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

Saturday 15 November 2014

Juniper and Ivy- A New San Diego Hot Spot

2228 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101, United States
+1 619-269-9036

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- The slogan at Juniper and Ivy is "Refined American Food with Left Coast Edge" and I love how "left coast" ingredients are showcased so well here.  Menus are printed daily with a least a few new dishes every day using the freshest of seasonal ingredients.  This takes considerable effort on the part of the chef Blais and his team but it is SO worth it!

I was very excited when I heard that the conference I would attending was to be held in San Diego, a place that had been on my radar for quite a while.  With its beautiful weather, expansive parks and stunning water views and, of course, its great food scene, San Diego is a very desirable destination.

Being the Top Chef fan that I am, I could not bear to visit San Diego and not visit Chef Richard Blais' new restaurant, Juniper and Ivy.  Since opening in March of this year, Juniper and Ivy has garnered many accolades from food critics and the press.  It must be doing pretty well since Blais has already opened up about opening a second new restaurant right next to Juniper and Ivy with a more casual vibe.   Add to that the fact that he has moved up in the Top Chef ranks and is now the guest judge on Top Chef Boston.  Pretty darn impressive if you ask me!

Juniper and Ivy is located in Little Italy, just off the main drag on a little side street at the corner of (you guessed it) Juniper St. and Ivy St.  The space is massive space with an almost "clubbish" vibe.  As you walk in, there is a large bar at the front of the room just behind the hostess that was PACKED when we arrived at 8pm and was still buzzing when we left around 9:30.  At the back is a very large open kitchen, which is needed in order to accommodate the incredible number of guests that fill the room on a nightly basis.  In the hour and a half that we were there, between the inside space and the outdoor terrace, I cannot even begin to fathom the number of tables they were able to turn.  Good on ya Richard Blais!

Service at Juniper and Ivy was just as low-key as the atmosphere.  There was not a hint of "snob" to be had.  Our waiter was very approachable and never made us feel rushed despite the Saturday night rush.  He was also able to give us some good recommendations for drinks and food, and came back to check with us shortly after each dish was delivered to ensure that it was to our liking.  He was happy to entertain any questions about ingredients or preparation, and knew the answers like the back of his hand.  The only unfortunate thing from a service standpoint was that they had run out of 2 of the dishes that we requested.  This was a disappointment but our waiter was quite apologetic and explained that they sometimes underestimate the quantity of the dishes they will sell, especially those that have been added to the menu that day.

As one can likely guess from their enormous bar, Juniper and Ivy take their drinks seriously.  They have a very extensive wine list, which they have cleverly divided into "tried and true" wines for the more traditional and "leap of faith" wines for the more adventurous.  In addition, they also have a few daily wine picks printed on the food menu.  They also offer a great collection of cocktails.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday Pitcher, a gin-based drink, more bitter than sweet with the addition of grapefruit.

The menu that Chef Blais and his team have created is impressively ambitious in the sheer number of dishes offered.  It is divided into snacks, raw, pastas, toasts, small plates and large plates.  As per our server, diners can either select a variety of dishes from each section to share as a table or choose a small plate and entree for oneself.  I would highly encourage sharing as, with such a variety of dishes on the menu, it seems like a shame to try only two.  The prices are very reasonable ($115 minus tip for our food, a cocktail and 3 glasses of wine between us) and we left quite satisfied.

Here is a peek at our meal:

Biscuit-  Being someone who could take or leave carbs, I would never have ordered this had I not read the online reviews saying that this biscuit could "change your life".  After experiencing it for myself, I admit that this decadent, dense biscuit is something that everyone needs to try once.  Caution- you may want to share, as eating the whole thing yourself (however tempting) may limit the number of other dishes on the menu you can try.

Persimmon Toast- My mother and I agreed that this was the winning dish of the night.  It was actually  pretty simple but the idea of putting slices of sweet-and- sour persimmon slices on toast with burrata is absolute genius. Add some basil and pine nuts and you have a dish made in heaven.  Order it while you still can!!!

Sweet potato ravioli- All there is to say is "pumpkin pie".  This could have almost been a dessert dish but hey, who could ever say they mind dessert in the middle of their meal?  Loved the almost burgandy The sweet potato filling was a deep red color (beautiful!) which we were told was from the different variety of sweet potato used.    My only minor comment would be that the pork belly was quite unnecessary and may have even detracted a bit from the dish.

