Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wow, You’ve got something there! – The atmosphere at the bar at Rondey’s in Yaletown (Yeah, there have great oysters & steamers too)

Rock 'n' Roll blaring,
Oyster slurping with the fam;
Good times at Rodney's.

When all else is equal, what makes one greater than the rest? I ponder this question as my cousin, She Clooney returned to Vancouver with her husband, Alaskan Brewed, in tow.  They wanted oysters and I suggested a place on Commercial Drive but was vetoed. 
All they wanted was to head back Rodney’s in Yaletown and sit at the bar.  They have done this on every trip to Vancouver since 2007, as long as time permitted it.

Perhaps it’s tradition but they argue Rodney’s is one of the favourite places for oysters.

So what makes Rodney’s better than all the other oyster places in the city for them when other places offer similar price, varieties of oysters and shucking skills?  For Clooney and Alaskan Brewed, it’s the human touch and the ambience created by the crew that man Rodney’s bar.

From the old school upbeat rock that’s piped into the restaurant to the playful interaction between the male staff, once seated you feel like you have been welcomed into a boys’ clubhouse.  

The staff warmly greet everyone who saddles up to the bar.  If you chat with them, you will get stories about motor cycles, inside jokes explained, tips about destinations in Vancouver to see (meant for Cloney & Alaskan Brewed) and of course expert advice on the oysters they are serving that day.

Now this fun atmosphere wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have good food and oysters.  For our visit we order two dozen oysters and 2 steamers.

Out of the 10 oysters they had, we went with:
-Royal Miyagi
-Kaipara from New Zealand

Expertly shucked, the oysters were presented with 5 different sauces (ranging from mild to super spicy) and horseradish.  My cousins were in oyster heaven.  

For me I stuck with the vinaigrette (purple jar on the far left) and just a touch of horseradish.  I though the Kusshi had a nice sweet flavour with clean finish.  The royal miyagi had a creamier flavour.  The Kaipara and Shikgou were overwhelmingly briny and as I result I didn’t like them as much.

For our 2 steamers, we got mussels and clams.  Out of the 2 bi-valves I liked the mussels more as they were more plump and juicy.  I think Clooney may have asked the crew to toss some wine into the mussel steamer and not the clam one.  The leftover mussel juice was much more flavourful and complex. 

I would have been a happy camper if all I ate was the complimentary bread soaked in the buttery, salty and yet slightly acidic mussel juice at Rodney’s.  It was addictively tasty.
Although I didn’t grab a photo, another must order at Rodney’s is their Caesars.  They throw a little more worstershire sauce into their blend than most places and the drink is tastier for it.

Overall Rodney’s is a fun and relaxed place to have excellent oysters in the city.  If joking around with the staff is not your thing to do, then I would suggest asking to be seated at a table instead.  However, if you like to chat and tell stories then the bar Rodney is definitely the place for you. 

Rodney's Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! - Garlic Butter Chicken Wings & Bun Rieu from Hai Phong in Crosstown

Great Bun Rieu for Real!
An umami lover’s dream
In a roundabout.

There is a stereotype of Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver.  They seem to be hole in the walls, where more effort is put into the food than the aesthetics of the place.  It’s all well and fine that the food tastes great but often I find myself not really wanting to linger at many of our city's good Vietnamese restaurants; a classic “eat and get the f*$&# out” scenario for me.

However, over the last 2 years I’ve noticed a few Vietnamese eateries buck the trend by having quality food and decor to match.

The new Hai Phong is located in the same roundabout as the Chinatown T&T.  It is a bright and cheery space, joining the new wave of Vietnamese eateries that strives to serve good food in a pleasant environment. 

I was lucky to duck out of work for lunch with fellow blogger, Dennis the foodie and his lovely wife, who is part Vietnamese.  It’s always a little different when you are in the company of an expert; you get insights and comments on small details that one would otherwise miss.

