uhockey's delayed review of Richmond/Vancouver, 12/30/11-01/02/12 including L'Abbatoir, Vij's, Noodles, Dim Sum, etc.
- uhockey Feb 19, 2012 11:13 AM
First of all, thanks to all the local hounds who helped me out with their excellent reviews and advice - aside from flight delays, I had a stellar visit to Seattle, Vancouver, and Richmond over the New Year holiday.
As is my custom I will provide my thoughts here on Chowhound with links to my blog for the photos. Reviews have been and will be slow in coming due to my work schedule and wordiness but as always I will try to be thorough in order to give quality feedback to the CH community that helps me plan so many of my trips.
For a list of Seattle spots see the thread on that board.
Restuarants/Bakeries/Coffee Shops visited during this trip include:
Blenz Coffee Robson Street
Dim Sum - Sea Harbor and The Jade:
Full review with picture in the blog. Text as below.
Having heard that Vancouver and Richmond feature some of the most interesting Asian cuisine on this side of the Pacific but largely out of my element save for a few excursions to taste Peking Duck or Dim Sum in Chicago and Toronto respectively, it was with great fortune that I managed to make contact with Sherman from shermansfoodadventures.com prior to our departure for some advice – where to go for dim sum, where to go for more traditional Chinese dining, and even where to find the best hand pulled noodles and XLB. Helpful and prompt but more so glad to answer my myriad inquiries it was with some effort that I eventually put together an agenda that was likely far too aggressive considering the tame palates of my traveling partners and an agenda that would prove impossible when I had the worst gastroenterological night of my life poisoning en route to Canada thus limiting my capacity to eat for the next two days…but still allowing me to get in some great experiences just the same.
Beginning with the night after “the incident” we all awoke late – approximately 2 hours later than I generally get up and eschewing the gym due to both poor energy and what felt like an excessive amount of hunger we all loaded into the car and made the short mile and a quarter drive from our hotel in Richmond to Sea Harbour – a decision I knew would not go over well with the pancakes and eggs half of the car but an idea that my sister seemed keen on and I hoped would impress – a wish that would be granted more by the room and the setting than the food as it would turn out.
Entering to realize that we were the only Caucasians in the room we were greeted by a nice young woman near the door who asked if we had reservations and stating that we did not she smiled, scribbled something on her seating map, and with a “one minute” led us to a nice table in the center of the room. With menus and checklists left at table’s center she inquired “what kind of tea?” and having not realized there would be a choice my sister simply stated “black” – an order I’m not entirely certain was appropriate as what we received was a grassy green concoction that was rather watered down – plus a large pot of hot water that I’m still uncertain regarding the intended purpose of.
With the menu in hand and looks of skepticism coming from my mother and aunt I was told to order whatever I liked and along with a bit of input I began checking boxes. Having done some research beforehand but not really taking into account my still recovering stomach I opted for approximately two selections for each person, a total of nine dishes that would invariably be too much even when we were told they were sold out of Pork Buns, and handing over the card our unsmiling waitress disappeared to the kitchen while my aunt complained of an odd natural gas odor emanating from behind her that I at first did not notice but later realized to be the cleaning product they were using to sanitize the counter tops and chopsticks.
With the restaurant absolutely packed and the service sufficient but certainly not friendly it would not be long before our plates would begin to arrive and within 10 minutes we received our first two selections, the first a trio of tasty and jiggly Baked Egg Custard Tarts with perfect texture and the second a misstep by our server and the kitchen when we were given a set of repulsive Preserved Salty Egg Yolk Dumplings in place of the Sweet Sticky Rice Dumpling with Durian that we had ordered – a flavor and texture that could best be described as an edible sinus infection and without a doubt one of the ten worst things I’ve put in my mouth in the last ten years…to say that my already troubled stomach was further perturbed by this would be an understatement.
Perhaps appropriately the next couple of items to arrive would be Pork and Preserved Egg Congee and Deep Fried Spring Rolls, one a food traditionally fed to the ill and the other by far the most “familiar” flavor on the table for our less adventurous eaters. Beginning first with the Congee this thin porridge was nicely flavored with just a touch of brine and a hint of sweetness to the rice while the pockets of fatty pork and salty preserved eggs were delicious, plentiful, and nicely cooked. While I have to say I would have preferred some accoutrements like scallions or soy sauce under most circumstances this was a great dish. Moving next to the spring rolls, I only had a bite and overall the shell was crisp with an interior filled with shrimp and vegetables just as they should have been – no complaints and certainly better than the typical “Americanized” spring rolls served back home.
Moving to the last two savories of the morning, the two best by far, Har-Gow (or Crystal Shrimp Dumplings) and the Duck and Preserved Salty Egg Yolk Roll would arrive and with both an impressively large portion I was thankful that my sister loved both as my stomach was already beginning to give out. Beginning first with the dumplings, each with a translucent wrapper that gave way to crunchy fresh shrimp within, I immediately understood why many considered these to be a must order and why nearly every table around us had at least one order. Moving next to the duck, this time using the salty egg to much greater effect than in the dumplings, I loved the use of the lightly prepared bird as a contrast to the briny notes of the egg and although the priciest item we ordered that afternoon it is definitely the one I most regret not being able to enjoy more of.
For the final pair of plates during our morning at Sea Harbour two desserts would arrive in tandem, the first a gelatinous Cocoa and Coconut Pudding that tasted something like a firmed up cup of hot chocolate and the second “Steamed Honey Flavor Cake,” a wispy open sponge that tasted like honey rye bread but substantially lighter and more nuanced – a nice finish to the meal that I’d certainly recommend, though all things being equal I cannot say I’d recommend Sea Harbour “overall” as it would turn out to be the least impressive of all the meals we had in Vancouver/Richmond in terms of the food, service, and setting.
With a few days of Vancouver sightseeing and eating in the rearview, our second venture into the world of Dim Sum would be the last day of our stay in Canada and with a Canucks game plus Phnom Penh to look forward to plus great word of mouth from a couple of trusted sources we arrived at The Jade approximately twenty minutes after opening – a good thing, too, as the restaurant was already 3/4 full thanks to the morning 20% discount. Again welcomed by a pleasant host who inquired about reservations that we did not have it would be only a few moments before she found someone who spoke English to assist us and lead us to a seat in the center of the room – a room where we were once again the only Caucasian’s to be found.
Greeted next by our waiter, a middle aged gentleman who spoke excellent English, menus were provided and tea was poured – this time a pleasant green variety at an unannounced charge of $2 per person along with ice water – much more practical than the boiling pot at Sea Harbour two days prior. Sitting and drinking the tea while weighing our options and chuckling at the rather traditional room still decorated for Christmas we decided this time to avoid over ordering and to instead go with two large items, two dim-sum selections, and two desserts – all of which were deemed ‘good choice’ by our waiter who hustled back to the kitchen as it appeared he was serving no fewer than ten tables.
