Back when I lived in Toronto, I used to joke that I never went north of Eglinton if I could help it. Here in Vancouver, I make similar jokes about how I do everything I can to avoid travelling to bridge-and-tunnel land. These kinds of comments can easily get you into trouble with certain folks (as in: the ones who live north of Eglinton or in bridge-and-tunnel land). They are also the folks who know that there are many excellent reasons to venture out of the downtown core.
The Pear Tree is one of those reasons. Ranked 49th in the 2015 list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, it has been serving quality, classic food in Burnaby Heights for almost two decades. Was it the sole reason I trekked all the way out to North Burnaby the other weekend? Not entirely. But the offer from my sister and her husband of a nice dinner out (who am I to turn down a free meal?) as a thank you for hanging out in Solo so I could watch over their house and feed their cats while they were on walkabout in Southeast Asia was all the incentive I needed to spend an hour Skytraining my way east.
Upon arrival we were immediately seated by a young hostess who took our coats ― and then promptly disappeared. (Seriously. We never saw her again.) But in no time at all we were sipping cocktails and studying the menu in earnest. We made our selections with care.
And then we sat back and enjoyed ourselves. There wasn’t a wrong step with any of the dishes.
The highlight of my evening was my first course: Orange Caramelized Scallops with Double-Smoked Bacon Risotto. Creamy and full of flavour, the risotto was neither too bland nor too cheesy. I was a wee bit worried that the citrus flavour would overpower the scallops, but there was just a hint of it. The dish is also available as a main course.
I ordered the Twice-Cooked Fraser Valley Belly with White Bean Cassoulet so I could compare it to the cassoulet I so fondly remembered from a long-ago visit to Carcassonne, France. The Pear Tree version was nothing like the Carcassonne version. (No surprise there, to be honest, and I would have been disappointed if it had.) The pork belly was crisp, but moist; if you like your bacon well-cooked, this is not the dish for you as you will likely be turned off by the fattiness of the pork belly. The meat lay on a bed of white beans and green pea puree.
Roasted steelhead and grilled pork tenderloin were the choices for my sister and her husband and there were no complaints at our table. As we all tucked into our main courses, our waiter brought us a plate of lightly dressed fresh greens to share.
We finished our meal with a cheese course of stilton and candied walnuts, but it was the arrival of our trio of desserts that drew gasps from our neighbours. No wonder ― they looked spectacular. I had the Chocolate Ganache with a Crisp Nut Base, Salted Caramel, and Orange Chocolate Sorbet. Now here’s a revelation: salted caramel is the perfect companion to deep rich chocolate. Even so, my favourite part may have been the nut-based crust.
The Vanilla Crème Brulée with a Crisp Brandy Snap was the creamiest crème brulée I’ve tasted in a long while. I loved how the vanilla flavour was front and centre.
But the star of the night was the Fresh Lemon Tart with Lemon Sour Cream Sorbet. I say this because it was the dessert with the most dramatic presentation with its tower of spun sugar. I happen to think that lemon tarts have long been underrated ― the fresh lemony taste of this one only confirmed my belief.
When we were finally sated and I had heard all about my sister and her husband’s travels, we got up and I moved towards the coat closet beside our table. But Stephanie, co-owner and front of house, had already placed them on a table in the lounge. How did she know which coats were ours without a coat check tag? This is a mystery to me. (Remember, the hostess who took our coats upon our arrival had long disappeared.) Stephanie’s husband, co-owner and chef Scott, stood beside her and chatted with us as we put on our coats. It was a homey touch, as if our hosts were seeing us to the door the way they would in their own home. For me, that personal touch was the most impressive moment of an impressive evening.
Which means I may be trekking out to Burnaby Heights more often in the future.
Every year around this time, I get homesick for Paris, but this year, my mind has been on Paris far more than usual.
I’m sure it’s obvious why: the media coverage on that city has been pretty much nonstop since the Paris attacks a month ago. Attention ramped up again this past weekend when 195 nations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, adopted what’s being called the Paris Agreement.
