Dae Jang Geum – Calgary, AB

Dae Jang Geum
1324 10 Ave. S.W.
Calgary, AB
(403) 228-1120

Foodosopher: If you look at how ethnic foods are introduced to a market, you’ll see a similar kind of cycle. The first few restaurants usually provide the “Cole’s Notes” version of the cuisine – a very general, “best of the best” overview. As a cuisine gets more popular, more and more of these restaurants start to follow. The diner gets a bit more sophisticated, and starts to expect better quality from their meals. Often times, this is as far as a cuisine gets – the next phase, which brings specialized restaurants that serve one specific kind of cuisine (Japanese and sushi, ramen, izakaya, tempura bar, for example), requires a certain amount of demand and sophistication before being able to support specialized restaurants. While it is exciting that specialized Japanese cuisine is starting to take hold, Korean food in Calgary seems forever doomed to be a big melting pot of dishes. From pajeon, to BBQ, to soondubu, most restaurants carry all diverse types of korean cuisine. So in order to fairly assess Korean food in Calgary, we focus on a couple aspects – quality, and value.

Shokutsu: The all-encompassing format that prevails in many ethnic restaurants in North America, as noted above by Foodosopher, has its pros and cons.  Without the wide variety, the base introduction for many customers would never be achieved.  As their tastes and interest progress, I’ve found from working in actual restaurant kitchen environments that regular customers tend to find what they like and continue to eat their favorite dish, time and time again – despite the array of other menu choices they could branch out to if they so desired.  In the absence of specialized, one-type restaurants, I suppose this predictable ordering by those regular customers of a restaurant (which are so essential to its operational well-being), does become a quasi-specialized restaurant for them, in that they only get what they really want, every single time they dine there.  When it comes to Korean cuisine, from what I can discern in this day and age, this is quite limited to either barbecue or hot pots, as the only two singular dishes that are able to stand alone on an entire menu and potentially be the only item a bold enough restaurant could serve and specialize in.  Whether we’ll see more of these, remains to be seen.

Foodosopher: Dae Jang Geum is a relatively new entry to the restaurant scene in Calgary. Named after a Korean television show, it’s general claim to fame is as the restaurant that is “next to the Korean+Japanese grocery store”. Occupying the corner space of a small strip mall, it is quite easy to miss.  A small frontage actually conceals a very large restaurant on the inside – this place can hold a LOT of people.

The decor is dated – which i find surprising considering the restaurant itself is only a few years old. Struggle as i might, I am unable to remember what restaurant preceded Dae Jang Geum. If i had to guess, i’d say a Korean Denny’s. My biggest complaint with the restaurant itself is the layout – everything is structured into private booths, with entrances that point away from each other. This in itself is fine, except with the high backed banquettes, it is impossible for a server to notice you . This would be fine, if servers actually checked on you once in a while. In a couple visits, service has been atrociously slow. And extremely poor in terms of remembering to bring out all the dishes that have been ordered. If you go, don’t be in a rush – you have no idea when you’ll be able to leave.

Shokutsu: For some reason, in contrast to Foodosopher, the seclusion and relative sense of privacy the booths provide, was a welcome change for me whenever I ate here.  Perhaps its just a Western’s mindset and the fact that it is in stark contrast to the dominant, open seating (no walls) set up of most casual restaurants in South Korea (and even those Korean restaurants in North America), but I find this somehow refreshing.  Though it does probably have a negative impact on visibility with the wait staff – I’ve also experienced the service issue described earlier – but perhaps its also the prevailing style of Korean restaurants where once you are served, don’t expect much brown-nosing and chatter from the waiters.  This is the case when I’ve been with Korean speakers and not – there has rarely been a pronounced difference in attitude – so no bias here.

As someone who’s very familiar with the area where Dae Jang Geum is located and a frequent shopper of that next door grocery for some Asian ingredients I enjoy, I was always drawn by the overwhelming, amazing scent of barbecuing meat that would escape from the vents on the side of the building, cascading into the parkade.  As well, I do believe that the owners have positioned themselves well with the tourism industry as well as the local Korean community, as I’ve often seen huge tour buses stopping there and letting out loads of visitors to dine inside after a day out in the nearby Rockies.  [Note: Ginseng in Edmonton had the same cozy relationship with the major Korean tour companies, and this phenomena was seen a few times there as well].  And on weekends, inside I’d see groups from the local Korean community, mostly packs of men who appeared to be in golf attire (following a round, what’s better than a nice cold beer and Kalbi?) and families out together for a meal.