Sitting and chatting while we waited no more than fifteen minutes I have to say we were all a bit surprised when two waiters returned carrying four of our six choices and while I must say that each was beautifully executed I cannot help but think that they all would have been even better had they arrived separated so we could enjoy them all hot – a small quibble perhaps, but something that was most notable in the first of the choices, “E-Fu noodles with Crab and Mushroom,” as the savory ginger and scallion broth, abundant sweet crab, fibrous mushrooms, and tender noodles were wonderful when piping hot but significantly less so once they had cooled as we sampled the other items.
Moving next to a pairing of familiar items – one a quartet of snappy Har-Gow with a delicate wrapper and crunchy shrimp kissed with ginger on the inside and the second a dish that seemed much more French or American than Chinese but a dish that impressed all of us in the form of “Baked Mushroom Pastry,” an intensely earthy and savory blend of soy and sautéed mushrooms in an impossibly light shell that literally melted in the mouth.
Moving next to the less traditional selection of the dim sum savories, Steamed Milk and Pumpkin Cake would also prove quite tasty with the flavor somewhere between angel food cake and canned pumpkin pie mix and the texture somewhere between bread pudding and flan –the combination certainly something more sweet than savory but a nice juxtaposition to the other items currently on the table.
With the first four choices being shared around the rest of our meal would arrive perhaps fifteen minutes later as a duo – one sweet, one savory, and both delicious. Beginning first with the sweet, a dish titled Deep Fried Milk with Mango Sugar would arrive as eight crispy fritters laced with the smell of coconut and a soft pudding-like interior consisting of little more than coconut milk and condensed milk but lovely none the less. Slightly sweet on their own but served with a bowl of fruity sugar these little delights reminded me mostly of funnel cake at the fare, something I’ve not had in ages but was glad to indulge in.
For the final dish of the morning and perhaps the most unexpectedly delicious item I’ve ever had as part of a Chinese meal, Sauteed Pumpkin with Salted Egg would arrive on a large plate with a bed of lettuce and appearing to merely be fried pumpkin I was astounded when I bit into my first piece to find it far more nuanced and elegant than I could have imagined. Seemingly made only from pumpkin, preserved egg yolks, and perhaps a bit of wine and shallots each bite of this dish started with a salty crispness that immediately gave way to the sweetness of the creamy pumpkin within. Bite after bite all I could do was sit there wondering how this item isn’t more prevalent on Chinese menus and how such a simple combination (eggs, pumpkin, seasoning) had never occurred to me before – a situation I’ve remedied by making similar meals thrice since returning to Ohio.
With service excellent throughout and the bill tallying less than 1/2 of what was spent at Sea Harbour I can say without much hesitation that I would return to The Jade for dim sum or dinner and while I cannot say that is a ringing endorsement given my limited experience with Chinese cuisines I can say that meals like this one make me want to seek out similar experiences in the future.
Great report uhockey. I always enjoy reading your very detailed reviews.
I too like The Jade - and actually prefer the food at dinnertime over dim sum. Their dinner chef (Tony Luk) uses some modernizations that are still firmly rooted in classical Cantonese cooking. One such technique that seems to be a bit of a signature to Jade is dry wok frying. They use this method to great results with mushrooms - intensely mushroomy flavour without the typical sliminess usually associated with stir fried mushrooms. They use it in a Dungeness Crab dish that has won a Chinese Restaurant Award this year.
On the use of Salted Egg Yolk as a "sauce" - look for the term "Golden" (as in Golden Crab, or Shrimp or what have you.) One of the best crab dishes here in town is Golden Dungeness Crab - my favourite rendition being the one at a place called Big Chef just a minute down the road from The Jade. You can see a picture of Jade's (also very good) rendition here
Great detailed review. Just so you know, the pot of hot water is to pour into you tea pot when you run out of tea. It gets busy at dim sum usually so it saves the wait staff some work. When you do run out of tea and/or hot water you take off the pot lid and put it back askew on the pot. This indicates to the staff that you'd like more tea without having to ask.
Breakfast and Bakeries - Thomas Haas, Twisted Fork, Thierry, Blenz Coffee Robson Street, Faubourg Paris.
Full review with picture in the blog. Text as below.
As Dim Sum was (literally) not everyone’s cup-of-tea during our trip to Richmond and Vancouver and the phrase “Chinese dumplings and noodles are not breakfast” was heard more than once a number of additional stops would be made to a variety of pastry shops and patisseries as well as one ‘Normal’ breakfast…and of course never being one to turn down a great croissant, cannel, or pancake I certainly cannot say that I was opposed to any of these suggestions, even if they were immediately following a dim sum breakfast or lunch and even if I still wasn’t feeling 100% for our first two days in Canada.
Beginning on day one in Vancouver after a long walk around Granville Island the first stop on our brief tour of local European pastries would be at Thomas Haas on West Broadway – a small shop with a long line and an open baking and chocolate making kitchen that would give us plenty of time to evaluate our decisions while equally being entertained – a decision that would prove exceedingly difficult with each confection dreamed up by the German born Haas whose extensive training has led him across Europe and North America including a stint as the opening pastry chef at Daniel in New York City.
Finally reaching the front of the line after approximately twenty minutes and placing our orders we were told it would be “just a couple of minutes” to prepare our beverages and with no seating to be found in the small café we simply stood at a central bar and waited while addressing our pastries, two of which were still warm and all but one – a single macaron out of three – would prove well worth the wait.
Beginning first with the aforementioned macarons, three selections were made and sticking with the classics we tasted Pistachio, Chocolate, and Caramel – the first two with a crisp shell giving way to a melting interior while the third appeared to have been on the shelf just a little too long leading to a slight ‘gumminess’ to the filling within.
Moving next to one of the prepared desserts, my aunt’s Almond Mascarpone Cake would prove to be an intoxicating three-layered napoleon with smooth mascarpone whipped with pastry cream tucked in between still-crisp layers of an almond biscuit and dusted with cocoa. Somewhere between a tiramisu without the espresso and a chocolate-almond torte this was a great bite despite its weighty pricetag and only improved by the high quality Americano with deep cocoa notes that I’d ordered to go with my selection.
Having mentioned the warm selections already my sister opted for a “Pullapart Brioche” largely based on the fact that it had just emerged from the oven but also because it was complimented with caramelized fruits and somewhat akin to Monkey Bread but substantially more nuanced this flaky roll would prove perfect with ample notes of butter and egg but also a subtle sweetness peaked by the fruit and sugar dusting.
Last but not least and certainly the most ‘expected’ order of the group, a warm Double Baked Almond Croissant would be my prize and featuring a crunchy exterior that shattered giving way to a dense and buttery interior I cannot say it was the most delicate croissant I’ve ever tasted, but with a light touch of frangipane holding the sliced pastry together and a topping of almonds and crunchy cooked frangipane I can say it was one of the most flavorful – nearly on par with those at Nouveau in Seattle despite being $1 more expensive and slightly less nuanced but worth trying just the same.
