Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts

I wish I knew some "starving" student who really wants to treat a date to a special dinner, but can't normally afford it. The Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts Restaurant would be absolutely perfect. You can get a full-on fine dining experience for not $80 per person, not $60, not even $40! But for $17 per person! Er, sorry...had a mild infomercial attack there. The deal is that a three course dinner at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts Restaurant is a mere $34 per person, since it's an instructional restaurant. And then on Mondays and Tuesdays, it's 2 for 1 on top of that! You can imagine they get pretty busy, and I've now had two unsuccessful attempts to dine there on a Monday night (one walk-in attempt, which is how I found out about 2 for 1 night, and one phone call on the night before. Monday was booked out, but Tuesday was still open), but it's worth making the effort to call ahead. The night I did get a reservation, I called on Saturday night, and they returned my call Sunday, so a call two nights before got us in. Well, enough about the bargain aspect, because it's only a real bargain if they can actually deliver in terms of food, atmosphere, and service. And they impressed me on all counts.

The kitchen is staffed by students that are enrolled in the institute's six month Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts programs. The front of the room is also staffed by these students. Don't let this scare you off. Actually, if anything, I found that everyone seems to put in MORE effort into the experience than you might get elsewhere, and with the guidance of experienced professionals (the instructors), they've got everything down. I don't think I've ever received better service at a restaurant (and this was despite my dinner companions coming in 20 minutes late for the reservation on 2 for 1 night, when the restaurant usually completely books out in advance). Here's a couple of examples of their well-oiled machine type service. A call was made to the restaurant earlier that day to modify the reservation because one person couldn't make it, and they were all set with the correct table for four when I arrived. They had also communicated to my server that we were going to need to get out in time for an 8 pm show, even though the only time I had mentioned this was when I made the initial reservation with the office, and had asked if she thought it was enough time for dinner. Not only did my server know, but he kept it in mind all evening. He was personable, efficient, charming, happy to answer menu and culinary term questions, and showed absolutely no sign of irritation at the late start. At one point, he came over to break the news to one of us that the dessert she ordered was not available, and he did this with the tenderness and solemnity of say, a veterinarian who's come to tell us that our beloved puppy didn't make it through the surgery. (Yah, whatever, bring us that other dessert. I think we'll live!). This is all the more impressive when you realize that (as the little card on the table informs us) the servers don't actually get the tip. They add a 15% gratuity charge, which is given to the school, and ask us not to tip the server. One more note about reservations - they do take a credit card number and would charge $10 per person on a no show. Fair enough, given how often they have to turn people away when they book up.

Onto the food...we photodocumented all the choices made by Bleuet Girl, Instant Noodle Girl, Wine Geek and myself, but I'll comment on the dishes I ate. All were plated beautifully, so I'm happy that I have photos to share (many thanks to Bleuet Girl). Things were off to a great start with a beautiful basket of breads of various shapes and flavours. Really good bread. There was a spicy cheesy one, and the one I ate was shaped as four little spheres stuck together. We were then onto the appetizers. Our choices are below in the captions under the photos. An additional choice on our menu was a zucchini apple soup, blue cheese crumble, and sour cream coulis.

Gourmand Salad with Baked Brie, Cranberry Relish, & Orange Vinegrette.

Roasted Beet Salad, Sauteed Tiger Prawns, Coconut Ginger Curry Cream Sauce, photo by Bleuet Girl.

I chose the Roasted beet, tomato and tiger prawn salad. I quite liked it. I wasn't entirely convinced about the combination with the curry sauce, but it was all very nice.

Tuna Carpaccio Filled With Smoked Salmon, Spicey Papaya Coulis & Mixed Greens, photo by Bleuet Girl

The choices for mains included a grilled marinated garlic chicken breast, tomato polenta, Mediterranean vegetable medley, sundried tomato and red wine sauce; a feuilleté of tilapia, prawns, mussels, and salmon in a ginger and orange cream sauce with julienne vegetables; a pan-seared basa; and meuniare with carmelized butternut squash and ratatouille.

Pistachio Crusted Baked Salmon with a Red Pepper Veloute, Puree Carrots, Grilled Zucchini & Herb-infused Rice Pilaf, photo by Bleuet Girl

Roast Pork Loin, Stuffed with Wine Chorizo, Balsamic Mashed Potaos, Snowpeas & Oyster Mushroom Sauce, photo by Bleuet Girl

I had the roast pork loin for my main. Look at the generous portion of two big slices of pork loin. It's been a while since I've been served this much meat at a fine dining type place. I ate and enjoyed my heavily balsamic mashed potatoes, but I probably would have been happier with plain. Though it definitely makes for a more fun menu description to add that element into it. I must say I just loved their menu. There were so many items that sounded like they would be tasty and interesting to try. Part of that is the complexity of the dishes. For example, I loved the idea that they went to the extra trouble of injecting the sausage into the loin (...I just need to leave this one alone, don't I?), rather than just having a standard slice of pork loin. And just look at all those layers in the Opera cake. It was tasty too, with its layers of chocolate, pastry cream, and meringue, garnished with a chocolate truffle, and served with an orange zest sauce.

Springtime Opera Cake, photo by Bleuet Girl

Strawberry and Sacher Mousse Cake, Strawberry Concasse, photo by Bleuet Girl

Creme Caramel, Fresh Strawberry, photo by Bleuet Girl

The dessert that became unavailable (I imagined some student in the back screwing up, and then freaking out, but who knows what happened) was a lemon orange tart with italian meringue.

Dinner was fun and interesting and tasty, and the room is formal, yet bright, calming, and cheery because of the big picture windows looking out onto a Granville Island boat marina. We enjoyed our desserts with a quick coffee, and then we were on our way to the play at the Arts Club, making it there well in time.

Here's just a final note about their bakery and counter, just outside of the entrance to the restaurant. You can pick up all sorts of lunch goodies to go and beautiful pastries and bread during the daytime. I had their seafood salad, and was completely impressed by the quality of it all, and a steal for about six bucks. Also had a respectable hazelnut torte from the bakery too. The restaurant would be quite a nice lunch spot if you're looking for something a little fancier than the market. They do a seafood buffet for lunch on Fridays that sounds like fun too. Closed Sundays and holidays. This one's definitely a keeper. I just hope that blogging it hasn't made it more difficult to get a table!

No comments: