Alvin Garden – Burnaby, BC


Alvin Garden
4850 Imperial St.
Burnaby, BC
(604) 437-0828

Alvin Garden on Urbanspoon

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Alvin Garden is not the best name for this place. The name “Alvin” reminds me of chipmunks. I much prefer this restaurant’s former name — “The Xiang”…it is far more evocative. Xiang (“Xiangjiang”) is the name of the major river that runs through the Hunan province and flows into Lake Dongting. (The more famous Yangtze River also flows into that lake).

Alvin Garden has actually gone through two resurrections in the last few years. It is really a reincarnation of Crystal Hunan formerly located on Kingsway not too far from this new location.

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The menu at Alvin Garden is unapologetically Hunan in composition. There are over a hundred dishes to try and nearly all of them are rustic Hunan dishes. Hunan cuisine is a rare beast in this part of the world which is dominated by the familiar Hong Kong inflected Cantonese cuisine. Alvin Garden is one of only three truly Hunan restaurants in this region that I know about. I have not yet been to the other two: Hu’s Hu Nan in Vancouver, and Gordon Park in Richmond. I have heard good things about them and I am looking forward to trying them out.

Hunan cuisine is fiery hot…with sourness, chili heat, and smokiness dominating the flavour profile. Many dishes use pickled Hunan pepper and smoked meats similar to Western bacon and ham. The hotter dishes initially pummel you with the quick acting sour heat which, to the relief of the diner, subsides quickly as you keep eating. After a while, all you feel is sort of chile-induced euphoria.

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I have noted the use of Sichuan peppercorns and a few nods to Sichuan cuisine in a couple of dishes. This should not be entirely surprising since Sichuan province is right next door. The use of Sichuan peppercorns (an essential ingredient in Sichuan cuisine) is relatively rare and is reserved for only a couple of Hunan dishes. The Hunanese find the flavour of the peppercorn obtrusive.

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I truly think that this place is a real treasure and thus I have been patronizing this restaurant’s various incarnations over the years. Often I am dining alone or with one other companion….which comes with some obvious disadvantages. Like in many fine Chinese restuarants, Alvin Garden’s/Xiang’s/Crystal’s best dishes come in banquet sized servings. In some of my past visits I would often compromise and order smaller and perhaps less interesting dishes….or when I know I am on my way home, I would deliberately over-order with leftovers in mind. This particular strategy raises a few eyebrows from the server and the neighboring diners as dish after dish would arrive at a table of one…I have learned to not be embarrassed.

When some Vancouver denizens of the online forum Chowhound chose this place as the next Chowdown, I was ecstatic. Finally I would be have a full dining experience there. So the other night, nine Vancouver area Chowhounds converged at Alvin Garden for an evening of dining, and convivial discussions about food. One of the attendees is a notable expert in Chinese cuisine here in town and it was great to hear his take on the food here.

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We ordered eleven dishes. I’ll try to recount as many as I can remember: the Dongting Chili Soup Fish (Tilapia); Five-Spice Pork Heart; Lamb with Pepper, & Cumin; Beef with Pickled Pepper; Dried Tofu Skin & Chinese Celery; Potato Shreds in Chili Oil Dressing; Hunan Braised Pork; Fried Pork & Green Beans with Chilies; Hunan Bacon with Garlic Stems, Hunan Smoked Duck; and Home-Style Tofu.

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My favorite dishes were the Hunan Bacon with Garlic Stems, the Chili Soup Fish, The Five Spice Pork Heart….but all dishes were great, really. None of the dishes suffered from the typical murkiness you would too often find in Hunan dishes cooked at Cantonese restaurants. Cantonese cooks employ certain techniques that do not complement Hunan cuisine – for example, they would often augment their dishes with a master stock instilling a certain “sameness” and lack of clarity to a Hunan dish. (The context is different – those techniques work for Cantonese food where the fresh flavours of the main ingredients are meant to stand out) Here, the flavours were clean, distinct, bright and bold. Each dish stood on its own and yet complemented each other.

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All told…we paid $20 per person (this includes the tip) – an amazing deal. I noted that the place was packed on this Tuesday night so business must be good. Great news to those of us who love Chinese regional cuisines.

Alvin Garden on Urbanspoon

Campagnolo – Vancouver, BC


Campagnolo
1020 Main St.
Vancouver, BC
604-484-6018

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon

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I have been sitting on this report now for a few weeks. I’m not really sure why I hesitated to publish it. It could be that it sort of broke a minor rule I have of only reporting on smaller, more under the radar sort of places. Campagnolo does not fit this mold for sure. It had received a lot of good publicity from Vancouver’s food press…rightly so. It is a good restaurant that has a lot going for it.

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Campagnolo is operated by the group who run Fuel over on the West side of the city. Fuel is a great restaurant with the kind of ethic that this area of the world is known: organic, locally sourced ingredients, “nose to tail” philosophy, talented cooks. Campagnolo is much the same. As a matter of fact, the kitchen had a deer hanging in it getting ready to be prepped “nose to tail” (from primal cuts of meat all the way to the nasty bits that end up in their pate and cured sausages.) The group has also started up a small retail/in-house curing operation cleverly called “The Cure” which will supply Fuel, Campagnolo, and retail.