In short: all eyes ― not just mine ― are on Paris right now. And so, bear with me as I write (yet) another post on my second-favourite city in the world.
Whenever I think back to my winter in Paris, I think of the impressive light displays put up to celebrate the holiday season. The many elaborately decorated Parisian cafés were particularly impressive, with nothing ever done in half measures. (Is that a French thing? Or a “keeping up with the Joneses” thing? I dunno, but I sure enjoyed the results.)
Parisian cafés are special places. In the mind of most visitors to Paris, there is nothing more French than sitting down in a café and ordering un café or un verre de vin. One quickly learns ― and adapts to the idea ― that your one drink buys you the table for as long as you want it.
Which could be hours. Whether you sit there alone, reading or writing or people-watching, or sit there with your family or friends, it doesn’t matter. You will not be rushed. Time stops.
Because they serve beer and wine in addition to all manner of caffeine, Parisian cafés are, technically speaking, café-bars. They also have complete kitchens, which means you can get a three-course meal any time of day. (Cafés are open from morning until late at night, whereas Parisian restaurants generally close for the afternoon.)
As an oftentimes solo traveller, what I especially like about Parisian cafés is the lack of stigma to eating alone, which has not been my experience in other European countries.
The oldest café in Paris is Le Procope in the 6e arrondissement. It opened for business in 1686, shortly after coffee was introduced to the French. My New World brain can’t quite fathom a restaurant that’s been around since a century before the French Revolution.
In time, Parisian cafés became the centre of French discourse and intellectual life, the place where politics and art and philosophy were discussed. Today, there are more than 12,000 cafés in Paris ― one on every corner, it seems, in some arrondissements.
The Paris attacks of last month were horrific and shocking. What was especially horrific and shocking is that Parisians were attacked while enjoying the very essence of what makes them Parisian: having a drink in a café.
Just as I cannot imagine Christmas in Paris without dazzling light displays, I cannot imagine a Paris where fear and trauma have overtaken the café experience. I hope and pray that the magic I felt five Decembers ago in the City of Light is still there. And my Christmas wish for all Parisians is simply this: that they spend the holiday eating and drinking and laughing and loving.
In other words, that they have a Joyeux Noël.
Here’s what happens when you visit a review-worthy restaurant shortly before leaving on your summer holidays: the blog post you wrote sits in your draft folder for months and months until you completely forget about it. We ate at Ask for Luigi on a beautifully hot summer evening last August. Here is what I wrote the next morning.
Note to the host of Ask for Luigi: ignoring the woman for the guy she’s with is not smart in the current century, especially when the gentleman in question is crouched down and clearly pre-occupied with his phone.
That ten-second encounter almost put me off, but I set my ego aside and told the host my name and the number in my party. Ask for Luigi takes walk-in guests only, but anyone not accommodated in the first seating ― we managed to snag the last table ― is texted when their table is ready.
Voted one of Vancouver’s best new restaurants when chef and co-owner J.C. Poirier opened in late 2013, Ask for Luigi is one of the bright spots in Vancouver’s transforming Railtown. Once we were seated, the service was beyond attentive ― our table was wiped down after each course and the reflexes of our server were quicker than all three of us combined when yours truly clumsily knocked over her Spritz ― the Venetian-style aperitivo made with Aperol, Prosecco, and soda water that is the only option for a before-dinner drink.
The antipasti orders came almost too quickly ― with only 36 seats the emphasis seemed to be on turn-over ― but nothing was going to make us wolf down these delectable platters of perfection. We savoured every bite of anchovy-infused octopus carpaccio, sliced paper thin and liberally sprinkled with baby basil. Luigi’s famous golf ball–sized meatballs were dense and chewy. Smothered with a rich, smooth, crimson tomato sauce and accompanied by toasted Tuscan-style bread, they were marred only by the crunch of eggshell in my first bite. Geometrically correct cubes of crispy pork ciccioli, moist and wet on the inside, crunchy on the outside, were served with canary-yellow saffron aioli and deep-fried shishito peppers — a sweet green pepper about the size of my little finger. About one in ten shishito peppers are spicy — my sister was the lucky one in our group.
