Tuesday 30 April 2013

Casual French Fare at Tableau Bar Bistro

1181 Melville St  Vancouver, BC V6E 0A3
(604) 639-8692

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 3/5

Service: 2/5

Locavore approved? Not really (Although they get kudos for having the "Oceanwise" approval for sustainable seafood, there is not much else on the menu that is true to the local movement.  In looking back through past reviews, it does not appear that the menu changes seasonally).

After having drinks there with work colleagues on a number of occasions, my husband has been trying to get me to go with him to Tableau for dinner.  With such continuous buzz on the Vancouver food scene, Tableau had previously been off my radar in terms of hot spots.  That is until it was awarded "Best Casual French" at the Vancouver Magazine Awards, ahead of Les Faux Bourgeois (still on my to-go list) and, in third place, Pied-a-Terre where we recently had an outstanding dining experience (click here to read full review).  With such a notable award, I decided that it was time to check Tableau out to see what it was made of.

Tableau is located in the Loden hotel in downtown Vancouver near the business district.  In the past, I have avoided hotel restaurants as they tended to be quite boring with mediocre food quality.  In the last couple of years, however, this whole notion of ho-hum hotel food has been turned on its head, with the some of the hottest Vancouver restaurants now residing inside hotels (La Pentola, Yew and, of course, Hawksworth).

The outside of Tableau is quite unassuming with its simple blue awning, which I thought was quite appropriate and true to the french food it offers.  The atmosphere inside, however, did not invoke feelings of France.  The decor was more trendy and the bar looks more like it belongs in an American pub.  In comparison with Pied-a-Terre that had a very quaint, neighborhood feel that you would expect in a cozy french cafe, Tableau was much noisier and had much less character in my opinion.  

After reading very positive reviews about the "outstanding" service at Tableau, I was expecting good things.  Unfortunately, what we actually got was some of the poorest service that I have received at a restaurant of this calibre in a long time.  I say this for several reasons.  First of all, our server had no clue what was served with the evening's specials (all he knew was that the dish had something to do with ling cod and some smoked trout).  Secondly, after asking for a few more moments to peruse the winelist, the same server hovered over us until we felt compelled to order any glass of wine just to get him to leave us alone.  He did the same for our food order.  I appreciate that the restaurant was busy but guests should not feel this rushed!  Fortunately, for the rest of the meal, we had different servers refilling our water and clearing our plates, with him only returning sporadically to ask us if we needed anything else (at which point I felt the need to clutch onto my plate so he would not whisk it away!), so things went more smoothly.  I am willing to chalk this up to this server being perhaps new and inexperienced (at least I hope this is the case!) but this poor service really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Tableau's menu is short and to the point, and has a small selection of appies, shellfish, mains and nightly specials.  The night we visited there were also a number of other feature dishes available.  Here is what we chose:

The night began with some bread (french baguette of course) for the table.

Kusshi oysters- My husband's love for oysters continues to grow, and it has become routine for him to order some in addition to his appie whenever he sees them on the menu.  Kusshi oysters, a smaller variety, are his favorite, and he quite enjoyed Tableau's offering, complete with horseradish and a simple mignonette.  Nothing too out of the box, but well executed and nicely presented.  There is really no need to mess too much with such a nice product.

Trout Tartare- This was a special for the evening and was by far the highlight of the evening for me.  The beautiful, smooth fish was cut into small pieces, and served underneath a layer of mashed avocado.  Alongside was a little frisee salad and a few thin piece of plain, crispy baguette (a few more pieces would have been useful to scoop up all of the tartare).  A little quail egg on the top added was a nice touch, but for texture and presentation. Overall, it was a very successful and well-seasoned dish.

Steak Tartare- Fortunately, my husband enjoyed his tartare just as much as I had enjoyed mine.  His tartare was served simply with a little frisee salad and a side of pomme gaufrette (thinly-sliced fried potatoes).  It was expertly seasoned and the potatoes were a nice change from regular bread.  The chefs at Tableau certainly have the art of tartare down to a science!

Steelhead Trout- I was really looking forward to this main dish, as I had read many commendable reviews of it online.  Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me.  I generally love quinoa, but I found this particular quinoa fairly bland and lightly undercooked.  The sauce overtop (supposedly a lemon brown-butter sauce, although it really did not taste like like to me) was quite overwhelming and very salty, such that I could not really taste anything else on the plate.  Worst of all, the fish was overcooked and the "crispy" skin was not really crispy.  Overall, a bit of a let-down.

