Vancouver


“Intimate” and “warm” are two words that spring to mind when I think of my most recent visit to Nook Restaurant on Denman Street in Vancouver.

The food in this Italian eatery is extremely satisfying.  We shared a number of dishes and all were unpretentious comfort dishes.

2014-03-07 19.01.07The appetizers/antipasto were beautiful.  Our burrata and pancetta plate disappeared in the blink of an eye, and I found that the healthy dose of pepper on the burrata cheese was a deft touch.  The true surprise of the night, however, was a chicken liver spread.  The creamy texture of the spread, crunchiness and seasoning of the toasted baguette on which it was served, and the knock-down punch of the big flavour was incredible.

The pizzas (a margherita and an Italian sausage) were fresh from the pizza oven, which ensured chewy loveliness at places and crunchiness in others.  The only downside was that they were slightly over-salted (IMHO) but I didn’t mind because it was an excuse to order a second glass of red wine.

Desert came.  The chocolate and salted caramel budino was a good idea, but (despite being a chocoholic) I much preferred the panna cotta, which was a refreshing way to end the meal.

I would certainly recommend Nook and will definitely return – but I’ll show up at the crack of 5pm to ensure that we’re seated quickly.

Nook on Urbanspoon

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For years, my culinary white whale was the beloved Tarte Tatin.  It’s especially regrettable to be unable to make a pie with such an interesting provenance – the Hotel Tatin and the hands of the Tatin sisters.

tarte tatin

I can imagine the Tatin sisters rolling in their grave as I fumbled and flubbled the recipe.  For some reason, every time I tried to make this delicious pie, the caramel never really came together properly, the apples were always “meh”, and the crust was never quite good enough.  Well, I am glad to report that after research and much trial (and much error…) I have a successful recipe, though it is a twist on the original.

This is slightly more work than a traditional Tarte Tatin, and arguably lacks the original’s rustic appeal, but I find the final product prettier and more appealing.  Also, once you have the crust down, you can use it for any number of French-style tartes.

EQUIPMENT

  • Rolling Pin
  • 9″ tarte dish with a removable base
  • Large frying pan (large enough to cook the 7-8 apples) with a lid (if possible)
  • Oven mitts

INGREDIENTS

CRUST

  • 125g of chilled, unsalted butter (do yourself a favour and buy the more expensive butter)
  • 220g of all purpose flour (plus extra for dusting)
  • 40g of sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1-2 tablespoons of cold milk

FILLING

  • 7-8 Granny Smith Apples (NB:  The apples will shrink, so use more than you think you’ll need.  At worst, you can just gorge on the left-overs).
  • 1 cup of sugar (though you can use 3/4 cups if want it slightly less sweet)
  • 1 stick/120g of butter

INSTRUCTIONS

CRUST:

Start by making your crust, which may take a little longer is easy once you get the hand of it.

Mix together your flour and sugar evenly.  Chop up your cold butter into pea-sized blocks, and then work the blocks into the flour-sugar mixture until you get a sandy consistency (this usually takes about 3-4 minutes).

Mix together your egg and milk, and whisk the two together until the blended.  Make a well in the sandy flour-sugar-butter (referenced above), pour in 2/3 of the the egg-milk mixture, and mix together the two with a fork.  it will eventually get lumpy and you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and use your hands to gently kneed everything together just until you get a consistent dough.  If the dough is still dry/crumbly, add some more of the egg-milk mixture.  You’re shooting for something moist but not sticky.

Shape your dough in a round, flat mound, wrap in plastic wrap, and then place in the fridge for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, roll out your dough to about the thickness of two quarters/a one pound coin.  Make sure that the dough sheet is larger than the diametre of the pie dish.  If your dough is a little sticky, dust just enough flour on it to prevent it from sticking to the table.  Lay the dough into the pie dish, tuck in the corners,  and work the dough up the sides of the dish.  Ideally, the dough should rise higher than the sides of the dish (by about 5mm) because the dough will shrink a bit during cooking.

Poke holes with a fork in the dough at the bottom of the pie dish and then put the crust in a fridge for another 30 minutes.  Turn on your oven and heat to 400F.

After your crust has chilled for 30 minutes or so, take it out, put in some baking/pie weights in the middle, and bake blind for 10-12 minutes.  Carefully remove the pie weights and continue to bake for another 10 or so minutes (i.e., until the crust is baked right through).  Remove the crust from the oven, trim the sides to make them uniform (this is a great trick, and another reason to have high sides on your pie crust), and keep it at hand because its almost magic time.

FILLING:

Ok…so the crust was a pain, but the filling is easy and satisfying.  Core and peel your apples, and cut them into quarters.  Do not cut the apples any smaller, or risk them dissolving away.  Heat your frying pan to medium heat and melt the butter completely.  Take the pan off the heat, mix in all of the sugar until dissolved (if you can’t get it 100% dissolved, don’t worry).