Moving on to our second day in Vancouver, New Year’s Day 2012 to be precise, and feeling immensely better than the day before I woke early for the gym and once I finally motivated the others to get up and moving we made our way to Granville Street for brunch at Twisted Fork Bistro – a restaurant that many consider to be the best brunch in the city and a restaurant often sporting long lines even before they unlock the doors, particularly at brunch.
Apparently the offspring of the once highly praised Wood Restaurant in Fernie (about half-way to Calgary from Vancouver) and featuring a large menu of locally sourced goods at both dinner and weekend brunch there is really no explanation needed for Twisted Fork Bistro’s popularity and despite our best efforts we arrived thirty minutes after the doors had opened to find a line – a reported 45 minute wait before we would be seated – and a small space to wait inside as others lined up and waited in the cold behind us. Chatting with the man behind the bar as well as the hostess/barista as we waited we were asked if we would like coffee and with three of us assenting to the offer we were provided a large French press with a thick earthy brew and great mouthfeel that would be refilled thrice during the course of the morning without extra charge.
Browsing the room as we waited – woody, warm, and still decorated with hundreds of individual ornaments suspended from the ceiling for Christmas – the crowd at Twisted Fork was certainly an eclectic one with groups ranging from two to eight and teens to septuagenarians of all races and although the noise level was energetic it was never truly loud even as the coffee machines whirred and the open kitchen produced its expected sounds. Comfortable and cozy with the depth of the room far exceeding its width and pillows, jars of jam, and black + white photographs decorating the walls I have to say I really liked the feel of the restaurant and although I was hungry and don’t much fancy waiting in lines I understood while people chose to linger…the free coffee refills alone would have justified it for me…and with surprising accuracy we were seated after forty minutes while the line behind us had grown to around twenty with waits for pairs reaching forty minutes while groups of four creeped into the hours.
Seated finally in the back of the room and having already drank a number of mugs of coffee while studying the menu it would not be long before we were greeted by our server, a perky young lady named Hilary and with glasses of water poured and a tall orange juice ordered by my aunt I asked if we could order right away to which she was quite agreeable although somewhat aggravating in overzealously complimenting each and every choice.
With orders placed to include a couple of appetizers it was surprising that the small kitchen could produce such a variety of food so quickly but literally within ten minutes of seating our first two items would arrive hot and fresh including a pair of Asiago Scones with Butter and Roasted Pepper Jam and two thick slices of Banana Bread with Butter and Quince Jam. Beginning first with the scones, each was nice and toothsome with pockets of both butter and cheese juxtaposed against a semi-sweet background nicely accented by the jam – a bit hot, but more so sweet. Moving next to the Banana Bread, a textbook example with molasses, walnuts, and cinnamon aplomb but just a bit dry for my liking – a problem solved by the butter and jam, a particularly sweet puree that was so good I’d have certainly bought a jar to take home had we not been flying in the post-9/11 era of liquid restrictions.
With the appetizers long gone and the coffee refilled once again it would be just under thirty minutes after seating that our main plates would arrive and having seen each ordered by tables around us we knew we had our work cut out for us as portions were sizable to say the least. Beginning first with my aunt’s selection, always one to opt for sweet over savory, the “Banana Stuffed Brioche French Toast sprinkled with cinnamon icing sugar and a side of whipped cream and maple syrup” would arrive as three enormous slices of rich bread laced with cream cheese, overly ripe bananas, and cinnamon with fruit and the whipped cream on the side. Not one to fancy maple syrup my aunt delved into this plate with the whipped cream and fruit only to declare it as “okay, but not very sweet” despite complimenting the bread and knowing that she would never finish such a portion on her own a small side plate was requested and taking one of the three slices for myself along with some whipped cream I will note that although the flavor of the toast itself was a little tame, the addition of maple syrup helped substantially.
Moving on to the savories as there were no other sweets on the menu my mother’s selection would prove the least successful of the group as “Well done Gruyere Baked Eggs with Sourdough Toast, Bacon, Rosti, and Baked Beans” would arrive in a small crock topped with bubbling cheese and lovely sourdough but eggs that had not been broken or blended thus leading to some areas of pure white and others of just yolk creating a heterogeneous admixture that simply did not work (though I will note the rosti, beans, bacon, and tomatoes were all quite nicely prepared.)
For my sister, the “Bacon, Caramelized Onion, and Brie Frittata filled with plum tomatoes, fresh oregano, fresh greens, and sweet corn relish” would prove a successful if not exciting option as the large omelet was golden on the exterior and creamy within as specks of crunchy bacon dotted the landscape for both taste and texture. Tasty and naturally sweet with the greens kissed by a light vinaigrette I will note that the corn relish was not appreciated by any of us as it was much too sour for breakfast (or dinner, really.)
For my selection, a choice I’d have made even if there were pancakes or something else sweet on the menu, the “Croque Monsieur with Brioche, Gruyere, and Ham with Fresh Greens and House Tomato Sauce” would prove to be the best item of the morning and easily weighing in at a half pound I was stunned by the bread to meat/cheese ratio and even more impressed by the fact that the buttery brioche was not only stuffed with melting Gruyere but also topped with caramelized crunchy cheese as well. With the ham plenty briny and not the least bit stringy or ‘wet’ as the crisp salad lent a bit of acid to the plate another star of this dish was actually the tomato sauce – somewhere between rich creamy tomato soup and a true pasta sauce it was nice on the sandwich but far better by the spoonful.
Again sitting and drinking coffee while planning the rest of our day Hilary would once again return all rainbows and butterflies and asking if we would like anything else (including yet another refill of coffee which I grudgingly declined) the check was delivered with a “whenever you’re ready” while plates were cleared. Knowing of the line and deciding not to linger as we had more than enough sites to see and things to do it would not be long before the bill was paid and making our way back through the now even more crowded waiting area we thanked the hostess and made our way to the street where the line now topped twenty. A nice place with good food I cannot say whether or not they are the “best” brunch in Vancouver as it was the ONLY brunch we had in Vancouver, but all things being equal I also cannot say that I’d ever wait more than twenty minutes for Twisted Fork Bistro again because really, a good breakfast just isn’t that tough to find.
With a late noodle lunch at Michigan Noodle and other bites in between we eschewed our dinner plans on New Year’s Day and again ended up with French Pastries in an overly crowded locale, this time at Thierry in the trendy Downtown shopping area featuring the likes of Gucci, Ferragamo, and Louis Vuitton amongst others. With options limited due to the holiday but seating and parking limited even at 8:30pm when we arrived I can only say that what followed, in all ways, was nothing more than average and overpriced.
Billing itself as a “modern café elegantly designed to evoke the Parisian sentiments of Chef Thierry’s native France” I have to say the décor at Thierry was quite nice from the exterior and on entering we were greeted by large globe lights suspended from the ceiling like tear-drops, wood tables, plethoric displays of chocolates and candies, and large display cases filled with nicely arranged items all around – all of it very much like Fauchon Paris but minus the charm and the quiet as espresso machines hummed and the jam packed café presented a veritable shouting match of couples trying to be heard.
