Monday, 1 September 2014

Asian Fusion Confusion at Bambudda

99 Powell St, Vancouver, BC V6A 1E9
(604) 428-0301

Tastiness Factor: 5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved?  Not really- Although there were a few local "accents" (a few peaches and nectarines strewn on some of the plates), local was not all that well represented.  In reading previous online reviews/blogposts, it appears as though the menu is pretty “stagnant” and does not reflect the changes of the seasonal produce.

Hubby loves Asian food and has been itching to try Bambudda for a while now.  In looking at the menu, it reminded him very much of Bao Bai, one of his favorite restaurants in the city (see my Bao Bai blog post here).  A year after its opening, we finally ventured down to its Gastown location to give it a whirl.

Our first impression was a positive one.  there is no denying that the bar at the front of the restaurant is pretty awesome.  On one side, it is open to the street (if weather permits) with lots of standing room around the outside.  The opposite side of the bar within the restaurant has some seating around it and is adorned by faux Chinese lanterns overhead.  The bar is really the focal point of the restaurant and, as we were to find out later, the best thing about the whole experience by far.  

The back of the room housed the main seating area.  We were fortunate to snag a table for 2 overlooking the bar and we were well entertained by the very energetic bartenders busy shaking, stirring and pouring cocktails.

The service started off well as we were quickly escorted to our reserved table, given menus and then had our drink orders taken a few moments later.  Unfortunately, the speedy service did not last.  It took a good 15 minutes to get our drinks and take our dinner orders. After that, it was at least 15-20 minutes between dishes, which is unusual for a small plates-style restaurant.  Interestingly, our one "side dish" came right at the end of the meal, about 10 minutes after our last dish.  I should mention we arrived at 9:15pm and the dining area was only about half full, so I can only imagine how backed up things must be earlier in the evening.  That being said, our server was very friendly and approachable and we had several people regularly filling up our water.

In keeping with the fabulous bar, the cocktail menu is unique and fun.  The drinks all have Asian-inspired names and, in watching those being served to other tables, some very creative presentations.  I ordered the Chinatown Sour, which had gin, house-made citrus and clove liqueur, lemon, Campari vinegar and egg white.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evolution of flavours- first sweet, then sour, then bitter.  This was one of the best cocktails I have had in a while, and definitely want to come back to the bar to sample some others.

The concept at Bambudda is family-style, with dishes that are meant for sharing.  The menu is divided into “snacks” ($4-6), “small plates” ($9-15), “not so small plates ($16-22) and “sides” ($2-8).  There is also a small dessert menu ($8).  Hubby and I shared 2 snacks, 2 small plates, 1 not so small plate and 1 side, and left a little under-full with a tab of $100 (before tip).

Here is the rundown of our meal:

Wood Ear- This mushroom "snack was OK but nothing too exciting.  Hubby found texture off-putting (personal taste) so I ate the whole dish myself which, after a while, did get rather sickening.

Skins- This was Hubby's pick.  How could one go wrong with chicken skin after all?  Just like my mushrooms, Hubby managed to finish off the dish, but for something that should have been so sinfully delicious, they were just "OK".  Unlike any of the other dishes, they were under seasoned and could have done with a little something other than the lemon on the side to jazz them up.

Nectarine Salad- While this salad was undoubtably fresh and I really appreciated the use of seasonal ingredients (the peaches were outstandingly juicy!), the dressing pretty much ruined it for me.  It was SO incredibly salty from the very heavy-handed use of fish sauce.  The only redeeming quality was the little grains of popped corn on the top which added some nice texture.  There are few salads that I cannot eat and I had to choke down the last bite of this one.

Dungeness Crab Rice- If I had to choose a favourite dish, this would be it, although it was still  mediocre at best.  It reminded me of a risotto dish that was a bit overcooked.  It was pretty mushy, but I must say that I did like the textural variety that the chewy Carolina gold rice added.  Again, this dish was WAY too salty but at least it did not have the "fishy" taste that the salad did.  

Crispy Pork Belly- This was Hubby's meat pick of the evening and it unfortunately did not redeem the meal for him.  The pork itself was pretty pedestrian and fattier than it should have been.  I ate some of the red spinach on the bottom which was decent, except for the plum-based sauce that it had soaked up from the bottom of the plate, which was overwhelming sweet and, once again, too salty.

