Saturday, May 27, 2006

Grouse Grub - Altitudes Bistro

Now that Grouse Grind season has started, perhaps all you hard-core athletic types will be looking to treat yourself at the top of the mountain. Although I only went up by the "civilized" route the other day - a relaxing tram ride to soak up the view of Vancouver - I was still looking for a treat at the top. I was pleasantly surprised to find high quality food and very reasonable pricing in their mid-range restaurant, Altitudes Bistro. I had a beautiful roast beef sandwich and salad for only $12, and Bac'n Girl had a mushroom ravioli main dish, served with warm bread, for $16. And this was all served in an elegant, yet comfortably casual room, with great service. We sat by the window, and you can't beat the view, if it's a clear, cloudless day. We still saw some of the city lights on our rainy day. I felt like we received great value for a tourist attraction (that costs $29.95 for adult general admission). We were just up for a quick look because I had free passes. But if you're interested in dining at The Observatory, their fine dining restaurant, admission is included with advance reservation. Also, you can also get your parking reimbursed if you spend at least $10 on food or souvenirs. I went to the Observatory for a Valentine's Day dinner years ago, and was thoroughly impressed also.

Mushroom Ravioli, tomato basil sauce, goat cheese, balsamic glaze

Bac'n girl enjoyed these very large ravioli. When I tasted it, I thought it was alright, but was happy that I ordered the sandwich.

Roast Beef Sandwich,sliced whole roasted striploin with paprika rub, Dijon mustard, radish sprouts, baguette. Served with salad and vinaigrette on the side.

I really enjoyed this sandwich on a nice toasted baguette. As you can see in the photo, the roast beef was perfectly medium rare, and it was presented quite attractively with the shredded carrot and sprouts. There was a pleasant amount of horseradish in the mayonnaise too, just enough to give the sandwich a little zip. I also appreciated the placement of the salad dressing on the side, allowing for total vinaigrette control. I did not request that specifically, but maybe more restaurants should consider this as their default, to avoid the dreaded drowning of greens. It's a toss-up (haha) for me though, because when someone does toss a salad "properly", it's nice to get that consistant coating of vinaigrette all over every leaf. Personal preference varies so much though, so the dressing on the side is pretty safe for almost everyone, except those who really like their dressing evenly distributed all over. Perhaps because they do get so many active, healthy types (ski and snowboard people in the winter, and hikers in the summer), they have a higher proportion of customers who skip the dressing altogether. We were very comfortable in our sporty clothes in the bistro, and received warm and attentive service. There is a more casual cafe located on the main floor of the chalet as well, if you are looking for counter service. But a full-service restaurant is more of a treat to me. I was particularly impressed that the Altitudes staff made us feel welcome and not rushed, even though we found ourselves being the last table in the restaurant. We walked in thinking there were lots of customers, but they were actually just a bunch of Volvo conference people who had wandered over from the Observatory restaurant that they had actually booked out, which was originally our first choice. With my experience at Altitudes though, I definitely wasn't disappointed. I can always come back another day to check out The Observatory. With Grouse Mountain admission (tram ride, etc.) included with dinner reservations, it would make quite a nice special date destination.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Board Game Cafe (Coal Harbour)

Just a quick note that there's a new place opening next week in Coal Harbour (across from Cardero's) where you can play board games, and have drinks. The new board game cafe will charge $4/hour, and offers a membership, that gives 15% off regular rates. They didn't have a pamphlet to offer me when I poked in, so I don't know how much the membership is, but they did mention to me that the drinks will be less expensive than they are in the surrounding coffee shops. The place looks nice and modern. Apparently this concept has been around in Korea for a while, as I've read on one website that there are about 250 of them there. Looks like there's already one in Burnaby called Borandsi, that charges $3.50/hour. I'm looking forward to the one in Coal Harbour. It should be fun, especially since many of the coffee shops in the area close very early in the night.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ethnorestaurantology 101

A few recent experiences swirling around in my head have inspired me to coin a term, ethnorestaurantology ("say the word after me, boys and girls") and who knows, maybe it'll become a new academic field, and people will one day be able to get their PhD in it. Then you can get conversations like this:

"Is it Mrs. or Miss Hamsterweil?"
"It's Dr. Hamsterweil."
"Ooohh, Doctor. Medical?"
"Ethnorestaurantology, actually."