Undeterred by the cacophony and with a single two-top that seemed to be clearing my aunt and I approached the counter while my mother and sister procured a table and with a request to “just order whatever you like and we’ll share” we took to the task of making our selections – four pastries, four macarons, and three drinks that would be prepared, plated, and poured quite quickly and left to our own balancing act and navigational skills to return to our table through the 2-3 inch spaces between tables.
Beginning first with a trio of beverages my first taste of Thierry would be an awful one in the form of the single worst Americano I have ever tasted – a double shot that one could have added a half cup of sugar to and still found profoundly bitter, acidic, and unpalatable – a drink so bad that I actually returned it for a refund and opted for water instead. Fairing slightly better, my sister’s $9 Bailey’s and Coffee at least acted to temper the acidity with the smoothness of the Bailey’s while my Aunt’s $7 Liquid Drinking Chocolate would prove by far the best beverage of the three with subtle fruity notes coming through on the palate and light caramel tones detectable on the tongue of a glass so large it was easily shared by the four of us and would have likely been far too much for one.
Moving on to the pastries we started with a quartet of macarons in the interesting flavors of Pumpkin, Chestnut, Gingerbread, and Key Lime Macaron but unfortunately whether it was due to the late hour or to their method of preparation each was far too pasty and gummy to be truly memorable save for the Chestnut which tasted every bit its namesake with light notes of smoky sweetness and a creamy filling that tasted like chestnut pudding condensed.
Moving on to the larger composed desserts and knowing my mother’s love of lemon I ordered her a slice of the Lemon Tarte and although generally not my favorite dessert this version would actually prove to be the best thing we had all night at Thierry with the light lemon curd providing plenty of sweet to balance the sour and a light milky mouthfeel that complimented the buttery shortbread crust.
Moving next to my selection, the Baba Savarin I was part surprised and part disappointed in this presentation for largely unrelated reasons. Beginning first with the pastry, a well crafted baba with a spongy interior soaked to the core with simple syrup juxtaposing light and mild cream, the dish got off to a great start but where it lacked was largely in my expectation – the expectation that a proper baba should include at least some note of liquor while this particular version seemingly had none, instead adding just a touch of nuance with hints of citrus and a touch of candied tangerine. Good, sure. $6 good, not even close.
For the final tastes of the evening – both chocolate and ordered by my sister and aunt respectively – the “Chocolate Trio – white, dark and milk chocolate mousse” and “Chocolate Succe – hazelnut meringue, chocolate mousse and 70% chocolate ganache” would both prove to be alright but somewhat expected – the first a sort of mousse layer cake with various cocoa tones throughout and a crisp chocolate tuille atop and the second something like an unfrozen Klondike bar replacing the ice cream with meringue and the same mousse as the trio. Respectable, but nothing to write home about when the bill came out at more than $60 to sit four people at a two top while listening to the girls next to us gossip about facebook.
With a forgettable visit to the Blenz Coffee on Robson Street providing a quick caffeine fix on day three of Vancouver but the rest of the day focused on Chinese, Cambodian, and Indian cuisine our last pasty experience in Vancouver would be on the day of our departure – breakfast at Faubourg Paris, a small patisserie and cafe in Kerrisdale where unlike Thierry the ambiance truly is Parisian not just in looks but in service and style. Bright, modern, pleasant, and served up with lingering notes of butter in the air and servers (including the owner himself) sporting hefty French accents I knew on entry that Faubourg was going to be the sort of place that spoke to me – and that was before we even saw the pastry case.
Greeted by both the owner and a young woman at the counter as we browsed the selections – many having just come off the bakers rack – my family deferred to my selections and with most of the options familiar I selected the things I knew we all loved along with a couple of novel selections and two Americanos plus a tea that were all plated individually, placed on trays, and carried to our table by the owner (he would also not allow me to bus my own table later on insisting “non, non, non, go and enjoy the day.)
Beginning first with the coffee, again watered down espresso but vastly more subtle than that at Thierry or Thomas Haas, the blend at Faubourg certainly isn’t going to win any awards but at the same time it was a nice morning cup that served its purpose and went well with the pastries – the first of which was a nicely crafted Pain aux Raisin with a soft and buttery crumb beneath a slightly crisp exterior flecked with large rocks of sugar and plump raisins – a nice changeup from the usual and particularly enjoyed by my aunt. Moving next to its tray-mate, my requisite order of an Almond Croissant would prove to be the first non-double-baked one of the trip but unfortunately it would also prove to be a bit uninspired with the exterior not quite crisp enough and the interior not quite wispy or open enough – almost as though it was undercooked, though I will say the taste was quite pleasant with butter and almond essence in good balance.
Moving next to the tray largely reserved for my mother and sister, the pairing of a Butter Croissant and a Pain au Chocolate would prove to be as classic as it gets and while the almond croissant did not meet my admittedly high standards both of these showed Faubourg’s skill with aplomb as a crisp golden shell crackled with each bite while the interiors of each remained light, cavernous, and loaded with buttery notes. Generally underwhelmed by Pain Au Chocolate as many seem to lack enough ganache I will additionally note that the version at Faubourg stood out both for the quality and quantity of the chocolate – two separate cores providing plenty of flavor without overwhelming the subtleties of the pastry.
For the final plate of the morning and our last bites of Vancouver a tray featuring a “Chocolate Twist” and a Cannele would provide a fitting end to a great trip as the twist would feature a similar golden exterior and soft buttery crumb to the Pain aux Raisin but up the ante by adding a creamy custard woven in and dark chocolate chips opposing the crunchy flecks of sugar. Not quite a croissant, not quite a Danish, almost like a pretzel, and an absolute must order. Moving next to the Cannele, in a word, perfect – a crunchy golden shell, a moist custard interior, plenty of eggy flavor tinged with butter, and just a bit of sweetness…a contender for the top 5 all time and a reason to head to Kerrisdale bright and early as there were only a dozen available when we arrived.
Full review with picture in the blog. Text as below.
As most gourmands, fine diners, and even ‘foodies’ realize, dining out on a major holiday is often a situation marred by high prices, limited menus, rushed service, and a subpar experience aside from the intrinsic special nature of the holiday yet as a frequent traveler over the period between Christmas and New Years I’ve often found myself trying to make the best of a bad situation – and most times with great success including my last two attempts with meals at Picasso Las Vegas and Picholine New York, a trend I hoped to continue in Vancouver with the oft raved L’Abbatoir – a reservation I secured months before we flew out west and a restaurant serving its standard menu at standard prices even on one of the busiest restaurant days of the year.
