Thursday 26 December 2013

Christmas Eve at VanDusen Botanical Gardens: The Festival of Lights and and Shaughnessy Restaurant

Hubby and I were sticking around in Vancouver this Christmas this year and were looking for something nice to do on Christmas Eve.  While our families back East, it would just be the two of us so we were in the market for a date night that would really get us into the Christmas spirit after both working right up to Christmas Eve.

A trip to VanDusen gardens for their Festival of Lights followed by a dinner at Shaughnessy Restaurant seemed like just the ticket.  The Festival of Lights is an annual tradition at the Gardens and is a spectacle to behold.  Lights are strung up along every inch of the garden and there is a Dancing Light Show over the pond every half-hour.  Patrons will also be treated to singing from guest choirs, a "candle grotto" in support of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a neat lego display, and puppet show, a model train and, of course, Santa himself!  There is not much that you will not find while touring the Festival of Lights and, for $14.25/adult ($7.75/child), everyone should experience it at least once.

Shaunessy Restaurant is located within the Garden and is open throughout the Christmas season for daily lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, as well as brunch on the weekend.  Dinner is a nice complement to a visit to the Festival of Lights.  The dining room looks right over the garden, making for a lovely holiday setting.  Hubby and I went for the special Christmas Eve dinner which has a special festive menu.  We made a reservation for the latest possible time (7:30pm), and I highly suggest reserving at least a few days ahead as this seems to be quite a sought-after night for dinner (only a few walk-ins are accepted).  While we did have to wait about 20 minutes past our reservation time to be seated, the service was otherwise good thanks to our excellent server. Even this late into dinner service, he was energetic, enthusiastic and very personable.

The Christmas Eve menu (which, in looking at the website, will be repeated again on New Years Day) was a two course prix-fixe menu for $50.  There was 5 choices for both the appetizer and the main, with a nice variety of meat, fish and vegetarian.  I decided to go vegetarian for the evening with a Roasted Kaboucha Squash, Pear and Christmas Soup to start, which was quite tasty apart from a rather rancid-tasting creme fraiche "drizzle" and an awkward garnish of fried potato strings.

For my main, I had the Braised Kale, Sweet Peppers and Basil Scented Goat Cheese Strudel.  I applaud them trying to do an "outside the box" vegetarian dish with quinoa, tomato relish on the side, and although the plate was a bit of a "mishmash" of different elements, the flavours were all there.

Hubby started with the Pan Seared Fresh East Coast Scallop, which came with a corn and tarragon puree and potato medallions.  This was a decent dish but not overly exciting or memorable.

What was memorable was Hubby's main- the Maple Syrup Glazed Roast Turkey with Mushroom, Brown Butter and Sage Brioche.  And unfortunately, they are not fond memories of the the dish that should have been the star of the show.  The turkey was way overcooked (as Hubby accurately stated, he could have bounced it off the wall) and the vegetables were mushy and bland.  This was an all-around bad plate.

To sum up, the Festival of Lights at VenDusen Gardens in a must for those who have not yet experienced the Christmas Magic that it brings.  Fortunately, it runs until January 4th so there is still time to check it out (line-ups are apparently much shorter after Christmas).  As for Shaughnessy Restaurant, I have had much better food at this price point.  Although I am glad to have had the experience of dining in the pleasant holiday setting, we will not be returning.


Shaughnessy on Urbanspoon

Monday 23 December 2013

A Casual Friday Night Out in Yaletown at The Flying Pig

1168 Hamilton St. 

Second location:
102 Water St. 

Tastiness Factor: 6.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved? Kinda- Although they do state on their website that they offer a "seasonally inspired dishes with fresh, local ingredients", they also highlight the fact that they are believers in "if its not broke don't fix it" mentality.  This is true in that dishes tend to stay on the menu for long periods (the menu is basically the same now as when we visited several months ago) which limits their ability to  feature local, seasonal ingredients.  They do have some local menu items (ex. an all local salmon sampler appetizer, local cheeses) but a local focus is not present in the majority of dishes.

Flying Pig, opened now for a couple of years in Yaletown, came to my attention when they opened a new location on the corner of Water and Abbott in Gastown.  This corner also happens to be the home of one of my favourite places in Gastown, the Juice Truck, and I noticed the signs for Flying Pig as I was satisfying my smoothie craving.  The menu was intriguing and it got added to my ever-growing "to-go" restaurant list.