Mixed vegetables- Since there were no vegetables served with my trout, I decided to order the side of mixed vegetables, which ended up being an assortment of winter vegetables including carrots, baby turnips and green beans.  While I enjoyed the vegetables themselves (fresh and well-cooked), the butter sauce overtop was quite bland and I would have much preferred just a bit of salt and pepper, especially since the vegetables were meant to be ordered with a main that already had its own flavors.

Moules Frites- Being the shellfish lover that he is, my husband felt compelled to order the moules frite as his main since they are one of Tableau's specialty dishes.  He very much enjoyed the mussels, served in a creamy tomato sauce with grape tomatoes and onions.  Unfortunately, the fries were practically inedible as they were severely overcooked, and tasted as if they had come out of the fryer hours earlier. He did not bother eating the fries, but did enjoy every last mussel.

So do I think that Tableau lives up to its title as "Best Casual French"?  Not really.  Although we enjoyed the starters, the food seems to go downhill from there, and the service was subpar.  The next time I am in the mood for French fare, I will opt for some of VanMag's runner's up (Les Faux Bourgeois, La Regalade, Pied-a-Terre) instead of making a return trip to Tableau.  Perhaps we just hit visited on an off night, but with so many other good choices, we will likely go elsewhere.  

Tableau Bar Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday 28 April 2013

Which Scone gets the Throne?

I have a confession to make.

I am a baked goods fanatic.  

Just ask my dear husband- on every trip that we go on, there is at least a few hours dedicated to cruising around town searching out the local bakeshops.  I am mostly looking for my two favorite baked goods- muffins and scones.

Although I like more non-traditional, "healthy" muffins (not too sweet, not to "cakey", no icing, with nuts/seeds/raisins, whole grain/flax a bonus), I like scones of every variety.  There is certainly something to be said for more traditional, white flour, all butter scone.  When done correctly, these can be heavenly.  On the other end of the spectrum is the "out of the box"scone, with unique textures and flavors.  

Fortunately, no matter what kind of mood you are in, you can usually find a scone that will fulfill your desires here in Vancouver.  Here are my favorites:

1.  Creme de la Crumb- This little shop located just north of Dunsmuir on Granville may not be widely known, but it certainly has its followers.  They sell coffee, lunch items and, of course, a large variety of baked goods including some of the best scones in Vancouver.  These are a good mix of traditional and non-traditional scones- white flour and all butter (sooo buttery and flaky..), but with very unique flavors including apple cinnamon, vanilla bean and pear, dark chocolate and cherry, and my personal favorite, cranberry and white chocolate.  
If you would like to try one of these heavenly little pastries (and I highly suggest you do!), you had better arrive at the store by 10am at the latest as they sell out fast!  I promise though, it will be worth setting your alarm a bit earlier!

2. Purebreads- This Whistler-based bakery regularly transports its freshly baked goods out to Vancouver and are often set up at the Farmer's Markets.  Purebreads sells just about every baked good you could possibly dream of, and more.  Bread, loaves, cookies bars, brownies and, of course, scones.  You will be blown away by the unique flavor combinations they offer including earl grey and lavender and, my personal favorite, buckwheat and blueberry/cherry.  The buckwheat adds the most wonderful texture (dense and hearty), with just the right amount of sweetness from the fruits and a but of white chocolate.  This is a scone like no other, and my regular weekend treat from the market!

3. Beaucoup Bakery- This little French bakery has made quite a name for itself since opening in the last year.  Although they have quite a selection of beautiful baked goods (many look too pretty too eat!), I have have yet to choose anything but the tropical scone because it is just that good.  They are irresistibly buttery and flaky, and filled with coconut, dried fruit and white chocolate.  You MUST NOT leave the store without one!!!

4. Meinhart- If you are looking for a more traditional scone in both texture and flavor, I would suggest checking out the selection of scones at Meinhart.  This little specialty grocery store, located in South Granville offers a variety of baked goods and prepared items.  The scones here are white flour, all butter and pretty commonplace in flavor (raisin, blueberry, raspberry chocolate) and are perhaps the lightest of the bunch.  There is something to be said for simplicity done right.

5.  Revolver- The baked goods for the renowned Revolved (voted best coffee in Van Mag 2013) are actually made by their sister location, Crema, in West Vancouver and are delivered fresh every morning.   Although it is reason enough to visit just for Revolver's fabulous coffee, you will not want to miss out on their whole wheat currant scone.  Less sweet and denser than the others, this scone is a nice choice for breakfast.   I like to cut it in half and spread some peanut better on each side to make it extra tasty.  