Place the apples in the pan with the curved side down, turn up the heat to high or medium-high (i.e., as high as possible without burning the caramel), and then let your apples bubble and caramelize away.  Keep an eye on the apples, however, to avoid having the caramel burn.  I also like to cover the pan for the first 6-8 minutes to make sure the apples get cooked.  Continue to cook until you have a nice, golden caramel covering your apples (about 12-14 minutes).  They should be like amber jewels.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER:

Once you have removed the crust from the oven, and the apples are ready, delicately arrange the caramelized apples in the crust, and then carefully pour the caramelized syrup over the apples.  Wait for the molten hot syrup to cool, bust out the vanilla ice cream, and eat your face off!

My second foray into the world of Dine Out Vancouver was to Miku, the aburi sushi-focused restaurant in downtown Vancouver.

Upon entering the restaurant – especially at night – one is struck by the warm atmosphere and sense of space.  The lighting is lovely and tasteful, and though there are a ton of tables, you never get the claustrophobic sense that they’re crammed together.  Even the cooks, who work behind the long counter, have ample room for them to ply their craft in full view of an appreciative public.

It is the style of sushi that really sets Miku apart from other sushi places.  A place with expertise in aburi (or “roasted”) sushi is a pretty sweet find.  Grilling the delicious variety of fish on the nigiri adds a great, smoky depth of flavour.  The quality and preparation of the rice is also expertly done by Miku’s skilled chefs.

Aka Miso Pork

Miku’s Dine Out Vancouver menu was very generous.  The appetizers (Tofu and Tomato Caprese, Nori Tempura Battered Crispy Ebi, Aka Miso Pork and Aburi Soy Daikon) were well thought out, providing a medley of tastes, texture, and temperatures.  The Aka Miso Pork stood out for me.  I thought it was wonderful the way that the sweetness of the succulent pork paired with the earthy sweetness of the red miso and slightly bitter daikon found at the bottom of this mound of joy.  The micro greens were a great touch, too.

10 Nigiri Main Course

The main course, which consisted of a number of 10 nigiri, was also plentiful.  Though each nigiri was expertly constructed, I was left to feel that there were simply too much going on in the case of one or two of them.  What might have been an attempt at creating various “layers” of flavour arguably ended up conflating them on a few occasions.

The final course (green tea éclair, orange vanilla sauce and yuzu orange sorbet) was original.  The yuzu orange sorbet was a great way to clean the palate after the meal, but the green tea éclair was not a success.

All along the meal, the food was admirably complimented by the sweet muscat wine, the surprisingly licorice-like sake, and sour-sweet nigori umeshu of the dinner alcohol “flight”.  Though it’s a $25 extra, this little booze parade is worth it.

As far as the service goes, I have to say that I spent the entire meal feeling that there was something “off”.  Maybe our waitress was having a bad night (goodness knows I had enough of those when I was in the service industry), or maybe it was the strange way the staff added the honorific “san” at the end of each others names (presumably to give it a more authentic Japanese feel?).  That said, the staff was working hard, zipping around the dining area and making sure that our tea cups were always full.  Kudos to them for their attention to detail.

I’m glad I came to Miku, but as of right now if I’m not sure I’ll be back any time soon.  Then again, just thinking of aburi sushi is making my mouth water…

Miku Restaurant on Urbanspoon

To me, the Bel Cafe makes sense.  This sleek and inviting cafe is at the bottom of the lovely and newly renovated Rosewood Hotel Georgia, and is a nice compliment to its neighbour, Hawksworth.

Drawn to the promise of a new cafe that sells macarons, my wife and I decided to give Bel Cafe a go.  My first impression was of a cafe that wanted to set itself apart from those competing in its weight class, e.g., Thierry and Thomas Haas.  Its staff was professionally dressed and tried very hard to hit that tricky mix of polite without sounding cold, and deferential without sounding weird.  The decor also possessed this same Janus-faced personality by being clean and uncluttered without feeling like an operating theatre.

Macaron!!

The coffee was good, though it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea (I like my coffee mellow and sweet) but if you like your coffee to be like an old sailor – bitter and strong – then this is the place for you.

The maracons were delicious.  We ordered a rose-flavoured macaron which was wonderfully fragrant and beautifully textured.  The sesame seed and yuzu macaron was similarly well executed, and its mix of earthiness and sourness was a nice backdrop to the strong coffee.  I thought that the macarons were a bit expensive, which is par for the course in the downtown peninsula, but given the entire “Bel Cafe” experience, I thought they were pretty good value.

As a whole, Bel Cafe charmed me with its attention to detail (notice their signature cups and plates), the quality of its products, and its tranquil atmosphere.  I’d recommend this little cafe, which has a quiet feel where its customers can sit comfortably out of the rain and watch the comings-and-goings of downtown Vancouverites.