Foodosopher: Shortly after ordering, a great selection of Banchan are brought out. They are reasonably  fresh, though the Kim Chi lacked the complexity of flavour i like. It had a bit of heat, and that was about it. The beansprouts were fairly limp and disappointing too, but the the pickled daikon, my favorite, was excellent. Banchan I had finished were replenished throughout the meal – a definite plus in my books, even though the quality was only average.

On this day, i had ordered Sundubu Jigae – tofu stew served with rice. Sundubu is one of those dishes that is very comforting – silky tofu, with the rich pepper sauce (gochujang), vegetables, seafood, and my favorite part- a raw egg cracked over top. Unfortunately, this version of sundubu is lacking in several components. It’s not very rich, not very comforting, and there was no egg. The flavour was decent, but overall, it was fairly disappotining.

In other visits, I have had the opportunity to try other dishes – the most memorable for me being the Pajeon and the Kalbi/Galbi. The Pajeon was good, nice and firm egg and fragrant toppings, and reasonably priced. The meat was good too, but lacking in that sweet-smoky flavour – a result of a poor marinade job. However, the biggest problem is an order of Galbi, rings in at a ridiculous $42.95. Compared to a $13.95 price at Bow Bulgogi, this is highway robbery.

Shokutsu: My comments here are not from the same visit as Foodosopher, however I can comment that the Kimchi Jigae that I have had here was very disappointing in terms of flavor.  There was no depth to it at all, which harkens back to the likelihood that the kimchi being used is not that great, the banchan can confirm this too, I never enjoyed it.  [As an aside, the kimchi next door at the grocery is also nothing to write home about, even the home made stuff that is sold there.  For this, I would always get it at this tiny little Korean grocery store located in the area just east of Centre St. S and somewhere between 12 Ave ~ 15 Ave SE.  The Korean grandmother who makes it there in shop run by her grandson, makes an excellent flavorful cabbage kimchi as well as fresh Korean mochi].  The barbecue was good as well (though expensive) as well as the seafood Pajeon (very delicious and great portion size).  Lastly, I was pleasantly surprised by how well they do the Mul Naengmyeon in the summer – its such a hard dish to get right, especially the soup.  Based on this dish alone, I suspect they have someone in the kitchen who has some skills, just perhaps not translating through to all the other dishes available.

Foodosopher: My overall opinion of this place is to give it a pass. If you are selective, and looking for some very specific, more obscure Korean dishes, then you can probably get in and out for a reasonable sum. The more obscure Korean dishes are actually quite good, and fairly reasonably priced. However, if you’re looking for a general Korean experience, which typically includes BBQ, both price and service make me cringe. As Shokutsu has pointed out, the quality is decent, but for me, the value is rock bottom. You’d do much better to eat at Hangkang, or Bow Bulgogi, where they have both quality and value.

Dae Jang Geum on Urbanspoon

Hawker’s Delight – Vancouver, BC

Hawker’s Delight
4127 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 709 8188

With all the talk about doing what’s best for the people on “Main Street” amid the financial meltdown and stump speeches in the American election, it stuck me that I rarely visit the road with the same name on Vancouver’s east side.  Neither living nor working in that part of the city, nor having any friends with residences there that I would ever visit, Main Street really is an afterthought for me.  However, I did know it is home to many off-the-beaten-track, hole-in-the-wall, beloved restaurants with the locals, and it deserved a thorough investigation.  For this, I decided to walk up from the intersection at Broadway and Main, all the way up to 49th Avenue – and on both sides of the street.

It certainly was an education in the range of eating choices available on one single road.  Some places peaked my interest, others were not open yet on this late-morning Saturday, and others I just simple brushed off as not worthwhile in my mind after just looking inside the window.  Fortunately, Hawker’s Delight was not one of the latter, as the minute I strode past the big open windows and could see into the kitchen in the back of the space full of activity before the doors opened for business, I knew I was to go inside.

Apparently a re-creation of a hawker style spot that one would find in places like Singapore and Malaysia (yes, I am headed there on a trip next month!), this cramped cafeteria-like restaurant is a popular place for locals who have a craving for the taste bud tingling flavors of Southeast Asia.  On this day, I was the first customer through the doors before a handful of others followed behind me (for both dine-in and take out).  As I stepped to the counter to give my order after scanning the menus on the walls, I noticed how frenetic the pace was inside the cooking area where three people were busy getting ready for the lunch rush.  On the immediate right, I spotted this large pot that was bubbling over and giving off an intense spicy aroma – I enquired about it and was told it was a veggie curry.  On the grill top was one of my favorite food sights, meat on a stick.  This made my opening volley an easy decision, and I asked for a quintuplet of Beef Satay.

