Sunday, February 14, 2010

Restaurant review: Red Sea Cafe

Communal dining at the Red Sea Cafe.

East Vancouver has an odd concentration of Ethiopian restaurants. There are two in two blocks on Commercial Drive (Harare and the Addis Cafe), both of which I've enjoyed. Now further west in Mt. Pleasant, we've still got a few options, as there are two more in two blocks near Fraser and Broadway, an intersection that conjures up images of dirty East Van but has been slowly undergoing some revitalization. Fassil is just east, and the Red Sea Cafe is just west. A brief exchange at On The Bone led me to seek out Red Sea, and while it wasn't spectacular, it was enjoyable.

For those of you that haven't tried Ethiopian or Eritrean cuisine, I highly recommend the experience. It's simple, communal eating, with vegie or meat dishes piled on top of injera, a sourdough crepe-like bread. You rip off a piece of injera, uses it to scoop up some food, and pop it into your mouth.

All the food is rich and creamy. The vegie dishes are some legume in a butter and spice sauce, the meat dishes a bit more oily and spicy. It's hard to know what the flavours are; ginger, chili, garlic, others. Red Sea is nearly identical to Harare and Addis. The vegie dishes are a little less exciting, but the meat dishes were more tasty. Nothing surprised, though we didn't try the raw meat dishes. For $30-35, the vegie/meat combo for three was quite filling (two meat and three vegie dishes on a huge plate of injera with extra injera on the side).

Fassil's menu looks a little more enticing: I really want to know what the white food is, because I haven't seen it at the other three:

The crepe-like injera is slightly sour, nicely chewy, and a perfect utensil.

Red Sea Cafe
670 East Broadway at Fraser

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Campagnolo part two: the family-style dinner

Digging in to the pork ragu tagliarini. So tender.

To celebrate my birthday in style, we decided to go to Campagnolo, fine-dining northern Italian, with two friends. When we were there for brunch a short while ago, I noticed that they serve family-style if you want (only for tables of four or six), meaning the kitchen cooks for you for a fixed price, either $30 or $40 per person. Knowing that we would likely spend that much anyway, I thought it would be a fun way to go through their menu.

N and I have been before, but just after it first opened in December 2008 and we couldn't remember what we'd had, and they've changed their menu (no more carne cruda, unfortunately). For a great review of the place when it first opened, see On The Bone, an excellent Vancouver food blog.

Our server (who was excellent and quite friendly) brought us our wine (a wonderful Cusumano Nero d'Avola from Sicily) and some cheese sticks. The wine menu is excellent, and priced better than one might expect given the food prices.

Our antipasti quickly followed: sliced cured meats, tuna crudo (raw albacore), an arugula salad, fried chickpeas, olives with hazelnuts. Delightful. All their cured meats (and sausage) are homemade. The tuna was perfect, and the cured meats were top notch. Top notch, I say.

A pizza was next, with sausage and arugula and parmesan. Excellent. Then the primi. A pork ragu tagliarini that was a joy, every bite so tender, one of the best dishes of the evening. The arlecchino (bow-tie pasta) with fennel sausage and kale was too dry but still quite good. The mushroom risotto was earthy and comforting.

Tender chicken and slightly rubbery halibut.

For secondi we had a nice piece of Polderside chicken, some sliced steak and a piece of halibut. At this point we were quite full, but these dishes didn't impress as much. The steak was very good, the chicken was very rich and tender, but the halibut was overdone. A side order of potatoes was superflous at that point.

Delicious blood orange panna cotta and and slightly odd pineapple cake.

Vanilla panna cotta with blood orange compote and crushed hazelnuts was almost too much after all the rich food. The pineapple cake with Italian meringue didn't seem to fit, but was nice and moist.

Cappuccinos capped off what was the best meal I've had in a long time. I hope to return soon, once we've saved a bit.

1020 Main St. (just north of the bus station).
5pm till late seven days a week

Campagnolo part one: Saturday brunch

The delicious braised pork belly crepes. Whoever came
up with this dish deserves thanks.

It was my birthday a short while ago, and we decided to try Campagnolo again. I'll leave that for Campagnolo part two, but while we were browsing their menus, I noticed that they did brunch, and at very reasonable prices considering the quality they put out for dinner.

The menu is very short: only seven items, with four sides. They offer three different frittatas ($9 - $10.50) and four other breakfasts, or colazione ($11 - $12). Each main comes with one side, or contorni.

The frittata with pancetta, spinach and goat cheese looked too good to pass up. With a side of roasted potatoes, it didn't disappoint. The frittata itself was a little flat, but the pancetta (Italian bacon) was perfectly crispy. The potatoes could have been a little more flavourful, but they were still quite good.

Eggs with tomato on country bread.

My friend tried the frittata with potato, fontina and black pepper, and was quite pleased. The eggs with tomatoes on country bread was quite large (3 eggs) and looked delicious. But the winner of the morning was definitely the braised pork belly crepes (crespelle) with mushroom cream sauce. Tender pork, rich sauce, light crepes... delicious. I am really looking forward to a return visit.

The spare yet warm interior.

