Category Archives: Restaurants

Order Your Lunch by Number

Have you ever been to a neighbourhood Asian restaurant for lunch? I bet you’ve at least seen one in a movie… they are not necessarily small, but simple in decor. The menus are voluminous, going on for page after page of delicacy. Much of the English is often translated a bit funny, which makes you wonder what food ingredient they really mean in the description of dishes. If you’re lucky, there are pictures. If not, you have to look at what others are having and point. The best thing to do is just order by number, because you are often not sure of the name.

sometimes it’s a bit baffling, with so many choices. And just what do they mean by “bean curd skin”??

When I lived in Calgary I first went to a Vietnamese place on the edge of downtown on the recommendation of a friend. (This was long before Trip Advisor.)  I learned what a vermicelli bowl was (delicious!) and the difference between spring rolls and salad rolls (30 years ago, who knew that?!)    I discovered Vietnamese coffee here and thought I had found nirvana. But all of that happened over time, as I got used to the place and what the dishes were all about.

Despite trying  a number of  tasty items, my favourite quickly became a number 66. It was a bowl of vermicelli noodles with julienned carrots, cucumbers and green onions, along with some bean sprouts, grilled chicken slices or beef on a skewer, and pork belly, and a spring roll chopped into pieces. It was served with a little bowl of vinaigrette, a couple of lime wedges and a few sprigs of Thai basil.

I learned that the best way to attack this dish was to combine everything:

  • tear up the basil leaves and toss them in the bowl
  • pour the vinaigrette over the noodles
  • squeeze the lime over the meat
  • add a well-distributed amount of sriracha over the whole mess
  • mix well with your chopsticks

The result was mouthfuls of refreshing, bold flavours with the exciting textures of veggies, meat and noodles and all of the possible tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and even umami). It was a masterpiece in a bowl.

For ten years this was a cherished meal. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the place; we just used to say, “Want to go for a number 66?” We had to change our slang when they renovated – it became a 55, but that and some new paint on the walls was all that changed. Then I moved away.

Thankfully, Kelowna has a few Vietnamese neighbourhood restaurants. I really like Pho Soc Trang. It’s amazingly similar, even being on the second floor like my old haunt in Calgary. The recipe is not exactly the same, but pretty close – it’s a number 61 here. They don’t serve the fresh Thai basil and lime, but the complex textures and flavours are still the best way to chase away the blues, or a cold, or even just clear the cobwebs in my head after a busy week.

My next step is to de-mystify “pho”, the now trendy Vietnamese noodle soup. I’ve had it a few times and would like to master how to enjoy it.

Isn’t it funny how something so unfamiliar can become a cozy friend? All it takes is a bit of trust and a sense of adventure. Go figure.

 

You win some, you lose some… and some you get rained out

I remember this expression from my childhood, and it has applied in so many situations I long ago lost count. Everyone likes to win at something, but quickly we learn that we won’t win every time. For there to be a winner there also has to be a loser. You wouldn’t have a game otherwise. But it’s the times when you can’t seem to win no matter what that can be the toughest. Matters beyond your control stop the game mid-stream, and you have to change things up to continue. Such is life, or as the French put it,

C’est la vie.

I’ve been in this kind of situation in the kitchen when I did movie catering. I remember the first time I cooked brownies for 100 people on a catering truck while parked on a steep hill. I had to think fast when they came out of the oven – there was a thicker end to the baking pan of batter that was a big brownie (more like cake) and a thinner end that was more like a biscotti. I could not choose “game over” as an option, the cast and crew had to have dessert. So I iced the thick half and dusted the thin half with icing sugar. I cut the pieces smaller and served up a choice: chocolate wacky cake AND biscotti. It worked, even though it wasn’t the original game plan. I did make a note to myself to prop up the pan the next time we cooked on a hill, though. When you get rained out, you learn a lot.