On to the next course. Tagliatelle with rabbit and olives was flawless, the olive taste subtle but present, and the shredded rabbit liberally coated with a creamy sauce. The rye penne, on the other hand, was overcooked, although not the creamy egg yolk placed on top, nor the gently sautéed broccolini and perfectly crisped guanciale. The pasta special ― conchiglie with garlic sausage, pale kernels of organic corn, and black summer truffle ― was the surprise of the night with its spicy kick and sweet taste of summer. All pasta is made fresh daily and served family style. (Gluten-free options are available.)
Two courses would be enough to fill any sane person, but we soldiered on. The vanilla-bean panna cotta was particularly creamy and made complete by almond biscotti and delicately stewed prunes. Chocolate budino ― a flourless cake with 70 percent chocolate ― was as intense as you would expect a flourless cake with that much chocolate to be. A mini loaf of warm olive oil cake, topped with a quenelle of rich ricotta cheese, was nestled on a bed of glazed orange slices.
The rustic décor was pleasing ― the desserts were served on mismatched china and the wine in small juice-sized glasses ― but pity the poor sods stuck in the back corner, too far from the wide-open windows or floor fans to get any respite from the August heat. Extra entertainment (in addition to yours truly spilling her drink at the start of the meal) was provided when my dining companions recognized a well-known actress sitting behind my right shoulder ― although, she wasn’t so famous that they were sure of her name. Each then whipped out their respective smart phones to check if they were right, while I remained focus on photographing our food.
We’ll go back to Ask for Luigi, but I’m thinking only if we can squeeze into the first seating again; I’m not convinced it would be worth an hour or more wait.
Note: The benefit of waiting three months to post a review is that I can change my assessment: I have decided I do want to go back to Ask for Luigi, regardless of the wait time, as long as I am with people whose company I enjoy. (Which is usually what happens when I eat out, so I should be all right.)
Many years ago (too many to share with you), I was backpacking around Europe with a friend. One hot, sunny afternoon in late September, we climbed 509 stairs to the top of Cologne’s beautiful cathedral. Once back on terra firma, we headed straight to McDonald’s for some lunch. (I know, I know … but what can I say? We were students on a tight budget.)
When I saw beer on the menu, I ordered one, despite the fact that I didn’t actually like beer and had never managed to swallow more than a sip or two. But hey ― it was a really hot day and I had just climbed up and down the equivalent of a 30-storey building. And yeah, I did think it was pretty cool that I could buy a beer at McDonald’s.
You know what? It was the best beer I had ever tasted. I became an instant and committed convert to the beverage. My theory is that, until that point in my (then) young life, I had simply not been introduced to the right kind of beer. It took a German beer ― in McDonald’s no less, but German nonetheless ― to get me hooked on the stuff. I’ve enjoyed many a cold one since.
Why do I have beer on the brain, you ask? It’s because this past weekend was the first of the year that we Vancouverites enjoyed summer-like temperatures. And so, I thought, what better time to introduce my readers to one of the best craft beer taprooms in the city.
Bitter Tasting Room is located near the corner of Hastings and Carroll in what is actually more Downtown Eastside than Gastown. I’ve been here a couple of times ― the first time, ironically, at the suggestion of a friend who doesn’t herself drink much beer (so I knew it must be good if she was willing to go), and the last time with my sister just last night.
Bitter offers a selection of more than 60 bottled beers from North America or Europe, with a particularly strong selection of Belgium beers. You can also order a pint of draught from a choice of about eight local craft beers. Or you can order a flight of beers, and sample three at once.