At least I think the word is new. As I'm writing this now, it doesn't Google up. After I publish this post, it will, though. Definition? about the systematic study of restaurant customs and lore of different human societies.

We are terribly lucky in Vancouver to have such a wealth of restaurants from all different cultures of the world, with some restaurants even specializing in just one particular food item from that cuisine. It's also about the process of dining out with an understanding of the cultural context of the people, the cuisine, and the restaurant, or at least a desire for that understanding. And the possibilities are really endless here, because we now have all sorts of fusions of cultures evolving too. Just look at the Chinese restaurant branch alone, where we have authentic Szechuan, Northern Chinese, and Cantonese lines (some restaurants on this line more general, and some very specific, like a Hot Pot restaurant). And each of those can have offshoots by crossing with other cultures such as your Green Lettuce which is an Indian-style Chinese restaurant, or your local Hong Kong style cafe with Western influences, or your local Chinese Canadian diner (offering selections of either culture separately), or the bastardized food court Chinese food at your local mall.

One inspiration for the term is my own recent interest in recognizing my unfamiliarity with Korean food and deciding to do a little bit of directed exploration of the cuisine and the local Korean restaurant scene (part of it is that I've finally developed a taste for kimchi, which I really didn't like before). I'm getting a sense of a subculture of Vancouver (young Korean visiting students), and a taste of the origin (Korea and Korean culture) just by having a nice little meal out. It's like mental travelling. Leaving home, without actually leaving home. And dining at a restaurant that feels "authentic" is not going to be the same experience as dining at other Vancouver restaurants. Or other Canadian restaurants, and that's cool. For one thing, the servers themselves might be from the country of origin. Or the protocols are set by the owners who are from somewhere else. And those differences are something to be sought after, appreciated, investigated, and enjoyed. Thus, ethnorestaurantology. Would Korean restaurants gain more customers if they translated their menus and tweaked them with a more westernized slant? Probably. But I don't think they should. If they keep at it long enough, eventually everyone will learn the lingo, just like the average Vancouverite now has their own Japanese sushi restaurant vocabulary. How many people in town knew what a chirashi, tamago, or edamame is 30 years ago, compared to now? Foodies, like the people who would read this blog, will always lead the way, but you'll know it's mainstream when one day, say, McDonalds produces little packets of kimchi to accompany their new menu item.

Would you like your reading list for Ethnoresto 101? I just found this book recently at Book Warehouse: The Foodlover's Atlas of the World, by Martha Rose Shulman. The book spends a few pages discussing the food and food culture of each country, to put food in its geographical context. The author would be a good candidate for a Professorship at my imaginary all food-centred university offering a degree in ethnorestaurantology. Food U (FU?)...I can work on the name. But we've gotta have a Kitchen Stadium!

Another recent read that got me thinking about this is a fun book I'm reading called Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. It's a memoir of her experiences as the New York Times restaurant critic. She writes about her putting on various disguises and taking on new personas in order to be able to review anonymously in the New York restaurant scene. She includes the actual reviews she wrote, so you can read them after reading about the escapades she went through to come up with the review. She is now the editor of Gourmet magazine, and has some distance from the critic job, and can really tell about her whole experience, including her personal life at the time, and how that fit in with getting the story. She would visit a restaurant five times first and then reduce that all down into a nice, thick short piece. What I like about her reviews, is that she is hugely knowledgeable about the history of food, the cultures and cuisines of the world and she does her research in terms of the history of the specific people involved in the restaurant and even the building itself and the history of the city. She incorporates all that background into her writing, so that she's not just describing the restaurant, but putting it in all that context for the reader, as well as making it very personal to her own life and palate, as eating should be. In fact, dining out is all about personal experience. And believe it or not, dining out is something that you can get better and better at, but of course, ultimately it's all about your personal enjoyment. If you get a chance to read the book, there is one chapter on a fine Japanese sushi restaurant that is wonderful. And it comes from a place of familiarity and respect for the culture of Japanese cuisine and really, the entire society. That's what I mean when I'm saying we should all aspire to be ethnorestaurantologists. She should teach the first classes in it, at the first fully food-centred university. Incidentally, some of her descriptions are so good, instead of making me hungry as reviews do, reading them sated me like a food/restaurant experience substitute. In other words, she's so good at dining out - noticing all sorts of nuances in the food and in the overall experience - and so good in conveying them in writing, that I feel like I get as much out of reading her words, as I would experiencing it all myself..but without the calories.

