Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi – Calgary, AB

With the relatively well received post (in terms of our internal hit counter) on ramen, I thought I’d take our readers on a nostalgic jog down memory lane to the location of my first North American exposure to this Japanese noodle-in-soup dish, at a place called Shijiki.

But before going there, let’s step back a bit further, to my childhood. Ramen as I knew it then was the plastic wrapped, fried slab of noodles that came with a small packet of salty powdered soup mix, that you had to cook in hot water, adding in your choice of toppings such as cooked ham and veggies. At least that’s how it was in our house. The brand of choice was the Demai-Ichi. Shoyu (soy sauce) was the only soup flavoring I knew. I didn’t think much of it, until the one time I went to a neighbor’s house and I saw them eating instant noodles like this but without the soup, and the packet of soup mix being used as a dry dusting over top of the cooked noodles on a plate, to give it “flavor”. Suffice it to say, I was shocked. But still, I was in no position to say how great these noodles really were, even when made as per the instructions. As after all, it is “just flour and water”.

Fast forward to college. It was in the early part of winter in the years just before the global Y2K worries. The Liberals seemed invincible with Jean Chrétien as Canada’s PM, the price of regular gasoline was hovering at around 45 cents per litre, and I can remember thinking my recently acquired Pentium II-powered computer was the fastest thing I had ever seen. Oh how times have changed. And for the good… well, mostly for the good. Returning to my narrative of my fateful first experience with ramen in a proper shop. I was hanging out with some exchange student friends of mine from Japan at the university. They suggested a day trip down to Banff, that tourist hot spot better known for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Being that none of us were into those particular winter sports, my bewildered mind posed a question…

“Why should we go down there?”
Their reply, “to eat ramen”.
“Ramen?”, I said, “they actually have that there and its not the instant kind I can make at home?”
“Yeah, its just like you can get in Japan.”

Well, that was enough for me and the four of us crammed ourselves in my two door sports car and made the drive down from Alberta’s capital city. The journey took almost five hours on not-so-great roads and we made it there just before the lunch hour. Pulling up in front of what is known as the Clock Tower Mall on Banff Avenue (the main strip that juts its way through the heart of this town), we piled out and I was led inside by my pals. Towards the back of the first floor space, was a tiny restaurant that was partitioned off by glass panels (today, it houses the Pad Thai Restaurant). Immediately inside the entrance was a small open window leading into the kitchen, with some short curtains hanging on them to prevent a clear view inside. A head popped out with a bandanna wrapped around it, and a man bellowed out “welcome” in Japanese. My friends had obviously come here before, as they immediately recognized each other. Leaving it up to them to order, they did just that and we soon squatted down as one of the open tables inside.

A short while later out came the steaming bowls of ramen. My friend had gotten me a Shio (salt) based broth, with lots of toppings. I immediately recognized the Cha-shu, but my experience at that time just associated it with Chinatown and the big slabs of barbecued pork, and I did not expect to see it as one of the toppings. I was by no means complaining though, as it was quite tasty. The noodles to me were obviously not the same instant noodles I had had all these years. I remember drinking down the entire bowl of soup while madly slurping up the noodles. I was in heaven. Knowing that we wouldn’t be making this a regular occurrence, after a few hours of checking out the town site, we came back and had another bowl before we made the long drive back. I was forever grateful to my friends for letting me know that there was something like this in Alberta, albeit not a place I could visit regularly, even with it barely costing twenty dollars to fill up my gas tank in those days.

Shikiji, had found a place in my heart.

Jumping back into Doc Brown’s DeLorean again, this time adjusting the flux capacitor and setting the date box to circa 2004. I had learned that Shikiji had moved to its current Calgary location in the early part of this decade after a landlord situation and a better economic climate in the bigger city drew the owners out from the confines of Banff. By now, Shikiji had established a name for itself predominantly within the ex-pat Japanese community and Japanese tourists in this picturesque town, but was looking for a more regular and wider customer base. The owner/chef, a stern looking but kindhearted gentleman originally from Akita prefecture in northern Japan runs the show. His son is often seen there as a server. Numerous articles adorn the wall, showing that the media has caught wind of this place amid the growing Japanese restaurant scene in this oil town.

The menu is now much more diverse, now including space for a sushi bar, and other popular cooked dishes coming out of a much bigger kitchen. I won’t comment on that here, though I’ve had many items from the menu and came away without complaint.

Instead, I want to revisit the ramen offering.

Perhaps its because I am older, have a better understanding of ramen after time spent traveling to Japan to eat the “real deal”, or my memories have a halo hanging over them, but this dish is clearly not the same as I remember it being in terms of my satisfaction. I had the Shio Ramen again, which comes with toppings such as green onions, wakame, the unorthodox Bok Choi, and slice or two of Cha-shu; price is $10.60. They also provide a small Japanese grinding bowl to break up some sesame seeds, to put into the soup as well. The noodles are a slightly thicker straight variety, with decent texture/consistency. With Shio soups, I am not as concerned with it being crinkly to pick up the soup, as its not as thick as compared to say a Tonkotsu or Miso broth. The soup is average, but nothing to write home about. There is not a great depth to the flavor profile of the liquid, and I can tell its simply made from just a basic chicken stock.

But for Alberta, having to deal with a lower skill level/understanding in making ramen soup and poor availability in getting authentic noodles, and despite being made in a Japanese-run restaurant, this is probably as good as you are going to get. Trust me, there are are much more horrible ramen impostors in Alberta – The Tokyo Noodle Shop in Edmonton comes to mind. That place should be ordered to take that off the menu!

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi
1608 Centre St. N.E.
Calgary, AB
Tel: 403-520-0093
Hours: Mon/Wed-Fri, 11:30am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9pm; Sat, 11:30am to 3pm, 5pm to 9pm; Closed Tue & Sun

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi on Urbanspoon

West Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

West Restaurant
18 2881 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC V6H 3J4
(604) 738-8938

For every city, foodies usually have their recommended standbys. You know what i’m talking about – the restaurants they all recommend en masse. In my experience, many people make these recommendations having never patronized the restaurant. They’ve heard that the restaurant was great, so they suggest it to others. More often than not, the restaurant doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. Occasionally, a restaurant actually lives up to that reputation. Among the serious and the not so serious, West has a sterling reputation for delivering top quality food in Vancouver.

My last visit to West came post-David Hawksworth, who had been replaced by Chef Warren Geraghty. With sous-chef Stephanie Noel staying on, most people did not expect a drop off in quality. There was some trepidation, though reports were that the food was as innovative, fresh, and flavourful as always.

I had a reservation for a Friday night. Our reservation at 7:30pm  meant there was still light out, and the room was brightly lit with natural light, and very comfortable. I wish I had more interior design experience to be able to describe a room as more than “hip, casual-chic, trendy and modern”, but what can I say, I learned everything I know about design from television. I liked the room though – clean and crisp whites along with natural materials- leather and wood. It was comfortable in the sense that you did not feel out of place in jeans and a shirt. Definitely my kind of place.

In order to get the best possible breadth of “West”coast experience, we opted for the West tasting menu, which rang in at a reasonable $98. Measuring 7 courses, plus an amuse and petit fours, it seemed like excellent value for a restaurant of this quality.

However, the amuse definitely started me on the wrong foot. They brought it out, and the first thing i saw was…foam. Oh word, how i hate foam. I have nothing more to say about this.

The timing for my visit to Vancouver had to do with several factors, one of which was it was Spot Prawn season. I was looking forward to West’s take on Spot Prawn ceviche, as i feel ceviche is an excellent way to highlight the sweetness and freshness of seafood, without the overpowering “ocean” taste that many people find offputting. The dish was served with asparagus and saffron chilled tagliatelle, a potentially interesting flavour combination. Unfortunately, i was extremely disappointed with this dish. The prawns werent sweet, but milky. There was almost no acidity with the ceivche, a cardinal sin in my mind. They were completely bland. There was no hint of saffron, and the asparagus were more after thoughts than anything actually incorporated into the concept of the dish. A thorough failure.