The food is typical German and English pub fare — sausages, Scotch eggs, and a killer kale Caesar salad are a few examples. In wintertime, I enjoyed a tasty dish of cassoulet, a slow-cooked stew made with duck confit, pork belly, sausage, and braised beans that comes from the Languedoc region of France.
Bitter is part of the Heather Hospitality Group and I have yet to be disappointed by an evening spent in one of their establishments.
Most afternoons, I have a cup of tea. With milk. It’s such a part of my routine that this past week there was an “incident” (shall we say) at work when I discovered someone had used up the milk I keep for my tea in the office fridge, thinking it was hers. My co-workers laughed at my distress, but I can’t drink tea without milk. And I really enjoy my afternoon cup of tea.
So last weekend, while I was in Victoria visiting a friend there on business who told me she really wanted to someday, one day, have afternoon tea at the Empress, it didn’t take much for me to decide I liked that idea very much. “And what’s stopping us from having tea at the Empress this weekend?” I asked. Within minutes, we had a reservation in the hotel’s Tea Lobby for the next day.
Victoria, BC, has been called the most English city in Canada, and the city definitely plays up that reputation for the tourists. Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel is a big part of that playing up, and there is no setting more lovely than the Empress Hotel. One of Canada’s iconic “railway hotels,” it has been a landmark on Victoria’s Inner Harbour since its opening in 1908.
We both skipped breakfast and arrived at the hotel’s Tea Lobby appropriately famished. It’s located off the main lobby and its windows overlook the Inner Harbour. We were seated near those windows at a low table.
(And here’s an aside for you: I learned that high tea is actually the supper-type meal the English eat in the early evening, while afternoon tea or low tea is always taken in the afternoon. It’s called low tea because typically you sit at a low table.)
The meal began with cups of seasonal fruit served with cream ― in our case, strawberries. I’m a bit of a strawberry snob and unless the berries are grown locally and are in season, I really don’t think much of their taste. Such was the case with these strawberries, shipped in from California, I’m sure, but hey, what seasonal fruit would you find anywhere in Canada in mid-April?
We were given a choice of eight teas ― I chose the Empress Blend, a tea that “boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well.” My friend chose Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which offered “the distinctive character of Muscat grapes and hints of current.” Clearly tea can be as sophisticated as wine.
Along with our pots of tea came the three-tiered plate of … well … the main event. Our little table was packed, what with the silver teapots, china teacups and small plates, and the tower of savouries, scones, and sweets, but the server positioned everything on the table with expertise and, remarkably, it all fit. Then, after pouring our tea and ensuring we had everything we needed, he offered to take photos of us with our own cameras. He definitely had the routine down pat.
And then? And then we dug in!
The savoury level of the tiered plate consisted of tiny sandwiches: smoked salmon pinwheels, cucumber sandwiches (of course!) with saffron loaf, mango & curried chicken sandwiches (my favourite), free-range egg salad croissants (also very tasty), and cognac pork pâté on sundried tomato bread.
Then we moved up a level to the fresh baked raisin scones with clotted cream and the Empress’s own strawberry jam.
On the final, upper-most tier were the pastries: lemon curd tartlets, cappuccino chocolate tea cups, rose petal shortbread, chocolate and pistachio Battenberg cakes, and the one I’d been waiting for: Parisian style macaroons.
It was heavenly. And when we were finished, our server presented each of us with a small box of the tea we had been drinking.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. Who knew afternoon tea could sustain your body for an entire day?
Here’s one last post on food, and then I’ll let you all go back to your New Year’s resolutions. (Which I know you’re following religiously.)
This post is about how I discovered Naples on the Danforth. The Danforth, for those of my readers unfamiliar with Toronto’s Greektown, is Souvlaki Central. A decade ago, there wasn’t much variety in the way of restaurants on the Danforth ― it was all Greek all the time. Every time I went back to Toronto for a visit, I made sure to get my fill of the best souvlaki in the country (in my humble opinion).
