Monday, February 28, 2005

Urban Bites by The Ridge

I had a tasty marlin special ($13) served with a tangy cherry tomato and basil salsa, and on top of a nice rice dish at this great little counter service place a couple of doors down from the Ridge. I also had a very pleasing four-layer mocha pecan torte for dessert that was made in-house! A great find. I love it when people show me places that I don't already know about. It wasn't exactly hidden (I see movies at the Ridge fairly often) but I never would have expected this quality of food from glancing at the place in passing - it looks more like a soup and sandwiches and coffee place. Urban Bites is geared towards take-out and delivery, but is a very nice place to grab a bite before a movie.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Guilty Pleasure? All-You-Can-Eat Chinese Buffet

I'm a sucker for a buffet. It's not something I'm proud of. And calling it a guilty pleasure is almost overstating it...because it's only really pleasing in a very tight window of time (not a bay window, more like a peephole) - between the time that I actually decide to go to a buffet restaurant and roughly two and a half minutes into actually eating the first plate of food. This includes the time travelling over to the buffet restaurant, anticipating the experience, the initial general survey of all the items to strategize, and the first selection of the high priority items. Generally, it's all downhill from there. There are small pockets of pleasure thereafter. Sometimes the staff will bring out an exciting premium item partway through, and you are actually one of the first people there, and you still are capable of eating more. Like scoring an oyster motoyaki at Urban Buffet (966 Homer St., near Yaletown) before that crazy family of four over there swoops in and hoards the entire platter of them. That's a high point. Also, just getting to the dessert, and putting together a plate of those is another peak. Notice, that none of the real pleasure of a buffet comes from actually eating anything. It's all conceptual. It's good to have an understanding of this. I'm a buffet pro now. I've learned that you just can't sample everything, and it's easy to load up and then not have room for something important. So I always survey first. I've also learned that the food is much better if you don't load up your plate. Must be something to do with mixing all the flavours together, so you wind up having a big indistinguishable pile of lukewarm food. So I'll get just a few items, and spread them out on my plate. Focus. Breathe. Go get another plate later, if you can do it. I'll do a dry plate of two or three items, and then do more saucy things. But pace yourself!

Another reason these things are a "guilty" pleasure is that there are so many great Chinese restaurants in Vancouver with authentic food, that it's really silly to go to a Chinese buffet. Being Chinese myself means that I'm really sensitive to subtle differences in food quality and chef skill, and I also know the difference between what real Chinese food is, and what that white guy wielding his fork over at the other table is putting on top of his plate of rice drowned in soy sauce. Actually, one of the neat things about Vancouver is how almost everyone is Chinese food savvy in this town, so you don't really get too many of those westernized, fakey Chinese food places. It's much easier to find a "chicken ball" say, in Ottawa, or in any major city in the States, than it is here. But people love them and there's nothing wrong with that, so you can find one if you want one (often on a "special combo" sheet that the restaurant makes, meant for the non-Chinese patrons). So the Chinese buffet experience here is actually a notch up from other cities. But, you still have to be careful.

