friendly mom-and-pop restaurant vibe where you just know you'll be well fed for your money.

The decor looks chaotic, and if there's one thing that really hurts it, I'd have to say it's the mishmash of business cards under the glass on the tables. How archaic is that? And does it really help anybody?
Other than that, there are Turkish evil-warding charms (look for the white eye on blue glass nazar boncuğu) and rugs and artwork. There's also a big screen TV which is strangely not jarringly intrusive amongst everything else.

The tables are somewhat low, and you sit on wooden chairs that look like stock left over from a kindergarten. That, or low metal benches with lots of pillows. These are more comfortable (especially if you're about 190 pounds like myself and some of those chairs wobble a bit under you) but tricky to get in and out of as you have to coordinate with the other one or two persons sitting with you.

Our dining group on Friday was 11, and we gobbled up about half the seating in the restaurant. It can probably fit about 20, but expect traffic jams. I'm not sure the kitchen is experienced in handling large groups and putting everything on the table hot all at once, because nothing came to our table hot except the tea. It's hard to say if some stuff is meant to be not-piping-hot, but my unrefined but choosy palate says most of the stuff would have tasted better that way. It may be that if you order individually instead of as a large group, you'd get hotter food.

Anyway, on to the food! We ordered as a group, so it's hard to say what some of the exact portions were like if you were to order on your own.
  • Turkish Salad - tomatoes, cucumber, onion, green pepper, olives, & parsley in a lemon & olive oil dressing. $7
    • Tasted like tossed veggies with no dressing. Slices of lemon might have accounted for the lemon part of the dressing.
    • Honestly, why did we order this? There aren't a lot of veggie choices in this place, though.
  • Börek - phyllo pastry filled with your choice of cheese, spinach [and] potato, or ground beef. Saturday & Sunday only. $7.
    • These were rolled into almost-one-inch in diameter rolls, and chopped into bite-sized pieces for easy sharing.
    • We tried the spinach and potato, and the ground beef. Filling is somewhat light. Flavour on the spinach and potato was better than the ground beef. Overall, I think it would have been more interesting if it had come out hot from the oven.
  • Lahmacun - small thin-crust pizza with finely ground beef, tomato, garlic, & onion. $2.50 each.
    • These were about 8" rounds each. Very thin crust. Lots of beef, and the toppings were spread all the way to the edge. There's no crust to hold on to per se.
    • The dine out organizer recommended we pilfer some onion from the salad, but not to simply use it as a pita wrapping for a wad of salad.
    • You can't really argue with what's traditional, so if you'd disappointed because it doesn't have the same wood-fired burn, chewy fun, or cheesiness of a Neapolitan thin-crust pizza, then you're better off not ordering this. At $2.50, even at 8" and minus the cheese, the price is much lower than what Neapolitan pizza is selling for in Vancouver nowadays, though.
      • You could instead try their pide, which does have mozzarella.
    • Overall, I don't think I would order it again. Might possibly be different when hot. Price is fair for the portion and what you get, though.
  • Stuffed bell peppers.
    • Not sure where this was on the menu, but we got bell peppers of various colours stuffed with rice that looked like it had some ground beef mixed in and probably baked. Mostly it tasted like rice. Sat in some sort of tomato soup that may have been hot at one point, but the generous glob of cold white yogurt (?) rendered everything lukewarm at best.
    • Honestly, it didn't taste that great warm. Even the rice inside the peppers was warm at best.
    • I'm not good with bitter flavours, so the big green bell peppers were the worst. The orange ones were a bit sweet, which was a nicer flavour to go with the rice and contrast with the tomato sauce.
    • The sheer amount of rice going on here will see you pretty full. We somehow ended up with one big green bell pepper plus 1-2 small ones. This, plus one lahmacun each, and nibbles of börek and salad saw us all pretty stuffed.
  • Baklava - Turkish style with pistachios - $1.50
    • This is a square of almost 6 cubic inches. Apparently the chef cooks up different styles of baklava, so what you read here might not be exactly what's available. What we had, though, saved dinner in my opinion.
    • Pistachio is a mandatory ingredient. Not as prominent in the baklava we had.
    • Very buttery in taste and aroma, but not without feeling greasy.
    • Not as sweet as some others that are honey-drenched. This may or may not be a plus for you. I rather liked that it wasn't so sweet.
I didn't get to see the bill, but including a very strongly brewed tea, it was $15 per person including tax, excluding tip.

