Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer's Almost Over? Check Out Some Great Patios While You Still Can

On this rainy late August day, I'm sure the thought that "summer is almost over" is creeping up on many minds in Vancouver.  But the rain reminds us to appreciate the sunny days while we have them, and I think we'll get some more beautiful warm days before it ends, so let's make the most of them.  There's nothing like a great patio meal on a summer's night in Vancouver. Here are a few of my more obscure and relaxed favourite patios.  Check them out when the rain clouds clear. 
1.  Afghan Horsemen Restaurant (#202 1833 Anderson Street, 2nd Floor, 604-873-5923) has a nice big patio at their new location upstairs, just before Granville Island.  You can see photos of the patio on their website, and when Bac'n Girl and I went, we had the patio to ourselves, well, except for one strange cell phone user who chose to stand right next to us to talk on the phone despite the expanse of patio space available to him. The patio is complete with a nice canopied area, plenty of greenery, and palm tree with fake coconuts.  Try their Horseman's Platter that can be made up for two (about $25 per person) or more people.  They still have their wacky drinks for two, and a nice pillowed area inside where you can sit on the floor.

2.  New India Buffet (805 West Broadway at Willow St., with free underground parking at night that you can access from Willow St., 604-874-5800) has a nice big array of choices and plenty of food, and good maintenance of the buffet.  It's a basic, casual place without a lot of service, but they have some dishes that stand-out sometimes.  I have noticed nice tender chicken in their butter chicken and really good galub jamun (syrup soaked doughnut-like balls).  This find was a tip from a regular Nancylander (thanks, SaabKen.  Please see his update on the place in the comments section) on patios last year and I've been there several times now.  There is plenty of room for groups here, even on the outdoor patio overlooking the city.   

3.  Guu with Garlic (1698 Robson Street at Bidwell Street, 604-865-8678) Get here early for a spot on this tiny patio, and people watch the Robson pedestrian traffic while enjoying tasty izakaya food.  So many izakayas, just like many other western pubs, are somewhat cave-like (dark colours, windowless enclosed spaces).  It's nice to be able to sit out on an open patio and watch the world go by.  

4.  The Do it Yourself Patio.  Summer is also beach weather, and when you can't quite find that perfect combination of water view, pleasant outdoor eating area and really worthwhile food, then take matters into your own hand, and bring take out to eat at the beach.  The last time I did this, I sat on the big rocks at Sunset Beach (next to English Bay), eating a lovely tostada from Casablanca Restaurant, (1102 Davie Street at Thurlow, 604-633-9950) a relatively new, tiny Mexican restaurant with charming staff.  

Sometimes you don't even need spectacular food, just something satifying.  Bac'n Girl and I went on a night time bunny count at Jericho Beach just armed with McDonald's hot fudge sundaes.  Incidentally, I've recently tried the banana cream pie flavoured Blizzard from Dairy Queen and was introduced to the concept of Drive-Thru Dairy Queens (uh oh).  

Another night, I enjoyed a satisfying green tea flavoured cream puff from the new Beard Papa next to English Bay (1184 Denman Street at Davie Street, 604-681-3163) the space used to be all Amy's Cake House). English Bay is a great beach to eat at because there are lots of logs to sit on there if you don't have a blanket.  It's a Japanese chain that makes big beautiful cream puffs with a crispy outer shell, and soft chewy insides, filled with a nice custardy cream.   Definitely go for the the vanilla flavoured cream puff rather than the green tea one (seasonal special flavour that was available the day I went), if you like a nice rich flavour.  The green tea cream was subtle and light, and pleasant though.  Check out the website cartoon cream puff story of Beard Papa.  They inject the cream into the puff after you order it and carefully sprinkle it with powdered sugar.  It may appear expensive when you first arrive ($2.75 for a cream puff?  A box of six costs nearly $10?) but they aren't tiny little cream puffs.  They're huge and satisfying and have good vanilla flavour.   They have other treats at the store too, that look interesting.

