“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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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