What is missing from an Employment Background Check

There's a trick that property managers use when trying to find out if a potential tenant is a good one. Instead of asking the tenant's current landlord if they've been a good tenant, the property manager checks with the landlord previous to the current one.
Because that person no longer has any personal stake. Suppose the tenant was good. In the worst case, the landlord won't remember them. But if the tenant was bad, the landlord is no longer renting to them, and therefore doesn't need to see them gone.
Think about it: If you were a landlord with a problem tenant, would you give them a good reference? If you do, they'll move out and you're free of them. If you don't they'll probably figure it out and their resentment will make them an even worse tenant.

Employment Background Checks work in a similar way, except most people don't bother taking that extra step. They ask for references. References that are probably biased or have a stake in getting rid of the person.

So suppose you have a position of trust, responsibility, or sensitivity. What can you do to get a fuller and probably more accurate picture of the potential new employee? You can use the property manager's trick of asking someone who is no longer a stakeholder.
Two possibilities are:

  1. When you are provided a reference for a current employer, you can try asking who has directly worked with the person and who else you can speak with off the record.
  2. After the person has been hired to a new position and has cut their ties with their previous employer (but before they have completed their probationary period), you can call up that employer again and ask if they would like to revise their testimony, now that they can speak more freely with no fear of on-the-job reprisal from an employee.
Of course, there's a risk of running into one or more persons who have a grudge and deliberately give you false information. However, typically there is some reason behind why they have a grudge, and if several persons at the place of employ raise negative issues, it begs the question of how the employee left such ill will behind -- possibly something worth looking into.

Tight Squeeze at Black + Blue

Black + Blue on Urbanspoon As of the time I am writing this blog post, Black + Blue's popularity on Urbanspoon sits at a measly 41%. However, on the Saturday night I went for dinner and drinks at 7pm, the place was absolutely packed. OpenTable showed no reservations available between 5:15pm and 9:45pm, and around 7pm, the hostesses said they had 375 people booked for the night (in a 320 seat restaurant).
The incredible busy-ness of this place suggests there's something good going on there, and despite the low rating, if you're thinking of it, I recommend you give it a go. BUT that recommendation also depends on what you're planning to do there and how you're going to go about it.

First off, if you want a sit-down meal, make a reservation. Don't settle for the lounge because the small tables there are very low, around knee-height. Plus the lounge area is quite narrow, so things can get tricky in moving around and in trying to keep a route clear for the servers. It can really be a tight squeeze in there.

That said, they can somewhat easily squeeze diners in at the bar, which is first-come-first served, and it may not be that hard to get two chairs side-by-side. The bartender can take your order, plus you have the benefit of your beverage order served immediately. Besides, the music is quite loud downstairs, and you'll have to lean in to properly hear your dining partner anyway. If you're dining alone, the bar is probably the best way to go for a drop-in meal.
Something else curious about the bar is the seating. The round seats are literally packed one against the other, so to get in or out, you need to pull it all the way out. On the other hand, this seating neatly portions out the bar space. You can't slide your seat around along the bar, so everyone gets an identical amount of elbow room and table space, the latter being important if you're going to have dinner there.

Black + Blue also features tableside preparation of various classic desserts, such as Crêpes Suzette. I had had tableside service at (the now closed) William Tell, and if Black + Blue has similarly entertaining and personable waiters, it's a nice treat to have for a nostalgic older generation or for date night (to pass the time when you've run out of stuff to say, I guess). You'll want a proper reservation and table to do this, of course. Plus, if you're bringing a date, you're more likely to get male waiters rather than the mini-skirted hotties serving in the lounge.

As there is a lounge, it's tempting to bring friends down for a get-together in a hip joint. But if you have more than a party of six, I recommend against Black + Blue. The lounge is quite narrow, and the music is loud. Plusses include being able to reserve at least a portion of the lounge, however. And if you like people-watching, it's elevated from the ground floor and you can see just about everyone. For larger groups, and especially for a casual no-reservations drop-in, I recommend the expansive lobby of the Fairmont Pacific Rim instead. It's loud in there, but there's room to move, and you can wander upstairs to some of the plush couches for a quieter venue. Sometimes there's a bit of dancing as well, especially in tandem with the frequent live music events.

Vegetarians are largely limited to soups, salads, sides, and drinks. Plus it's got cuts of meat on display in their see-through Himalayan Salt curing chamber -- which vegetarians (not even vegans) have outright commented on as being "disgusting". Check this place out before you invite just anybody.