Campagnolo attempts to serve “rustic” Italian food from the countryside of Peidmont and Emiglia-Romagna. I have a positive bias towards rustic and homey food so I was very interested to see how Campagnolo attempts this style of presentation.

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My friend and I started with the Cecci – deep fried chickpeas that have the same kind of addicting quality as good peanuts. The outer skin had a pleasing papery crispness which acted as a counterpoint to the creaminess of the chickpea. The skin was somewhat dark and caramelized…perhaps they pre-marinated it with a sweet concoction prior to deep frying it.

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The next dish was their Octopus Salad. It wasn’t exemplary as the Octopus itself tasted strongly fishy. It’s supposed to taste slightly fishy, but this was a bit much…and for comparison, I have had similar dishes elsewhere were the octopus tasted much more refined and subtle.

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The we moved on to the salumi platter consisting of pate and cured sausages – all house made of course. This cold plate was decent enough…nothing spectacular and certainly nothing that I wouldn’t be able to source right in my neighbourhood. Perhaps they are still in the process of experimenting and improving their recipes and techniques at The Cure, but so far, the salumi fails to impress. Oddly, it didn’t come with the obligatory bread. I did ask for some at an extra cost…but it is an odd choice on their part to not have included it. The pate certainly would not have worked at all without bread.

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The next dish was their tagliarini with pork ragu. The noodles where thin and perfectly cooked…the ragu was nicely prepared and seasoned. The shreds of pork were very tender – perhaps a bit past where it should have been because I felt it lacked ‘bite’ in the texture.

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We finished with their Olive Oil cake…this was the most pleasing part of the meal. I’m always surprised how well Olive Oil works as a dessert ingredient – it imparts a floral, fruitiness to this dish. It worked very well with the semolina cake base, vanilla cream and the caramelized pear.

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Overall, a fine meal. Campagnolo is a very nice addition to the city’s Casual Fine Dining scene – and it certainly is a very nice, but oddly juxtaposed addition to this very sketchy underbelly of a neighbourhood. It is also refreshing to see some real Regional Italian food instead of the usual generic Italian I normally see. Yet, a few weeks after dining there, I still feel unexcited about this place (quite unlike the feelings I have about Campagnolo’s sister restaurant, Fuel). As I wrote this report, I started to understand. Perhaps its limited and focused menu needs no more exploration on my part – and sampling a few dishes was enough for me to say “I get it.” Perhaps it didn’t feel quite “rustic” enough…it felt too fine? Maybe Italian food just doesn’t excite me as much as other cuisines?

The food was good, the service was excellent, the space was interesting, but I have no real compulsion to return.

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon

Sakanaya – Shimoda, JP


Sakanaya
Bay Station 1F
1-1 Gaikaoka, Shimoda City
Shizuoka, Japan
+81 0558 23 0358

Having lived in various places when it comes to closer to home (Canada), please have often asked me which I prefer among my two latest stops… the coastal environment of Vancouver with its proximity to the ocean, or the majestic mountains that are a short drive away from a place like Calgary.  Put simply, am I a ‘water’ guy or a ‘land’ guy?

In response I’m apt to say, that as much as I enjoy outdoor hiking and think the Rockies are one of the most amazing natural surroundings any place on the planet, there is something about the beauty and calming sensation that comes with strolling along a beach with the waves crashing against the shoreline and the distinct scent of sea water that permeates the air.  Perhaps its also the Pisces in me, but that draw to the ocean always beckons me when I travel.  So whenever I come across a harbour with various boats as well as larger ocean liners, I always imagine what it would be like to travel the seas on a daily basis or over long periods of time.  Shimoda City is one such place that struck my fancy with its quaint little waterside marina and the following is a report on a simple meal I had there.

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Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse – Calgary, AB


Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
294-115 9 Avenue SE
Calgary, AB
(403) 246-3636

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, as it never seems to be the right time to bring it up, but i’ve decided to bite the bullet and post it. Ruth’s Chris. I’ve been called a traitor for eating here. By my best friend no less. Ruth’s Chris, in my opinion, is one of the most controversial restaurants in Alberta. In the middle of Canadian Beef country, stands this iconic US chain serving…USDA Prime Beef? Regional protectionism aside, you have to admit that you’d be surprised if there was a place trying to serve Canadian beef in Texas. Other than the thought of oil dollars and population expansion in Alberta, i’m not sure why they ventured into Alberta, but it makes for interesting discussion that they did.

Ruth’s Chris was founded in New Orleans, and has expanded into a global empire of “fine dining steakhouses”. They sell themselves on two key things – the temperature that they cook their steaks at (1800 F), and the corn-fed, US beef that they serve.  They have a standardized, high end look, and pride themselves on their service, the decor, as well as high quality beef.  The prices certainly match the image. Service is designed to be high end – but it has a tendency to be a bit overbearing. Especially the sneer when tap water is ordered.  A little more laid back would be appreciated on my part.

