Monday, October 13, 2014

Gobble, Gobble at Burnaby's Hart House Restaurant

I love turkey dinner.  This year, family Thanksgiving dinner dropped down to only two of us - my Dad and I.  It's the second year without my Mom and I think she would have loved this quiet fine dining version of Thanksgiving that we did.  Also, my brother recently split up with his partner, which actually takes away three from our usual Thanksgiving table as her kids have been joining us in previous years too.  My Dad was not up to cooking this year (though he makes a mean turkey dinner), which I suspected might be the case (and I wasn't up to it either), so I found a Burnaby restaurant close to him that could do turkey and managed to get him out of the house (though not my brother, who doesn't really like turkey anyway).  I was hoping for a hotel or casino buffet but couldn't find one that would be really good and serve turkey for sure.  So we went for something a little fancier.  I've always wanted to try Hart House Restaurant, and it's a bit silly that I've never dined there because it is really close to where I mostly grew up.  And as I found out, is quite a nice restaurant with a chef with serious skills.  Overall the experience was great, but I wouldn't say that everything in this meal was completely to my taste, but I would definitely come back and would only change very minor things.  

The Tudor style house is 102 years old, and was lived in right up to 1979 when the Municipality of Burnaby purchased it.  It's in Deer Lake Park, close to the Burnaby Art Gallery, Heritage Village, and the Shadbolt Centre.  Some of the tables have a beautiful view of the park.  We parked (free parking) and walked in from the drizzle to the warmth of a roaring fire in a beautiful massive fireplace original to the building in the lobby area.  Coats were taken and my little note that we were coming for turkey dinner from my online reservation was acknowledged when the host showed us the menus.  To me, this little thing is an indicator that the front of house was well organized.  According to their website, they regularly offer a $36 three-course prix fixe which changes weekly and I had a very quick response on facebook when I inquired about turkey for Thanksgiving too.  

I ordered a glass of cava ($8, Codornui, from Spain), figuring a sparkling would go with everything we were eating, and it was very nice and quite sweet which suited me.

The amuse bouche was a spoon with a fine salmon tartare, tiny shaved fennel and a tiny blini.  My Dad liked that they used a Chinese spoon - I've been so used to this trend, I had forgotten that a Chinese spoon here is out of its usual context.  The amuse bouche was tasty and very interesting with its different components (and my Dad actually ate raw fish without any protest, which is a big thing.  It's possible he might not have known...).  We were given a nice basket of very warm sliced baguette and some cold butter also, which was nice, as I always appreciate it when the bread is warm. 

The prix fixe had two options for each course, and between the two of us, we tasted everything except for the salmon main - coho salmon cioppino, mussels, prawns, fennel, saffron tomato broth (also offered a la carte for $28).

Dad had the soup, a butternut squash and coconut velouté which had a luxuriously smooth texture, and a definite nutmeg note (I think), which I personally am not a big fan of, but it was a great soup.  Dad liked it.  

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, Curry Oil, Pickled Squash

I started with a pickled beet and burrata salad with orange segments, watercress, pine nuts, and sherry vinaigrette, but when the food came, I honestly forgot that there was supposted to be burrata in it (from the facebook menu) which I was looking forward to trying as I've seen it on shows and from people talking about it or eating it next to me, but it's not a cheese that I know very well first hand.  Anyhow, I remember the slices of what I thought were Grana Padano or Parmesan or a similar firm cheese, but I do not remember any burrata (nor do I see any in the photo, unless it's underneath which would not make sense) and anyway, I think I would have noticed it if it was there.  It might have been changed on the actual menu that we read in the restaurant.  The salad was quite nice.  I liked those tiny orange segments, and the variety of beets and treatments of the beets.  The dressing didn't sing to me, but was fine.  I think a soft cheese would have been great here though. 