Eggplant- This was a "side" that was delivered to our table about 10 minutes after our last dish, so I ended up just eating it as its own dish.  The eggplant was prepared in two ways- coins of deep-fried eggplant on the top and stewed eggplant on the bottom prepared with tea and popped grains.  The tea flavour of the stewed eggplant was too strong for my taste, and the popped grain had become soggy and mushy.  And (surprise, surprise) the whole thing was way too salty.

Overall Verdict?

I hate to say it, but this was one of the worst meals we have had in this city in quite a while.  While it may be worth your while to check out the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail, make sure you have dinner reservations elsewhere.

Bambudda on Urbanspoon

Friday, 29 August 2014

Japanese Food with Modern Flair at Zest

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore approved?  YES- Chef Yoshiaka Maniwa is passionate about local seafood.  Many of the items on the menu are Oceanwise (approved by the Vancouver Aquarium as sustainable seafood) and the chef is keen on supporting local fisherman.  And you can taste it in the fish- this is about as fresh as it gets.

Zest is one of Vancouver’s many hidden gems. While others sushi restaurants like Tojo’s and Miku are among the most popular spots in the city, Zest has kept a low profile and stayed under the radar.  But that is soon to change.

Tucked away at Macdonald and 16th, away from the hussle and bussel of Yaletown and Gastown, and far from the new foodie hangouts in East Van, Zest is easy to miss.  But fortunately, the folks from the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant awards took the time to venture over that way and were obviously impressed with what they found.  They awarded Zest with “Best Upscale Japanese”, a distinction that has been won by Tojo for several years previous.

From the outside, Zest is not all that impressive, but the inside is quite forma (according to Vancouver standards) with white tablecloths and white cloth napkins.  Even with these formal touches, there is cozy feel to the space.  There are only about 20 tables in addition to the seats around the sushi bar and it manages to stay decently quiet.  We liked our table in the middle of the restaurant, but the next time we would like to snag a spot at the bar to catch all of the sushi-making action.

 We had the same server all night, taking our order, delivering our food, filling our water glasses and coming to check up on us.  He was very gracious, and took the time to explain the components of all of our dishes.  Like most Japanese restaurants, our food started to arrive within 10 minutes of ordering.  The progression was consistent and timely.  

Zest has a unique sake and wine program.  They serve wines from all over the world, including some selected picks from BC wineries, and they have won numerous awards for its wine over the last several years.  And if sake is your thing, you will be equally impressed by their very well-developed sake menu.

I would describe the food as “modern Japanese”.  Having said that, the building blocks of the dishes are quite authentic.  It is the sauces and flavor combinations that give Zest its modern flair, and even these accents are fairly subtle.  While most ingredients are locally sourced, the chef also imports some specialty ingredients, including some of its fish, from Japan.  The lengthy menu includes a mix of traditional and original dishes, from starters to sushi to meat dishes to fish dishes.  Set menus, including an Omakase menus (24 hours notice required) are also offered.  Dishes at Zest are best shared, which allows you to try out as many dishes as possible.  Although the offerings are definitely more costly than your average sushi restaurant, Hubby and I still managed to get out for just over $100 (not including drinks) and were comfortably full. 

Here is a snapshot of the dishes that we enjoyed:

Wakame Sunomono- I am a sucker for seaweed but this version was just "so-so".

Tuna in Three Ways- A nice selection of tuna, each done with a different sauce.  My favourite was the middle one, with avocado and nori soy sauce.

Four of a Kind Signature Sashimi- Although we enjoyed this, it was quite similar to the Tuna Three Ways and, for the steep $29 we paid for it, we could a tried several other more diverse menu items.

Chicken Gyoza- Hubby loved these and ate the whole plate to himself (I am not a fan of gyoza).  Really, they are meant for sharing as they are pretty filling!

Rolls- Signature Tuna Amigos Roll and Zest Roll- These were the highlight of the night for me, and on my next visit, I will definitely be trying a few more from their very unique list of rolls.  The Zest Roll was among the best rolls I have ever had while Hubby was partial to the Signature Tuna Roll.

Overall verdict? 
Zest is an underdog in many respects.  Its “off the beaten path” location and the relative lack of hype have kept this place a secret for most, but those that know this place love it and keep coming back for more.  I have a feeling the list of “regulars” will be expanding over the next while, especially as curious foodies like us add it to their to-go list.  Zest’s intimate atmosphere makes it ideal for anything from a date night to a business dinner so one can find many “excuses” to check it out.  While it may be pricier than your average sushi joint, the food here is way above average so it is worth the extra cost.  At Zest, you get what you pay for and then some! 