Beet- This was my runner-up dish for the night behind the belowved persimmon toast.  I have had my share of beet salads in my day but this one really stood out.  I loved how the beets were left whole in this dish, and the ricotta the beets were perched on was spectacular.

Heirloom tomatoes- This was my least favourite dish on the menu and it seemed a bit out of place on a menu that was otherwise so "autumn-ish" in terms of flavour profiles and ingredients.  I did appreciate the nice variety of tomatoes used but found the feta "ice cream" underwhelming.

We did not order a dessert and therefore were pleasantly surprised to enjoy these cute little chocolate chip cookies as a parting gift:)

Overall Verdict?

Richard Blais has created a pretty great thing for himself at Juniper and Ivy and is obviously doing very well with it.   The risk he took in building such a massive space is no doubt paying off in spades.  Fortunately, Blais and his team manage to keep the food quality at the highest level and living up to his Top Chef reputation.

And I have a feeling that, for Chef Blais, we have only the beginning of what will be a very productive culinary career.

Juniper & Ivy on Urbanspoon

Monday 10 November 2014

Miscellaneous Edmonton- The Best of the Best

After spending a month in Edmonton, I can honestly say that I was quite impressed with what they have to offer in terms of food and drink.  For a relatively small place that has not really made its way onto the Canadian foodie radar, Edmonton has lots of great stuff going on that deserve recognition.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the foodie highlights of my extended visit:

Elm Cafe- I was very fortunate to find myself staying a block away from this little gem during my month-long stay in Edmonton.  Not only do they have GREAT coffee (they serve Bows and Arrows coffee from Victoria, BC) but also excel in the food department.  I was a big lover of their muffins (oat-carrot, zucchini chocolate, berry bran, etc etc.) and many others obviously were as well as they were sold out by about 10am every morning.  I was even more impressed by their daily sandwich board, with 2 breakfast sandwiches and 3 lunch sandwiches that were as creative as they were delicious.  Braised pork, onion jam, garlic aioli, pancetta, roasted cauliflower- the ingredients were about as diverse and original as you can get.  Add to that a daily salad that was equally as creative (the french lentil salad with roasted peppers and goat cheese was my fave) and you have a cafe fit for kings and queens.

Transcend- Transcend has several locations but my go-to was their spot on 109th St.  The vibrant space was always packed with U of A students wanting to hunker down for a good coffee and a few hours of studying.  This was my favourite place in town to do some weekend reading without ever feeling rushed.

Cafe Credo- This last coffee hotspot, located right in the downtown core, is always bustling with the business crowd and just about anyone else that recognizes good coffee when they see it.  The folks here are serious about their Intellegentsia Direct Trade coffee and offer great pour-overs.  Add to that a great selection of baked goods (their granola bars are really tasty) and super friendly staff, and you have a real winner.

Baked Goods:
Wild Earth Bakery and Cafe- This mighty fine bakery has a staggering number of baked goods to choose from which is just about the only "fault" I can find in it.  I visited their flagship store on 99th St. and bought a nice assortment of goodies, including a scone, a strawberry rhubarb square and a vegan granola bar (no, I did not eat them all at once!), and they were all excellent. They also offer very nice lunches (daily soups and sandwiches) as well as "take and bake" items that you can pop in your oven and pretend you made them from scratch.  Whether you are in the mood for sweet or savoury, Wild Earth has you covered!

Dauphine Bakery and Bistro- This Edmonton favourite has a nice location near Jasper in downtown Edmonton.  Quite conveniently, the Saturday Farmer's Market sets up right in front of their storefront, allowing them to bring out a nice spread of their goodies to eager market-goers.  Of all their delicious treats, it was the apricot square that stole my heart with its oat crust and dried apricot filling.  A little tip- they sell giant ones at the Farmer's Market that are much larger than the ones in their store and when something tastes this yummy, you will for sure want more of it:)

Padmanadi- After enjoying both a brunch and a dinner at Padmanadi, I can confidently say that this place is well worth a visit.  Their brunch menu is very unique in that it puts an Asian twist on brunch favourites, like the Tom Yum Tofu scramble and the Thai Benedict with bean sprouts, basil and a peanut hollandaise.  I finally decided on the Spicy Eggplant "Omelet" which was wrapped in fried bean curd instead of egg and served with a delicious medley of root vegetables hashbrowns and toast.  It was  certainly one of the most original brunches I have ever had, portions were VERY generous and, most importantly, it was really yummy!