But during my most recent visit to the Centre of the Universe, I realized the Danforth is undergoing a transformation. There is still a heavy Greek influence, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot more as well.
My friend insisted while I was in town that we eat at least one night at Pizzeria Libretto, a neighbourhood pizzeria that serves Real Neapolitan Pizza certified by VPN. (Verace Pizza Napoletana is a non-profit association that protects and promotes real Neapolitan pizza around the world.) She promised me I wouldn’t regret it.
Pizzeria Libretto is about the closest I’ve been to Italian pizza outside of Italy. Libretto is Italian for “booklet.” You fold the pizza at Pizzeria Libretto like a booklet ― that’s the only way you’ll get it in your mouth, unless you deign to eat your pizza with a knife and fork. Pizza crust that soft and that thin ― that’s a true Neapolitan pizza. Our pizza Margherita had a super thin, soft crust, the thinnest layer of tomato sauce, the freshest basil, dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese … and it was baked in a wood-fired oven. Heaven on earth, truly, for pizza lovers.
There was no room upstairs when we arrived (we didn’t have a reservation), but lots of room downstairs and the attentive service was excellent. Pizzeria Libretto has a stylish but down-to-earth décor ― I went dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks. I really liked the water bottles they used, with the name Pizzeria Libretto stamped on the side, and asked to buy one to take home with me. Our server said he was sure it wouldn’t be a problem, but then someone with a higher pay grade vetoed his decision. To help me get over my disappointment (I’m thinking), our server brought us complimentary after-dinner digestifs.
Before my evening at Pizzeria Libretto, I would tell people that the best souvlaki outside of Greece is made on the Danforth. Now I will tell everyone that the Danforth also has the best pizza outside of Italy. It was so good, in fact, I went back the next week with another friend for lunch. I never did get my souvlaki fix.
Update: Acadia closed in December 2013.
My friend was so impressed with our experience at Jean-Georges in New York City last summer that she decided we should check out some fine dining options in Toronto as long as I was in town. We decided on Acadia, which features the “flavors and techniques of Acadian and Lowcountry cuisine” and was rated by enRoute magazine as Canada’s fourth-best new restaurant of 2012. My friend (“C”) spends part of every summer in modern-day Acadia (aka Nova Scotia), she and I had travelled together many years ago to Louisiana, and I once spent a month in South Carolina, so we were both rather curious to see what Acadia had to offer on its menu.
Plus, a friend of C’s (“J”) ― also from Nova Scotia and in town for TIFF ― would be joining us. There was no debate. Acadia was our #1 choice.
(And we pause here momentarily for a brief history and geography lesson: Acadia, as I’m sure you all know, is that part of North America (present-day Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) settled by the French in the early seventeenth century. Its connection to Louisiana is that, when the British deported most of the Acadians between 1755 and 1763, many of them ended up in Louisiana, which at that time was still a colony of New France. Their descendents are known as Cajuns.
Not so well known (OK, yes, I admit it: I looked this up on Wikipedia) is the Lowcountry region. It’s the South Carolinian coast, and food typical to the area is known as Lowcountry cuisine.
That’s it for today’s lesson ― we now return to our regular programming.)
C and I arrived early, so we each ordered a bourbon-based cocktail to start. As we waited for J to arrive, we devoured an order of chicken cracklin’ with hot sauce and blue cheese. The cracklin’ are like thin, smooth potato chips, but they’re made from stretched chicken skin, not potatoes. I know, I know … it sounds disgusting, but trust me ― these are addictive. The blue cheese was foamy and light, and we scooped it up with each cracklin’ like dip.
When J arrived, appropriately famished as well, he ordered a beer and we ordered another round of the chicken cracklin’, as well as the spiced beer nuts, flavoured with brown butter and paprika, and Acadia’s cornbread, which is served with whipped pork butter and mesquite.