Seated in Gastown amongst the hottest clubs in the city (and ironically at the site of Vancouver’s fist prison) our arrival to L’Abbatoir was planned for 8:00pm so as to precede the east coast New Year that we are all so accustomed to celebrating and although traffic was heavy, the weather was rainy, and both my mother and I were feeling rather poor we surprisingly not only arrived on time but also managed to find free parking literally 100 yards from the restaurant – a huge bonus as my aunt remained in her walking boot, yet strangely ironic as we made our way through the door only to realize that all but the bar seating was located at the top of a steep metal staircase – an obstacle overcome through the help of the strikingly beautiful hostess and a young busboy who would assist her both up and down without a moment’s hesitation.
With the Kings and Canucks playing at the packed bar downstairs but the sound and setting upstairs much more subdued our quartet settled into our seats where we would soon be greeted by a young man named Romano who would present and describe the menu and cocktail list before leaving us to our decisions – a daunting task as everything on the menu sounded great despite my stomach still not being up to par from the night prior. Clearly a restaurant with a purpose since its inception I was particularly intrigued by how the menus ‘fit’ the room and vice versa – both showing off classical ingredients and technique serving point and counterpoint with industrial flare and modern accents…a balance that is difficult to achieve without feeling contrived yet something Chef Cooper and team somehow blended seamlessly from food to cocktails to furnishings.
With a few specials in addition to the daily menu noted by Romano on his return and myself knowing early on that anything beyond a couple small plates would be pushing my limits we each made our selections with our server’s guidance about portions and once we had settled on a couple of courses each plus a pair of cocktails for my sister and aunt Romano disappeared briefly only to return moments later with our first bites of the evening, a bread basket on par with the very best I’ve ever had at such an establishment featuring house made Bacon Brioche, Seasoned Flatbread, and Cheese Twists – each of which I tasted and enjoyed but am sad to say I could not indulge in nearly as much as I’d have liked given my condition.
With cocktails poured, a Clover Club for my aunt and Aviation for my sister, it would not be long before our appetizers would arrive and just as the menu descriptions and space seemed a modern update on classical stylings so would be the presentations, the first of which was the “Dungeness crab and chickpea toast” consisting of a rounded cylinder of thinly sliced crispy chickpea-flour brioche filled with whipped garlic custard, pickled carrots, and plenty of handpicked crab. Overall flavored something like a traditional crab cake but certainly more interesting in texture my favorite part of this dish was actually the custard – clearly from an ISI whip and an example of modernist cuisine used for taste and texture, not just style.
Moving next to my sister’s appetizer, a dish simply titled “Confit of albacore tuna” but far more interesting due to its compliment of “smoked pork fat, egg, and crispy bits” this lovely preparation would feature line-caught pacific tuna slow cooked in oil as its base and with each piece textured like fine crudo (but warm) what made this dish truly stand out was the greens, the cracklins, the eggy hollandaise, and most notably these little white cubes – a veritable bacon flavored meringue that perfumed the palate for a moment and then disappeared as though you just caught a whiff of the grill during a cookout.
With my mouth and brain unable to resist foie gras even when my stomach says otherwise the final appetizer of the meal would be the least elaborate yet being a nicely prepared terrine of duck liver it would obviously be the best (at least to me.) Titled “Terrine of duck foie gras - Toasted brioche, quince, yogurt” and featuring the rich terrine nicely lacquered with just a touch of sweetness, black pepper, and sea salt atop a slice of buttery brioche the plate was completed with a circular accoutrement of sweet quince puree, tangy yogurt, and coconut gelee each highlighting a different note of the liver and only the yogurt – far too sour – failing to impress.
With mother having elected to forgo an appetizer but tasting a few along the way while enjoying the bread it would be just a little under an hour after seating that we would make our way to the balcony to watch the live feed of the ball drop in Time Square before returning to the table just in time for our main courses to arrive; for her an entrée sized (at no extra charge even though it was technically an appetizer) salad of “Marinated North Arm Farm beetroot - Tellagio custard, pears, pumpkin seeds” that would serve up no less than five different varieties of earthy and aromatic beets alongside at least three styles of pears (Asian, Bartlett, and D’Anjou,) crunchy salted pumpkin seeds, and a savory cheese pudding that gently melded everything together. Still dizzy but better after a couple of Antivert my mother claimed this to be one of the best beet salads she has ever had and from my small taste I’d tend to agree.
With my aunt following my lead and opting for two appetizers instead of an appetizer and a main course her “Chicken Canneloni with Fennel, Sauce gribiche, Mushrooms” would arrive next as a pair of thick noodles stuffed with spicy chicken sausage swimming in a pool of rich, savory sauce gribiche. Much more a fan of mustard than I my aunt unsurprisingly really enjoyed this dish while I personally found it to be the weakest of the evening – an overhand smash of the mustard and caper flavors that overwhelmed the rest of the dish and noodles that should have been thinner or at least less doughy so as not to distract from the fibrous mushrooms and heady sausage.
For the only “main course” item of the evening my sister let me talk her into the Boneless quail and crispy chicken sausage roll with roast foie gras, mushrooms, and cauliflower – the dish I’d have invariably ordered had I been feeling better – and just as expected it turned out to be fantastic. Beginning first with the quail, a similar presentation to that of Joel Robuchon with the lean bird’s skin crisp and overlying a layer of foie gras, the flavors were intense yet nicely balanced by the tender mushrooms and crisp cauliflower while a layer of cauliflower puree and pan jus lined the plate for added style. Moving next to the chicken sausage roll, I can honestly say the plate did not need it, but with the same fennel tinged sausage as my aunt’s dish highlighted much more impressively by a crispy shell flecked with sage I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down either – and the same can be said for the nicely seared lobe of foie gras that sat at the front of the plate that went beautifully with the cauliflower puree and mushrooms both.
For the final savory of 2011, another appetizer and the sort of dish anyone who knows me would have assumed I’d order, “Poached egg with black trumpet mushrooms - Potato gnocchi, leeks, pecorino sabayon” would arrive in a shallow bowl with the gnocchi pan crisped but tender forming a little nest for the poached egg that was subsequently topped with shredded mushrooms, the intense cheese fondue, and crispy leeks. Combining two of my favorite things in gnocchi and a poached egg along with the textural contrast of the cheese and the leeks the only thing that could have made this dish better would have been replacing the trumpets with truffles and even though I really wasn’t feeling it at this point I can only say that the taste on the palate justified the pangs in the stomach and I finished every bite knowing full well that doing so would render dessert an unlikely option.
With Romano returning to check in on us and another young man helping him to bus the table we were next presented with dessert menus and much to my dismay four of the six items sounded outstanding but knowing better than to push my luck I again tried to convince someone to order what I would have ordered and was met with great success when my aunt assented to the Caramelized apple bread pudding with Candy cap mushroom ice cream and honey crisp apples. Presented as two thin slices of layered brioche seemingly dipped in applesauce and custard before baking the bread pudding itself was an admirable example but certainly not the star of the plate – not by a long shot. Moving past the pudding, the accoutrements to this dessert would start out simple with sliced apples and apple gel and then move into the realm of “wow” with crunchy sugar coated mushrooms and a quenelle of what can best be described as the flavor of a mushroom amplified by five yet tucked behind a layer of sweetness that I’m almost certain came from maple syrup – truly an “experience” ice cream every bit on par with the basil sorbet at Eleven Madison Park or Richard Rosendale’s mustard seed version during his days in Ohio.