Yesterday, I went to Grand Buffet on Kingsway, in Burnaby (about half a kilometre East of Metrotown). And I have done this in the past, but these experiences always seem rosier in my memory. Granted, it was cheap, as buffets go. I think it was $13 per person, including the soft drink fountain, and tea. But in terms of the cooking, I think they've gone downhill. Half the items were just not something I wanted to eat - overcooked or greasy (often times a problem with oil temperature when frying). Service was great. Our dirty plates went away relatively quickly (which has been a problem in the past, making the place feel a bit...well, dirty). And there is a lot to choose from, including sushi, salad, dim sum items (a sure bet - difficult to screw up), several soups (also a safe choice), Chinese items including crab legs, shrimp, oysters, and things like fries and fried chicken. And there were several things that I did enjoy. They kept their fried sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste in the hot dish area, so they were all warm and toasty and crispy. This is my absolute favourite item. For me, it's almost worth going just for those. But there were just too many disappointing ones. Mushy, overcooked crab legs in a not so tasty sauce, weird-tasting egg tart, greasy fish patty, tasteless oyster on the half-shell with black bean sauce, bad tuna sashimi. Okay, yes, you're probably thinking - what do you expect for $13 and unlimited quantity?. But I swear it was better before. I left, feeling a bit ill, partly (as usual) from overeating, but also I just got an overall "bleaccchh" reaction to the whole thing. It was a Thursday night, so maybe their weekend chef is different. Or perhaps I've come to expect a little more having gone to Urban Buffet downtown. It costs more, but they have dry, fried spicy salt crab legs that are tasty, and peking duck skin, a nice salad bar, roast meats, small bowls of zaru soba, and coffee (again, I'm not that picky about coffee, so I can drink this stuff), and they are really clean and tidy feeling. I still come out of it feeling a bit off, but I keep getting better at not overdoing it. I think I will yet again succumb to the lure of the buffet in the future. But I'll be sticking to Urban Buffet. If only they would keep their sesame balls warm.

One last rant: at Grand Buffet, there is an ice cream freezer and an ice cream scoop well with constantly running water, yet there was still LOTS of contamination of flavours. Little blobs of chocolate and strawberry ice cream in the vanilla ice cream, etc. It was enough to make me want to hold an impromptu seminar in scoop rinsing on the spot. But I never saw the perpetrators. Maybe next time I'll stake out the ice cream station until I can pounce on a contaminator. Oh wait, I don't want there to be a next time...bleah. I suspect I swear to never do the Chinese Buffet thing again EVERY TIME I GO, but I can never seem remember that part of the experience...

Best buffet of all time for me? Boma, the African buffet at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World. So I know it really is possible for me to enjoy a buffet experience from start to finish, and end up with a happy, warm feeling (of course, it probably cost us about $35 each person with the exchange, before tax and tip). If you're ever at Disneyworld in Orlando, it's probably my favourite restaurant there. Here's the menu.

Monday, February 21, 2005

For Black Licorice Fans

The flavour of black licorice is one of those things - you either love it or hate it. There is no in between. I love it, but it was an acquired taste. I don't think I liked it at all during my childhood. Today I discovered a highly addictive candy. Haribo's Sali-Kritz. Haribo is a German candy company, and I found these flat, little, multi-coloured, diamond-shaped nuggets packaged in a 200 g bag (imported - packaging was written all in German) in a little candy/magazine/cigarettes store underneath the Main St. skytrain station. They are little candy-coated black licorice candies that are just a little bit salty. The different colours of candy coating have different subtle fruity flavours. Here's a picture I found of them on the web. I've been looking for an English language name for them on the web, but haven't found much about them at all. Well, I found one website that gave the calorie count (355 for 100 g), and recommended that they be limited in any calorie-reduced diet. My local Sugar Mountain (on Denman St.) closed down, but they probably carried this candy when they were open. I couldn't stop eating them today. I kept looking at the ingredients to see if there was some sort of narcotic added to it that made me want to keep eating them. They're crunchy on the outside, and chewy in the middle. I think that nice bit of saltiness really makes the candy. The man at the store today told me that I would get hooked on them when I asked about them. I didn't really believe him at the time. But he was right. I wonder what a patch for them would be like...

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Psssst...secret warehouse location...bring cash...