After the nibblies and drinks were gone, we were ready for the serious stuff. We each ordered a different starter. C choose Anson Mills grits with Gulf prawn, oyster mushroom, pimento cheese, and ham hock consommé. Anson Mills is located in South Carolina, so these were the authentic southern grits I remember. I came to like grits mixed with scrambled eggs during my month of South Carolinian breakfasts. I like grits with eggs; I like grits for breakfast. But as a starter? With prawns? Never mind — C was happy. She gave me a taste, but I’ll be honest: not my favourite and I found it a curious dish.
J ordered the charred octopus served with crispy pork belly, tomatillo, new potato, spicy collards, and a black vinaigrette. He summed it up as simply the best octopus he’d ever eaten. I’ll admit I had some regrets on not ordering it when I saw his plate.
I had chilled corn soup with andouille, yellow plum, smoked cream, and tarragon. All the texture was in the andouille and plum that lay at the bottom of the bowl because the soup was as smooth as consommé. I soon got over my octopus-regret; my soup was delicious.
Before the arrival of our main courses, our server came by with the most sincerest of warnings. We needed to prepare ourselves. More accurately, I needed to prepare myself, because, in her words, I was about to experience “some serious food envy.”
She wasn’t kidding. C and J had ordered the special of the night: an entire braised veal shank to share. It left all three of us speechless. It was encircled by chanterelle mushrooms and tomatoes of a variety of colours.
I had scallops (miniscule, our server teased me, compared to the veal shank), with shaved foie gras, celery purée, pecan, Concord grape, and scuppernong mustard. Scallop is one of my favourite types of sea food, so I can be quite forgiving, but no need this time. They were excellent. But I also had a few bites of the veal shank, and had to admit that it too was delicious.
It didn’t take long before J and C admitted they were defeated. Truthfully, that hunk of meat was enough for four people. Our server grinned. “Oh, so it’s going to be lunch tomorrow?” she asked.
C piped up that she would appreciate some suggestions on what to do with the veal in the way of leftovers. “I don’t want to ruin it,” she said. We were surprised and delighted to see Acadia’s chef, Patrick Kriss, come to our table after we had been served our desserts, speaking most earnestly, and advising C to braise the leftover meat in chicken stock to retain the moisture. “Don’t put it in the microwave,” he warned. “That will dry the meat out.” We were all impressed by the attention he gave us ― although, if I think about it, it was probably the veal shank he was most concerned about.
For dessert, I had wild blueberry sorbet with peaches, lavender, and ricotta, while J and C shared a dark chocolate cremeaux with milk sorbet, pistachio, and cherries. Espresso to finish, and we were sated. My Toronto readers: if you’re interested in a medley of cuisines and a lesson in geography, check out Acadia. I highly recommend it.
Now that you’re all firmly resolved, and well and truly into your New Year’s diets, I thought I’d write a few posts about food. Any objections? I thought not.
And since I have at least eight friends and/or family members who are looking forward to visiting New York in 2013, I’m going to return to that city to talk about a fabulous meal I enjoyed there last summer.
It would not be a stretch to say that, once I knew I was going to New York, what I was most anticipating was eating at Jean-Georges. Ever since my first meal at Market here in Vancouver, after which I discovered Jean-Georges has no less than eight restaurants in New York, I was determined to one day eat at his flagship restaurant in the Trump Tower. Last summer, I had my chance. Before leaving Vancouver, I made reservations for Sunday lunch the weekend we would be in New York.
The décor at Jean-Georges is lovely; very light and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Columbus Circle. We had a great table at the far end of the room against the wall. The furnishings are almost identical to the Vancouver Market restaurant. I especially loved the silverware. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s such a treat to eat with real silver at a restaurant. Feels more like an occasion, in my mind.
We perused the menu, made some tentative choices between ourselves, then asked for some tips about which wines to choose with the courses we were thinking of ordering. Our server offered to check with the sommelier, then came back with his recommendations. Wine at Jean-Georges is served by the glass, which I appreciated as I wanted to vary what I would drink with each course.
