Bistrot Du Coin – Washington, DC

Bistrot Du Coin
1738 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC
(202) 234-6969

During short, non-leisure trips I’m often forced to put my interest in eating out and trying new things on the backburner due to various reasons, including unfortunate hinderances such as lack of free time and fussy travel companions. But there are those occasions when my interests do find a fortuitous match and I meet like-minded folks who know a good meal when they see one, and are willing to seek them out. A well travelled businessman, who was born-and-raised in the DC area introduced me to Bistrot Du Coin, which turned out to be the gastronomic highlight of my trip.

The sweltering heat of the DC summer did put a bit of a damper on my dinner experience as the inside was absolutely packed and the air circulation was minimal at best. We were seated on the upper floor overlooking the main dining area below, which perhaps made the stuffiness seem that much worse. With the boisterous crowd and plentiful tables full of wonderful smelling food, it felt part American overindulgance and part French bistro casualness.  I was so insanely hungry after another long day that I was willing to put up with the discomfort as long as the food was satisfying, and thankfully it was.

Continue reading

Bistro Alma – Calgary, AB

Bistro Alma
at Hotel Alma, University of Calgary
169 University Gate NW
Calgary, AB
(403) 220-3203

Hotel dining is always sure to conjure up some strong images.  High priced.  Extravagant preparation.  Fine service.  But often for me, hotel dining is a last resort when I’m traveling, as I’ve often come away unsatisfied or feeling ripped off.  No matter where I am, I’d prefer to venture out of my hotel without a clear path of where to go to eat and try to sample whatever I can that strikes my fancy by walking the streets.  Surprisingly, I’ve never gotten lost on these unplanned wanderings and have always been able to make it back to my accommodations.

However, there is one factor that limits this kind of free style activity… the weather.

Particular when its winter.
And cold.
And on the prairies.

Without proper clothing or a mode of handy transportation to protect yourself from the harsh elements, it completely derails any sense of food adventuring I might have.  Hence, the decision to eat at the hotel.

While stationed for a few days on the campus of the University of Calgary, I was provided with free lodging at Hotel Alma.  A relatively new place (open since last October) that functions as both a student residence on the lower floors and a hotel for the public on the upper ones.  Very much dormitory-style, the rooms are tiny, though nicely designed with a “Euro” flair and are perfectly suited for the business visitor.  Pictured above was the view from my single window.  Brrr, chilly cold, I know!

Continue reading

Hamersley’s Bistro – Boston, MA

Hamersley’s Bistro
553 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02116-6306
(617) 423-2700

For the most part, I value good food over service. I used to say to people that “food is all that matters – service is irrelevant if the food isn’t good”, but i’ve since backed off such a polarized view.  After all, i realized that great service often colors one’s view of the food (it can be hard to separate the two – since you *want* to like the food more). And really good food with lousy service, sometimes isnt worth it. Depending on the situation of course.

A pricey, well regarded South End bistro with a special Sunday Brunch menu, Hamersley’s Bistro continually draws rave reviews for their food and service. Seemed like a nice place to meet up with family for a tasty meal. Especially when meeting the new “boyfriend” for the first time.

The inside of Hamersley’s Bistro has a nice, though formal feeling to it. White linen, columns, high arching ceilings, there is a tremendous amount of light that makes the space feel comfortable, yet a bit formal for my preference.

Continue reading

Café Muse – Vancouver, BC

Café Muse
2305 41st Ave. W
Vancouver, BC
(604) 568-2948

First off, loved the name of this place.  And no I’m not a fan of the band.

My visit was on a dreary winter weekend morning – a perfect time to get a quick cup of hot coffee, something to nibble on and work on the laptop with free wi-fi as I killed some time before a meet up with a friend.  I wasn’t alone, as several others had the same idea, some even pulling out those dreaded computers with a piece of fruit as their logo.

With a wide open glass facing, the entrance area is nice and bright.  Towards the back are more tables but feels darker and enclosed.  Why people would want to sit there when you can be in natural light is beyond me.  Pleasant and boisterous welcome from the folks behind the counter, make this place feel pretty homey.

Continue reading

Mango Shiva Indian Bistro and Chai Bar – Calgary, AB

Mango Shiva Indian Bistro and Chai Bar
218 8 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2P 1B5
(403) 290-1647
Open Mon-Sat 11am-3pm, 5pm-10pm

Progress: advancement. gradual improvement or growth or development.

