Friday 29 August 2014

Japanese Food with Modern Flair at Zest

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore approved?  YES- Chef Yoshiaka Maniwa is passionate about local seafood.  Many of the items on the menu are Oceanwise (approved by the Vancouver Aquarium as sustainable seafood) and the chef is keen on supporting local fisherman.  And you can taste it in the fish- this is about as fresh as it gets.

Zest is one of Vancouver’s many hidden gems. While others sushi restaurants like Tojo’s and Miku are among the most popular spots in the city, Zest has kept a low profile and stayed under the radar.  But that is soon to change.

Tucked away at Macdonald and 16th, away from the hussle and bussel of Yaletown and Gastown, and far from the new foodie hangouts in East Van, Zest is easy to miss.  But fortunately, the folks from the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant awards took the time to venture over that way and were obviously impressed with what they found.  They awarded Zest with “Best Upscale Japanese”, a distinction that has been won by Tojo for several years previous.

From the outside, Zest is not all that impressive, but the inside is quite forma (according to Vancouver standards) with white tablecloths and white cloth napkins.  Even with these formal touches, there is cozy feel to the space.  There are only about 20 tables in addition to the seats around the sushi bar and it manages to stay decently quiet.  We liked our table in the middle of the restaurant, but the next time we would like to snag a spot at the bar to catch all of the sushi-making action.

 We had the same server all night, taking our order, delivering our food, filling our water glasses and coming to check up on us.  He was very gracious, and took the time to explain the components of all of our dishes.  Like most Japanese restaurants, our food started to arrive within 10 minutes of ordering.  The progression was consistent and timely.  

Zest has a unique sake and wine program.  They serve wines from all over the world, including some selected picks from BC wineries, and they have won numerous awards for its wine over the last several years.  And if sake is your thing, you will be equally impressed by their very well-developed sake menu.

I would describe the food as “modern Japanese”.  Having said that, the building blocks of the dishes are quite authentic.  It is the sauces and flavor combinations that give Zest its modern flair, and even these accents are fairly subtle.  While most ingredients are locally sourced, the chef also imports some specialty ingredients, including some of its fish, from Japan.  The lengthy menu includes a mix of traditional and original dishes, from starters to sushi to meat dishes to fish dishes.  Set menus, including an Omakase menus (24 hours notice required) are also offered.  Dishes at Zest are best shared, which allows you to try out as many dishes as possible.  Although the offerings are definitely more costly than your average sushi restaurant, Hubby and I still managed to get out for just over $100 (not including drinks) and were comfortably full. 

Here is a snapshot of the dishes that we enjoyed:

Wakame Sunomono- I am a sucker for seaweed but this version was just "so-so".

Tuna in Three Ways- A nice selection of tuna, each done with a different sauce.  My favourite was the middle one, with avocado and nori soy sauce.

Four of a Kind Signature Sashimi- Although we enjoyed this, it was quite similar to the Tuna Three Ways and, for the steep $29 we paid for it, we could a tried several other more diverse menu items.

Chicken Gyoza- Hubby loved these and ate the whole plate to himself (I am not a fan of gyoza).  Really, they are meant for sharing as they are pretty filling!

Rolls- Signature Tuna Amigos Roll and Zest Roll- These were the highlight of the night for me, and on my next visit, I will definitely be trying a few more from their very unique list of rolls.  The Zest Roll was among the best rolls I have ever had while Hubby was partial to the Signature Tuna Roll.

Overall verdict? 
Zest is an underdog in many respects.  Its “off the beaten path” location and the relative lack of hype have kept this place a secret for most, but those that know this place love it and keep coming back for more.  I have a feeling the list of “regulars” will be expanding over the next while, especially as curious foodies like us add it to their to-go list.  Zest’s intimate atmosphere makes it ideal for anything from a date night to a business dinner so one can find many “excuses” to check it out.  While it may be pricier than your average sushi joint, the food here is way above average so it is worth the extra cost.  At Zest, you get what you pay for and then some! 