After we made our selections, we were offered a choice of four types of bread. Then came a trio of amuse-bouches: a small glass of carrot purée, sea urchin on a small piece of dark toast, and fried okra over a miso purée. These were amazing bites of wonderment. So much flavor in one tiny bite.
For my first course, I had tomato gazpacho, which was poured from a silver pitcher overtop grated fresh, soft mozzarella and a bed of olive oil foam. The gazpacho had a nice spicy touch, and I could taste summer in the tomatoes. My friend ordered charred-corn ravioli, tomato salad, and basil fondue. This plate consisted of small, bite-sized ravioli, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and a basil-based sauce. It was very tasty, and I regretted not ordering it myself.
I wanted to taste one more course and so I ordered a second appetizer: a warm green asparagus salad, with Hollandaise sauce and a truffle vinaigrette, served on a bed of mesclan. This turned out to be my favourite course of the meal; I could eat asparagus every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it. The Hollandaise wasn’t too heavy, and the asparagus was perfectly steamed.
For my entrée, I selected the sesame-crusted salmon, which was served over a grilled eggplant purée and red chili butter. The butter provided a nice contrast, both in flavour and colour. It had a real kick, but was delicious with the salmon, which was perfectly cooked and a lovely pink colour.
My friend ordered the parmesan-crusted confit leg of organic chicken, with artichoke, basil, and lemon butter. She thought the lemon was too strong, but her chicken was moist and tender, just as a confit should be, and the parmesan crust was perfect. (Travel tip: Always travel with a friend who doesn’t mind you trying her food. You get to taste two meals for the price of one.)
Desserts at Jean-Georges are served as tastings: my friend ordered the cherry and I had the chocolate. She got sour cherry crème brûlée and marzipan, cherry sorbet, and deconstructed black forest ― the cream, cherries, and chocolate were served individually on a black slate slab.
My chocolate tastings included white chocolate meringue with a layer of meyer lemon ice and cinnamon over top. I can’t say I tasted the cinnamon and, like my friend with her chicken, I found the lemon overpowering, almost to the point where I felt I was eating a dessert laced with household cleanser. However, Jean-Georges’ signature molten chocolate cake was delicious, with the vanilla bean ice cream on the side.
To go with our desserts, we each ordered a glass of Banyuls Reserva from Domaine La Tour Vieille in Roussillon. I know Banyuls from my visit to Roussillon many years ago, and it was the perfect accompaniment for both the chocolate- and cherry-based desserts.
But wait! There was more! We had scarcely made a start on our desserts when we were served a plate of homemade chocolates, another plate of miniature raspberry macaroons, and Jean-Georges’ homemade marshmallow, which is most definitely a step above the Kraft variety.
Although we had one server who seemed to be in charge of our table, we were waited on by several people throughout our lunch. The service was impeccably timed. Each dish was delivered in unison by two servers, and cleared the same way.
After we had ordered our desserts, I asked to see the main menu once again, and when a server (not one of ours) noticed I was taking photos of the menu, he offered to give me a copy of both menus to take home. As he handed me the dark brown folder, he asked where we were from. He was very excited upon hearing I was from Vancouver, and told us he had a colleague from Vancouver. At this point, my friend jumped in and explained that I had eaten at Jean-Georges’ restaurant in Vancouver, and had been impressed, which was why we were here.
“That’s where my colleague worked!” he said. He then asked how the food compared and whether the meal I had just had was quite different from how food was served in the Vancouver restaurant.
“It’s very similar,” I said. “Just as delicious, but …” I paused as I thought for a second how to explain the difference, then said, “… but this is New York!”
He smiled knowingly and nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. He reminded me of a young Woody Allen. Right down to his Noo Yawk accent and dark-rimmed glasses.
It was a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon in New York City. Lunch at Jean-Georges is a great deal as it’s prix fixe for two courses, with the option to order additional courses as I did. It was my first experience in a three-star Michelin restaurant, and now I have a new goal: to go back and try Jean-Georges’ seven other New York restaurants.