Compare that review to this recent Globe and Mail review of Tojo's, by Alexandra Gill, which is another reason I was inspired to come up with the term. First though, I do want to point out I understand that all of dining out is subjective, and everyone's opinion on their experience is interesting to me. And there are all sorts of people out there, so there should be all sorts of reviews out there to represent different segments of society, and you simply tend to follow those who you think would enjoy things the way you do. If she didn't enjoy the experience, well, then, that's what happened, and no one should be faulted for that. And in this case, I think the review is fair in pointing out the huge difference in treatment you get when you're a big spender versus when you're going in for a few dishes (as this is something I've complained about myself), but some of the complaints of the service are just a bit annoying, because they aren't really a problem if you take into account the cultural context of the restaurant. One complaint is not being warned that a mushroom is very hot. But it's part of Japanese culture to serve something like noodles as piping hot as possible, and trust that the customer can make their own judgement, and wait until it has cooled down to their own preferred temperature. She also notes that she was surprised by the complimentary shooters, when they weren't "even offered water" but why would one expect to be offered water in a Japanese restaurant that wants to be authentic? People drink hot tea in Japan, and you get served that right away, and it's complimentary (like tap water is here). If one wanted water, all you need to do is ask. And really, the more authentic a restaurant is, and the truer the staff are to customs of their homeland, the more interesting it makes it for the diner. And the more open you are to this idea of culinary "travel," the richer your dining experiences will be. Do some graduate level dining, and eat well in the name of research! Just hand in a draft of your thesis next week.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Port Moody Foodie

Peckish in Port Moody? Or maybe you're absolutely ravenous in Port Moody, a state I've been finding myself in lately. I've been spending a lot more time way out in "the boonies," visiting the regional parks, and here are a couple of great little finds that a Port Moody fellow foodie let me in on. If you are looking for something filling, Rehanah's Roti (2518 St. John's Street, a few blocks away from the turn to get onto the Barnet Highway, if travelling back to Vancouver, 604-936-1969) should do the trick. This little counter-service shop (cash only) has Trinidadian and Carribean food. Their goat roti (just under $10) is a wonderful bundle of goat and potato curry tucked into a soft flatbread blanket. For the summer, it's a nice take out option for sitting outside by the water in the park. Or you can have it there, in the simple shop. Rehanah, the friendly owner, has a few tables inside, and serves it on a real plate, with a slice of melon with the roti. She seems to be running it all on her own, so if it's busy, you may have to wait a few minutes for your roti, but it's worth it. There are veggie, chicken, shrimp and beef rotis, jamaican patties, and sauces too. You can specify the spiciness you want, and I'm sure she'll accomodate you masochistic types who like things especially fiery.

Maybe on another day, you might be looking for a nice quiet and relaxing place to chat over dessert and coffee. Cumpari's Gelato and Caffe (535 North Road, across from Lougheed Mall, 604-936-8089) has lots of tables, plenty of flavours of gelato to choose from, and all sorts of fancy cakes and pastries, making for very pretty display cases. There are very friendly staff at the counter too. The Crispy Crunch chocolate cake I had was too sweet for me, but I definitely enjoyed the elegant, airy atmosphere of the place, and I'm willing to give it another shot and poke my way through some of their other desserts, like the little mini cheesecakes. Or maybe I'll have gelato next time. The pink grapefruit gelato I sampled was very nice and fully grapefruity, and my coffee was good too. They have ample parking in their own parking lot. It's like a little dessert oasis - something I wasn't expecting in that area. The building apparently lived a former life as a IHOP [edit: Burger King], but it's makeover has made it look quite chic. It's huge, has two levels, and has an outdoor patio too.