The sweet and savory flavors coming from the chewy meat and the accompanying dip of garlic infused oil, reminded me of why I love street food from this part of the world.  With just the right amount of charbroiled parts as well, the smoky properties added to the richness of the overall taste.  It’s hard to do this kind of thing badly, and Hawker’s Delight obviously did not fail in this regard.

As it was still morning, and given my unfortunate weak stomach for spicy food before the noon hour, I settled on a more milder tasting dish to help fill me up after my long walk down Main Street.  Figuring it would be a good test of how well they do a staple of Singaporean cuisine, I elected to go with the Hainanese Chicken Rice.   I will never forget the first time I had this in Singapore and ever since then its been hard to compete with that memory, no matter where I have eaten it since that fateful first plate.

Many people have their personal preferences for how they like the meat, but generally I feel its best when its of that silky soft consistency, with just a small amount of gelatinous texture from the skin, which is all jacked up with the trio of dipping sauces such as the powerful dark soya, chili and of course ginger.  In fact here at Hawker’s Delight, they mixed the potent chili and ginger together to form one single dip, but lacked the soya much to my disappointment. Back to the meat, it did have a pleasant texture and was not stringy at all, and the poaching liquid it was cooked in had infused some addtional flavors into the chicken.  No complaints here, but again, not blow-your-mind outstanding either.  The side rice was not as fragrant as I would have hoped and frankly halfway through I was just fine not to eat much more of it at all.  This is a stark change to the same rice I’ve had in Singapore/Malaysia in the past, where I could not get enough of the stuff.

Where Hawker’s Delight really did stand out was on the price performance.  I do not think I saw anything on the menu that was over six dollars as a main dish.  Frankly, I am sure you cannot get a better deal in town for this level of authentic ethnic food.  Don’t expect much for service, as its more a case of one of the kitchen workers simply dropping it off at your table once its ready, and water/hot tea is all self service from the station set up near the front counter as well.  But all is well, as this is the kind of environment one would expect from a hawker-style setup and one that I will no doubt return to again to try out the other offerings.  This is of course, if I am not tired of this food after my travels next month – ooh, what a delight!

Hawker's Delight on Urbanspoon

Sobaten Japanese Noodle House – Calgary, AB


Sobaten Japanese Noodle House
550 11 Ave SW
Calgary, AB
Tel: (403) 265 2664

I’m sure most of you have experienced an unexpected change in lunch plans that necessitated a sudden shift to an unknown location.  On this day, it was more of a disappointment given that I was looking forward to the original spot, but alas we can’t always get what we want.  Sobaten filled in during this pinch, and with less than an hour to go before I needed to head out of town, it sufficed in terms of geographic ease of access and we had already parked the car.

I’m fairly opened minded when it comes to a new eating location.  Though first impressions can certainly set things in motion, as it took a while before any wait staff could spot us waiting at the entrance.  There was a lunch buffet on, and some people were bustling around the feeding station that further added to the confusion and tested my patience.  Eventually we were seated in the more empty side of the restaurant, after we informed the (friendly) server that we would be ordering off the menu.  At the table, there was another sign that things were not going to go well.  Call me a stickler, and I know some people say the same thing about washroom facilities at restaurants, but I expect tables to be clean and anything on them to be fully presentable to customers, and use this as a guide to how the food will be.  In this case what caught my ire was the messy and unfilled bottle of soy sauce.  It had formed some crusty layer on the outside of the bottle and obviously had not been rinsed out prior to any re-fill since it was first used in this place.

To start our meal and to get a barometer reading of how the food is here, a starter plate of a few pieces of nigiri were ordered.  In Canada, as generic as it may sound, shake (salmon) is probably your safest bet in terms of quality.  Unfortunately, the slices that we received here were pretty dismal.  Obviously cut from a poor section that could have used the benefit of a sharper knife and a more skilled hand holding it, the rough jagged edges showed that the “chef” could use some tutelage in proper knife techniques.  Throw in some misplaced sesame seeds that were sticking to the surface and a weakly shaped nigiri, it just added up to a sad combination.  My hotate (scallop) was only slightly better, although it was still a little frozen in the middle and needed more de-thawing.  Most importantly for both, the sushi rice was not very tasty at all, too mushy and sweeter than would be normally acceptable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I have this belief that if a place claims to specialize in something, they had better do a really good job with it.  In this case, it was soba.  The Tenzaru set was ordered in a half portion, but when it was brought to the table, it sure did look to be a good enough quantity for a full order.  The soba was horrible – undercooked and had not been properly rinsed resulting in a sticky mess of noodles.  Some finely chopped green onions were provided to add to the sobatsuyu, but was missing the daikon oroshi.

