Friday, June 15, 2007

Top Five Secret Patios (not Five Top Secret Patios)

Okay, to be honest, none of these are that much of a secret. Generally, keeping your restaurant a secret isn't really good for business anyhow. But for the most part, these do have a nice out-of- the-way feel to them, which is what I'm typically in the mood for these days. The cool kids can hang out at their hot spots and try very hard to look cool. I just want to lurk in the corner, and chill.

1. La Bretagne. (795 Jervis, off Robson. 604-688-5989). Yes, I've spoken about my favourite little neighbourhood crepe place before, but they just got new patio furniture in time for summer and their little patch of outdoors is looking even more inviting as a result. I've been there countless times and I enjoy their food everytime I go. I do enjoy the atmosphere a bit more when it's quiet than when they are in the midst of their weekend brunch rush. They have kir royale on their menu, and a nice slightly alcoholic apple cider, and their menu is surprisingly versatile for a little crepe shop - you really can have a very light meal perfect for summer or get pleasantly filled up with a nice, rich choice. You can have a very light crepe or have one of their very pleasant little salads (I like the one with the goat cheese toasts and tomatoes). Or you might be in the mood for french onion soup and a cheese covered baked crepe stuffed with seafood in wine sauce, and a flambeed dessert special crepe at the end. The bonus? They have great coffee, and they're great at keeping it flowing.

2. Zin (1277 Robson Street, between Bute and Jervis, 604-408-1700). I admit it, I've generally dismissed this restaurant in the past, thinking it all beauty with no substance, at least on the food front. That was due to a pleasant but bland visit back in 2001 when they first opened, and maybe the appearance of their goat cheese fondue at some event or other, which was pleasant enough but not a food epiphany to me like the servers seemed to imply with their praise for the dish. Things have changed apparently. Chef Chris Whittaker has been at the helm since 2003, and it appears he is the man to thank for the interesting globally inspired (yet not fusion) food, dessert, and cocktail menus, as well as the restaurants support of Friends for Life and A Loving Spoonful, and their use of sustainable products.

Since my original visit, I have at least fallen in love with the lounge and have many a time in the last year wished the lounge half didn't close down so early (it's been a while, but I've seen the place close the bar a couple of times before midnight). The plush red modern decor, cosy velvet couches, big arm chairs, fireplace, and small monitors showing not sports, but the food channel all hit my decorating soft spot. So basically, I've been considering Zin a great place to go for drinks, and nothing more.

But then one recent bright evening, I was looking for a patio in the area. Atmosphere was the priority, and I already knew that I loved their cocktail list, so I went for drinks and small plates. I was attracted by their bright little patio strip with shiny metal furniture right out in the prime people-watching property of Robson Street. Service was exceptional, as is often the case with hotel restaurants. But what surprised me was the food that I had. I was in the mood for a big bowl of mussels, but I also chose it because I know it's difficult to mess up. In retrospect, I don't think I needed to worry, but I was very happy with the choice anyway. Their mussels ($12) were quite tasty with white wine, double smoked bacon, garlic, shallots, tomato concasse, and pommes frites piled on top. At first sight, my thought was that I have had bigger pots of mussels before at other places, but theirs comes with those great fries, so it was pretty filling and a nice size for an appetizer. The server suggested some bread to sop up the juices in the bowl, which I love. However, I noticed a 75 cent charge for "extra bread" on the bill at the end, which I didn't expect as bread is so often complimentary (and also since I didn't really get any bread before dinner anyhow). It didnt' bother me much though, and if I had known about the charge, I would have gone ahead with it anyway. The little slices of brown and white baguettes came out nicely warmed and they were perfect for the mussels. I had a tasty, and beautifully garnished coriander gimlet ($5.95 for 1 oz). To start, I was given a nice little amuse bouche of tiny sablefish and arctic char flakes in a sweet marinade which was a very pleasant touch, and gives me some confidence that their fish main dishes are worth trying on another visit. I didn't have much room left in my tummy, and I thought about trying many of their other small plates. Ultimately, it was the chef-inspired cocktail list that lured me, and I had a drink that was much like a liquid dish. It was a masala caesar ($9) - not for the faint-hearted, the tomato drink was intense with the masala spices, but had a lovely refreshing big cucumber pickle spear sitting in it to balance it all out.

A quick look at the tempting dessert list told me it was time to move on. I had the rhubarb brulee which I enjoyed immensely with my Earl Grey. Spiced shortbread cookies, strawberry "chutney" on top, garnished with the prettiest sprinkling of fresh flower blossoms, and the big test? Yes, the sugar crust was thin and crispy and marvelous. The custard itself was thick, heavy, and rich, with little chunks of rhubarb, and quite luxurious in a way - not a classic light and creamy creme brulee texture, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It was during dessert that I finally figured out the subtle taste in their tap water. They put slices of cucumber in their water instead of lemon or lime. It's a nice detail, especially for the summer. It's enough to make me wish I had a yard so that I could throw a barbecue party and have pretty glass pitchers of ice water everywhere with slices of cucumber floating in them. I can definitely see myself heading back to Zin for food whether on the patio or indoors after the summer. But I think I better be careful, because it's an easy place to spend a lot of money on a meal. There are lots of intriguing items on their food menu and their cocktail menu, and it makes me want to make my way through their menu.

