Sunday, January 29, 2006

Blog Birthday Reminder

Today is your last chance to get a spot at my table for the Nancyland, Vancouver Foodie Fun First Anniversary Dinner this Tuesday, January 31st, 2006. The dinner is at 6:30 pm at Yuji's Japanese Tapas. I will make the reservation tonight. After today, if you decide to come, just send me an email to let me know to look out for you, and please make your reservation for your own table directly with Yuji's (604.734.4990). Thanks everyone for reading this blog, leaving comments, linking to this site, and generally being supportive of my blogging this year! Thanks also to anyone who has clicked an ad; you will (eventually) be indirectly taking me out to dinner, because any month now, I might get my first cheque from Google! What else would I spend the money on? Eat well, Nancylanders! Happy Chinese New Year too!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Quick Bites Downtown

I find myself fairly often wandering around downtown, and eventually needing sustenance. I've recently discovered some little places downtown just perfect for that spontaneous, yet worthwhile meal. These aren't, in my mind, really destination restaurants, but they're perfect for dropping into while you're in the neighbourhood. Also, since I'm often alone while running errands, shopping, or on my way home, these places meet "lonely guy restaurant" standards, and are perfectly comfy to eat in alone (although I personally enjoy eating alone at all sorts of places). They're all good places to eat with other people too, of course. Maybe you're looking to grab a quick bite in time to catch a movie after at the Paramount. The first two are great for this. India Bistro would be great for this too, but can also be a place where you can spend a little more time enjoying your meal.

Sushi Maki (989 Hornby St., at Nelson St.)

I discovered this little hole-in-the wall sushi place when I was attempting to go to Okada Sushi (more of a destination restaurant, in my mind) upstairs at 888 Nelson, and they were closed. I was already geared up for sushi, and lo and behold, look across the street in Vancouver, and there'll be another sushi restaurant right there. This is one of those moments where I think to myself "Gawd, I love Vancouver!" Give me five minutes on the clock, and free reign to change whatever I want in the decor, and I could make this room look about ten times less hole-in-the-wall just by ripping down some of the junk on the walls (those fake flower/frame things, and the paper customer comments), but then again, I don't want this place to be fancy. I just want the good, cheap sushi, and the friendly homey feel that the staff give it. Yes, this is a Chinese-run sushi place, and they don't really make any attempts to hide it, since wonton soup is featured prominantly as an item in several of the combos, but that doesn't mean that their fish isn't fresh and tasty. They have a mini chirashi (only $6.50) that I think is a great item, and more sushi places should have it. Theirs has a bit of seaweed (I think it's wakame), which I really like, and all the fish was good. Their full chirashi is only $9.50. I've also had their Dragon Roll ($5.95), 8 pieces of tempera prawn roll with barbecue eel on top. With two visits, I've had good food, and have no complaints. It's one of a cluster of great lunch restaurants, like a lunch oasis for the office types. It's across from the Law Courts. I want to try falafels and Mediterranean fare at Lulu's next door too. Sushi Maki is open for both lunch and dinner, 11:30 am - 9 pm, Monday - Saturday and 12 - 3 pm Sundays, closed on holidays. I also recently tried the Kadoya sushi place that opened a few months ago on Davie St., near Burrard, but Sushi Maki is definitely my pick for cheap, quick sushi in the area. It's quieter and more comfortable too.

One Saigon Deli (979 Hornby St., at Nelson St.)

Here's a bright, modern, and invitingly casual room serving up Vietnamese food with healthy-feeling, fresh flavours. The epitome of "cheap and cheerful." I had a delicious vietnamese sub (which they call "Vietnamese Deli Baguettes") with various cold cuts and pork sausage, served with three freshly made spring rolls for $6.45 as a combo (with tax included!). The sandwich alone is $3.99, and I dare you to tell me you that ever want to go to Subway again after having one of these for that price. I realize Banh mi sandwiches can be cheaper and better other places in Vancouver, but there aren't any in that immediate area, and not many Vietnamese places in the downtown core in general. It was just a great sandwich, made very tasty with the coriander, pickled peppers and pickled slivered carrot and daikon that is typical of Vietnamese subs. The crusty baguette was perfect. The spring rolls on the side were very nice too. They also have chicken pho (which I will try next time), and rice and vermicelli dishes and combos. Cash only. Open 11 am - 2:30 pm, and 6 pm - 9 pm Monday to Thursday, 11 am - 5 pm Fridays, and closed weekends and holidays.