The accompanying tempura was no improvement either in terms of quality or taste.  Cooked in too hot an oil bath (a common problem), in oil that appears to either be in need of a change and/or had been used to cook tonkatsu (Foodosopher picked up the pork scent on the tempura), it was a poor performance by the kitchen.  I had my suspicions that they were cooking these en masse for the buffet perhaps and sitting under a heat lamp, but did not visually check out that counter as after my meal I simply wanted to get the heck out of Dodge.

What surprises me most about places like this, is that customers seem to like it and come back – probably the buffet has something to do with it.  When it comes to some cuisine, in particular Japanese, I would never fathom that a buffet offering of it would be of any respectable quality, as this food is simply not cut out for long periods of sitting in water baths/under direct heat lights to keep it warm or in non-cool/refrigerated environments in the case of sushi.  As Foodosopher and I departed for my journey out of Calgary, we both shook our heads at the travesty we just endured and tried to rationalize how this kind of food can be deemed acceptable by some people.  Either they have no taste buds or just don’t know better.  As we drove to the airport so that I could put as much distance between me and this pathetic last meal in Calgary, I began to think it was a combination of both, as sad as that is.

Sobaten Japanese Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Wa’s Japanese Restaurant – Calgary, AB

Wa’s Japanese Restaurant
1721 Centre St N
Calgary, AB
(403) 277-2077

[Editor’s Note: Our first double posting! We figured it might be interesting to write a posting with two points of view on the different flavours we experienced. Hope you enjoy!]

Foodosopher: Japanese people like eating at places run by Japanese Chefs. I cannot explain why, but In many ways, this is true of most cultures. They prefer to eat from their own. From an authenticity standpoint, this makes sense, but in an era of globalization, I am not sure if this is true any longer. Does a native chef offer better cuisine than an import? Does growing up in a culture make one more aware of a specific food culture than someone with a great palate, a passion for the food, and the energy to learn?

Shokutsu: If I may answer what seems to be a rhetorical question from Foodosopher above, I must admit that I do tend to sneak a peak at the kitchen whenever possible, and try to learn who is actually doing the food preparation and cooking, whenever I am in an ethnic restaurant.  Mostly this is due to such places being more understated, simple family run operations where more often than not, the food that is being created does come from the native land of its operators.  In the case of some cuisine that I am less familiar with, this “authenticity” does help alleviate some apprehension I may hold about how good it could be and ease any fears that I am getting an untrue representation of that country’s food culture, especially when I may not know a whole lot about it myself.  My version of a culinary Linus Van Pelt “security blanket”.

It also helps when a server is also knowledgeable and is open to kindly sharing information on what one should look for in an accurately constructed dish from a country – Foodosopher: recall that North African restaurant with the “preachy” server,  he was a bit overbearing, but at the end of the day I found it useful in my learning.

In the end though from the kitchen/chef standpoint, I feel that it should not matter where the cook is coming from, provided he has been well trained in the particular cuisine he is serving up by someone who him/herself has been trained well.  Unfortunately, this is where we see a lot of faults in North America, especially from the sushi point of view – with the mass development of “Japanese” restaurants on as many corners as Starbucks, out to capitalize on the craze, but having no formal training in the cuisine they are serving.

Foodosopher: Wa’s is a Japanese-run restaurant on the North side of downtown Calgary. Not just sushi, they carry a variety of Japanese dishes – offering a large cross section of dishes from tempura, ramen, and a variety of dishes cooked and raw. A typical North American Japanese restaurant.

As an aside, when discussing the typical “North American Japanese restaurant” with one Japanese chef in Calgary, I found it interesting that he complained about parts of his business – specifically, sushi. He didn’t train as a sushi chef, and found it stressful to prepare fish, being much more comfortable in his domain of serving up teishoku meals. It leads me to wonder how many Japanese restaurants have chefs who are trained in one specific discipline, and yet working in a multi-discipline restaurant because that is what the local market demands?

Foodosopher: Back to Wa’s, located in a small, recessed strip mall backed away from Centre Street, it is easy to pass it by without noticing it. In fact, the first time I was looking for it, after a Japanese co-worker had continuously expounded on the qualities of Wa’s, I drove by it 3 times until i finally noticed it. For some reason, this reminds me (quite pleasantly in fact) of Tokyo, where trying to find the location of a specific restaurant is often like trying to find Waldo. You know it’s there, but it takes a while.