Hubby and I recently checked out their original Yaletown location for dinner on a Friday night.  It is located in the heart of Yaletown on Hamilton St. and therefore it was not too surprising that it was packed on the night of our visit.  Reservations are only accepted for lunch and brunch so you can expect a wait.  We lucked out and got in very quickly when a little table in the corner in the front window of the restaurant became available (great for people watching!).  The vibe of the space is laid back, with a noise level that is above the average.  It is a great atmosphere for unwinding after a long week (the large bar certainly helps!).

We had a very personable waiter who, despite obviously being very busy, took time to answer our questions about the menu and came back to check in with us at regular intervals.  The pace of the meal, however, was not ideal, with our appetizers arriving within minutes and our mains taking at least an hour (our server was profusely apologetic).  I understand that they were busy but I would assume that this kind of volume is the norm on a Friday night.

The drink list contains a small but complete selection of wine, beer and spirits.  Kudos for many BC options!  There is a good range of pricing options, with a few "notable wines" for those who don't mind paying a little extra for something special.

In contrast to the succinct beverage list, the food menu was "clunky" and, in my opinion, a bit confusing.  I get the "appetizer" and "entree" sections, but they lose me with the "sides".  The sides, including gnocchi, short rib macaroni and pulled pork poutine, are very substantial and should perhaps be more accurately called "small plates".  Most entrees already come with a starch and a veg so ordering a "side" on top of it is unnecessary.

Here is a look at our meal"

Complimentary bread- Although it is hard to complain when something is free, Hubby, the bread expert, was not at all impressed by the bread which tasted stale.  

Rocket and Watercress Beetroot Salad- I quite enjoyed this salad, that could easily be enough for a light meal and for $9, it was quite a deal!  There was a very generous helping of chèvre (local at that!) and seasonal pear.  My only complaint is that it was overdressed for my liking, and the nuts were unnecessary with all the cheese.  Overall though, this was a nice start.

House Salmon Sampler- Hubby's pick was this salmon plate, which was made of 3 preparations of LOCAL salmon- smoked salmon, candied salmon, and a salmon "cake" (more a fritter) topped with salmon roe.  It came with a nice arugula salad and some bread.  Again, the serving size was very generous for the price and could almost be a meal in itself or make a good sharing plate.  This was our favourite of the evening.

Lobster and Prawn Risotto- Instead of a main, I decided to order two sides, which ended up being a good idea considering the hefty size of the appies.  Unfortunately though, I made a bad choice in choosing the risotto which was bland and overcooked (where was the marscapone and citrus?).  Although it sounds tempting, I would steer clear from this one.

Crispy brussel sprouts- This was my second choice of sides and was fortunately much more tasty than the risotto, although not the best I have had.  They were overwhelmingly salty, mostly due to an excess of large capers.  

TFP Signature Pork Rack- With the word "signature" in the title, Hubby was expecting good things but this was unfortunately the biggest miss of the night.  The "pork rack" was actually just a single pork chip without hardly any meat on it (mostly fat).  It came with an underwhelming side of pulled pork poutine with bland gravy and a few overcooked root vegetables.  The sauce was really the redeeming part of the dish and even that was not great.  Quite a disappointment.

Although there is no denying that Flying Pig offers great value, especially for Yaletown, we will not be returning.  We felt that the menu was quite bizarre, with very large-portioned appies and sides that were more like small plates or small entrees.  For us, the food itself left a lot to be desired.

Therefore, although the price was right, we will likely not be back again for dinner "until pigs fly".


The Flying Pig on Urbanspoon

Monday 16 December 2013

Greatness time after time at Siena

Although I have blogged about Siena on multiple occasions, I feel that it would be doing a great injustice if I were not to do yet another post to sing the praises of Siena.  Fortunately for us, it is but a short couple of blocks from our condo, making it the perfect choice for a dinner out with our neighbours.  And why would we ever go somewhere else when we get such high quality, consistently delicious food at Siena?

Here is a snapshot of what we enjoyed tonight.  There is really no need to describe each dish individually.  Suffice it to say, it was all delicious!  

All bottles of wine are half price on Monday!

Antipasti plate

Beet and Squash Salad

Arctic Char with Leek Couscous and Carrot-Orange Puree

Linguine con Vongole

Porcini Ravioli

Bison Meatball Spaghettini

Thanks again Siena- you never cease to amaze us!  

