Monday, November 21, 2016

This Nightingale Needs a Little Nursing...

It's difficult not to have high expectations when you know that David Hawksworth is the owner of this fairly new restaurant.  I had hoped that the mixed reviews were just the result of the operation needing a little "working-out-the-kinks" time.  I figured there could also have been some unreasonable expectations involved.  I figured the negative reviews would act as alarm calls, and the restaurant would scurry about to fix the offending issues.

Well, I think it needs more love.  Here are my impressions of my dinner there.  In short, I wouldn't mind dining there again should an occasion call for it, but I'm not going to be rushing over again for now.  Mostly very tasty food with a couple of misses, mediocre service for this price point, and a pretty room but not terribly cosy on the bottom floor just doesn't add up to justifying the cost for me.

I dined with two other people, and we managed to make a good dent into the menu, sharing all items.

The roasted maitake mushroom with pecorino, brown butter, hazelnut ($12) was one of my favourites.  Fairly simple, but delicious.  Very nutty with the hazelnuts and the browned butter.  I also liked the fact that there were so many vegetable dishes on the menu.  

This cocktail was the Haddonfield ($15...didn't really pay attention to this at the time), and was very pleasant, balanced, and worth having again.  Bourbon, Calvados, PX sherry, green chartreuse, Angostura bitters.

The meatballs ($16 - there were three of them) were a miss.  Specifically, braised meatballs, San Marzano, parmesan, pine nut, basil, chili.  One of us, a meatball aficionado of Italian descent, found it too dry, as if they had been sitting out for too long.  I agreed and I was also disappointed in the weak flavour.  However, the pine nuts included were a good addition.  The sauce was fine otherwise, but not too memorable. 

The grilled Pacific rockfish, fresh ginger, scallion, black pepper ($14) was very tasty, but I couldn't help but think that I could go to a Chinese restaurant and get almost an entire delicious fish with similar flavours for the price of this slice.  I did know going in that this meal was going to be pricey, and this is in the "small" section of the menu, so it wasn't really a surprise, but it was just so similar to a Chinese fish dish, it naturally ignited my Chinese thriftiness.

This Pacific octopus with blistered caper, parsley, fermented child, vinegar ($19) was one of my favourites.  It was meaty, tasty and interesting (mostly because it isn't found like this commonly in restaurant here).

This grilled merguez sausage ($17) was spicy and flavourful, and the baba ghanouj was great with it.  I didn't get a shishito pepper (I think there were two on the plate).  Also, to be honest, I don't remember the mint and only remember the cilantro.  If I could go back in time, I'd keep this dish, but skip the meatballs.

The brussel sprouts, dried plum, chili, chardonnay vinegar was also delicious, and I will try to remember to add sliced prunes the next time I roast brussel sprouts.  I had never had that combination before, and the sweet dried fruit went so well with the brusssel sprouts.

This pizza ($17) was also very nice.  Cooked new potatoes on pizza is great. It also had roasted mushrooms, garlic confit and fontina.  The crust had great texture, with the centre being very thin yet structurally stable, and a nice level of chewiness.

Here we come to dessert, and I've included a photo of the menu because it is not on the website.  Each dessert has a pairing, and so my hopes were high that they were well thought out, and with a chef owner of this calibre, I assumed that going to the effort of putting pairings on their dessert menu indicated that each pair would be remarkable with each other.  I chose the salted caramel pot de crème, whipped crème fraîche, butterscotch, vanilla breton ($12), which was paired with NV Taylor Fledge 20 year old tawny port, douro, prt ($17).  Suffice it to say that when I tried them together, I did not understand why they were paired, and nothing remarkable happened apart or taken together.  The dessert was recommended by my server and it was good, but served too cold for my taste.  I wouldn't bother having the port again, at least not for $17 a glass.  I should have had a cup of coffee but one of my dinner companions did order a coffee and received one that was too cold.

So the best thing about this place was the food.  Some improvements can still be made there - for example, I would suggest re-evaluating those dessert pairings, and look at what's happening with the meatballs. I'm going to assume the pricing will stay the same, and I guess there are plenty of people around that will pay but I would love to see that just slightly lower, even if it was just a bit shaved off the drinks or larger portions for some of the dishes.  The room was quite busy on a Monday night.