Because I enjoyed my brunch so much and have am partial to eggplant, I played it safe and ordered the Spicy Eggplant for dinner when went back the second time.  It is easy to understand why it is a Padmanadi favourite.  The large pieces of eggplant are stirfried with a balanced sauce of sweet and spicy.  
    Padmanadi is definitely worth the visit for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.  Not only is the food great, but they space is very inviting and "home-y", with subtle (not tacky) Asian accents and family photos on the walls.  It is no surprise that there is usually a packed house of happy customers here!

Culina at the Muttart- Culina has several locations in Edmonton but we decided to visit them at the Muttart Conservatory, a horticultural attraction housed inside pyramids that are one of the city's iconic attractions.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to enter the gardens on this visit but it is definitely on the bucket list the next time we are in town.  
     Culina is located right inside the entrance of the Muttart and in the summer, it has a outside patio for guests to enjoy.  The inside space is quite small and fills up quickly on weekends (reservations recommended).   They are open for lunch during the week and offer a selection of soups, sandwiches, salads and baked goods.  They also do great local coffee (Iconoclast) and even offer some great local beers.  Brunch is available on the weekends, with a menu complete with lunch favourites like my soup of the day (broccoli and kale) with a side salad, as well as more traditional brunch fare enjoyed by Hubby and our friend like a breakfast burrito and eggs benedict.
   Overall, we enjoyed the experience but did find service to be a little less friendly than other places in Edmonton (this comes up frequently in other reviews as well).   I would be inclined to visit on a visit to see the gardens, especially in the summer when I bet the outdoor patio is quite charming.  

Sugarbowl- One of the necessities of any university town is a place for students to grab a hearty breakfast after a night out on the town.  And that is exactly what Sugarbowl is.  There was a 45 minute wait when we arrived at around 11:30 am on a Sunday morning but we are glad we waited.  We really enjoyed the lighthearted vibe and the friendly service.  Although the food is nothing too out-of-the-box, it is solid and they have some good daily specials (Hubby loved the meatloaf).  It is easy to tell why this  little spot has become somewhat of an Edmonton establishment.  

I have previously blogged about the two outstanding dinners that Hubby and I enjoyed in Edmonton.  Check them out!

As you can probably tell, I was quite impressed with all that Edmonton has to offer in terms of coffee, baked goods and restaurants.  It seems that its culinary scene is growing and I expect they will keep getting better and better with each passing year.

I hope to be even more impressed when I come back again next year!

Elm Café on Urbanspoon

Transcend Coffee on Urbanspoon

Credo Coffee on Urbanspoon

Wild Earth Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Dauphine Bakery and Bistro on Urbanspoon

Padmanadi on Urbanspoon

Culina at the Muttart on Urbanspoon

Sugarbowl on Urbanspoon

Corso 32 on Urbanspoon

Rge Rd on Urbanspoon

Friday 7 November 2014

The Fat Badger- British Pub Fare with a Vancouver Twist

1616 Alberni St.Vancouver, BC 
V6G 2V5
(604) 336-5577

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 2/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Any restaurant that changes their menu up EVERY NIGHT is usually pretty serious about using local, seasonal ingredients and Fat Badger is no exception.  Although pubs are not generally well known for their dedication to the locavore movement, the folks at The Fat Badger source their goods from local suppliers and create new dishes every night depending on what is seasonal.  The day that we went, their Twitter page broadcasted the arrival of wild mushrooms that would make their way onto plates at The Fat Badger and the always-wonderful Espana (Neil Taylor is Chef/Owner of both).  Their very extensive beer selection also boasts a healthy proportion of local brews in addition to the London classics.  Goes to show that "gastropub" and "locavore" can be used in the same sentence!

British pub food is admittedly not usually my thing but then again, Neil Taylor and his team are not serving your run-of-the mill pub food.

Yes, there is fish and chips, yorkshire pudding, meat pies and all those the other goodies that one would expect at a British pub, but there is also a whole lot more in terms of variety and creativity.