6. Muffin Granny- This little kiosk located in the food court on Granville Island puts a very tasty spin on the classic scone, and even gives it a new name- the "scrumpet".  A cross between a scone and a crumpet, this scone is a little denser then the average scone.  It keeps its shape quite well, so it is perfect for cutting and covering with a thick layer of butter, jam or peanut butter.  My favorite kind is the apricot and almond scrumpet, but they also come in a variety of other kinds including raspberry, blueberry and cheese.

So in the end, which one of these stand-out scones gets the throne?  Because I love them all, I really cannot make that call.  I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself:)

Crème de la Crumb Bakeshop on Urbanspoon

Purebread on Urbanspoon

Beaucoup Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Meinhardt Cafe on Urbanspoon

Revolver on Urbanspoon

Muffin Granny on Urbanspoon

Saturday 20 April 2013

Visiting Old Favorites in Toronto

It will be 3 years in June that I left Toronto to move to Vancouver after 4 years of living in this great city.  While I love Vancouver dearly, Toronto still has a little place in my heart, with many fond memories of friends, school and, of course, food.

For the past few days, I have had the pleasure of returning to Toronto for a conference, and, in 3 short days, have managed to get around to many of my favorite food spots (and still get to most of the conference!).  Here is the ground that I was able to cover:

  This was my very first stop upon arriving in Toronto.  My flight arrived at 8pm, I was downtown by 9pm, I checked into the hotel and dropped by bags by 9:15 and off I went to Fresh, putting in my takeout order on the way (they close at 10pm so I just made it!).  I went with the All Star salad- a bed of kale topped with quinoa and adzuki bean tabouleh, sweet potato, goji berries, herbs, sunflower sprouts and tofu steaks which I subbed out for tempeh (Fresh makes the best tempeh I have ever had!).  My choice of dressing was a peanut-lime dressing made with coconut milk.  What a fresh, delicious way to start my trip!  Wish I had time to return for one of their rice bowls (Beach, Green Goddess and Powerhouse are my faves!), but with only 3 days, I had to move on to rediscover my other old favorites!

Urban Herbivore:
    Every Sunday afternoon when I lived in Toronto, I walked over to Kensington Market (rine, shine, sleet, you name it) to pick up some groceries and get my ritualistic Sunday night dinner- a salad and muffin from Urban Herbivore.  They have a "make-your-own" salad/grain bar with ingredients of every kind- vegetables (raw and cooked, plain and spiced), beans, grains, tempeh, tofu and a nut-seed mix.  Five of these were tossed with dressing (red wine and dijon is my fave!) and either greens or grains (rice or quinoa).  Nostalgic.
    And even if you do not want a meal, you MUST go to Urban Herbivore to get one of their spelt flour muffins (vegan).  These babies are incredible- so moist, so flavorful (not too sweet) and come in great flavors (try the sweet potato date!).  If I had to pick one food item only to eat while in Toronto, this would be it, hands down.
    When I live here, Urban Herbivore only had only 1 location, but now has 3, including one in the food court of the Eaton Center (the new food court called "the Eatery" is probably the nicest food court I have ever seen).  Urban Herbivore muffins and shopping- a match made in heaven:)
    A third Urban Herbivore is located in Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre, where I had the pleasure of doing an evening flow yoga class, complete with a live DJ.

Kensington Market
Octopus Garden

Vegetarian Haven:
    This great little vegetarian restaurant is tucked away on Baldwin St, which I discovered while working at Mount Sinai Hospital.  The street is lined by restaurants, all of which are very busy during the lunch hour.  Although there are many great choices (I noticed a few new openings since I left), I highly recommend checking out Vegetarian Haven.  It is quite a nice restaurant inside, and the staff are very friendly.  The food has an Asian influence, but there are many original dishes which are very creative.  I have tried many tasty dishes off the menu, but the dish that keeps me coming back is the Sizzling Eggplant in Spicy Coconut Curry.  True to its name, it is a heaping mound of eggplant and a myriad of other fresh veggies (these guys do not skimp on veggies!) plus tender tempeh strips, served with purple rice on a sizzling iron platter.  It is covered in a creamy, spicy coconut curry that you will not want to leave one drop of (ask for a spoon!).  Rich and mouthwatering.

