Monday, October 29, 2007

Top 20 in Vancouver

A co-worker mentioned Mia Stainsby's recent top 20 restaurants in Vancouver article and it's a lovely piece. She is one of those food writers that are very easy to agree with, which is not really all that common. Anyhow, I thought I would take a stab at a top 20 favourite restaurants in Vancouver. These would be the ones that I'd mention to a fellow foodie who is just about to visit Vancouver for the first time, has a big wad of cash, and really wants to explore the food here. I had great restaurant recommendations for Barcelona when I went, and I'd love to do the same for anyone visiting. Out-of-towner recommendations tend to be a bit on the safer side. You know they only have a limited amount of time, so you tend to recommend sure-fire hits, and leave the riskier ones to the locals. They tend to focus on things that are particular to city as well. In Vancouver's case, I would say that Cantonese dinner, dim sum, sushi, Japanese izakaya and West Coast seafood is where it's at. Also, like any restaurant list, the shelf life is very, very short. It's also just about what makes me tick these days. So for right this minute, here is my Must Eat Vancouver list. I've talked about many of these before, so there are only a few notes.

1. Amarcord

2. Bin 941 or 942 Be prepared for the tight squeeze and the wait for a table though. It's not for everyone.

3. Bishop's

4. C

5. Fleuri, at the Sutton Place. The chocolate buffet is a great idea. They also do a Sunday Jazz Buffet, but I've never been. Dinner is very nice too.

6. Gastropod

7. Guu with Garlic

8. International Chinese Restaurant for Dim Sum, or someplace in Richmond if you staying closer to there. Dim sum and sushi are definitely eating musts for Vancouver, and there are plenty of choices for each.

9. La Crepe Bretagne. I go for a quick breakfast/lunch all the time. Great crepes, and I love their soups and sandwiches too, but it's a great casual stop to have a flaming dessert too, after a hard bout of shopping

10. Le Crocodile. This classic French restaurant has a really large and appealing menu. It's surprisingly cosy for a "fancy restaurant" and they've been doing it so long, they know how to treat you right. By that, I mean that I received what I feel to be perfect service. I just went last week for the first time, andf feel like I've been missing out all these years. It was a perfect birthday dinner spot.

11. Le Gavroche. Please note that I have not been there in years. But I can't imagine it being different.

12. Lumiere. I must admit that I haven't been there in years, since it's heyday, but it's probably still worth the trip. It's really the only restaurant that still does exclusively tasting menus (at its tables, there is the tasting bar too), and I love tasting menus. It's like dinner and the theatre all in one.

12. Mistral. If the visitors are getting too much French food, then how about Memphis Blues (but only if they are not from the American South and can get barbecue anytime they want).

13. Nu's patio (if it's summer) - I thought this place had lost its spark, but had a really nice meal there this summer.

14. Parkside

15. Phnom Penh is a great, very "accessible" stop if you need a lunch in Chinatown after wandering around that area.

16. Senhor Rooster is a homey favourite of mine. Warmth and good value. It's not fine dining like much of the rest of the list, so it's not about expecting perfection or getting a mind-blowing culinary experience. It's more that I am confidant that people will have a good time and get well fed when they go there, and that's what it's all about for me.

17. Sweet Revenge (desserts only, but an adorable stop, which gives you a bit of that Main St. neighbourhood feel).

18. Tojo's (for the more budget minded, try Sakae in the downtown core instead)

19. Yuji's Japanese Tapas

20. Here's a tie for an afternoon tea pick: The Fish House if you're in Stanley Park or Secret Garden Tea Company if you can get up to Kerrisdale.

There are a handful of restaurants that I want to put on for some reasons, but just don't deliver the consistancy that makes it an all out recommendation without hesitation.

For example, I wish I could put Aurora Bistro on the list, as their whole concept is about showcasing local products, and they have a passion for BC wine, and I've been several times and had some really nice things to eat there. But I wouldn't want an out-of-towner to get my recommendation and get a cold server, and possibly a mediocre dish. Their experience on the whole will most likely be positive, but there is that bit of uncertainty. I think C can represent the local bounty with more assurance.

Raincity Grill is another great restaurant to represent that West Coast cuisine. It's good. Certainly one of the best in it's vicinity. It sits in a nice little spot in English Bay, which is a pretty convenient stop if you're site-seeing. I think sometimes that I'd rather go to Banana Leaf across the street. I find that more interesting, I guess. Staff are exceptionally warm though at Raincity, and I've only had great service there. And the tomato menu during tomato season is very special too.