Fat Badger is located in one of downtown's few 19th century houses that used to house Le Gavroche, which served french food to Vancouver for over 35 years before shutting its doors last year.  The entrance opens into the downstairs where there is a washroom and a few kegs for decoration.  Up a narrow flight of stairs (I wonder how many people have tripped down here after a few too many!), one finds the main room which houses most of the seating and a great bar.  To the right there is an area with more seating that can be converted into a private room.  Overall, the space is very warm, very relaxed and very friendly- the perfect place to enjoy beers with friends on a Friday night (or any night!).  Add to that the British tunes playing in the background (there was lots of Rod Stewart the night we visited) and you may think you have been teleported all the way to Jolly Old England!

When we first arrived, we were seated at the bar for a short while and enjoyed the laid-back and friendly service.  When we got to our table however, we found service to be rushed and verging on rude.  After being seated for only a minute, our server came to take our orders, and looked annoyed when we were not ready.  After we did place our orders, we waited quite a while (almost 20 minutes) for a starter and then another 15-20 minutes for mains.  To our server's defence, it was a very busy Saturday night but, with such a fun and vibrant atmosphere, it would have been nice for the service to follow suit.

If you are a beer lover, The Fat Badger will be right up your alley.  They have lots of beers on tap, with a nice selection of local varieties thrown into the mix.  They also offer ciders for those who prefer it a little sweeter and, for total non-beer drinkers like myself, a small but well-chosen list of wines.

The menu, written up on the chalkboard at the back of the room, is divided into bar snacks, starters, mains and "puddings" (desserts).  As mentioned above, at least some dishes change daily, while some are tweeked a bit according to ingredient availability and others are left exactly as is due to popular demand.  Unlike most traditional British pubs, there was a nice selection of (non-deep fried) fish dishes and also some nice vegetarian options to choose from (we are in Vancouver after all!).  Unfortunately, we were disappointed to learn that by the time we were seated at around 8:30, they had ran out of 3 of the dishes we requested, including the only vegetarian main and their infamous pork cracking

Bar snacks:
Scotch egg and HP sauce- This British staple- hard boiled egg covered in sausage and bread crumbs the deep fried- is one of the items that stays on the menu night after night.

British west country poutine with cider braised pulled pork, cheddar, curds, grainy mustard and crispy sage- This is obviously not traditional British pub grub but highlighted the created side of The Fat Badger.

Indian style crispy squid with green chilies and cucumber raita- What is British pub without curry, or at least a little Indian flair?

Smoked black cod and salmon fish cake, pea puree, pickled fennel and tartare sauce- The black cod adds a Vancouver twist to the classic fishcake and the fall peas add a stunning burst of colour.

Beer-battered cod n' chips, mushy peas, chip shop curry sauce- I was SO happy that Hubby ordered this.  Just look at the size of those fries!  Add a bit of that curry sauce and you would think you had died and gone to heaven!

Grilled seabream, warm potato salad, wild mushrooms, broccoli, pickled fennel- As a pescatarian, this was my only choice of main since they had ran out of the vegetarian main already (a pumpkin tart with salad).  But I am not complaining.  The generous portion of perfectly-cooked seabream was accompanied by a "stew" of  lovely fingerlings, mushrooms (my fave!) and a few broccoli florets for colour.  I even liked the fennel on top (historically my least favourite vegetable) as it really added lightness to an otherwise earthy and heavy dish.  What a great fall dish.

Overall, the consensus around the table about the food was very positive.  My friend who chose to order the two appies instead of the main felt they were just "average" but the two mains were very well conceived, well executed and very flavourful (Hubby is still raving about his fish and chips, especially that curry sauce!).  The poutine was also a decadent- but totally worth it- treat.  And while some of the aspects of the food are "Vancouverized", the portion size is not.  These hearty portions would surely please any healthy British appetite.

Overall, we were quite pleased with the Fat Badger and had the service been better, we would have looked even more favourably on the experience.  Fat Badger is definitely a boon to the Vancouver food scene as good pub food was pretty scarce before it came along.  Add in a little Vancouver flair and local ingredients and you have a restaurant that has no where to go but up.

The Fat Badger on Urbanspoon