Monday, February 24, 2014

Booby trapped berry tart at La Petite Cuillère

La Petite Cuillère on UrbanspoonThe best feature of La Petite Cuillère ("the small spoon") is the space. It is decorated with beautiful tea sets in cabinets, and atop those if you cast your gaze up, is a flotilla of model ships. Convenient coat hangars sport cameos of might-be-famous persons.
Unlike afternoon tea houses that aim for "elegant" or "refined", the furniture here feels more cozy and "at home". When you're at the table, it feels like you're at your old-fashioned grandma's dining room for Thanksgiving. Overall, the ambiance feels closer to "adorable Alice in Wonderland", minus any tacky wackiness.
A big plus for La Petite Cuillère is its location compared to what it offers. At that busy intersection of Kingsway and Broadway, to duck in here for an hour or so is to escape into a quiet, tranquil oasis.

Service is friendly and enthusiastic, although our server had a creepy talent for putting on the most disconcerting agonized look that is sure to make any hardened heart sorry. It looked like she was in absolute dread of being spanked when she gave the bad news to the kitchen.
The occasion for this tragedy was a bit of a goof-up with the reservation. At La Petite Cuillère, if you make a reservation for their tea service, items are prepared ahead of time. So, if some/all of you don't show up, it goes to waste presumably. Also, if you order something else, that screws them up to.
I had booked "afternoon tea" for a party of eight (and happily, they had a big table to accommodate all of us at the same table, which not all smaller establishments can do). I had assumed that everyone would just go for afternoon tea, and that it wouldn't be a big deal if they chose from one of the lesser options (which are basically the afternoon tea minus a few items). However, it was apparently quite a big deal that not everyone at our party wanted the full $24.50 afternoon tea.
For their part, they had assumed from my e-mail that everyone would, and hadn't bothered to check. I don't want to get into portioning out the blame here, but I do want to say,
  • There's a good reason for the saying about how to "ASSuME" just makes an ass out of you and me. Obviously some of this is my bad as I had made an assumption that they could be flexible. Many afternoon tea services get around this by simply offering basically no choice -- You get the one tea service that everyone else gets and all you choose is what tea you want.
  • They were awfully nice to not press the point and let it go.
As far as tea services go, this was far and away the prettiest, with sets of matching cups and saucers. Try not to look around too much lest you be jealous of the china your dining neighbour is using.
The food was, however, a bit mediocre. Which is not to say "bad", but it did not strike me as exceptional either. The one stand-out, unfortunately, was a little fruit tart booby-trapped with a lot of syrup. If you didn't take it all in one whole bite, you were liable to make a dripping mess. If you see that on your tea tower, I recommend you find yourself a spoon and tip it to see if you end up with a teaspoon of syrup. Our encounter with it was probably just a fluke, though. Karma biting us on the ass for the reservation screw-up, maybe?
Also interesting was a tuna salad tart that was really quite lemony. A very nicely done and flavourful macaron finishes your tea service.
At $24.50 it comes in at the low end for afternoon tea services. It doesn't look like much on the tower, but two small scones can go far toward being filling. Devonshire cream and fruit preserves come in a very un-wasteful but seemingly stingy portion. There is however no fuss at all if you ask for more.

Gluten-free and assorted dietary requirements can be accommodated, but you can end up with a very different-looking tower. Best to call ahead.

On your way out, don't miss the round business cards or the super-cute cat-in-an-apron teapot.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mushroom in your coffee at Living Cafe

Living Cafe on Urbanspoon

Living Cafe in Steveston (in Richmond) is a quaint little place this is deli on one side, dining room on another. The dining space is simple, sunny, and spacious and displays local artwork on the walls.

The menu is an interesting one that supports not-easily-found diets, such as raw, paleo, superfoods, and funny good-for-you ingredients like chlorophyll and red reishi mushroom. For sugar, they use the 1:1 sugar substitute xylitol. Vegetarian and vegan diets are of course supported. They also carry a selection of Anderssen's Life Flaxrolls.
The online menu is missing at least one page.