Bel Cafe on Urbanspoon

I have lived a charmed life, and some of its summers were spent in France. Part of my healthy diet was chocolate…lots and lots of amazing, high octane chocolate. Despite my best efforts, rare were the chocolate places that stack up to the those childhood memories until I went to Thomas Haas in Vancouver.

Though I only spent a little time here, everything was amazing. The coffee was good, the atmosphere warm, the decor sleek, and the staff was very friendly. Mr. Haas was even behind the counter, smiling and laughing with clients.

Lemon Tart

On the menu for our little afternoon snack were two cakes. The first was a phenomenal lemon tart. The lemony taste was sharp and bright, and the smooth texture of the filling was beautifully contrasted by the (not too) crispness of the crust.

The second item was a pistachio sour cherry tart. This was also a real feast for the eyes and the palate. Again, the execution was great, and the tartness of the cherry was highlighted and tamed by the dessert’s sweet dimensions.

Pistachio Sour Cherry Tart

On a second visit, we also bought some pretty exceptional Thomas Haas chocolates. The quality of the chocolate was some of the best I’ve found in North America, and the balance of each chocolate’s flavours was a great pleasure. Each chocolate was like a glittering jewel that I found myself admiring for a few moments before my more primal instincts took hold and it disappeared.

We also bought a Stollen cake which was something to behold.

The only factor to keep in mind when visiting Thomas Haas’ stores is that they can be wildly busy. The first time I came here a line actually snaked out the door! If you can wait, however (and I strongly recommend that you do), you will not be disappointed. This may very well be the best chocolate and viennoiserie in the city.

Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates & Patisserie on Urbanspoon

“Dine Out Vancouver” is upon us, and not a moment too soon. The weather has been poor this week, and this can drive a man to drink…or eat…or both (ideally). That’s why I’m glad we got a “Dine Out Vancouver” reservation at L’Abattoir, the cozy little restaurant with a bloody good name.

Warm Steelhead and Potato Salad

My app was a lovely warm steel head and potato salad. The fish was lovely and succulent, which contrasted brilliantly with the crispy potatoes and the smokiness of the pork sprinkled in the salad for good measure. My wife had the gnocchi in a sabayon sauce which made me weep with pleasure.

Our mains were similarly amazing. I had a duck breast and leg meat sausage with buttered green cabbage and pan fried German noodles. The dish was tender and generous.

My wife’s homemade pasta stuffed with braised lamb shoulder roast tenderloin, ricotta cheese (which cut some of the richness of the meat) and tomato and onion pan gravy was also very good. To be honest, however, and despite the fact that all the ingredients were top notch and treated with great respect, I wondered how the dish would work if they removed half the ingredients. That said, each plate was very, very good.

In any event, the entire meal was lit by the warm glow of my new best friend: the Gassy Jack Flip. Anything with Wild Turkey in it can’t be beat.

The desserts, like the rest of the meal, were great. I had a very rich chocolate caramel bar with banana ice cream. Given the rich nature of the meal, however, I think my wife’s choice of the Earl Grey Pot de Creme with light-as-air whipped milk was the wiser choice.

L’Abattoir is a nice, cozy place – especially on a rainy Vancouver evening. The service is friendly and unpretentious, the ingredients fabulous, and it is relatively good value (though a proper meal will set you back at least $50/person). I would definitely come back here and recommend that if you haven’t made it down, that you give it a try.

L'Abattoir on Urbanspoon

I love being pleasantly surprised by a restaurant, and Italian Kitchen recently did that.  We were feeling a bit puckish on a sunny Saturday afternoon, thought we’d live dangerously and eat on Alberni Street in Vancouver.

Italian Kitchen has all the hallmarks of a pretentious, chi-chi restaurant and so I was a little skeptical about what I would expect.  All of my concerns, however, dissolved within about 5 minutes of settling in.

We were greeted warmly, seated immediately, and served some sparkling water as we reviewed the enormous (it was the unwieldy size of a small coffee table) menu.  We ordered a number of dishes which were brought to us very quickly.

Lobster-tastic Monte Cristo

I decided to splurge and have the lobster and crab monte cristo.  It was absolutely delicious.  The outside was crispy and the seafood inside was fabulous.  The sandwich was served with a delicious soup of the day, which was finished with truffle oil, and really balanced out the robust taste of the sandwich.

We also ordered spaghetti with meatballs.  Again, Italian Kitchen’s cooks knocked this meal out of the park.  The pasta was amazing, the sauce was delicious, and the meatballs were succulent and well-seasoned.  My sense is that they make their own pasta (my wife saw a room full of noodles being made when she went to wash her hands) which was certainly appreciated.

Delicious Spaghetti and Meatballs

The service was also quite good (despite one waitress being unusually intense) with our main waiter being attentive without being fussy.  It was also very “democratic”, in that we were given the same professional service as movie star Terrance Howard who was sitting a table away.

Though Italian Kitchen is a bit overpriced, it’s well worth going to.

 Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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