We got rained out tonight for dinner. We were supposed to meet friends at a local restaurant to catch up on all our news, as we hadn’t seen each other in months. We wanted a place on the Westside so it would be close for all of us. She made reservations.

We pulled up first and found the restaurant closed up. We knew it wasn’t open for lunch and we had arrived early… we checked the website and it said they were closed Mondays. So we texted our friend; perhaps she had made a mistake when reserving? She and her partner pulled up a few moments later, and she told us she had specifically asked if they were open since the website said otherwise. The staff said of course and took her booking.

when things don’t look good, we try to think outside the box and see other options.

Growing up with parents who worked in the movie industry meant I learned the motto, “Be Prepared” long before I was a Girl Guide. My hubbie is just as adaptable having spent years in a hot kitchen. We are always prepared for rain. (If we ever ended up on a show like Amazing Race, I think we would do really well.)

It took only a minute or so before we had come to a consensus. Many small restaurants are not open Monday, something we can sympathize with since we know weekends are the busy days. We brainstormed and quickly found someplace close that was open and headed out.

So I’m sorry, Thai Fusion , but I can’t offer any commentary about your experience. It’s a shame, as we don’t get out that often and I like to support small businesses. Unfortunately since part of my expertise lies in customer service I have to say that you did lose out when you had a staff member so out of it they never realized even after taking a reservation that they booked clients for a night you’re not open. You missed an opportunity to win.

As a result, 19 Okanagan Grill and Bar got our business tonight. They welcomed us with open arms and smiles, and took good care of us all evening. The drinks were fun and tasty; my Pineapple Ginger Margarita was the perfect beverage for reminiscing about my Mexican holiday. The food was hot and full of flavours. I had plenty of fish tacos in Mexico, and I already know theirs are good so I chose the Butter Chicken Bowl. I was pleased with the abundance of veggies, chicken and rice; the hot naan bread was a perfect accompaniment. My hubbie said his Cajun Burger was just right too, with a good kick of heat, fresh lettuce and tomato and hot fries. Our friends were both happy too – apparently the Caesar cocktails are at least as good as the Margaritas.

I’m glad I was able to support a neighbourhood business tonight. I am thankful that we got some quality time with friends, and a fun memory to share. Thanks, 19, for keeping us out of the rain. You’re a winner in my eyes. I’m sure we’ll see you again soon.

Master of cheap eats

I’m making a quick entry tonight – nothing fancy, but certainly worth noting. 

We got stuck in the dinner rush last night and ended up wandering through town looking for a place to grab a bite. Finally we hit upon a redneck Mecca – Guy Fieri’s Kitchen and Bar. It’s not what you’d call a local place, featuring more hamburgers and Mac n’ cheese than tacos and ceviche. But it does have some Mexican dishes and it is a solid concept. (If you don’t know of Guy Fieri, he’s a celebrity chef known for his road trips featuring hole-in-the-wall restaurants that offer down-home dishes with their own flair. His TV show, “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives” – or Triple D as his fans call it – is a favourite with Canadian and American foodies that love low-brow food.)

We tried to stay in theme, so I had tortilla soup and Martin has ancho lime wings with the seasoned fries. All of it was tasty, hot and fresh – they hit the spot. After all, what more can you ask of comfort food?


Then just to really top the night off, we shared the churros which come warm with Mayan chocolate and dulce de leche dipping sauces. Sheer heaven! 


It wasn’t cheap by usual Mexican standards but it was cheaper than the prices at his Vegas or New York location, I would bet. The server mentioned their new spot will be in Dubai – another place expats will likely enjoy a taste of home, not to mention those curious about American comfort food. 

I want to talk more about simple food done right in future posts – a meal doesn’t always have to be impressive or innovative to be spectacular. Sometimes you just want to be satisfied in a heartening sort of way. I know I went to bed with a happy tummy last night! 