Black Coffee ($3) Enriched coffee grown and cultivated by experienced artisans and mixed with their proprietary, pesticide-free, USDA certified organic Ganoderma Lucidium ("red reishi mushroom").
  • Tastes like coffee, but seemed a bit on the weak side. Presumably the $3 is for the mushroom content. Red reishi mushroom is supposed to be on the bitter side, so it blends nicely with coffee, which is bitter to begin with.
  • If you're looking for a strong or "normal" coffee, it's probably best to talk to your server first, or run around the neighbourhood later. There's a Blenz, a Starbucks, and a Waves, all within walking distance.
TLC Sampler Plate ($12)
  • This was a surprisingly filling meal involving a mix of items. Mostly raw vegan, but not entirely as some items (like the chickpeas in the salad) are cooked.
  • Seasoned Kale Chips
    • Kale that's not bitter! Probably because there weren't any thick stems, which are bitter.
    • Whatever the mix of seasonings, it's not too salty either.
    • Deeply green yet crispy. There's a bit of a "seaweed" look to them.
  • Two balls of "Tuna" salad.
    • Raw vegetarian stuff mixed together to taste and feel like a tuna salad. Each ball is slightly smaller than a ping pong ball.
  • Two balls of honey hummus.
    • Hummus with a touch of honey. Not enough honey, I thought.
  • Crackers made predominantly of flax seeds.
    • Obviously for use with the "tuna" and hummus. Pretty boring-tasting otherwise.
  • Salad of sprouts and beans (about 1 cup full).
    • I'm sure this "salad" of mixed beans and stuff is good for you. But taste wise... Zap this with hot sauce.
  • Carrot and celery sticks.
    • Thankfully, hot sauce is available for the asking.
Double Chocolate Cake ($4.50 for a piece, $20 for 5 pieces, $40 for a whole cake of 12-24 pieces).
  • You want this! A pricey piece is about 2 inches wide and maybe 4 inches long. There's about a centimeter of thick chocolate on top. The cake itself is dense and moist and extremely chocolatey. This is a very excellent chocolate cake, one of the best I've had.
  • Dairy-free and gluten free, but has eggs so it is not vegan.
Overall, Living Cafe provides good value for money and has an interesting and fairly extensive menu. From just the sampler plate (which is obviously not a great sample size for evaluation), taste and plating is inferior to some of the newer vegetarian/vegan eateries such as Graze, The Parker, Acorn, or Heirloom, but Living Cafe offers other ingredients that are hard to find in restaurant usage. You can probably pick up most of the ingredients from the deli counter side as well.

Living Cafe supports the charity.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Chinese New Year Afternoon Tea at Xi Shi Lounge

Xi Shi Lounge on UrbanspoonI had previously blogged about free Chinese New Year afternoon tea for persons born in the Year of the Horse at Xi Shi Lounge in the Shangri-La Hotel, and on Thursday I finally got around to going with a few friends.

The small but beautiful lounge looks a bit cramped, but there is actually a decent amount of room to move between tables. The overall ambiance, especially if you can go on a quieter weekday afternoon, is peaceful and easily adds value to the mere $38 for their luxurious high tea set.
The courteous and soft-spoken female hostesses wear sleek cheongsams, adding to the lovely ambiance. This special uniform, however, has a zipper end ends right under their right upper arm. I suspect it chafes, actually.

The afternoon tea is served from 11.30am to 5pm, and if you can manage a later seating, there is live entertainment on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Their special Chinese New Year Afternoon Tea combines western afternoon tea with eastern/fusion elements. It is overall beautifully presented, interesting to try, and with subtler flavours. Nothing too bold here except the ginger soup -- I found the flavours rather tame for my taste, actually, but your mileage will vary.
Their tea selection has a variety of interesting flavours, and you can ask for cream/mlk and sugar.

