Monday 29 December 2014

Newfoundland Nostalgia at The Deer Lake Irving Big Stop

Newfoundland's East Coast has hit it big on the Canadian food scene this year.  From traditional Newfoundland dishes with a twist at Mallard Cottage to world class fine dining at Raymond's, St. John's has quite the foodie reputation.

But how about Newfoundland's other coast?  While the West Coast does not have restaurants with the same notoriety as those in the East, it does have some local hangouts that deserve mention, including one of my childhood favourites, the Irving Big Stop.

The Irving Big Stop is located in Deer Lake, the home of a major regional airport, making it an ideal stop after a long flight.  Corner Brook, the island's second biggest city with a population of approximately 20 000 people, is a 30-40 minute drive away from Deer Lake and my family and I would often stop at the Big Stop on our way to or from the airport.  Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, is also located a short 30 minutes away and well worth the trip if you find yourself over this way.

Yes, the Big Stop Irving is located at a gas station and yes, there is a convenience store located right next to the restaurant.  But don't let this stop you from coming in to get some grub.  Just think of it as one stop shopping- fill your tank with gas, fill your car with snacks for the road and then fill your belly with lots of down-home Newfoundland eats!

At any given time of day, the Big Stop is typically jammed with hungry customers from all over the province, making it a great place for those from away to experience the local flair.  While you may not catch everything your server says to you, and likely will be baffled by some of the words and sayings that you hear around you, you will no doubt feel engulfed in friendliness.  There is a reason that Newfoundland is said to be home to the nicest friends on earth. 

So what kind of food can you expect?  For tourists looking to be comforted by some food to which they are well-acquainted, there are plenty of options like burgers, sandwiches and a very popular all-day bacon and egg breakfast.  They also make a mean Chef Salad which has enough meat to satisfy even the largest appetite.  Even these more familiar dishes are infused with a lot of Newfoundland love and are sure to leave you with a very full and satisfied belly (portions here are VERY generous!).   For those looking for traditional Newfoundland food, there are dishes like fries, hamburger meat, dressing and gravy (yes, all on one plate) and, of course, fish and chips.  If you are fortunate enough to visit on a day when “Jigg’s Dinner” is served, go for it.  This traditional Newfoundland dinner which is served in many homes every Sunday includes turkey, peas pudding and carrots, potatoes and turnips all boiled with salt meat which is then served on the side.  This is something everyone should experience at least once!

Here are some of the dishes that we enjoyed when we visited recently:

Pea Soup- You have not had pea soup until you have experienced the Newfoundland version.  It is thick and salty from a healthy dose of salt meat, and often comes with a dumpling in the middle.

Club House Sandwich

Western Sandwich

Jigg’s Dinner ( Not on the menu on the day of our visit but hopefully it will be when you are there! Here is idea of what to expect!

After a visit to the Big Stop and a trip around the western region, you will understand why we call the West Coast is called the “best coast”:)  

Stay tuned for more of my West Coast restaurants- coming soon!

Tuesday 23 December 2014

A Swanky Pre-Holiday Dinner at Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar

845 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC V6Z 2K7
(604) 642-2900

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 2/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Chef Chen's seafood-forward menu is chock-full of ingredients from local suppliers, many of whom are recognized in person on the Boulevard website (see here).  Much of the seafood is Oceanwise-approved and is purchased right off the boats of local fishermen.  The produce used in the dishes is fittingly seasonal, with a nice mix of beets, kale, mushrooms and squash on our December visit.  All in all, they live up to their motto of "fresh, local, inspired".

I was once of the mind that hotel restaurants should be avoided at all costs.  But that notion just does not hold true anymore, at least here in Vancouver which is home to highly respected hotel restaurants like Hawksworth, Yew and Forage (to name just a few).

And then there is Boulevard.  Although it opened just a few short months ago, it has already garnered itself quite a following.  The downtown working folk flock to its chic bar on a nightly basis and its large room is full of diners most nights of the week.  It is obvious that Executive Chef Alex Chen knows how to draw a crowd.  His experiences in Beverly Hills, Chicago, and more recently as "Culinary Architect" at Moxie's have served him well and his top ten finish at the prestigious world culinary competition "Bocuse D'or" is downright impressive.

I was therefore surprised to read a number of reviews describing excellent service and so-so food and figured I had to go check things out for myself.  What I found ended up being just the opposite- first class food with second class service.