Just a warning though, don't follow my example of doing a roti stop and folllowing it immediately with a stop at Cumpari's. My tummy was cursing me for that foolhardy move. I'm sorry, Tummy. I won't do it again...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hamilton Street Grill

I had a lovely, straight-forward meal at a lovely, straight-forward restaurant in Yaletown. The Hamilton Street Grill (1009 Hamilton St. at Nelson, 604.331.1511) is comfortable, and I would say, pleasantly unpretentious, by Yaletown standards. No loud, funky music or irritating, trend-sodden Yaletowners being too la-di-da for their own good. Just a classically manly room, with lots of dark wood and brass - casual, without being too boisterous. It's dimly lit, with a warm yellow glow inside, and it has a bit of a patio too. I don't really have too much to say about this place, because everything was good. No complaints, decent food, and I would come back (when I've got the extra cash). It's just the type of place that would give you a nice, reliable, hearty meal with no surprises whenever you're in the mood for that kind of thing. The food was definitely well-executed. My meat was cooked just the way I requested (rare to medium-rare is what I like), and everything was very tasty. The service was fine, and friendly. Not perfection on this particularly busy time on a busy Saturday night, but Potato Salad Boy and I were walk-ins, anyway, so it didn't bother us. Our waiter apologized for the very small delays (in getting our orders, and in getting cutlery at one point), so all was good. Prices are what you might expect in Yaletown, so dinner is not going to be a bargain, but I generally came out of it feeling like we were getting our money's worth, and, being mainly a great place to get a steak, the food feels substantial and satisfying. Looking back on it, I could probably find a more inventive and exciting meal elsewhere in the same price range (spending $28 on a main course), but there's something nice about a good old-fashioned steak and potatoes meal once in a while. I can't remember the name of my girly cocktail, but I know I enjoyed it. Didn't have the appetite to try appetizers on top of our mains, but they sound nice, and I'm sure I'll get a chance on another occassion.

West Coast Mixed Grill

I really enjoyed the West Coast Mixed Grill ($28) I ordered, that included a tasty brochette of tiger prawns, a braised lamb shank, a petit filet mignon wrapped in bacon, nice seasonal veggies and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. My favourite item in that plate was the petit filet. Potato Salad Boy had the 8 oz. Grilled Sirloin ($20), also served with seasonal vegetables and roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

Grilled Sirloin

We shared the HSG's signature dessert of Warm Gingerbread Pudding in Caramel Sauce, with Ginger and Pumpkin Gelatos. This was very decadent, and I would recommend it. The warm pudding is drenched in a thick, ultra sweet caramel sauce, and the gelatos attempt to balance this heaviness with their icy, light, sorbet-like texture. There was so much, we couldn't even finish the dessert between the two of us.

Warm Gingerbread Pudding with Caramel Sauce, and Ginger and Pumpkin Gelatos Posted by Picasa

We stopped by for an easy, quick bite, and good conversation. We had a fine meal of drinks, steak, and a rich dessert in a comfortable setting. In short, we got everything that we needed.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

H-Mart - New Asian Market Downtown

When I crashed the Sun Run a couple of weeks ago ("oh, look, 50,000 people going for a walk/run...I'll just tag along"), I happened upon a new Korean supermarket downtown on the corner of Robson and Seymour, up on the second floor. It's great, has decent produce, and even has a food court. It's H-Mart, which I've just found out is quite a large chain of supermarkets all over North America. Quite an exciting find for me. I'm having some trouble finding their new downtown Vancouver location on their official websites, but here is their Coquitlam site, and their U.S. site.