Sherman's Food Adventures: September 2011

Pair Bistro

*Restaurant is now closed*

With all the great bistros we have in Vancouver, there are some that get lost in the shuffle. It is especially true if they are not situated at a central location. Pair Bistro out on 10th at Alma would not be the usual choice for many people partly because where it is situated and also the fact it is not really that well-known either. Hey, if it weren't for Mijune, I would be one of those people! Heck, I've driven by this place so many times and probably walked past it too! Shows how observant I am... Meeting up for a meal with Costanza and Elaine, we were seated on the small outdoor patio. Funny how we seemed to attract all types of insects as a few bees were very interested in our food. But it wasn't as funny as the spider that kept sliding down on its web from the front awning. I swear it was trying to sample all of our dishes! Wait, that would be me too. Am I an annoying spider??? Well, Viv does say I'm too busy with my hands... Er... TMI!

As for the aforementioned food, we were first presented with a small Amuse Bouche consisting of watercress, sour cherry dressing and tomar cheese. This was very simple and light with a bit of peppery notes, zing and nuttiness from the cheese. For her starter, Elaine decided on the Wild Mushroom Latte topped with truffle oil and asiago tuille served on the side. This tiny cup of soup really packed quite the flavour punch. It was as if we did a face plant into the ground from the Earthiness provided by the mushroom and truffle oil (as stated by everyone at the table). For me, I thought woodsy would be a better description. It felt like I was licking the bottom of the forest floor, in a good way that is. It was actually the right size due to the creaminess. Not sure if one could have a bigger serving of the soup. On the topic of creamy, the Saltwater Chowder with Gallo Mussels, Savoury Clams, Wild Boar Bacon and Chilliwack Corn Potato Cream was visually appealing and rich. The cream "soup" was really thick and sweet. There was so little of it, I'm not sure if it qualified as a soup or chowder. It was more like a creamy sauce which benefited from sweetness of corn and the smokiness of the boar bacon. The Mirepoix (without the onions) was vibrant and still slightly crisp. Love the use of mussels and clams in the shell. They were plump and sweet.

Costanza ended up with a First Nations classic in the Native BC Bannock Bread with cottage made preserves and cedar jelly. I've had many versions of bannock including my own and I'd have to say this one was pretty darn good. It was fried perfectly (not being too greasy) with a dense, yet still fluffy interior. These were served pipping hot and went well with the jelly. We only wished we had more jelly! This was a very filling "appetizer" and really should be shared with others. Can't imagine dusting that all off and then being able to eat a whole meal! Wait, I forgot, Mijune could probably do that. As if that was filling enough, Viv's Fraser Valley Duck and Apricot Pate was equally heavy for an appie. Served on the side were dried figs and apricots as well as La Baguette artisan bread on another plate. Not that the pate was particularly heavy, rather, it was a fairly large portion with plenty of accompanying bread. The pate was pretty smooth with the occasional apricot which gave out a nice sweet burst and a touch of texture. There was a delicious duckiness which was not gamy. The dried fruit was disappointing though. It was very hard to chew through the fig since it was quite hard and dry.

Moving onto the mains, I had the Peace Region Bison Ribs with wild blackberry BBQ sauce, Chilliwack corn bread and radish slaw. The slow braised ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender. Now, to be accurate, they weren't melt-in-my-mouth tender though since bison ribs would never achieve the same texture as pork. Think tender beef brisket or shortrib, except more moist and you'll get the idea. Even without the BBQ sauce, the meat was flavourful and rich. I found the BBQ sauce to be quite mild and slightly sweet which didn't interfere with the meat. I'm not sure if this was the intention, but it worked. As for the corn bread, I loved the sweetness, yet wasn't that thrilled with the dryness. If it were a tad more moist, it would've been perfect. Although the slaw was crisp and fresh, it could've stood for more acidity.

Viv opted for more meat, in addition to the pate, in the form of The Burger. It was tantalizingly described as naturally-raised grass fed 1/2 pound of Pemberton Meadows Beef with smoked cheddar, wild boar bacon, foraged mushrooms, organic greens and roasted garlic with a Pair pickle. And it arrived as advertised, majestically large with sea asparagus peaking out from underneath the greens and above the large beef patty which was moist and juicy. The onion in the burger patty added a nice sweetness and texture while the boar bacon could've stood to be done more crispy. It was rather fatty and chewy. I really loved the bun, it was soft, crisp and airy. The accompanying thick-cut fries were crisp outside while soft and potatoey on the inside. Reminded me of Red Robin actually, but better (duh...). We were not sure what was served as a dipping sauce for the fries though. It looked like chipotle mayo, but it had no real flavour and was quite watery.