I should start by complementing the folks at Boulevard on the amazing renovation that took place to turn the previous restaurant Fleuri into the beautiful, expansive space that it has become.  The decor is upscale and classy, and I can see why other reviewers have likened it to a New York hotspot.  It is certainly more on the formal side than most places in Vancouver (a brave move in this city) but the room is brought alive by the bar at the back that is hopping for the better part of the day.  Unfortunately, we were seated at the front of the room, far from the bar and all of the action in a large awkward semi-circular booth that made it impossible to have a good conversation that included all 6 of us (you literally had to yell at the person on the opposite end).  I therefore highly recommend requesting a seat in the back half of the restaurant and, if you have a large group, specify that you not be seated in a booth.

With the exception of seating blip, we really loved the polished and refined atmosphere and excepted the service to follow suit.  Unfortunately, contrary to previous reviews, the service was by far the worst part of the evening and is the only reason I am not able to give Boulevard a glowing review.  It all started when we walked in (exactly on time may I add).  The hostess at the front was rather cold and then did not offer to take our coats.  We had to chase someone down once we were seated and realized that it would be impossible for us to fit comfortably in the booth with our coats in tow.   Even then, it was like pulling teach to have our coats taken.  We later met our main server who did not crack a single smile the entire night.  He seemed annoyed when we were not immediately ready with our wine selection, and then took our orders very abruptly without barely uttering a word.  I hope this was not their idea of Xmas cheer!  On a positive note, they did do a good job timing-wise, with adequate spacing between appies and mains and several servers bringing out our dishes simultaneously so we all start right away.

Although first impressions were sub-par when it came to our seat and the service, Boulevard fortunately went way up in my books when we finally had the chance to experience the work of Chef Chen.  The first thing to note is the plating.  There are few places in Vancouver that are on the same level in terms of presentation.  Really spectacular.  And fortunately, the food not only looks pretty but tasted darn good as well.  Everyone at the table cleaned their plates and enjoyed every last bite.  

The drink selection at Boulevard includes a variety of cocktails (classic and signature), beer and a very complete wine list with 2 pages of local wines to choose from. 

The food menu is divided into several categories including starters, share, soup & salad, pasta & risotto, “sea”, “land”, "enhancements" (sides).  It is quite a large menu for an upscale restaurant, which will suit a group with various tastes and, from what we experienced, everything was done well. Be prepared to pay about $15-20 for appies and $30-40 for most entrees.  Fortunately, at these prices you will not leave hungry.  Portion sizes are on the larger end for high-end dining and we were all quite satisfied after an appie and a main (and those that splurged on dessert, even more so!).

Here is a look at what we enjoyed.  I have only commented on the dishes the Hubby and I ate, but the reviews of our diner friends were largely positive all around. 

Octopus a la Plancha- I do not often order octopus but this appie really caught my eye.  And thank goodness and went with my gut (no pun intended).  I can honestly say that this was one of the best octopus dishes I ever had.  The generous portion of octopus, Oceanwise-approved, was texturally perfect (not the least bit rubbery) and was complimented by slightly similar sized cuts of softer smoked potatoes.  The romesco sauce that lined the plate was to die for and brightened the dish.  I could have just had another 2 plates of this and been more than satisfied.  Isn't it pretty?

Tableside Ahi Tuna Tataki- I am not quite sure how I feel about the “tableside” preparation of this dish.  While I understand that they were going for something “showy” to go along with their Manhattan vibe, I found it a bit cheesy and felt that it did not add anything to the dish to have it prepared that way (the tuna was not going to get “soggy” by the time it emerged from the kitchen in the way that a salad would).  Add to that our waiter who made it look like such a chore, frowning the whole way through, and it lost all appeal.  Hubby was not too impressed by the taste either and said it was pretty pedestrian. 

Crispy Chicken Wings- This is one of their most raved about dishes!

Roasted Sablefish

Squash Risotto- Although this was slightly less impressive than my dreamy octopus appie, it was still very good.  The perfectly portioned al-dente rice was topped with a creamy, vibrant orange squash puree, dollops of crème fraiche and a few coined carrots were tossed in for a textural contrast.  The kohlrabi ribbons overtop were a nice touch and added some lightness to the otherwise rich dish.

Signature Burger- Hubby, the burger connoisseur, said this burger was “just OK” and thought it was a bit underdone (certainly less than medium, which is how the waiter said it would be cooked).  The fries though were another story- exceptional!