BBQ Pork in Brioche Bun
  • Large chunks of tender pork. Could have used more sauce/jus, I thought.
  • The bun seemed a bit on the dry side and this was sadly distracting.
Crispy Duck Spring Roll
  • This was really decent. Nicely crispy on the outside and a good amount of duck meat on the inside.
  • What would have made this even better, I think, would be a bit of flavourful roasted duck skin and duck fat. Animal fats have been out of vogue for a long time, so I suspect it was deliberately left out, even though the tastiest portion of a roasted duck is the skin and fat.
Curried Tofu Wrap
  • This was just "okay" for me, but I am used to curries and spicy-hot food, so I thought it was really tame. If too much spiciness turns you off, you will probably like this a lot better.
Smoked Salmon Bagel with yuzu mayonnaise
  • I wasn't paying attention to the mini-bagel, but my friends didn't think too much of it. They thought it should have been chewier. I thought that might have made it more annoying to take bites out of this open-faced sandwich.
  • Rather plain. Whatever was special with the mayonnaise didn't make itself known.
Signature Scones (one plain, one orange) with two types of jam and clotted homemade cream
  • Definitely could have been more buttery in aroma and flavour. But again, this might have been a conscious, heart-smart low-butter decision.
  • The scones were otherwise very nicely done. You could just gently press your butter knife between the layers and expect the scone to just cleanly break apart into two nice halves. This is not always the case with scones, some of which require more sawing.
Green Tea Opera Cake with a sprinkle of gold flakes on top
  • A very sadly too-small portion for this delicious cake.
  • The bottom of this is a very thin piece of what looks like green tea milk chocolate. It will probably stick to the serving plate, and the cake is already quite delicate, so I recommend you don't just grab it. Use your butter knife to push it/scrape it loose first.
Coconut Rice Cake
  • Again, a sadly too-small portion. Although, the tea set as a whole is a filling medium lunch, so it's hard to complain. I would have traded a scone for a bigger piece of opera cake and rice cake, though.
  • A simple-looking yet delicious item that is probably based on nian gao, but which is far more convenient to eat.
Egg Tarts
  • A strangely not-very-flavourful mini egg tart.
Black Sesame Dumpling in Ginger Syrup (Tang Yuan)
  • If you want to try the soup, get ready with tea to wash it down. The ginger here has good bite to it, and a bit of bitterness. It also gives you a light burn at the back of the throat. Definitely not for everyone, so have just a taste first. I recommend either drinking this first, or last if eating lots of sweet pastries can give you a heavy feeling that you like to counteract with something sharp.
  • The black sesame dumpling is ok. The white shell doesn't tend to soak any of the soup, so it's safe that way. But it is also tasteless.
  • Instead of trying to cut it, just bring it up to your mouth with the spoon and take a bite. The chewy exterior is a chore to cut and you can just make a big mess.
For $38, I think there's good value here. The items themselves didn't really have any standouts, though the Green Tea Opera Cake was quite good and the Coconut Rice Cake was pleasantly tasty in it's humbly simple way. What enhances your experience is the interestingness of the menu, the ambiance of the venue, and the excellent service.

We were there on a Thursday afternoon at 1 pm and the hostess told me that they were fully booked for the afternoon. Probably for that reason, our party of four was seated at a table that was really meant for two. They squeezed in our place settings, but the table could not accommodate two afternoon tea towers, and the second tower was placed on a very small side table (which they might otherwise offer you if you have a purse, to save you from placing it on the ground). Everything else fit just fine, including four pots of tea.
If a very full table bugs you, you could ask for alternate seating, such as at the bar-height long table for larger parties.

A couple of teas were out of stock, and there was a rosemary-peppermint tea available which was not listed in the menu. Before you browse the tea menu and set your heart on a flavour, ask your server first about what's available and what's not.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ebesse Zozo Hot Sauce

I wandered into African Breese Imports this past Saturday and on a whim picked up the "HOT" version of Ebesse Zozo Hot Sauce. My mom likes some heat to just about everything she eats, so I thought she might be curious to try some African-style chili sauce.

Ebesse Zozo Hot Sauce (the "hot version") is quite spicy, and generally a good deal spicier than most chili sauces you can buy in a popular supermarket. You'd probably have to go to a speciality store like South China Seas or The Gourmet Warehouse to get something comparable or stronger.

Be sure to shake very well. Before you pour, check for large lumps. Break them up and then shake again.

What's interesting to me about Ebesse Zozo is that the sauce doesn't have much flavour on its own. It's mostly just heat. So, you can throw it in anything or dip anything with it, and expect that the sauce won't overwhelm the taste of the food. It'll just add heat.
Depending on what you have eaten or what you are eating it with, your experience will change. But if you take it straight, there is initially a bit of sweetness, followed by bitterness, which also quite quickly disappears. If you mix it with mayonnaise, there is just initial sweetness but no bitterness. Again, the flavour disappears quickly and you are back to eating whatever you dipped it in, just with a buzz of heat in your mouth.

The heat can also quickly settle into your gut for a warm and slightly tingly feeling that is actually not unlike the onset of a stomach ache. This, however, is probably related to just how much you take.

The bottle of Ebesse Zozo cost a rather scary $11.10. On the plus side, it is a "locally made" (Nelson, BC) product with no preservatives or other chemicals -- or, as my friend says, it's "very clean".

Saturday brunch at Ethical Kitchen

Ethical Kitchen on Urbanspoon
Ethical Kitchen is a smallish diner that looks a bit shabby on the outside, but is cozy-looking on the inside. There's not a lot of seating because they haven't tried to cram as many chairs as possible into the dining area, and about half the floor space is the kitchen area. There are tables for two and four, as well as larger communal tables with benches that could probably seat 8-10.