The second course was smoked veal tongue, with pecorino and salad. I love tongue, so this was definitely a dish I was looking forward to. Impeccably presented, shaved pecorino brought an extra dimension. The texture itself was actually very different than other tongue dishes i’ve had, which was actually quite fascinating. However, the entire dish was under seasoned. Even taking bites of tongue with pecorino, there wasnt enough saltiness to draw out the flavours of the smoke and the tongue. The citrus puree, which i assume was meant to use some acidity to balance out the dish, was flat. All in all, another disappointment.

After a third dish that was disappointing (a tian of crab, couscous, and smoked tomato gazpacho), a server asked how we were enjoying things. When I expressed my disappointment, a manager was called over immediately. She asked me what issues I’d had, and I went through a (likely unnecessary, overly descriptive) rundown of my issues with each dish thus far. My dining companion, and the manager, both looked a bit shocked, but she asked if I was “in the industry”? I gave her a non-committal answer, since the question was irrelevant, and really shouldn’t have any bearing on the quality of food or service you receive. She promised to relay our feedback to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, things improved drastically from this point forwards.

The next dish was my favorite of the evening – a phenomenal piece of halibut that was perfectly cooked. Topped with clams and mussels, served with a spinach sauce on a watercress and potato salad, it was a perfect blend of fresh ocean flavour that paired well with the richness of the halibut. This dish, a regular menu item i believe, was a winner.

The last entree of the night was partridge breast with braised artichokes and rhubarb jus. Cooked a bit more than my liking, the dish was still a well-executed combination. The tartness of the rhubarb went fantastically well with the patridge. I know that rhubarb and artichokes aren’t part of a partridge’s normal diet, but i could certainly imagine them being so!

Things finished up with an average cheese course, a good dessert, and amazing petits-fours – so good, that we asked for, and received seconds. Total bill, with some wine and gratuity, was roughly $400.

I’m sure expectations played a big part in how I felt about my meal – with very high expectations, the meal definitely started as a disapointment. While it finished on a strong note, I have to say, at the price paid, I certainly did expect better. One should not walk out of a top restaurant thinking they had a “ok” experience. The concepts were all fundamentally sound, but under seasoning, or insufficient acidity are simple errors that could’ve been easily fixed by tasting what they were serving. To me, these are not errors that a top restaurant make at the top their game. Either they were having a bad night, or they have gotten a little bit sloppy based on their sterling reputation. Regardless, I expect better from a chef and a restaurant. The service, and wine program are impeccable – and I would definitely go back to order the halibut. But in terms of this experience at West, chalk it up to another fine dining experience that didn’t meet my expectations.

West Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sushi Vancouver – Vancouver, BC

The name alone should tell you something about this place. Much like all the pizzerias (or “pizza parlors” as our friends south of the border are apt to call them) that try to outdo their rivals by putting a series of letter A’s onto the beginning of their business name in an attempt to get to the front of the line when it comes to the Yellow Pages, the generically named Sushi Vancouver is just trying to get noticed. After a pair of visits, I can confirm now that unfortunately, I think it will be for all the wrong reasons.

My latest visit was on a Sunday, typically a day when most Japanese restaurants, and a lot of others, close their doors for a day of rest. Having a craving for some sushi though, this did not deter me, and hence, my stop at Sushi Vancouver after seeing their open sign up. My first take out meal there a few months back when they first opened did not leave me with a memorable impression. I figured, it was worth giving another try to see if anything had changed, with the expectation that this is just a grab-and-dash sushi establishment.  Quite frankly, my determination to grab some sushi could have led me to just about any open door that was serving this up on this day. I know, I must learn to be more selective and know when to put a stop to my tunnel vision, as I’ve been hurt more times than I care to count.

For a multi-person sharing order, my choices were made from nigiri (hand-formed sushi) choices, two here, four there, etc. These ranged from the low end of 99 cents each for the shake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and tamago (egg) to the $1.60 for the ikura (salmon roe). By the way, the most expensive nigiri on the menu is the mirugai (geoduck clam) at $3.  In total, I think I had just over thirty individual pieces.

The restaurant itself was empty, as it was the first time I had walked inside.  Placing the order was relatively pain free as it was just giving some numbers to each piece.  Since the man behind the counter was obviously the same person who would be making it, was looking for some work to do, I figured he’s be snappy about it and get right on it.  Guess again.

From talking to his wait staff, to playing with his kid behind the bar, opening up this container and that, and searching for things in the refrigerator, I am not sure if he was truly interested in making my meal or was just treating the thing as a bothersome task.  With some loud Chinese ballad playing over the speakers, he then proceeded to start singing as if he were alone in the shower, which broke the last straw of my patience.  With his back to me the entire time, I began to really get worried about what exactly he was doing.  His arm movements suggested that he was not really smooth with creating the nigiri, each action a painfully, slow step.  The rhythmic motion of creating the shari (rice ball) and placing the cut piece of neta (topping) on top and forming the nigiri, I just couldn’t see him doing naturally.  Part of me thinks the way he has set up his counter, not allowing customers to openly see his working style, suggests that he is lacking confidence in his abilities.

After what was about a forty-five minute agonizing wait, during which time no other customers came inside, I was finally given my order to go.  The bad taste that was left in my mouth after this brutal service experience, made me wonder if I would have the appetite to eat my portion of this meal.

First glance, things did not “look” horribly bad.  Until I got to the toro (fatty tuna) pieces.  Some strange red strings were hanging from the fish slices from some of the nigiri.  It looked like thin blood veins to me.  Shocking to see this, as one piece was just covered/embedded with them.  How the so-called chef could serve these kinds of pieces to a paying customer is beyond me.  To add to my dismay, the rice was so compactly formed with each piece, that it took an extra effort to chew through.  I really dislike it when sushi’s rice is so hard that it might as well been pressed down in a work worker’s vice.  The rest of the toppings were unremarkable, just average to slightly bad.

The only saving grace was the relatively generous amounts of tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura.

My fellow diners to whom I brought these boxes of “sushi” gave me enough dirty looks to ensure that I won’t be going back ever again.

Sushi Vancouver
3416 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (778) 371 1337
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am to 10pm; Sun, 12pm to 9:30pm

Sushi Vancouver on Urbanspoon

Dunbar Pizza and Grill – Vancouver, BC

Dunbar Pizza & Grill
3348 Dunbar Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 732-4999
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11am to 11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am to midnight; Sun, 4pm to 11pm
Delivery: Free within 7 kms on orders over $20; 7% off on pickup orders over $20

Sometimes the cultural mosaic that makes up this great nation of Canada brings with it some interesting and eye-catching combinations, especially when it pertains to food, and at times must surely be seen as blasphemy back in the native countries where the cuisine originates. Sure, there are the occasional experiments with fusion cuisine that often marries two opposing styles of cultural techniques and ingredients (East meets West, Ming Tsai-style comes to mind here) into a single restaurant entity. At other times, it is a primitive headbutt of cuisines that arises, presumably due to the hand-off of a food serving establishment to an entirely different person of another cultural background who then has the difficult task of having to maintain the original theme of the business to retain the existing client base, but who also wants to implant their own mark on their new found enterprise by injecting some of their own cooking methods and food knowledge.

I found a great example of this recently in the Dunbar neighborhood of Vancouver. A very homey, somewhat eclectic street (but no where near the level of say Vancouver’s Main Street or Commercial Drive), that flies under the radar for most of the city’s residents, is home to several restaurants with most of them being of the casual variety. With a relatively close proximity to the University of British Columbia campus, I am sure the numerous pizza, coffee and pubs that abound, make for some convenient pickings for students on the evening prowl. Just off the corner from 16th Avenue turning onto Dunbar, I immediately spotted two pizza joints. Having no idea which one was better, I simply went with the one that was easier to park nearby and I could see someone inside of. Through this unscientific decision process, Dunbar Pizza & Grill was the selection on this night.