3. Shebeen Whisky House (9 Gaoler's Mews, Gastown, 604 915-7338). The ultimate historic Vancouver hidden patio. This bar offers 160 scotches, and is situated in one of Vancouver's oldest spots - across from the private courtyard of a 19th century coach house, Gaoler's Mews. We ate from the Shebeen/Irish Heather menu of hearty gastropub grub, out on a table in the courtyard. When we were a bit chilly, we went back inside the glass enclosed back room. The front of the house is of course, The Irish Heather. Pavlova Boy and I had a pint of prawns, a pot pie, meatloaf, a sherry trifle, and I had a Shanty - a sweet mix of a light coloured beer and lemonade.

4. Ap Kung Jung Korean Bar and Grill (1642 Robson, between Cardero and Bidwell, 604-681-8252). A tiny patio in front of the two level Korean restaurant on the quiet end of Robson Street, just before the bustle of Denman St. I had a pleasant little lunch with Bak'n girl there last year on the patio, including one huge plate of fried chicken legs, done in two styles - dry and drenched with a sweet red chili sauce. From our viewpoint, we could watch people relaxing on the Capers patio, enjoying their healthy, organic snacks while we ripped into the fried chicken. One woman looked particularly interested in us - perhaps she was jealous. We also had a nice plate of the translucent potato starch noodles, and enjoyed their selection of banchan, little condiment/side dishes. These pickled tidbits, along with chilled barley tea (I can't remember if they serve this by default or not, but some Korean places do when it's hot, and others give you ice water right away instead) are just perfect for summer. It's casual, cheap, and often bustling with energy, as are the other Korean restaurants in the immediate area. The patio that afternoon was nice and relaxing though. I can imagine it being a great shady dinner spot to get filled up on a particularly hot evening.

5. Senhor Rooster (850 Renfrew St. a few blocks south of Hastings, 604-434-1010). A secret because the patio vision I'm talking about doesn't even really exist yet. Chef Daniel let me have a peek at his latest project - a giant outdoor barbecue that he's busily welding together. I got excited when he said something like "I could put half a cow in here." It's been a few weeks since I had dinner there, so he may have rolled out the beautiful metal monster from it's underground incubation chamber by now. And on Friday and Saturday nights, you can have dinner and then dance; he's got live music -a jazzy trio with a female singer, and a dance floor. That, plus the taste of charcoal on barbecued meat? You've got yourself a party. Try his cornish game hen. His new source is certified organic, and it's really tasty. Service was excellent the last time I went, and I had a great time.


SaabKen said...

OK, my own two not necessarily secret-patio restaurants:

1) Red Robin's (Oak & Broadway)

2) New India (Willow & Broadway)

Not in the same caliber as your other five of course, but nevertheless options for sunny days. New India is a all-u-can-eat place but with a very decent interior that's a legacy of the previous establishment (can't recall name ...... Scottish/Irish pub chain from Kelowna)

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Ken! I haven't been to New India. I will keep it in mind. I love Indian buffets - those stewy dishes tend to do well in buffets. I sometimes go to this little place on Davie Street that used to be the Hare Krishna buffet, but is now a little Indian restaurant that always has their buffet set up. I like the fact that they give you a basket of freshly toasted naan at your table with the buffet, and there's free flowing Chai. No patio though.

SaabKen said...

New India is best on a breezy summer evening (and you happen to be going for Indian food with a group in that part of town). I'm not a huge (no pun intended) fan of all-u-can-eats, always expecting sub-par ingredients akin to the urban myths you hear about. But New India has been consistent for the past 3-4 years now, although their dinner price has crept up from $11 to $14. Still a good deal if you ask me, but you are forgiven to walk pass the "spring rolls" (huh ??) and chow mein (double huh ??).

But their view is quite something for a restaurant on the low end of the budget.

sakamato said...

Let's test your knowledge...between the airport and the waterfront (???) near a Church's Chicken is a small Indain Bakery ... absolutley fantastic and inexpensive. Do you know it's name and where it is...hint - it's on a main drag near a small park ...???

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Sakamoto, for your quiz question, but as far as I can tell, what the question really tests is my knowledge of Church's Chicken locations! (and no, I don't keep track of those. I haven't been in one in years...the chicken is too, um, big and bland). Hehe. All the other clues are pretty vague. I'm not a big fan of Indian sweets, and I'm not sure what sorts of goods they "bake" so my knowledge of Indian bakeries is admittedly limited. If I do feel in the mood for the fried goods such as samosas and pakoras, those sweet deep fried clumps of rings, and those diamond shaped sweets, I'll just go up to the very South end of Main St. (if coming from the airport, this is just after the bridge), and go into any number of little shops there that I have no idea what the names are, and have no reason to learn them. If anyone else can answer Sakamoto's question, please do.

I popped into this section today though, to just add a couple of notes about my patio picks since I've had a chance to try New India, and re-try Ap Gu Jung. New India indeed has a lovely patio with a view of Vancouver, and a good buffet. I particularly liked their very tender butter chicken and their extremely tasty galub jamun. When they're packed, it can be totally serve yourself. Not just the buffet, but even finding a table and seating yourself, which I didn't particularly like, but that didn't happen every time I went.

Ap Gu Jung delivered some tasty food and we managed to snag a spot on their small patio and enjoy the view of passing Robson foot traffic. This would be western Robson foot traffic which tends to be quite different from the main fashion shopping area. We had very slow service at Ap Gu Jung that night and they seemed understaffed, but we had a pleasant evening none the less.