Without even being prompted, Costanza and Elaine ordered the Feast Platter for a PAIR. I was secretly hoping that they would! Such cooperative dining companions. Even better because I got to try everything! Damn, I really am a spider, with my hands in everyone's food! Anyways, the first item I tried was the rosemary pepper crusted Wapiti Elk Medallions finished with a chocolate & sour cherry jus. The elk was cooked perfectly medium-rare which allowed it to remain moist and tender. There was plenty of meat flavour without being gamy. The jus was quite mild with just a hint of tart and bitterness. Up next was the Maple Hills Farms Free Run Chicken which was prepared as a roulade stuffed with UBC spinach & foraged mushrooms. It rested on apple cidar glazed veggies and finished off with wild flower honey & sage demi. I found the chicken itself to be super moist and juicy. Although the overall flavour profile wasn't smack-in-the-mouth impactful, there was enough subtle hints of sweetness from the stuffing and sauce to season the meat. The still crisp veggies underneath were very good. Good combination of sweetness and acidity. The one blip in the platter was the Sockeye Salmon. I realize it is a bit difficult to prepare sockeye salmon so that it remains moist, however, this piece was dry and bland. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't terrible. In fact, it was a beautiful piece of fish. Too bad really. The last item on the platter was a Wind Dried Salmon Candy resting on a bed of UBC field greens. The flakes of salmon candy were moist and sweet. It went well with the fresh greens.

After a decent amount of food (with some of it heavy), we decided to share 2 desserts. Costanza and Elaine chose the Blackberry Galette served with peppermint ice cream. Although the pastry was flaky and crisp, the blackberries were far from sweet. In fact, they were quite sour. Add in the peppermint ice cream with the sourness and the whole thing really didn't work. Fortunately, the dessert Viv and I selected was much better. We swore that the server said it was a Sour Cherry Creme Brulee, but we didn't get a sense that it was. Maybe we heard wrong? Whatever the case, the custard was not too sweet and indeed custardy. The best thing was the caramelized sugar topping. It was thin, crunchy and smoky sweet. It was perfectly executed. The small piece of biscotti was crumbly and soft, which suited us fine because we didn't have coffee to dunk it into. Apparently, our server forgot Viv's coffee. Costanza got his though. However, the service overall was fantastic - attentive and courteous. The food in general was pretty solid with a few gems. Pair Bistro should definitely be in consideration when one wants a solid meal at a place not subject to any hype.

The Good:
- Courteous service
- Quality ingredients
- Quaint little place

The Bad:
- Not expensive, but not exactly cheap either (higher priced than other comparable bistros)
- Seating is slightly tight due to the small dining space (hence bistro...)

Pair Bistro on Urbanspoon

Peaceful Restaurant

Seemingly never destined to visit Vancouver, Guy Fieri rolled into town with his triple-D's crew a month ago. From all reports, he went to such places as The Red Wagon, Save-on-Meats, Fresh Local Wild and Peaceful (among others). Wait. One restaurant kinda sticks out like a sore thumb. Yah, that would be Peaceful. Considered the "better" of the 2 hand-pulled noodle houses on Broadway, it has often taken a back seat to Sha-Lin in terms of publicity. Well, that would be until the airing of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in the new year. Other than hand-pulled (or cut) noodles, Peaceful dishes up both Szechuan and Shanghainese fare in a tiny shop only a few stores down from the aforementioned Sha-Lin. When I say tiny, I mean small enough to make Subway look spacious.

Despite this, we almost instantly snagged a table. We were lucky though. A lineup soon developed that was 10 people deep. So why is this place so darn popular? Well, for starters, they were awarded the Gold CRA for the best Beef Pancake Roll. At first, I was a bit skeptical. C'mon, how good can a green onion pancake roll with beef be anyways? Well, I ended up eating my own words and a very good pancake roll at that. Normally, my biggest complaint about this item is the thick, dense pancake which often exhibits an unappetizing gumminess. Not here, not even close. The pancake was crisp, flaky and not the least oily. It had a nice pan-fried appearance and was uniform in shape. I found the roll to be the perfect balance of tender beef shank, scallions, hoisin and light pancake. This is one Chinese Restaurant Award-winning dish that I wholeheartedly agree with. Another one of their popular items is the Spicy Marinated Cucumbers. Once again, it didn't disappoint. The cucumbers were fresh and very crunchy. The crisp texture was a party in my mouth while the dressing had some spice. Once again, there was a nice balance of soy, sesame oil and chili pepper flakes.

