Sunday, May 03, 2009

Our trip, Part 1: Vancouver

C says:

We’re back! We had a fabulous time, and Vancouver is now our number one retirement destination, due in no small part to the availability of good food and amazing produce. We actually ate better and fancier in Vancouver than in Vegas, though maybe it’s not that surprising considering the wealth of decent fast food in the US.

As usual rather than detailing each and every thing that we ate or place where we dined, we’ll just share some of the gastronomic highlights of the trip.

Vancouver is fast becoming a foodie’s heaven. You can eat at some of the best restaurants in the city at fairly reasonable prices. In fact, even their most fine dining restaurants still retain a casual, non-intimidating vibe. They’re also very proud of their local produce, with menus everywhere proudly proclaiming that they serve “BC salmon”, to give the most common example.

One place that encapsulates everything I just mentioned is Raincity Grill. This is one of Vancouver’s fanciest restaurants, yet we still felt quite at ease and not at all patronised. They even surprised us with a platter of 3 raw oysters on the house, because they felt bad for making us wait too long between courses, even though we never complained.

Local produce is very much showcased, to the extent that they actually have a 100-Mile Tasting Menu featuring ingredients from within a 100 mile radius. Some of the highlights included a platter with five bite-sized portions of appetisers on spoons, the seared scallop with winter root vegetables, and pork loin from pigs reared so organically that the meat was prepared medium rare.

One of the reasons I was so disappointed with the meat and cheese platter from our recent visit to Don Quijote is because of the sheer variety and quality of the cured meats and cheeses that we tried in Vancouver. First, Salt Tasting Room in Gastown was one of the most interesting dining experiences I’ve had because it opened my eyes to so many different flavour pairings of meats, cheeses and condiments. The concept of Salt is simple – on a blackboard they have 10 cheeses, 10 hams and 10 condiments. You can either pick and choose 3 of each to create your own tasting plate, or leave it to the experts to choose the best pairings for you.

We selected a few, and left it to them to fill in the gaps and to create the pairings. They did a fabulous job, introducing us to ingredients and combinations that we never considered before. The blue cheese and honey was a winner, as was the Jambon Des Ardennes with quince paste. I hadn’t even tried quince paste before but now I’m a fan.

Finding Salt was an experience in itself. The address simply says Blood Alley, Gastown. We assumed Blood Alley was a cobblestoned path of some sort, and walked all of Gastown twice in an attempt to find it. We passed a dingy back lane a few times with nothing but dumpsters, but after increasingly frustrating failures to locate Blood Alley we finally stopped to peer down the back lane and noticed, far FAR off in the distance, a flag with an upside down salt shaker. Argh!

Granville Island Public Market is similar to Borough Market in London. On the plus side it opens every day, but it’s less suited to random grazing for tourists and more towards home chefs shopping for ingredients. Still, one of the highlights was a stall selling a staggering variety of cheeses, prosciutto (the common English vernacular use of the term meaning cured hams, not the generic Italian word for “ham”, so as not to offend any readers), salami and more.

The photo shows just a small selection in one corner of the display window. I was both blown away by the variety, and terribly upset that we don’t have an equivalent stall in Singapore. They do a picnic platter with a selection of cheese, prosciutto, rillette and cornichons, which of course we had to try. While not as novel as Salt, it was still very satisfying, in particular the double cream Camembert which was superbly rich and creamy.

We’d watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations: Vancouver shortly before we left, and one of the restaurants that was featured was Tojo’s, arguably Vancouver’s best Japanese restaurant, and these days one of the few where the namesake head chef is still very much hands-on in the kitchen. We decided to try a mid-priced omakase, and with great anticipation settled down expecting to be amazed.

I hate to say it, but we were rather underwhelmed and to this day I don’t understand why. To be fair, we were presented with flavours and textures that we’d never tried before, like tuna scraped from the bone mixed with a Japanese mountain yam, but while it was novel we didn’t find ourselves really loving it. Some of the other dishes were halibut cheek with sautéed vegetables in a soy and miso sauce, braised bluefin tuna, and a sushi platter. Strangely enough, we actually had more of a ‘wow’ reaction to the simple garlic tuna nigiri sushi in Vegas, from the MGM Grand’s perfunctory Asian restaurant, Grand Wok.

We’re still wondering why we didn’t have the mindblowing experience that we were expecting. Is it just that – did our expectations get in the way? Or are our palates just not sophisticated enough to appreciate it? This was our first ever omakase meal, so maybe we’re not used to what’s usually offered at one. If we’re ever feeling flush enough, perhaps we’ll go for one here and see if our experience is any different.

Another joint featured in No Reservations: Vancouver was Japadog – literally, Japanese hot dog. This hot dog stand probably isn’t as bizarre to us as to some Westerners, because we’re quite used to concepts of fusion Japanese food, like Jap pastas and pizzas. We tried the Okonomiyaki and the Terimayo, both with a Kurobuta pork sausage. The sausage is partially sliced while cooking, creating more surface area for crisping and charring. Paired with all the mayo, teriyaki/okonomiyaki sauce and seaweed/bonito flakes, the result is a very messy but very juicy hot dog.

A says:

Excellent food. Superb service. Awesome cold weather. One of the biggest surprises on our trip was discovering Tim Hortons, a Canadian fast food chain that does donuts, bagels and more. The donuts were crap but the bagels were awesome. We came here almost every day for breakfast.

The dining highlight of Van for me was Salt. The portion sizes are perfect and, considering the quality of food and service, very reasonably priced. A definite must-visit when in Vancouver. That’s if you can find the place, which is an adventure on its own.

After a disappointing meal at Tojo’s, I wasn’t expecting much from Raincity Grill. Thankfully, the food was excellent, although due to the large party they had there that night, service was exceptionally slow. Almost Hell’s Kitchen slow. I have to at least give credit to the staff who gave us free oysters while waiting.

I wasn’t as blown away by Granville Market or Japadog as C was. I actually prefer our quick brunch at Cafe Crepe along Robson Street.

On a whole, the only thing I found lacking in Vancouver was the coffee. All the cups I had were very mediocre. Very strange considering the strong coffee culture they have there.

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