 A few extras:

Although not on my favorite list from my previous life in Toronto, I have been to Mercatto several times and have always had a nice experience.  They have several downtown locations, including their Eaton Center restaurant, which I visited this go around. I must commend Mercatto on pushing the boundaries of shopping center food and providing customers with a dining option other than the typical (often boring) chain restaurants and food court stalls.  Mercatto at the Eaton Center seems to consistently draw large crowds at lunch, comprised largely of downtown businessmen and women (or at least as it appeared the times I have been there).  The space itself is modern and chic, and you will surely forget that you are in a mall within a few minutes of arriving.
We went to Mercatto with quite a large party of 12 and they accommodated us with ease.  Service was friendly and attentive, while at the same time being very efficient as it needs to be for those coming for a business lunch.  We shared a few appetizers including the fried calamari and the meat and cheese board, which were both very well done.  Most of my fellow diners enjoyed pastas (they have a wide assortment of choices to suit picky and adventurous eaters alike), while I chose the beet salad with burrata and arugula (lovely in its simplicity).  Mercatto also offers a number of pizza and meat/fish options.  I also urge you to munch on the packaged Italian breadsticks on the table as they surprisingly delicious. 

Spice Route:
One of our group dinners took place at Spice Route, a trendy “Asian fusion” bar/restaurant located on King West.  I must admit that I was not too keen on this choice initially as I had been here previously and had a rather “ho-hum” experience all around.  I recall it being noisy to the point of being obnoxious, with food that was lack-luster.
I must say though that, after this most recent experience, Spice Route has moved up in my books.   While the loud, clubby vibe is still not totally my thing, especially for a date or small group of friends, it was a fun place to go with a large party for a night out.  The food had been ordered in advance, and we were treated to a tasting menu of 12+ dishes to be shared between 6-8 people.  Dishes kept on rolling out over the course of a few hours, served by very friendly wait-staff.  There was a very good mix of vegetarian, seafood and meat options.  Some of my favorites included the wasabi tempura shrimp and the garlic bok choy and the meat eaters at the table enjoyed the kobe carpaccio.  I would advise to stay clear of the kimchi fried rice (thought this would be one of my favorites but it was very lacking in flavor), the chow mein (pretty much just a big plate of boring fried noodles) and the salmon which was quite overcooked.  Dessert was also done on a sharing plate (cheesecake, chocolate cake, fried banana, crème brulee) and was enjoyed overall, although a few lighter dessert options may have been nice.  If you decide to come for a similar tasting menu, I would advise you to come hungry!  Our group could not even come close to finishing all of the food, although there were no complaints about this as many went home with lunches for the next day (or week!). 
Overall, my view of Spice Route has somewhat changed and, while it does not make it onto my “top of Toronto” list, I would happily return there again for a large gathering.

Although I am happy to return to Vancouver, I have had a very pleasant few days in Toronto enjoying a great conference and taking a nice trip down memory lane.  And I have not left empty handed.  Just prior to departing, I bought the best ever souvenir- a half dozen Urban Herbivore sweet potato date muffins!!!

Fresh By Juice For Life on Urbanspoon

Urban Herbivore on Urbanspoon

Vegetarian Haven on Urbanspoon

Mercatto on Urbanspoon

Spice Route on Urbanspoon

Sunday 14 April 2013

Sardine Can: Spanish Tapas Gastown-Style

26 Powell St.

Vancouver, BC


Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore approved?  Not really (as with Pied-a-Terre, the focus is more imported, fine quality product)

After a very successful dinner at Pied-a-Terre last weekend (see my recent review here), I quickly started the wheels turning on organizing a dinner with some friends for their sister restaurant, Sardine Can, this weekend.  Thankfully, four of our friends (2 couples) were free and were up for trying this relatively new Gastown tapas bar (opened early 2012).  

It is a good thing that these guys have a noticeable sign, since the restaurant itself is so tiny you might just walk right past.  There is room at the counter (6-8 stools) overlooking the miniscule space that acts as kitchen/prep space/bar.  In addition to this seating, there are 3 tables that can sit 6 people each.  Although some may say feel a bit crammed in, I actually really like the setting that reminds me of other Gastown tapas joints such as Judas Goat and Salt.  In my mind, the more intimate space works perfectly for tapas, which are meant to be shared amongst friends who do not mind snuggling up a little to enjoy good food.  

Service was friendly and very efficient.  Our server very correctly advised us to order every item on the menu to share between the 6 of us.  As soon as we agreed, plate after plate literally flew out of the kitchen (dishes are served made to order) and we happily ate our faces off for the next hour.  Our server came back at regular intervals to check in to see if we needed more drinks/food, refill our water and bring us more bread.  In there short year of life, these guys have the art of turning tables down to a science, without making customers feel rushed.  