Now the love-in with the food came to a grinding halt of sorts with the Chili Garlic Pork Belly. When I ordered it, our server warned me that the pork belly would be very fatty. That didn't concern me because this dish is typically not for the health-conscious. However, the versions I've had so far consist of thinly sliced pork belly. This one had slices that were far too thick with very tough to chew pork rind. That was probably a result from it being thickly sliced. Moreover, the thick slices made the pork belly unappetizing and chore to eat. It's too bad really since the flavours weren't bad with plenty of minced garlic, red chilis and a vinegary dressing. Okay, back to the good stuff... The Chicken and Mung Bean Noodle Salad was a table favourite with a nice combination of perfectly textured noodles (chewy), tender chicken and just-cooked spinach. I found the peanut dressing to be just the right consistency and the perfect combo of peanut, chili sauce and soy. There was a nice kick to balance the sweet and savoury elements of the dressing. We noticed a few tables with Xiao Long Bao on their table and decided to give it a go. Unfortunately, they looked much better than they ate. First of all, the dumpling wrapper was far too thick and was actually quite difficult to chew through. Second, the meat filling was a bit odd with certain flavours and ingredients (like greens) not normally found in XLBs. Lastly, the amount of soup in the dumplings ranged from a little to none-at-all. In fact, some had popped. I will cut them some slack because they don't specialize in XLBs, but they were no good nonetheless.

Now for something they ARE known for - the fresh hand-made noodles. Our first order was the Shanghai Fried Cutting Noodles. These noodles were "cut" from a block of dough, hence they are usually thicker and chewier (if cooked al dente). This was indeed a fine plate of fried noodles. Each thick strand was toothsome and attractively chewy. There was just the right amount of soy to flavour the noodles without being salty. The accompanying cabbage was wonderfully crunchy and sweet. My son couldn't get enough of these noodles (which means it must be good). Our second noodle was the Szechuan Spicy Beef Noodles in Soup. Hidden underneath the beef brisket and spinach lay a deceptively large amount of hand-pulled noodles. These were slightly past al dente, yet it was not terribly so. These were also very good and the freshness really shone. The soup had depth and was mildly spicy. Despite its appearance, the falling apart beef brisket was quite most and tender. It was a touch on the dry side due to the lack of fat.

Lastly and the most surprising dish of all was the Chili-Garlic Eggplant. This was by far the tastiest item of the meal. With each perfectly cooked piece of eggplant coated in a silky starch-thicken sauce which was a vinegary, spicy, salty and sweet, we couldn't stop eating it. In fact, we cleaned the plate. The crunchy bamboo shoots and wood ear mushrooms really added a nice textural contrast to the soft eggplant. This was a good end to a mostly solid meal, pork belly and XLBs notwithstanding. And what can I say? I think Guy Fieri got it right this time around. The food at Peaceful (if you order the right items) is "money".

The Good:
- Good hand-made noodles
- Despite the lack of servers, service is still friendly fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin
- Outstanding beef & green onion pancake roll

The Bad:
- Not the most comfortable place to sit
- Friendly servers, just not enough of them

Peaceful Restaurant (West Broadway) on Urbanspoon

The Place

Normally, any discussion on the best Xiao Long Bao in the GVRD would involve such places as Shanghai River, Shanghai Wonderful, Chen's, Lin and Suhang. Notice that most of them are in Richmond. Seeing that was the case and Costanza had a hankering for XLBs, I went into panic mode. I honestly didn't want to drive all the way to Richmond. And it had nothing to do with the traffic or potential parking spot theft either. It really had to do with the been-there-done that phenomenon. We really needed to try somewhere else. But where? Well, eventually we found the place. Really, literally it is called "The Place". Located on Granville near 64th, it is your typical hole-in-the-wall.

Be sure to bring cash and also be prepared to order by number if you don't speak Mandarin and/or Cantonese. After some strange hybrid ordering on our part (we used a combo of number and Cantonese), we ended up starting with the Nanjing Salted Duck. This was a fairly large portion for the price where the duck was meaty and flavourful. It was a touch salty in parts (hence the name), but overall it wasn't too much so. The texture of the meat was very good. It was soft while still exhibiting some resistance. Now the Hot & Sour Soup was less successful. Although the soup itself had a nice silky consistency and was filled with plenty of ingredients, it was far too sour. In fact, we didn't even get much spice since the vinegar completely overwhelmed all of the other flavours. It's too bad really because I could sense the broth was pretty good even with the over-acidic qualities.