5.  And just a quick list of good drinking patios with great service (I tend to like a good cocktail list) that are not so obscure:  
  • Zin Restaurant on Robson Street between Jervis St. and Bute St. Great Robson St. people watching.  Unfortunately, they renovated, and toned down their formerly fabulous deep red cosy room and have made it feel more open, but the cocktails and the patio are still great.  The lounge side used to be one of my favourite rooms in the city (for restaurants).  I think they took the dividing curtain out between the lounge and the dining side, and toned down the red colour.  
  • Earl's on Top on Robson Street at Bute St.  Great service, and relaxed patio. 
  • Nu on the seawall, under the downtown side of the Granville St. bridge.  Great water view.  Desserts have taken a turn for the worse, and food can feel pricey for what you get, but it's a beautiful patio looking over to Granville Island and a marina.
  • Fiddlehead Joe's on the seawall at the Concord Pacific side of False Creek.  Great water view.  
  • Hudson's Landing Pub at the Coast Hotel (1041 S.W. Marine Drive at the Vancouver side of the Oak St. bridge).  They have a small patio hideout - very casual and relaxed.  Typical pub grub offerings, done at a decent quality level.  I enjoyed their smooth-style spinach and artichoke dip and dry ribs. 
  • O'Doul's Restaurant on Robson Street at Jervis Street I haven't gone in ages because both service and food have been slightly hit and miss for me and I have less tolerance for this at this high a price range, but I mention it because I do have great respect for the chef there (formerly of Zin) and I was very pleased to have discovered their little courtyard patio hidden in the middle of the restaurant.  The website has been nicely updated and it's probably worth checking out again sometime.  

Monday, August 18, 2008

Western Lake Chinese Restaurant

If you're looking for a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver with very good quality food, check out Western Lake Chinese Restaurant (4989 Victoria Drive between 33rd and 34th Ave, 604-321-6862).  I went there for a group family dinner a while back, and everything on the set group menu for six impressed me (you know, the one written only in Chinese.  If you don't read Chinese, just take a chance and order it.  Make sure they are not giving you a non-Chinese version though.  Not sure if they have that there, but some restaurants have a "western" or "gwai-lo" and a Chinese version of the set menus).  In particular, I remember that the texture of the fried rice was amazing, and may be the best I had ever had.  I realized I must be doing something wrong at home when I make it.  It's been a while since I went, but since finding a good Chinese restaurant can be somewhat less accessible to people, I wanted to make mention of this one.  Portions were generous and prices were good.  The place was absolutely packed with people, and there were lots of large groups.  If you have a large group meal coming up, consider making a reservation here.  They have daily dim sum here too, but I haven't had a chance to try it yet. 

Friday, August 08, 2008

What? Another Izakaya? Toratatsu is my new fav!

Saba (mackerel) Getting Torched, with Barley-fed Pork Salad in Foreground

Seriously Delicious Saba, Post-torching

Onigiri ($4)

Buta Shabu Salad - Barley-fed Pork Salad ($7.30)

Avocado Fries (I know!) and Negitoro

Cheesecake (made with Camembert) with Honey

Okay, so I'm walking along Denman, like I've done hundreds of times before, and I notice a little Japanese izakaya.  I go in, I am pleased by the fun menu, I order, I am blown away, and I ask, how long has this been here.  A year!  I could have been eating here for the last year!  I come back again another day and everything is tasty again.  I come back with friends (some Vancouver ex-"pats" that have moved to Calgary).  Everything is tasty again.  The name of this little gem is  Toratatsu Japanese Tapas Bistro (735 Denman St. at Alberni St.,  604-685-9344).  

The place is worth checking out for their negitoro dish ($7.80) alone.  I am a huge fan of tuna with green onion anywhere, but this place serves it as a dip for avocado fries!  Yes, you heard me.  They deep-fry avocado, and it's absolutely delicious. They coat it with panko (light and crispy Japanese bread crumbs), and it goes great with the negitoro dip that is chopped tuna and green onion dressed with rice wine vinegar, a little fish roe, mayo and other things that get all mixed up together.  I've never had deep-fried avocado before, and it seems a bit extravagent, but it's really good.  It almost doesn't need any sort of dip, but what the hell, if you're going that far anyway, you might as well top it with negitoro too.  I love their little tempura skewers (they will call it different things on the menu - kushiten or fritters, $7); they include a wonderful selection of bite-sized crispy coated veggies and fish cake, seafood or meat.  I really enjoyed their sablefish in particular too.  The have some nice starch dishes too, like their rice dish in a hot stone bowl (when I went, it was eel and cucumber) and their Tarako Kimchi Udon, a fried udon dish that was very tasty and satisfying.  