Returning to the culinary crisscross that I was describing earlier, this place which first appeared to be specializing in only pizza, had a twist. The generic menu board posted on the wall inside clearly showed that samosas, roti, and curries were available as well. How strange I thought, until seeing the Indian proprietor behind the counter. A friendly chap, who seemed to be enjoying his television program on the nearby set, while another employee was gathering some boxes for an apparent delivery order. Small, medium, and large pizza pies could be had with any three toppings for $9.99, $11.99, and $13.99, respectively. As well, sixteen signature pizza options were listed as well.

Here’s where I thought I’d take a chance. A mix between an Italian and Indian place all in one was too much to pass up. As such, the Tandoori Chicken Special Pizza was my call; with part of me even thinking of by-passing pizza all together and going all-Indian with a Lamb Vindaloo or a Daal Amrtisari. It took maybe 15-20 minutes before it was ready to take home, and upon opening the box, I must say it didn’t look too bad. A good spread of toppings such as green peppers and onions, with pieces of the chicken peaking out from beneath the layer of cheese, and finished off with slices of fresh tomatoes.

Taking a slice out and examining the cross section, it was neither too think or too thin a base either. The edge crust was just fine as well, nice and crispy but not overly so. Taking a bite, all the flavors envisioned from the toppings were there, although the anticipated taste of the tanodoori chicken was not there. I was expecting much more stronger flavors in the chunks of meat. Could it have been a poor tandoori to begin with, or not a suitable topping for pizza and got masked by the cooking process in the oven or blanketed by the cheese too much, I am not fully sure. Lastly, I felt that the bottom base of the pizza was a bit overcooked for my liking. It had that slightly brittle consistency that is a clear sign it was in the oven for a few minutes too long.

So I’d say this particular experiment of melding two cuisines was not a rousing success. Frankly, the tandoori chicken could have just been chunks of regular chicken breast meat. For all the anticipation I had built up in my own mind as to what this match up would be like, I felt left down. It’s all my fault though. I clearly got overly excited with my imagination. Now if they had swapped out the tomato sauce for say a curry flavored paste, etc. then perhaps it would have really been something I’d never had before. I’ll try not to let my imagination get the best of me, the next time I see a culinary cultural collision such as this one at Dunbar Pizza & Grill.

Dunbar Pizza & Grill on Urbanspoon

Blink Restaurant and Bar – Calgary, AB

Blink Restaurant and Bar
111 8 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2P 1B4
(403) 263-5330

Restaurants don’t often get second chances. But sometimes a little luck, and the power of a strong review, can help save a restaurant doomed for failure. For Blink, they started off as a “Supper Club”. This restaurant/club combination was extremely trendy a few years ago, but never really took off here in Calgary. Generally speaking, it ended up being the worst of both worlds – a space not totally suited to being a club, and a place not really executing perfectly as a restaurant. With tepids reviews and scathing remarks about the service, it looked to be another in the long line of restaurant failures in Calgary. However, a new chef (Andrew Richardson from Araxi), a format change to strictly a restaurant, and an enRoute award as number nine top new restaurant in Canada in 2007 managed to get things back on track. From Supper Club to a focus on fresh local ingredients, Blink, perilously close to failure, managed to get back into the collective consciousness of Calgary diners.

The space was always very nice – hip, modern, yet fairly cozy. I find it doesn’t have the same noise issues that Divino has – where it is very difficult to hear someone sitting across from you. Of course, it’s never as busy as Divino either (which shares a similar layout…long and skinny), so that may have something to do with it. However, i’ve been comfortable there in a suit, and in jeans and a shirt. It’s a fairly versatile space.

One of the biggest complaints regarding Blink’s original concept was the service – and I’m pleased to announce that these issues have been fixed. Blink was initially lambasted for its poor service and terrible attention to detail, but the new chef has brought a much more professional attitude to the table. Service was efficient, friendly, and thoughtful, though a tad slow sometimes. We were, for example, discretely moved away from our table by our server after we mentioned we were a bit bothered by the lady who had bathed in here Chanel No 5 before coming to dine, with our companions at the next table none the wiser – an impressive feat. He thought we’d appreciate a “window view”…far far away from the lady in question.

Anyway, enough about my scent aversion, let’s talk food. Falling into what sadly constitutes middle of the road pricing, Blink offers some creative, high-end cuisine at much more reasonable prices than many other counterparts in town. On the given evening, I owed a friend dinner, so we splashed out a bit more than we normally would. A soup, 2 appetizers, and 2 entrees qualified as our meal. A lot of food, but an excellent way to sample a variety of things.

The soup was a seasonal soup ($9), which happened to be cream of corn (peaches and cream) with pancetta and some chive oil emulsification. The corn was sweet, and had been well strained, so you didnt end up with those annoying bits of kernel stuck between your teeth. The pancetta added the right amount of fattiness and flavour, resulting in great, balanced taste.

We ordered yellow fin tuna tartare ($13.50) as well, which was a decent sized serving of fresh tuna, and a heaping bowl of fresh fried potato chips. The tuna, while fresh, wasn’t properly balanced. Well-seasoned, it nevertheless lacked the requisite amount of acidity needed to balance out the dish. It tasted a tad too oily, especially on the chips, and failed to bring out the freshness of the fish itself.

The twice baked souffle ($12) on the other hand was fantastic, though a bit richer than my personal preference. It was an excellent dish to share though. Made of white grace cheese, it was fluffy, yet full bodied, but played well with the walnut and frisee salad that accompainied the dish. A triumph in harmony and flavour.

Our entrees followed with a reasonable pause to digest. My friend ordered the chicken, lemon and garlic roasted chicken ($28) served on cous cous, and I had one of Blink’s signature dishes – the double duck ($32) – duck confit served with the roast breast.

The chicken, which i had sampled in a previous visit, was tender, moist, and flavourful. The accompaniments were a bit light, but the size of the chicken made up for it. For a chicken dish, it was quite good. But compared to what was on the rest of the menu, i’m not sure i would order it again. It is, after all, just brined chicken.

The double duck was a bit more to my liking. The confit definitely fell apart on the plate, and the breast was done with a very crispy skin, but slightly overcooked meat underneath – it had ended up a touch dry. Which, when compared to the lusciousness of the confit, really stood out. With potatoes and cabbage, it was a much heartier serving. Good flavours, but I think i prefer the braised short rib i had the first time i was there. However, overall, a big issue remains for me – the entrees were not nearly as interesting, nor tasty, as the appetizers. The risk-taking attitude that they approach the appetizers with, suddenly disappears into the “safe and familiar” when delivering the entrees. A problem i’ve found in many fine dining establishments these days. It’s frustrating getting to choose between risotto, duck, beef, chicken, fish, and short rib all the time. That lack of innovation plays it a bit too safe for my liking.

Overall, avoiding the nitpicking, I have to admit i was surprised by Blink. Even with the format change, I didnt expect them to be able to pull it out of the fire. I honestly didnt even expect to like it. However, I feel that they’ve managed to establish a strong new presence serving good, fresh local fare at reasonable prices. It’s not my favorite restaurant in town, but i certainly would have no complaints if I found myself there again. Next to Divino, they offer a good alternative with a different take on fresh ingredients. Their appetizers are fantastic, and the space is really quite nice. They probably deserve more business then they are getting, but with the aborted start, it’s not surprising that people may be hesitant to go back. As for my issue with the mains, the menu changes seasonally, so I can understand that some dishes won’t appeal to everyone. But with a few modest changes, upping their game on the entrees, they may hit on the formula for developing a long history of prolonged success. I hope they find it.