Sardine Can is a tapas style (small plates) restaurant with most dishes meant for sharing.  I HIGHLY suggest coming with a group of friends so that you can try as many dishes as possible.  Between the 6 of us, we ordered every dish on the menu, with one repeat and one dish off the daily nightly special board, and excluding desserts.  With the bread that is served alongside to soak up the delicious sauces, this was the perfect amount and we all left satisfied.  The wine menu consists of European wines, with several wines available by the glass.

So here is the rundown of practically the whole menu based on our experience.  I have put stars beside the real standouts: 
***Para picar- A nice preamble to the meal while we waited for our hubbies to arrive. The chickpea spread was creamy, the nuts sweet and crunchy and the olives smooth and salty. All of the tastebuds were prepped to begin the feast!

***Smoked sardines on toast- I had read many rave reviews of these little toasts and they lived up to the hype. I urge you to shed any preconceptions that you do not like sardines. You do not want to miss out on these salty wonders!
Smoked ham wrapped prunes stuffed with Mahon cheese- These were the unanimous table favorite. The sweet prune was wrapped in paper thin salty ham and stuffed with dab of Mahon cheese (a tangy cow's milk cheese from Spain). These little bites were irresistible, so much so that we ordered an extra plate! 

***Zucchini carpaccio and marinated artichoke- Being the veggie lover that I am, this was one of my personal favorites. This vegetarian play on carpaccio (usually a meat dish) was surprisingly jam packed with flavor. I have no idea how they managed to pack so much punch into such a thin little piece of zucchini! The artichokes were also prepared beautifully.

Tomato and manchego toasts- Although not as tasty as the sardine toasts, these were still quite delicious. I appreciated the simplicity of these toasts, which let you really appreciate the quality of the tomatoes and the cheese.

***Piquillo peppers stuffed with tuna- This was the runner-up table favorite (second after the prunes). With one per person, everyone got to savour the sweet peppers stuffed with quality tuna. Outside was a single anchovy which added an extra layer of saltiness.

Dry cured Spanish pork loin ham- For anyone who likes prosciutto, this is a must-try. Fortunately, baguette kept on being served to our table throughout the meal, so we had the perfect vehicle with which to carry the hame to our mouths.

Tuna consomme with scallions and tomatoes- This was one of the specials of the evening and was ordered by a member of our party who does not eat pork and therefore could not partake in some of the other dishes. This was pretty much the only dish that was not meant as a sharing plate so he got it all to himself. Lucky man!

Full-flavoured chorizo sausage cooked in sherry- This very simple dish was all about the chorizo, plain and simple. When you have a quality product such as this one, why mess with it?

***Spicy garlic prawns- Wow. These were awesome. They were cooked to perfection, and covered in a spicy tomato sauce that we happily swept up with bread (there was not way we were going to leave a drop of that good stuff!). Also among the favorites.

***Roasted fingerling potatoes, garlic aioli and tomato- Sardine Can's version of patates bravas was heavenly. The tomato sauce was fresh and light, while the aioli added the perfect amount of richness.

Morrish spiced chicken kebabs, pomegranate- This dish deviated a bit from the Spanish theme of the evening and, while they were OK, they were not too exciting. A bit of a throw-away dish in my opinion.

Pork belly- This dish, not found on the website menu, was a welcome surprise for the carnivores at the table. Rich and flavorful as every good pork belly should be. The garlic chips on the top added a nice textural contrast.

Octopus, white bean and chard stew- After the heavy preceding few dishes, this was a nice light dish with great Mediterranean flavor. The tomato broth was perfectly spiced.

***Clams steamed with chorizo sausage- While the clams were nice, it was the tomato broth that really stole the show. We could have made a meal out of the broth and baguette alone!

Meatballs cooked in tomato and Rioja- Like the chicken, this was much less memorable than the other dishes. While there was nothing particularly offensive about it, the consensus was that it lacked flavor.

Mushrooms in sherry cream sauce- Again, this dish proved that the chefs at Sardine Can are "sauce experts".  This cream sauce was creamy without being so heavy as to overshadow the mushrooms.  I must admit that when our bread ran out, we happily dug in with our spoons and finished it off straight up.

Truthfully, our night at Sardine Can was one of the most fun night's out that we have had in a while.  This hip little spot lends itself perfectly to going out with friends and having a relaxing evening and, of course, eating great food.  From the beginning to the end, with our bill served on an actual sardine Can, these guys have nailed it.

 Sardine Can on Urbanspoon