For the final bites of 2011 a light dessert was sought and delivered in the form of “Trifle with Berries Preserved in Rum, Ricotta Pound Cake, Lemon Cream, Dark Chocolate” – a lovely layered dish where everything was in a nice balance with no component seemingly out of place. Sure it wasn’t as avant-garde as much of the night’s cuisine, but it was every bit as satisfying and very gentle on the GI tract.
With the Kings topping the Canucks on the strength of their strongest offensive output in ages and the New Year yet to arrive in the Pacific Time zone we sat for a while chatting after Romano collected our plates and with the upstairs now filled and the bar really beginning to bustle we decided to take our leave – my aunt again assisted down the stairs by a server and a busser where we were met with our coats and a short walk in the brisk air to the car; an aunt in a walking boot, a dizzy mother, myself recovering from food poisoning, and my sister who somehow managed to make it into 2012 alive and well – certainly not the ‘ideal’ end to a stellar year of eating yet at the same time a memorable evening thanks to my very favorite foods (foie gras, gnocchi, and bread pudding) and my very favorite people.
Kam Do, Michigan Noodle, Phnom Penh:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below.
With Indian cuisine to come at Vij’s and Dim-Sum well covered by Jade and Sea Harbour while my family requested more “traditional” breakfast fare for the rest of the trip, a trio of additional stops would round out my sampling of Asian ethnic cuisines in Richmond and Vancouver for this visit – one for traditional baked goods, one for hand made noodles, and the last for Cambodian specialties…all things I surely can’t find in any quantity or quality in Central Ohio. Again thanks go out to Sherman of shermansfoodadventures and the folks at Chowhound for their assistance.
Beginning first with a selection that could best be designated as a snack despite the fact that there is indeed a proper restaurant attached, our visit to Kam Do on Alexandria Road would only be for the pastries, and more specifically the “sweetheart” or wife cake as well as a trio of buns one early morning en route from our hotel to downtown Vancouver. Having heard that most of Kam Do’s selections were not only authentic, but also inexpensive and baked at various times throughout the day to ensure freshness our arrival would be just after 8:00am and true to form a whole stack of pastries was emerging from the oven literally the moment we walked through the door.
With the servers seemingly unaccustomed to customers lacking any knowledge of the Cantonese language but trying their best to help guide us through the vast selection my sister and I spent a few minutes browsing before settling on our choices and with the wife cakes actually kept in a separate area behind the counter each of our choices was individually wrapped in cellophane before being bagged – all four items plus plenty of smiles and excellent service for a loonie and two toonies.
Making our way back to the car to explore our choices we decided to start with the warm items first and in doing so opted for the Coconut Bun, a nicely leavened item we had seen on both dim sum menus but failed to order but this time much larger and featuring a sugary interior laden with coconut flakes inside of a soft buttery roll with an egg wash and honey glaze. Somewhat akin to an American dinner roll served at any number of diners but nicely accented by the coconut we additionally selected two more buns, one Taro and the other Pineapple, that were similarly constructed and although I personally love the flavor of Taro it was definitely the coconut version that stood out likely due to its warmth and freshness.
Moving next to the wife cake I have to admit I’d never heard of this item prior to reading about Kam Do but all things being equal I’m sort of glad I had not because I’d have felt a little bit jealous due to the lack of availability where I live. Something like a croissant on the exterior due to a skin made of candied winter melon beneath a sweetened egg-wash yet with a soft yet flaky interior harkening a pull-apart biscuit the texture of this small bun was divine yet what truly stood out was actually the flavor, a complex semi-sweet and savory amalgam of almond extract, sesame seed oil, and notes of cloves and anise all subtle but present and producing a sum much greater than the whole of its parts and definitely an item worth seeking out.
For a second stop along the way, a spot we’d originally targeted for lunch but ended up enjoying for an early dinner instead, Michigan Noodle would prove an interesting stop for a quartet of Ohioans a whole country away from our neighboring state but having it on good word that this a great place for hand pulled noodles and wantons at a bargain price we decided to take a chance and incidentally ended up with some really great food in a fairly unlikely place.
Located in a rather non-descript bank of buildings and tucked way back in the corner so much that we would have never seen it had it not been for our GPS we found ample parking at Michigan Noodle and made our way in to find the restaurant largely empty at the off-hour of 4:00pm. Again the only Caucasian folks in the room a young woman approached us with a simple “hello – four?” before leading us to our table where menus were handed to each of us before she returned to the side of the restaurant where what appeared to be the entire staff was sitting and eating; yes, our “off hour” had interrupted their meal before what would turn out to be a very busy dinner service.
Sitting and browsing the surprisingly large menu with more varieties of noodles and dumplings than I’d have ever guessed existed it would be mere moments before an older waitress would approach our table with tea ($1/ea surcharge) and a tray of condiments including soy, spicy, and sweet sauces and speaking English better than any of our Dim Sum servers she asked us what we would like while also making some recommendations – an eventual dialogue that led to four entirely different dishes that she assured us would be large enough to share.
Sitting and browsing the room, now with four other tables filled and soon to be at about 75% capacity, Michigan Noodle would prove to be the first Chinese restaurant we’d been to on the trip without a speck of Christmas or Americana dotting the walls. Composed mostly of dark woods, white walls, and traditional tapestries and photographs the restaurant certainly felt like a place for locals and all things being equal the service was actually much better than it needed to be with our server bringing us cold water and tea refills plus silverware (okay, perhaps a bit of an assumption on her part there) without request and with a partially open kitchen diners were also treated to a show as the team stood there forming, stretching, and cutting noodles with great rapidity in utter silence.
Feeling rather hungry as we had missed lunch it would be only a short while before our orders would arrive and with each served in a surprisingly large bowl given the low prices we all knew food would be going back to the kitchen but planned to do our best and ended up leaving very little. Beginning first with my order, at first a slip up (the good kind where you get more food,) I selected the Fried Duck Congee but was instead served the Black Mushroom and Chicken Congee and although the mistake was delicious with the intensely creamy and slightly saline rice providing a nice backdrop to the earthy noodles and chicken the duck was even better with a crackling skin and unctuous meat in the same rice broth. Adding a touch of soy for some bites, a touch of the sweet sauce for others, and just a dab of hot sauce to taste my only wish would have been for the duck to be deboned – a small quibble when eating casually, but messy regardless.
Moving next to the reason we decided to visit in the first place, the noodles, my mother’s Traditional Wanton Noodle Soup would prove to be a stunner – by far the best I have tasted in my limited experience but with a steamy broth was clean and clear yet rich and intense underlying springy and delicate noodles plus translucent pockets of pork and mushroom that burst in the mouth leaving behind a balanced but porky sapor. While certainly not for the MSG intolerant I will say that very few things that cost $5 are this tasty and this satisfying.