West is conspicuously missing from the list, and that is somewhat a personal preference as well. I don't feel the staff are warm enough, which makes the food less fun to eat. Who wants to pay hundreds of dollars to interact with someone cold for a couple of hours? The last time I went, the warmest person that approached our table was one of the kitchen staff who ran a dish out to us. She was great. I wanted her to be my server. In the case of West though, I have a great deal of trust in their ability to deliver outstandingly well-prepared food though. And if wine is your main focus, perhaps it will appeal to you more. But it's not a place I get excited about or has a menu that particularly excites me. It'll be interesting to see how the new Hawksworth restaurant turns out when it opens in the renovated Georgia Hotel, and equally interesting to see how West changes with the head chef's move.

There are restaurants that I just can't put on because I don't know them well enough, or haven't been reacquainted with them lately, too. Then again, Le Crocodile won me over entirely right away, and I put it on the list, despite having only been there once. It was a recent visit though, so I am quite confident in them. Rare would be on my list, but I just haven't had a chance to go back. It was really spectacular the one time, but the Chef de Cuisine left, and the owners have opened up a new restaurant Metro (not my cup of tea when I visited in their first few months), so I'd really like to visit again to be sure.

Elixir might have made it onto my list, but I got horribly sick after my one visit, and felt that the manager dropped the ball in my communications with him afterwards. I might go to that restaurant again some day though as the actual meal was quite good.

Horizons, The Pear Tree, and The Cannery are all beautiful restaurants but are just a bit far, and I haven't had a chance to go recently. Diva at the Met was one of my favourites before, but have not had a recent visit. I enjoyed Vij's a couple of times long ago, but I just don't line up for restaurants, so it's not on my list.

There are several restaurants that I suspect might make my list, but I have not had a chance to try. Here's a few that I'd like to hit soon: Restaurant Connor Butler, Fuel, So.cial, Boneta, La Regalade (have had the chef prepare a meal in front of me as a cooking class, and that was fabulous), Blue Water, Cioppino's, Bacchus, Senova, and The Beachhouse at Dundarave Pier. Having recently fallen in love with Spanish cuisine on my trip to Europe, I am most excited about trying the tucked away Senova on 57th Ave.

Other fun foodie stops for the out-of-towner:

Capstone Teahouse for bubble tea (or someplace similar, because bubble tea is just fun, especially the first time).

Granville Island for picnic-y type grazing (typical trip - croissant from La Baguette et l'echalote and bread to go with charcuterie, coffee from JJ Bean, charcuterie, pates, and cheeses from Oyama Sausage Co., fresh fruit from various stands, maybe sake from the new sake store/brewery, maybe a tasting tour of the Granville Island brewery, and a stop at Barbara Jo's Books for Cooks)

Korean restaurants like Ap Kung Jung. I didn't put it in my top 20 because frankly, I don't know Korean restaurants well enough. Does anyone have a pick that is definitely going to impress, and not have service issues? They are all very similar to me, and can have good and bad days. But it's a great choice for a meal if someone is unfamiliar with the cuisine. And then there's always Korean barbecue at a place with a grill embedded right into the table, which is great fun and is tasty.

Lift for a drink at the bar at night.

Richmond Night Market (if it's a summertime weekend)

Salt for some nice wine and snacks and Shebeen Whisky House/Irish Heather for some whisky and atmosphere (new location across the street coming soon, while the original goes through seismic upgrades).

Sun Sui Wah or another Cantanese restaurant for dinner. Sun Sui Wah does belongs in the top 20, and is a great restaurant and my hesitation to include it comes from a desire to not overhype the one restaurant. There are just too many good Chinese restaurants and this one seems to garner all the English-speaking media attention. They do a particularly nice job with the service though, and the room is very attractive with its Bing Thom architectural details. Golden Ocean in Kerrisdale has great food too. And there are plenty of Chinese restaurants in Richmond too. Victoria Restaurant in Royal Centre connected to the Burrard skytrain station is great as well, or at least seemed so when I was there for a wedding reception. It's a handy location too. Shanghai dumplings can be found in many places, but a very accessible choice is the modern Dinesty (yes, that's how they like to spell it) on No. 3 Road in Richmond. And if you're in Richmond, you might as well find a Chinese noodle house and have some Won Ton and chunks of roast pork with that wonderful crunchy skin, barbecued duck, and barbecued pork (cha sui).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New Restaurants List

The current issue of Cityfood has put together a great resource for any Vancouver foodie: a nice list of the new restaurants of the last nine months - can you believe 99!? - as well as upcoming new restaurants that will open soon. It looks like they are still tweaking the electronic version to incorporate all updates, but I really like how you can sort the list by category, location, opening date or alphabet on the website. In skimming through the list, my thought was "wow, I must really eat out a lot". I've hit many of these restaurants, many of them quite randomly, with no pre-meditated thought. They're mostly drive-by decisions. With this list, now I can plan my attack in a more systematic way. I've had a few of the new restaurants on my list for a while now. I've also had some old-timers on my list for a very long while now, one of which I am finally hitting tomorrow - Le Crocodile! And then my birthday choices yesterday for lunch and dinner with my brother and my parents respectively? Nothing new and exciting at all - little non-descript dim sum place and a White Spot. Totally satisfying. See, I'm not always a fine dining diva! Happy eating, everyone!

