Sunday, March 30, 2008

Service Superstar

Generally, I take a lot of dining risks. I like to try new places all the time, and I understand how variable dining experiences can be for even the restaurant who has everything down. There are busy nights, being short-staffed, personal emergencies, overworked staff, and all sorts of things that can suddenly go wrong. So everyone deserves to be cut a little slack on occassion. But there are also times when I want to make sure that I am going to have great service. Maybe I'm treating myself after a rough week at work, and I'm just not in the mood to risk having my meal ruined by some snarky or oblivious waiter. Where do I turn for sure-fire great service? Hotel restaurants. Fine hotels are a shrine to good service - it's a core part of the product that they provide, from the moment you check in, to housekeeping, and right down to their dining establishments. It's definitely a priority, and on top of that they also need to be able to impress an international and very particular clientele. Therefore, you wind up having an establishment in town that meets the highest service standards in the world, rather than doing just enough to appease the laid-back locals. There is likely some sort of formal training program in place, and all the details of the craft of fine dining service are imparted to all the staff. Incidentally, hotels are also a great place to find a clean washroom, especially when you are sightseeing in a town and doing a lot of walking.

The other easy sure-fire good service option, besides hotel restaurants, is to find a good authentic Japanese restaurant, because you're just not likely to find a snarky server in a Japanese restaurant. It can be a less formal experience (for example, it doesn't involve bringing you all sorts of cutlery throughout the meal), but can be just as detail-oriented.

So who's my service superstar for this post? A gentleman at the downtown Hyatt's Mosaic Bar and Grill (655 Burrard Street at Georgia St., 604-639-4770). I didn't get his name, but he is an older Chinese gentleman with glasses who is a true professional server. I'm certain he takes pride in a job well done. The other benefit of hotel restaurants is that many tourists staying at the hotel come dressed in various outfits, so service is not dependent on what you wear, at least not at this hotel. The menu at Mosaic is also very interesting, with plenty of dishes that sound good to eat. I had their tasting menu, and in particular enjoyed their butter-poached lobster starter and the amuse bouche that evening - a hot, creamy potato-y soup served in a shot glass. The environment is quite soothing, with low lighting, comfy chairs and big windows overlooking the city street-scene of Burrard. There is also a more casual lounge side which would be a nice spot for a relaxing drink. I don't hear too many people speaking about this restaurant, but I think their menu is really nicely put together, and wish I could provide a link to it, but they don't have it posted on the website. They have a Sunday brunch buffet ($35) menu posted though, which sounds great. Obviously, fine dining in hotel restaurants can cost quite a bit, but if it's well done, I think it's well worth it. Drop in for a cocktail and an appy for a lower cost version of the treat.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Joy of All Day Breakfast

The Thorn Tree Cafe (3204 Dunbar St. at 16th Avenue, 604-737-2577) is one of those little restaurants that I wish was on my block, so I could wander down, bleary-eyed and be treated to a comforting breakfast and a copy of the newspaper any time I want. I stopped by for a great plate of breakfast at lunch time the other day. It's quaint and comfortable, with simple wood furniture, and a great breakfast menu complete with a few benny's for about $8-9. I had the standard two-egg breakfasts (about $5-6) and I really liked their chunky "hash browns." There's a Spanish influence here, and hot sauce is brought to the table with the ketchup. The coffee was good. The poached eggs were the type that are made in the mold, rather than in boiling water, but it was still tasty, so no biggie. It's a simple place - exactly what I want in a neighbourhood breakfast joint.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Restaurant Types at Risk - Cart-style Dim Sum

Restaurants are as susceptible to the whims of fashion as skirt lengths and those poor little Mexican dogs, and Vancouver sees its share of trends. Of course as trends come, they must go eventually, and I want to lament the demise of a couple of my favourite restaurant types. It seems that the dim sum cart is a dying breed, giving way to the presumably less labour-intensive dim sum method of marking off your choices on a printed list to order from a server, who brings your choices directly back to you. With this checklist method, you don't get the feisty dim sum cart waitresses yelling out their items as they santer around the room with their towers of steam baskets. You don't get to peruse the array of food before making your choices. Sometimes, to convince you which item to get, a waitress will lift up the top of the steam basket to show you the contents. You don't get to eyeball your favourite item winding its way around the crowded room until it gets to you. And you don't get to just point and point and point at whatever delights you. And you don't get to eat a little, chat a little, evaluate your hunger, eat a little more, and re-evaluate, and so on. With the ordering by checklist, it feels like you must plan out the whole meal ahead of time, which to me, is so not in the spirit of a leisurely dim sum experience.

But today, I visited Harbour Pacific Chinese Seafood Restaurant (4524 E. Hastings, at Willingdon, southeast corner, in Burnaby, 604-294-8059) and they were kickin' it old school with their dim sum. I was quite pleased with it overall, and a good variety of items came out, all on carts, at a nice rate, especially for a holiday Monday about noonish. They were nicely busy, but there wasn't a wait for a table. We didn't eat any ha gow or other similar dumplings, which tend to be a handy measuring stick with which to compare dim sum places. However, everything we had seemed to be of good quality on this one visit. We had deep fried tofu stuffed with shrimp and served with black bean sauce to dip (a nice touch, as opposed to just slopping it all over the crispy tofu, risking premature sogginess). They served some nice pieces of gai lan as garnish for their rice roll stuffed with beef. Their cha sui pastry and cha sui baked buns were great. The beef tendon and chicken feet were good. They had a steamed garlic fish dish that was quite nice, and a little unusual. And we had some nice coconut jelly. I think we got out of there for about $22 for three people. So this place basically fulfilled my dim sum wish list. The carts and food variety are important, as well as good execution of classics (I have to have rice rolls), and a few unusual or unique items. The place has baroque style chairs which are pleasingly slightly out of place, and the service is very friendly (at least with my parents around). The women pushing the carts were also pushing some of the food- i.e. making their recommendations, which I find charming and reminds me of old dim sum times. I'm sure there are more cart dim sum restaurants around, so let me know your favourites.

The other dying restaurant type that I'm sad to see go is the old Chinese Canadian flashback to the 70's diner. Usually it is a Chinese family who run a diner with all-day breakfasts, and typical diner fare like burgers and fish and chips, but who also put up Chinese dishes like chow mein and stir fries. Is it racist for me to say you can count on Chinese people to make a mean plate of fish and chips or fry an egg properly? And there's just something so comforting to me about eating a good plate of chow mein while sitting on duct-taped repaired vinyl booth seating. Don't ask me why. It just works for me.

Perhaps some sort of recovery program could be put started to ensure that we have these restaurant styles for generations to come. Can you imagine them disappearing from Vancouver for good?