Zest on Urbanspoon

Sunday 17 August 2014

"Come Forage" at Glorious Organics Farm: A True Locavore Feast

Every Saturday morning, we head to Trout Lake farmer's market and make a beeline for Glorious Organics to buy the very best salad that money can buy.  Last year, we attended their first-ever "Come Forage" dinner at their farm.  We immediately fell in love with the concept, the farm, the kind farm staff and, of course, the food prepared by Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage restaurant here in Vancouver (see last year's blog post here).

I was ecstatic when I heard that they were holding this wonderful event again this year and, of course, I was going to be there.  I was sceptical that they could recreate the magic of last year's event but somehow, they managed to make this year's farm dinner even more amazing.

This year's event was held on the August long weekend here in BC, and it ended up being a scorcher.  The only complaint I heard all evening was that it was "too hot" and that people wished there were umbrellas over the table to shade us as we ate.  But that is probably just because us Vancouverites are wimps when it comes to these hot temperatures (anything above 25 degrees celcius) that we don't usually get in our neck of the woods!

Other than this very minor point which was outside of anyone's control, the evening went off without a hitch.  The Glorious Organics crew really kicked it up a notch this year when it came to the venue.  The had the table nicely set in white and green linens, with table settings all prepped when we arrived (last year we had to bring our own dishes and cutlery).  They had a nice tent set up in one corner of the field where they had live music done by a very talented trio, two of whom live on the farm.  Their music selection was very original and very catchy (I was humming away the whole way home!).  And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-contructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-constructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

We knew we were in good hands as soon as we arrived.  We were warmly greeted by the familiar faces  who deliver the Glorious Organic's tasty produce to the Trout Lake Market.   We were then offered wine from Backyard Wineries located just down the road from the farm, or a choice of local beers, all served in cute little mason jars.  Still thirsty?  No problem!  We could come back and get unlimited refills throughout the afternoon and evening.  We also got a glimpse of the menu propped up in front of where Chef Whittaker was already busy preparing our meal.  Let the salivating begin!

After listening to some wonderful, eclectic tunes in the shade, we were rounded up and divided into groups for the farm tour.  We were escorted around the farm by one of the knowledgeable staff who showed us greenhouses, roosters, garlic, and many other crops that they grow on their sprawling property.  We even got to pick a few things for dinner, including kale and oh-so fragrant basil.  If it hadn't been so hot, I could have stayed in the basil greenhouse all day!

After the tour, it was back to the farm for the star attraction of the evening- our farm feast!  And a feast it was!  Chef Whittaker really outdid himself, serving dish after dish of deliciousness.  Everything was served family-style along the long table, with way more than enough for everyone to have seconds, thirds and fourths of all the dishes.

The first series of dishes were a variety of salads made from the bounty of the farm.  They were all great, but my favourite (in fact, my favourite dish of the whole night) was the beet and goat cheese salad.   I could have eaten the whole plate!

Next it was onto the main course.  Chef Whittaker who is known for his love of the nose-to-tail philosophy, prepared a whole pig and gave us literally the WHOLE pig.  On the platter, there was your run-of-the-mill pork tenderloin and then a mix of more adventurous offerings including cracklings, blood pudding and head cheese.  Many were brave and moved way outside of their comfort zone, including Hubby who found out that he likes headcheese!  To counter-balance all of that meat was a nice variety of vegetables prepared with honey, and a creamy potato and green bean salad.

For the non-meat eaters like myself, Chef Whittaker was kind enough to provide a beautiful and substantial vegetarian offering of lentils, farm-fresh hazelnuts and a vegetable medley.  Kudos to the chef for not settling with an "afterthought" vegetarian dish and making us feel special too:)

Although everyone was quite stuffed by this point, there were few who were able to turn down the dessert course- an oh-so-summery fruit crisp, made with a veritable orchard full of different fruits buried under an oat topping.  And, as if that wasn't yummy enough, the gang also came around with beer-flavored ice cream for the grand finale!

I absolutely loved our first "Come Forage" last year but somehow, the Glorious Organics crew and Chef Whittaker made it ten times better this year.  They really kicked it up a notch in terms of crossing the T's and dotting the I's, while still maintaining a very relaxed and fun atmosphere.