The nicely appointed Hai Phong in Crosstown is a branch of a restaurant of the same name, found on 1246 Kingsway.  However this new location has a pared down menu, due to its smaller electric kitchen, in comparison to the mother ship location.

Since I needed to head back to work and still be functional, I wanted something light but I simply couldn’t refuse the chicken wings on the menu.  As a result, our group shared an order of the Garlic Butter Chicken wings to kick off lunch.

These chicken wings were served with salt & pepper lemon sauce which acted as a nice tart counter balance.  The first flavour I detected when chewing the juicy meat from our appetizer was BUTTER.  It was followed by a burst of garlic and concluded with a hit of spiciness from the chillies.

These well seasoned chicken wings had great flavour and were crispy despite the thin crunchy coating; a potentially addictive must order. 

Before my lunch guests arrived, I had spotted a noodle I wanted to try but was concerned it would be heavy and induce a food coma.

I quickly asked my dining companions if Bun Rieu was light fare even though the menu lists thing like pig’s blood and feet.  Apparently it was and it would not hamper my return to the office.

I was excited to try this specialty noodle.  In addition to the pig’s blood and feet, the shrimp and crab paste noodle soup also includes shrimp and crab paste, Vietnamese ham, tofu puffs and vermicelli noodles.  All these ingredients would be steeped in a light tomato shrimp paste broth and served with shredded morning glory and banana flowers.

Upon it’s arrival my Bun Rieu emitted an aromatic shrimp paste smell.  It was chock full of ingredients.  However there was small concession on one of the ingredients.  Instead a piece of pig’s feet (complete with bone, tendons, and skin), a chunk of pork with skin (probably pork hock) was used instead.  It’s an adjustment that is understandable and wise given the demographics of those living in the tall towers that populate the Crosstown area.

My Bun Rieu was appetizing and delicious.  The soup was light and complex with a strong umami component from the shrimp paste that paired well with the slightly sour and refreshing tomato flavour. 

The globs of crab and shrimp paste had a strong concentrated flavour of sweet and savoury dried baby shrimp.  As noted by Dennis’s wife, this impactful taste is created by pulverizing dried baby shrimps in a food processor and combining it with crab to form the paste.

The presence of the uncommon shredded morning glory (green shreds in foreground) and banana blossoms (beige shreds in the upper left corner), indicates the eateries commitment to traditional Vietnamese fare.  These two plant shreds added an appreciated crunchy contrast to the softer vermicelli noodles.  They are to be added to the soup immediately to help them soften up.  This helpful tip (see what I mean about being in the company of an expert), provided by my fellow blogger’s significant other, among other astute observations, really made my lunch enjoyable.

In short the Bun Rieu is an umami lovers dream; simple, light but full of flavour.  In addition, I loved that we were given a complimentary dish of pickles to help cleanse our palates and stimulate our appetites.  A nice touch by the staff.

The great food at Hai Phong and the equally wonderful dining companions meant my lunch ended up being a two hour affair.  I can’t recall if I have ever stayed at a Vietnamese restaurant for more than 75 minutes let alone 120. 

Hai  Phong is a very welcomed addition to the Crosstown area and I will definitely return for a leisurely lunch and their fantastic Bun Rieu.

Hải Phong Vietnamese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Omurice From Marulilu Cafe

What is Omurice?
Omelette with a rice filling.
Tasty Yoshoku.

My friends know I love it when I discover uncommon food on my dining adventures.  One day Speedy texted me, “Have you had omurice?”  

I had no clue what that was and responded back.  I could sense Speedy was smiling and she replied with an explanation.

Omurice is part of the Yoshoku group of foods in the Japanese cuisine.  Introduced during Emperor Meiji’s reign (circa mid to late 1800s) when Japan began adopting foreign dishes, but adding a Japanese sensibility, to their cuisine.  Common Yoshoku foods include tonkatsu and korroke. 

Omurice is the Japanese’s take on the omelet.  Instead of filling like mushroom, ham, and cheese, the filling consists of either seasoned or plain rice.  It was traditionally served with a simple sauce like tomato or gravy.  Speedy’s mom made them for her as a snack and she ate it with ketchup.