India Bistro (1157 Davie St., just off Bute St.)

I heard about this one on eGullet, and I think it's a great addition to the Davie Street strip. This is exactly what downtown needs: cheap, yummy Indian food, in a cosy, quiet, and elegant interior, along with cordial service. I had the Lamb Tawa ($10.95), lamb stir-fried with onions, garlic, ginger, bell pepper and special Indian sauce, and it was really good. The flavours were rich and complex, and the portion was generous. I asked for medium spicy and it came out just a tad too spicy for me, so I'll probably be going mild next time. I had the lamb with some garlic naan ($2) which was quite good. I also had the Chicken Pakoras ($4.95) to start, which were salty and tasty, very lightly battered in a thin chick pea batter, and served with mint chutney. The chai was definitely made to order (though it was early, and I was one of the first people there, so I'm not sure if that's always the case), and quite nice. The pricing is great. All the mains are between $7.95 (veggie options) - 12.95 (prawn vindaloo), with most around $9.95. India Bistro has been operating for a few months, and from the looks of things, they'll do just fine.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Banana Leaf for Lunch

I've gushed about Banana Leaf before, but I didn't know that they were open for lunch! All three Banana Leaf locations, including the new one that replaces Sausi's on Broadway (3005 Broadway, at Carnarvon St., near MacDonald St.) serve lunch daily, usually starting at 11:30 a.m. Bac'n Girl and I had a great meal at the Denman location, choosing dishes from their lunch specials and their regular dinner menu. I was particularly impressed with the substantial Vegetarian Curry Puff appetizer off the lunch menu, which included two pockets of pastry filled with curry vegetables, with accompanying papaya salad for only $4! These are available at dinner time too for $5. I thought I didn't like papaya, but with a little chili, lime juice, and pineapples, I absolutely loved it. We started with the requisite (to me) roti canai ($3 each). We also had the Rendang Beef and Sayur Lemak with Rice ($7), a lean beef stew in curry coconut milk sauce. This was nice, but I will probably order something else next time, as I really like my stewed beef to be falling apart and tender. We also ordered the Sambal Fried Okra, Eggplant, and Green Bean vegetable dish ($12) from the regular menu. This Denman restaurant was just a perfect spot for a tasty, filling, and quiet lunch downtown during the week. And we didn't have to wait for a table!

Lift-ing My Spirits

Okay, I'll be honest, I was prepared for the worst, when I visited Lift. Lift is the type of restaurant that I consider well out of my price range, targeted to the fashionable, hip, and well-to-do. I also haven't been all that interested in dining there for it's million-dollar view (in Coal Harbour), since I'm lucky enough to be able to get that view for free everyday (and so can anyone else - just go for a walk or bike ride on the paths down there anytime). So I was mentally bracing myself for a snobfest, and possibly a place that relies too heavily on the visuals (view, crowd, architecture, interior design), when I had the idea to stop by for a quick late night cocktail for a chance to check out the interior, and some fun cocktail combinations without breaking the bank. It was about 9:45 on a Friday night. Since Dine Out Vancouver has sold out so quickly this year, it occurred to me that we could check the place out on any night, now that it's possible to have a drink at a restaurant bar without being obligated to order a meal. Incidentally, the Lumiere Tasting Bar is another way to check out the place extremely reasonably. So Cheeseboy and I go in, and the place is beautiful as expected - the bar itself is lit up, there's a gorgeous fish tank at the entrance, the huge windows make you feel like you're out on the water even when you're inside the first floor room, and there is a definite hip, modern vibe going on. What I didn't anticipate was how friendly the staff were, how comfortable we were made to feel sitting there at the bar, and how much I would like the menu. I discovered their Whet on Wet menu. Beautiful little pairings of a drink and a bite ($12 each). Cheeseboy had the Opulence. The menu describes the pair: "seared and chilled foie gras with saffron poached pear captivate a fusion of golden pear liqueur and sparkling wine." It was a beautiful combination, and I think it actually made a foie gras convert out of me (as long as I don't think about the geese too much, I guess)! I have had foie gras at some very nice places (including Lumiere) as part of set menus, but it has never grabbed me, despite the fact that I actually like the taste of chicken liver. I don't tend to order it. This stuff was delicious, with that nice bit of crispiness on the outside. I had the Ambrosia: "ice wine, vanilla vodka and crushed grapes finesse a frizee of poached lobster, tarragon and vanilla vinaigrette." I really enjoyed this. Both were beautifully presented, yummy, and so much fun to taste. Our bartender/server was very welcoming, and all the staff appeared to be having a good time at the bar. The upstairs patio looked great, and I can imagine it to be a very nice place to dine in the summer, especially since I've heard that they have a non-smoking patio for those of us who like patios but don't want all that smoke in our faces. And the experience did lift my spirits in general, because I was starting to lose faith in finding unpretentious service at "non-ethnic" restaurants in town. A place that I thought could be the height of pretension wound up being one of the least pretentious experiences I've had lately. Somehow they managed to make me feel that they live up to their hype and surprisingly, in no way did I feel like anything looked overpriced (mains are $25-35). And there are plenty of fun things on their food menu. If we had had the time and the appetite, I would have been tempted to sample their "Whet plates," tapas type plates ($10 - $21), including their take on poutine which has beef tenderloin, mushroom ragout, petit pont neuf (stacked pomme frites), and bocconcini! I was thinking "uh oh," since this place is so conveniently close to me, and hanging out at the bar could easily become a dangerous habit. Anyway, I am aware that expectations are everything, and it definitely helps that my expectations were low here, but I dare you to try this place without enjoying it, even if it's just for a little nightcap in the middle of a waterfront stroll.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Healthy Hors d'oeuvre