Blink Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Chambar Belgian Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Chambar Belgian Restaurant
562 Beatty Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 2L3
(604) 879-7119

Open 5:30pm – 12:00am

Belgium. How such a small country, with a hat tip to the French, ended up being top quality producers of some of my favorite consumables is honestly beyond me. Chocolate. Waffles. Mussels and fries (moule frite). Beer. These are not just good offerings. These fall well within the realm of comfort food for me. Of course, Belgium food is much more than frites, chocolate, and waffles. With access to fresh ingredients and the sea, and with a storied food culture, the essence of Belgian food is adaptability delivered in a clear, unpretentious style. Food for the gourmet, and the gourmand. This approach to food is at the core of the menu offered at Chambar.

Chambar is a very well-regarded restaurant in Crosstown Vancouver. Known for their particularly beautiful space, foodies have been raving about the unique combination of great affordable food, wonderful space, and excellent service. Showcasing local art, the impeccably decorated space manages to pack in a lot of seats, without feeling claustrophobic. Even with the high density of diners, Chambar manages to have great energy, while simultaneously having an intimate feel. I know I don’t comment much on decor, but i have to admit, i love what they’ve done with the place.

Let’s start with the best of the best- the beer selection is phenomenal. Exclusively Belgian, they had bottles I’ve never seen in North America before, even at the esteemed Torornado. Lambics, lagers, wheat, blondes, golds, trippels, trappiste beers – what a selection! I wish we could’ve stayed to sample them all. I do love my Belgians!

Not feeling completely hungry after a late lunch and an impromptu bubble tea visit after a hot day at Kits beach, we settled on a few beers and the Belgian classic, moule frite. Mussels are available in three flavours – coquette (white wine, bacon, spring onions), Vin Blanc (white wine, celery, leaks, and pepper), or the best sounding of the lot – Congolaise (tomato coconut cream, smoked chili and lime, cilantro). We ordered the Congolaise and the Coquette.

Surprisingly enough, I was extremely disappointed. The sauces were decent, but didnt carry enough intensity of flavour – they were definitely watered down. They needed to be reduced by about 30-40%. The frites and aioli were good, no complaints there.  The mussels however, were of a size and quality that I wouldn’t serve in my home, let alone at a highly regarded restaurant for $21 a plate. They were stringy, tough, many unopened mussels, and frankly, just not very good. If i was not feeling slightly ill from heat stroke, exacerbated by the beer, I would’ve sent the whole order back. Granted, while we were dining in what many traditionally consider to be “shoulder season” for mussels, i’ve found that with aquaculture and trans-pacific shipping, there really is no season when you cannot get great mussels. Every month is a good month for moule frites.

Throughout, the service was fantastic. The whole experience wasn’t helped by my heat stroke, as i was slow to order, and definitely a little pokey, but the server was patient, and attentive, even with a large section and the never ending requests for water. On service and atmosphere alone, I would go back to soak it all in.

In discussing and reading more on Chambar, I get the impression that the moule frites are not considered to be big hits with many Vancouver diners. Some camps believe Chambar falls into the “appetizers, beer, and atmosphere” kind of experience. Others are very effusive in their praise for the entrees. But if a chef who trained in a 3 star michelin restaurant is turning out exceptional food, why can he not deliver something as simple as mussels? To be fair, yes, it was a Friday, and they were *extremely* busy. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had gotten a rush on mussels, and were doing what they could to keep up. But for a signature dish, I was expecting a lot more care and attention. After all, as every home cook can attest to, good mussels are not tough to make at home. I’ll reserve judgment and give them a pass for now on the strength of service, beverages, and atmosphere alone, which truly were memorable in a year of outstanding dining experiences. But I hope the food really is better than the moule frites i tried, because if not, that would really be a grand disappointment.

Chambar on Urbanspoon

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant
1125 West 12th Ave. (1st floor of the Shaughnessy Village Hotel)
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 742-0234
Hours: Tue-Sun (closed Sun); Morning, 7am to 11:45am; Dinner, 5pm to 9:30pm

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

True Japanese cuisine of the home-style variety in its purest form.  That is what Tenhachi places its focus on throughout the Japanese side of their menu (being located in the lobby of a hotel, some Western dishes are made available too), in clear contrast to the numerous restaurants serving up popular North American-Japanese staples such as chicken teriyaki and the like.  In addition to further differentiate themselves from the crowd of Japanese restaurants in town, Tenhachi emphasizes natural and organic ingredients, made clear through their operating motto of “Karada ni ii tabemono” (Food that’s good for the body).

Since opening their doors back on June 1st, 2007, Tenhachi has slowly built a loyal following, especially among the ex-pat Japanese community living in the city.  By offering an authentic taste of home, it is a welcomed reprieve for those living abroad by allowing them to get genuine meals to cure those cases of homesickness that arise.  And for local Vancouverites, Tenhachi offers a glimpse into another realm of home cooking, Japanese style.

The list of “higawari” (daily changing) and regular menu items presents a refreshing set of options for the knowing and/or adventurous crowd, of Japanese dishes not commonly seen in North American-based Japanese restaurants.  This is especially true for the fish dishes.  Tenhachi proudly proclaims that they get direct-from-Japan fresh fish delivered by air freight to their kitchen twice a week.  You can even ask them to order specific fish should they not have it on the menu, they will do their best to see if their suppliers in Japan can provide it.  For local fish, wild sockeye salmon tops the available choices.

The importance of quality ingredients doesn’t stop there.  The rice they use at Tenhachi is also specifically chosen.  The brand, Tamaki Gold, is a variety of the Koshihikari grain, and is considered the best available quality among those grown in North America.  They use this in all of their teishoku (set meals) and okwarai (refills) are free!  The miso used in their cooking, notably the miso shiru (soup), is fully organic.  For their salads, this trend continues with the use of only organically-grown local vegetables.  Lastly, the cha (green tea) is also purely natural, a top grade variety from Shizuoka prefecture in Japan (this region is well known for their high quality tea growers).

The teishoku options include popular choices such as braised fish with options for this including the popular Miso Saba (miso flavored Mackerel), and the more exotic such as Hirame (Flat Fish/Sole), Karei (Turbot), Itoyori (Golden Threadfin Bream), Tachiuo (Scabbard Fish), and Kawahagi (Thread-sail Filefish) were the special ones flown in from Japan and available on the menu this day.  Yaki Sakana (grilled fish) with choices such as Mackerel Pike, Mackerel, Salmon, Katsuo (Skipjack Tuna), Kanpachi (Amberjack/Yellowtail), etc were available, and some of these could also be prepared as braised.  Other dishes such as the Hire Katsu (deep fried pork cutlet), Buta Shogayaki (grilled ginger-flavored pork), Aji Fry (Fried Horse Mackerel), etc. were also noted.

Including a bowl of steamed rice, miso soup, and two kobachi (side dishes) and one tsukemono (pickled dish) and with prices hovering around $13-$15 for most of these teishoku choices, it makes for a very reasonable, healthy and nutritionally well-balanced meal.

I wanted to introduce Tenhachi to my dining companion on this evening (a recent new transplant to Vancouver, and someone who can appreciate solid Japanese food) to give him a chance to see a relatively unknown but distinctive restaurant as he gets to know the city’s dining scene.  We opened our meal with a sampling from the appetizer section, a Matsutake (Pine Mushroom) Tempura.  A good six, seven pieces arrived in the basket, with me noticing how tender and meaty the matsutake were, and my dinner partner noting the strong pine scents coming from each bite.  A superb tempura, not at all overly battery, and cooked at just the right temperature of oil to make it neither too soggy or too crispy on the outside.  I would recommend this dish to anyone who enjoys tempura, and is seeking a change from the usual fare of shrimp, carrots, broccoli, etc, that you often find in tempura combinations.

The teishoku dishes beckoned us, and seeking some rarer fish options from the special menu, I went with the Karei braised in a sweet soy-based sauce, with my friend choosing the salt grilled Kawahagi.  I only had a small taste of the latter, but came away surprised at how flavorful the simple looking whitefish was.  My dining companion remarked that he was quite satisfied with his meal, going to show you that taking a chance on an ingredient you’ve never heard of does work out from time to time.

