Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nor Boo on Robson St.

I personally find Korean restaurants just slightly intimidating and not easily accessible, in the same way that finding out about jazz music can be. Even though I like them, it can be difficult to know where to start, and what to choose for the uninitiated like me. I have some trouble remembering the names of the dishes too. To me, they all seem to sound like something Cinderella's fairy godmother should be singing (like Bibimbap...wasn't that her magic word?). Anyway, because it's all new to me, it makes diving into one of the Korean restaurants frequented by actual Korean students feel like a little adventure. I went to Nor Boo (1536 Robson St., 604-806-0369) in that stretch of Robson a few blocks east of Denman that has several Korean places. I just like the name. The sweet barley hot tea was great. The side dishes were very good, including the kimchee. I'm not usually a big fan, but their kimchee was quite nice. This time, I also received bean sprouts, potatoes which are a bit sweet and salty, and a little macaroni salad.

Side Dishes

I ordered a big beef, vermicelli noodle dish, which was massive and very tasty. It wasn't very spicy. At about $15, it's meant for two people. Other dishes are about $7 -8. They also have these great bubbling pots of soup that have noodles and other things added at the table.

Beef and Vermicelli Noodles Posted by Picasa

These little student hang outs have a youthful energy to them, and they're great casual places to get some good, cheap food. I'll go back to Norboo, and I'll try some of the other Korean joints too. There's also a great cluster of Korean restaurants in the Port Moody/Coquitlam/Burnaby area, near Lougheed Mall.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Food Porn Alert

Do you know the cookbook area of the Chapters on Robson and Howe? I love sitting and browsing the cookbooks there at the cluster of chairs near the huge atrium-like wall of windows. I also love the fact that the best view in the building is right next to the cookbooks. It's usually nice and quiet, the natural light floods in, and on a beautifully sunny day, you can look out onto a postcard perfect slice of downtown, with the Vancouver Art Gallery, various surrounding skyscrapers, Robson Square, a few trees, and bustling Robson Street pedestrian traffic. Today I flipped through Susur, A Culinary Life, a unique, two-volume book from celebrated Toronto chef, Susur Lee. The two parts are presented as two books joined at the spine, with the first focussing on a biography of the chef, and his personal culinary life journey, and the second volume is a collection of recipes with full-page colour photographs of each dish. The platings are stunning, and really appeal to my love of intense, vibrant colour, and layering of textures.

Just like most celebrity chefs, the buzz around them always makes me suspect each might be a bit of an ass to work with, but it's probably just a by-product of the kind of self-confidence, attention to detail and sky-high standards that make their food so desirable in the first place. Susur, in particular, seems to come off as one of the most pretentious of the bunch, and I had never really had much of a desire to try his cuisine. But those photos have convinced me that I need to go to Susur (his Toronto restaurant) one day. They were THAT pretty. And the dishes are complex and sound really intriguing. The back cover plate photo with it's bright palette of baby veggies had me just staring and staring at it. The almost gruesome presentation of whole roasted squab - cut in three section, including the head, all garnished with a round of foie gras balanced on it's butt (while foie gras is liver from a different bird, to me, it's as if it's own guts are there to remind us of the bird as a whole organism, Something that is not shyed away from in Chinese cuisine, which is what provides the foundation of his cooking) - took me in too. His food has amazing visual impact.

Another famous restaurant with incredible visual impact that I'd like to visit is Chicago's Moto, where Chef Homaro Cantu really pushes the envelope of cooking, with incredibly inventive techniques and presentations. He's the one responsible for the ink-jet printer edible paper sushi, fresh herb-holding eating utensils, so that you take in the aromas of the herbs while bringing the food to your face, and even a clear, tabletop "oven" made of a clear plastic box that cooks your fish at your table while you eat the other dishes. Check their website out for more food porn. I'm not aware of a Moto or Homaro Cantu cookbook, but would love to see that.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Phnom Penh, Phinally!

Phnom Penh (244 E. Georgia, 604 682-5777 ) has hoards of fans, and it's been in Chinatown, just east of Main St. for years. They serve Vietnamese and Cambodian food. Somehow, I've managed to live all this time in Vancouver without having ever tried it...that is, until last week. Yay! Another restaurant knocked off my very long list of places to try. Cheeseboy and I went for a very pleasant early Saturday lunch. The place was already full of mostly other Asians, including large families, with a smattering of mixed couples (Asian girl, white boy) thrown in for good measure. Good smells hit us as soon as we entered, as well as a general feeling of authenticity. It had the expected look of a fairly simple Chinatown restaurant that has been around for a while, but is well-maintained. I wanted to try their famous deep-fried squid with lemon, black pepper sauce. That was good, but not mind-blowing for me, as deep-fried spicy salt squid (which is deep-fried in a very light batter, then tossed with minced green chili peppers and garlic) is a favourite dish of mine to order in Chinese restaurants. Phnom Penh's version was quite good, and served with a nice, tart dip of lemon juice and black pepper, which is a really nice addition actually. I would order this dish again, but I definitely want to try their deep-fried chicken wings next time, as I've heard good things about that. We just couldn't handle too many deep-fried thingies that early in the morning. We also had a tasty rice vermicelli dish with stir fried beef and veggies on it, as well as a shrimp salad roll. There are lots of dishes to try on the menu, and it was hard to choose just a few. They even have a couple of frogs' legs dishes. Prices were good, with our bill totalling $31.67 before tip (including tax, and Vietnamese coffees). Service was great, and I actually found it quite refreshing that this very Asian restaurant didn't rush us out at the end of our meal by putting the bill down right away. We actually had to ask someone for the bill, and could leisurely finish our pot of tea there. The Vietnamese coffees with sweetened condensed milk was perfect for waking us up on a sleepy weekend morning. I enjoyed this meal very much, felt very comfortable there, and would definitely go back. And who knows? Maybe I'll have to make a new top five fried chicken list after my next visit.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Breaking Bread