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In terms of a menu, it’s all classic steakhouse. Big meaty appetizers and salads, beef entrees, and the obligatory entrees for those who don’t eat beef (seafood, lamb, chicken, veg option). I havent looked, but i would guess they would have cheesecake and creme brulee on the dessert menu.

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Springfields Cafe – Calgary, AB


Springfields Cafe
4-1715 27 Avenue NE
Calgary, AB
(403) 250-8283

Springfields Cafe on Urbanspoon

Every industrial park, office building in every city i’ve ever been in has the ubiquitous breakfast/sandwich/burger/chinese food cafe. Typically run by industrious immigrants, I can grudgingly respect their “all things to all people” approach – a departure from my usual philosophy, but after all, they can’t really afford to pass up any sales. Usually, for some strange reason, I love their grilled cheese and fries. Frozen fries fried in a t-fal fryer, process cheese melted between two heavily buttered pieces of Safeway toast. Usually $3-$4. Yes, there, i said it. I really like that junk. What can I say – being denied processed cheese as a child has made me a minor addict.

Anyway, all things to all people aside, i’ve found most of these cafes are run by Asian immigrants. And all without fail, they serve some form of wor wonton soup. The popularity of wonton soup is almost universal – safe, generally a little bland, and a nice balance of vegetables, meat, and broth. My issue is you can seldom find an actual good bowl of wonton soup! Simple things, after all, are some of the hardest to make.  If you think about it, there are a lot of components that are key to a good bowl of wor wonton soup. Nice broth – rich flavour without too much msg or sodium. The right egg noodles – firm, and chewy, that maintain their texture in the hot broth. Good crisp vegetables, cooked slightly in the heat of the broth. BBQ pork, fresh and fatty. And of course, the wontons. Nice silky skins, that hold their structure in the broth, with a rich, fatty filling of meat or seafood, with bursts of flavour (i like garlic and sesame oil).  Of course, i spent 3 months looking for a great bowl of wor wonton soup in Calgary, and have yet to find it, so most times, i’ll take a few positive things about the bowl and move on. That was the extent of my hope for Springfields Cafe.

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Anyway, I ordered the grilled cheese and fries ($3.75). Believe it or not, the fries were not very good. The straight frozen kind, they had the chalky texture of mush on the interior, and not crispy enough on the exterior. The grilled cheese was ok, though i think they used margarine instead of butter. All in all, that part was a bit disappointing.

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Uosuke – Shimoda, JP


Uosuke
Shimoda 1-6-8, Shimoda City
Shizuoka, Japan
+81 (0)558 27 3330

As we enter our tenth month of existence here at Foodosophy, I’m reminded of one of the reasons why I accepted Foodosopher’s offer to contribute to the site (besides that fact that I was already experimenting with food photography) –  I’m always on the lookout for new and good places to eat.

Taking a look through the various search terms that bring our viewers to our humble pages, I’m struck by the fact that I must not alone in having this interest.  People are constantly seeking information and checking out commentary and reviews of places they intend to dine at, or perhaps at restaurants they recently have done so and are looking to compare experiences.

As good as online sources, published books, magazines, newspaper articles, etc. are at providing this kind of information, for me word of mouth plays a very strong role in deciding where I go to eat.  Not just anyone’s opinion mind you, it has to be from a trusted source or from people that I feel that I have a similar set of food preferences and tastes with.  Granted we won’t agree on everything, but for the most part we will, and its that comfort level that leads me to continue to rely on these sources.

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Green Grato – Calgary, AB


Green Grato
3229 17 Avenue SE
Calgary, AB
(403) 272-2988

Green Grato on Urbanspoon

Blending two food cultures cannot be an easy thing. With the restaurant industry in any major city comprised of a large number of immigrant cuisines, they face a tough challenge. Trying to accurately balance authentic native cuisine with the tastes of their newly adopted country. If the purpose is to service people from their birth country, then they have less to be concerned about. But from my own observations, this typically fails to work – most restaurants need a fairly diverse clientele to succeed in the long term. This is a challenge very much in evidence at the Green Grato.

Green Grato serves Carribean and Canadian meals. Ignoring the pizza, wings, and other Canadian dishes, their primary focus is on classic Jamacian dishes. Jerk, brown stews, roti, ackee and salt fish, rice and peas. A lot of Jamaican food is quite approachable for the general masses – with the actual spicy “heat” level of each dish being the only real issue for the general populace. For me though, Jamaican food is all about bold, punchy flavours. Big flavour, lots of happiness in one place.

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Located in a large strip mall just off 17th Ave SE, the location leaves a lot to be desired. During the day, it is a long way from the high worker density areas of downtown, and NE. At night, the area often slows down – shops close early, and many people avoid the general vicinity. It’s too bad really, as some of the more interesting restaurants in the city are in the area.

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