The holidays meant parties, and here's my rendition of an idea from the Food TV show, Party Dish. I think they served the tomato, basil, baby bocconcini sticks on a plate on the show. I decided to use a nice tomato for a pin cushion. I sliced a bit off the bottom to make it sit firmly, and tried to balance the whole thing so that it didn't wind up being some sort of edible Jenga. The red and green colours are perfect for a Christmas party. It's served with a balsamic vinegar and olive oil dip (using a little dijon and honey to maintain emulsification). I love grape tomatoes, and basil is one of few herbs I've been able to grow successfully in my little indoor plant pot lately. I loved the texture of the fresh mozzarella. Incidentally, I discovered it's important to use your fresh bocconcini right away. They tasted great when I brought them home from the store (and when I served the dish), and I was surprised at how much flavour the remaining ones lost after a few days in my fridge even though they were stored in liquid in the airtight container. Also, is it me, or has anyone else noticed that baby bocconcini have little nipples, and a very breast-like firmness? I can't be the only one, considering I'm one of the less breast-obsessed people that I've met... I also served some meat sticks at the party - pork satays with a spicy peanut sauce.

Anyhow, I think I could really run with this food on a stick thing. Long before I ever saw this party dish idea, I thought it would be great to do a deconstructed pesto bite with a basil leaf wrapped around a pine nut embedded chunk of reggiano...that would be great on a stick! The possibilities are endless. Inspiration also comes from a great little downtown Japanese restaurant I tried recently, specializing in stuff on a stick. Let's have another round of "Name That Vancouver Restaurant!" Will anyone break the 87 minute record?

Am I Being Too Cru-el? I'll Have to Go Again To Decide.