Sometimes it's really easy to forget about the bread course that gets served at nice restaurants. You don't actually order it, most of the time it's complimentary, and comes to your table quietly. But sometimes it can have an enormous impact. I've been thinking about the best bread I've been served at restaurants, and have had a wide range of bread experiences lately. I thought I'd throw the spotlight on this portion of the meal, to give kudos to those restaurants that take some extra care and offer something special. Perhaps I can also encourage some places to put a little more care into what can be a wonderful start to a meal. Also, I'd like to hear about your restaurant bread experiences. It's wonderful how joyful something as simple as bread can be. Spread some happiness with some nice, warm, fresh bread with a bit of real butter, served at a spreadable temperature.

I had the best foccacia in my life recently at a Seattle place called Restaurant Zoe, and the constant flow of this wonderful bread made up a huge part of my overall impression that I received spectacular service that night (along with things like their amazing ability to keep my water glass filled. I was dehydrated that night, and you would have thought I was a beached cetacean with the rate at which I was taking in the water). I think the bread alone makes the place worth going to, but it was an all around great dinner. It looked like they had one server dedicated to just walking around doling out bread out of her basket with her tongs. I was loving the bread, and as soon as I made the foccacia disappear, it was magically and immediately replaced. It was irresistable - light and fluffy with just the right amount of chew, tasty, savoury, and served with nice olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In contrast, I checked out Savory Coast, on Robson Street, a couple of times, during and after Dine Out Vancouver in January, and while they seem to be quite proud that they make their own foccacia in-house, I don't think they really have much reason to be proud of the overly dense, charred, cosmetic sponges they served us. If only I could get them to taste Restaurant Zoe's foccacia. However, Savory Coast does serve their bread with a very nice little hummous.

Another wonderful basket of bread that sticks in my memory is the beautiful assortment of little buns at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts at the mouth of Granville Island. Served with good, old plain butter, the bread there is likely the result of having on staff a very skilled baking instructor, and the luxury of having other reasons for putting so much effort into the bread (namely, the teaching of baking classes, as well as operating a bakery counter just outside of the restaurant).

One big bread disappointment came surprisingly from a highly touted restaurant in town, Chambar. With main dishes ranging in price from $19 - 23, there should be no reason for them to not offer a complimentary bread course. Especially since many customers are ordering the moule frites, which, as the name indicates, comes with fries (a little bitty dish of them compared to the huge vat of mussels), but would be lovely with some bread to sop up the broth. Instead of an automatic bread course, they offer a $2 side dish of bread with smoked paprika butter. The flavoured butter is a nice touch, but come on, just skip the twoonie charge. That $2 they make is hardly worth the cheapo factor that comes from charging it. Even though I know that two bucks is really not much money, it just leaves me feeling like the service is stingy. I don't really mind a charge as much when it is a lower end restaurant, like La Bodega. Their bread was pretty good, and they charge for it.

There are several examples of low budget type restaurants that do serve complimentary bread though. I think Sami's at Oak and Broadway is gone now, but I used to love their flatbread served with two richly coloured sauces - a sweet tamarind, and a spicy sauce. I love the corn tortilla chips and salsa served in Mexican restaurants in general too. Burgoo in Kitsilano has a really tasty corn muffin. The Portugese buns kept coming to us at Senhor Rooster, since we kept using them as vehicles to sample their wonderful sauces. And in the U.S., isn't the only real reason that people love the Olive Garden is the unlimited bread and salad? I have a vague memory of being quite fond of the Keg's bread too. On the middle price range, Fiction and Aurora both went the extra step of presenting flavoured butters to accompany their bread when I visited.

I'm sure I've had very nice bread at places like C, Lumiere, Bishops, The Pear Tree, and Diva, but I don't really recall right now. At Lumiere, I do remember appreciating the prettiness of the square butter plate with it's square of butter sitting perfectly on it. And was it the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts Restaurant who decorated each butter portion with a single elegant sage leaf?