Siena on Urbanspoon

Sunday 15 December 2013

The Stable House Bistro: The New Kid on the Block in South Granville

1520 West 13th Avenue 


Tastiness Factor: 7.5/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved? Not Really- Although I do give them credit for a nice selection of local wines, the menu items do not exactly scream "local" (take, for example, my salad with asparagus and tomatoes in mid-December).  "Local" does not seem to be a major focus here (at least yet).

Hubby and I love trying newly opened restaurants, and it especially exciting when one pops up right in our own neighbourhood.  You can therefore imagine our excitement when Hubby came across the newly minted sign for Stable House Bistro a few weeks ago when it was still under construction.  We were instantly intrigued and couldn't wait to see what this place had in store.

Fast-forward to last night when Hubby and I had our first experience at Stable House Bistro.  It has been opened for about a week and was the obvious choice for our Saturday dinner out.

If you do not live in the neighbourhood and regularly walk by the corner of West 13th and Granville, Stable House Bistro would be easy to miss while shopping along the main street.  This is perhaps why they have strung up some white lights along the front to draw the attention of passersby.  The smart black sign with a white horseshoe leads guests in through the front doors into a small yet impressive space.

There is a very handsome bar to the right with seating all around and then more seating on the left.  The high ceilings make the room seem larger than it is.  On far left wall is still bare (we were told that they are still waiting for artwork to arrive) but on the other walls, there are chalkboards that display the featured wines, charcuterie and cheeses.  Hubby and I nabbed a great high booth near the bar that was perfect for those like us who like to be in the middle of the action.

We visited later in the evening (just before 10pm) and there were only two men taking orders and serving food (not sure if they were the owners/managers) and what appears to be only one man in the kitchen.  We were very warmly greeted and made to feel very comfortable.  The service was admittedly pretty slow, especially for the number of people dining at that time, and we waited quite a while between getting our wine, then our water, then finally our food.

The wine menu is concise (about 5-6 each of white and reds) with a few sparkling options.  As previously mentioned, there is a good mix of local and international options.  Hubby and I thoroughly enjoyed our selections (for myself, the Nagging Doubt Chardonnay and for him, the Bere Toscano).

In addition to the charcuterie and cheese offerings on the chalkboards, there is also a paper menu with a limited number of dishes including a daily soup, salads and tarts which appears to be their signature item.  Additionally, there was one nightly special which was a take on Shepard's Pie.  When our server came to take our order, he quite accurately asked us if we wanted any "snacks" with our drinks.  The word "bistro"in the restaurant's name is a bit misleading in my opinion as it would be near impossible to get enough food to for a satisfying meal, short of ordering the full menu to one's self (and this would be quite a costly venture!).  Portions are very small and really best suited for either a quick snack before catching a show at the Stanley Theatre down the road (with plans for dinner later),  an after-work meeting or a late night snack after a night in Yaletown (keeping in ming that it closes at 11pm).  It is possible that they are planning to expand the menu in the next few weeks, but for now I would say that "wine bar" would be a more fitting name.

Hubby and I hesitantly ordered a dish each but it was unclear to us if this was what we were intended to do.  An explanation of how to approach the menu would have been appreciated.

I chose the asparagus salad with prosciutto and goat cheese vinaigrette, which came as a warm salad.  If you are a lover of prosciutto, this salad is for you as this is the main component of the dish.  I myself would have preferred more vegetables in a dish labeled as a "salad" (there were only 2 spears of asparagus, a few halves tomatoes and a little mound of arugula).  Lack of veg aside, the flavours all worked very well today and it was expertly seasoned.

Hubby ordered one of their signature "tarts" which was not exactly as I had envisioned.  It comes as a sheet of puff pastry with one of their three "toppings"- pulled pork (Hubby's choice), mushroom or salmon.  On the side, there is a choice of fries or salad, which ended up being a coleslaw.  Hubby liked the flavours of the "tart", and thought that the coleslaw was quite outstanding.

The Stable House Bistro is still in its early days and I think they have potential to be an asset to our neighbourhood. The food was quite good but it was the concept of the restaurant that left us hanging.  We were intrigued enough by the beautiful room and the flavours to return again in a month or two to see how this new restaurant matures with time.  We have high hopes!

The Stable House Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday 14 December 2013

A Long Trek for Small Plates at Kessel and March

T / 604 . 874 . 1196

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 2.5/5

Service: 3.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- This is one of the reasons that I really wanted to love this place.  They are partnered with many of my favourite local farms (Urban Digs, North Arms, Sole Foods) and source as many ingredients as possible from them.  They have also been known to hold special dinners featuring some of these farms and their wonderful products.

