Friday, June 30, 2006

Lost in Translation?

A Dish That Caught My Eye, In the Window of a Denman St. Korean Restaurant

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Adventures in Ice Cream Making - Lycheelicious!

It's ice cream experimenting season again! Just tried some of my first batch of lychee ice cream, and it's good! I made it in my hand-crank Donvier machine that I liberated from the basement of my parents' house where the poor appliance was banished to shortly after I gave it to them years ago as a gift. Be free, little ice cream maker! In the tradition of Ben and Jerry, I need a more fanciful name than "Lychee Ice Cream." So far, I've got "Lycheelicious!"

Being an ice cream flavour developer is another one of those jobs I fantasize about, like being a restaurant reviewer. Don't get me wrong - I'm loving my actual job right now, and feel like I'm living a bit of a fantasy job myself, and know that a lot of people would envy me. But tasting ice cream all day? How cool is that? This one Daily Planet television story that I saw years ago about a Ben and Jerry Developer/Taster really had an impact on me. So, I finally got around to trying to make a lychee ice cream, after having been inspired months ago by having some at Yuji's Japanese Tapas. I didn't want a sorbet, though I'm sure an icy lychee sorbet would be wonderfully refreshing. I wanted to make a thick, rich, heavy cream concoction, and I was inspired by this Martin Yan recipe that I found on the internet. I modified the recipe to my preferences, and thought I would share this with you. First of all, I wasn't after an ice cream with chunks of lychee in it. Also, based on my success with rum raisin last year, where I learned that straining the custardy milky mixture with a fine mesh sieve is important because it removes the little solid eggy bits (probably from the chalazae, the proteinaceous strands that hold the yolk in place in an egg), I decided to strain the whole mixture. This wound up being a very useful step, as I noticed a lot of brownish fibers from the lychee puree were also strained out. Finally, I added a splash of Soho Lychee Liqueur because I had it around, and I figured it would add flavour, as well as adding some alcohol content which helps ice cream from freezing too hard. Also, I've started the experimenting with canned lychees, to see how it would turn out, but they're actually in season now, so the next step is to use fresh ones. I'm not sure that this is entirely necessary though, because I did get fairly good flavour with the canned, and it's almost a shame to mush up a pile of beautiful fresh lychees, instead of eating them whole. It would likely result in a brighter flavoured ice cream though. Here's the recipe the way I did it today:

Lycheelicious! Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
¾ cup sugar
2 egg yolks, beaten
1½ cups canned seedless lychees, drained & pureed in a blender (one 530 ml can)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
Splash of Lychee Liqueur to taste (optional)

1. Combine the cream, milk and sugar in a saucepan or double boiler; heat until warm and the sugar is completely dissolved. Add 1 cup of the cream mixture to the yolks while whisking lightly. Gradually pour the egg mixture back into the cream mixture while continuing to whisk lightly.

2. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the back of your spoon is thinly coated, about 8 minutes. Do not allow to boil or the ice cream custard mixture will curdle.

3. Puree the lychees well in a blender, add the lemon juice.

4. Combine the lychee mixture to the custard mixture. Add a splash of Soho Lychee Liqueur to taste. I probably added two tablespoons.

5. Strain the mixture with a fine mesh sieve into a bowl to chill in the fridge. You can chill overnight, or if you're impatient like me, create a ice bath in a larger bowl for the small bowl to sit in, and place the whole thing in the fridge until cool, or for as long as you can wait.

4. Freeze in an electric or manual ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. My manual Donvier suggests 20 minutes of turning. Then transfer to an airtight container, and allow it to harden up in the freezer, probably at least an hour and a half.

Makes 4 servings (about 1 litre)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In Case of Downtown Chocolate Emergency...

Maybe you get a massive chocolate craving "that time of the month" or maybe you're just a chocolate fiend in general, but sometimes, you might just find yourself desperately requiring a massive dose of chocolate to quiet the chocolate demons in your head. Or is that just me? Anyhow, here are a couple of options downtown.

All You Can Eat Chocolate Fondue at Capstone Tea House on Robson St.