If you're going during the winter, you might want to sit away from the doors: There is the main entrance, as well as a side door near the counter where you pay. Brunch-time on Saturday didn't see the place so packed that there was a lineup, but it was steady -- which means the doors can be counted on to be opened and closed frequently.
Reservations are not accepted for weekend brunch, but our small party of three had no trouble dropping in for an almost-Noon brunch last Saturday.

It's run diner style: You order and pay at the counter, and the food is brought to your table. On Saturday, there were just two staff persons, who ran the kitchen, the counter, and cleared the tables. Don't expect to be waited on hand and foot like a "regular" restaurant. This also means you can get away with not tipping, but the food is reasonably priced to begin with so an extra dollar or two isn't going to break the bank.

The website seems quite outdated, and in any case has only a fraction of what's available in the restaurant. There's a fairly extensive menu, lots of drinks (mostly teas and coffees, including hard-to-find things like Golden Milk), and a counter with baked goods and pastries. There's good support for gluten free diets, but not that much for vegetarians and vegans.

I normally don't go for brunches because many brunch places tend to serve up the same sort of breakfasty thing, but I was definitely not sorry to go to Ethical Kitchen for brunch. The pancakes with pork belly ($10.50 after tax before tip) I got weren't particularly fancy, but were really tasty with just a simple twist.
Pancakes are pancakes of course. However, instead of syrup you got a generous amount of sweet, delicious, jus from their pork belly. There was just the one chunk of pork belly (just over a cubic inch of it), which was admittedly a bit disappointing, but pork belly being what it is, I didn't want that much fat with my breakfast anyway.

Teas ($3.50) come in a coffee press, which is good for several cups. I opted for the smoked BC Forest Blend, which really did have a pleasant smoky aroma.

Ethical Kitchen supports, which donates a meal to charity if diners purchase a qualifying menu item. The Mealshare icon isn't exactly convenient to throw on menus, so you will probably have to ask them which item is marked as the Mealshare item.

Hot Chocolate Festival 2014 - CocoaNymph Chocolates & Confections - Aphrodite's Delight

CocoaNymph Chocolates & Confections on Urbanspoon
I'm all for trying strange foods, so for the Hot Chocolate Festival 2014, I was keen on trying the one with potato chips and this one from CocoaNymph, with mango.

Made from 72% dark chocolate, with mango rosemary puree and almond milk (vegan and dairy free).
Served with a side of rosemary anise fudge.
Available: January 18 - February 14

Luckily I'd gone with someone because I found it kind of gross. She didn't, though, so she helped me finish it.

There had been reports of weak mango flavour, but when I got mine on Friday night, it had a sour mango flavour that turned me off it right away. I had expected a sweet mango flavour, but mangos can certainly be sour. That really threw me off. I bravely gave it a good go and had half my cup, but I could give it away, so I did.
I don't want to say it's "bad", but I do feel it could be an acquired taste, so go with a friend if you can.

The square of fudge was listed in-store as "vegan fudge", so I can't be absolutely certain it's the rosemary anise fudge advertised on the Hot Chocolate Festival website. Whatever it was, the fudge itself was okay but the dusting of whatever on the outside also quite put me off. My friend thought it was thyme, but it could very well be the anise, to which I have a slight aversion when it is too strong or direct.

Overall, it was very interesting to try. The other flavour offerings from CocoaNymph are all also very intriguing. If you don't mind rolling the dice on about $7 to get a possibly hit-or-miss inventive hot chocolate, definitely go to CocoaNymph for the Hot Chocolate Festival. This is the last week!

The other flavours:

Made from 64% dark chocolate with parmesan and fresh nutmeg.
Served with a side of Umami No. 5 fudge.
Available: January 25 - February 14

#17 - "HERA'S HABIT"
Made from 50% deep milk chocolate with malted milk balls.
Served with vanilla bean cinnamon shortbread. 
Available: February 1 - 14

Made from 72% dark chocolate with red wine reduction and apple ginger compote.
Served with walnut shortbread (vegan and dairy free). 
Available: February 7 - 14

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dine Out Vancouver 2014 - Graze

Graze on Urbanspoon
Graze is where the sadly short-lived Fray used to be. Although Dine Out Vancouver 2014 officially ended on Sunday, February 2nd, Graze is extending it till February 13th. During this time, all items are also individually available on their menu. On the 14th, they have a Valentine's Day special.