Choosing to sample her noodles without soup my aunt elected for the Lo Mein with Ginger and Green Onion and although it too was tasty I’m almost certain her noodles were envious of those that got to bathe with the wantons in that broth. Still impressively delicate given their thinness and with a great taste added by the ginger I will note that when sharing was complete it was just under half of this dish and approximately 1/4 of the *bonus* congee that went uneaten.
Rounding out our sampling (and likely accounting for my first congee) at the recommendation of our server my sister selected the Fried Noodles with Carrot, Black Mushroom, Chicken, and Bok Choy – an insanely large dish for the price that came served in big glass bowl with the crunchy noodles at the base and at least a quarter pound of boiled and lacquered chicken plus similar amounts of tender bok choy, crunchy carrots, and aromatic black mushrooms all bathed in a slightly sweet oyster sauce. Perhaps the most “familiar” of the selections as a similar version of this is found on the majority of Americanized Chinese restaurants I have to say that at first I was slightly surprised that our waitress had suggested this but in the end whether she did so because she assumed we were looking for familiar foods or because she really thought it was good doesn’t matter – it was delicious.
With the total bill after a 20% tip coming in at just over $25 (I’ve spent 4x this on appetizers) we made our way out of Michigan Noodle with plans for more sightseeing and a late dinner but in the end only the first happened with “dinner” merely consisting of drinks and desserts as we were too full. Drinks and desserts that would cost more than twice Michigan Noodle’s bill and be far less filling and even less satisfying.
Moving on to the last of the recommendations gleaned from Sherman of shermansfoodadventures.com my first experience with Cambodian cuisine would come at the hands of Phnom Penh, a location selected not only due to the high praise but also as a result of their flexible hours and relative close proximity to Rogers Center where we’d be taking in the 7:00pm matchup between the Canucks and Sharks – a game that even despite our best planning we were nearly late for given the popularity of our late lunch destination.
Billed as an authentic Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant and accepting no reservations our arrival at Phnom Penh would be just prior to 4:00pm and although we had been warned of long waits nothing would have led me to anticipate what we found at an off hour between lunch and dinner on a rainy day – namely a 75 minute wait exacerbated by a fluid crowd comprised of patrons that clearly knew how to work the system in order to be seated faster while the rest of us stood around waiting for our names to be read from a handwritten list carried by one of the many staff members that seemed to change from moment to moment – frustrating to say the least but at the same time also reassuring as such a crowd clearly indicated something special waited at the end of our wait.
With our party of two finally called while my mother and aunt opted to sit this meal out in favor of sandwiches we were quickly led through the growing throng to a large 4-top along the wall without a word from the hostess and handed the encyclopedic menu to browse before water was poured and our arrived to take our order – all this occurring in a mere four to five minutes thus leading us to defer and apparently forfeit our “turn” as the young woman would not return for at least twenty minutes; plenty of time to make our decisions and to watch the chaos while taking in the room’s brightly colored decorations.
With orders finally placed and tables being turned and being filled at an uncanny pace while the line never seemed to shorten it would not be long before a collection of condiments would be delivered by the hands of one server while water was refilled by another. With servers speaking English only slightly better than I speak Cambodian or Vietnamese I’m relatively certain that it was at this point that our server said “food out in 5 minutes but you order too much” and true to these words the first dishes arrived shortly thereafter as we sat picking at the vinegar soaked carrots, sweetened soy sauce, bean sprouts, fiery BBQ sauce, and dried spices that were meant to compliment our selections.
With only two of us present but wanting to make the most of our meal the first plate to arrive would be Prawn Ball Rice Noodle in Soup with Bean Sprouts and served in what can best be described as a punch bowl I instantly realized why our server had suggested we had ordered too much – both at our table and those around us the portions were gargantuan – but digging into the bowl with a spoon I was quickly reassured that although some would likely go to waste it would not be for lack of trying as everything about the dish from the starchy hand pulled noodles to the savory snappy balls of prawn was texturally lovely with flavors brought to a peak by the fatty and briny broth, an effect amplified even further with the addition of some of the dry spices leading us to consume all but a half-cup of broth and a few stray noodles by meal’s end.
Served as a duo the next pairing would feature one sweet and one savory, both seemingly present on every table in the restaurant – the Strawberry ‘Moo Moo’ Shake and the “Canh Ga Lan Bot,” or Deep Fried Chicken Wing with Lemon Pepper Sauce. Beginning first with the smoothie, a relatively “familiar” dish consisting of pureed strawberries, condensed milk, ice cubes, and in this case coconut milk the concoction was light, flavorful, and airy like an Italian Ice but substantially more creamy and served with a thick straw it went quickly. Moving next to the chicken, considered by many to be Phnom Penh’s signature item, we opted for a half order for $8.00 and with 9 wings to the order not only was this a pretty good deal compared to many other purveyors of wings, it was also a hell of a lot better with a sweet meets savory shell that crackled on mastication giving way to supple flesh beneath. Slightly peppery on their own and served with lemon tinged vinegar pepper sauce for dipping I definitely understood why these were present at every table and with turmeric and garlic notes aplenty my only regret was that we didn’t order a full plate (which appeared to contain ~20 wings for $12.50 judging from the tables adjacent ours.)
Seeing the time approaching 6:00 and not wanting to risk missing the anthem I asked our server (she just so happened to be walking by – not that she was checking in on us or anything) if we could order our dessert to arrive with our final item and assuring us this was “no problem” it would be a mere five minutes later that we would receive the “Banh Xeo” and less than a minute later when the Taro Tapioca would arrive. Beginning first with the Vietnamese Crepe – an enormous golden fold of crispy bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, and eggs fried to perfection and served with raw vegetables the dish was surprisingly not overly oily and absolutely chalk-a-block full of savory notes carefully balanced by the vegetal bitters of the beans; another must order and something I’ve managed to recreate with minimal oil since returning home as a healthy protein packed breakfast.
Moving finally to dessert, the aforementioned Taro Tapioca – all I can say is that if you like taro and you like tapioca this warm preparation is a must order as the fibrous texture of the tuber blended nicely with the tapioca while the light saccharine notes of the maltodextrin and a dollop of condensed milk provided just enough sweetness to highlight the taro’s flavor without overwhelming it.
With the time now 6:15 and Roger’s Center beckoning the bill was presented and after being told to pay at the register we made our way to the back and settled the modest tab only to realize that by the time we made it to still jammed packed entryway our table had already been turned and a family of four was busy browsing the menu. I hope they ordered a full order of the chicken…and the moo moo shake…and the prawn balls…and maybe a crepe and the taro tapioca too.
Full review with pictures in blog. Text as below.
