Monday, April 17, 2017

Dae Bak Bon Ga on Robson St. (Upstairs) for AYCE Korean BBQ

Clockwise from lower left: thick soybean paste sauce (not spicy), sesame oil/pepper/salt dipping sauce, kimchi, vegetable pancake pieces, sweetened potato, spicy pork steak, marinated pork steak, mini bibimbap, long tray of 2 servings each of spicy pork belly and green tea pork belly, japchae.

Soju and orange juice cocktail

This place is actually not bad if you are very hungry and you go for the Happy Hour AYCE BBQ special for $18 between 3-5pm. And if you're not too picky about service. It only includes three types of meat - pork belly, pork, and pork steak. You have a 1.5 hour limit instead of their normal two hour AYCE time limit.

Or if you want more variety (including some torched sushi), or come outside of happy hour times, it would be about $26 for just pork belly and pork, or about $30 including beef and chicken for AYCE. I read some reviews before coming back here, and I remember not really liking the place a long time ago, so I was a bit worried, but I figured it was worth trying with the special. I enjoyed the side dishes. I love japchae, and it had a nice texture. I liked the mini bibimbap (veg on rice), sweetened potatoes, and the fried dumplings. I wasn't into the curry sauce on the rice noodles as much, but that's a new additional side that isn't even on their website yet (spicy cold noodles and fried rice are also new additions).

My main server was gruff and unfriendly-ish, and I couldn't get him to smile back at me no matter how nice and polite and smiling I was. But two other waiters were totally friendly and smiling and didn't act like serving customers was an inconvenience. This main server explained the rules of ordering a bit like I was a criminal waiting to cause trouble, but he did try to explain everything. I had to ask for tea every time my cup was empty (I had 3 cups of tea in addition to the cocktail that I ordered) even when he came to clear dishes right next to where I had put my empty cup, so he wasn't trying to check tea. He did bring things when I asked, but put the tea cup really far away from me when he brought it. He didn't even give me the AYCE menus - I knew to ask for Happy Hour.

Auto gratuity for any group size? Yes, they add on 15%. As reflected in online reviews, this could be really annoying just on principle, especially when your server did not deserve that much (15% is usually for "good" service, and 20% or more for "excellent", and today it was "adequate" service with some issues). It's definitely not the norm in Vancouver (where it is usually used for groups around 6 or more). But functionally, the tip only wound up being a few dollars today, so it didn't bother me, and also because I knew to expect it before going in because I read reviews beforehand. Plus at the end of the meal, when the friendly server (the new one, probably starting the dinner shift) gave me the card machine, he even pointed out to me that the tip was already added so that I didn't need to add on more, which I thought was very good of him.

Expect server customer service skills to vary widely, but there were other servers around to help besides my main server anyway. I know that in Japanese izakaya places, it's part of the culture to ask for things that you need, rather than expecting servers to anticipate your needs and check on you throughout. So if you don't mind catching the attention of servers and asking for what you need explicitly, you will probably be just fine with this place. If you come for dinner time, you could possibly get only the nice server and never encounter the gruff one who was just trying to get the bare minimum done. But at least he wasn't goofing off, and he was working busily and cleared off dirty dishes fairly well, so it wasn't hard to find him, but he was just not really that attentive or pleasant. For example, he ordered me to go pay at the front counter when he saw that I was getting ready to finish, but later, the new server who looked like he was starting his shift came by and checked on me and asked me if I needed anything. He also saw that I was ready for the bill and brought it to me on a little tray (as restaurants do) and then the mobile card machine.

The service will not stop me from coming to this restaurant, and I enjoyed the food and the process of grilling. You get a nice long set of tongs and big scissors to cut your meat. I like the sesame seed with salt and pepper for a dipping sauce, but I was indifferent to the thicker light brown one that I think had a base of bean paste.

Here's my big tip for ordering: make a very small order of meat in the first round to see it first, especially if you are wanting to try all the various marinades available eventually. I ordered too much in the first round, and wound up trying only 4 variations. The server did try to explain the whole "8 pieces" meat limit per order/round thing to me, and assured me that even if I filled up the paper and ordered 4 rounds, that he could just bring me another sheet (one yelp reviewer thought that they would have to stop at 4). He also used the word "pieces." Anyway, I wound up only being able to fit in 1 round. Even though I thought I understood what he was saying, in actuality a "piece" wound up not being a single chunk of meat (even though the ordering sheet said "1 piece" next to each meat item) but an entire order which had at least double the amount I was expecting. So my first round of 8, I wrote down 2 green tea pork belly, 2 spicy pork belly, 2 marinated pork steak and 2 spicy pork steak. The steaks were huge slabs of meat (I thought steak was a descriptor for the type of meat, and it was going to be cut into small pieces, but they were about the size of my palm), and I think I got 3 of each, instead of 2 small bite-size pieces each that I was expecting. I think that there was about 4 pieces of pork belly for each order, giving me 16 thick slices of pork belly in addition to maybe 6 big steaks! And I thought I only ordered eight little bites of meat. You can see all the meat in the photo. I really should have put down 1 for each, and not worried about going up to 8 orders (I was influenced by a review that complained that the limit of eight per round slowed things down, so I thought it was just a little meat each round, but 8 portions was a LOT of meat, and you can order another round right away anyway, so this shouldn't be an issue, and the limit probably helps reduce people accidentally wasting food. I know for a lot of people (especially coming in larger groups) would enjoy the fact that there is so much meat per portion, but I would prefer being able to have more precision and be able to order smaller amounts. .