Let me set the scene. I arrived 15 minutes early and ahead of the rest of my party on a Tuesday night, but the room was already bustling with pretty people laughing and drinking, and our reserved table was already to go. I had really been looking forward to this dinner, having heard many great things ahead of time, and had been meaning to try it out for a while, but unfortunately, I didn't feel welcomed right away since I sat down at the table indicated but was not offered a menu or a glass of water or asked if I wanted to order a drink. Really, just the menu would have made me happy. He had helped me get settled with hanging up my coat, so I hadn't been completely ignored, and he knew I was there. I made the eye contact with my waiter patiently assuming that he would see that I was sitting alone and unoccupied at my table with nothing offered, and in mid-range/fine dining, usually that's all it takes for a server to think, "hey, something's up, better go check," but that didn't work. Yes, I was waiting for the rest of my party, and it was a few minutes before the reservation, but I think it's just a matter of hospitality to see if I want anything while I'm waiting. I started getting irked, and finally gave up on the eye contact signal, because he just blankly looked at me looking at him, and then went back to checking on all the other tables. I finally started flagging him down, and managed to get his attention. The "frantic waving" of my hand probably clued him in that I was overlooked and he apologized, and I worked on not letting the lapse ruin the rest of my evening. I did however watch his behaviour when another partial party arrived afterwards, and there he was seating them with menus in hand, very welcoming. He presented me the wine list as if I would have never heard of such a thing before. Now, I think I "clean-up" pretty well, and I had, as usual, thoroughly researched the place out before arrival, but I got the distinct impression that he threw me automatically into the category of very unimportant person. So started my meal at Cru (1459 W. Broadway, just east of Granville St.). Surprised? I certainly was. I had heard only raves about this place, knew it was run by a husband (front) and wife (chef) team, and the husband had actually extended a kind welcome to me in an online forum. Yes, it's always a dangerous thing to go into something with high expectations. While it may seem a minor slip, I believe the arrival is key to setting the tone for the entire evening, and if it's a service procedure there to not pay any attention to a table until they have all arrived, then it needs to be changed immediately. When I asked for a menu and then a glass of water, he laid out the menus and water for my whole table so I'm suspecting that it either threw him off his procedure that I was there first, or he was just trying to minimize coming back to our table in the future by setting down all the waters, or both. I tried asking his opinion on a pairing, and he interrupted me halfway into my sentence and said "Wouldn't you like to wait until your party arrives before you order?" I wasn't trying to order. I was just trying to get some information to help me make my decisions. His introduction of the wine list needs to be tweaked a little too so it doesn't sound condescending (The "This here's called a wine list. You might not get these where you're from..." tone needs to be banished no matter who you are talking to). Granted, Cru's wine list is something pretty unique - it's colour-coded in categories, and each item on their small plates and prix fixe menu has one or two category pairing suggestions, so it does demand explaining. And there's no way to tell whether a diner knows about the format or not, which is why one shouldn't assume either way. Not to harp on the breakfast waitress thing, but this is a classic example of what I was ranting about in a previous post. I dare you to walk into any breakfast joint - I'm talking even a Denny's - tell the hostess that you're waiting for more people to come, and yet not get offered a menu or glass of water or a drink while you're waiting within the first 5 minutes...eye contact or not, Denny's regular or not, big breakfast spender or not. This always astounds me that I can get worse service for a meal that I am literally paying ten times the money, and therefore ten times the tip. One last service slip to note. We decided to share all of our dishes, and do one prix fixe set, and other small plates. When we ordered our set, we knew we wanted to get the brown butter almond cake, and ordered it. He disregarded it, and said "we can do that later." Later in the evening when we were ordering dessert, we hadn't realized how much he had disregarded it, because we added on a lemon tart, thinking he already knew we wanted the almond cake too. My dining companion said "we'll add on the lemon tart" to indicate this, but I guess we should have said in addition to the almond cake we already ordered. It was just another little indication that he didn't care to really pay attention to us, unless it was part of his plan. Adaptability is key. A server who is really in tune with us would have clarified at that point, and checked to see if we didn't want the almond cake anymore if that was what he was thinking. I will note that I have the greatest respect for servers, and I know that the job requires a lot more skill than people generally give them credit for, and it's a lovely thing to watch when the pros have everything under control. I would love to go back and see the entire service at Cru gel together smoothly. And believe it or not, I'm pretty forgiving when human error and accidents happen, especially when it's busy. What I don't care for is snobby attitude, coldness, or assumptions about the type of diner you are. In this case, it was hard to tell which it was. He did apologize for his obvious lapses, so it may be inexperience, just being swamped, or a somewhat inflexible nature, and not snobbiness that was affecting the service. At any rate, With the service out of the way, we can now talk about the food and the room, which were both very nice.