Shokutsu: My first visit to Wa’s was the result of me one day lamenting the fact that I was missing the Shochu-based “sours” from izakaya establishments in Japan and wished I could get some in Calgary.  My Japanese friend told me flat out that I could get them at Wa’s and we made a quick stop and sat at the counter to partake in some drinks and some appetizers.  It’s been a while since that first visit, but as you note, had I not been introduced, I could have easily drove back and forth in front of the building and not know what that place housed inside.  For those who are not aware, the Japanese character you see on the exterior signage is read as “WA” (meaning Japanese); and is often used with the character of “SHOKU” (which means cuisine or food).  I am thinking that many people assumed the owner’s name was “Wa” or something, but this is not the case. 🙂

Foodosopher: The interior is quite small, and has a dark, simple, wooden feel. A simple room, circled by some booths and tables, and a simple sushi bar. In many ways, it reminds me of a classic Japanese Izakaya, albeit smaller.

Shokutsu: The layout and design of the space does lend itself well to the laid back atmosphere that I’ve experienced every time I’ve been here.  I’ve never experienced one of those loud, bustling scenes here that you may find in some of the izakaya in Vancouver – that is both a good and bad thing I suppose, depending on your point of view.

Shokutsu: With the cold brisk Alberta night air cutting through my Vancouver weather-appropriate jacket like a knife, I wanted to get something both warm and comforting in an appetizer, thankfully the Agedashi Tofu met these needs and then some.  The broth (shoyu, dashi, mirin) was very flavorful and the chunks of fried tofu were a good size requiring a few bites each to finish off each cube.  The bounty of toppings including green onions, daikon oroshi, ginger, etc. made for an authentic mix of flavors that complemented this dish very well.

Foodosopher:I didn’t find the weather too bad, it would be a bit wimpy to complain about such a pleasant evening, so i decided some fresh fish was in order. The aforementioned Japanese coworker comes here for sushi, which as i mentioned previously, is also one of my three places I am willing to eat sushi in Calgary. Generally, it is quite reasonable, very fresh, and very well selected, cut, and prepared. This evening was no exception.

The saba was honestly some of the best i’ve had in North America. Fresh firm, with a slight hint of the sea, without being overwhelmingly sour, salty, or fishy. A fantastic piece of fish. If we weren’t on notice for “last call”, which occurs 30 minutes before they close, I would’ve ordered more.

The tamago was standard North American fare. Nothing worth writing home about.

Foodosopher: The maki was fairly impressive as well – more often than not made from trim loss, I know it sounds a bit ironic but it was high quality trim! Good fish, good nori, decent rice, not the best “roll” i’ve seen, but good flavour.

Foodosopher: The salmon nigiri was impeccable – a nice rich fattiness, cleanly trimmed of any undesirable pieces. Good rice. From a raw standpoint, salmon is one of those fish that is hard to go wrong with in Canada. I’ve had a lot of the best salmon that Japan has to offer, and I can tell you Canada’s average salmon stands up to it without fail.

Shokutsu: As much as I wanted to reach out and snatch a piece after seeing how beautiful they were, I was afraid of what the Sushi Monster in front of me might do to my hand if I dared encroach on his meal.  Just based on visuals alone, I knew the salmon nigiri must have tasted incredible!

Shokutsu: Sometimes I am not in the mood for nigiri.  It might be due to being a bit shell-shocked through having some really bad stuff all too often in Vancouver.  And then other times, I desire the simplicity of sashimi, to allow me to get a true taste of the quality of the restaurant’s offering.  Furthermore, sometimes I still crave the sushi rice.  Best solution, get the Chirashi Sushi.  They do it very well here at Wa’s, albeit a bit pricy.  The balance of ingredients ran the gamut of their sushi menu, and what surprised me most of all was the volume of sushi rice – the bowl was deceptively deep.  The quality of the sushi rice was very good, which made finishing off the entire bowl a challenge, but a welcome one at that.  As very often with chirashi, I end up not eating the provided sushi rice as it is a gooey mess (Uptown Sushi in Calgary was a repeat offender on this) , but not here at Wa’s.

Foodosopher: Finally, though they run out of it fairly frequently, I had a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.95). While on the small side, It is well topped: chasu, menma, spring onions, konbu, and beni shoga, in the hakata ramen style. The chasu is nice and well-flavoured,  a good balance of fat and pork. The noodles were a little less appropriate. Cooked to the soft side, they failed to shine in this bowl. They tasted like they were purchased from some local, pre-packaged noodle provider. The broth I enjoyed, had a decent flavour, though it lacked any real oiliness expected from a tonkotsu broth, was a bit thin, and was definitely a bit salty. I found out later than they buy their tonkotsu broth in a can, which would explain the saltiness, though I still stand by the fact that the broth is surprisingly decent. Overall, definitely much better than Muku, and for me, on par with Shikiji for a ramen offering in town.

