1851 Commercial Drive
Tel: 604 215 0661
It has been a horrific winter here in Vancouver so far. The incessant snow and now the subsequent downpour has really been cramping my eating. We have had rare respite from the weather which forced us to postpone and cancel a few holiday family gatherings. Here at home, I have been feeling cabin feverish and I had been dying to get out. Luckily, I live near Commercial Drive – a good neighborhood with affordable eating within walking distance. My last few dining forays outside involved Asian food – mainly noodle houses on Hastings St and Vietnamese pho joints nearby. Yesterday, I felt like something different….”Tunisian”, I thought to myself.
The Carthage Cafe specializes in French-Tunisian cuisine. It is the kind of place that helps provide Commercial Drive with the reputation of being a street where you can find diverse and affordable dining experiences. This street is lined with restaurants of various ethnicities — Italian, Cantonese, Sichuan, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Salvadorean, Vegetarian (is that a bonafide ethnic group? Methinks yes.), Mexican, Cuban (if you count the Havana as “Cuban”), Belgian, Japanese, Indian, Portugese, and of course, Tunisian, just to count a few.
I had been to the Carthage a couple of times before. I had their very good Mussels in Broth both other times I was there. Today, I thought I would try one of their truly authentic Tunisian dishes – their Chicken Tagine.
The restaurant itself is very well appointed. I walk past it nearly everyday and I have always been impressed with the efforts that the proprietors have taken to make it look and feel upscale. The decor on the outside and inside truly makes it feel like a bistro or a brasserie in Paris – with the dark wood tables, darkly finished trim, tiles, and in this case, the nice Middle Eastern touches (the very cool looking ceiling lamps, for example). The tables are always set with clean, gleaming wine glasses, linen and tableware – even when they are closed. The menu is focused – with only a couple of the classic dishes of this cuisine represented – couscous dishes, for example. For the most part, the menu falls squarely in the “French-Tunisian” fusion.
The service was prompt and efficient – unusual for Commercial Drive where we normally get lackadaisical waitstaff and ineffectual management. My server refilled my water and bread basket without my prompting, and my food came within minutes of ordering.
The tagine came piping hot…and it smelled terrific – with the notes of Middle Eastern spices (cumin, coriander, etc.) filling the air. I don’t have much experience in authentic Tunisian food (since it is a rare beast in this part of the world and I haven’t been to Tunisia or had it in France where this cuisine is well represented), so I will just have to rely on objective experience. I have attempted to cook it myself in the past – I relied on recipes from some of my cookbooks…so the tagine I have made previously will have to be my own benchmark.
The dish was well seasoned. The broth tasted of some of the signature ingredients of this cuisine: the spices provide the flavour foundation …olives and preserved lemon provided the flavour overtones of tang and a slight bitterness. The chicken was tender… however, because it was made with chicken breast, I found the meat a bit on the dry side (a minor complaint as it was a delicious overall.)
With the looming recession starting to negatively affect restaurants around town, I fear for some of these smaller, more obscure (and definitely highly affordable) ethnic spots. While Vancouver has a reputation of being a great food city, the majority of diners tend to gravitate towards mediocrity…chains such as Milestones, Earls, and the like will probably do fine over the next few economically bleak years. I think it is the duty of those who seek deliciousness and diversity to patronize restaurants such as the Carthage. Don’t save up your dining dollars for “Middle-Eastern Inspired” dishes at chain restaurants…go to the real deal.