Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nancylander Meet and Greet - Ratatouille

"I can't help myself...I like good food, okay?"
- Remy, the Rat in Ratatouille

Is anyone else excited about this movie? What could be better than a Pixar animated story about a rat who has a dream to be a chef at the best restaurant in Paris, but must figure out a way to overcome the considerable challenge of being a rat in a restaurant kitchen. I want to see this movie on the first night that it is in the theatres, and I figure it might be a fun way to meet some Nancylanders. I will be trying to go to "7 something" show at Tinseltown Cinemark on Friday, June 29th. My search on the internet indicates there should be a 7:10 pm show that night. I'll try to get into the theatre by 6:55. If you would like to say hi, meet inside, seated in the theatre. I will wear or carry my blue plaid fedora hat to make myself easily recognized. Afterwards, if there is interest, we can walk to Salt for a glass of wine and nibbles. I'll try my best to post any changes to this plan on here. If you don't wind up finding me, at least you'll still see what should be a great movie. If you want me to look out for you, just type a comment here. I will try and linger near the front of the theatre right after the movie.

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.



Friday, June 08, 2007

Cafe Carthage

I stumbled upon Cafe Carthage (1851 Commercial Dr at 2nd Ave, 604-215-0661) on the Drive and had a wonderfully satisfying meal. This is a Tunisian and French restaurant, and just the perfect "little something different" with a restful atmosphere that I was looking for to feed myself after running an errand in the area after a long week at work. A big plate of Couscous Carthage ($18.25), which had lamb sausage, a chicken leg and a lamb shank and autumn vegetables and tomato sauce, was hearty and flavourful. Unfortunately, I only had the patience to take the one blurry photo before setting my camera aside and excitedly digging into the mound of food.

It came with a sauce boat of harissa, the red Tunisian hot sauce made with chilis. I kept trying this sauce to see if I could like it. It was a pleasantly complex chili sauce with a big kick of heat, but I detected a distinct rose flavour, which I've never been fond of. I have looked the sauce up since (try the link) and apparently a well-known expensive version of the sauce does include rose petals. It was certainly fun to be introduced to a new condiment for me though.


In fact, much of the pleasure of this particular meal was in this feeling of being transported to another place. Maybe even another time. This doesn't feel like a typical Commercial Drive hole in the wall. Instead, it's quite an elegant little oasis. Dark wood everywhere, middle eastern tile work, wonderful lamps hanging from the ceiling, white and navy blue tablecloths and napkins, and female servers dressed up all in black, looking particularly proper and demure. In fact, one server's dress with black lace and heels was the perfect outfit to make me feel like I suddenly walked into a period film about French colonial Tunisia, or at least what I might imagine French colonial Tunisia to look like because I really have no knowledge of Tunisian history (maybe it's just what she likes to wear and really has no relation to the restaurant. Anyhow, I liked it). To add to this immersive experience, I had the Moroccan tea, sweetened, with lots of fresh mint and an appropriate small glass to drink from.



Having spotted other people's big dishes, I knew that I wouldn't have room to try an appetizer, but I managed to squeeze in some dessert. Their dessert menu is filled with French classics. I went with the creme brulee. This had a lovely custard, but the burnt sugar topping was too thick for my taste. I prefer just the thinnest little crisp sugar coat. I was certainly tempted by the chocolate ganache cake on the menu, but just didn't feel like something so heavy after my couscous gorge. I also had a Tunisian coffee with dessert, which is very strong and thick (with the grounds settling down to the bottom, like a Turkish coffee), served sweetened, in a metal flask, with an espresso cup and saucer to pour into. I quite liked that. Service was excellent, and the room had an overall relaxed and refined feel to it on this pleasant sunny summer evening. I really enjoyed this restaurant, and part of the charm was that it is so different from other restaurants on the Drive, and the frenetic energy that I associate with the neighbourhood in general. Check out their website, linked above, for a history lesson on Carthage. Check out their restaurant for a stimulating meal in a place where you can slow down and explore it.