Orange Segments, Watercress, Pine Nuts, Sherry Vinaigrette

The real star of this menu was the turkey breast!  I'm always a little leary of white meat on turkey as it's so often dry, but I still enjoy the taste of white meat.  I prefer the flavourful dark meat of turkey, but knew that I would still get some in this dish in the stuffing.  What I wasn't expecting was how tender and moist the turkey breast would be.  Honestly, it might be the most tender turkey breast I've ever had, and again because I didn't pay enough attention to the menu, I found myself wondering if they had a waterbath back there and cooked this sous vide without saying so on the menu.  What they actually did was poach the meat in buttermilk.  This is the way to cook turkey breast.  It was really good.  Then the chunk of stuffing had delicious dark meat with mushrooms and bread.  The jus (gravy) was fabulous, though I would have liked a bit more.  The baby brussel sprouts were excellent, but again, I would have liked more.  In fact, I would have liked a lot more vegetables.  Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that the regular menu included a side of vegetables for $5 (and wouldn't have anticipated needing that with a set three course dinner, but wished I had noticed it in the menu so that I could have thought of it when I was eating the dish and thinking I wanted more veg).  The facebook menu mentioned pommes mousseline, and some sort of mashed potato would have been very welcome, but was missing from the dish.  However, the turkey portion was very generous and the whole thing much more filling than it appears (plus my Dad was giving me parts of his dishes that he couldn't finish).  I used the cranberry compote as I'm a big fan of cranberry with turkey, but I didn't really enjoy the dried cranberry texture and would have preferred more of a sauce or jelly instead.

Dark Meat & Mushroom Stuffing, Pommes Mousseline?, Brussels Sprouts, Cranberry Compote, Turkey Jus

For dessert, Dad wanted the pumpkin cheesecake, and I had the apple cinnamon parfait.  I'm always one to gravitate to any cake type desserts, so I was looking forward to the cake layered with creamy custard.  The pumpkin cheesecake was very pumpkin-y and low on the cheesy-ness.  The chantilly cream and the caramel sauce were very nice (I didn't taste an almond), and it was a nice solid dessert and very nicely presented.

 PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE (a la carte 10)
Caramel Sauce, Vanilla Chantilly, Toasted Almonds

My parfait was okay.  I liked the chantilly cream on top, and the cream underneath, but I think it wasn't custardy enough (like a trifle).  It needed to be richer, I think.  The apples cubes were very firm - but again, that's a subjective thing, and I would have gone quite a bit softer, but they had a good flavour.  It was nicely spiced.  The cake was somewhat hard and a bit dry, like a day-old cake (which  was probably made fresh, but with a very dry style).  It really needed to be soaked in sherry, brandy or jelly like a trifle would be (or like how tiramisu is soaked in coffee/coffee liqueur).  The menu says "berries" so maybe if there had been a berry sauce or berry compote layered in there, or even whole berries, it might have worked (and maybe that was the intention?).  It would have also been prettier with another layer of colour.  I'm pretty sure that the only berry in mine was the nice little raspberry on top.  Also, perhaps because I'm shorter, I found the goblet a bit awkwardly tall, and would have preferred a lower dish, though I recognize that the stem does make it look more like a little trifle.  I think I would have been happier with these four components (chantilly, custard cream, poached apples, spiced sponge) just set on a plate without the cake crumbled, with a berry sauce or several more berries.   I ate all of the chantilly on top though, which was very nice.  We had coffee, but Dad wanted decaf so I joined him with that and regretted not getting regular.  It wasn't good, but wasn't terrible.

Spice Sponge, Poached Apple, Custard Cream, Chantilly Cream, Berries

Now that I've thought the meal through, almost all of my minor criticisms with the meal look like they were simply execution omissions that would have been solved if they stuck to their original menu.  It was the last night of this Thanksgiving week prix fixe.  Could they have just run out of certain ingredients?  There is obviously a lot of skill and classic French technique demonstrated in the food here at Hart House, as well as a very well-thought out menu, and I wonder if it might just be the execution this night.  Burrata here, potato mousseline there, and berry layer here would have filled the gaps that I instinctively found unbalanced about the meal.  Plus a few other small vegetable pieces on the turkey plate (say a baby carrot and a couple of haricot verts?) would have been great.  The dressing for the salad also might have just been a simple execution issue - a tiny bit more of "brightness" would have changed that whole experience.  

Service was excellent, and the room felt warm, inviting, and not too stuffy.  You can dress up for dinner if you like and it can be a nice special occasion restaurant, but you wouldn't feel too out of place if you didn't want to get really dressed up.  It certainly feels out of the way, so could be a fun special date outing as it feels like a bit of a destination, since you wouldn't normally be out in the area at night otherwise.  You could walk around Deer Lake Park first, and then head in for dinner on a dry evening.  We were there with the extremely early crowd on Sunday on Thanksgiving weekend, and it's a very traditional place, so there were mainly seniors and families.  It was nice and quiet, but started to fill up more as we were leaving.  I would love to go again on another day of the week and try another prix fixe menu.  And don't forget, poach your turkey breast in buttermilk!  Just brilliant.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pampered and Pleased at Italian Garden on Broadway