First, Capstone Teahouse (1429 Robson St., just off Broughton St. 604-608-2866) not only has a variety of bubble teas and hot pots of non-bubble tea, they also have this all-you-can-eat chocolate fondue for $5.95 a person. It's nice and simple, and they will come around and ask you if you'd like more, and are quite happy to plunk down another platterful of little fruit chunks, pretzels, gummy bears, and mini marshmallows down in front of you, should you care to take their "all-you-can-eat" to heart. A couple of nice features of this place include a long counter at the windows equipped with plenty of power outlets for those laptoppy types, and some very attractive spoons and cup and saucer sets. Wow, a casual full-service dessert place that doesn't suck - much needed in the downtown core, in my opinion. They've recently started doing ice cream balls too, that you can add on to your chocolate fondue to dunk. Their hot black sesame bubble tea with pearls is shown in the background of the photo. It's yummy, and the sweetener sugar syrup is served on the side in a cute little glass flask so that you can sweeten it to your taste. It's a good thing my spoon-stealing friend doesn't live in Vancouver. Even I'm a little tempted with these babies. (I'll take a close-up photo next time and post it). There is a Denman St. locoation that I haven't had a chance to try, but it seems to look a little more cramped in there, from the window.

The Chocoholic Buffet at The Sutton Place Hotel's Fleuri Restaurant

If you're looking to really treat someone or yourself (hopefully both) to a decadent chocolate fix, maybe The Sutton Place Hotel's Chocoholic Buffet in their Fleuri Restaurant ($24 per person) might be to your liking. We arrived for the 6:00 - 8:30 pm seating (rather than 8:30 to 10 pm), and I think we were the first ones to dive in to the perfectly arranged buffet. Crime Lab Boy likened it to the joy of walking through fresh snow. The staff are pretty talented at making that buffet look fresh and inviting throughout the night though, so don't worry about timing. We made reservations ahead of time, and I would recommend that. The Chocoholic Buffet is offered Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. There wasn't any one dessert that really knocked my socks off. They're all pretty good, but I think it's really all about the decadence of the entire experience. The service was great, and they always seem to be able to make dining there feel like a special occassion. I went for one of the crepes too, made just for me by the crepe station person, and topped with some gelato from the freezer behind her. You might think that the excitement of all that chocolate in a buffet setting might somehow overpower the evening so that everything winds up being all about the chocolate, but I found that the buffet and coffees allowed for a very nice, leisurely evening of conversation and connection. In fact, for me, I think the consumption of chocolate greased the wheels of the conversation machine, much like the way that talking over glasses of red wine can. Remember not to overdo it, or you'll pay for it. Or, as with the wine, overdo it with gusto, and be prepared for the consequences, which might be worth it, for that brief luxurious moment of excess. Or not. That night, I hovered successfully in my little chocolate window of not too much, but enough to really enjoy it and get that delicious buzz. Oh, don't you get that food high too?

A Close Up Look at one of the Fleuri offerings.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fortune House in Metrotown

Just a quick note about the Fortune House Seafood Restaurant (Metropolis Mall, near the skytrain exit, 604-438-8686) Mother's Day dinner that my family had last month. We had a set dinner for six for $198 (for the five of us), on probably the busiest day of the year for Chinese restaurants.

Incidentally, I would guess that Valentine's Day is probably the busiest day for non-Chinese upper end restaurants, which may illustrate some interesting cultural difference in priorities. This is a very specifically Chinese-Canadian phenomenon, as they are both Western holidays but perhaps Mother's Day is more strongly adopted by Chinese Canadians as a result of the deference to elders that is part of the Chinese culture. I'm really just speculating here. I don't think my Dad has ever taken my Mom out to dinner for Valentine's but maybe everyone else in the Chinese Canadian community does. The communal dining in Chinese restaurants aren't the best for a dinner for two anyhow.