I got the tip from a friend. I head over. Enter in the a warehouse district...Pandora St...East Van... Hmmmm...seedy criminal meeting place? Secret agent lair? Drug deal drop-off point? No, none of the above! Check out the Gourmet Warehouse! It's like mining foodie gold! You're driving through a dingy alley in a warehouse district, you park, then you walk in (Look! Shiny stuff!) and you see this place swarming with food geeks browsing through lots of shelves of fancy condiments, and trendy cooking implements. Apparently, it's not that much of a secret. There were plenty of people in there on Saturday afternoon. Definitely a fun little place to check out. One could spend a lot of money there (don't worry, you can bring credit too - the image of showing up with a briefcase of cash just seemed to fit the scene better). I'm usually anti-trendy, but there was a nice mix of items. For example, they had a $4.99 large mortar and pestle, as well as more artful $30 - $40 ones. They had a $3.50 little bottle of balsamic vinegar and the range up to a $50 bottle that came in a nice little cardboard tube (I was thinking - hey, that's would be a fun gift idea). There was bakeware, frozen items, blocks of good quality chocolate, nuts and spices. Why hasn't anyone mentioned this place to me before?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Salad Bar Triumph

Okay, I'm trying to eat a little healthier these days. I'd actually like to lose the weight I gained back over Christmas (which can pretty much be traced to the sudden spike in cookie and baked good access that occurs around that time of year. I even baked my gifts this year...). So today, stopping off at the newer food fair in Metrotown Mall on my way home from work, I notice a new salad bar stand. I love salad bars, actually. It was one of those salad by weight places, where I usually wind up getting too excited, and spend a small fortune on a salad (compared to what a fast food meal would cost). In order to get to this salad bar, I first had to pass KFC. I thought to myself "Ohhhh, I love fried chicken." Phew, made it. Next along my path, I see a Greek stand ("calamari!!"). I passed A&W, thinking, "mmm, bacon. I haven't had a teen burger in ages." I then momentarily considered how much more filling a Quizmos sub would be compared to a salad. Even the taco place started to look good. Then, I faced the biggest test - a New York Fries was right next to the salad bar. "Oh...poutine would be so nice!" My internal dialogue started chanting "Poutine! Poutine! Poutine!" Anyways, look here's a blurry photo to show you that I indeed passed the last gate, and got my salad.

Salad Bar Salad Posted by Hello

I ate it, and there go the voices inside my head again "Poutine! Poutine! Poutine!" I just ran out of there!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

You Always Remember Your First Time...Tiramisu and Me

The first time I ever heard of and tasted the dessert, Tiramisu, I was in a little place called The Blue Moon Cafe on West Fourth Avenue, which is long gone. The meal itself was adequate, but the dessert blew my mind. Really, love at first bite. I became infatuated, obsessed. The soft, creamy texture was so pleasing, almost erotic. It was light and airy, yet rich and dreamy. I never had a chance to go back to the restaurant before it closed, but I was, from that moment on, thrown into a quest to relive that experience. I tried tiramisu every time I saw it on a menu. I had people making me homemade tiramisu, or buy it from bakeries for me. I think I might have even tried making it once myself. I looked it up online. I raved about it. I explained what it was to whoever was around who hadn't heard of it before. But alas, it was never like I remembered it. After a couple of years, I gave up the quest, and chalked it all up to that experience being my first time. I decided that it may not be possible for any tiramisu to be as good as it is in my memory of my first time. I still enjoy it from time to time now, but that wee bit of disappointment each time was enough to get me to shy away from it for a while.

My tiramisu quest is a good example of how important the circumstances and conditions surrounding the consumption of food is to the enjoyment of food. And memory of food is important because an experience isn't really significant unless it impacts you enough to be a memory. I've had this discussion with a non-foodie friend of mine. He never really remembers what he eats the way I do, so food really isn't that important to him. Whereas one of my oldest (foodie) friends, and I reminisce repeatedly about meals we've had together, even the ones years and years ago.

I found out during my quest that I'm not the only one who has fallen hard for Tiramisu. Here's just one example of a website from a fan - Tiramisu, Heaven in your Mouth. It's an interesting thing to see on the internet so many people raving about this one dessert. And it's a fairly simple dessert, but there are so many variations, and it's so easy to have a bad one. The main components are marscapone cheese, espresso, coffee liqueur, and ladyfingers. It has a colourful history too. It's said to be named "pick me up" (the literal translation of tirami - su in Italian), because it was a favourite of Venice courtesans who ate it to fortify themselves between amorous encounters. The name has been traced back to a restaurant in Treviso, Italy, called Le Beccherie.

