Kakao – Seattle, WA

Kakao Chocolate & Coffee Cafe
415 Westlake Ave N
Seattle, WA
(206) 833-5467

I admit freely to having some cravings for sweet stuff and giving in.  The times are few and far between though, so thankfully I’m not on a permanent sugar high like some people I know who guzzle litres of pop a day or never are without a sugary doughnut with their morning coffee, a candy bar at their work desk,  or pass on a daily dessert at dinner time. When I do crave something with chocolate as its primary ingredient, its often a dark variety bar.

Earlier in August, I was exposed to a variety of sample product from a Vancouver-based XOXOLAT ahead of a private function.  The use and dedication to serving single origin chocolates struck a chord with me, as it reminded me of what a segment of the coffee scene is like with its strive to procure ingredients from reputable and solo operations.

While on this recent trip to Seattle, we came upon the Kakao Chocolate & Coffee Cafe, located right by the Tesla showroom and an outpost of Serious Pie.  A very large and open concept space, outfitted with a mishmash of comfortable looking and more stiffer wooden furniture.  Big bright windows and high ceilings, led me to think this used to be some kind of industrial or commercial storage facility before it was transformed to the people-friendly business it is today.  While primarily concentrated on the chocolate realm, they do give ample attention to their coffee beans as well for their espresso (provided by Seattle roaster Herkimer Coffee) and the loose leaf tea on the menu is from Miro Tea.

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Omija Cafe – Mungyeong, KOR

Omija Cafe
Mungyeong City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea

Schisandra chinensis.  Yes, difficult to pronounce but as one can guess, it has its roots in China.  The viny-plant produces a rich berry that is beloved for its five different taste sensations and its herbal/medicinal properties.  With various practical uses including its use in teas and even wine, it has a modern day application that you can enjoy today if you know where to look.  I had such an opportunity in the remote city of Myungyeong, nestled amid lush green forests spanning rolling mountains and hills that make this a spectacular visual landscape in North Gyeongsang Province.

On my way to visit some tourist sights, I came across this tiny cafe at the base of the town site before the long trek up past some re-created rural villages that were even used for present day movies and television sets, and up into some of the nearby hills.  It was a brutally hot and humid day so a rest was needed even before the hour long journey that I was about to embark on.  Spotting several people lined outside, I knew I had to check it out and find out what the commotion was all about.  So here I present to you, the Omija Cafe.

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Salt Spring Coffee Co. – Vancouver, BC

Salt Spring Coffee Co. – UBC Café
6308 Thunderbird Blvd
Vancouver, BC
(604) 221 6400

Playing fair on the battleground of business is a tremendous challenge. As a battle-scared solider in the cruel world of international commerce, I know this as well as anyone. For the basic principals of free enterprise and unregulated markets would suggest that as long as there is a game to be played, then to the winner should go the spoils – often at whatever the cost. And in the food service industry, this competitiveness can be seen in organizations scouring the world for expansion opportunities, negotiating very hard for locations, overlooking some environmental concerns of their suppliers in order to meet their sourcing needs, and of course, engaging in all out warfare for customers even if it means wiping out good, honest proprietors, the close communities that support them, and even cannibalizing their own sales to eliminate any remaining competition – all of this in the quest for the all mighty dollar. I am sure many of you can rattle off a few companies that would fall into this unabashed, relentless, and careless strategy when it comes to food and restaurants. In the interest of time, I will name one company that has fallen on rough times of late (probably much to the amusement of many), and generally is thought of as being an entity that would fall into this profile of a business engaged in such polarizing behaviour – the Starbucks Coffee Company.

In stark contrast to the monolith that is the Starbucks empire of coffee shops, the Salt Spring Coffee Co. boasts a mere four outlets in its entirety, all of which are based in the province of British Columbia. And this is for a company that was first started in 1996. Priding themselves on being mindful of fair trade and organics when it comes to the whole coffee bean-to-cup continuum, and the values of sustainability while still creating a good cup of coffee, it’s clear they are operating at an entirely different level from the Seattle-based mega brand. Their outlet on the beautiful University of British Columbia campus on the western edge of Vancouver would seem to be representative of their vision. Wedged within a new residential area, nestled next to a community centre and a spacious playground, with its wooden chalet-like design and relaxed atmosphere, and customers inside usually a mix of energetic students, teaching faculty taking a break, and of course nearby residents and their children – the building is very welcoming to one and all, and does not feel at all like a commercial enterprise.

It is places like this that I enjoy taking a breather, without feeling the pressure that I am to finish my drink, and move along so another hurried customer can take my seat. But by no means am I a regular coffee drinker. In fact, I would say I am one of those few working stiffs who doesn’t need a cup of Joe every morning, nor do I need to taste the flavor of coffee on breaks throughout the day. If I had to qualify myself, I would tend to be the type that drinks more teas (be it herbal, green, etc.) than anything else over coffee. So I must say that I cannot fully comment on the coffee offerings here at Salt Spring, other than to say that their menu features a choice of what they term “classic coffees’, which are comprised of selections of dark roasts, medium roasts, as well as decaf roasts. Aside from this, they do have ‘reserve coffees’, which they note as being the “next level of extraordinary, single-origin beans from the world’s best co-op growers”. The edible options that were displayed in the glass cased unit at the counter was your usual range of scones, muffins, cookies, and sandwiches.