Well, back on topic, I've never been that big a fan of Fortune House, and this meal was no exception. Usually I'm just slightly disappointed in the food quality, being a Chinese food veteran, and knowing how good the dishes can be. This time it was the service, but it's not the typical complaint for service on a busy night. This time, the food came out too FAST. Rather than most of the dishes coming out separately, as should be the case for a set banquet menu for an upper end Chinese restaurant, our dishes came out all at once. Okay, I get it, you want to move the tables, and fit in as many seatings as possible. But bringing out the hot soup at the same time as the lobster meant that you have to choose which one of these things you want to eat hot. Both dishes suffer immensely when eaten cold, as I discovered that night. I could tell that the lobster dish (pieces are first deep fried, then tossed in a garlicky, onion and green onion sauce) was probably very well executed when it came out of the kitchen, but it lost so much when it cooled down. The menu was a nice collection of dishes, and their sweet touch of presenting each mom with a carnation and a little gift picture frame at the end of the dinner was great, but being rushed through the dinner really almost ruined the experience. The food was still good, despite having to eat it cold, but it's just a shame because it would have been great if it had been served properly. We had a cold plate of thinly sliced meats and jellyfish (not the best I've ever had, but quite acceptable), shark fin soup (I'm having trouble convincing my family that we should boycott this dish to be environmentally responsible), lobster, a great mushroom and pea sprouts dish that was like eating sliced abalone with oyster sauce (the highlight of the meal), fish with vegetables, free range chicken, fish and shrimp fried rice, and sweet bean soup for dessert. The cooking seems to have improved here since the last time I was there, from what I can tell. Now it's just a matter of timing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Afro Canadian Restaurant

There's something wonderfully comforting about the Afro Canadian Restaurant (324 Cambie St. between Hastings and Cordova, 604-682-2646). Sitting quietly in a gritty corner of Gastown, and tended by a warm, friendly owner, it's a great choice for a quick dinner before a movie at Tinseltown, especially for anyone who wants to find out if their date isn't too prissy for the Downtown East Side, for sharing food, or for eating with their hands. Crime Lab Boy and I enjoyed two meat selections served together on the same platter, the jerk chicken (chicken sauteed in spicy sauce then stewed in a red pepper, garlic and onion sauce, $8) and the East African lamb (fried boneless pieces of lamb in Ethiopian style clarified and spiced butter with onions and green peppers, $9). It came garnished with tomatoes and lettuce, and served on rice and injera bread, the fluffy, soft white flat bread of Ethiopian cuisine, that you tear off to pick up the stews with your hands. The food was tasty and satisfying and the atmosphere relaxed. It's a great quiet spot for chatting leisurely while picking away at the communal platter of hearty food. While we ate on this sunny summer evening, the familiar Vancouver smell of pot wafted by briefly from the open door, the music in the background was something pleasant and upbeat, and generally everyone in the restaurant (us, the staff, and one other table) seemed to be in good spirits and radiating a positive vibe. This might be a good spot for vegetarians too. They have lots of vegetable selections, including combinations like the Taste of Africa ($7) which is red lentils, mixed vegetables, and green vegetables served on the injera. Or try three meats for two people for $17.

To give you a little perspective, as much as I love Afro Canadian Restaurant, I might rate Nyala in Kitsilano slightly higher on food alone, but it certainly beats out Addis Cafe on Commercial Drive, based on my one visit there (I remember the meat was dried out and on the bland side at Addis). Both the chicken and the lamb were tender and flavourful at Afro Canadian, and I thoroughly enjoyed the food on my two visits there. I have yet to try Harambe on Commercial Drive. I still have fond memories of the food at Queen Sheeba, an Ethiopian restaurant in Kits that closed down years ago. I think it was there that I first encountered Ethiopian cuisine, and it appealed to me instantly. The injera soaks up all the fatty, delicious juices from the dishes, and there's always too much food. There's a wonderful intimacy to the meal, using your hands to eat off the same platter with your dinner companion(s). There's a bit of primal appeal to eating without utensils and separate plates, and it has the same sort of effect as gathering around a campfire together. It strikes me that it's a perfect meal to bond with people you really like. I've been lucky enough to have done just that many times, with different groups and individuals, and have never broken injera with anyone I didn't like. Maybe that's why Afro Canadian Restaurant has such a pleasant and upbeat vibe - maybe the style of food itself doesn't allow for anything else.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Oysters, Oysters, Oysters