Zest on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"Come Forage" at Glorious Organics Farm: A True Locavore Feast

Every Saturday morning, we head to Trout Lake farmer's market and make a beeline for Glorious Organics to buy the very best salad that money can buy.  Last year, we attended their first-ever "Come Forage" dinner at their farm.  We immediately fell in love with the concept, the farm, the kind farm staff and, of course, the food prepared by Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage restaurant here in Vancouver (see last year's blog post here).

I was ecstatic when I heard that they were holding this wonderful event again this year and, of course, I was going to be there.  I was sceptical that they could recreate the magic of last year's event but somehow, they managed to make this year's farm dinner even more amazing.

This year's event was held on the August long weekend here in BC, and it ended up being a scorcher.  The only complaint I heard all evening was that it was "too hot" and that people wished there were umbrellas over the table to shade us as we ate.  But that is probably just because us Vancouverites are wimps when it comes to these hot temperatures (anything above 25 degrees celcius) that we don't usually get in our neck of the woods!

Other than this very minor point which was outside of anyone's control, the evening went off without a hitch.  The Glorious Organics crew really kicked it up a notch this year when it came to the venue.  The had the table nicely set in white and green linens, with table settings all prepped when we arrived (last year we had to bring our own dishes and cutlery).  They had a nice tent set up in one corner of the field where they had live music done by a very talented trio, two of whom live on the farm.  Their music selection was very original and very catchy (I was humming away the whole way home!).  And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-contructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-constructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

We knew we were in good hands as soon as we arrived.  We were warmly greeted by the familiar faces  who deliver the Glorious Organic's tasty produce to the Trout Lake Market.   We were then offered wine from Backyard Wineries located just down the road from the farm, or a choice of local beers, all served in cute little mason jars.  Still thirsty?  No problem!  We could come back and get unlimited refills throughout the afternoon and evening.  We also got a glimpse of the menu propped up in front of where Chef Whittaker was already busy preparing our meal.  Let the salivating begin!

After listening to some wonderful, eclectic tunes in the shade, we were rounded up and divided into groups for the farm tour.  We were escorted around the farm by one of the knowledgeable staff who showed us greenhouses, roosters, garlic, and many other crops that they grow on their sprawling property.  We even got to pick a few things for dinner, including kale and oh-so fragrant basil.  If it hadn't been so hot, I could have stayed in the basil greenhouse all day!

After the tour, it was back to the farm for the star attraction of the evening- our farm feast!  And a feast it was!  Chef Whittaker really outdid himself, serving dish after dish of deliciousness.  Everything was served family-style along the long table, with way more than enough for everyone to have seconds, thirds and fourths of all the dishes.

The first series of dishes were a variety of salads made from the bounty of the farm.  They were all great, but my favourite (in fact, my favourite dish of the whole night) was the beet and goat cheese salad.   I could have eaten the whole plate!

Next it was onto the main course.  Chef Whittaker who is known for his love of the nose-to-tail philosophy, prepared a whole pig and gave us literally the WHOLE pig.  On the platter, there was your run-of-the-mill pork tenderloin and then a mix of more adventurous offerings including cracklings, blood pudding and head cheese.  Many were brave and moved way outside of their comfort zone, including Hubby who found out that he likes headcheese!  To counter-balance all of that meat was a nice variety of vegetables prepared with honey, and a creamy potato and green bean salad.

For the non-meat eaters like myself, Chef Whittaker was kind enough to provide a beautiful and substantial vegetarian offering of lentils, farm-fresh hazelnuts and a vegetable medley.  Kudos to the chef for not settling with an "afterthought" vegetarian dish and making us feel special too:)

Although everyone was quite stuffed by this point, there were few who were able to turn down the dessert course- an oh-so-summery fruit crisp, made with a veritable orchard full of different fruits buried under an oat topping.  And, as if that wasn't yummy enough, the gang also came around with beer-flavored ice cream for the grand finale!

I absolutely loved our first "Come Forage" last year but somehow, the Glorious Organics crew and Chef Whittaker made it ten times better this year.  They really kicked it up a notch in terms of crossing the T's and dotting the I's, while still maintaining a very relaxed and fun atmosphere.

I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeves for next year's event!  I will be the first in line for tickets:)