For the seasonings, while I liked the green tea sprinkled on top of the plain pork belly, the marinated versions (called "marinade and spicy sauce) versions were much more tender, so I would stick with them and not plain pork belly or green tea. The server that brought the meat was going to put the meat down on the grill for me (which is nice service), but I asked to do it myself. I disliked in the past when a server wouldn't let me do that, and insisted on putting all the meat on the grill (I think to save having to clean multiple grills) but this wound up being the main reason I didn't visit for years. I like to cook a little as I go so that it doesn't get cold and not have to watch all the meat (not good at multi-tasking, so it takes away from me trying to enjoy the food) and then we have to rush to pull all the meat off in a fury. This time, when I asked, the server was quite happy to let me take care of it, and I put down one of each type first. Also, I got a clean grill change midway without asking. Not something I really needed, but I appreciated the service.

I recommend this for an AYCE in the area (and there are few left), if you looking for that and to grill your own food specifically. This restaurant also serves set lunch meals, and you can order separate dishes too for lunch or dinner, but I'm not sure how well this restaurant measures up to the other Korean restaurants in the area. With AYCE, you may have lower quality and less interesting flavours in food than a regular restaurant meal, but I personally enjoy having so much variety to choose from, and that you can make up a meal with many little tiny tastes. It feels very free to me to be paying a set price, and choosing whatever combination I like as I go along. I was really in the mood for something like this, and I also considered nearby Shabusen on Burrard (upstairs) which has lots of sushi, Japanese dishes, and several meat choices for the grill, but fewer Korean sides. Shabusen lunch is comparable to this Happy Hour price, with a lunch AYCE at $17.50 every day, but they close at 2:30 pm, and last call for food is 2:15 pm. Or you can have dinner at 5 pm onwards, at $27.95 with even more variety to choose from (including lamb, mussels and shrimp for no extra charge).  But no japchae or sweetened potatoes...or Karaoke, if you're into that. At one point, I thought I heard a child or animal repeatedly wailing in distress far off in the distance (very faintly, not a problem) and realized that it might just be a woman doing karaoke, but cannot confirm that.

I feel like doing this type of meal improves with a tiny bit of experience to develop skills (grilling and ordering), so I will probably give it another go at some point.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fez Café Bistro on Robson

I found delicious North African food in a cosy environment with great hospitality right on Robson St. (at Jervis Street) downtown.  I don't know much about Algerian food, but I loved basically all the dishes that I tried here in two recent visits.  When you walk in, everything about Fez Café Bistro is cozy and comforting - the room has big cushioned benches along the side, North African patterns everywhere, tajines and other decorations, and wonderful multi-coloured lights hanging from the ceiling.  You are also greeted with warmth and a little taste of mint tea right away.  It's been chilly and wet outside for both of my visits, and this was a perfect retreat from the weather.

I don't usually go for vegetarian food, but they had a vegan four-course meal (the appetizer course also included several different items - stuffed grape leaves, salad, three dips) that was really delicious, satifying and to me, a great value at about $30.  I'd gladly take vegetarian friends here.

This was a very nice, vegetable soup.

There is a choice of veggie couscous or veggie tagine in this set meal, and I had the couscous.  I was really taken by how buttery and delicious the vegetables were, even though there wouldn't have been any butter in the dish since it's vegan.  You can have a similar set meal with a choice of a number of meat dishes too (listed in the menu for two people or more), or just order à la carte.

This extra sauce is to add to your couscous dish as you go along.  The toppings are already served on top of your couscous so it is nice to be able to add extra sauce to your liking if you don't like your couscous too soggy.  When you order a tajine instead of couscous, you get a side dish of rice separately and the tajine (clay conical vessel, but also the name for the stew) holds your sauce.  I didn't get a good picture, but they bring the tajine with the conical lid to your table, and then take away the top.  

I was even given a choice of dessert at the end, and more tea with the table d'hôte meal.

On my second recent visit, I tried the bouraka beef and it was delicious and quite substantial.

This chicken tajine was ordered by someone else.  I had a taste, but much preferred my choice, shown below, the couscous royale for more flavour and variety.

The couscous is topped with plenty of veggies and chickpeas, a skewer each of beef, chicken, and two merguez sausages ($24).  I think there may have been another skewer of lamb as well, but I can't remember exactly. At any rate, it was a lot of food (I had some for lunch the next day) and all very tasty.  They give you a gravy boat of more tasty vegetable broth/sauce to add as you go along also.

Our large group got these wonderful tiny baklawa (I think) treats compliments of the house. Dates stuffed with marzipan, and beautiful little date and nut cakes with filo pastry layers on the bottom.

This Fez chocolate date cake was really nice, and was my favourite dessert aside from the baklava. 

I have noticed that it's been somewhat quiet on my visits, especially compared to the ramen shop next door which is super busy all the time.  I do enjoy that type of atmosphere because I find quiet restaurants relaxing, but I really hope that they do well enough to survive.  I think a lot of people around this area downtown aren't as familiar with the food of North African countries, but this place makes it really accessible and it's delightful to try something different.  This particular neighbourhood  of downtown is overrun with bustling ramen shops, so I welcome this unique gem.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

El Camino's on Main St. (at 16th Ave.)

A good Tres Leches cake in Vancouver is hard to find.  This one was delicious and the whole restaurant charmed me when I went to their Oscars viewing party.  They have all sorts of Latin American dishes, lots of tequila, and great servers.  Check out their website.