I love their cushioned benches with pillows. The small room is elegant, and comfortable. It's like sitting on mini cushy couches, but with just the right height and enough back support to eat at a table. They made me wish I had some table-couches for my dining table at home. The food itself is also elegant, as is the colour coded pairing system of the menus. There are no rules though, just helpful suggestions, so feel free to veer away from the system. Maybe my bristles were up due to the service, but I found the dishes overall to be nice (with some definite highlights), but sometimes unspectacular. I had read online what a wonderful dish the smoked tuna below, and I liked it, but I enjoyed the beef tenderloin carpaccio with caperberries much more. Wine pairing can change the experience of a dish dramatically, so perhaps the surprising chianti pairing that they had it with was a factor, or I'm just plain missing something, and would appreciate it more with a more sophisticated palate. I had mine with the chardonnay that the server picked for me. My dining companions also preferred the beef carpaccio. And now I'm wondering where one can buy caperberries. The three course prix fixe menu is quite a good deal at $36, with lots of options for each course. The three of us shared one of those, and a few dishes off the tapas menu. When the appetizer dishes started coming out, we looked at them, and thought that we would still be hungry (particularly seeing the oysters) and would need to order quite a bit more, but the meal was surprisingly filling by the end of it all.

Smoked Albacore Tuna, with beets, truffle vinaigrette and crispy shallots $12
Posted by Picasa

Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio
with caperberries, truffle aioli and shaved parmesan (on the prix fixe menu)

Half-dozen local Oysters, cornmeal-crusted and fried, with tartar sauce $12

Herb-crusted New Zealand Lamb Loin
provencal-style tart and haricots vert $24

This lamb was perfectly cooked. It's a nice solid dish.

Syrah braised Beef Short Rib with macaroni and cheese $15

The short rib was wonderfully rich, tender, and flavourful, and the cute little mac and cheese was tasty and just a perfect little partner for the beef. It was probably my favourite of the night, along with the beef carpaccio. I ordered a zinfandel without asking for the wine pairing list again, and regretted not checking the list.

Brown Butter Almond Cake

I liked this almond cake quite a bit. It's served with a nice honey buttermilk ice sorbet that tastes a bit like creme fraiche. Somehow my photo of the lemon tart disappeared, but it was really tart, as lemon tart fans seem to prefer, with quite a substantial crust, which seemed to balance the sourness a bit. I'm not really a lemon tart person, so it was a bit too tart for me, and I was recently spoiled by a lemon tart that really grabbed me. I haven't let go of my memory of the Nu lemon tart that had a beautifully thin crust, and a wonderful delicateness to it. Our capuccinos were quite good.

In the end, I wouldn't hesitate to come back to this restaurant a second time if the opportunity comes up, and I'm interested in splurging on a night of both food and drink. If I get a bit of a cold shoulder a second time, I'll know better for a third. Perhaps it didn't live up to my admittedly too high expectations going in, and it hasn't quite won me over entirely yet, but I definitely enjoyed and appreciated what they are doing there, and love their menu concept.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

You're Invited To a Birthday Party!

On January 30th, 2006, Nancyland, Vancouver Foodie Fun, turns one! It's as good as an excuse as any for a group dinner, and the very first official Nancylander meet. What I would like to do is invite everyone out the next day on Tuesday, January 31st, at 6:30 pm to Yuji's Japanese Tapas (2059 W. 4th Ave., at Maple St.), one of my favourite restaurant discoveries from this year of eating, drinking, and blogging. Email me if you are interested, and can make a definite committment, and I will set up a reservation of up to 8 people for my table. I don't think that Yuji's will take a reservation greater than that. After my table is filled, then I will encourage all others to book yourselves directly with Yuji's (604.734.4990) in individual tables. It's a small room, so even if our tables aren't touching, I'm sure we can get a chance to chat. Perhaps you can ask to be seated close to my table. I won't be explaining the website to the staff, and instead just putting my reservation under "Nancy." Separate tables and reservations also makes it easy for everyone to pay their own bills. Please, out of courtesy for Yuji's, reserve early, honour your reservations, and give them as much warning as possible if you make any changes. I noticed tonight that they have a maximum capacity of 46. Please email me also if you've made a separate reservation and going to participate so I know who to be looking out for. And here's a silly cult-like touch: please wear a string or ribbon tied to your wrist and keep it visible at the restaurant, so that we can all identify each other without bothering strangers that are just trying to eat their meal in peace at the restaurant. Either that, or draw a big N on your forehead. Please realize also that we may wind up making them a lot busier than they normally would be that night, so please be forgiving with the service. If this meet doesn't come together, I'll notify everyone interested, so please leave an email address that I can reach you at. Here is my first visit post and my second visit post.