Another fun bit about the restaurant is that they have fresh fruit smashed drinks.  They list the fresh fruit available that day on the board, and you can have it with the liquor of your choice (vodka, sake, shochu...) (only $5.50).  They also serve sake in a freshly cut piece of bamboo, which I have not tried yet ($9) and have a few cocktails, like the Dark and Stormy rum and ginger beer drink that I enjoyed ($8).   They have quite a wine list too for a Japanese place.  Service has been quite good, and the cute young chefs pop out to bring you the food too.  Don't be surprised that these folks know what they are doing though.  This restaurant has only been open since June 2007, but the owner/chef is the youngest son of the same family that ran the now closed Yaletown restaurant Shiru-Bay Chopstick Café, which was the Lower Mainland extension of a successful chain of restaurants in Tokyo.  The chef trained at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts and incorporates flavours and ideas from Europe on the menu.

It seems like the staff of all the izakayas in town are very connected to each other.  I wonder if that would make a good tv show setting?  This place is just a few blocks away from Kingyo, which is another fantastic izakaya (a bit bigger, with great service and excellent food too).  They are also close to the Japanese charcoal grill restaurant Zukkushi which is tasty, but I haven't been back for a while, feeling like it was a bit pricey when I went.  And now there is a new izakaya off Robson St. on Jervis (next to my favourite crepe place) called Kakurenbou Japanese dining.  I've only been once, during it's soft opening with a reduced menu, and the place looks sharp, and it has very traditional flavours such as a lot of sancho and fresh shiso leaf.  The name comes from the Japanese for hide and seek, and meant to refer to the space which is small and intimate, and like a little hideaway.  I will give it a try again now that they have their full menu before posting fully about it, but in general I am much more excited by Toratatsu, and generally get more of a cosy home-y feel from it.  I went to Toratatsu again recently, and they had their AC blowing, so it was quite comfy, and it was a hot summer day, so I received a nice refreshing cold towel upon arrival.  The first time I went, they had these little tablets that they poured water on, which magically expanded into a disposable wet towel, but they were quick to tell you that they were towels and not some sort of candy.  That was fun and cute, but it's nice to have the reuseable towels now.  They're open seven days a week, and take reservations.  

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Takoyaki at the Richmond Summer Night Market

I had a great time at the Richmond Summer Night Market, and the above photo is one of the things that make it worthwhile for me.  I fell in love with takoyaki as a young teenager visiting Japan on an exchange program.  It reminds me of experiencing the summer festivals there and of being fresh and naive, curious about the world, and joyfully sucking in Japan like a brand new sponge.  I love street food, and our city is definitely lacking.  I remember a time when bylaws made the environment hostile to even the hot dog stands.  Mind you, I appreciate that someone is looking out for hygiene and that health standards are high here for food safety and all that.  But I'm a five second rule type of gal (maybe even 15 seconds), and a bit of a risk taker.  Hey, my delicate sheltered belly survived Mexican taco stands and the deep fried goodies down there and I don't even live there.  So I am all for more street food here.  

Anyhow, I was glad to see that the Richmond market is alive and well, and I want to support it, since it did take some effort to save this event.  Sure, when I went there seemed to be fewer food stalls than the previous years, but I heard that more were coming later (there may already be more now).  And we had no problem stuffing ourselves silly with what was available there (even needing to strategize, as there were a couple of things I just couldn't fit in at the end).  

Our adventure at the night market started right when they opened, so it was relatively uncrowded, and I even snagged a parking spot right next to the market.  We had veggie-filled fish waffles, so many lamb skewers (Bac'n Girl came back with fistfuls of them for us...I love how happy she looks when she's got a bunch of meat), the takoyaki of course (toasted doughy balls with a chunk of octopus in the middle and lots of toppings), giant fried chicken breast, halibut taco, duck-filled pancake, sweet rice flour balls, super spicy curry fish balls (which weren't that spicy), korean potato noodles, stuffed peppers, and dragon beard candy and other sweets.  I enjoy the wandering about and getting excited about a food item.  It's different from just having a meal where people bring you all the food and take care of your every need.  There is an element of conquest to the market experience.  "Oh, we have to get some of that!"  "Okay, I'll go get this while you get that!"  It's somewhat dirty and messy, inconvenient, awkward to eat, and a hell of a lot of fun.