Here's some tiramisu "porn" - some pics of some different presentations.

Try doing it yourself with possibly the very original recipe for Tiramisu, from Le Beccherie.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Group Tipping Poll

A group of eight or more people will be charged automatically a 17% gratuity at Provence Marinaside. Many restaurants have an automatic tip policy for large groups. I recently discussed this issue with a friend, who made a good point that tipping should be a reflection of the service, and should not be automatic. However, I also see that it would be a very practical policy for a restaurant to have, because typically a server will be working very hard to meet the demands of a large group table, and when several people split a check, there is always the tendency for people to miscalculate their portion (and their tip), leaving the server with a lousy tip, despite their efforts. But what if the server doesn't meet your expectations? Is it fair that they will receive a substantial gratuity no matter what level of service that they give? I don't mean to pick on Provence. Our large group received very good service, and I was happy to tip generously for that. But there was never any guarantee, was there? Tell me what you think. Vote in the poll below, and/or post a comment on this topic.

Give your opinion about automatic tips for large groups

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Chicken Heads and Chinese New Year

I'm looking at YOU! Posted by Hello

Happy Chinese New Year to all! Last night I went to my parents' house for Chinese New Year's Eve dinner. In my family, food is very important, and I'll admit it - I've been spoiled with good food my whole life. For example, growing up, our middle-class family had fresh, whole crab and lobster dishes at Chinese restaurants about once every couple of months, at least (usually for someone's birthday, or even if the restaurant just had a special). This year, my dad served eleven dishes plus dessert for our family of four people and one overfed pug dog. For those of you who have heard my chicken head story before, rest easy - I was safe this year! This is what happens in previous years though. It is a Chinese New Year's dinner tradition to serve a whole poached chicken including its head. It's served cut up into pieces (bones, meat, and skin together), which is the typical way to serve duck and chicken, so that one can pick it up with chopsticks. Only at Chinese New Year's dinners, at least in my family, is the head included on the plate. I believe this has to do with honoring the fact that the animal used to be a living being, therefore allowing for a greater appreciation for that animal and for the meal. I love this sentiment, and in fact am opposed to how removed our society has become from the origins of our food in general. So, I appreciated this concept as a little girl, but I still found it a bit morbid to have a severed head (any severed head, really) displayed on the plate, albeit only once a year. I was convinced that the chicken always managed to be orientated so that it was looking at me. It became a bit of a personal tradition to complain about this. "Loooook, the chicken's staring at me again!" Then, one year, the chicken confirmed all of my suspicions. I always sat across the table from my brothers, and the chicken was positioned in the middle so that we each had an eye towards us. But the eye on my brothers' side was actually closed, while the eye towards me was open! I couldn't believe it. Anyhow, this year's dinner was great, and my parents only served a quarter of a chicken without a head, so no evil chicken eye for me this year - yay!

Pork Tenderloin Recipe

One of my favourite recipe websites is the site, with recipes from the last several years of Gourmet magazine and Bon Appetit magazine. What I love about the site is that each recipe usually has lots of comments, as well as a rating from 1 - 4 forks, from other home cooks who have tried the recipe out. I suggested roast pork tenderloin in my Valentine's posting as an easy main, so here's a recipe to show you really how easy it is. It estimates 10 minutes of roasting time for the pork. I think I made this recipe a few years back, and it was great.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Romantic meals for your Valentine