If you’ve ever seen either of these species of fish, you know they are not physically attractive.  With their flat structures and buggy eyes, they don’t look at overly appetizing.  Thankfully, once fileted and prepared in the kitchen, the piece of fish becomes a delicious central part of a teishoku.  My braised Karei was cooked in just the right balance of the traditional Japanese trio of soy sauce, sake and mirin.  Often, the latter sweet ingredient is used in too high a portion and it becomes almost dessert-like in sweetness when done poorly, and thankfully Tenhachi was not victim to making this sugary-sweet.  The meat was flaky but not dried out since it had been braised, and fell off easily from the bone contained within.  Karei has relatively larger and fewer bones in its structure, so it certainly makes for easier pickings.  I know many a fish lover dislike eating cooked fish for the painstaking need to remove all the delicate and difficult to see bones in some fish, so the Karei makes for a welcome option for those people.

West 12th Avenue is normally a busy commuter road in Vancouver, but after 6pm parking right out front of the building is free.  The restaurant is not easy to spot while passing in front.  Don’t expect much from the decor, as I am assuming its the remnants of the previous hotel restaurant, but don’t let that disappoint you, as the food will more than make up for it.  And if you are up to checking out a Japanese-style breakfast, you can enjoy those from as early as 7am.  Lastly, an interesting bit of information.  Tenhachi offers a unique 10% discount.  This can be had only if you mention upon paying your bill, the secret phrase and designated number, that changes every two weeks, and is available via a certain source.  I’ll leave the rest to your investigative skills…

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Cafe – Vancouver, BC

49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Cafe
2152 W 4th Avenue, between Arbutus and Yew
Vancouver, BC  V6J 5L1

In my never ending quest to learn more about coffee, I found myself in Vancouver chasing down what most people told me were the classic choices: J.J. Bean, Artigiano, 49th Parallel Cafe, and Elysian Room. I decide to visit 49th Parallel Cafe first. 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters is owned by Sammy and Vince Piccolo, founders of Cafe Artigiano; not just roasters, but Sammy is a World Championship-calibre Barista as well. They supply their beans to a variety of fine establishments – including Kawa Espresso in Calgary, but have recently have opened up a cafe location as a flagship store to feature their products.

After a short detour (stupid me had written down the wrong address) to the Burnaby roasting location (which was closed on a Saturday), i finally rolled into 49th Parallel’s Cafe on W 4th Avenue. Starving for caffeine. Rather that hit something on their beautiful La Marzocco, i decided to grab a clover to get the best out of their beans. A clover, for the uninitiated, is a single cup coffee brewing machine that replicates the properties of a french press, by vacuum brewing coffee, and is configurable in a variety of ways to extract the best flavours out of the beans. It used to be exclusively the domain of high end coffee shops, ringing in at a low low price of $11,000, but they were bought out by Starbucks and have recently been introduced into several Seattle-area Starbucks, with plans for expansion to more locations. Chains. Sigh.

Already a fan of 49th Parallel’s Epic espresso blend, as well as my all time favorite coffee, the Ethiopean Yergacheffe Beloya microlot that positively reeks of blueberries (it’s amazing – you have to try it), I wanted something a little different, so i went with the recommended Kenyan Kiriga – very sour, acidic, fruit forward, and extremely interesting. Well, at least that’s how i imagined the exchange. What actually happened was I asked them for a recommendation for what was sampling well, and I got a few mumbles and a “try the Kenyan”. To be honest, the service from the baristas was pretty poor, who were generally aloof and unfriendly, especially when compared to the fantastic service im used to in Alberta – Transcend, Phil and Sebastian, Kawa, Bumpy’s are all wonderfully kind, patient, and generous with a new comer to coffee like myself. This was fairly disappointing, considering my enthusiasm for coffee currently out weighs my knowledge at about 10-1, and Im always looking for new perspectives to learn from.

At a massive, 16oz serving, using what looked like 34-35g of coffee, it was a bit light on the flavour, and a bit much on volume. A few more grams wouldnt have hurt either. But the coffee was good, though the acidity was a touch hard on the stomach. 49th Parallel are definitely great roasters though – I couldn’t imagine extracting anymore flavours out of the beans than that cup did. Something that was well showcased as the cup cooled.

Anyway, bad service aside, it’s still worth the visit. The space is definitely very cool – modern, industrial with some 70’s retro touches. Their coffee is great, though I would go with a small, and their staff are very skilled. Really, at the end of the day, who needs a friendly barista anyway if they are serving coffee this good.

49th Parallel Coffee Roasters Cafe on Urbanspoon

Menya Japanese Noodle – Vancouver, BC

Menya Japanese Noodle
401 W Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 725-9432
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 to 3pm; Dinner, 5pm to 9pm

Menya Japanese Noodle on Urbanspoon

May 2010 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Hakata ramen. with its roots deeply implanted in the Kyushu island ramen culture of Japan, is responsible for the establishment of the milky white and creamy tonkotsu (pork bone) soup as one of the most popular ramen broths, rivaling the stalwarts of shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso.  It has also had an impact in creating hybrid soups, such as the well liked tonkotsu-shoyu, that you find most often in the Kanto (e.g Tokyo) region.  My first exposure to tonkotsu ramen was in the spring of 1997.  I was in Fukuoka (capital city of Kyushu island) and was taken to the eye-opening outdoor ramen stall alley found in the district of Nagahama.  It is a well known tourist site, bringing in ramen fanatics from across the country, and is located on a side street near a major wholesale food market.  It operates at night, and when it becomes dark, the lights from inside the various tents and stalls on this road come on and attracts diners like moths to a flame.  There are also more proper in-building ramen shops operating in the area, but for me, the lasting impression of the street stalls remains with me to this day.

So I was strongly looking forward to the opening of Menya Japanese Noodle on West Broadway, near the Cambie Street intersection (the one with the dreaded, ongoing Canada Line construction), after hearing rumors that tonkotsu was their soup of choice.  With the growing base of places to eat ramen building in the downtown west end, it was refreshing to see another option that was not located in the city core.  Opening its doors on September 8th, I planned to wait at least a month to allow them to settle down, but a recent rainy day made me long for a nice hot bowl of tonkotsu ramen, so I broke with my intended plan.  Despite the dreary weather, the room was full as I stepped inside during the lunch hour.  No doubt, word had spread already about this place, and many other curious people had joined me in trying it out.  Couples, families with children, people of all ages and ethnicities were here, providing evidence that ramen has become more widely accepted in the city as another definitive dish from Japanese food culture.  An inquiry to a member of the all-female serving staff led to a good piece of information as I sat down with the menu – the owner/head cook had actually worked and trained in a Fukuoka city ramen shop (name withheld).

The top of the menu board featured a Nagahama Ramen ($6.75); in Kyushu, Hakata-style and Nagahama-style ramen are basically inter-changeable in terms of vocabulary, as both are tonkotsu-based.  Next to it was a Tonkotsu Miso Ramen ($7), as well as a Ramen Set ($10) that would give you a bowl of ramen, one onigiri (rice ball), and gyoza (I think four pieces).  Rather than fill up on these extras, I decided instead to add some more toppings in the form a nitama (flavored boiled egg; $0.75) and chashu (slices of pork belly; $3, which came with some marinated bean sprouts).  I split these added toppings with my dining companion, who also ordered the Nagahama Ramen.  The tonkotsu broth was what I’d classify as mid-level in terms of heaviness. I detected some slight pork fat added to the mixture, giving it a slightly more oily consistency than what you’d typically find in Hakata-style ramen (you see this more often in Tokyo-style).

