Monday 16 June 2014

Brunch Fit for a King at The Bird's Nest

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore approved?  YES- The Bird's Nest has a constantly evolving menu that changes every Sunday to incorporates many seasonal ingredients.  I was very pleased that many current Farmer's Market goods made it to my plate!  Homemade, seasonal fair is the name of the game at The Bird's Nest!

Underground dining is a trend that is taking off here in Vancouver, and for good reason.

Underground restaurants, also called supper clubs or closed or restaurants, offer great value for food that is often just as good and sometimes even better than conventional restaurants.  Instead of paying for  the space and the staff, your money goes only towards the food and the chef's time.  On the flip side, there is a bit of risk involved with these establishments.  Without much word of mouth or online reviews to go on, you really don't know what you are getting yourself into.

Sometimes, taking a risk pays off like it did when I visited The Bird's Nest for brunch this past Sunday.

I will not go into much detail about the location of Bird's Nest other than to say that it is a very nice, accessible area in Vancouver (you will find out the address once you confirm your booking).  Although  I do not usually expect much from the atmosphere at underground restaurants, the room at The Bird's Nest is extremely charming and the perfect setting for Sunday brunch.  The space, divided into 2 rooms, can accommodate about 20 people quite comfortably.  Myself and four friends had our own  table in one room with a few other small tables around us, while the other room had a long table for a larger group.  Although it was quaint, we certainly did not feel cramped and I really enjoyed the friendly, cozy vibe.

The hostess, who is also the chef AND the owner AND the waitress AND everything else needed to run a restaurant, is understandably very busy so you will nto see much of her during the meal.  Having said that, she is very pleasant and did come to speak with us at the end of our meal when brunch service was complete.  It is very impressive that she is able to wear so many hats at the same time, so kudos to her for that!  

Kudos to her as well for creating such a creative and tasty brunch.  The menu changes from one brunch service to the next, but there are some sample menus on her website if you want to get an idea of what you might expect (  What I loved about our brunch was the multiple components that arrived on our plate.  Whether you are a sweet or savoury brunch person, there is bound to be something to please you.   I also loved the seasonal ingredients that were incorporated into the many bites and the fact that everything right down to the bread was homemade.  Her food is approachable yet creative.  She takes brunch comfort foods and jazzes them up a bit using herbs and spices.  The end result is a brunch that leaves you both satisfied and inspired.

On the day of our visit, we were treated to unlimited tea and coffee, plus an amazing selection of goodies, including:

Mini smoothie with blueberry and mint
Homemade bread with avocado, shrimp and feta
Fried egg (with more homemade bread to dip in that yummy runny yolk!)
Potatoes with mustard and dill
Strawberry-rhubarb-granola crisp with cardamom

I enjoyed everything on the plate, especially the avocado and shrimp on bread (a marriage made in heaven, piled on top of the freshest of bread) and the the granola crisp (the cardamom knocked an already awesome dish right out of the park).  The food was all very light, clean food that left you feeling refreshed instead of giving you a "brunch hangover".  Those with larger appetites will be glad to know that more food is available if you still have a void to fill.  As we were finishing up, we were offered extra bread and/or eggs which many of us gladly accepted:)

Because this is not a conventional restaurant, you will not be handed a bill at the end of your meal.  Instead, we found a mini envelope in front of our plates with a business card and a "donation" card inside.  A $20 "donation" is recommended, which is certainly more than fair for such a delicious brunch.

So why not try something new and head to The Bird's Nest for an "underground" brunch that is sure to wow you in every way?   It is open for brunch almost every Sunday, and is also available for group dinners upon request.  To reserve, visit her reservation page:

This is one special experience that you do not want to miss out on!

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Healthy drinks and eats at Exile

1220, Bute St.
Vancouver, BC V6E 1N1

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore approved?  Most definitely!  Our very kind waiter told us that Exile partners with local farms from whom they purchase the vast majority of their produce and eggs.  In addition, they actually forage for mushrooms and herbs themselves (very impressive!).  All of the dishes that we enjoyed contained seasonal ingredients and their menu items are constantly being tweaked to incorporate the fresh ingredients they have on hand.  Their dedication to the locavore movement is admirable.