Jamaican Foodie Paradise

Whenever my husband Martin and I go on holidays, we are excited to try new food experiences. The last few years in Jamaica we have been lazy and relegated our enthusiasm to within the walls of the resort. We did enjoy trying local fruits, and traditional dishes like curried goat, jerk chicken and gizzadas (coconut tarts), but this year I wanted to kick things up a notch and rub elbows with some local foodies. I did an online search and found Zimbali Retreat, iPhone download Feb 22 2016 430a small property in the hills above Negril that offered a demo cooking class and tour of their organic farm garden. It seemed right up our alley! I was excited and invited a couple we know who are also foodies. They had shared our Vegas experiences so I figured they would like this taste of Jamaica. We had no idea just how much fun we were going to have…

We arrived at the gate after a bumpy ride up a narrow road that bordered sugar cane plantations and an old stone church.   iPhone download Feb 22 2016 427Martin was afraid we were going to have to carry the car or abandon it if the potholes got any bigger or the road got any narrower. The sugar cane stalks knocked along the side of the car as we drove through plantation land, and as we mounted the hill a local dog lying at the edge of the road didn’t even look up. It was only a half hour drive, but I felt as though I’d been transported to another place.  A short walk down a palm-covered pathway revealed mahogany beams that covered a cozy kitchen and airy sitting room, all overlooking the farm below. I felt a bit like I was visiting the Swiss Family Robinson on their deserted island! We were served a refreshing sorrel ginger drink while we cooled off. Just as we finished our last sip our tour guide arrived.

Clifford, who has been at Zimbali since the beginning (9 years ago), led us over much of the 6 acre terrain, stopping every hundred steps or so to show us another plant, most of which provided some benefit for the kitchen. We saw banana and coconut trees, pineapple plants, Caribbean oranges and grapefruits, June plums, star fruit, lemongrass, annatto, turmeric and ginger roots, breadfruit, all kinds of pumpkins and zucchini squash, beans, and then the crowning glory – noni fruit. This fruit is highly regarded as having great healing powers; the juice is said to be a cure-all. The bees on the farm love it too, said Clifford. Noni bloosom honey is his favourite.

Clifford showed us the right way to crack open a coconut (hit the 3 corners of the outer shell), and he told us about using cinnamon leaves in cooking. We learned that the bark of the mahogany trees was used to make the rich reddish-brown dye still common in Caribbean textiles. He showed us the massive African tulip trees taking over wild sections of the jungle, and how the rain brings on mango season (in May), when the fruit is so plentiful it sits in piles by side of the roads! The gardener in me was trying valiantly to remember everything he said as I tasted and smelled and strained my neck to see in every direction, absorbing every detail.

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a June plum tree, with the blossoms that will turn into the refreshing tangy fruit often used for juice

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here Clifford showed us the mahogany tree. One of the staff is returning to the kitchen with oranges.

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work on the terraced section of the garden, where squash and bananas are being planted

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annatto seeds from an achiote bush, used in cooking to impart colour and a slightly nutty & peppery taste.

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fresh turmeric root – from that brown patch. They grow ginger too, in the same way.

the noni tree, a source of great nutrients. Sometimes called uglifruit.

Martin smelling fresh lemon grass

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did you know banana trees only grow one stem of bananas? Then another tree starts beside it for the next batch of fruit.

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pineapple plants take 10 months to grow a mature fruit

 

 

 

On our return from the tour we met the owners of the resort, Alecia & Mark. Alecia grew up in these hills, and learned much from her grandfather about the land and its secrets. She is a Rastafarian and has been all her life. Mark grew up in a military family and his travels as a youth gave him a desire for understanding cultures and experiencing life on a more simple scale. Both of them are “living the dream”, existing almost off the grid with solar power and the harnessing of rain water, not to mention that the farm provides about 70% of their food. This is not just an agritourism resort, it is a lifestyle, and their passion and sense of inner peace is evident when you talk with them.