It was very creamy and a respectable representation of a solid tonkotsu broth, and to top it off, there was none of that distinctive pork scent that you can find at times in tonkotsu soups.  The Nagahama Ramen did come with the usual toppings of beni shoga (thin slices of ginger that is pickled) and konbu (kelp), along with chopped green onions and bamboo shoots.  The beni shoga is a key one here for tonkotsu-based ramen, as its used as a refreshing element and to help mask any notable pork scent coming from the soup stock.  Lastly, I did notice another element that is found in this style of ramen in Japan was missing, a spoonful or two of some garlic-infused flavored oil.

Kyushu region ramen commonly uses a thin straight variety of noodle.  This holds true at Menya.  In ramen joints in Japan, it is often possible to order oomori (e.g. a large serving of noodles).  But here in lies the problem with an bigger volume of noodles in a bowl of hot soup.  The thinner the variety, the less its able to hold up over time.  Even a few extra minutes of sitting in the hot soup can be detrimental, and cause the noodles to completely lose all of their texture, become overcooked and turn into limp strings.  To get around this, ramen shops in Kyushu came up with the concept of kaedama (literally translated as “replacement ball”).  At Menya, they have also implemented this into their menu.  Basically, once you have consumed all of the noodles, you can order a followup serving of only-noodles, to add to the soup that you still have remaining (provided you are not one of of those overzealous types who drink down all of the soup as you go).

I appreciate all that Menya has done in their early days, bringing to Vancouver a pure representation of Hakata-style, tonkotsu ramen, as well as including the little nuances of ramen culture into their menu setup.  By focusing on this soup broth, and this alone, I think it can carve out its own niche.  Geographic distance from the Kintaro kingpin in this market will also no doubt help.  Judging from the packed house, it seems there are plenty of ramen fans who will come to this non-downtown location.  But ramen is such a personal preference.  Myself, I do enjoy tonkotsu, as well as shio soups.  I tend to prefer a more crinkly noodle, and probably consume more lighter broths than denser ones.  At times, I enjoy a fuller bowl with lots of additional toppings, which often goes better with miso broths.  If it is a complete mishmash for me, I am guessing I am not alone in enjoying variety in my ramen.  But Menya deserves consideration for your tonkotsu option in your Vancouver ramen preference set.

Menya Japanese Noodle on Urbanspoon

Fleur de Sel Brasserie – Calgary, AB

Fleur de Sel Brasserie
2-2015 4 Street SW
Calgary, AB T2S 1W6
(403) 228-9764

When I think of French food, my thoughts generally fall into one of three categories. High end, refined cuisine, delectable and precise pastries, and peasant food. While i can appreciate the skill and refinement of haute cuisine, as well as the skill of a Herme in creating perfect pastries, I really prefer peasant food. Coq au vin, beef bourguignon, rilettes, pates, stews, poulet de bresse, cassoulet – simple meals big on flavour, with generally safe and easy cooking methods. This is not sous vide – this is braised, hearty soul food. And the best place to get this is typically at a brasserie or a bistro. While there is a general shortage of good honest French food in Calgary, Fleur de Sel Brasserie bucks the fine dining trend by providing Brasserie-type fare.

On first look, the menu is an interesting mix of french classics, modern interpretations of french classics, and not so french classics like Jambalaya and smoked atlantic salmon with pickled ginger. A very extensive list – too extensive in my mind. I prefer most establishments to focus on fewer dishes, generally finding diminishing quality whenever a menu tries to be all things to all people.  I went at lunch, which has a different menu from dinner, by including some sandwiches and lighter fare.

When dining at any establishment, going at lunch has some advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage is typically price – lunch, though often serving the same thing at a slightly smaller portion size, is generally significant cheaper. However, there is often a limited menu, so you’re not able to order all your favorite dishes. At Fleur de Sel, you’re staring down a potentially pricey lunch menu – with entrees pushing $20-$30, it’s certainly not for someone looking for good cheap peasant fare. In order to get a wider variety of dishes to sample, i order their set lunch menu. A 3-course meal for $25.

First off came the bread with an olive oil and vinegar dip. While the bread was ok, i was a bit disappointed  in the quality. It was definitely lacking in a crispy exterior. Sacrificed for the healthier whole wheat/whole-grain combo.

Next up was the salad, which was lightly dressed in a simple oil and vinegar dressing. A nice collection of greens, simply dressed, it was decent. Nothing that made it stand out, but with a three course meal, I don’t feel it needs to be. Sometimes, a salad can and should be just a salad.

For an entree, I had a choice between a cassoulet, or egg fettuccine with fresh mussels. I wasn’t feeling supremely hungry, so i went with the mussels. The mussels themselves were plump, succulent, and well flavoured with the white wine they had been sauteed in. The egg fettuccine was simply dressed with butter and parsley, and swam in the white wine sauce from the mussels. Once again, decent, satisfying, but nothing that stands out as a must-have.

Lastly, dessert was chocolate mousse. With a slightly chalky flavour, i found it a bit off. It was definitely light and fluffy, but the light chocolate flavour combined with the chalky taste led me to believe it was made with cocoa powder, and not melted chocolate. The highlight of the dish was sadly the fruit on top of the mousse.

What do i think? Well, It’s not that French. And there is nothing all that exceptional about it. They serve good solid food that satisfies you, and in that regard i was happy. However, at the price point they are charging, i generally expect more. A lot more. While Table D’hote may have been a poor choice on my part, i feel that they would be better served trimming their dishes down to a manageable number that would allow them to focus on quality and value. They use some good quality ingredients that i recognize from purveyors around Calgary – grass-fed, Galloway beef, magret duck breast, things like that, but don’t do much that most people couldnt replicate in their own kitchens. Overall, i’d be happy if things were 30-40% cheaper, but at this price point, regardless of the quality, I won’t be returning.

Fleur de Sel on Urbanspoon

Pojang Macha – Vancouver, BC

Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Pojang Macha emerged from site of what I had assumed was simply a makeover of the previous tenant – a decent Korean restaurant specializing in soondubu – that I had eaten in from time to time over the past year.  Peeking inside one day during the construction lull (a sign outside said “re-opening in September”), I saw drapes of orange plastic tarps everywhere and assumed things were underway for a flashy new setup.  To my utter surprise, on a return visit this month after the doors were re-opened, I discovered that this bright drapery had not been torn down and was in fact the intended motif!

The inside of the restaurant was literally covered with the colorful tarps along every single wall.  The entrance even had a tarp covering that was partially peeled back, to suggest it was perhaps still under construction, but again, this was part of the intended design.  Scattered around were some upturned and painted drum cans, that had been converted to tables with large steel circular plates attached on top.  Around them were stubby blue plastic stools.  In the center of everything were two long wooden tables, that had a pair of stainless steel tubs placed inside, with some narrow skewer sticks that were visibly floating on top.

After getting over my initial bewilderment, I finally realized what was going on.

In Korean, a pojang macha could be described as a street side vendor/cart/stall.  You can spot these all over the major streets, especially in the high traffic areas around bus and train transportation hubs, as well as in residential neighborhoods.  Most look like little kiosks, with the same one-side opening you find on sandwich trucks that patrol the lunch hour of many industrial areas of major North American cities, that offer up sandwiches and hot drinks to mostly blue collar workers.  The pojang macha in Korea take it a step further in the winter months, by putting up sheets of plastic (sometimes clear, sometimes colored), surrounding the cart/stall, creating a warm bubble that keeps out the cold wind and captures the hearty smells of food that are prepared inside.

In essence, the folks here had re-created this, but inside an actual building structure.

I could sense a real determination to stick to this unique theme here, as there was even a creative play on the menus.  Instead of using regular sheets of paper in a booklet, the menu items were hand written in a dark marker onto what almost appeared to be like car hubcaps – some round circular aluminum discs, with everything only in Korean script.  Along one wall were also some narrow sheets of paper with handwritten items – again all in Korean.  Fortunately, I was with someone who could read it all and explain it to me.  [I later noticed when a pair of large Caucasian males, dressed up in full on biker gear and looking totally out of place, walked in and comfortably sat down at one of the large common tables, that they had received menus in English).