Ever get a craving for deep-fried oysters? I have fond childhood memories of huge mounds of hot, crispy, golden-battered, five-spice-salted packets of ocean goodness. We would get them as one dish of ten in typical Chinese banquets in Vancouver Chinese restaurants back in the 80's. For whatever reason, it's no longer one of the standard dishes in vogue these days around town for Chinese banquets, and it's not really a dish that I tend to order when just having a small meal at a Chinese restaurant because when I do crave a deep-fried oyster, I'm only looking for one or two...maybe three if they're exceptional. This is perfect for a ten- twelve person table at a banquet. But if you order a whole plate of them for a few people at dinner, be careful with these suckers. Fried oysters are just so dense and fatty, the risk of OD'ing is right up there with candy corn (for me, that would be precisely seven kernals max, at a sitting. Eight pushes me right over to "the bleahs"). Same with Peking Duck skin. Trust me on this one - do NOT order an entire Peking Duck for just three people, no matter how much the three of you think you want it.

Anyhow, there have been a number of cooked oyster dishes in my dining recently, and the success of the dishes varied widely.

Look at this small dish below of breaded, deep-fried oysters at Kitanoya Guu with Otokomae in Gastown, which shocked me with the unnatural colour of their tartar sauce. Are oysters pretty in pink? I'm not sure. I think on this occassion I was just weirded out by the unexpected colour, though with the lemon slice, it should have made for a pretty presentation. The oysters were alright, but there are definitely more interesting dishes on their menu, and since I try not to order too many deep-fried dishes for any one meal there, my pick would be the deep-fried squid with spicy chili sauce. The other Guu, Guu with Garlic ( 1698 Robson St., 604- 685-8678) has a kaki mayo or oyster gratin, two small oysters served on the half shell, baked with a creamy sauce that is really delicious, and gets top priority when I'm there.

Fried Oyster with Pink (!) Tartar Sauce from the Guu in Gastown

I recently went to Horseshoe Bay Village, and had a late lunch at Ya Ya's Oyster Bar (6408 Bay ST., 604-921-8848). Can you go to a place called an Oyster Bar, and not get oysters? Well, actually, I might. Frankly, of the dishes we ordered, I was most impressed by their dry pork ribs. The Oyster Fritters ($10.99 for a half dozen) were okay, and served with both tartar and cocktail sauce, and the batter was crispy. Maybe I'm still longing for the very thinly battered (yet crispy) oysters of my childhood with the five-spice salt all over, but I didn't enjoy these as much as I thought I would.

Crispy Oyster Fritters, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

We also ordered their Oyster Platter ($10.99, half dozen), which has one each of their different baked oysters with sauce. We had a great time sampling all the topping combinations, but I found that most of the sauces overpowered the oyster itself. This might be a good dish for someone who doesn't actually like the flavour of oysters. And the fun factor alone almost makes the dish worthwhile, depending on your point of view. When it comes to enjoying the experience of a meal, sometimes it's not about the taste, but the tasting itself. You are also able to order a half dozen or dozen of each of the types. Here's the list:

The Ya Ya: spinach, cream, garlic, parmesan
The Bombay: seafood curry cream
The Lisbon: herb-roasted roma tomato coulis
The Fuego: Ya Ya's own hot chili and sauce
The Alexander: creamy seafood puree, sambuca, parmesan
The Rockerfeller: Ya Ya's sauce with bacon and cheddar melt

Oyster Platter, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

To give our palates a little break from the richness, we decided to go for a salad ($7.99) rather than a platter of fish and chips. It was definitely the right decision, as "the bleahs" were creeping in. Even our salad had little fried chunks in it though. In this case, they were breaded, deep-fried feta chunks. There was a pool of vinagrette at the bottom of the bowl, so the salad was a bit overdressed for my taste. But it's a fun salad, because the tomatoes were grilled, and the fried feta was interesting too. I kept intermittantly detecting a strange flavour in the salad that I wasn't enjoying but Bac'n Girl didn't get, and I was thinking it was an herb that didn't appeal to me. In the end, we decided it must have been a few rancid pine nuts. While most of the toasted pine nuts were fantastic, at least one was icky. Not something I'd expect to happen again there, but Name That Weird Flavour was an entertaining game to play, especially since I was sharing the dishes with a fellow foodie.