Having gotten used to waiting in lines for restaurants without reservations in Vancouver our final meal of the visit would be at perhaps the city’s most well regarded dining destination, Vij’s, an Indian hot spot often sporting hour plus waits that just so happened to be returning from their New Years break on the last day of our stay. Admittedly a bit tired after a day including a long morning run, Jade Seafood dim sum for breakfast, a visit to the art museum, Phnom Pehn for lunch, and watching the Canucks drop a heartbreaker to the Sharks our trip to Vij’s actually almost didn’t happen but in retrospect I’m quite glad it did not because I was particularly hungry but instead because it was the first “ethnic” meal of the trip that my mother and aunt truly enjoyed.
Arriving just after 10:15pm and dropping the family off at the door due to the rain I managed to find free parking after circling the block and entering the restaurant myself at 10:30 I found, unsurprisingly, that the place was packed and the ladies were seated in the lounge with a quoted 45 minute wait for a table of four. Taking my seat next to the family and tasting a pair of cocktails and a nonalcoholic beverage ordered by my sister, aunt, and mother respectively I was admittedly quite uninspired by the overly minty Indian Mojito with Vodka, Lychee, Mango Liquer, Mint, and Star Anise but vastly more impressed by both the intriguingly savory Dark Army with Amber Rum, Ginger lemon, mango, and garam masala as well as the Virgin Ginger Lemonade.
With the room and the kitchen clearly fitting the Indian theme while the servers were all young Caucasian females dressed in traditional Indian clothing we sat for a while chatting amongst ourselves at the bar before the first in a trio of complimentary “bar snacks” would arrive in the form of spicy curried fries and free to enjoy as many or as few as we liked I largely passed on these in favor of the other two options – smoky and savory Fennel crisps and crunchy-gives-way-to-creamy chickpea toasts – which continued to be passed around until we were led to our seats approximately 30 minutes after walking in the door.
Now seated at a cozy four-top, myself with a good view of the kitchen and the room bustling but not “loud,” the young woman who had served us our bar bites would arrive transporting the ladies’ cocktails along with menus and explaining a couple of nightly specials we were left to make our decisions – mine already predetermined from browsing the menu in the bar while my mother and aunt debated which items would be the least spicy – a decision process that eventually led us to order one appetizer and a main course each, all confirmed to be “great choices” and “sharable portions” by our server.
With the time now just past 11pm and the restaurant taking no more walk-ins as both the dining room and the bar area were still packed our appetizer would not take long to arrive and having been impressed by the chickpea toast in the bar our Curried Chickpeas and Sweet Potato Ricotta Cookies arrived with high expectations – expectations that were certainly met in terms of flavor though the portion was certainly less than “sharable” for a part of four. Beginning first with the ‘cookies’, the four small half-circles were each slightly crisp on the exterior with a creamy cheese filling that melded nicely with the sweet potatoes while lending some balance to the heat of the curry. Moving next to the chickpeas – well cooked, well drained, and well seasoned but all things being equal nothing special and at just over a tablespoon per person the cost of $13 seemed quite excessive.
Sitting and taking in the scene of the slowly dwindling crowd as we waited our server would visit frequently to top off water or inquire if anyone would like another cocktail and approximately twenty minutes after our appetizer had arrived a plate of warm, pillowy Naan would arrive from the kitchen signifying that our main courses were soon to arrive. Served as four medium sized triangles each brimming with savory tones and plenty of heat I mentioned to our server that she’d might as well place an order for a second round just moments after my first bite and with a smile and “of course” it would not be long before the second plate, and then a third would arrive to compliment our dinner.
Moving on to our main plates, having frequently joked with my sister that she borders on being a vegetarian it was no surprise when she selected the “Shitake Mushrooms and Vegetables in lightly creamed curry with Mung bean, Rice Pilaf, Almonds” and it was also no surprise that this would be by far the most mild plate of the night with each of the multitude of nicely prepared vegetables forming a sort of earthy stew with the mushrooms as light notes of spice rose to the palate.
Moving next to my mother’s selection, a bit of a shocker to all of us since the waitress had denoted the dish as “pretty spicy,” BC Spot Prawns in coconut and fenugreek masala with wheat berry pilaf would prove to be the least texturally interesting plate of the evening, but at the same time perhaps the most interestingly flavored as the incredibly fresh and perfectly prepared shrimp were highlighted by notes of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and bitter fenugreek all kept in check by the smooth coconut milk. Certainly hot but mitigated partially by both the toothsome pilaf and intermittent bites of Naan I really enjoyed the dish and so did my mother, a welcome surprise given out overall lack of familiarity with the ingredients utilized in such a potent combination.
Going with the most ‘familiar’ item of the night, my aunt’s Lemon ghee marinated and grilled organic chicken in tangy tomato curry with roasted garlic and cashews would prove to be rather well balanced despite the hefty dose of acid from the lemon and tomatoes yet although plenty flavorful and textural thanks to the crispy garlic and crunchy cashews I have to say the price seemed just a touch outlandish at $28.50given the lack of exotic ingredients and relatively small portion (in my estimate less than 6oz of chicken.)
For the final savory of the evening I simply could not pass up the restaurant’s “signature” dish and although I would generally opt for bird over beast the Wine marinated Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek cream curry and turmeric spinach potatoes would indeed turn out to be well worth signature status. Featuring five whole popsicles and easily 10oz of tender lamb teaming with notes of red wine, cinnamon, and tomatoes at its center and beautifully balanced by not only the mildly astringent curry but also by the earthy chunky potatoes this was definitely not the sort of dish you get at the small Indian place down the street but more so a well composed lamb dish that would not be out of place on any fine dining menu.
With empty plates collected and returned to the kitchen our server would return to inquire about desserts – a list of three recited from memory as no proper dessert menu is available – and on hearing the options we simply agreed to a “one of each” approach along with a couple small mugs of Chai as no coffee was available and within moments the trio would arrive – the first described as Pistachio mango kulfi with edible silver leaf; a decent attempt with ample notes of cardamom and pistachio but certainly nothing that registered as mango on my palate and by far the least exciting of the group.
Moving next to the other desserts, “Galub jamuns” was essentially two balls of fried dough dusted with crumbled pistachios in warm honey tinged with floral essences while the Warm Almond Milk Rice Pudding (again with edible silver) was my personal favorite of the evening with a great toothsome texture to the rice lightly accented with crumbled almonds and a creamy base that was slightly savory and plenty sweet. Like the savories (save for the lamb) dessert portions ran on the small side with a price tag ranging from $6-8 while the chai was compliments of the house and refilled without the need to ask.
Settling the bill just as the clock turned over to midnight and with the restaurant now less than 1/3 full as the kitchen had finally begun to wind down we thanked our servers and made our way to the door happy to see that the rain had finally stopped and after a quick jog to get the car I picked my family up and turned south for our Richmond hotel glad to have visited Vij’s not particularly because it was the best meal of the trip or because it was the most memorable, but mostly because everyone had enjoyed it – even if single entrees do cost more than our entire meal at Michigan Noodle and the final tab more than quadrupled that at Phnom Pehn for food that I found merely equally compelling though admittedly featuring higher end ingredients and a much nicer setting.