Even the banchan (side dishes) came out in a never before seen fashion – on a segmented aluminum plate, much like you’d find in a military mess hall.  The hot brick of tofu dressed in a watery, spicy sauce was my favorite of this lot.  Some salted edamame, sticks of celery and carrots, a vinegar dressed seaweed, and some sweetly flavored potato cubes completed the offering.

The bossam dish – a plate of nice, thick slices of boiled pork belly, served with a side mixture that was comprised of kimchi, scallions, red peppers, and little dried shrimp, was our main dish.  Now this really reminded me of the small plate dishes that are popular in drinking establishments in Korea, called anju.  The instant envelope created by wrapping a piece of the pork along with the spicy toppings inside a leave of cabbage was a hit at our table.  I wish I had been in the mood to drink some soju, as this would have gone down very well together.

Lastly, we decided to sample a bowl of the korean odeng (cut up, and flat pieces made of a cooked mixture of fish paste and flour), including some udon noodles.  The combination of the chewy ingredients in the odeng and udon, and the flavorful broth made for a heartwarming finish to our meal.

Once you get over the initial surprise of the decor, and if you are have even a remote familiarity to the street versions in South Korea, I am sure this place will bring a smile to your face.  At least, tip your hat to the owners for boldly going in this direction, and bringing this piece of Korea to Vancouver’s dining scene.  I am sure there will be some who don’t get it and I could see why that would happen.  I hope this small article can serve in a small way to explain to any unsuspecting visitors, about this concept of bringing street food inside.  On the evening that I visited, there was a group of older Korean gentlemen who seemed to be relishing in this transformation of street culture from their homeland, to pairs of young couples who seemed to be there for the food and conversation, as well as the a fore mentioned bikers.

Example of an outdoor pojang macha in Seoul

Example of an outdoor pojang macha in Seoul

After recently dining in a place that had invested heavily in the design and was somewhat lacking with the food, it was a refreshing change to see quite the opposite come through at Pojang Macha.  I guess it just goes to show that there is always that balance with restaurants, between the importance of the food being served, as well as the place its being served in.  At times, the finest ingredients and creations from the kitchen meld well with creatively designed spaces, and other times not.  Most often, there is an imbalance between the two.  In this case, I think I will always side with preferring solid food over beautiful architecture or interior design.  How about you?

Pojang Macha
595 E Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 569-0852
Hours: Seven days a week, 5pm to midnight

Pojang Macha on Urbanspoon

Beckta Dining and Wine – Ottawa, ON

Beckta Dining and Wine
226 Nepean Street
Ottawa, ON K2P 0B8
(613) 238-7063

When I assess the quality of a restaurant, i generally take into account a multitude of factors. For the most part, restaurants focus on food, and really, that is all that matters to me. After all, without good food, there really is very little reason to visit a restaurant. There are some establishments that focus more on wine. The menu is little more than an excuse to showcase a Wine Spectator worthy list. To me, wine without great food is a waste. However, it is a rare place when you have a restaurant that seamlessly marries food and wine – to the point where it’s hard to imagine having one without the other. Beckta is one of those places.

Beckta first hit the Canadian consciousness when showcased on an episode of Food Network’s “Opening Soon”. The brainchild of sommelier Stephen Beckta, it’s the story of the homecoming of a local boy “done good”. A sommelier who worked in NYC at Cafe Boulud and Eleven Madison Park, returns home to up the local scene. With his extensive experience in building world class wine lists, he has not only put together a fantastic list of eclectic, quality wines, but has dedicated a large portion of his list to local, Canadian producers. A diverse selection of Ontario wines that showcases some of the best our country has to offer.

But as i mentioned, for me, it’s all about the food. The original menu was a Stephen Vardy creation, a young, up and coming chef when he first started at Beckta who has since moved onto a variety of different projects.  Michael Moffat, his sous-chef, took over without any appreciable drop in quality. In fact, in my opinion, his experience over the relatively inexperienced Vardy has strengthened the marriage of wine and food.

The food emphasizes seasonal, local, organic, and sustainable, combined with top quality producers from around the country. While everything is available a la carte, the only way to dine at Beckta is through the chef’s tasting menu ($79), complete with wine pairings($35), and the optional cheese course ($15). The tasting menu is its own inspiration – and does not reuse standard menu items like so many places do these days. Each wine selection is carefully chosen, and when i did find some small fault with a pairing (mostly a matter of personal taste), a new pairing was selected that better fit my palate.

With all the publicity and press Beckta has gotten, I think deep down, I spent a lot of time looking for something not to like about the experience. I couldn’t fine one thing wrong. The atmosphere was classy, hip, yet comfortable. The service was impeccable – both food service, and wine service. In fact, similar to Chambar in Vancouver, this was some of the best service I’ve had in a very long time. Friendly, approachable, yet professional. Efficient without the snottiness.

As for the food? It did a great job of highlighting a lot of the strengths of Canadian food quality. From Alberta beef, to Nunavut char, to Quebec duck, to Nova Scotia scallops, everything was very well executed – perfectly seasoned, packed full of flavour, clear in purpose, creative, and most importantly, the dishes just worked.

When it’s all about the food, I find it’s about finding the right balance of flavours. Along with amuse and palate cleanser, I was dazzled with an array of flavours. Perhaps the my favorite course of the evening was a torchon of foie gras, along with a parmesan cornetto filled with epoisse and sweetbreads. While some might consider this to be too rich, cut with the acidity of the wine, the interplay of sweetbreads, with warmed epoisse and parmesan was perfect.

My last general concern when sizing up a restaurant is about portion size. I am occasionally a bit of a glutton. Tasting menus, in my experience, often leave me fairly dissatisfied. I need only point out experiences at Manresa (with a trip to In N Out afterwards) as an example where the portion size was disproportionate to the cost. With Beckta, there is no need to be concerned about the portion sizes. Everything comes in a good sized portion, allowing you time to savour and enjoy the flavours, without overwhelming you. After this meal, I was stuffed. And yet i still found some room to sample their extensive cheese course – filled with a great selection of high quality, small production cheeses. I did mention something about gluttony….

I generally try to bring a balanced approach to my reviews – after all, there is usually a balance of both positive and negative experiences when dining at any restaurant. However, try as I might, I really have nothing negative to say about Beckta at all. Great atmosphere, great food, great wine, great service. For me, this is *the* place to dine when in the Ottawa region.  With a new restaurant opening in the next year, here’s hoping that they are able to maintain the same lofty standards they’ve already set. After all, they have a tough act to follow.

Beckta Dining and Wine on Urbanspoon

Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company – Canmore, AB

Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company
#1 838 10th Street
Canmore, AB
(403) 609-5508
Wednesday – Sunday, 5.00 pm onwards

I’m not exactly sure when flatbread became synonymous with pizza, but that’s exactly what it is. Generally speaking, thin crust, though i’ve come across all kinds in my travels. Regardless of what you call it, the recipe for success is generally the same. A great crust, appropriate sauce, and the right blend of toppings – for the most part, meats, cheeses, and vegetables. While it seems like a simple formula, very few places get it right. Thankfully, Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company is one place that works hard to succeed.

The Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company is a Canmore-based company producing good flatbread pizza. Perhaps more admirably, they do so with a mission. Their key philosophy is their belief in community. They believe in contributing to the community they live in, supporting their local producers, and supporting a variety of social and environmental causes. They even charge a optional carbon tax on each meal to offset the carbon emissions used to create your meal. This form of respect for their community certainly comes with a price – slightly higher prices, but I know personally, it is a small price I am willing to pay. In line with their mision, they use only local organic ingredients. No additives, GMO’s, transfats.

