Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Enough With the Valentine's Day $%*@ Already!"

Okay, I fully admit it; I'm a romantic. A sentimental fool. And I have my girly-girl moments, especially when playing the part of the wooee in a new relationship, with a suitably gallant wooer hovering about. But I'm very happily single right now, and yet I am still getting bombarded with unnecessary Valentine's suggestions and advice through the mostly food related email mailing lists that I am on. Yes, I know receiving a heart-shaped cheese - like the mini couer aux petales de roses from Les Amis du Fromage pictured here, especially as part of elaborate home-made candlelight meal would make me absolutely melt; or conversely, would be so fun to include in a romantic meal that I could make for someone special. The cheese is a "fermier (farm made) heart-shaped, young raw milk chevre, produced in the Loire valley. It has a sprinkle of wild rose petals on top. This young cheese has a delicate, crumbly texture and has a tangy sourness that is sure to make it a perfect choice for a goat cheese salad for two" the email tells me. But I think sending this out to all the sentimental, single foodies is just cruel. It may sound like I'm not as happily single as I say I am, but hell, I was happy enough before imagining all the lovey dovey couples around me giving each other cheeses from Les Amis!

Incidentally, not all of that advice I'm getting in email looks all that helpful, so here's a quick rant. One article gave advice for Valentine's gifts that "don't scream stalker." I can imagine too many men taking to heart the message that you don't want to appear too eager or like a "stalker" by giving too romantic a gift too early in the relationship. I say don't worry about this too much. Good chocolates and flowers, are a cliché for a reason, and if your date is threatened by them or by another gift, perhaps that's just a sign that the two of you shouldn't be dating. I mean really, think back to the last time you were really attracted to someone - would you freak out it they gave you wonderful chocolates? Actually, I can't think of anyone that I wouldn't like to receive wonderful chocolates from, but that's probably just because I like receiving chocolates. Note that I'm talking only about women receiving them from men because I can only speak from my point of view. Maybe some men would think "stalker" if they got a really good Valentine's gift from a new flame, but most likely they'll just think "oh damn, I hope my gift is good enough." or "oh my god, I didn't get her anything."

Well, enough of my false bah humbugging. I really do like Valentine's Day, whether an active participant or just cheering on from the sidelines. Why else would I subject the single foodies who read my blog to even more of the Valentine's propaganda I'm supposed to be complaining about - by the way, apologies if you are one of them (just go get your mum something nice if you're really down about it, or donate to the food bank, or just find someone nice and randomly do something nice for them). And while I love the classic chocolates and flowers, if you have the stuff it takes to wow someone with something personal and creative, go for it. Here's an example from a movie I just saw, "Stranger Than Fiction." The character that Will Ferrell plays is just about to win the heart of the baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. There's a lot of build-up to why this gesture is so sweet, but I won't get into it because I hate spoiling movies for people. So what's the gift?...

...Why, he brought her flours, of course!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chocolate and Zucchini, a Paris Food Blog

Just a quick note to highlight one of the latest additions to my links list, Chocolate and Zucchini. Although I like to focus on local foodie sites, I thought Nancylanders might like to daydream about little food adventures in Paris once in a while. I certainly am, as I research travel in Europe, looking for potential adventures for my trip in September. This blog caught my eye while I was dreaming about El Bulli again, and doing a search on how people get reservations. Turns out I thought about the restaurant only a few months too late. As Clotilde Dusoulier, Chocolate and Zuchinni blogger, found out, they take requests for reservations for their May through September season in October of the previous year. Look here for her terrific account of her meal, complete with photos, and even practical information such as cost (with their water, coffee, and wine - which they let the sommelier decide without limits - it looks like their thirty-five course tasting menu cost the equivalent of $330 CAD/person, before wine $250). I think this blog is inspirational also because she wound up quitting her day job as a software engineer, two years after starting to blog, to write about food full-time. She has Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook coming out soon!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Some Days I Just Feel Scattered, Smothered, Covered...and Chopped, Chunked, Capped and Topped

I admit to being a very nostalgic person, and the enjoyment of food to me has a lot to do with the context in which it is experienced. Minutes ago, I had a nostalgic craving strike me suddenly. Striking is absolutely the word I want to use for that, like having a big, plump, friendly chef (he has a bushy, black moustache for some reason) sneak up behind me on tip toes and wack me swiftly on the head with a big baguette. After the impact, I imagine him laughing "Ha HA!" in a big booming voice, which means "Crave that, you fool!" Heehee, don't worry, I'm not on anything. Imagine my hallucinations if I actually was!