I love it when I unexpectedly stumble upon a great restaurant.  Mind you, it doesn't happen that often, but last week after work, I found one that I think is stellar.  I've only been once so far, and they mentioned that they were planning on changing their entire menu the next day, so I plan to return and I'll add comments to this post if I find that they took some wrong turns.  This restaurant is Italian Garden just a few blocks west of W. Broadway and Macdonald St., between Trutch and Balaclava.  As far as I can tell, it's only been open for about four months (could be wrong about this), and they have a nice little patio out front, but I think I've been initially put off by their sign and the name, that is remniscent of Olive Garden.  These two things mean that I would never have guessed that this was a fine dining establishment with this caliber of service and chef (and bartender apparently - I will have to try some drinks another time...I think the drinks menu even invited ingredients brought in so that something special could be mixed up).  My guess is that the new menu will be aimed at a lower price point for the casual Kits clientele.  However, on the day I went, the sandwich board proclaimed simply "Ribeye $12" (and a drink special) to get people in.  Didn't seem like it could be true.  Ribeye is my favourite, and the menu listed a ribeye main for around $24-28 (can't remember exactly).  The waiter (possibly owner) managed my expectations by telling it was a small piece, served with mashed potato and a little salad (love that both servers had Italian accents).

I also wanted to order many other dishes, like a pasta or pizza, but knew I couldn't fit it in.  I started with a glass of red wine that I thought could stand up to a ribeye but still satisfied my mid-week frugality, a primitivo that was great.  The server even let me have a little taste first, a hint of the lovely service details that dotted the entire meal.  Also came a complimentary bread stick - which I was quite happy receiving as the only complimentary bread, and was pleasantly surprised by a dish of two types - a light focaccia and a denser crusty bread, along with a delightful olive oil.  I preferred the focaccia, but both were good.

Another good sign of the service is that when I walked in, and asked for a spot for one, the server just said anywhere you like, and indicated the entire empty restaurant.  I chose the patio, and realized most of the tables were best for drinks, and spotted a nice big table in the corner, which could have sat 3 or 4, and he had no problem with me taking that perfect spot.  On one of the last warm, sunny evenings in Vancouver before the wet and cold fall and winter, it was the best table in the house.  Lately, as I've been dining solo at various casual Korean and  Japanese spots, I've been directed away from larger tables that I would have prefered, so this was quite refreshing.

Okay, then my steak came out, and the dish was much bigger than I expected (granted, it was a particularly generous portion and they probably didn't serve this much to everyone).  They did tell me that they had the steak on special because they were changing up the whole menu the next day (hope they don't take ribeye entirely off).  It was perfectly done (I like mine medium rare), and the inside was wonderfully soft and tender with the outside having those delicious crispy bits on the edges, and the fatty bits inside were delicious.  The small salad was nicely dressed, and the potatoes were delicious.  I saw the two servers and the busser coming outside to check on me probably 10 - 15 times during the meal (I was the only one outside for quite a while), sometimes asking and sometimes just taking a look without requiring me to speak, which was absolutely perfect.  I needed a tiny bit of salt after my first bite of steak and had someone to ask right away, and he even asked me if I preferred big or small salt (and wound up getting me both).  And I'd much rather it be slightly undersalted for my taste than over salted.  I ate every bit of the dish.  And I ordered dessert as well.

The tiramisu was delicioius, and the way I prefer it - with a generous amount of coffee flavour.  And after that, I still wanted a little something, but knew that coffee would keep me up too late (and I couldn't drink any more alcohol), so I ordered a cup of tea.  Now this place was authentically Italian, so I should have known that was a mistake, but did not think about it.  I asked if they had Earl Grey and they did not, which was fine (tea wasn't even on the drink menu, so I was just glad to get some tea).  Well, what came out was really lovely.  They had the tea brewing properly in a separate teapot, and then they had included several things for me to choose from - a bunch of large mint leaves, several lemon slices, sugar and even a bowl of ice should I want to ice it.  The server (possibly owner) came out later to check on me, and noticed that I used the mint and said that he thought I would like it!  Authentically charming.  I used the mint and the lemon and didn't miss my Earl Grey at all, of course.

I also never felt rushed, and was offered more water at the end as well (and by this time the restaurant was quite busy).