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Kakurenbou Japanese Dining – Vancouver, BC

Over the past year, I’d seen online postings announcing openings for staff at this restaurant last fall and also this spring, so I was aware that something was in the works for a while, but never quite sure when the doors would actually open.  Kakurebou Japanese Dining is another addition to the increasingly crowded izakaya scene on Robson Street, and opened at the end of June.  Two months have passed which I thought was ample time to allow them to work out any growing pains with the menu and service, and thus made my first visit only recently.  Incidentally, Kakurenbo means Hide-and-Seek in Japanese, though the characters they use on their signage is not the same as for this children’s game.

The Japanese owners are reputed to have brought over seven hundred year old wooden pillars and beams, used in traditional Japanese homes and buildings, as well as a partial Japanese-style roof structure made up of interlocking clay-plate shingles (that are often seen on rooftops of temples in Japan) to create the overall aesthetic.  It is certainly a visually appealing design for an izakaya, I’ve probably seen a few like it in Tokyo, that also used ancient wood within modern buildings to emphasize traditional “Japanese-ness”.  The main entrance way sits next to a counter bar on the right, which apparently is used as a waiting area as well.

From there, customers file past the open kitchen on the left before reaching the open seating area filled with dark brown wooden table seating  It was a conservative use of the limited physical space as the designer did not feel the need to make it feel incredibly cramped amd fill in as many seats (max. 70) as possible, compared to other izakaya in the area such as Guu (which is a more casual izakaya setting).   As such, this place probably will appeal to a maturer crowd, is more date friendly, and a place where conversations don’t have to be held at a near-yell.  The main back wall was turned into a piece of art, made of a layer of concrete into which a willow tree was engraved, as well as a section that had the front panels of a traditional lacquered Japanese cabinet.

Knowing our stop here was more exploratory in nature, my table of friends ordered some drinks to start off, with the choices being draft beer (Saporro, $6), some freshly squeezed fruit-based cocktails ($6.50), Shotsu-based cocktail ($7) and Umeshu ($4.50 for 1 ounce).  I checked out the Nihonshu/Shochu list, there was probably about ten choices, including a good, easy-to-drink selection in the Kubota Senju (from Niigata, rice, dry).  Also noteworthy was one of my personal Shochu favorites, with a wickedly fun to pronounce name, Tantakatan, which is made from Shiso leaves, and has a refreshing, light taste profile.

From the special menu, we chose the Salmon & Avocado Mille Feuille ($6.80).  Cubes of lightly seared salmon were marinated in a mayonnaise sauce along with avocado and stacked in layers between some rectangular chips to re-create the image of a Mille Feuille puff pastry, and garnished with some carrots.  One of my friends noted that there was a fishy scent to the salmon, suggesting it was bad, and I did pick up on this as well.  Not a good start to our sampling trial.

The regular menu booklet was nicely laid out, with visual images of each dish beside a description of the dish.  From this, we chose the Toro Katsu ($10.80), that came with a side salad of greens, some deep fried potato chips, and a soy dipping sauce.  The tuna had an outer crust with a thin layer of breading that had mixed in with it some ground up leaves or herbs giving it a slight scent.  This dish received some good praise from our table, but I found it nothing spectacular.

Lastly, we ordered a five-piece skewer set of Chicken Tsukune ($13).  The volume here was pretty good, as once each meat-on-a-stick was cut up into bite size pieces, there was more than enough for the four of us.  Each one had a different flavor component: plain, a spicy ketchup, a yuzu mustard, shichimi togarashi (seven flavor chili pepper), and teriyaki.  While the condiment on each created a different flavor combination, the chicken itself was identical on each stick.  The meat was tasty however, nicely seasoned with a crunchy exterior.  For someone who loves variety, the same-ness of the meat itself perhaps got tiring even after a sample of each of the five flavorings – a mixed yakitori set would be trumped this easily.  But overall, still a tasty dish.

As one would expect, the prices probably reflect the investment made to design the room.  In general, most customers will probably come away thinking that the “bang for the buck” is lacking.  Portion sizes are more controlled, drinks are priced a rank higher, etc.  It has always been my feeling that prices charged in Japanese izakaya here in Vancouver are high, relative to the same in Japan.  I know that probably sounds surprising, but my friends from Japan also always make that comment, and before heading to any izakaya in town, a meal at home or at a less expensive and more filling place is a prerequisite before going to one later for the main purpose of drinking.  I think its more of a psychological thing or perhaps I just reserve my izakaya experiences for when I travel to Japan, not really sure.  Lastly, the mindset of the drinking side of going to an izakaya being the priority, rather than the eating aspect, comes into play.  Just as they say in western cultures that wine is meant to complement the food, in Japan, food is meant to complement the sake (Nihonshu).  In this respect, I think Kakurenbou still has some tweaking to do, to match up to what appears to be a limited but decent Nihonshu/Shochu list.

Kakurenbou Japanese Dining
793 Jervis Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 696-9965
Hours: Mon to Sun, 5:30pm to midnight

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Betsy’s Boerewors – Edmonton, AB

Betsy’s Boerewors
6928 104 Street NW
Edmonton, AB T6H 2L7
(780) 988-5050

While traveling around Southern Africa, things like meat were often in short supply. After all, animals that are generally food inefficient, from a food mass consumed to food mass produced ratio, are a luxury in many of the impoverished areas. I, being an unapologetic carnivore, would have a tough time without a daily dose of protein. Thankfully, I had stocked up on a great selection of biltong before leaving SA – marinated, air dried strips of meat that came from a variety of animals – kudu, springbok, oryx, beef, ostrich, and other exotic animals. Unlike jerky, biltong is cured in vinegar, seasoned, and air dried. Many people who aren’t familiar with it are a bit taken a back at first, but it really grows on you. After leaving South Africa, I had particular cravings for several charcuterie items – predominantly chillibites, and biltong. Lucky for me, my best friend noticed a South African deli called Betsy’s Boerewors had opened up on Calgary Trail, and quickly investigated. Sure enough, they had all of our favorites, though with an Alberta twist – their products are mostly beef.

Betsy’s Boerewors are a family-run South African deli, and based on the number of ex-pat South African’s who shop there, they are either the best game in town, or the only game in town. They are very friendly, with samples of all their products to try. Very proud of their product and their heritage, they carry all your standard South African deli items – from boerewors and droewors, to biltong, chillibites, and pies. Boerwors are essentially fresh sausage. Their boerewors are fresh minced meat, well-seasoned, and loaded with a good amount of fat. Their garlic wors are even better – big garlic flavour. Both the droewors, which are cured and dried sausage sticks, and the aforementioned biltong are loaded with coriander flavour. However, the Chillibites are my favorites. Sticks of fatty, chilli seasoned beef that have been air dried – essentially edge strips of well marbled biltong that have been dried into the best pure beef version of a hot rod you’ve ever had. There is melt in your mouth striations of beef fat that attack your taste buds with bursts of beef essence, while your jaw gets a serious workout from the tough, with the grain beef cut, and some acidity and spice from the vinegar and chilli. These are one of the best snacks you can possibly have – no additives, great flavour, and preserved for easy consumption. Not that they last long. In parts around the world, they use biltong and chillibites for teething children. An expensive hobby to develop young for sure!

Other than charcuterie type items, they also serve a variety of pies, and accompaniments. Im not 100% sure if it is the British influence in Southern Africa, but many countries all serve versions of meat pie. Likely originally to disguise meat that was slightly off, staples like peppered steak, chicken and mushroom pies, curry chicken, and cornish pasties were commonly available, and generally quite excellent. The pies at Betsy’s are even better – as they use top quality ingredients, and they come in a sizeable portion for $4 – $4.50. These sizeable morsels are especially good right out of the oven, so keep your eyes open.

I’m not sure things like biltong and chillibites are for everyone. Definitely quite firm (though Biltong comes in moist, semi dry, and dry versions), the vinegary taste is definitely slightly different from the jerkys and other preserved meats we have here in North America. But I love it, and find them quite addictive. Most people I have introduced them to feel the same way. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, stop in, try a sample or two, and be prepared for a new flavour experience.

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