Roasted Sablefish

Magret Duck Breast

Spaghetti Alle Vongole

Opera Bar- Hubby decided to splurge on dessert but was underwhelmed by this chocolate cake which he thought was pretty “boring”.  Go for the Apple dessert instead! (see next)

Pomme Cinq- Although I did not order this, I was kindly offered a few bites and was super impressed.  The apple was prepared in 5 different ways, with a variety of textures, colours and flavours.  It was so interesting (in a good way) that I wanted to keep going back for more.  I especially loved the apple sorbet that was like a little apple bomb going off in my mouth.  This is an absolutely gorgeous winter dessert that is light enough for one to tackle after a sizeable meal. Highly recommended!

I was pleasantly surprised at how great the food is here.  Chef Chen is obviously cooking at a very high level.  There were some dishes here that could rival any in the city and dish presentation was outstanding.  The atmosphere is well suited for either a date night or for a corporate gathering around the bar.  The only disappointing thing about the night was the service, which lacked any personality and bordered on rude.  Once they can work out a few kinks in the service department, I think that Boulevard has the potential to rise high on the list of fine restaurants here in Vancouver.

Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday 28 November 2014

A Perplexing Concept at Gyoza Bar + Ramen

622 W Pender St
Vancouver, BC V6G 2S3
(604) 336-5563

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 2/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved? Kinda- For a gyoza and ramen spot, this place does pretty well in having at least some produce on the menu, most of which is seasonal (corn, brussel sprouts, potatoes, peas).  They also use Fraser Valley pork in their signature pork gyozas and use local fish.

Miku is Hubby's favourite restaurant in town (he raves about it on a weekly basis) and he loves gyoza.  So the two combined in The Gyoza Bar + Ramen, the newest venture by the folks at Miku and its sister restaurant Minami, should theoretically have knocked his socks off.

Instead, it left us both a little confused to say the least.

It has been The Gyoza Bar + Ramen opened its doors to the public just short of 3 months ago and its downtown location on West Pender St.  The small storefront opens into a decent sized room that, according to their website, is supposed to "invoke an urban and rustic-elegant feel" with its light wood furnishings and brick walls.  While this design would undoubtably work well very well in a restaurant serving farm-to-table west coast cuisine, it seems like a very odd choice for a place selling exclusively Japanese fare.  The confusion was amplified by the TV hung in the corner that made "sportsbar" come to mind.  All in all, it seems like place has a bit of an identity crisis.

The service that we received when we walked in put a bad taste in my mouth before the meal even started.  We were admittedly late for our reservation but I thought the snarky remarks made by the front of house server was a little unnecessary, especially since the place was only about half full.  Fortunately, the service did improve when we were seated.  Our server was quite friendly and dishes came out of the kitchen in good time.

The menu quite simply divided into appetizers, 3-4 types each of gyoza and ramen, a couple of mains and dessert.  The appetizers and gyozas are best shared while the ramen are obviously individual servings (available in small and large sizes).  In addition, they also offer selection of wine and beer, as well as a few original cocktails like "The Wave" that my friend quite enjoyed.

Here is a look at the dishes myself, Hubby and our two friends enjoyed:

Fraser Valley Pork Teppan- Hubby really did like these, so much so that he ordered a second round.  These traditional gyoza are their signature item and are served with garlic soy and unami soy dipping sauce.

Chili Shrimp and Pickled Daikon- The gyoza itself was very good, with a nice sear and a plump shrimp filling.  I was not as much of a fan of the wasabi chimmichuri.  Although is "prettied up" the dish, it did not soak up into the gyoza and most of it got left behind on the plate.  On the other hand, the daikon was surprisingly delicious, with a nice crunch to balance the soft gyoza.

Miso short-rib and Jalepeno-Soy Glazed- These were unanimously the least favourite of the gyoza we tried.  This is one instance where deep-frying does not make things better.  Also, the feta sprinkled on top was a bit off-putting with the other flavours.

Small Plates:
BC Wild Salmon Ceviche- It was a bit surprising to find this at a gyoza bar but Hubby, the raw fish fanatic, just had to try it.  Verdict?  Not bad, but not great.

Market Vegetable Broth- This was my pick for ramen.  While I appreciated the nice selection of veg (more generous than at most ramen joints), I found the shoya broth to be too strong for my liking and the noodles reminded me more of spaghetti noodles than ramen noodles.  Sadly, the egg that I added was overcooked and no longer runny:(

Free Range Chicken Broth- This option, comes with a choice of two different broth flavourings.

Overall Verdict?
Although we had a fun night, I would say that Gyoza Bar + Ramen is a surprising miss for the very reputable folks from Miku and Minami.  From the misplaced decor to the subpar service to the underwhelming food,  this place was a letdown and we will not be heading back for a return visit anytime soon.

Gyoza Bar + Ramen on Urbanspoon