Fried Feta and Baby Spinach Salad with grilled tomatoes, cucumbers, carrot julienne, red onion, toasted pine nuts, balsamic vinegrette

Here's a picture of the dry ribs ($7.99). For me, these were perfect. Crispy, meaty, not too greasy, and heavily salted with coarse salt

Dry Ribs, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

Moving away from the deep fried, and heavily sauced, here are some grilled oyster options around. I finally made it to Go Fish! at Fisherman's Wharf at Granville Island when the stand was actually open (always thought of going either on a Monday or when it was too late at night), and it wasn't even that busy because of a bit of drizzle. I sat out on their patio, under an awning, and enjoyed a very nice oyster sandwich, their "Po' Boy," served with a little slaw on the side. I also had their special of the day appetizer, salmon brochettes with a sauce that I can't remember the name of, but I do remember enjoying its sweet and tangy flavour, as well as the apple slaw that accompanied it. The fish was wonderfully fresh, of course, and tender and moist (not overcooked).

Oyster Po' Boy, Go Fish!

Salmon Brochette, apple slaw, from Go Fish!

I've been meaning to make my way up to The Fish Cafe in Kerrisdale (2053 West 41st Ave, 604-267-3474) ever since visiting their booth at the Taste of the City event last September, 2005, where several restaurants showcased their food at the Plaza of Nations. I had a remarkably tasty little grilled oyster sandwich, and it was served up by very friendly people. I just got a good vibe from that experience, and it's enough to make me curious about their restaurant.

Grilled Oyster Sandwich, from Fish Cafe's booth at Taste of the City event, September 2005

If we're moving down from fried to grilled, then the last category must be raw. I must admit, I'm a bit of a newbie to raw oysters, and only really started eating them a few years back. I was initiated at some pretty respectable places though, and was thoroughly won over. I remember beautiful tiny, fresh oysters at C and Tojo's, presented as part of tasting menus, with very clean, refreshing dressings. I don't really order raw oysters on my own, but I can definitely appreciate them when they're put in front of me. Should we even bring up the aphrodesiac question? I wouldn't know - my guess is that everything served at C is an aphrodesiac. Now there's an endorsement! While I don't have any more to say about the effect of the oyster on the sex lives of humans (and I'm never one to knock a placebo effect, anyway. If it works, it works...and a little extra zinc won't hurt anybody), here's a word on the effect of humans on the sex lives of oysters. Apparently, the real reason behind the idea of avoiding eating oysters in the months without an "r" in the spelling (i.e. May, June, July, August), is not because they will be dangerous to eat in the summertime, but that they less tasty when they are gearing up for reproduction. In the late spring, oysters, like many creatures, become more interested in sex, and turn 80 percent of their body weight into sex organs, which happen to be thin, watery and tasteless to us. Interestingly, they will assume one gender for the season, and can change genders in following seasons. It's probably best to leave them alone more during this time anyway, so that they can make more baby oysters in peace. At the end of the summer, when the weather gets colder, they lose interest in sex, and reconvert their bodies, and become rich in glycogen and salts, making them fat and tasty again. Bacteria do generate faster in warmer months, but since much of our oysters are heavily regulated and farm-raised anyway, this isn't really a problem these days. It should,therefore, be safe to eat oysters any time of the year, but they will likely be plumper and taste better in the non-summer "r" months. So if you do eat some oysters this summer, I've got a couple of experiments for you. Try to make note of the size and taste of them now, and do a comparison in the winter to address the effect of the oyster's sex life on the quality of the oyster. As for addressing the effect of the oyster on the quality of human sex life, I'd better just leave the procedures to you.