Exile is a new, intriguing bistro located in a convenient location at Bute and Davie. It came to my attention by way of Scout Magazine (my very favourite foodie resource) and, on paper, it appealed to me for numerous reasons.  First of all, it has a plant-based menu, focusing on local, sustainable produce (what's not to love about that?).  Secondly, the owner and the chef had quite impressive resumes, having worked for many years in a sampling of renowned Vancouver restaurants.  Lastly, I am on a real small plates kick these days and sharing plates are what the evening menu at Exile is all about.

When I read the Scout Magazine article back in March just as Exile was getting off the ground, the plan was that they were going to be an artisan cafe during the day, serving coffee and healthy baked goods, and then transform into a bistro at night.  We were told by our server, however, that they had recently decided to focus on their evening service so they are now just opened from 5pm onwards as well as brunch on the weekend.  She did mention the possibility of starting up the daytime cafe again once their weekend service gets established.

Exile is a very small restaurant and was about half full when we arrived just before 9:30pm.  There are seats at the bar (I would have loved to snag the seats in front of the open kitchen), as well as tables to the left of the bar.  The decor is minimalist and hip, and is notably very similar to Acorn (apparently the same designer is responsible for both).  I liked the dark wood with triangular mirrors on the main wall and thought it made the space feel a bit bigger.  A word of caution when going on a warm night- there is obviously no air conditioning so it can get pretty steamy in there!  Fortunately, there is a table or two outside if you need relief.

For such a new restaurant, the service was spot on.  Our main waiter was very personable and did a great job at explaining the many components of the dishes.  Although this place obviously focuses on healthy, plant-based eating, they were not "in-your-face" or preachy about it.  They just genuinely wanted you to enjoy this way of eating.  Hubby also appreciated the speedy service.  Our small plates starting arriving one by one to our table within minutes of ordering.

I was quite excited to try a cocktail considering that the owner, Vanessa Bourget, is an Herbalist and specializes in making holistic cocktails.  The cocktail special of the night caught my eye right away- vodka, with organic cane sugar and rhubarb.  The cocktail ended up being one of the highlights of the evening.  It was a perfect balance of sweet and sour, and very refreshing.

As mentioned, the menu is constantly evolving depending on what the chef is able to get that day.  The printed menu that we were given was pretty similar to the one online, but had a few tweaks on old dishes as well as a couple of new dishes.  The majority of the dishes are vegan, but there are several dishes that include milk/eggs and some that include game (they had ostrich and elk the night we dined there).

We chose 5 of the 13 available dishes, leaving us satisfied but certainly not full. Here are the dishes that we enjoyed:

Daily bread, infused oil and vinegar, cultured butter- Hubby just loves his carbs so this was a must.  The bread of the evening was a thin naan kicked up a notch with spring onion.  It was served with a cicely-infused oil and some creamy cultured butter.  It was quite plain, but tasty nonetheless.  It would have been nice to have some more bread as the ratio of butter and oil to bread was skewed such that we were left with a ton of the former and no bread to go with it.

Steelhead trout tartare, radish, rhubarb, sweet cicely- This was the only seafood dish on the menu and Hubby and I quite enjoyed it.  The fish was diced and mixed with cicely and radish.  The mixture was then covered with a film of rhubarb jelly which, personally, I could have done without as I did not like the texture and found it too bitter.  All in all though, it was the best dish of the evening.

Oyster mushrooms, seed caviar, sea asparagus, spirulina- I was pretty pumped about this dish (I have a new obsession with mushrooms) and thought the presentation was playful with the mushrooms being served in oyster shells and mustard seeds being used as the "caviar".  Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like this dish, it just did not work for me.  The mushroom itself was ok but I really did not get the spirulina-honey mixture beneath the oyster shells and could not really taste the mustard seeds or sea asparagus.  This dish left me feeling puzzled.

Foraged spring shoots, coconut oil and smoked salt- This was a nice mix of all kinds of different greens, including kale, onion, squash blossoms, etc.  They were served warm and nicely complemented by the coconut oil.  Although Hubby considered it a bit too "green" for his liking, he admitted that the shoots were well seasoned and in the end, did eat his share.  Greens are in season right now so I appreciated them being front and center in this dish.