I was intrigued but I was worried that the only place I could have this dish was at Speedy’s mom’s kitchen.  I had never seen the item on any Japanese restaurants I had visited.  Even the very traditional Aki’s did not have it on their regular menu.

Fortunately, Speedy’s not a tease and directed me towards Marulilu Café.
This quaint café is located at the very busy intersection of Cambie and Broadway in Vancouver.  The eatery offers a large list of coffee and teas, all day breakfast, sandwiches and a small list of Yoshoku foods.  I was not interested in their traditional café fare; I was here for omurice.

Marulilu does have a different set up that most eateries.  Claim an open table, staff will hand you a menu, and then once you’ve made up your mind head up to the front counter to order and pay.  As I perused the Yoskoku section of the menu, to my delight, not only did they have the exact dish that Speedy ate as a kid but additional variations of omurice.

I settled on the Omu Hayashi Rice with a mini salad.  The staff described it as an omurice with a plain rice filling served with a beef sauce. 

I did not have high expectation for this dish since it was so simple.  However, when the dish was set in front of me, I was actually surprised yet pleased with how it looked and the proportion that was given.  Despite being a simple dish, it was visually appealing with the glossy yellow omelet set against the sea of deep brown gravy.

When I cut into the omurice, exposing the bright white plain rice filling, I realized this was not a traditional offering.   The egg layer was not wrapped around the rice filling like an omelet but it was molded onto of the rice.

Perhaps a modern take?  Undeterred I scooped up the rice, egg and gravy and took a bite.  It was tasty and satisfying.  I couldn’t stop eating it. 

The egg was soft but it’s subtle flavour was overwhelmed by the sauce.

The gravy had a beefy umami taste and had scraps of beef in it but I not 100% sure it’s made from scratch.  It certainly doesn’t have the artificial taste of cafeteria gravy but it didn’t have the deep robust flavour of gravy made from pan drippings either. 

On Marulilu’s menu they do denote items that are premade/made from a package and I didn’t remember my dish having that explanation on it. 

Whatever the case, I enjoyed my meal.  It was very comforting and filling.  Too be honest, one would really have to be incompetent to ruin what essential was rice with gravy.

I look forward to trying the other types of omurice on the menu, especially the one variation with served with tomato sauce since tomatoes and eggs are another classic combo (think about it scramble eggs & ketchup, yum).

I'm also very interested in trying their curry tonkatsu as a neighbouring table had ordered it and it looked fantastic.  I definitely will be returning to Marulilu café for their Yoshoku food.
Marulilu Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 11, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Pork Belly Cha-Su from Taishoken

Porkbelly cha-Su,
You're sunshine on cloudy day.
Yum at Taishoken.

As a ramen shop, when you can elevate the flavour and execution of your Cha-su or protein, people in Vancouver will buzz about you.

Santouka’s toroniku and Marutama’s marinated egg helped create a buzz that lifted these two into the top tier of ramen purveyors in the city.

I think newly open Taishoken, near the corner of Abbott and Pender, can do the same with its pork belly cha-su.

Taishoken is a Japanese based chain that claims to have invented the Tsuke-Men, a.k.a. dipping ramen. When I arrived at this modest size eatery, they were not ready to offer their Tsuke-Men yet. 

Although disappointed, even by having the special shio ramen I got good sense how the Tsuke-Men will go.  
My special shio ramen came with a whole marinated egg, 4 slices of pork belly cha-su, seaweed and nori.  

The difference between regular and special is the special comes with an egg and I think 2 more slices of meat.  For all ramen on the menu, you get a choice between pork belly cha-su and pork shoulder cha-su (for you health conscious types).

Overall, the portion of noodle is on the smaller side but in line with other top ramen shops like Santouka.

The noodles had a nice chewy consistency.  The egg was subpar; not very flavourful and past soft boiled but not reaching green rimmed hard-boiled.  As a result, it was a little chalky for my liking.