As any city like Calgary grows, there are many changes that occur. Sometimes, this can be viewed positively such as the influx of new people, ideas, and cultures. Sometimes, it can be viewed negatively, say through rising crime or the demolition of old character buildings to make way for new skyscrapers. Whether or not this is progress, is a personal value judgement. So when the building that originally housed Mango Shiva was torn down, to make way for a skyscraper, I figured that would be the end of the slightly upscale East Indian eatery that was Mango Shiva – a restaurant that housed some fond memories for me.

Well, Mango Shiva is back. Moved from their original location next to Cowboys, down onto Stephen Avenue into the heart of the downtown core, they’ve been reincarnated as an Indian Bistro and Chai Bar. Definitely an upscale location, the new room is impressive in a modern sort of way – dark woods, polished surfaces, shiny fixtures. You know, progress.

Now the original Mango Shiva was always a bit different from your average Indian restaurant. Their decor seemed slightly more upscale – everything seemed cleaner, if not a bit eclectic. They used higher quality ingredients, service was a bit better, and of course, prices were slightly higher as well. But it was always a safe choice. You heard few complaints about Mango Shiva.

The new Mango Shiva has taken the original concept, and accelerated it by ten. Not only is the decor very modern, but service is excellent, the ingredients are very fresh, and of course, the prices are slightly higher. Menu items have a modern interpretation to them. Progress.

I was there on a Friday for lunch, and I showed up right as they opened. “Do you have a reservation?” i was asked. Whoops… didnt think i’d need one. The realities of downtown dining that i’ve forgotten. I was politely told they were completely booked, but would be happy to serve us at the bar. Works for me.

Everything is ordered ala Carte, same as usual. The bartender, who was our server, was patient, polite, and friendly. Finally, my dining companion chooses the butter chicken – a choice i’m thrilled with, because i get to try it without having to eat an entire order myself – I am, after all, not the biggest fan of butter chicken. I choose the lamb chops. We get a couple orders of naan and rice as well.

Butter chicken ($17) is a good staple to use for comparison from restaurant to restaurant, as it’s as ubiquitous as pho sate, or ginger beef. The Butter Chicken at Mango Shiva is good. Not done in the traditional way I am used to, their modern interpretation has all the great elements of butter chicken – the richness, the depth of flavour, and the tenderness – just highlighted differently. They used whole pieces of chicken, that have been clearly marinating for a long period of time. There is an excellent balance of flavours – pepper, cumin, citrus, coriander, garlic and ginger, with the pepper, cumin, citrus and coriander flavours being most dominant. Not a lot of heat though. The sauce has a nice depth of flavour, and a heavy dose of butter/ghee. It’s definitely a thicker, more tomato-emphasized sauce, but together, they work well.

The lamb chops ($22) are good as well. Tender, though with a slightly dried out texture, the cardamon, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, and cumin flavours blend really well with the slightly lean cuts of lamb. Topped with a dizzying array of vegetables and nuts, the lamb is combined with a forgettable sauce, though still satisfying. The toppings bother me a bit as well, as they take away from the lamb. They seemed to be placed without any specific purpose or reason.

The rice ($2.50) and naan ($2.50) are decent. Nothing exceptional, nothing noteworthy. Fairly small sized servings for the price though (two orders of naan pictured).

Overall, Mango Shiva is a newer, updated version of what they’ve always done; good service, good modern interpretations of classic Indian food. Everything about it is very safe and familiar. Of course, the drawback to this is the food, while good, is safe and familiar. If i was to classify Mango Shiva as a restaurant, I would say it is the place to go when you are craving Indian, and on a blind date, corporate lunch, or taking your significant other’s parents out for dinner. It’s a nice room, nothing too adventerous, and you know what to expect. You won’t go wrong. While I generally prefer to be more on the risk-taking side of dining out, especially when talking about Indian food, there is certainly a reason, and a need for this kind of dining. Mango Shiva fills this niche quite nicely. Not exactly progress, but a good thing nonetheless 🙂

Mango Shiva Indian Bistro & Chai Bar 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

Sage Bistro – Vancouver, BC

[As with all of our posts, please click on any image for an enlarged view]