All I'm really saying is that each component of a restaurant meal is one more opportunity to impress with some special detail. A restaurant can either make use of that opportunity or miss the boat. And the possibilities really are endless with bread. Just ask my all-time favourite (food) superhero, Anpanman, from Japan, his baked good colleagues, and his arch enemy, Balkinman, a germ man who plots with his evil henchmen to mold and mildew Anpanman's head.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Andrew Morrison said last week, in a review of Abigail's Party, "slightly imperfect meals, when perfectly served, are okay by me." This is often how I react to restaurants too. And this is generally my take on a brand new izakaya style restaurant on Davie St., 1215 (604-633-1215, 1215 Davie at Bute, former Hesperos Greek Restaurant). I really loved the staff at 1215. I couldn't have been made to feel more comfortable in the little dark room, than I was, despite being the first dinner customer of the night, and being dramatically outnumbered by all the staff. In fact, this tiny place had what seemed to be a ridiculous number of staff that night. And every person seemed to have a hand in serving me. Picture it - one customer, sitting at the bar, with two male and two female staff attending...and I was sitting right in front of the chefs preparing my meal too. I think that they will do well on vibrant Davie St. , simply because they've figured out, unlike many restaurants in town, that people will come back to a restaurant with excellent service, and will tend to be a bit forgiving if the people involved in an establishment are really friendly and accommodating. It's evident in the number of staff scheduled for that evening on a Tuesday, two weeks into operation, and it's also evident in the warmth of the service, and even the nametags that they wear. They are all clearly marked with their first names. Even Chef/Owner Shige wears one. He's the chef from Hapa Izakaya. And the enthusiastic shouting, both in greeting and in goodbye was maybe the loudest and cheeriest I've ever heard in a Japanese restaurant. For me, I will come back to this restaurant just because of this earnest attitude.

However, the place, for me, begs for comparison with Yuji's on W. 4th, because of the "fusion" (oh, how I hate using the 'f word'...) of izakaya style food with western influences and Vancouver ingredients has been going on there beautifully for years now, and to be perfectly honest, while dishes seem hit and miss (at least right now) at 1215, I've never had a miss at Yuji's. My first dish, blue fin tuna tartar with avocado ($8 - 9), served with pieces of nori to make my own wraps was beautiful dish to look at, and just fine to eat, but not terribly exciting. The fish was fresh, and the servers did tell me that they had just received the blue fin, and the daily specials sheet featured various blue fin dishes. I probably should have ordered the blue fin tuna tataki dish, as recommended, for a more exciting flavour. I did enjoy my "pork poppers" which were three panko-breaded little pork, tomato (I think) and cheese lumps served with a little tonkatsu sauce on the side, as well as some nicely dressed baby mesclun. I also ordered a carbohydrate dish - their garlic rice stuffed squid in a tomato sauce, which I would not order again. While it was flavourful and deeply garlicky, the overall mushiness of the dish just didn't appeal to me. One more note about the exceptional service though. When I suggested that this dish would benefit from a crunchy accompaniment, my server happily accepted this comment, and even (a little embarassingly for me) passed it on to the chef directly. I do take some responsibility though, in not enjoying this dish, because it was well-described in the menu. I regretted my choices overall, and feel like I could have ordered better. And to be fair, their dishes are meant to be shared with others, and normally one person wouldn't be faced with an entire rice-stuffed squid to eat on their own. But let's be real here for a moment. A really successful restaurant should have a menu made up of all winners, with a number of superstars. The superstars might have been in that menu, but I spent $27.50 (including tax, and a $3 Calpico and soda, but before tip) trying to find them. But will I try again? Absolutely. And it'll be very interesting to see how the dishes get tweaked as this brand new restaurant develops. Having enjoyed the Hapa Izakaya food from Chef Shige immensely, I have a lot of confidence in this little place, and I have a feeling they'll find their way soon. And it's already garnered some positive attention from food critics (Tim Pawsey's Vancouver Courier article, and Andrew Morrison's Westender article), despite its quiet opening, lack of advertising and their blacked out window concept. Well, it seemed to work out for Hapa. I stumbled onto the place simply because I got off the bus right in front of it, and they had propped open the door, allowing me a glimpse of their menu sitting on a stand in the doorway table. It's a little strange to walk into such a dark little room on a sunny day, but it didn't really bother me. The room is plain, but I think that they can leave that alone, and work on the food, to ensure that people on Davie will feel like they will get their money's worth and choose this restaurant over the others nearby. I do give them credit for providing an interesting non-traditional menu, when most of the Davie St. offerings tend to be on the safe side, and look forward to trying their intriguing matcha desserts too. After all, they did provide me with a very enjoyable time overall, gossiping at the bar, especially the part where he let me in on their recent restaurant reviewer experiences. I wanted to "spill the edamame" on my secret blogging identity, but of course, I had to hold back. Incidentally, the internet is amazing thing! I believe I've coined this phrase, when I used it in my first Yuji's post, and it seems to have become adopted by one other food writer now (or perhaps arrived at independently), and maybe it'll eventually become a common part of the foodie lexicon, at least in Vancouver. Anyhow, back to 1215. The lesson learned here, for any of you thinking of opening up a restaurant or improving an existing restaurant, is: never underestimate the service component of the restaurant equation.