We returned to the lodge dripping in sweat from the humidity. It didn’t matter. A quick splash of water on my face and a few sips of water and I was ready to get to the kitchen. Zimbali’s two chefs, Raymond and Rudolph,  were already hard at work of course, and their counter was almost overflowing with the bounty from the farm. We were truly spoiled as it was only us and our friends there that day. We saddled up to the bar to watch, learn and eat.

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the bounty awaits! fresh farm veggies on the kitchen counter

The first course was a breaded fritter that was juicy and delicate, green in colour. It was served with an escovitch, a Jamaican pickle made with onions & peppers in a chili vinegar brine.  Raymond asked us to guess what kind of vegetable he had used on the fritter and we thought we had it – zucchini! Nope, he said, guess again. It was the person in the group who is least a foodie who nailed it – green tomatoes. Not as firm as our green tomatoes and not as tangy, rather velvety soft and slightly sweet in contrast to the pickle. The sorrel reduction that garnished the plate was the crowning glory, refreshing and tart.

fried green tomatoes, Jamaican style

fried green tomatoes, Zimbali style

The next course was a sort of cake, like a crab cake but made with vegetables again, said Rudolph. Again we were stumped – cassava? No. Yam? (They had real yams as well as sweet potato on the counter, two very different things, and both used often in a Jamaican kitchen. Sweet potatoes are orange, yams are white – more fibery, not as sweet.) No. They gave us a few hints and we finally figured out it was cauliflower. It tasted much richer than I imagined cauliflower ever could, and was served with a banana purée and a sort of tropical succotash of corn, peppers and tropical fruit. It was delectable.

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

We were able to choose our main course, and I picked jerk shrimp, while Martin chose escovitch fish. Our friends had curried shrimp. They were all intensely flavoured and beautifully tender, and were served with a quick coleslaw, veggies in a seasoned coconut milk and a green plantain and banana rosti (shredded and pan-fried in a patty). Everything was prepared as we watched, even the coconut milk – we saw the coconut opened, the meat cut out and then shredded in the food processor, and the milk squeezed through a strainer.

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my Jerk shrimp, with banana & plantain rosti, coleslaw and veggies in coconut curry

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Rudolph & Raymond plate the main course

But wait, there was dessert too! I groaned under the weight of lunch, but my enthusiasm kicked in. How could I miss out on a slice of Raymond’s banana rum cake with caramelized melons & papaya? The cake had no eggs but was not heavy, rather silky with a hint of Jamaican spices (allspice, ginger, nutmeg). Raymond explained that he had long ago mastered baking without eggs, as he doesn’t eat them himself. His skill was evident in the finesse of the final product. It was the perfect end to a real gourmand afternoon.

Raymond's rum cake

Raymond’s rum cake

We hugged the chefs to show our appreciation and thanked our hosts profusely for their hospitality, all wishing we could return to stay and soak up the relaxing vibe. (I think on my next visit I might like to stay and experience a massage, yoga class, and a Rasta Tour!)

We hardly noticed the bumps in the road on the way back, being lulled into a sense of total relaxation after our retreat visit. Rain drummed on the car windows as the scenery went by in a blur. By the time we returned to our resort I had my second wind and was happy to tell anyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t seem to care) about what fun we had. I felt I had sampled a true taste of the tropics along with a healthy dose of Jamaican hospitality and respect, and having enjoyed it I was proudly displaying my enthusiasm like it was a diploma of achievement.

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Food You Want to Eat Naked

Okay, that got your attention, didn’t it? The expression was one used by a friend on our recent trip to Vegas, where we enjoyed a number of meals that were absolutely wonderful. I think what she meant to convey was that feeling you have when something is so close to perfect it makes you hold your breath. There is a euphoria that comes over you as you soak in the experience. I’ll try to show you what I mean with my next few posts. I will start with the classic foodie “wow” and then proceed with other special experiences.

One night we booked at a restaurant owned by a chef my husband has followed since he started working in kitchens. For 30 years Martin has been looking through Joel Robuchon’s cookbooks and following his restaurant endeavours. Of course, Chef Robuchon was not in the kitchen the night we were there, but his touch was in every dish. A kitchen that arranges salad leaves with tweezers is not your everyday kind of place.