The younger server mentioned that on Wednesdays they have 50% off bottles of wine.  I don't know if this will still be true since they are switching menus, and I was unable to find their website (perhaps they are working on it), but I want to check this out.  Their wine list was very nicely done too - they laid out all sorts of tasting notes for all the wines.  It looks like many people have found this place before me, but the restaurant was probably just finding their footing in their first few months of opening.  From my standpoint, I think they are striding along very well now, and wish them much success.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Seaside Fish and Chips on Vacation!

I usually try and focus on Vancouver restaurants and foodie finds, but a lot of Vancouverites (and visitors to Vancouver) do make it out to the Gulf Islands for small trips.  Each of the islands has its own character, and it does feel like really getting away when you visit.  Even when an island has only a few restaurant options, sometimes they can be surprisingly good.  This fish and chips may have been the best I've ever had, and it was at The Cafe at Hope Bay on Pender Island (apologies for the photo quality - was too excited and ate some of it before the photo too).  The chips and the fish batter were so light and crispy.  The coleslaw was tasty and interesting, with a touch of cumin.  I wanted to lick the little cup that the tartar sauce came in.  And I got to enjoy a magnificent view of the water while eating it.  

How do I know it was really that good, and not just a product of context (vacation happy)?  Because I can contrast it with a terrible experience at The Oystercatcher on Salt Spring Island, a restaurant in Ganges right onthe water.  I had oysters and chips, and the heavily breaded, squashed flat oysters did not taste fresh (even though they also serve oysters on the half shell), and hello, oysters are part of the name.  Even if they were actually fresh, they just did not taste good.  I couldn't finish the last one (that's how bad they were).  The chips were limp and not crispy (though they had the right colour, so it wasn't about it being underdone as much as it was about technique.  I doubt that they double fry).  And the tartar sauce was bland mayonnaise (not even tasty mayonnaise).  I thought maybe they had mixed up my order and put down mayonnaise instead of tartar sauce, but upon searching carefully, saw some tiny bits in it, and figured that was just what they did for tartar sauce.  The tiny lump of coleslaw was also very bland, but at least edible.  Zero for four!  Or really, zero for five because they had already messed up with a service issue earlier.  I had ordered their "Cauliflower and Brussel Sprouts" starter, and had asked if they were deep fried.  She confirmed and said it was really good.  I've had both deep fried and love that.  And the bitterness of the brussel sprouts would be great balanced by the sweetness of the cauliflower, plus you get the variety of the two veggies (much needed when ordering oysters and chips).  Well, the dish came, and I had to flag down someone to show them that there was only brussel sprouts with no cauliflower.  Both servers didn't know what was going on.  No one mentioned to me that there would only be brussel sprouts (surely the kitchen would have noticed when they made it with only one and they could have passed it along at the very least as it was being presented to me, and much preferably before they made it for me without half of the TWO ingredients).  No one really seemed to want to rectify this in any way, and I pretty much had to ask for discount, and then in the end she still only cut 20% and never apologized!  I had left my phone at the B&B that morning and couldn't google the restaurant as I would normally have beforehand.  I actually had plans to visit one of two others, and got tired and just went to this one as it was close, and looked like a nice place to sit (and am used to having such good experiences at all restaurants on the islands, I wasn't worried about it).  Well, apparently, Salt Spring is now populated enough to have their own crappy restaurant with bad service.  

Funny thing is that I had just had an oyster burger the day before on Pender Island at "The Stand" - a converted Winnebago that sits at the Pender Island Otter Bay Ferry Terminal, and it was fricken' delicious (again, apologies for the half-mauled food photo).  The fries were awesome there too. 

Now before it sounds like Pender Island has all the good food, and Salt Spring doesn't, there were amazing tastes at the Saturday market (including a blackberry blue cheese from Moonstruck Cheeses, yummy Salt Spring preserves, wonderful vinegars, etc.), and I absolutely loved going to visit Salt Spring Cheese Company site, and tasting all the goodies in their shop.  And received amazing service from the lovely women there.  I had the toffee goats' milk gelato (not very goat-y but delicious) and tried a variety of goat cheeses, olives, and spreads.  Decided to buy their truffle, fresh herb and garlic, and the chili goat cheeses and a jar of Salt Spring spicy tomato jam.  I also had really outstanding breakfasts at Armand Heights B&B!  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Café Phin and Pho, on Denman

Oops, sometimes I get excited and start eating before I remember to take a photo.  Normally, I try to spare the public and the restaurant from pictures of my half decimated food.  In this case though, I really wanted to give a shout out to this great little Vietnamese place on Denman Street, at Nelson, called Café Phin and Pho. Their food is really fresh, the flavours are balanced and interesting, and the service is really friendly - they always make me feel welcome.  It is a little counter service place , and is fairly new.  Portions are big, too.  I find it a good sign that their reading material has food magazines.  I've been here several times.  I am so happy to have such a good pho place downtown.   I can even snag free parking out front sometimes if I have my car and am stopping by after 6 pm.  I've had the special beef pho, spring rolls, salad rolls, and the pork belly on vermicelli (served with papaya salad!), and it's all been good.  