The decor is going to attract a lot of customers and you can tell that a lot was invested in this.  It has a very classy updated retro style. But the real work needed here is in the service.  I've only to Hawksworth once, and there were absolutely no issues with service and it was delightful, so one would think that it might be possible to nearly duplicate that at another location even if it is not the same level of fine dining.  Anyway, I get better service at IHOP at a fifth of the price (shout out to the amazing male server at the Broadway location).  The service at Nightengale wasn't terrible.  It was almost fine.  Let's say a near miss.  Certainly nobody kicked a piece of pizza at my foot like the night Alexandra Gill visited (reading that review made me laugh).  They seemed pretty friendly, but this felt more like a mask covering some general indifference.  So to start, unfortunately a couple of people had cancelled on me and I originally had six people which meant that there was (I presume) a six-top saved for me upstairs in the nice part of the restaurant.  I try to be considerate, so I left a message updating the restaurant that we were only going to be a party of four.  They weren't able to pick up and didn't get a chance to check the voicemail, so they weren't aware of this when I arrived (it's not that often that I call a restaurant during service and can't get through, but they were busy so that's not ideal, but not that big a problem).  So then we wind up getting seated at a table for four right in front of the door.  When I expressed my interest in an upstairs table, I was told it was all full.  I had arrived in front of my guests, so I made sure he understood my preference by politely reiterating by mentioning that I'd appreciate a table upstairs if one opens up before my guests arrived.  He mumbled something about if you want an upstairs table, you need to reserve it ahead of time.  Which of course, I had, but I didn't bother with trying to get into an argument with him since we did only have four people. I did get the feeling that it wasn't quite as full up there as he made it seem.  At least we didn't get a high top table, which I had specifically asked to avoid when I made my original reservation.  The person I spoke to and who seated us wasn't going to be our server for the night, so there was that indifference, with what felt like a fake politeness laid on top.

Then later in the evening, we had trouble flagging our server down a couple of times.  She was fairly friendly though.  We didn't have time to get the cold coffee replaced and it was apparent then that it was difficult to get her attention.  I don't think it was comped when it was mentioned either.  The slight indifference could be sensed again, but she did definitely offer to replace it.  There was a lack of warmth in both people I dealt with that evening.  The food in general did come out quickly though.

I did enjoy the meal with my dining companions, and there were definitely some highlights, and the menu itself is exciting and varied.  I would love to see this place improve.  I am not sure how much motivation they will have to do this, as it is already a very popular spot.  I think the food is interesting enough to make the visit worthwhile if you've got the money to burn.  But if you don't, maybe save up a tiny bit more and head to Hawksworth instead if you want a more polished experience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Döner Kebab on 4th is Falafelly Good!

I love the falafel wrap here.  I love it so much that it's one of the few places where I'll gladly eat a vegetarian meal without even being tempted by meat.  They scoop the mix right into the deep fryer after you order, so the falafel balls are hot and crispy.  Then they put ample toppings into the pocket.  However, they do have some seriously good meat dishes too.  Go to a fancier place, like places a few doors down, and how much would you pay for a succulent braised lamb shank dish?  Here, you get a beautiful falling off the bone lamb shank on top of rice, and it's going to be cheap and flavourful.  They also have a simiar braised chicken leg dish that is very good.  I have also tried some of their salads and the homous, and it was all good, so you may prefer a platter rather than a wrap. The people there are nice, and the man that I think is the owner really seems to care about the food.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

House Special Chow Mein

New Town Bakery makes my favourite house special chow mein ($16) in Vancouver.  Everything that you'd normally want is on there including squid, chicken, barbecue pork, bok choy, prawns, onions, plus extra goodies like fish balls (halved), liver, pigs ear, and Chinese mushrooms (in other words, they don't cheap out with button mushrooms).  Everything is perfectly cooked and extremely tender.  The prawns are plump, too.  They ask if you prefer the noodles soft or crispy, so you will get lots of nice crispy edges if you are like me, and like the noodles pan-fried.  I always pick up some Chinese buns/pastries while I'm there and some of them are half price at the end of the day.  Also, servers are friendly to everyone and will speak English with you without judgement.  There are plenty of other choices on the menu, and they are open for breakfast too (with Chinese style and Hong Kong Western style breakfast menus).  But I think it's hard to find a good house special chow mein right in Vancouver, and they do a great job with this dish.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fatty Papa!