Well, if any of you have been to the Waffle House, maybe you'll understand this one. The American Deep South is scary and charming all at the same time, and the food is no different. There's a lot of charm to be had in the food, even (or maybe I should say especially) the greasiest junkiest food down there. It's a place where the greasy spoon chain, and the really old burger joint can become iconic places of history. I have no problem with that. I loved the Waffle House when I was down there, for a place to get breakfast, but especially as a place to go late into the night. It's a place where hash browns aren't just hash browns, like they are up here. They're a meal. A greasy, messy, beautiful pile of a meal. Here's how to have them:

"scattered" across the grill

"smothered" with onions

"covered" with cheese (you know what I'm talking about here, right? Yah, I'm not ashamed; I eat processed cheese)

"chunked" with diced ham

"topped" with chili

"diced" with diced tomatoes

"peppered" with jalapeno peppers

"capped" with mushrooms

What a wonderful, cheap indulgence it was for me - a "starving" (yah, I know, well, it's as close to starving as I get) student living in Athens. Just a handful of dollars for the whole mess of it, plus a cup of bottomless coffee. It even includes entertainment - I used to love watching the system - the cook, master of the grill, brandishing his trusty spatula, sucking in the hollered lingo-laden orders from sassy waitresses, and shooting out the food like a machine - keeping their cool, in the middle of all that sizzling, spinning and bubbling around them. Now that I think about it, the hollering is a bit like some of the izakayas around here. Except you go to Waffle House after the drinking, not during. I had my first serving of grits ever in a Waffle House, late night, post-partying. I was a bit skeptical about the whole concept of grits, while my friend enthusiastically tried to convince me of their merit. I think the main selling point was that you have to have them smothered in butter and cheese... They turned out to be okay, but he treated the ordeal like it was a rite of passage. And of course, because of that, it remains a cute, warm WaHo (to borrow a blogger's term of endearment) memory for me. Okay, I have to go buy some potatoes now.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Dine-Out Burn-Out

Does anyone else find themselves saying "bah humbug!" to the yearly end of January, beginning of February Dine Out Vancouver (DOV) event? Yes, I know there are some good deals out there, but is it worth wading through the incoming herds of "frugal" suburbanites, the need to book dinner nearly a month in advance, and the on-the-edge servers who are just one "water only table" away from snapping like the sugar topping of your creme brulee? Jason Chin, a fellow blogger at Eat, is opting out this year. And I think I am too. So, for anyone else displaying the symptoms of Dine-Out Burn-Out, here is a quick top five list of under $35 non-DOV bargains to be found in our great food city. They're not necessarily going to be fine dining, but you should be able to eat very well, and be treated very nicely, without breaking the bank.

5. Senhor Rooster (Renfrew St., at Venables, four blocks south of Hastings), Rack of lamb about $35. You can pretty much order whatever you want off their menu and get out well under $35 a person, but go ahead and splurge on the whole rack of lamb if you get a chance. I don't see it on the online menu, but it is probably on the specials list when you go to the restaurant. You might think this price is comparable to the rack of lamb at other restaurants, but you'll often find you get a half rack or less at the same price elsewhere. I haven't had a chance to try the new location, but it's open for business. Next time I go, I'm going to try to call ahead and try their salt-encrusted Cornish game hen.

4. Raincity Grill (Denman at English Bay) Early Bird Menu $25 between 5-6 pm. I haven't tried this one out myself yet, but I've had a number of nice meals at Raincity over the years, and hope to try this out sometime. Three courses of West Coast focused food in a crisp, clean room.

3. Rinconcito Salvadorean Restaurant (Commercial Drive, between 4th and 5th Ave.) Lots of food for $25 each - my friend and I ordered enough food to stuff ourselves silly, including their famous papupas (flat corn tortilla filled packages of pork beans and cheese at $2.50 each), a whole fried fish with beans, rice, avocado and salad, a mini chicken tostada salad, fried yuca root with fried pork chunks, yummy tamarind drinks (non-alcoholic), and carmelized plantains with vanilla ice cream.