The Pork Belly cha-su on the other hand was phenomenal!  Each slice had tender pork alternating between succulent layers fat.  The cut of meat was seasoned well with the top and bottom layer having an extra kick of soya sauce flavor.  This cha-su is a winner.

Much like Marutama, what will divide ramen aficionados is the soup.  It’s quite syrupy for a ramen soup stock.  It’s not as thick as gravy but reminds me of a demi glaze; easily coating my heavy ceramic soup spoon and has a similar sheen.  

I actually thought it was neat to see two tones of colour emerge when I swirled my spoon in the soup and the green onion garnish suspended in the liquid, instead of sinking to the bottom or floating on top. 

The flavor of the soup is complex and rich derived from the use of both chicken and pork meat.  It has a strong umami taste, with a bit of a cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.  The flavor of the soup is good but not unique.  I feel it tastes similar to Jinya’s rendition.  

For some, the thicker consistency of the soup will be off putting.  However, I enjoyed it and saw how Taishoken's soup would be a strong foundation for their Tsuke-Men offering.  

With it's rich soup and fatty pork belly cha-su, I felt the size of the my shio ramen was perfectly satisfying, without causing indigestion and general lethargy.

A few days later I returned to try an unusual ramen I had spotted on the menu: the Tomato Ramen. 

The bright red concoction is inspired by Italy.  The regular version has a tomato soup stock, ramen noodles, raw white onions, dry Italian seasonings, Parmesan cheese and your choice of cha-su.  

For the sake of comparison I went with the Pork Shoulder cha-su.  Although seasoned well, it definitely had a much more intense pork flavor in contrast to the pork belly cha-su.  The meat was also much tougher but like I said if you’re health conscious it’s not a bad way to go.  However my preference is definitely the pork belly cha-su.

For the soup, I think they simply added canned diced tomatos to their regular chicken and pork stock.  As a result, the soup for the Tomato Ramen was not as syrupy.  I actually really like the red soup, as the sharp tangy tomato flavor helped mask the cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.

Another component that work was the flavor of the cheese.  It added another layer of umami to the dish.  I wish they had dispersed the cheese a little more evenly so that more bites of noodles would have cheese in it.  Unfortunately they only clumped a small pile in one area and the cheese ended up melting onto my spoon as I tried to spread it around.

In contrast, the raw onions and dry Italian season were a little less successful.  I didn’t enjoy having intense onion and oregano flavor randomly and boldly inserting themselves into my bites of food.  This was so off putting that I probably would not order the Tomato Ramen again. 

However I would consider asking them to substitute the tomato soup for the syrupy pork and chicken stock in their other regular ramen from time to time.

I would definitely return frequently to Taishoken for the delicious and wonderful pork belly cha-su.  I’m also excited to try their Tsuke-Men on my next visit, as it was available and on the regular menu on my second visit.

Taishoken Ramen 大勝軒 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

WTH! Celery is not your friend Blacktail Florist

Cows like to chew cud.
I am not a cow; I don't
Like celery cud.

Celery: benign, watery, fibrous and crunchy.  This stalky vegetable, a diet staple for many, isn't something you see in high end cuisine too often.  It's a tricky item to incorporate into a dish.  Celery's texture and ability to absorb liquid are qualities a chef needs to consider carefully.

Unfortunately, my meal at Blacktail Florist was hampered by celery.  My colleague, The Distributor, and I decided to have a quick dinner at this new Gastown eatery before a show.  Light coloured wood decorated the heritage restaurant, giving it an airy feel.  The service was spot on, friendly and knowledgeable.

Our meal started off well with nicely balanced Fawn cocktails, paired with salmon belly bites and half a dozen Royal Miyagi oysters.

The salmon belly bites consisted of minced salmon belly, a texture similar to negitoro, served on endive cups, topped with fried shallots and pop rocks, and displayed on a bed of dill sprigs.  The salmon's fatty flavour worked well with all the other components.  You occasionally got a pleasant contrasting hit of tangy dill, as some of the loose herb found its way into the bite.