With the recent layer of low cloud banks that recently blanketed the west coast of Canada, I thought it was fitting that my drink of choice this day was called the London Fog – a simple combination of Earl Grey tea, steamed milk and a touch of vanilla. It is a comforting warm beverage that I enjoy from time to time, when I feel the gray Vancouver doldrums. Plopping down in one of the chairs, all the while observing many others with their laptops open (yeah for free wireless!), I just took in the scene and was alone with my thoughts. I am sure many of you have your own peaceful oasis for short breaks like this in your city. With the coming holiday season, I suppose I am feeling a bit more nostalgic for all the cafés that I’ve spent time in over the years, with a warm mug in hand. I know its still early, but happy holidays everyone!

Salt Spring Coffee Co. (UBC Café ) on Urbanspoon

Pine Lake Restaurant – Calgary, AB

Pine Lake Restaurant
118 5 Avenue SE
Calgary, AB T2G 0E2
(403) 266-3720

Dim Sum, or Yum Cha, is the equivalent of Chinese tapas. Small dishes of seafood, meat, vegetables, or sweets, there are many simple adjectives that generally come to mind when most people discuss Dim Sum. Greasy. Weird. Odd. Mystery. Different. Tasty. Cheap. Fun. No matter your opinion on Dim Sum, generally speaking, you’ll have one. It’s a polarizing thing – generally you either like it or you don’t.

The most important factor when assessing a Dim Sum restaurant is quality. While availability, service, quantity, and number of “real” Asians present are all factors that add to the overall equation, the quality of the end product is all that really matters. Reheated Dim Sum dishes pulled from a freezer pack generally fall far short on the quality scale. And you’d be surprised – many Dim Sum places use these, primarily because they are quick, and fairly inexpensive. No intensive labour costs required. Because of the large seafood, fried, and meat related nature of dim sum, fresh is really important. In Calgary, many Dim Sum places get their items from the same restaurant supply establishment. Luckily, Pine Lake bucks this trend.

Pine Lake Restaurant is a fairly obscure restaurant on 5th avenue, across from the EnCana hole in the ground. Certainly obscure when compared to larger Calgary institutions like Regency Palace, Harbour City, Central Grand, and Silver Dragon. Located in the basement, it is a fairly small (for a Dim Sum restaurant), yet fairly clean place. It is patronized by mostly Asians, and is pretty much always busy.

In Calgary, no place generally does all dishes well. Pine Lake Restaurant is no exception. Based on the experience of the cooks and ingredient suppliers, typically, there will be sets of dishes that each restaurant excels at. The key to enjoying a repeatably good Dim Sum experience is learning what a restaurant does well, and sticking to those kinds of dishes.

Har Gau, or Sha-Jiao. Reasonably decent flavour, filled with plump, but slightly bland shrimp, the skins were both quite thick, and extremely tacky, sticking to everything and ripping easily. Not the best I’ve ever had, but not the worst by a long shot. Decent.

Char-Siu-Bao, or BBQ Pork steam buns. I’m not usually a big fan, and these did nothing to change my mind. Not enough meat, overly sweet, the only redeeming part for me is the man-tou, or the steam bun itself.

Siu-mai, steamed pork wrapped in cabbage topped with white shrimp and fish roe. Similar to the Har Gao, these are large, plump, but with only decent flavour. Quite moist (which is a plus), they are good, but not great.

Ahh, the first dish I really loved. Steamed garlic ribs with black bean. The meat was tender, the interplay of garlic and black bean very well balanced, this was a fantastic rib dish. The cartilage pieces are especially tasty, as they had managed to become a bit more toothsome without being as hard as stone.

Tripe. The scary dish of the day. Not extremely popular with most people, this dish was utterly fantastic. Crunchy, garlicky, yet supple and tender. Fantastic flavour and texture.

Siao-long-bao, or Shanghai Soup Dumplings. The key to these are consistent folds, great, silky thin skin, while not bursting, and retaining a lot of soup. Typically, the soup should be incorporated into the filling via absorption so it absorbs and saturates in liquid, but these days, it usually involves placing some frozen stock inside the wrapper to help incorporate some soup. These? Too much ginger. Lousy skins. Not enough soup. An overall disappointment.

Lastly, Rice roll with fried doughnut. The doughnut, which im not usually a fan of, is amazing. Crisp. Crunchy. A great counter-point to the softness of the rice roll With some sesame, green onion, and hoisin sauce, these are an excellent version of the friend doughnut rice roll. Funny, since i usually won’t eat them. I find them too bland. These are not.

It’s a pretty simple verdict at Pine Lake Restaurant. It’s busy so the turnover is high. The ingredients are of reasonable freshness. They are a bit expensive, but not more so than any other establishment Dim Sum place in town. They have a few can’t miss dishes, and do a reasonably good facsimile on the standard, bellwether dishes like Har Gao and Siu Mai. Definitely worth a visit, regardless of whether you’re looking for odd and different, weird and greasy, or tasty and fun.

Pine Lake Restaurant on Urbanspoon