Monday, June 09, 2014

Dinner and a Movie Downtown: Kamei Baru, next to ScotiaBank Theatre

Kamei Baru is a great place to grab a bite and drinks before or after a movie at the ScotiaBank Theatre on Burrard St. at .  It has a huge menu of Japanese pub food, with both classic and "fusion" dishes, loads of cocktails, and other drinks.  So many dishes sounded good, I had trouble deciding.  That's one sign of a great menu for me - I actually want to come back to try other things on it.  Even the classic agedashi tofu ($5.50) got a bit of a modern spin, with super thin beet and squash chips on top as a garnish (although I was missing a more aggressive green onion flavour, I appreciated the beauty of the topping, and the generous portion size, as well as the bed of grated daikon, which was not lacking, as it can sometimes be in some cheap sushi places).  The waitress also poured the dashi sauce table side, which I very much appreciated, as I'm always wanting to make sure that the fried batter does not get too soggy in my agedashi tofu.  Prices were quite reasonable in general but I can imagine it adding up quickly if drinking and eating a lot here, depending on what you are ordering.

Another thing that I like about this place is that it is authentically Japanese.  I had oyster motoyaki (delicious and very rich, served in an escargot dish, with a couple slices of baguette), negitoro roll (very nicely done), agedashi tofu, and their special "30 spice" wine curry with pork cutlet, served with rice and shredded cabbage.  I also had their lychee margarita, a blended drink and want to try their signature Earl Grey gin drinks next time.  I even got to sit outside on a nice warm night (they have two two-tops on the sidewalk) but this was a bit marred by being downwind of the occasional smoker outside of the theatre.  Their sandwich board listed Japan's dates for the World Cup and there were many TV screens for sports inside.  Service was pretty good, especially considering that they had to step outside to take care of me.  I hope this restaurant sticks around.  It's at a great convenient spot, and pretty close to Robson St. if you are looking for a place to recharge when shopping too.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Happy 15th, Bistro Pastis!

Bistro Pastis (West 4th Ave. between Arbutus and Yew St. 604-731-5020) is one of my favourite "nicer" restaurants in town.  They consider themselves more casual and cosy than fine dining (having gone from the fine dining version, Pastis to the present day, Bistro Pastis), but the service and food quality stands up to any in town, in my experience.  They are definitely not pretentious, as I have dropped in as a single diner looking for food while on 4th and had outstanding service.  Their meals in my past visits has been both comforting and interesting at the same time, and always delicious.  To celebrate their 15th anniversary and to thank their customers, they are offering 25% off food and house wines from May 15 - June 15.  This is such a great deal, I had to share it with you.  The original press release mentions the deal going to June 8th, but the restaurant sent out an email with June 15th as the end date, so if the discount is important to you, you may want to ask about it when you call for reservations.  Bon appetit!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Missing My Almond Croissant Ritual: La Baguette et L'Echalote Bakery on Granville Island

Getting an almond croissant from the stand alone bakery on Granville Island, then heading over to buy a coffee in the market (JJ Bean), and then heading back outside towards the water to find a sunny spot with a view to relax and observe the scene has been one of my favourite Granville Island rituals for well over a decade.  In fact, I've turned other friends onto this ritual who have now moved away to other cities, and they were so hooked, they continued to go to Granville Island to get their almond croissant and coffee whenever they are in town.  Almond croissants sold out early in the day.  I hadn't been to Granville Island in quite a while, so only just discovered that another bakery has replaced it.  I was visiting at the end of the day, and their almond croissants had also sold out, so I will try to report back later when I've given one a try.

Here is the story told by the owners of La Baguette et L'Echalote Bakery themselves, and although I'm sad that they had to leave Granville Island due to a fire, I was super pleased to find out that at least their products are still available, baked fresh daily and delivered to a number of locations including the Whole Foods a few blocks away from my place. Look for the complete list from the link above.