The oysters were topped with a spoonful of sorrel ice slushy, which yielded a green apple, i.e. sweet yet sour, flavour .  The whole ensemble was tasty.  Each slurped oyster provided sweet and briny notes with a clean aftertaste.  Our only concern was that 2 of the rims of the oyster shells were fairly chipped.  It didn't make for a nice presentation and we needed to be carefully slurping the bivalve in those shells.

For our mains, we selected the beef strip loin paired with a "head to tail" celery side, a grilled Humboldt squid served with a celery slaw and a squid ink aioli, and a morel mushroom topped mashed potato veggie side dish.

Head to tail eating is a trendy concept.  Unfortunately it was not a winning effort when applied to celery.  The "tail" portion was a celeriac purée which was smooth, albeit a little salty.  It went nicely with the perfectly cooked medium rare strip lion.  The "head and body" part of the celery was simply a roasted half stalk of leafy celery.

This roasted side was awful.  The celery stalk was not prepped in any way, (i.e. stripped of its tough veins).   As a result, with each chew a dense fibrous wad formed in your mouth.  Basically you got a ball of cud, and it was a negative distraction to the meal.

The Humboldt squid was also tainted by celery.  The squid was grilled with skill.  The tentacled seafood was soft and its subtle sweet flavour shone through.  Then I had a bite of the celery slaw and the dish went down hill.  The slaw contained thin slices of celery & rhubarb and was dressed with a vinaigrette dressing.

Although I still got small ball of cud, the major problem was celery's fantastic absorption ability.  Remember that science trick in elementary school where you cut the bottom of the celery stalk and put it into dyed water?  Within a short time the leaves and stalk of the celery took on the colour of the dye.

In the case of our meal, some of the celery slices absorbed such a large amount of the tart dressing it felt like I was eating a crunchy pickle.  It was a jarring burst of sourness that overwhelmed the subtle flavour of the squid and briny squid ink aioli.

As for our vegetable side, you cannot go wrong with cheesy mash potato adorned with morel mushrooms and bacon.  This was tasty but also verging on being too salty.

Generally, The Distributor and I both felt the strip loin and mashed potato were seasoned a bit too aggressively.

The salt theme continued with our dessert.   I'm not a big fan of Chinese desserts because of the common use of lentils and tubers in them.  So when I spotted sweet potato as an ingredient in Blacktail Florist's smoky dessert, I was curious how a non-Asian eatery would handle a tuber in their dessert.

The smoky dessert consisted of mainly sweet potato custard topped with dollops of cranberry compote and mini spirals of whipped smoked crema.

The server also presented a small chalice filled with salt flakes.  He suggested sprinkling some salt to help balance out the flavours of the dish.  We tried the dessert unsalted first.  Each component had a very unique bold characteristic: the custard was sweet, the compote was tangy and the whipped crema had a bacon-esque smokiness.

Without the salt I didn't feel like the item was very harmonious.  Each part of the confection had a flavour that clamored over one another trying to vie for your attention.  The salt made it worse as it heightened each clashing flavour.  The salt itself created its own problem as well.  In parts where too many saltine flakes gather, the bite taste like a salty funky textured bacon mash of some sort.  

We should have stuck with chocolate and followed my general rule of thumb: no good comes from lentils and tubers in desserts; so don't order it, except for maybe taro.

Overall both The Distributor and I were disappointed with our meal at Blacktail Florist especially given our bill was $100 plus.  The service, cocktail and salmon bites were great.  However the poor choice and execution of the sides that came with the protiens, overall saltiness and lack of cohesion on the dessert marred our experience.

There definitely is a high level of skill present on the execution of the proteins, especially the squid.  Based on other the positives like the salmon belly and service, I would consider returning eventually, especially if they remove celery from the menu.

The Blacktail Florist on Urbanspoon