Shokutsu: Surprisingly, I’ve never had the Tonkotsu Ramen here at Wa’s, despite hearing of it being the only place offering it, pre-Muku.  It is on my list for my next visit to this southern Alberta city, after Foodospher kindly offered me a spoon tasting of the broth.  It did seem a bit dense/thick to me, but I tend to like it that way as it clings to the noodles (especially if they are of the crinkly variety).  A more thorough tasting is required by me, but based on my single tasting, I was in agreement that it was a good offering.

Foodosopher: There’s actually a lot to like about Wa’s. Though it is fairly small and often full, they serve up some good, fresh Japanese food at decent prices. As a “general” Japanese restaurant, I feel they would fail to standout in a city with more specialized choices, with restaurants that did a better job at specific dishes and styles. However, in Calgary, there are a lot of redeeming qualities. Wa’s is worth visiting, not just because they are Japanese run, but for me, start and end with the freshness and quality of the fish.

Shokutsu: I will say that I concur with Foodosopher’s stance that the quality of the fish and the preparation of it is indeed top notch here at Wa’s.  They also do a good job with items from the kitchen as well, which warrants some more exploration on my part, as there are still some standard items I like to use as benchmarks when eating at all-encompassing Japanese restaurants in Canada.  Please feel free to leave us your feedback, comments, questions as usual in the box below…

Wa's Japanese on Urbanspoon

Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant
3888 Main Street
Vancouver, BC V5V 3P1
(604) 872-8822

Reputation is a funny thing. Through various means, usually newspaper reviews, internet forums, or word of mouth, a certain establishment develops a particular reputation – either positive, or negative. Those restaurants on the negative side have a tendency to disappear very quickly. Positive news, on the other hand, seems to launch through channels like wildfire – a restaurant becomes the choice du jour – the place everyone is going.

Fast forward some years. The restaurant is established. It has a steady clientele. And many of the impressions drawn from the first few months are still very much prevalent in most mediums. The issue of course is barring an amazing experience that requires consistent, repeat visits, most people will not go to the establishment more than once or twice, yet they still have a very firm opinion on it. Positive reviews, however, date back 5 or 6 years – you all know places like this. Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant is one of them.

The original Sun Sui Wah on Main has an excellent reputation for Dim Sum, and with the positive reviews, rewards, and accolades, a fairly sterling reputation over all. “Best of the City”, “Best High End Chinese”, “Best Seafood”. High praise in a dining city as diverse, filled with excellent quality choices, as Vancouver.

It was a Saturday, and we woke up late. Previous evening’s activities kept us out a bit later than usual, which is really quite late! Not feeling like making the drive to Richmond to go to Sea Harbour, and not up to trying Red Star, the much respected fmed’s (from Chowhound) recommendation, we decided to hit the Sun Sui Wah on Main instead. Much closer, and in our condition, close was good. We were hungry – famished really – and needing a greasy breakfast. At 1:30pm of course.

Sun Sui Wah is a very well designed room. Great use of natural light, clean and simple lines, it is clearly well designed for banquet services. This transalted into fairly reasonable dim sum service as well, as wide, easy to navigate corridors are needed to help facilitate ease of transport. No funny angles, and odd table crammed into nooks and crannys trying to fit every last seat available.

By the time we had arrived, the restaurant was starting to wind down. It was maybe 25% full, and they were starting to set up for a banquet. We were told they carried Dim Sum service till 3pm, so we had plenty of time to get our food. We offered to leave if it was inconvenient, but they insisted we stay, though warning us that there could be slightly longer waits than usual, and if we didn’t see what we wanted, we’d have to order it and they’d make a fresh batch.

The first thing we had an interest in is the BBQ Pork “Crispy Bun” – Cha Sao Bing. Usually, the layers of the sao bing (which in Taiwan, a more traditional take on the dish, are eaten with fried doughnut and fresh soy milk, and not BBQ Pork) are flaky and multi-layered. Pastry rolled back against itself over and over and baked until a bit will shatter in your mouth with crispy, oil shards. These were a bit flaky, but fairly thin, and upsettingly, quite cool. The pork was decent, though on the sweet side, but i disliked the sao bing. The dish was unsuccessful in my mind for these reasons.

Shrimp and Chive dumpling, these were steamed and pan fried to perfection. Crispy on the top, a nice thin gelatinous skin, and a moist, flavourful filling. Other than wanting a touch of seasoning (preferably incorporating a bit of soy into the pan fry process), they were excellent.

Gelatinous rice roll with doughnut. As i mentioned in a previous article, i am not generally a fan of these. These were no exception. They were soggy, the rice roll was bland, this was a generally unpleasant dish.

As we saw fewer and fewer carts, most of them recycling the same dishes, we called a manager over to order some of the standards. These came a bit slowly, but understandably so. Nonetheless, waiting 20 minutes for your dim sum to show up, while you’re within acceptable dining hours, is a bit annoying.