I've been wanting to try this newish okonimiyaki place on Robson with a great name.  I'm enjoying my original style okonomiyaki ($8.50, chicken, bacon, and seafood versions are also available) plus an add-on of soba noodles.  I combo'd up with a fresh watermelon milk slush for $3.50 more.  The slush was delicious but watermelon is seasonal so it might not be available much longer this season.  The okonomiyaki was good.  It was not Hiroshima style so the soba was not crisped up on the grill and incorporated in it, but was still a great addition sitting on top.  The restaurant also has other homey dishes like omurice (fluffy rice filled omelette), curries, noodles in soup, and gyoza.  Casual bright room with simple and clean decor, so it may not look it, but it does have full service.  Hope it's here to stay.  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Neverland Tea Salon

I don't really need to say too much about this place.  It's fantastic.  Most importantly, the food and tea was top notch.  Both the savoury little sandwiches and the baked goods are ridiculously good at Neverland Tea Salon (on Broadway between Balaclava and Carnarvon).  You can see the menu for the high tea pictured.  All of the pastries and finger sandwiches are creative, flavourful, and unexpectedly pleasing, and include multiple textures and flavour components to go that extra mile - like the little bit of delightful crunch under the malted chocolate mousse cake.  I've been there a couple of times now, and they change the items up a bit, but it's all been delicious.  They even let you choose different teas when you finish a pot, and I had their Earl Grey, and their signature Take Me To Neverland chocolate and peppermint scented black tea blend.  I love the Neverland theme, and while this may attract clientele with children, everyone seemed well behaved when I visited.  The tea cups and flatware are great.

I think service can be somewhat improved, depending on which server you get.  Also, they seem to freak out a bit when you arrive an hour before closing which was plenty of time for me personally in that instance, but they basically close the kitchen then, so be prepared for them to sound a bit on edge if you come in just before that time.  I also had the servers ignore me for quite a few minutes after I walked in, so it would have really been disappointing had they not let me have afternoon tea.  This is where they could do with some improvement, by the way.  Some servers are really not that friendly and welcoming (luckily for the first visit, I had a remarkably competent young man with excellent customer service skills that left me with a very positive impression, which led me to wanting to come back).  They do stay open quite late for an afternoon tea place, which is quite nice - on weekends, they "close at 7 pm," but really, keep in mind that this means 6 pm.  They also have cocktails, which I haven't tried yet.

My favourite high tea place in the past has been The Secret Garden Tea Co. off W. 41st, with warm and friendly service everytime, a prettier and daintier room (less shabby chic) and delicious food and tea, and prettier pastries, but only 3 types of sandwiches.  Neverland is a strong contender.  You get more variety with five types of finger sandwiches, plus a mega scone.  You get more opportunity to have a variety of teas at Neverland too.  Pricing is the same for high tea.  And perhaps it's due to my foggy memory, but I feel like the flavours are more exciting at Neverland, but I do remember that everything was absolutely delicious at The Secret Garden as well.  Anyhow, try both.  They're both good.  And it's fun to go to different settings.

I've also enjoyed the afternoon tea at Bacchus Restaurant and Lounge at the Wedgewood Hotel, which is only available Saturday and Sunday between 2 - 4 pm.  But it did have less creative flavours, and was more expensive, but it came with amazing service and is set in a beautiful richly decorated room filled with cushy velvet covered chairs and dark wood.  I only went once, and was very impressed by our very kind, very dignified butler-like server.  But I have received much colder service for drinks in the early evening (perhaps because everyone else was in their lawyer suits from the courthouse, and I was dressed very casually) so I can't be sure that the service is consistent for afternoon tea.

For me, high tea makes me feel civilized, pampered, and indulgently girly, and is the perfect antidote to a grubby, "go-go-go" week of work.  It's like the meal version of a long meandering stroll versus what sometimes feels like sprinting through a muddy obstacle course.  Just a note though, that while high tea can be very girly (I have organized a big bridal shower high tea, for example), men have definitely enjoyed the experience with me too, so it doesn't have to be for just the girls.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016


Great Meatloaf Burger Special

Timber is the more casual, straight forward, sporty, younger sister to Forage! and right next door.   It's a comfortable gastropub or bar and grill with great windows to watch some of the Robson pedestrian traffic (on the quieter west end of Robson) and high food standards that match the good quality at big sis' (Chef Chris Whittaker at the helm for this one too).   It's still easy to spend a lot of money on her though, as with similar bar and grill type places.  The menu choices feel a bit limited to me, but what I had was very good.  
Good Caesar
Bad (But Fun) Caesar
The Caesar salad, though small in size, was so tasty.  Best thing I had there.  I was wishing I had twice the amount for $12, but it had style - herring dressing, jowl bacon, fried garlic, bannock croutons, and nice big flakes of parmesan.  The meatloaf burger wrapped in bacon pictured above was really delicious ($16, served with house-made potato chips that I wasn't crazy about, but the server let me choose fries as the side dish, and I accidentally in the end received both which was nice of them).  I think it should be a regular menu item.  Even the pretzel style bun was soft and enjoyable.  The fries were fine.  and was served with what I'm guessing was a house made "ketchup" - it was tangy with a fresh tomato (rather than cooked tomato) flavour.  It was fun to have something different, but I would enjoy regular bottled ketchup just as much.  Interestingly, it went much better with their potato chips than their fries.  