Last night was one night I regretted showing up late to the party. Monk McQueens at Stamps Landing on the south side of False Creek has been a Vancouver landmark ever since it opened during Expo 86. And yet, I’d never been. The announcement that it was shutting its doors for the last time on December 31 of this year was what finally motivated me to experience this famous fresh seafood and oyster bar for myself.
I made an occasion of it by reserving a table for the same night a friend from Boston was going to be in town. And so, five of us gathered last night to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a bit of a catch-up. Our table in one of the corner windows gave us a terrific view of False Creek.
The food was delicious. My Bostonian friend and I shared a half dozen oysters on the half shell. For our mains, our party of five sampled almost every type of seafood on the menu: halibut, sea bass, sablefish, lobster, and scallops. We washed it all down with a very nice bottle of wine, and finished with coffee, brown sugar vanilla bean cheesecake, and Calvados. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend four hours with good friends on one of the last nights of the year.
Mahony & Sons Public House is moving in after Monk’s vacates the premises and will open sometime next summer. As much as I enjoy a good public house, it won’t be the same. Last night was proof that just because an establishment has been around since the Dark Ages (aka the 1980s) doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted. Pity I did.
Update: ensemble closed in August 2012.
A number of months ago, my friends took me out to celebrate my turning another year older and (this is debatable) another year wiser. I chose ensemble for the event ― it’s yet another new place on the north-east corner of Thurlow and Smithe in downtown Vancouver that has seen a high turnover of restaurants over the past few years. But, more than a year after its opening in May 2011, it looks like ensemble is here to stay. The executive chef is Dale MacKay, winner of Top Chef Canada Season 1, and one reason, in addition to the reviews I had read, why I chose this particular restaurant. I was curious if the judges at Top Chef Canada knew what they were doing when they gave MacKay the top prize.
Two of my friends were waiting for me when I arrived; we ordered cocktails while we waited for our fourth companion, who finally showed up 45 minutes later. But, despite the busy room, there was absolutely no rushing us on the part of our server. The atmosphere was lively ― a perfect venue for a birthday party and for four boisterous, laughing friends who were in the mood to make a lot of noise.
Like many of Vancouver’s fine dining establishments, ensemble characterizes its food as “Contemporary French meets West Coast.” All of the dishes are tapa-sized, and we opted for the four-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
First up was a Dungeness crab crêpe with pineapple, daikon, and avocado. This appetizer was picture-perfect, served cold, fresh, and crisp, and the pineapple gave it the smallest hint of sweetness. I absolutely loved the wine choice: a bubbly Spanish cava.
The second course was Moroccan spiced black cod, with chick peas, cashews, and black trumpet mushrooms. I’ve never had cod so delicate and light. The black trumpet mushrooms were the perfect accompaniment, as was the 2010 Pinot Gris from Penticton’s Poplar Grove winery.
The meat course was beef shin and fries, with watercress and a carrot purée, paired with the 2011 Enrique “Icque” Foster Malbec. Like the cod before it, the beef was melt-in-the-mouth quality. I’ve often eaten steak et frites in France, but have to admit that I’ve never been overly impressed with French frites. The fries that accompanied the beef shin, on the other hand, were the best any of us had had in a very long time.
To finish: chocolate fondant with hazelnut-nougatine ice cream. Chocolate fondant was a new experience for me and I loved it. Its soft pudding-like centre reminded me of a dessert a long-ago roommate used to make, with the rather ordinary name of Brownie Pudding.
In honour of my birthday, I was also presented with a cone of piping-hot sugar-dusted madeleines, which I gladly shared. For the dessert wine, we returned to the Old World with a glass of Broadbent Madeira.
By the end of the evening, both my appetite and curiosity were sated. Dale MacKay is certainly a Top Chef, and my friends and I were so impressed with our first experience at ensemble that I am sure we will be back.