Cupid Posted by Hello

So I was just asked for some advice on impressing a woman for Valentine's Day. Everybody is different in their Valentine desires, but if you're reading this website, I'm assuming going out to a nice restaurant for dinner is high up on your list. This year, I don't have V-day plans (yet?), so I will live vicariously through all of you, and recommend some romantic places that I've been. The first restaurant that pops into my head is Amarcord, a little Italian restaurant in Yaletown. It's quiet, and comfy, with brick walls, and impeccable service. They have this wonderful lobster pasta dish that is unbelievably tasty, and a beautiful antipasti platter for two. And can you believe this - a restaurant in Yaletown that isn't snobby and that doesn't feel like it's overpriced!? I've been there three or four times. For romance, it's dimly lit, and has a wonderful relaxed, quiet feel to it. The staff there somehow know how to make your evening feel special, no matter when you are there. I'm a big fan of gnocchi, and I remember theirs being pillowy and dreamy. They made me wish I was three inches tall, and could just jump into a plate full of these pillows...but then I would get sauce all over me...I'll have to work on the imagery a little more...

For dessert and coffee, I love Sweet Revenge on Main St. at King Edward. Cute little place, easy to walk right past, decorated like an old Victorian parlour. They make their own desserts, that are incredible. Last time I went, I had their warm chocolate pudding cake which they served with a warm fudge sauce, and whipped cream. I find desserts very romantic, but maybe that's just me. It does get busy, but I still think of it as being cosy and romantic, probably due to the rich red walls, and antiquey details like china teacups. They also have nice rooibos teas.

For the ultimate Valentine's dinner or lunch, (or breakfast...wink, wink, nudge, nudge), cook your sweetie something decadent, and (yes, this is going to sound CORNY), make sure to add lots of love. I can taste the love when someone cooks for me. Or make a beautiful picnic to be enjoyed somewhere (though this might be better saved for a romantic summer day). Super easy decadent do-it-yourself dinner at home (feasible even for the culinarily challenged): An appetizer with seared scallops, a mixed green salad with pretty little bits in it, like chunks of strawberry or mango and almond slivers, a big bowl of mussels or clams that have been steamed in white wine, butter, pepper, garlic, fresh crusty bread (go ahead, make the butter patties heart-shaped using a little cookie cutter - I won't tell anyone), and a chocolate fondue for dessert with fruit, mini marshmallows, and cake to dip. Decadence means having more than one dessert, so add maybe a few high end chocolates (say, from Sen5es), and tiny scoops of a wonderful refreshing sorbet, served in beautiful glasses (Mondo's Gelato, for example). Something a little more substantial than mussels or clams - find a nice recipe for roast pork tenderloin, and serve them as medallions. Elegant, yet very simple, and difficult to screw up.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bubble Tea - Important Pearl Warning!

Hey, have you ever not been able to finish a cold bubble tea (with pearls of course...why do they bother calling it bubble tea when it doesn't have the bubbles? click on the link below to find out) and thought about saving it for later? Well, you've read this in the nick of time then. Don't do it! I did it the night before last, and tried it this morning, and the pearls (little spheres of tapioca, for the poor souls who don't know what I'm talking about) got all hard! I don't like hard balls! [yah, go ahead, insert your lewd comment here]. I had no idea that this would happen, so in a way, it's kind of cool to discover this. I knew that they got too hard when you have a slushy icy type bubble tea (I never get these anymore), and you take too long to drink/eat it. I guess the pearls got hard because I tried saving the thing in the fridge. I guess it's just temperature dependent. Of course. That's the very reason why I love hot bubble teas - the pearls are all soft and gooey. But not so gooey that they lose their shape. Just pliable. That texture is so wonderful. There are these these rice flour dumplings in Chinese food that is served in broth that gets that same texture. Though the cold bubble tea is a little more fun for a first timer because you get that big straw, and you get the whole sucking up liquid and solid in one mouthful thing. The hot is a little more awkward, because you have to alternately sip and fish around for balls with a long spoon. Wanna know more about bubble tea? Here ya go: Oh, I should also give you a recommendation if you haven't had bubble tea, and I have just sparked an interest for you, because not all bubble tea is created equal. I like Bobble Zone (3618 Kingsway), in Vancouver, just before Burnaby, for that total late-night-Asian-youth-bubble-tea experience. The bubble tea at the food fair stand in Tinseltown is good too, if you are seeing a movie upstairs. They seal a lid onto the cup - perfect for sneaking outside food/drink into the movies. Only for the cold ones, of course. Spooning the balls from a hot bubble tea is pretty awkward when you're engrossed in a movie. By the way, I just tried nuking my leftover pearls for 10 seconds, and it got them all soft and gooey again. So there ya go, all is not lost! Bubble disaster avoided.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Hot Fudge Sundae