I wasn't so much a fan of the Caesar cocktail though.  They have some fun Caesar's and I tried one with their (I think house made) pepperoni and a great, dramatic chicharron (best part).  Very smokey flavour and made with tequila (I love tequila) and honestly didn't like the drink that much but I'm not a really huge fan of Caesar's but enjoy them when I'm in the mood.  It was just too much - too smokey, too intense, too spicy (not in terms of heat) and just didn't feel balanced to me, but people who order Caesar's regularly might enjoy it.  But I had a really nice glass of zinfandel (Joel Gott) there which made up for it.  

They also have a whiskey flight and for $19, it was worth trying once, and I was in the mood for sipping scotch.  I enjoyed the Balvenie Doublewood the most, which had a powerful and pleasant nose.  Didn't like the harshness of the Canadian Lot 40 Single Copper Pot Still, but added a few drops of water to mellow it out a bit.  The Lavagulin was a good for contrast, with its intense smokey peaty characters, but not necessarily something that I would make a point of ordering on its own.  Their cocktails and wines are around the $8 or more range, so this was a good deal but in the end I only really liked the middle one.

I like this place - it's not too crowded, and has a relaxed feel, the servers are really friendly and know what they're doing (another benefit of being run by the same people as the more upscale restaurant next door).  And it's Canadiana themed which makes a lot of sense for the hotel and the tourist traffic in the area (but not a problem for a resident of the neighbourhood like me).  For example, I really like the seating upholstered in Canada Post bags - who knew those bags were so comfy to sit on?  Well, the interior designer of the space, I guess!   The mascots of the place are a taxidermied beaver and Canada goose.  There are TV screens everywhere for sports if you are looking for a place to watch the game, and they have Supper and Cask events.  It's not the regular neighbourhood hang out place I was hoping for (cost, menu choices) but I really enjoyed it the two times I visited.  It's a good addition to the area, and I think it will attract more walk-in customers than Forage! simply because of the windows and open look, even though Forage also has a similar casual aesthetic and style (but with more of an obvious theme of locally sourced sustainable products.  Timber benefits from those sources, but is just themed more on Canadiana).

Just a note that it's spelled Timber, not to be confused with Timbre on Commercial Drive, which I have not tried.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Little Almond Croissant Joy at Faubourg on Hornby

This almond croissant was delicious - light, flaky and with a beautiful, refined almond filling.  Somehow I never really paid attention to the Faubourg on Hornby St. (between Robson and Georgia) until recently even though it opened in August 2013.  I had visited the one on 4th ages ago, and loved it, but just never found myself in the area needing coffee and pastries very often.  I'm so glad to have "rediscovered" the downtown location now for many reasons.

1.  I love almond croissants and I still miss the old version of the stand alone bakery at Granville Island (La Baguette et l'echalote) where their almond croissant used to be the centre of Granville Island...for me, at least.  It was maybe not the actual geographical centre, but what everything else at Granville Island revolved around.  You had to get them before they ran out, often by early afternoon).

2.  The drip coffee that I bought with this croissant was fantastic!  So smooth, and very sweet and rich.

3.  I seem to find myself wanting a nice coffee and or snack in that area often.  Plus, I sometimes take classes at UBC Robson Square and it's great to be able to get a coffee to make sure I stay lively during class.

4.  I have been trying to avoid the Caffe Artigiano next door.  Not because of their coffee, which I quite like, but because the service that I've experienced there has been rude and weird on multiple occasions, which is saying a lot considering an interaction is typically only a few minutes long at the counter.  Most people need to work pretty hard to annoy a customer within the span of a few minutes.  May sound like I'm being picky, but I will point out that another local coffee chain, JJ Bean, in whatever they are doing in their hiring/training/management of their staff seem to be able to deliver a pretty consistently friendly (and generally efficient) style of service across several locations in just as busy times and neighbourhoods).  And they finally got on board with the free wifi thing after resisting the idea for a long time to try to nurture a different culture at their cafés.  But JJ Bean does a twice baked almond croissant (which is a way to take "stale" croissants and re-purpose them).  And I can't remember whether Artigianno has almond croissants, but if they do, they certainly wouldn't be as good the Faubourg's.