You can expect steakhouse prices, of course, so your main plus side will probably come in at $50. If you think this is inflated, it probably is, to accommodate accepting American Express, which is said to be tough on merchants when it comes to taking their cut.

On to the food!
  • No bread or anything else to start you off. Possibly because I ate at the bar. However, at steak houses, especially if you're having steak, it's not like you really need the extra filler.
  • P.E.I. Blue Ribbon Bone-In Rib Eye (16 oz, $44).
    • The blurb says, "The cattle are raised in lush seaside fields of Prince Edward Island. Superior marbling is the result of longer grass feed times & natural aging. The Blue Ribbon program selects the top percentile of Canada’s highest grade, Canadian prime."
    • I ordered Medium Rare, and perhaps because they've got a lot of steaks on the go in the kitchen, it came with a little wooden sign that read "medium rare". The steak was very juicy, and nearer the bone in some places it looked a bit raw. Mostly it was very red inside, so I think  they may have rushed this one a bit and it came out rare. Still, what liquid came out of the steak wasn't reddish or blood-like, so it might have been an extra helping of jus. Definitely more wet and very slightly chewier than a medium rare from Gotham.
  • Creamed Corn with crispy jalapeño ($9)
    • At Black + Blue, you are forced to separately choose a side. After my experience at the other mainstay Vancouver steakhouse, Gotham, I was cautious of ordering too much, and had my eye on dessert ("20 layer chocolate expresso cake"!). However, I was assertively told that the steaks aren't stand-alone, and in any case, it's a relentless amount of meat, and a side to help it along was recommended. This part, at least, I did agree with. I didn't particularly like being forced to order a side, especially as I wouldn't have anyone to share my dessert with. Still, when in Rome...
    • The creamed corn comes in a small, deep-dish cast-iron pan and there's maybe one large bowl worth. It was quite thick, and the slight bite from the jalapeño juxtaposes very nicely with the sweetness of the corn. Even if you ate the baked-to-a-grey jalapeño crisps, there wasn't any burn-your-tongue heat to this.
    • Overall, very nice, but as portions go, it's really a sharing portion. For one person, on top of a good-sized steak, you had better go hungry.
  • Louie Lobster ($18)
    • My incidental dining partner picked a Louie Lobster salad. I didn't know her very well, so we weren't into sharing and I didn't get to try this.
    • Presumably based on Crab Louie, and also served on a long lettuce leaf. You can imagine the shape to be either lobster in a yacht, or a lobster tail in the shell. The portion is about the size of a large lobster tail, and it looked like the chunks of lobster meat was definitely the dominant ingredient.
    • My dining partner was initially disappointed as it looked like just chopped up lobster on a lettuce leaf. However, her final verdict was that she did like it, and it had more complexity than how it first looked.
    • Somehow her item ended up on my VISA bill. The bartender had taken the initiative, said we looked good together and therefore more or less assumed we were together. We were both a bit surprised as we were only just acquaintances and had met just that night. I didn't make a fuss and let it go.
      • Some good and bad here, depending on how you want to take it. Obviously being at the bar might help you if you're looking to impress someone and you've got the right bartender playing wing man.
  • Ginger Beer / Fruit conconction (complimentary / experimental)
    • I'm a non-drinker, and they can do tea, but this time around I wanted to see what other non-alcoholic and hopefully cold drinks they had. Strangely, the bartender was stumped. He suggested he could whip up a non-alcoholic ginger beer, which I had had before at Nuba. Some time later, a drink appeared in front of me in a short "Old Fashioned Glass" style tumbler. The bartender said it was ginger beer plus some fruit juice. Some sort of mash-up drink. And since it was experimental, he wasn't going to charge me for it, and said he'd be happy to make something else.
    • I tried it, and ginger was the dominant taste. No real burn/heat to it, and not too sweet. Nice bite from the ginger. Barely any fruitiness came through clearly. Good enough to offset any potential heavy feeling or fattiness in a steak.
    • I'm a bit surprised and disappointed they didn't readily have any non-alcoholic beverage on hand. At the same time, the easy-going eager-to-accommodate attitude of the bar staff scored points with me.
TIP: Have an early dinner. The bottom of my bill reads...

Alberni Doorbuster! Order 2 appies + 2 mains and receive 2nd main FREE
4-6:30pm 7 days a week!