I love hot fudge sundaes. I found this great photo of one, except it's missing chopped nuts. I used to go to this wonderful dessert shop called Miriams which was on Denman St., just at English Bay. I loved this place, and am truly sad to see it go. It turned into a Starbucks! arrrrggghhh! Anyway, if you know where I should get my hot fudge sundaes now, let me know. A brownie underneath it all is okay too.
Hot Fudge Sundae Posted by Hello

Guu with Garlic, my current favourite restaurant

Okay, I really love this place. I've told everyone I know about it. I haven't had a bad experience ever, and I've been there about six times, all in the last year. This place had me at hello. Charming, loud, funky, authentic-feeling little izakaya type place. Busy, young, incredible value, super-nice staff, beautiful plate presentations (gotta love that Japanese aesthetic), interesting menu, including a full sheet of daily specials. Outstanding value. They even play music I like (jazz, when I've been there), which is icing on the cake. And even a fun place to drink cocktails. (For cocktails, I also like the other Guu in Gastown. The cocktails are a blast there - frozen balls of juice floating around some of them). The flip side? Guu with Garlic doesn't take reservations, and there's often a wait (go early or really late), the charming screeching of the servers when they stand next to you and shout the orders to the kitchen is not always so...well, charming, when people want to go out for a nice meal. However, I've had some incredibly romantic, quiet conversation evenings, dining out on their patio in the summer, so choose that area if the screeching isn't your thing. The second time I went to this restaurant, I was having a romantic dinner. They are supposed to close their patio down at night, probably because of the surrounding residences. Last call for food was 10:00 pm, and they let us know when we sat outside that they could move us inside if we were still there, which was fine with us, but the waiter (perhaps he manages the restaurant?) let us sit out there, the two of us, and let us have our romantic meal (no, we weren't being gross) without ever letting us feel rushed. Anyway, go, just go. Let me know what you think. You've gotta like Japanese flavours though. Don't go if you don't. Oh, and I love those Takoyaki - reminds me of eating festival street food in Japan. Better than any corndog. They are little fried balls of batter with a small piece of octopus in the middle, and dressed with mayonnaise and that tonkatsu sauce, and bits of seaweed. And all these little dishes are only $4-8! There are a number of hot little "tapas" places where you would have to pay $11-14 a dish. The only change I would make is for them to bring back the lychee juice for their juice/vodka cocktails. Oh, and I don't go into the fancy little room to the left of the entrance anymore cuz I can't sit on the floor comfortably for long.

The Grind, a 24 hour coffeehouse on Main Street (at 24th?)

I was trying to decide whether my warm, fuzzy nostalgic feelings for my student days, or my momentary "gawd, I feel old" feeling was stronger when I was at this coffeeshop. I went there last night, a Monday night, at around 11:30 pm. The place was filled with university students looking all bookish and tired and intellectual. I loved studying in coffeeshops when I was going to school...I think. Perhaps it's all candied up in my memories now that I'm so far away from it. Anyway, the Grind is a nice place. Quiet, relaxing, and the staff were very nice, and obviously good to the students. Anyway, gotta love the 24 hour thing. There aren't many businesses that have been able to do that, so I always like supporting the ones that are open 24 hours, or even open really late. Oh, and don't worry, I don't really feel old - I love being 32.