We really wanted to sample a range of items, so we booked at L’Atelier, where the a la carte menu is larger.The kitchen is open so that you can see much of the work as it happens. There is also the potential to spend a little bit less money, although this is not a cheap evening. But then like I said, we don’t eat like this every day!

We all chose a few courses, and decided to have wine with dinner. As we sat marveling at the room with all its food displays, we truly felt in the presence of greatness. The sense of anticipation was exciting.

LAtelier de Joel Robuchon Vegas

They set the tone with an “amuse bouche” and boy, was this first taste amusing! A parfait with foie gras and milk foam. Not for the faint at heart, certainly, but that’s one of the reasons we work out, after all.

Robuchon amuse

My first course was “Soy glazed kampachi with endive salad and light mustard dressing”. Kampachi, or kingfish, is a beautifully tender and flaky white fish. The glaze was perfectly balanced with the dressing in the salad, both providing intense flavours to lift the more delicate fish and salad but not overpower them. Robuchon kampachiMartin had a classic dish, “Traditionally poached chilled duck foie gras”. It was served simply with a few toast points that were perfectly crisped. Robuchon foie grasSuch decadence is almost enough to make one feel guilty, it’s so enjoyable…At least with your clothes on! But we had only just begun.

We went on to our second courses, and our friends had similar moans of delight with their dishes. How could pork chops be so delectable? Martin’s Crispy langoustine fritters with basil pesto” was ethereal they were so crispy. I had “veal sweetbread with fresh laurel and stuffed romaine lettuce”… yes, stuffed lettuce! I adore sweetbreads, and they are not an item on many menus. They were crispy on the outside and deliciously melt-in-my-mouth rich and smooth on the inside. The lettuce had a complimentary savoury flavour to it, I believe created by the foam they had made for it. I was in heaven. Robuchon ris de veau

But there was still more. The service team would be gliding back in to deliver more delights. They were practically invisible until we needed them, and their knowledge of the food was impeccable.

 

For the last savoury course, I chose “Caramelized quail stuffed with foie gras served with mashed potato”. Martin had “Maine lobster salad with a sherry vinegar dressing”. Our friends enjoyed a sea bass in a coconut curry (poured over the fish at the table, enveloping us all in its exotic aroma), and more foie gras (why not!) My quail was exquisite, delicate and rich at the same time with the foie gras stuffing and the potatoes that were whipped within an inch of their life. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, eating this miniature dish. Martin’s lobster was prepared “a la minute”; you could practically smell the sea air. We hummed as we ate, we were so contented.

Robuchon quail Robuchon lobster

 

Of course, I could not leave without having dessert. And really, at such a place, why not order the souffle? “Green chartreuse soufflé, pistachio cream” was the description on the menu. I was completely intrigued. It is prepared to order, so we sipped the last of our wine as it cooked, and then had just started stirring our cappuccinos as it arrived, like a piece of art to a museum exhibition. The ice cream was in a frozen ceramic egg, and the souffle was still rising as it arrived I’m sure. We all gasped in awe as it was set down.  Robuchon dessertI took the first bite of souffle, and drifted away on a cloud with the elegant texture and subtle liqueur flavours in my mouth. The ice cream was an exciting contrast to taste, being richer and cold versus hot. I felt as though I had just watched the grand finale at a Broadway show. I was completely satiated.

We spent hundreds of dollars for dinner that night, and it was worth every penny. It’s not something we do often, but that’s okay, because the memories last a lifetime. To share the evening with friends who were equally as interested and impressed with the experience was also a real treat.

Cheers to the fellow foodies out there who love this kind of stuff. For anyone who thinks I’m a bit nuts, well I hope you can appreciate this as an enthusiastic hobby, just like a football fan or a keen scrap-booker 🙂

 

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