2. Sakae Sushi Restaurant (Downtown, Thurlowe and Alberni St.), Dinner Set $24 More authentic Japanese food than you can shake a stick at. Well, maybe not if you're really good at shaking any rate, it's a lot of high quality food for under $25.

1. Mistral (W. Broadway at Trafalgar), Three Course Lunches $18 - 22. Another one on my Places To Try Soon List. I've heard good things about this one, and the menus look great. And if you're a guy looking to impress a lunch date, this should do, don't you think?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sakae Japanese Restaurant, Downtown

When did my comfort food become Japanese cuisine? Maybe it stems from my very first trip away from my parents, just after graduating from highschool - I had a glorious six-week homestay experience in Osaka, Japan. It was like I found another place in the world that felt like being home, even though it was completely different from being actually home, which was (and is now) Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Sakae (745 Thurlowe St. off Alberni St., 604-669-0067), hidden in a tiny, downtown, underground mini-mall of restaurants (next to Samba Brazillian Barbecue, and Aki Japanese Restaurant), is my current favourite traditional Japanese restaurant. By traditional, I mean both that the food feels quite authentic, and also that the menu offers what the original wave of Japanese restaurants in Vancouver offered - not izakaya small plates, but sushi, sashimi, tempura, noodle dishes, robata, rice dishes, and combinations. I just came back from having a fantastic dinner set ($24), which I thought was delicious and good value. They currently have a sushi, sashimi and unagi don dinner set, and these are not your run-of-the-mill Vancouver dinner sets. Be forewarned though, that in the summer time, I was looking for their dinner sets and they didn't offer them, but they're back now. I chose the sashimi one, which had a beautifully fresh plate of sashimi (garnished with real shiso leaf, and a very fragrant wasabi - maybe it's freshly grated?). I chose to start with this part separately, and it had lovely slices of salmon, mackeral, a very good amaebi, and snapper, I think. Then an exciting array of goodies came on a tray. There was a generous portion of grilled marinated black cod that was really tasty. There was a good chiwan mushi (savoury steamed egg custard) with assorted meat bits, topped with a pretty slice of fishcake. I enjoyed the delightful plate full of small cold things including egg omelet, a seafood pate, lotus root slices, a deep fried breaded dumpling ball, two meaty balls on a pick, and a pate topped with eel. There was also a little bowl of zaru soba, and a fried dumpling served in sauce, covered with bonito flakes (sorry, I don't know what it was exactly, but it was tasty). There was a really tasty sunomono type salad (but not the type with the noodles swimming in lots of liquid). It had a sweet, vinegar dressing, as well as a thicker orange dressing, and was fragrant with the smell of fresh cucumber. It had chunks of a white-coloured protein (maybe a clam?), and chewy transparent, colourless threads, that I think were some sort of seaweed product. There was a dish of daikon and cucumber pickles too. I also received a big bowl of rice garnished with what I'll call salmon pixie dust and a very nice miso with clams in their shells and tiny bits of shiso. Does this sound like a lot of food? It was. And I was happily stuffed. I also had a small bottle of warm Gekkeikan sake ($4.50), perfect for coming in out of a snowy, wet night. The room is quiet and cosy, and like a little underground hideaway - a nice, place of stillness to replenish your energy stores (both mental and physical) or have a quiet talk with someone about life.

Service was perfect tonight, with my tea cup being refilled diligently, and every bit of hospitality displayed despite my disheveled jeans, sweatshirt, and raingear appearance.

Now here's my big confession for this restaurant to end this post. I've lived closeby to this restaurant for about 8 years now, and I only learned about this place less than a year ago and I heard about it from, of all people, someone in Seattle! This place is a part of my neighbourhood, and I had to have a tourist point it out to me in order for me to pay attention to it! An eGulleter in Seattle was recommending a Japanese restaurant to someone else in Seattle who was going to visit Vancouver. The Seattlite who was due to travel was asking my advice, and the other Seattlite piped up. I am very glad s/he did. It's a wonderful little hidden gem, made all the more charming because it is off the radar for many. Shhh, don't tell too many people.