Forager's bibimbap-  This was Hubby's pick as he is a huge bibimbap fan.  He chose to add game (elk- $4) which ended up being a mistake.  The meat was chewy and rubbery which totally turned Hubby off from eating the dish.  I thought the other components of the dish were OK, including carrots, mushrooms, beets and sunflower shoots, and I liked the texture of the black rice.  Overall though, the dish was a bit bland and lacked the "punch" of flavours that you expect with bibimbap.

Overall, I think Exile has a lot going for it- a central location, enthusiastic staff, a unique holistic cocktail program and a dedication to local ingredients.  Unfortunately, on this visit, I was not particularly "wowed" by the food.  In saying that, Exile is just in its infancy and I think it has the potential to grow and get better with time.

Good luck Exile, I am rooting for ya!

Tuesday 3 June 2014

A Tribute to Newfoundland at Raymond's

95 Water St, St John's, NL A1C 1A4
(709) 579-5800

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Raymond's does Newfoundland proud by showcasing the very best of its land and sea.  From Lester Farms kale to foraged mushrooms to freshly caught fish, this is a locavore's dream come true.  Although Newfoundland is sometimes considered inhospitable to the growth of produce, Raymond's draws attention to all of the wonderful food that are island can procure.  And who better to show off Newfoundland than Chef Jeremy Charles.

Raymond's has won an impressive number of accolades since its opening its doors in November 2010, including En Route Magazine Best New Restaurant 2011 and, more recently, #1 on the 2014 Best New Restaurant List.  

And after visiting Raymond's for the first time last weekend, it is quite evident what all of the hype is about.  Raymond's ranks up there with any renowned restaurant I have been to in Canada and the US, and then some. To think that a city in Newfoundland of all places would have one of my favorite meals ever may sound like a bit of a stretch, but let me assure you, it is true.

My first clue that this was going to be a great experience came with a phone call from the restaurant after I had left a message requesting a pescatarian tasting menu.  They called back as soon as they opened that evening, only too happy to make me a custom tasting menu, and to offer it despite the fact that my parents wanted to stick with the a la carte menu.  I was ecstatic.  

When we arrived at 7:30 on a Saturday night, the place was packed, including the bar room near the front of the restaurant and the main room at the back.  Fortunately, I had made my reservation a month and a half prior, and reservations have become even harder to come by since they won the award.  

Upon arriving, we were invited our table at the back near the windows overlooking the water which was perfect, but really any table in this beautiful room is great. The high ceilings, white walls and black leather chairs make the room elegant and impressive.  That being said, it never felt pretentious or “stuffy”, likely due to the very warm and inviting atmosphere created by the staff.  Although there is no dress code, most men wore jackets and women wore dresses or pant suits.

Service at Raymond’s is second to none.  From the start, our server was attentive and very warm.  She stopped at our table to chat with us on a number of occasions, making us feel like her only guests.  She was impressively knowledgeable about the dishes and all of the ingredients, including where they were sourced from.  She was assisted by other servers who effortlessly brought our plates and whisked them away again without a sound.  My parents, who did not want to do the tasting menu, were very pleased with how their two dishes were served in relation to my seven.  Our meal lasted over 3 hours and we never were made to feel rushed.  I could not have been more impressed with the caliber of the service. 

Speaking of amazing service, our sommelier for the evening, Erin, deserves recognition for her work that evening as well.  At first, I was disappointed to see that the regular sommelier, Jeremy Bonia was not in that evening but as soon as Erin began her service, I knew we were in good hands.  She was extremely professional and knowledgeable and her enthusiasm about wine was infectious.  Just like our server, she made us feel like the only guests in the restaurant by speaking to us at length about her travels to Ontario wineries to meet the winemakers and to talk with me about BC wines.  When she realized that I was a locavore, she purposely chose some Canadian pairings, which I really appreciated.  She seemed very comfortable choosing wines “on the fly” for my pescatarian menu, and I really appreciated the great variety of wines that I was offered.  I highly recommend getting the wine pairings, especially if it is your first time getting the tasting menu, as it brought my already outstanding meal to an even higher level.