5.  Service at Faubourg (granted it was only one visit) was both very friendly and efficient.

6.  They have an enticing array of other baked goods, including bread, macarons, and beautiful fancy dessert pastries.  I just noticed on their website that they even do a little assorted box of pastries which I think could be a delightful treat if you're having some guests over for tea (small box has 8 pastries for $16).  They also have sandwiches, soups, salads, and quiche!

7.  The place looks really nice as a place to sit and have your treats there and chit chat.  I didn't in my case, but I will in the future.  I would even say it might be a nice choice for a coffee date, since it was not too loud/hectic, seems to have a good amount of seating, easy to get to and find, looks pretty and sophisticated (like you're making an effort and have taste if you suggest this one versus a Starbucks), and has great coffee/food.  And as suggested on their website, you can pretend it's a little escape to a Paris Café without leaving town.

8.  There's outdoor seating!

Hopefully they are consistent.  I will need to investigate further, hehe.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sure As Shuruku

I was taking a course at Robson Square and visited Shuruku on Granville Street just off Robson twice, a week apart for my hour long lunch breaks and they got me out of there quickly in time including walking time.  I had great service (some servers nicer than others but everyone very efficient), and I was well fed for the afternoon hours with a great lunch box set.  The one pictured above included pork back ribs which were not super tender, but very tasty and served on a layer of bean sprouts.  They were not glazed like the pictures of their dinner time signature pick ribs.  The next time, I chose the same type of box but with beef short ribs - a bit awkward to gnaw on for me, but tasty.  The tempera was really nice and light and it was a lot of food.  I like the green beans in the gomaae.  I've been to this restaurant several times for dinner and even to a sake tasting event too (they bring in stuff from Japan that you wouldn't be able to buy in the BC liquor stores) but it's nice to know that they can do a good week day lunch.  Not cheap (around $15.95), but good.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Buffet Confessions

Adorable breakfast pastry islands at Oru (at the Fairmont Pacific Rim)

As always, the siren song of "AYCE" is much more enticing than the reality of the meal.  As much as I know this, I still answer the call and enjoy myself at buffets.  I confess to going to the little buffet in the Grand Villa Casino in Burnaby.  As casino buffets go, this one is tiny both in square footage and in number of selections, but it is also a bit cheaper.  Dinner is $19, and if you get a loyalty card for 10% off, it's $17.10 plus tip (seniors have a bigger discount).  Things can be a bit hit and miss, but I think it's still a pretty good deal - I can enjoy a reasonable roast beef dinner with any combination of salad, soup, a couple of Chinese dishes, a few other meat and pasta dishes, bottomless pop (they have one of those 100 flavours machines), bottomless tea/coffee, and dessert.  I've been a few times now, and service has always been excellent, with very prompt dish clearing to keep things feeling clean and dignified.  Online criticisms include a limited dessert selection, so know that there are usually only a few choices there, but they do have a soft serve machine and fruit salad.  By the time I get to dessert, just a few options is plenty for me.  And in general, for me, there gets to be a point where having more options just means more things that I can't try because I don't have any room.  I prefer this little one to the larger, more expensive buffet at the River Rock Casino in Richmond.

I have another confession to make.  I am a hotel breakfast buffet fiend.  When I travel, I love staying at a hotel with a buffet where I can leisurely wake up with coffee and hot breakfast items.  I will even splurge ocassionally and visit them here in town for no particular reason.  While it's a bit of a monetary and caloric splurge, it makes for a nice lazy weekend treat.  Plus I usually skip lunch afterwards.  My favourites in downtown Vancouver are Currents at the Westin Bayshore (in Coal Harbour) and Oru at the Fairmont Pacific Rim.   I prefer the Westin Bayshore, with its relaxing atmosphere, ample newspapers, giant windows making the space light and airy, and great selection of items in their "super foods" buffet.  Everything that I've had there has been tasty.  It is $28 including coffee and juice, and they usually have little smoothies out in shot glasses too. You can order from your server made to order eggs/omelette/waffles/pancake whereas at Oru there's an omelette station where I've had to wait in a bit of a line on a busy holiday weekend (but I probably could have asked the server now that I'm thinking of it).  The food quality is very high at Oru, but it is more expensive.  Breakfast on weekdays is $36 and "brunch" on weekends is $38.  Both places have exceptional service.  I would rate both higher than the buffets at the Hotel Vancouver and Hyatt, but bear in mind that Oru is more expensive than both of these.  There's a new Cora opening on Robson Street, so it may be a while before I check out any other breakfast buffets.

I have always been too scared to go to Uncle Willy's near Metrotown, but I have been told that I should try it because of the fried chicken.  I know I won't be proud of that one either, but I might as well give it a go one of these days (and confess afterwards, of course).