Sha Jiao – definitely not worth the wait. Impossibly thin skins that were oversteamed, stuck to the wax paper, and came broken. While the filling was ok, they really are a dish that requires a careful orchestration between the two.

Siu Mai, shrimp and pork balls wrapped in cabbage and topped with Roe. A very reasonable rendition, but the pork was a bit rubbery – likely worked too much. Nonetheless, it was a reasonable way to end the meal.

All in all, Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant was a reasonable, yet disappointing Dim Sum experience. There was nothing wrong with the food per se, but based on the recommendations, and the reviews, I was expecting a lot more. Sadly, all i got was another average Dim Sum experience. This leads me to question how often people really dine here – because while the quality of their reputation lives on, the food clearly fails to match. I wonder if in this case, the restaurant has lapsed into complacency – content to live on their reputation alone. That would be disappointing, because if they truly deserve the reputation they’ve carried for 20-some years, I would expect something better. Much better.

Sun Sui Wah Seafood on Urbanspoon

Sweet Obsession – Vancouver, BC

Sweet Obsession Cakes & Pastries
2611 West 16th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 739 0555

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood along West 16th Avenue, Sweet Obsession has been in existence for well over a decade now and has a strong customer base that appreciates the delectable delights and creations of Pastry Chef Tracy Kadonoff. Associated with the next door Trafalgars Bistro (previously reviewed on Foodosophy), Sweet Obsession currently operates a sit down cafe as well as housing a retail counter for take-away orders. It is a popular destination for late night gatherings, and you will often find the tables inside (and in the summer on the sidewalk patio) all occupied even past 9pm.  I’ve been there several times now over the past few years to eat-in as well as to take out, and most recently took friends there for their first experience after a group dinner.

Although I am not a huge dessert lover in general, there are times that I do have a craving for something sweet after a meal, or as a snack along with some good hot tea.  Given the choice, I will more often than not pass on anything chocolaty, and go for something along the lines of a cheesecake.  I think part of this is due to my curiosity about how each cheesecake will taste in terms of its texture and sweetness level, as I’ve had it come in so many different forms.  I’ve also found over the years that the denser is it, the less I am inclined to eat a larger portion (some sort of natural weight control mechanism for me perhaps).  The slice of Mango Cheesecake that I received here was on the richer side, which made cutting through with a fork not very easy.  The hint of mango flavor provided a refreshing tone to it, but overall it was quite sweet and even this little piece was more than I could handle.  Thankfully I was there with friends, who also had their own piece from which I could sample, and who could help polish off my cheesecake.

The Pecan Cranberry Tart was an interesting balance between the pecan filling and the cranberry (more sweet than tart).  It did taste very nice, though again I could probably not finish a single piece by myself as the richness of flavor was very strong.  The bottom shell was of a thinness that I enjoy, in that it was not too crumbly and did not leave that unpleasant dry granular dust-like taste you get in some pastries.

The third item that we shared was the Black & White Mousse.  I really enjoyed the top white layer as it was a softer, creamier consistency than the bottom half, which was much thicker and a whole lot sweeter.  Mixing the two flavors was a must, but the more I took a few bites, the less I wanted to slide my fork down into the darker section.  This cake was the least popular among our table.

The verdict?

Sweet Obsession fills a nice little niche as a neighborhood cafe, in a comfortable setting with plenty of dessert choices to enjoy.  It can get a bit hectic inside with both cafe diners and those just looking to take a piece/cake home as the floorspace is not that large.  As well, finding a free table at times is a challenge due to the popularity of the place.  The close proximity of the seating arrangements reminded me of coffee cafes in Asia.  However, on the right night, regardless of season, you will find it to be a pleasant place to meet with a friend or just sit and enjoy a book over a cup of coffee and a slice of dessert.  Who knows, it might just become your own little obsession.

Before we left, I quickly browsed the counter that featured an assortment of other food items.  This bag of mixed granola caught my attention, as I’d been looking for a cereal replacement that would interest me in the morning.  The price tag was a bit higher than it should be I thought, but nonetheless I purchased one and have enjoyed a few breakfasts with it since.

Sweet Obsession Cakes & Pastries on Urbanspoon

Muku Japanese Ramen – Calgary, AB

Muku Japanese Ramen
326 14th St. NW
Calgary, AB
Tel: (403) 283 6555

Muku Japanese Ramen on Urbanspoon

Discovering that the first ever, Calgary-based restaurant specializing in only Japanese Ramen had opened for business, I knew that I had to make a visit to eat at Muku on my recent Alberta trip.  By reading third party reports and through discussions with friends who have already eaten here or knew something about it, I had built up some expectations ahead of time.  Although I am someone who has had hundreds of varying bowls of ramen in Japan, I do not consider myself a full fledged “rameniac”, but do feel that I’ve accumulated enough ramen experiences over the years to allow me to accurately evaluate if it meets a certain standard of what you would expect from a really good bowl in Japan – especially the tonkotsu variety which is a personal favorite.