1020 Main St. (just north of Terminal)
Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 - 2:30

Friday, January 22, 2010

Restaurant review: Eating at the Libra Room

N and I went to the Libra Room tonight to hear a string quartet play some Shostakovich. I know, what? He's a Russian composer that I had only read about, but our friends R and J were interested so we agreed. R pulled out (something about touring NYC with his band... guess he missed out on Shostakovich), so the three of us went to enjoy an evening of modern classical music at what is normally a jazz-ish bar.

We started with a drink. The wine list is full of cheap drinkers that didn't appeal. I went for beer: Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly is a lovely wheat beer in the German tradition. N had some forgettable shiraz. I have no idea what J had. Like I said, cheap drinkers.

I ordered the southwest pork tenderloin with polenta, salsa and refried beans (of which I was nervous) for $14, N opted for a beet salad to start ($8) and the sable fish with purple potato mash and green pea puree($15), and J went for the steak with puff pastry potatoes au gratin and grilled tomatoes and eggplant ($19). The lamb sounded good (anything wrapped in prosciutto will taste pretty good), but for $25 I'll eat lamb elsewhere.

I'm not overawed with the kitchen's ability to put out a pork tenderloin. The pork itself was a bit bland (though nicely tender), the polenta was a touch too crispy (when polenta gets too crispy it's just chewy), and the refried beans came out of a can, I'm pretty sure. Still, for $14 I've had burgers that were worse than this. I wouldn't order it again, but I would try something else on the menu.

I tried a piece of steak, and it was decent. I hope the sides were better. The sable fish looked very good, though I didn't try it. N's beet salad looked quite good, with a generous dollop of chevre.

All in all, not a great dining experience. The Libra Room is not a place to go strictly for food, though they are trying to make it so. The menu has been improved, and you can tell that the chef is trying to offer interesting meals. They're just not pulling them off that well. It's decent for the price, and hopefully they will improve.

The real reason to go to the Libra Room is the music, which tonight was horrible at times, and merely good if uninspiring for the remainder. A Shostakovich string quartet is not your mother's classical music, I'll tell you that much. Moody, amelodic (unmelodic?), punctuated by sharp bursts of minor notes... pleasing dinner music this wasn't. It is, however, one of the only places I know that has live music seven days a week, and for that it deserves our support (even though I've heard there are rumblings about how they treat musicians). I'll come back the next time a friend's band is playing, order a beer, and maybe try the fish.

Libra Room
1608 Commercial Drive
5 - 1 seven days a week (and usually later on the weekend)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Vij's on a Friday night

I was the lucky recipient of a surprise dinner at Vij's last night (many thanks to the lovely N and J, and to S for companionship). Everything you've heard is true: it's packed, the wait is fun (no reservations), the service is excellent, the food is amazing, and Vij is a brilliant host.

We started off the evening at Bin 942, the second Bin. This Vancouver stalwart is going strong, with an excellent selection of wines and tasty tapas. We tried a few different wines; the Chateau St. Michelle Riesling ($7/glass) was a hit, and Tinhorn Pinot Gris ($8 and slightly orange from leaving the skins on) was also tasty. It gladdens my dining heart when the cheaper glasses are recommended. The $10 malbec was also good, and I'm glad to have finally found one I enjoy. Popcorn with truffle oil was a little too salted but helped stave off hunger while we waited. The service was excellent (though N might argue that I just had a crush on the bartender).

At Vij's we settled into the waiting area and were quickly offered some tasters. We ordered some drinks, which the staff attach to your table (so much better than having to settle with a bartender after waiting at the bar for a table). Vij came over to check on how we were doing, and to see how our time elsewhere went. Apparently he had met our friends while they put their name down, recommended a place for drinks, and was checking to see if they'd followed his recommendations. Attentive: check.

The ladies ordered for the table as anticipation grew. Vij asked if we were chilly (courteous: check) and how busy Bin was (professional: check). We were going to order a sweeter German white to go with the spicy food, but I spied Joie Farm's A Noble Blend, touted as one of the best BC whites. I asked Vij if it would go well, and he effusively agreed (okay, now I'm just gushing). The wine was truly excellent, and the mark-up was under 100%.

The food arrived in batches, first some naan, then a seafood dish with spot prawns (frozen from May, I'm sure, but still good), the creamiest saag paneer I've ever tasted, and the amazing lamb popsicles in a lovely sauce that was both creamy and tangy (which N just told me she would drink cups of if made available). After discussing how the lamb recipe is in Vij's cookbook and is perfectly rendered, the waitress told us how happy she was to discover that the recipe is in Vij's cookbook and is perfectly rendered.
The aforementioned lamb popsicles, wine-marinated, in a fenugreek
cream curry on turmeric spinach potatoes. A true delight.

After dinner chai was complimentary, the service was excellent, and the setting was perfect. The busy room never felt claustrophobic, food arrived quickly but staggered perfectly. Vij was a wonderful host, and we ate the best Indian food in the city. I'm already looking forward to a return visit.