Their regular menu Small Plates are about $11, their Large Plates are about $17, and their Desserts are about $7. So the Dine Out menu basically saves you about $7 by giving you dessert with your meal.
Dine Out Vancouver 2014 menu ($28)
Salad of persimmon, pistachio and pomegranate with arugula & almond chevre (gluten free)
Fig & cashew pate filled chard rolls with a light cumin orange dressing (gluten free)
Winter Salad of lacinato kale with roasted golden & red beets, pear & fig with toasted hazelnuts (gluten free)
Organic yam & red pepper chowder, local corn, cracked black pepper, lightly curried, smoked paprika (gluten free)
Tagliatelle: Yam and parsnip broad ‘noodles’ with farro cakes & saffron coconut cream sauce
Steak & Mushrooms: Tea-smoked grilled tofu steak & pepita crusted portabello, beluga lentils & porcini-red wine sauce (gluten free)
Crepes: Basil & chickpea crepes with marinated & grilled seasonal vegetables & organic tempeh (gluten free)
Pot Pie: Roasted parsnip & garlic ginger braised organic kale, baked individually in a spelt crust
Mignon: Toasted almond & herb ‘mignon’, roasted carrot & grilled corn puree with sauteed red pepper & oyster mushroom in a juniper-tulsi glaze (gluten free)
Perogies: Yam & eggplant perogies, sautéed oyster mushrooms, crispy shallots, pickled beet shred, smoky coconut cheddar sauce, spicy tomato jam (gluten free)
Hazelnut macaroons with cardamom pear sorbet and vanilla creme
Cacao & rose-infused black cherry trifle layered with toasted cashew crumble (gluten free)
Lemon mousse filled cannoli, lavender coulis
Trio of hand-made truffles:  Coffee & Cacao  -  Grand Marnier  -  Herbal Liqueur & Ancho Chili (gluten free)
It's hard not to compare Graze to my recent experience at The Parker, where I had enjoyed the food greatly. The plates here are more "robust" in portion and feel, although with leafy vegetables, the portion may look more filling than it really is (sort of like how a leafy salad has volume but not a lot of actual mass). If you're a meat-eater or instinctively averse to strict vegetarian fare, their plating and menu wording can help with any experience of missing meat. I still wouldn't go for anything prominently featuring tofu, though (jus' sayin').

Dine Out Vancouver saw them solidly booked, but on Sunday night when I walked in, it was actually pretty easy to get seating at a bar-stool-height communal table that seats about 6. I just walked in and was seated right away.
For a busy place, I think they had just two floor staff, so initially taking orders was on the slow side. But drinks and food came out at a good pace afterwards.

Fig & cashew pate filled chard rolls with a light cumin orange dressing (gluten free)
  • The combination of curry-ish cumin and sweetness from orange makes this an interesting and tasty appetizer.
  • The thick stem on the chard also helps to add a solid crunch and a surprising amount of moisture.
  • The leaf will probably be crisp enough for you to bite cleanly through, but if it doesn't and you have to tear it free, some of the wet "pâté" spilling out the other end. Watch out.
  • Tasty, interesting, and recommended. Two rolls--handy for sharing.
Mignon: Toasted almond & herb ‘mignon’, roasted carrot & grilled corn puree with sauteed red pepper & oyster mushroom in a juniper-tulsi glaze (gluten free)
  • The deceptively described "mignon" came across as a fat potato cake in a thick burger patty shape. It tasted mostly like potato, too.
  • Remember to eat it with the tasty sweet goop on your plate. If you rush this, it'll just be a potato patty.
  • There's something bitter in them greens on your plate. Taste it first. If you hate it and can't quarantine the bitter bits, then eat it with your potato patty which, thankfully, is of a decent size to help you smother the bitter taste.
Cacao & rose-infused black cherry trifle layered with toasted cashew crumble (gluten free)
  • Remember to dig deep for the rest of the dessert. It is far too easy to just concentrate on the thick, rich, deeply chocolatey top and forget that there's other stuff in your cup.
  • This was ace. And thankfully I had lemonade to balance the rich chocolate. (I don't normally go for chocolate to finish a meal as that can give a heavy feeling.)
Graze's Organic Sparkling Lemonades ($4.50)
  • Comes in various versions. I opted for the plain lemonade.
  • This was actually really decent. Not particularly sweet, not super-sour. But definitely enough tang to wake you up. Toward the end, the ice in the glass watered it down too much, however. Try asking for less ice, or just chilled with no ice if that bugs you.