Rekados on Main St.

There seems to have been quite an internet war raging over this young, little Filipino restaurant, but that doesn't interest me. I went; I don't know Filipino food; and I liked it quite a bit. I'd happily go back to Rekados Grill (4063 Main Street, between 24th Ave and King Edward Ave, 604-873-3133). This restaurant is going for a more refined experience, with it's modern decor, pretty bathroom, and more modern plating. From what I've read, the handful of other Filipino restaurants around town offer a more casual, hole-in-the-wall experience geared towards Filipino customers, while Rekados is totally accessible to the uninitiated (with all dishes well explained in the menus). I just visited Rekados the one time and it was great fun to experience a cuisine that is totally new to me (even if it is tweaked for Western palates) and I found the place cosy and friendly. Portions were generous, and quite well-priced in my opinion. The menu explains that Filipino cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, Chinese and Malay cuisine. I needed warming up that day, and had a pot of their honey orange tea. I also had a great big clay pot of a vegetable soup with a sour, spicy broth and hearty chunks of eggplant, bok choy and other veggies. It was well under $10 and would serve two generously. I followed that up with a nice grilled fish dish (tanigue, or kingfish) with a chunky fresh salsa-like topping piled high over it, which was about $10, I think. This really felt like good value. I personally like my fish a little underdone (and the time I went it was very thoroughly cooked), but it was still a tasty dish with the salsa. I ordered some rice too. I don't remember the Filipino names for the dishes unfortunately, but the menu is filled with all sorts of small plate choices, stirfried noodles, grilled meats and seafoods, simmered coconut dishes and hotpots, as well as desserts. I think I remember a martini or cocktail list too. They also serve lunch from Tuesday to Friday. The service was fairly attentive, but probably a bit on the slow side. This really didn't bother me at the time though, as I was happy to unwind in the relaxed warmth of the restaurant that day, and prefer that sometimes to being rushed out of a place (they even offered me another pot of tea with the bill). I was in the mood for an ungreasy, light meal that day and was able to get that quite easily with the light veggie soup and the grilled fish, but I think I would like to try the heavier stewed and fried dishes next time. I really like that sort of variety in the menu. Come with an open mind and compare this restaurant only with other restaurants in the same price range. It can be a really nice comfy-casual spot to fill you up and try something new. My visit was a few months ago. Let me know about your experience if you have visited.

Hotpots come out simmering over a flame at the table.

Nice Orange Honey Tea

Grilled Tanigue (Kingfish)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Iron Chef Junkie

I just got sucked into signing up for cable because of a promotion, and I've become an Iron Chef America junkie...only because that seems to be the only thing that the food network airs...but I'm loving it. I want to dine with Alton Brown - he is my food geek hero (or drizzle his body with the truffled olive oil I bought in or the other). I want to sit front row in kitchen stadium. I want to be a judge. I have the urges, simultaenously, to both slap Bobby Flay for barking at his assistants and to savour the food he's arrogantly preparing. And most of all, I want to see the challengers beat the iron chefs. I clearly need a twelve-step program...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Awwww! Another One Bites the Dust!

Japone's Monthly Special in July

Okay, just a quick whine about another one of my fav restaurants disappearing (yup, I still haven't gotten over Lucky Diner): Japone on Oak St. at 67th was a fairly regular stop for me and now it's gone! A quiet and comfy restaurant with surprisingly special food in a little unassuming mini-mall island surrounded by a sea of South Vancouver residential neighbourhood. I went there for creative, flavourful and beautiful Japanese food that was clearly a cut above your average sushi joint. I kept meaning to "spill the edamame" on their new "monthly special" - $15 got you two generous slices of miso black cod (otherwise known as that buttery goodness called "sablefish"), a generous basket of the lightest crispy tempura ever (don't mind the photo...sometimes I get too excited and eat most of something before remembering to take the picture), fantastic tuna sashimi, rice, miso soup, and a really spectacular chawan mushi - silky smooth savoury egg custard with big chunks of seafood and chicken embedded inside. And it wasn't once a was the special for the entire month! All of it was served on beautiful pottery, and the service got quite good at the end. Anyhow, it's been replaced with a more typical Japanese restaurant called Applause. Good quality sushi, friendly sushi chef/co-owner, but for goodness sakes, couldn't they have stolen the secret to Japone's tempura before chef/owner Hiroshi Kudo left? And did he take his charcoal grill with him? Even the unagi was carefully grilled by the chef, imparting that wonderful smoky charcoal flavour to it, back in the day of Japone. Now, mind you, Applause actually does what it does quite well, and of course the price point is quite a bit lower than the former restaurant, but Japone was a tough act to follow (especially after they started doing the monthly special and their weekly specials). I had quite a nice chirashi don there the other day, with a great scallop, really nice, deep red salmon, and a pleasant touch of minced ginger and green onion on the saba. The room has not been changed at all except for the sign on the outside and the addition of some lights, so the place still has the comfy cushion lined window seat-like corner in the front, and the lovely fabric dividers that give a sense of privacy and intimacy to the other tables. At least Japone wasn't replaced with something crappy. I can only hope that it turns up again somewhere else.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Weird Food Combinations That Shouldn't Work, But Do!