The menu at Raymond’s changes regularly based on the availability of local ingredients.  They also offer a number of additional dishes each night including a pasta appetizer course.  As mentioned, my parents chose the a-la-carte option (appetizer and main) while I chose the 7 course tasting menu with wine pairings.  There is also the option of a 5 course tasting menu. Although I certainly do not regret ordering the 7 courses, I should say that the portions are larger than other tasting menus I have had and I was absolutely stuffed by the end of my meal.  Those with smaller appetites would undoubtably be satisfied with the 5-course option.

Here is a recap of the food that we enjoyed, starting with my 7-course tasting menu:

Smoked oyster, scallop ceviche, pickled vegetable with quails egg, smoked char crostini- This seafood starter was equally as visually spectacular as it was delicious.  If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scallop ceviche by the slimmest of margins (I loved the potato chips on top that gave a hit of salt and crunch). What a light and refreshing way to begin a tasting menu. 

Lester's Farm Beet and Kale Salad- I was very jealous when my mother ordered this as her appetizer and had my fingers (and toes!) crossed that it would be part of my tasting.  I almost squealed when it was put in front of me!  This salad looks deceptively simple, but it was actually quite complex, with layers of different flavors that married together perfectly.  I am a beet salad fiend and can confidently say that this was the best one I have ever had.

Seared local scallop, scallop roe with parsnip puree- When our server asked me at the end of the meal what my favorite dish was, I had great difficulty choosing one but in the end, I chose this one.  This massive scallop (local, of course) was seared to perfection and served with scallop roe, something that I had never tasted before (I loved it!).  And that parsnip puree?  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Seared local halibut, clams, rapini and local dandelion greens- I just loved all of the accompaniments to this very generous portion of perfectly cooked local halibut, especially the bitter rapini that added a real kick to the dish.  One minor comment is that they added house-smoked bacon to the dish in a pescatarian menu (pescatarians eat only seafood and produce, no meat/pork/poultry). Although I ate the dish anyway, a stricter pescatarian may not have done so.

Cavetelli with mushrooms, peas and truffle- After all of the fish, I was pleased to get a vegetarian dish for the 5th course.  I just loved the meaty mushrooms (locally foraged) and the hint of truffle to accent the exceptional handmade cavetelli.

Local cod, peas pudding, carrots, cabbage, roasted shallot- For my last savory course, it was back to fish.  It was nice to end with cod, which has such history here in this province.  This was a miniature version of my mom’s main, and was a play on traditional Newfoundland Jigg’s Dinner (find out more about Jigg's dinner here)  I really appreciated how Chef Charles was able to elevate the simple Jigg’s dinner while staying true to its basic ingredients and flavors.  A real treat for locals and tourists alike! 

Ice cream and chocolate ganache- By this time, I was stuffed, but my parents were happy to take one for the team and share it with me.  This simple, elegant dessert was the perfect end to a perfect meal.  I should also note that, because my parents were “helping me” with dessert, sommelier Erin kindly served them a taste of the dessert wine at no cost.  Now that is service!

Here are the a-la-carte items that my parents enjoyed:

Seafood soup- This “soup” was actually more of a stew, chock full of seafood of every variety.  It was lightened by a delicious tomato broth instead of a rich cream base.  My dad loved it, and eagerly soaked up the remaining broth with the housemade bread that we were served at the beginning of the meal.

Duck breast- My dad had originally wanted the halibut but unfortunately the last piece was sold just as he ordered his.  His sadness was short-lived though as he loved this duck dish.  The portion of duck was very generous and he loved the accompanying duck sausage. 

My mom had the Lester's Farm Beet and Kale Salad and the Newfoundland Cod, which were larger versions of those in my tasting menu (see above).  She loved every bite.

As a last little treat to finish off this exquisite meal, we were offered 3 little bonbons with our bill.  Finesse from start to finish.

After all its accolades over the past few years, I figured that Raymond's ought to be good but my experience there soared high above all my preconceived expectations.  I honestly could not have been more impressed.  Raymond's is at least as good as any restaurant that I have been to, including those with Michelin stars.

St. John's may seem "off the beaten track" in terms of popular foodie destinations, but Raymond's is a first-class dining experience by any standards.  As word continues to spread about how special Raymond's is, I hope that foodies from far and wide will come to discover what they have been missing out on.

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