Sage Bistro
(not to be confused with a restaurant of the same name in Canmore, AB)
University Centre, 6331 Crescent Road, Vancouver, BC
Open Monday~Friday
Breakfast, 7:15am to 9:00am
Lunch, 11:30am to 2:00pm
Dinner, open for special events only

Certainly the many academic campuses that I have visited in my lifetime have been infamous for their usual array of dismal cafeterias and fast food chains dishing out pre-packaged, pre-cooked, preservative-filled, artificially-colored disasters that can be had for cheap – a key element in deciding what to eat for many a starving student.  So I was intrigued upon hearing of this restaurant that had boldly decided to set up right on the campus of the University of British Columbia, which for those who have never been, is positioned on one of the most beautiful pieces of land, not only in Canada, but I reckon around the world.  Sage Bistro, through the online community, seemed to be appreciated by those few who perhaps even knew about it, and I decided that it being the summer break and with me in the neighbourhood, that I would check it out for the very first time. My main interest was to see if the buzz I’d heard was truly deserved, or more based on being a ‘big fish in a small pond’ – getting its praise simply by being in a geographical space dominated by the aforementioned fast food competition, as well as being well off the beaten path.

Stepping inside, I expected a lot less people with main classes not in session, so I was surprised to see quite a full dining area.  A long table of about twenty people right in the middle of the floor seemed to be partaking in some kind of social gathering, while another whole section of the room was being set up and not being used at all.  Without a reservation, my guest and I were whisked away to the lounge area – seeing it in the light made it seem all the 1980’s tackiness I heard it was cracked up to be – with its red brick wall which reminded me of my old elementary school’s exterior.  This month’s lunch menu featured a choice of two appetizers, three salads, two pastas, four entrees and three vegetarian dishes.  Sitting next to us was an older couple, who apparently had not ordered any appetizers, and on the other side, a pair of gentlemen who had.  I guess for lunch, its really up to you, though figure an entree per person is just the right volume.

But wanting to get the most out of this visit, I brought a guest along and we both chose an appetizer to start off, to get the most exposure to this establishment’s offerings as we could.  A plate of three types of bread was brought to our table (a second basket would cost you $2.50) after we’d received the menus.  An opening volley to the meal was the day’s soup creation – a smooth asparagus soup with sliced almonds.  I thought it would be richer and thicker, but turned out to be just the right consistency for this part of the meal, with good flavours that were not too overpowering.  At $6.00 for the side size and $7.00 for the entree size, the latter I was told was just another cup more in volume, it seemed a bit steep though, and I know a cup was more than enough and can’t imagine how someone could have more than this for a meal.

As a second warm-up, a plate with a trio of Dungeness crab cakes ($8.00) with lime-chilli aioli, served with a slaw of red & yellow onions and cilantro, was brought to our table.  On first glance, the intense darkness in color turned me off as I thought for sure they were overcooked on the outside… and taking a bite, they certainly were.  Inside though, it was still remarkably moist and crumbled easily with a fork and the flavours were spot on, I especially liked the kick coming from the aioli!  The slaw was nice, not too sour and softened just right to match the creamy texture of the cakes.

Mains selected were the campanelli pasta ($14.00) with mussels and chorizo, tossed in a garlic/shallot/lemon juice/parsley sauce & a guajillo chile and lime marinated roast chicken ($17.00) – bone-in leg and breast portions –  served with a pineapple salsa on a rice pilaf with spears of green asparagus and yellow carrots.  Its been a while since I’ve tasted campanelli, and soon remembered why I was not a big fan as they just seem huge per bite and kind of flip flop all over the place when you try to stab them with a fork. 🙂  The mussels were tiny but not dried out, and the chorizo was fantastic!  Something from the sauce, think it was either the shallots or the parsley, however was a turn off, as it was just coming across as bitter and the more pieces I ate, the more this sensation grew on my taste buds, much to my dismay.

The roast chicken was well cooked inside, certainly not overdone, and the chile/lime sauce had caramelized well on the exterior skin and had dripped nicely onto the bed of pilaf, giving that more flavour components.  The roasted summer veggies added some more color to the plate, making the whole presentation stand out.  Not an overly experimental dish, but good solid, earthy tastes throughout, well fitting to the bright day we had that was still a bit on the chilly side with the blowing wind.