I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeves for next year's event!  I will be the first in line for tickets:)

Sunday 10 August 2014

London and Paris Foodie Adventure 2014: The Grand Finale- Arpege

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 4.75/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Arpege raises the humble vegetable to new heights with its plant-centric menu.  Even in his non-vegetarian dishes, the vegetables are still centre stage.  Chef Alain Passard is so serious about using only the finest ingredients that he sources all of his produce from his very own farms just outside of Paris.  Passard is a serious locavore who is has the confidence to let his "home-grown" vegetables speak for themselves.

I cannot begin to express the excitement that I felt the night of July 3, 2014 as Hubby and I made our way to Arpege.  There were so many reasons to be on Cloud 9.  Our first 3 Michelin Star restaurant experience, led by a vegetable-obsessed chef with his own farm, in a beautiful Paris neighbourhood.  I was in my glee!

Arpege is located on la Rue Verenne, a little side street off of Rue St. Germain.  It was a picturesque 45 minute walk from our apartment in Marais across the Seine.  You had best keep your eyes peeled on approach, since the entrance is quite inconspicuous amongst the rows of historic stone buildings that line the street.

The space inside is separated into an upstairs and downstairs which offer quite different dining experiences.  The downstairs, where we were seated, is reminiscent of a cave, with an arched ceiling and stone walls.  It is quite intimate, with about 6 tables for 2-4 people.  The upstairs is much more open, and offers a more traditional setting.  Both are nice, and it really comes down to personal preference as to which a guest may prefer, but it may be worth calling ahead and making a request if you feel strongly either way.

Service is absolutely exceptional.  Quite honestly, it was perfect in every way.  The 6 tables downstairs were tended to by 4 servers, each with a different role.  One server was constantly scanning the room to see where water glasses needed refilling, wine needed to be poured, or bread needed to be delivered and there was not a moment that evening that these tasks occurred even a millsecond too late.  We had a very kind, charismatic server who presented us with the menu, explained all of our options and ensured that our dishes were delivered in a timely fashion by other servers.  Everything ran like clockwork.  While the service was formal, it was not at all stuffy and by the end of the evening, there were jokes being tossed around between the servers and the guests, as well as between guests at different tables.  One of the highlights of the evening was when Chef Alain Passard himself came down to speak with each individual table, ensure that we were enjoying everything, and even share a few jokes.  Apparently, Passard makes an appearance every night of service, making every guest feel special.  I must admit, I got goosebumps!

There are several different options in terms of menus, including a la carte, a vegetarian tasting menu and a seasonal tasting menu.  I chose the vegetarian tasting while Hubby did the seasonal tasting.  Because Passard’s main focus is honouring the humble vegetable, both tasting menus are pretty similar, except for 3 courses on the seasonal menu that contain fish/meat, as well as an additional cheese course.  Either menu will provide you with more than enough food, even if you have a huge appetite.  We heard several diners say, in additional to ourselves: “Really, another course???”.  There ended up being 21 courses in total!!!

I really find it difficult to choose standout dishes at this meal as everything was truly outstanding.  I have never tasted such fresh vegetables and herbs, some of which were left in their natural beauty and some which were transformed beyond belief.  After this meal, I fear that no vegetarian tasting, or any other meal for that matter, will live up to this one.  And presentation?  Everything was so pretty, it was a shame to eat it.

Here is a pictural representation of our meal, with the exception of a few dishes that I mistakenly devoured before snapping a pic:)  Note that most dishes were on both the vegetarian and seasonal tasting menus, with just a few different meat and fish dishes swapped in on the seasonal menu.    I am sure you will agree that many of these dishes look too pretty to eat!

Overall verdict?

Arpege is, to date, the best meal of my life, and believe me, it will be tough (practically impossible) to beat.   The philosophy, the service and, most importantly, the food, were nothing short of PERFECT.  Yes, this place will cost you a pretty penny, but Arpege is a restaurant that every foodie must experience.

You simply cannot imagine just how magical it is without experiencing it for yourself.