Kessel and March opened its doors in early 2013 to join the ever-growing fleet of tapas/small plate restaurants in Vancouver.  With this explosion of such restaurants, one would think that the concept would be getting kind of old by now but, in all truthfulness, I am loving it.  Small plates offer the opportunity to try a variety of dishes so that you can really get a feel for the chef and his style, and I cannot get enough.

After great experiences at Farmer's Apprentice and the Parker recently, I was excited to make the trek to Kessel and March.  And what a trek it was!  This place is quite literally located in the middle of nowhere, far out on Powell St. and we admittedly got lost several times before finding it (the sign out front does not exactly jump out at you so keep your eyes peeled!).  You may want to assign a Designated Driver for this adventure as Public Transit would be difficult and, depending on where you live, the cab ride would be costly.  Inside, the space is quite narrow, with the room divided between two levels.  Our party of 6 was seated at one of the largest tables right by the door and in front of the washrooms which made us feel pretty crammed in and uncomfortable.  Perhaps I would have had a different experience had we been upstairs.  The decor is quite minimalist, and it almost felt as if the space was unfinished.  This was especially true of the very open kitchen that occupied a good half of the downstairs space that also served as the bar.

We were told that our reservation was "between 8:30-9" but when we arrived our table was not ready until about 9:15.  This is not usually that big of a dig to me, except for the fact that the 6 of us had to awkwardly in the was small front entrance to wait.  After being seated, we then waited quite some time before being offered drinks, and then quite another while to receive our drinks and food.  In fairness, I believe there was a large party upstairs which may have accounted for the delays.  Aside from the pace, the service was pleasant and unpretentious.

The drink list is limited but contains a good selection of BC beer and wine.  At the time of our visit, cocktails were not offered.

The food menu is tweeted regularly to incorporate seasonal ingredients, however many of the basic concepts of the dishes remain constant (there are always several terrines, a few pasta variations and some soups/salads).  There is a good variety of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes.  We chose to split several dishes between couples however the menu is quite small and therefore, with a group of 8-10 people, you could easily order everything on the menu.

Here were the dishes ordered by myself and Hubby:

Parsnip puree soup- This dish was one of the few dishes on the menu that was not terrible conducive to sharing in the way that it was served, but it is quite a large bowl so it could easily be split into a few servings (quite a steal for $5).  It had good flavour overall, but ended up being too much of the same halfway through the bowl.

Summer salad-  I am all for simple dishes at a farm-to-table restaurant but this was a bit too simple.  Although the mixed greens and shaved radish were nice and fresh, it needed something else to elevate it  to restaurant quality.

Mussels with caramelized onions, mushrooms and chill beer- Although I am not a lover of either mussels or beer, this dish ended up being my surprise favourite.  The broth had great, rich flavours and I loved the plentiful mushrooms and onions.  It really grew on me!

Tuna tartare- The tuna was very fresh and smooth.  I really enjoyed the saltiness of the capers but would have liked to have gotten more crunch from the pine nuts (perhaps it was sitting for a while and they had gone soft?).  The choice of bread served on the side was not a good accompanying choice (too soft and thick).  Flatbread would likely have been the better choice.

Saffron risotto- This was the worst dish of the night.  It was absolutely devoid of flavour and the rice was overcooked to the point that it resembled porridge.  Not good.

Pork belly- This was Hubby's favourite by far and really the only memorable dish from his perspective.  The portion of pork was very generous and it was packed with flavour.  I ate most of the beans and kale on the side, and they were very delicious.

Lava Cake- This was a pretty pedestrian dessert and nothing special in terms of taste or presentation.  It has been done many times and this version was nothing new.

Here are the snapshots of the dishes ordered by our friends.  I cannot really comment on the taste since I did not try them myself:

Farmhouse Terrine

Cured Meat Plate

Smoked Salmon Terrine

Ricotta Gnocchi

Chicken Breast

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Overall, I would have to say that our experience at Kessel and March was not really worth the trek.  Although they had been opened for several months, it seemed as if there were still many kinks to be worked out, including flaws in dish conception and execution.  I also found the atmosphere to be quite lacking.  While I do appreciate their partnership with local farms and their very reasonable prices, I am sorry to say that I will not be a return customer.


Kessel & March on Urbanspoon