My third visit tonight was great. I had the wasabi tempura chicken again ($6.00), a grilled eggplant with nameko mushroom sauce ($6.00) from the weekly special sheet, and Taka-san's daily roll creation. Today's roll from their "special roll man" was $14.50, which actually consisted of three different rolls, each with a different coloured tobiko, all beautifully presented together. One roll had barely seared tuna with black bean sauce, chili sauce, and green onion over a roll of avocado, and light green tobiko speckled rice. Another was crab and mango rolled in orange tobiko speckled rice. And I think the third was a salmon skin and asparagus rolled in dark green tobiko speckled rice. I finished the meal off with lychee ice cream ($3). Their menu now has drink suggestions for each item or group of items now, and they have an extensive list of sakes, as well as a wine list. I'd love to introduce this restaurant to anyone who hasn't been yet - it's innovative, fresh, interesting, and gracious.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

It's Natto So Bad After All...

Salmon and His Seven Friends (with his buddy Natto at the 8 o'clock position in this photo). From Guu with Otokamae

Okay, I finally did it! I tried natto, the infamous fermented soy beans in Japanese cuisine that sit in their own rotting slime. I've seen it referred to as "vegetable cheese" on a website, but somehow that doesn't make the whole thing sound any more appetizing to me. When a few are picked up with chopsticks, long strands of slime cling to the beans and drape down from them. I had watched Anthony Bourdain on television force down some sticky natto on his show, A Cook's Tour, and talk/write about it with repulsion, and this is from a man who travelled around the world to seek out odd things to eat. And didn't James Barber once refer to it as graduate level ethnic eating? And read what this blogger has to say about a box of the stuff! Even a Japanese friend of mine who has been exposed to it since childhood in her family, had told me she is disgusted by the stuff, and hates the taste. With all this background knowledge, I was prepared for the worst. Well, guess what, it really wasn't that vile. I wouldn't go as far to say that I enjoyed the taste, but it was surprisingly mild in flavour. Yes, it was stringy and slimy and looked generally unappetizing, but a little slime has never stopped me from touching a slug...

This gastronomic adventure took place in Guu with Otokomae in Gastown (105-375 Water Street, Vancouver, Tel: 604 685-8682. The Guu website seems to be down at the moment). Natto is included in the dish "Salmon and His Seven Friends," along with deep fried garlic chips, minced cucumber, fried wonton wrapper bits, green onion, and japanese pickles. These are all presented separately on a plate, so I was able to sample the natto alone first. Then you mix the cubes of salmon with the seven ingredients (plus a raw egg if you want it) together, and roll a scoop of the mixture up in a sheet of nori to eat with your hands. We opted not to have the raw egg. I ate the dish, but as I went along, I decided it really wasn't for me, and I won't be ordering it again. Too many friends at the party for my taste, and Salmon seems to get lost in the mix. But it was all worthwhile, because I finally tried the dreaded natto, and discovered what the fuss is all about. Potato Salad Boy didn't mind it too much either, surprisingly enough.

Potato Salad Boy and I had a few other dishes, including edamame, slices of pork tenderloin, some rice cakes (that's miso paste slathered on one of them in the photo below, served with some pickles), and okonomiyaki, sometimes referred to as Japanese pizza because of the multiple toppings in the eggy batter. As well, I had one of my all-time favourite Vancouver restaurant desserts - deep fried mochi balls (pounded rice) with a sweet black sesame filling. And we had to have a couple of their funky cocktails too, which is a fun part of the Gastown Guu compared to the other two. Floating in mine were frozen balls of lychee juice. Service was very hospitable, as always, and the meal was very satisfying.

Rice Cakes, one with Miso

Okonomiyaki Posted by Picasa

If you've tried natto before, I encourage you to share your thoughts. If you haven't, I challenge you to try it. In fact, here's a recipe for homemade natto for you rot-it-yourselfers out there (ick, check out the lovely photos, and questions like "White film is made around of bean. Is it normal?" Worse yet, the answer to this question is "Yes."). What's that? You want more fun with bacteria? Try making your own creme fraiche at home. I've done this with good results, but try it at your own risk. I take no responsibility for any consequences of growing these bacterial cultures!