I work with a bunch of similarly food obsessed people (I knew there was a reason I liked this office...) and we have a nice big round lunch table that we gather around and we are lucky enough to also have a full kitchen. So you can imagine, the treats abound, and one of the office vices is to have communal bags of chips in the centre of the table. Anyhow, one day sitting around the lunch table, one woman says some words of genius: "you know what they should come out with? Chocolate-covered chips." And I totally agree. Well. Guess what. We had some chocolate - and actually some pretty darn good quality stuff in disk form, leftover from s'more-making (like I said, I love this office). I headed straight to the microwave with a handful in a bowl. And we only had two choices with the chips. No plain chips, like we would have naturally gravitated towards though...just chili garlic and curry flavoured. We discussed briefly, and decided the chili and chocolate combination would work best because it would be like the classic Mexican chocolate flavours. The garlic part, we were less sure about. Wouldn't you know it, the whole combination was absolutely magical! The flavours came at you in layers - first the chocolate, then the garlic, and then chili heat came last. The experience was downright Willy-wonka-ish! One by one around the table, even the more apprehensive of the lot were won over by this concoction. If you get a chance, please try it! Of course, feel free to tell us we're a bunch of weirdos if you try it and find you don't like it. Maybe I shouldn't have blogged it publicly, and gone into the chocolate-covered chip business instead... Do you have any weird food combinations (that work well) to share? Incidentally, I gave the curry chip/chocolate combo a try just to make sure, and our instincts were right on that one!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Jules Bistro

I walked by this place a couple of times shortly after it opened in Gastown, and it was packed with the fashionable. Basically, it looked like one of those restaurants that the trendy "oh, there's a new restaurant!" crowd descends upon initially, and then moves on its way, like a ravaging hoard of well-dressed army ants eating up everything in its path. Same reaction I got when I happened to pass by Italian Kitchen during its VIP grand opening...ick. So I waited a bit for Jules (216 Abbott Street, just off Water St. and Trounce Alley, Gastown: 604-669-0033), but heard good things in the meantime - a bargain prix fixe, and general good value. Well, they were right. I tried this place out in August, on a relatively quiet night, with Potato Salad Boy, and we had lovely, down-to-earth service, genuinely tasty food, and were pleased with the value. They do indeed have a cheap prix fixe of steak frites ($21 for the salad starter, steak frites and a chocolate terrine dessert, that time), which is what I was in the mood for all week, but wound up opting for another steak dish they had because I'm not really a fan of thick, rich chocolate desserts (chocolate terrines, paté's, flourless cakes) the sides on the dish I wound up getting sounded great. Filet de boeuf Poele a la Crème aux Morilles - beef tenderloin with a morel cream sauce, ratatouille and scallop potatoes ($22). It was yummy. Potato Salad Boy was very happy with his Filet de Thon mi-cuit a la Provencale - slow cooked rare ahi tuna "Provencale", eggplant caviar and roasted vine tomatoes ($17). Potato Salad Boy was also very pleased with his rice pudding and rhubarb compote dessert ($6) and I enjoyed my melty centred chocolate fondant ($6) but must admit the steamed mushy texture of the cake itself was not really to my liking, and prefer a slightly drier cakey texture. I wasn't able to figure out if this was how it always was or something went a little wrong, so I'd be willing to give it another go at some point. If we had been hungrier, there are a number of starters that sound good too. I'm sure I'll be back. They're closed Sunday and Mondays, but open for lunch and dinner Tues - Sat.

Beef tenderloin with a Morel Cream Sauce, Ratatouille and Scallop Potatoes

Slow Cooked Rare Ahi Tuna "Provencale", Eggplant Caviar and Roasted Vine Tomatoes

Rice Pudding and Rhubarb Compote

Melting Chocolate Cake, Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream