Saturday 30 November 2013

Ulla- Bringing Fancy Flair to Victoria's Chinatown

509 Fisgard St, Victoria, BC V8W 2P3
(250) 590-8795

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 3.5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- This is the first reason that I really wanted to like Ulla.  On their website, they state that their "local ingredients, classic flavours and focus on techniques sums up the food philosophy" and that they have "a commitment to using local organic products whenever possible we also aim to serve only ethically raised proteins".  Their menu is constantly tweaked to include dishes that showcase local produce, such as the "last of the local tomatoes" salad appetizer on the night that we visited.  

It was my last weekend working in Victoria and I wanted to end on a foodie high note.  Hubby was visiting for the weekend and I had spent quite a bit of time researching and talking with the local about where we should go.  Night #1 was already taken as a repeat visit to Brasserie L'Ecole was an absolute must (see my review here) but Night #2 was still free.  Where to go?

In the end, I chose Ulla for several reasons, including their focus on local ingredients, recommendations of my coworkers and the appeal of its online menu.  Another bonus was the fact that the chef, Brad Holmes, had trained under great mentors such as Feenie and Hawksworth, and then had worked at Cibo in Vancouver before opening Ulla.  Furthermore, Ulla has won a number of awards including En Route Best 10 New Restaurants in Canada 2011 and Vancouver Magazine's top Victoria Restaurant two years in a row.  Also Zagat 29/30, great reviews by the Vancouver Sun.  With all of these accolades, I went in with high expectations.

Ulla is located in Chinatown.  The area around it is not exactly pretty, and the outside of the restaurant is nothing to write home about, but the inside is quite appealing.  It is a relatively quaint space, with earth tone coloured walls, large pieces of artwork and wooden tables.  It is casual yet sophisticated.  The space was packed (I barely got a reservation when I called two days ahead) and the room was still "hopping" when we left at 11pm.  In contrast to the very classy decor of the main room, there is some very "interesting" artwork adorning the walls on the way to the washroom (I think it was a giant cartoon octopus?) which I found rather odd.  It did think it was clever of them to post their Facebook and Twitter links on the large wall in this washroom corridor.

I have mixed reviews of the service.  On one hand, our server (who I believe was the co-owner) was friendly and very knowledgeable about both the food and drink menu.  She told me all about the Vieux Pin winery where my wine was from, and also recommended other wines from this vineyard.  On the other hand, the pace of service was very slow, with a lag tome of 20 minutes between ordering and our appies arriving, and then another long wait before our mains (almost 30 minutes).

In terms of their drink menu, they have a very small cocktail list but do have a decent selection of beers, most of which hail from the Pacific Northwest.  Their wine list has a limited number of unique, local options.  I must commend them for bottling their own water, both still and sparkling, and sharing the profits with the Lifecycles Project Society (for more info on this great community initiative, see here).

Now onto the food.  The menu is nice and concise, and individual dishes may change daily depending on what is in season.  The current menu posted on the website is quite different then the menu when we were there 3 weeks ago, with very few dishes that are exactly the same.  Love it!

Our meal started off with complimentary bread and olive oil.  It was nothing to write home about but the gesture is always appreciated.

Wild mushrooms, 64 degree hen egg, cauliflower, bread, sherry- This appie caught my eye as soon as I saw it on the online menu.  I just adore mushrooms that I even turned down the "last of the local tomato salad" so I could order it!  Unfortunately, it did not live up to my high expectations. The colours on the plate did turn me off slightly as there was a lot of earth tones going on. Between the mushrooms, the brown sauce, the beige puree and the off-white cauliflower, the plate looked pretty "blah".  Fortunately, the runny egg did give it some colour after cutting into it.

Wild mushrooms, 64 degree hen egg, cauliflower, bread, sherry- This appie caught my eye as soon as I saw it on the online menu.  I just adore mushrooms that I even turned down the "last of the local tomato salad" so I could order it!  Unfortunately, it did not live up to my high expectations. The colours on the plate did turn me off slightly as there was a lot of earth tones going on. Between the mushrooms, the brown sauce, the beige puree and the off-white cauliflower, the plate looked pretty "blah".  Fortunately, the runny egg did give it some colour after cutting into it.

In terms of flavours, there was nothing repulsive in the dish but was a bit too "aggressively seasoned" (aka salty).  Also, there was too much going on in the way of sauce and puree, making the dish confused and far too heavy for an appie.  I would have preferred that the mushrooms be left in their original form rather than being minced (they kinda looked like unappealing dark chicken meat). All in all, a bit of a miss for me.

Scallop boudin blanc, potato, squash, pumpkin seeds, sunflower sprouts- There were high and low points to this dish.  High point- plump, well seared scallops.  Low point- too much clutter on the plate!  Between the various purees, the potato and the squash, there were too many soft-textured items on the plate.  Any one of them alone with the scallops would have made this a much more cohesive dish.

 Falafel, tempeh, grains, fermented turnips, vegetables, cashew cheese, yogurt- I think the name explains it all- there was just way too much going on in this dish!  Although this was a vegetarian dish, it was extremely heavy with its many rich ingredients.  One really does not need falafel, tempeh and wheatberries all on one plate!  And again, I just did not yet the many purees in addition to the creamy cashew "cheese".  I really wish they had just served me the veg (especially the fermented turnips) and the falafel which were delicious. Although the dish left me a bit confused, I do complement them for offering such a creative vegan dish which is quite a rare find in this style of restaurant.

Pork three ways, potato and cheddar perogies, cabbage, chive, bourbon maple sauce- The "pork three ways" seems to be a mainstay on the menu with sides that change based on seasonality.  It included pork tenderloin, honey garlic sausage and laquered bacon.  Although there were again way too many bells and whistles on the plate (purees, sauce, a mishmash of veggies and disappointing "perogies" that were more reminiscent of Chinese dumplings), Hubby will admit that the whole dish was saved by that laquered bacon.  He is still talking about it!

As you may have guessed by reading the above, I was not exactly impressed by Ulla.  While I do really appreciate their dedication to local produce and their creativity, I left feeling confused.  On every plate, there was 1 or 2 really good elements which unfortunately got lost in a sea of sauces, purees and other unnecessary items.  If the folks at Ulla could reign in the complexity and focus on simply good food, I think they would really have something great going on.  For now though, this place is just a bit much for my liking.

Ulla Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday 24 November 2013

Burgers Galore at Pink Bicycle!

1008 Blanshard St, Victoria, BC V8W 2H5
(250) 384-1008

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved? YES- It is rare that you find a burger joint whose website main webpage cited words like "locally sourced", "sustainable" and "local farms".  From their meat, to their buns, to their veg, this crew is dedicated to the local movement in Victoria!

Pink Bicycle was on the list of "must-go" joints when my mother was visiting me during my month of work in Victoria.  Although she is not generally a big meat eater, she loves a good burger.  I had heard of Pink Bicycle when I was in Victoria the year prior, and, with its dedication to local produce, I was keen on trying it.  So after a drink at Clive's in the Chateau Victoria around the corner (recommended for a nice pre-dinner cocktail), we headed over to see what all the Pink Bicycle hype was all about.

Although Victoria still has its share of classic establishments, Pink Bicycle is a good example of how Victoria is beginning to gentrify.  Compared to last year when I spent time there, there are an increasing number of "hipster" restaurants like Pink Bicycle popping up around the city.  It can be identified by the retro pink bicycle in the front window.  Inside, you will find a small space with a dozen tables and tall, high back comfy chairs (much better than your standard diner stools!).  While it may be a bit more "upscale" than your average burger joint, it still feels like a place where you can go on a Friday night in your jeans and t-shirt.  No pretension to be found!

Service is friendly and casual.  We arrived at 8:45 (15 minutes before closing time), we were greeted warmly and never felt rushed.  Our food arrived hot, shortly after we ordered.

Pink Bicycle has a daily menu board featuring cocktails (bacon Caesar, basil fizz), local beer, a "soup du jour" and dessert.  The printed menu features burgers of EVERY variety from beef, to bison, to swine, to ahi tuna to halibut, as well as 3 vegetarian varieties that are equally creative.  They also offer a selection of salads and sides that are available in meal-sized portions or as a side with a burger.  In terms of drinks, there are natural sodas in addition to their alcoholic beverages.

We both enjoyed the beet and arugula salad as a side to our burgers.  It was a pleasant surprise to find such a great salad at a burger joint.  The spicy arugula salad was packed with goat cheese in light dressing  A few more beets would have been nice but overall, it was well worth the extra $3 as a substitute for the house salad.  And bonus- all the ingredients were seasonal!

I had the Moroccan Veggie Burger, one of the 3 vegetarian burgers on the menu. The chickpea patty was made with a flavourful combo of Moroccan spices and dates, and topped with red pepper and "mintro" sauce (which I am guessing was a mint-infused aioli?).  The patty was hearty and packed chock full of Moroccan flavour but the burger as a whole was quite dry.  I attribute this to the fact that the bun was WAY too big and took away from the patty.  I would really recommend ordering the burger sans bun on a salad.

My mother ordered the staple burger, the Pink Bike Cheese Burger as she just wanted a good, old fashioned hamburger with no bells and whistles.  It was said to come with a "pink bicycle sauce"  but, just like my burger, the sauce was barely there and she had to ask for other condiments.  Again, much of the flavour got lost in the huge bun!

Overall, my mother and I had a nice evening at Pink Bicycle.  We enjoyed relaxed vibe and the hip decor, and appreciated the very creative and original menu.  The burgers are good, but could be better with a more even ratio of bun to patty.

Overall, a quirky little spot that deserves a pat on the back for "going local"!

The Pink Bicycle on Urbanspoon

Saturday 16 November 2013

Brasserie L'Ecole- The Culinary Highlight of Victoria

1715 Government St 
Victoria, BC 
V8W 1Z4
(250) 475-6260

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- The opening page of their website sums it up perfectly: "The menu reflects chef/owner Sean Brennan's approach to using seasonal, locally available products to cook in a classic, French-country style".  There is no doubt that Chef Brennan's dishes are French in their concept and execution, but that are inspired by ingredients that he finds in his own backyard. It is rare to find a restaurant with a menu that changes EVERYDAY and this shows how dedicated this chef is to providing his guests with the freshest possible ingredients.  Local hospitality at its best!

I rarely return to restaurants a second time,  even when I have a great experience.  With so many places on my to-go list, I just need to keep branching out!

Recently however, I made an exception to this rule.  While in Victoria working for a month, I had the great fortune of dining at Ecole Brasserie and felt that I could not leave the city without experiencing it a second time.  It was just THAT good.

I first visited Ecole on a Saturday night with my mother who was visiting all the way from Newfoundland, while on the return visit, I brought Hubby along to show him what all the fuss was about.

Brasserie L'Ecole is a converted Chinese schoolhouse located right on the edge on Victoria's Chinatown (corner of Fisgard and Government).  The bright sign will hopefully beckon you toward this small yet cozy restaurant.  Although you may initially be taken aback by the rather long wait for a table (1-2 hours is fairly standard, especially on the weekend), I highly recommend that you stick it out. I promise- it will be worth it!  While you wait, I suggest checking out Veneto Tapas Lounge, located a short walk away at Pandora and Douglas.  Here you will find great cocktails and a fun atmosphere that is sure to start off the evening well.  One tip- if you plan for an 8:30-9 arrival to Brasserie L'Ecole, the wait will likely be shorter.

The decor at Ecole is casual and rather eclectic.  The red walls are covered in large pieces of french art that give it European flair.  The bare wooden tables and classic bar make it feel very "homey".  The overall vibe is casual and unpretentious, a place where you can put your feet up and let your hair down.

Overall, service was exceptional.  On both nights, we were cordially greeted by the front of house staff who were genuinely apologetic about the wait.  They were more than happy to take our phone number to call us when our table was ready so that we could go elsewhere and grab a drink while we waited.  All of the servers on both visits were great, especially the very knowledgeable, charismatic server on our first night.  I will be forever grateful for this recommendation of mussels as an appie which I would never have ordered otherwise (see below) and I was very impressed by how much detail he was able to give us about the various cuts of meat on the menu.  My mother also appreciated his wine suggestion which really hit the mark in terms of both taste and price (only $7/glass!).  By the time we were done our meal, it was 10pm and he told us we could "hang out and chat" for as long as we wanted, and even after we paid the bill, he repeatedly came over to fill up our water glasses and ensure that we did not need anything else.  He really went above and beyond!

As previously mentioned, the menu changes daily and is updated on the website.  There are usually only a few small tweaks such as the types of fish being swapped out or a vegetable being replaced by something more seasonal.  The menu consists of mostly traditional french fare, with a bit of Pacific Northwest flair.  It is fairly meat heavy with a few fish options (no vegetarian entrees when we visited). You will always find a steak frites option (their specialty) and a few different preparations of their local mussels.

Here is what we enjoyed, with pics for our dishes on the second night (unfortunate camera malfunction on the first night!):

Mussels with tomato, pancetta, garlic-fried breadcrumbs- This was one of the main reasons why I just HAD to return to Ecole a second time.  I actually find this amusing as I do not usually like mussels that much, nor do I typically eat pork.  So the fact that I am still raving about this dish is a testament to how amazing it really is!  While I am sure that the other mussel preparations are also good (there are 3 options), you must try this one with its to-die-for sauce and the fried breadcrumbs.  Fortunately, you are given complimentary bread to soak up every last drop of sauce.  Or if you run out, you can use a spoon and get right in there like I did.  It would be a sacrilege to leave even a drop!

On my first visit, I enjoyed the sooke trout, warm farro, kale salad and serrano almond brown butter which I could swear was made just for me.  It combined some of my favourite things on one plate, including beautifully cooked trout, kale and sundried tomatoes.  All of the elements were perfectly executed and presented beautifully and simply, just as any good French dish should be.  This was without a doubt one of the best fish entrees I have had in some time.  My mother ordered the beef Paleron, parsnip purée, kale, melted garlic, chanterelle sauce.  This very generously sized portion of braised beef shoulder was tender and moist, and served with a bold mushroom sauce that could hold its own with the meat.  Another winner, especially combined with all of the fresh, local vegetables.  

On my second visit, I had the only other fish dish on the menu-  ling cod, carrot puree, lentils, ginger vinaigrette, watercress.  Although I enjoyed the trout dish more, this was undoubtably great.  The cod was moist and cooked to perfection and I loved how the texture of the lentils contrasted with the flavourful and creamy puree.  Again, simple and wonderfully French.

Hubby had the house specialty, the steak frites.  There was an impressive 4 different cuts of meat to choose from including an 8oz bavette, both a 8 and 10oz angus sirloin and and 10oz New York Striploin (Hubby had the latter).  The top quality cut of meat, cooked medium rare (at the chef's discretion), was served with a red wine shallot sauce and topped with a "slice" of Roquefort butter.  Hubby upgraded to the "fancy frites", which came with parmesan, garlic, parsley and truffle oil.  As I can attest (I definitely "sampled" a few!), they were perfectly crispy and oh so delicious, especially when I dipped them in the rest of the sauce from the mussels.  A combo straight from heaven!

Ecole Brasserie exceeded my expectations on all fronts.  I have eaten at a variety of places in Victoria over the past 3 years when I have lived there periodically for work and this is by far the best quality food that I have had.  In fact, it is probably the best French food I have eaten period.

To sum it up, Brasserie L'Ecole has mastered the art of unpretentious french cuisine made with fresh, local produce that is accessible to all, from the most passionate foodie to the casual diner.  Anyone who loves good food is guaranteed to love it!

Brasserie "L'école" on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 5 November 2013

4 Michelin Stars in 3 Days in San Francisco- A Locavore-Centric Evening at Sons and Daughters

708 Bush St  
San Francisco, CA 94108
+1 415-391-8311

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4.75/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Any restaurant that supplies many of their ingredients from their own garden certainly deserves the locavore stamp of approval!  The garden, located in nearby Los Gatos, contains greenhouses, boxes and an orchard on an acre of property.  The menu changes almost nightly and is built around what is available in the garden.  The staff are all obviously connected to the farm - the maitre d' was able to give me a tour of the farm at tableside, describing the complete layout and what grew where.  These guys are the real locavore deal!

I am sorry to say that Sons and Daughters was not initially on my restaurant radar in San Francisco like our other restaurant picks were (see here for my review of Atelier Crenn and here for Aziza).  It was not until a work colleague recommended it just a week before my trip that I looked up the website. I was immediately intrigued by the opening line on their website:

"Sons & Daughters is influenced by the seasons, unique elements of their garden, and the surrounding bay area. The approach to the food is thoughtful, delicate, and displays clarity of ingredients."

How could I not pay them a visit?  I quickly went to their reservation page with crossed fingers in the hopes that there would still be tables available and fortunately, I was in luck!  And here started the beginnings of our journey with this under-hyped, locally-devoted restaurant. 

Sons and Daughters is located in the heart of downtown and was located a convenient 10 minute walk from our hotel.  The classy yet simple exterior, with its big window and handsome black awning are a fitting representation for the dining experience.  The inside decor is what some might perceive as "old-fashioned" but I found it very charming and sophisticated.  We were told that the restaurant had existed as another dining establishment under a different owner for many years and that the name "Sons and Daughters" was meant to represent their role as a "second generation" for the space.  

Service was all about attention to detail, minus the pretention.  When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by the Maitre D' who introduced himself and offered to answer any questions that came up during the evening about food, wine or the restaurant in general, and he periodically came to check on us throughout the meal.  Our server was extremely kind with a great sense of humour, and he was very knowledgeable about the origin of the ingredients and the flavour profiles of the dishes.  We loved how our names were printed at the top of our menus, making for a great keepsake.  With such personalized service, we were made to feel as though we were the only guests in the restaurant.

Sons and Daughters offers a multi-course tasting menu as their only dining option.  Dishes are tweaked on a daily basis depending on what is available in their garden.  Wine pairings are also available and I would highly recommend them as the price (68$) are quite reasonable for the variety and quality of beverages.  

Here is the run-down of our dishes:

Bread courses- Before I go into the actual dinner progression, I must mention the bread which came out in between courses.  The breads were made in-house and served warm with butter.   They were all delicious, but Hubby would be upset if I did not make special mention of the pretzel bun (middle).  Hubby raved about it so much during the meal that our server kindly brought us two to go at the end of the meal.  And they were gone by the time we got back to the hotel!

Trout caviar on crispy rice crisp (amuse-bouche)- As our server pointed out, this bite started the trend of crispiness as part of every course.  It was light and flavourful with a hint of decadence from the caviar.   To wash it down was a glass of Californian sparkling wine.

Heirloom Tomatoes with Smoked Bread and Nasturtium- This soup was the perfect dish over which to reminisce over our wonderful summer as we enjoyed the sweet flavour of tomatoes.  And it really was all about the tomato- no cream, no butter, no stock, just tomato!  The flavours were further accentuated by tangy nasturtium and crispy, smokey breadcrumbs.  What a way to start this garden-inspired meal!

Roasted baby beets with Vadouvan Spices and Fresh Herbs- Being the beet fanatic that I am, this was my favourite dish of the evening.  This was both delicious and creative, with the addition of yogurt thinned with cucumber juice and whole mustard seeds plumped with raspberry vinaigrette.  Stunning.

Garden Carrot with Black Radish and Celery Root- I loved how this dish almost looked the veggies were still growing out of the earth.  The vegetables were grilled with a nice char on the outside that brought out their natural sweetness.  The "wine" pairing for this dish was not actually wine at all- it was actually beer!  Although I am by no means a lover of beer, I had to admit that it paired wonderfully with the dish.

Scallop with Salsify and Ground Cherries- These perfectly seared scallops were topped with ground cherries which, as our knowledgeable server informed us, are a member of the tamale family.  Salsify, a root vegetable, was also new to us and added a nice crunch.

Black Cod with Baby Fennel and Parsley Root- The folks at Sons and Daughters were kind enough to honour my request for a pescatarian menu, and I was ecstatic to find black cod as my substitution for the duck (my very favourite fish!).  It was perfectly cooked with delightfully crispy skin and the baby fennel (milder than the adult variety) was a great accompaniment.

Grimaud Farm Duck with Black Mission Figs and Caraway- Hubby really enjoyed this dish, and especially like the sweetness of the fig with the duck.

Garden Grape with Lemon and Hyssop- This was a very unique palate cleanser before dessert and a nice change from the usual sorbet!  And isn't that purple hue pretty?

Geranium Ice Cream, White Chocolate and Blueberry- Yes, the ice cream is made out of actual geranium plants!  It was served alongside a white chocolate custard atop a graham cracker crust.  It was the perfect end to our farm-centric dining experience!

And when we thought it was all over, there was one final treat for our way out the door!

And so ended our wonderful evening at Sons and Daughters.  There are few restaurants where I have felt so welcome, almost like a member of the family.  The way that the servers make themselves available to guests is unique and special.  Combine this warm hospitality with the most local of ingredients and a chef who knows how to respect them, and you are arrive at the perfect result that is Sons and Daughters.

Sons & Daughters on Urbanspoon