Just one last note - I never did get to try the previous incarnation of the restaurant, Zanzibar, the Moroccan cafe. From Adam's list, I see that the owners were different, and the place was a much more casual affair, without credit card and alcohol. Cafe Carthage has both, and is more upscale.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Underrated?

Is there any dish, restaurant, or food-related item that you think is undeservedly flying under the radar? Do you want to put the spotlight on one of your favourites? Did something food-related make you feel like you got your money's worth and then some lately? Do you feel like you're the number one fan of some food? Is there some food item that the people around you just don't get? Tell me your underrated items. This is a much harder list to make than the overrated one, since internet foodies tend to be a very well-networked bunch; hidden treasures just don't stay hidden for long (even when you want them to). This is a difficult list for me too because I usually blab my finds right away in here. I'm not really keeping any secrets from you, dear Nancylanders. Well, there IS one secret I haven't shared - when no one's looking, I really like to eat Chef Boy R Dee Beef Ravioli. There. I said it. Do you still respect me? Oh well. I am what I am. Though I suppose if a can of beef ravioli gave me super-human strength my love of it might be more understandable. I feel like I just admitted I still sleep with a stuffed animal from my childhood. Same sort of thing, really. Anyhow, back to the underrated. Just a few to get started:
  • Thousand Year Old Eggs. One of those love 'em or hate 'em things, I guess. Well, love 'em, hate 'em, or fear 'em...
  • One of my current favourite cocktails actually resides in a mega-chain: the Mister Tea (vodka, Earl Grey tea, passionfruit liqueur, lemonade) at Earls (at least the one of Robson St. upstairs, particularly if you're sipping one while soaking up the sun and people watching from a perch on their patio. But just one problem - the straw is awkwardly too short for the pretty tall glass). Certainly the masses go to Earl's and I've always felt it's a particularly overrated chain in the past (in part due to a particular food reviewer who is a fan), so I don't mean that Earl's is underrated. It's just sort of a novelty for me to be a new-found fan of something on their menu, and for any foodie to be unabashadly touting something from one of the big casual fine dining chains. Well, I love Earl Grey tea. The fact that it's named after a beloved 80's icon doesn't hurt either. I pity the fool that makes fun of this post!
  • Korean food, in general. It took me a while to get it, and I think there's a lot of potential for plenty of other people in the city to get more familiar with it. Maybe Vancouver needs a Korean "Earl's" to make it more accessible to the masses.

Overrated?

Have you had a good rant lately? Here's your chance. Has some particular dish, restaurant, or vaguely food-related item disappointed you lately? Did something make you feel ripped off? Are you tired of hearing about something? Do you find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about after trying some food item that the rest of the world seems to rave about? Let's start an overrated list. I'll go first:

  • Godiva Chocolates ("Did I just pay almost $3 for a mediocre tasting, clumsy chocolate?" Yes, I do mean one chocolate.)
  • The quality of movie theatre popcorn in town (It seems like forever since I've had really good popcorn. I mean, even the stuff we used to make in the grimy little cart at the UBC Film Club was better, and we didn't ask anyone to sell their only child for a bucket of the stuff either)
  • West (No hate mail please. It's just not my cup of tea...)
  • Griffins brunch buffet and dessert buffet at the Vancouver Hotel
  • Rachael Ray
  • Turkey legs at Disney World It's certainly amusing to see everyone walking around gnawing on massive turkey legs, but really it's a bit sickening too.
  • and the master of the overrated: Starbucks. (and before any Starbucks fans write to tell me what I'm missing, do me a favour and go order an espresso drink from the Elysian Room on 5th Ave, off Burrard, then get back to me). And for goodness sakes, stop supporting the evil empire already. As much as world domination plots fascinate me, do you really want to see a Starbucks plopped next to, say, the ancient pyramids of Egypt?

 

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