1480 West 11th at Granville
dinner served from 5:30 - no reservations

Bin 942
1521 West Broadway at Granville
5 - 2 daily

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Homemade granola

You can see that I don't keep the tidiest kitchen all the time. This was around 11pm,
and I just didn't want to clean before I started baking.

While in Toronto in December I saw that my friend had made granola. Over the past year I've thought about it, said we should do it, and then nothing. The other day I decided to get off my ass and make some granola, like we used to when I was a kid. I grabbed the Rebar cookbook off the shelf (thanks, Bex, still got it) and got to work.

Well, got to buying ingredients, anyway. The making didn't happen until midnight-ish, because neither my lovely girlfriend nor I could sleep, and I decided to make the most of my time. It was oddly satisfying to stay up making granola. Here's the recipe from Rebar, a lovely little vegetarian restaurant in Victoria that people love.

3 c large flake oats
1 1/2 c barley flakes
1/2 c oat bran
1 cup unsweetened coconut
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 c pumpkin seeds
1/2 c sunflower seeds

1/2 c veg oil
1/4 c water
2/3 c maple syrup or honey
1 tsp vanilla

1 c dried cranberries
1/2 c dried blueberries

Dry and liquids. Warm water means the honey mixes more easily.

Mix the first eight ingredients. Whisk together four wet ingredients. Combine the two thoroughly. Bake on two cookie sheets for about 30 min, stirring occasionally to ensure even baking. Add fruit and store.

This is actually with only half the granola, but it looked so pretty.

I made a few changes: Almonds instead of hazelnuts, some cashews, only a few pumpkin seeds, raisins instead of blueberries, and no coconut. I used honey, and warm water makes it easier to mix the liquid ingredients. And just like that, a big can of homemade granola. So simple, and so rewarding.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Restaurant review: Habit

I just grabbed this from their site, as I didn't think to take pictures.
Looks like a pretty good shepherd's pie.

Last might my lovely girlfriend and I had dinner at the newly done Habit at 10th and Main. It reopened a short while ago after a lengthy period of renovations after a nasty fire closed it down. I didn't eat at the first incarnation, but I heard good things. It advertises itself so:
Lounge - Bar - Modern Canadian Food.

A quick glance at the menu shows a limited but intriguing selection of appetizers and mains, and some mouthwatering desserts. Of the appetizers, the cod cakes look good, as do the sweet carrot and brie perogies. We weren't too hungry, though, so only ordered a main each. The first thing that caught our eyes was the tuna casserole. They also offer a lamb meatloaf, veggie* shepherd's pie, some grilled fish, steak, brisket and a pork tenderloin. Both my girlfriend and I wanted the tuna casserole, but I thought that for a first time at a new restaurant we should mix it up a bit, and was leaning towards the pork tenderloin (but hesitating over pineapple chutney; I would prefer fig, maybe) when the extremely friendly server told us about the duck confit special, and I was sold.

It came with fried spinach, mushroom and bacon, and amazing gratin potatoes. They were the highlight of the dish, to be sure. The duck itself tasted beautiful and was perfectly done, but too salty even for confit.

N's tuna casserole was pretty perfect. It tasted like really, really good tuna casserole, which is exactly what it's meant to be. It didn't try to be too fancy, using high quality ingredients to make a wonderfully simple dish.

The dessert menu came with the information that the owner's mother makes them all fresh (though not the cheese plate from Mount Pleasant Cheese Shop). I was tempted by the pineapple upside-down cake, a childhood favourite, and the lemon meringue tart with strawberry sauce sounds pretty good, but the chocolate brownie with mocha ice cream, honeyed walnuts, whipped cream and caramel was the first choice of us both.

And it was a good choice. It's hard to go wrong with a brownie, but the quality shone through. The walnuts were perfect, not too sweet, the ice cream was a delight, and the brownie was rich without being cloying.

The drink menu is varied: great beer selection, very interesting do-it-yourself retro cocktails, decent wine selection, and an entire page of Canadian whiskies. Yes, you read that correctly. I'm not a huge fan of rye, so it's not a selling point for me at all. I don't care how you describe it, Canadian Club is , and I'm not going to order it just because it says that it has a caramel palate. We tried a more expensive one a while ago when there just for drinks (I forget which), and it was decent, but nothing special. I've since tried Tangle Ridge, which they offer, and quite enjoyed it.

Comfortable, relaxing, and welcoming.

The new decor is clean and warming. It's a bit too loungey for my liking, but it's a lounge, so... Our server was excellent, very friendly, very informative. It was a bit chilly, but that might have been me still getting over a cold. It's a very congenial atmosphere, no one rushing around, a mid-level hum in the room never overpowering our own conversation.

The website that I'm using to help write this is functional and clear, but uses pdf menus, something that is really bothersome at times. Yes, you have to code in a few more pages instead of just writing a word doc and converting it to a pdf, but for my money it's worth the trouble.

Habit will definitely see my expectant smiling face again. Hell, I'll return just for the service and those potatoes.

Habit Lounge
2610 Main Street @10th
5-12:30, 5-1 on the weekend, 5-11 on Sunday.

* Veggie with two g's always bothers me. I really don't see the need. How many of you thought Reggie was pronounced Regg-ee as a child?