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!