All in all, a pleasant experience, good though not overly outstanding food, with generally attentive service (getting some attention for the bill at the end was trying, as it seemed a bunch of others were wanting the same thing and the lounge was just staffed by one person, though two others had been around earlier delivering plates and refilling water).  Hard to be sure, but the clientele seemed to be more people who either worked on campus (e.g. professors, admin staff) or people living in the nearby neighbourhoods, and larger parties gathered for special occasions.  I am sure if on this day they had opened up the seating outside with the fantastic view of the water, they’d have more people coming for the view.  Perhaps its both a blessing and a curse to be located on such prime real estate, in a more distant part of Vancouver proper, though judging from the busy lunch crowd, it looks like Sage Bistro and Chef de cuisine Andreas Kodis have found themselves a nice little niche in this neck of the woods…

Sage Bistro on Urbanspoon

Trafalgars Bistro – Vancouver, BC

[As with all of our posts, please click on any image for an enlarged view]

Trafalgars Bistro
2603 16th Avenue West
Vancouver, BC V6K 3C2
Daytime: 10:00am to 4:00pm Monday to Friday
11:00 am to 4:00pm Weekends and Holidays
Dinner: from 5:00pm Monday to Saturday

I’d heard of a promising dessert shop through a local friend of mine who recommended it, and a week back I finally made my first stop at Sweet Obession Cakes & Pastries on 16th avenue in Kitsilano. I’ll reserve comments on the desserts here, as this is a post on the establishment next door, Trafalgars Bistro, which I noticed as I was leaving the shop and made a mental note to check it out. Not totally surprising, I was there on the following weekend for brunch, as my curiousity got the best of me. [I later learned that the owners of both establishments are the same pair!]

A warm welcoming room with hardwood floors, and a French sense of style but not overly pretentious, Trafalgars Bistro also has a great landscaped patio which has almost as many seats (30) as there are inside (40), which seemed popular on a rare sunny day this week that has been dominated by rain. Immediately upon stepping inside, I noticed the long dark leather banguette at the back of the room, which serves as a nice anchor to the entire relaxed atmosphere. Seated right away by a gentleman who offered us a few choices of tables (unfortunately the patio was completely full), a nice touch which I always appreciate rather than just being led to a single available seating. Our very gregarious female server then quickly brought our menus and introduced the brunch special of the day ($14) – french toast with fresh strawberries and sauce (sorry, her explanation was much more detailed, something about a type of bread that had a lot of air pockets/holes in it), which my brunch companion ended up selecting, and was very happy with. Taking a quick bite, I soon realized the well thought out use of this type of bread as it was so fluffy and the holes just collapsed and were flooded with the poured on fruit sauce and allowed you to enjoy all the flavors at once.

Scanning the menu (daytime), there were six main offerings and then four sandwiches which could be paired with one of two soup selections. Figuring the poached eggs and hollandaise on potato latke was the most popular item, I passed on that and after some debate, went with one of the sandwiches: a tomato and artichoke grilled cheese (Piave, fontina, cheddar) on rosemary sourdough sandwich ($15). I don’t think I’ve ever hard this combination of flavors together, but the cheeses really pulled out the best in the nice warm tomatoes and artichoke inside. The rosemary in the bread was not overpowering, and grilled perfectly, not too soft and not too crispy hard. As my side soup, I went with the leek, potato and roasted garlic with an olive oil drizzle, which was creamy with a few chunks of the potato still remaining. It came out pipping hot, which was great as too often any soup I order comes out oh so lukewarm by the time it reaches my table.

The portions for both our orders were just right, not those overplatted, high volume messes that are often found at other brunch serving places in the city, and thus I think it would be a popular place for women or those with smaller appetites who prefer quality over quantity. Some might say the price point is a bit high, and I suppose that is true for the quantity being served, but I don’t think this is the place nor neighborhood for the “value” crowd, and for me on this particular day, it was just fine for me and I was a satisfied customer. Other final impressions were that the clientele here seemed to be more often than not, regulars or people who live in the neighborhood. I spotted several people going up to the bar area, near the kitchen to have an extensive chat with one of the proprietors, suggesting a strong familiarity. And lastly, for those with a food sustainability state of mind, Trafalgars Bistro does support the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program for seafood, so you can enjoy all the Sockeye salmon and BC mussels on the menu to your heart’s content!

Next time, I will have to visit the dinner menu…

Trafalgars Bistro on Urbanspoon