Muku has taken over the former Globefish location, that gave rise to the growing fushion maki revolution that seems to dominate the scene these days.  Two and a half years since first opening its doors (including the birth of a second outlet), it appears that a larger and more spacious location for restaurant number one was required and fortunately for the owners, they were able to take over a building right next door.  But what to do with the old location?  Turn it into a new concept (for Calgary anyways), and see if a stand alone ramen shop can survive.  Their journey has just begun.

Introducing Muku’s Tonkotsu Ramen.  Relatively low to mid-range consistency broth in terms of its richness.  The oily component of it was quite noticeable, and it didn’t have the white flecks of fat that you’d see at say Kintaro in Vancouver.  The range in which you can prepare the base broth using pork bones can result in varying textures and consistencies, so there is no “right” or “wrong” here, just different levels.  The resulting mix comes down to your personal preference.  Having said that though, there is one consistent element – that is the flavor of the broth.  Ideally, the finished soup should be one that is complex, creamy with distinct scents and taste properties derived from the long cooking process involving the pork bone and marrow.  Here at Muku, this is where it was weak in my opinion, and the general oiliness made it seem even more “watered” down in trying to compensate for the absence of a multi-dimensional flavor.

The noodles, granted what you can source in Canada, is limited and their choice wasn’t all that bad.  They were cooked, or rather on the undercooked side or katamen.  I wish they would give you some options as they do in Japan on how you’d like to have your noodles done, as Muku’s was a bit less cooked than I would prefer.  It would be fine if they were of a more thinner variety as they would soften while in the broth while eating, but this was not the case here.  Again, this is personal preference.

Next, the toppings.  As you can see in the visual above, there were some slices of chashu, as well as some smaller chopped bits that were a bit leaner.  I must say I’d never seen this dual cut of chashu before in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.  It stuck me as odd.  Then there were the two pieces of baby corn, again an oddity.  I would much rather prefer some fresh cob corn, but only in a miso ramen soup as it is just not a usual occurrence in tonkotsu broths.  Finally the slices of ordinary sushi gari –  another unorthodox twist.  They really should have beni shoga that you find at Menya in Vancouver, for the reasons I listed in that post.  In terms of authenticity, its like replacing butter with margarine in a pastry recipe.

My dining companion had the Miso Tonkotsu Ramen.  Probably one of the least mainstream pairings of the four base broths you find in ramen, but it does exist in some parts.  Unfortunately, Muku’s take on it really blew me away (in a negative way).  For a premium over the regular Tonkotsu Ramen, you get a single dollop of miso paste!  Now if you have had a proper miso-based ramen before in your lifetime, you know very well that it is supposed to be incorporated into the broth, adding more body and depth of flavor.  In terms of balance, it should be slightly on the side of the tonkotsu, but clearly in greater proportions than what this drop could do here.  The way it was lying on top of everything like that dreaded spicy sauce that many people put on their creative sushi rolls, just about made me wish there were some heavy handed ramen policemen, who could charge them with this injustice to the ramen world.

Given the unsteady reports of customers coming in, including many who still confuse this place as serving more than just ramen and step inside only to walk out (some of them no doubt still confusing it for Globefish) or those out there that think that they need to add other “noodles” to the menu, ala soba or udon (which is another insane proposition I won’t get into as I can already feel the Ramen Gods have had enough suffering), I think a hard challenge lies ahead for Muku.  That is to increase awareness among the masses and educate customers as to the finer details and appeal of ramen.  Will it one day line up on the podium with the likes of Japanese staples such as sushi and tempura in the West?  Time will only tell.

Calgary is at a slight disadvantage compared to the west coast (e.g. Vancouver, California) for the sheer greater numbers of people who already have a greater understanding of ramen living there (either permanently or short term ex-patriots), not to mention already existing ramen choices.  As well, the incredible culture of ramen in Japan is so difficult to convey, in its importance in pop food culture.  I sense that Muku’s ownership will struggle to achieve the same level of popularity they have with their other chain for these vary reasons.  Though I wish them well, my fear is that a wave of first time ramen eaters will begin to think that some of the elements they find here are the norm – when it clearly is not – and the taste is among the better representations of tonkotsu ramen – again, not true in my opinion.

Muku Japanese Ramen on Urbanspoon