Now for the main event - the Xiao Long Bao. We actually got 3 orders since Costanza's son could eat a whole steamer by himself (which he did). Similar to everywhere else these days, the XLBs were freshly made behind the counter. However, there was no flashy open kitchen nor any plexiglass display area. It was merely one person making them discreetly. Yet, the final product was far from reserved. Rather, it was in-our-faces (literally) with a considerable amount of flavourful soup. As the picture clearly demonstrates, the XLBs were so full of broth, it was "spreading" out. Sure, the dumping skin was not very uniform nor really ultra-thin, but it wasn't a big deal really. The hot, meaty broth was very good without being salty. The meat was slightly gritty, yet not overly so. It was well-seasoned. Overall, a very impressive XLB with all factors considered.

Another equally delicious item was the Stir-Fried Hand-Made Noodles with Vegetables. The thick flat noodles were perfectly al dente as with the crisp vibrant spinach and cabbage. There was just enough sauce to coat the noodles without making them soggy. The sauce itself was not too oily and had a nice caramelization from the high wok heat. It's too bad that the same couldn't be said about the Szechuan Beef Noodle Soup. I personally didn't mind it too much because I like it spicy, but the rest of the table though it was too tongue-numbing from the Szechuan peppercorns. They felt it covered up the beefiness of the broth. It is quite possibly a matter of taste here since they were comparing it to the Taiwanese version which would be different than the one here. The noodles were al dente and equally as good as the previous dish. The beef shank, however, was quite dry and lacking flavour. On the other hand, the Chili Eggplant was outright a flavour explosion. With perfectly cooked eggplant which was soft while still retaining a bite and bathed in a spicy sauce, we had to get some rice to take advantage of the it. Viv thought that the sauce was slightly too acidic, but I thought it was fine. There was plenty of spice, tart, sweet and savoury going on.

For some odd reason, we made an error in our order. We somehow got the Pan Fried Beef Pastry rather than the pancake wrap. Our bad though, I guess ordering by number confused us. It turned out to be a good mistake though since the beef pastries were pretty good. I've had many of these before and they have been mostly fatty and frankly disgusting. Not here. The meat was moist, flavourful and not very oily. This allowed the outside to stay crisp while the dough on the inside was only minimally affected by the moisture. Lastly, after a bit of a wait, the BBQ Duck Pastry arrived. When we dug into it, we quickly realized why it took so long. They had actually made these from scratch and it really showed. The pastry was flaky on the outside and the darn thing was very hot! There was a good amount of duck flavour which was very appealing. However, I felt that a bit more seasoning would've made the pastry "pop" in our mouths. Whatever the case, the food in general made our mouths happy. Considering the price point, we were satisfied with the portions and execution. Naturally, there are other restaurants that serve up better food on a dish-by-dish basis, but they are more expensive and are not located in Vancouver. Besides, I'd return for the XLBs alone. I realize they are far from perfect, yet the abundance of tasty broth is almost unparalleled in Vancouver.

The Good:
- Inexpensive
- XLBs are good in their own way
- Some pretty good dishes

The Bad:
- No frills here, only come here for the food
- Although service is friendly, it will be sparse when it gets busy
- Place is tiny

The Place on Urbanspoon

Wang's Taiwan Beef Noodle House

Suddenly and surprisingly, Shanghai Village packed it in about 4 months ago. Although they were slightly a step below the big boys in Richmond, it was a good alternative for those in Vancouver. Then almost just as fast, Wang's Taiwan Beef Noodle House sprouted up in the same location. Since we had to pay a visit to Viv's great-grandma nearby, it was a good time to grab some eats at Wang's afterwards. With some subtle renovations, the place is practically the same except missing the large round tables. They are now all lengthwise tables, which makes sharing food not as convenient. No matter, I guess by virtue of being a Taiwanese beef noodle house, most people would be eating their own meal. And that is what Viv's mom did exactly. She got an order of the Spicy Beef Brisket Noodles for herself. Now I'm not sure why all these TBN (Taiwanese Beef Noodle) joints keep using "brisket" in the menu description because the meat was clearly beef shank. The Chinese description does not mention what type of beef is in the noodles though. As for this bowl of noodles, the soup base wasn't particularly flavourful nor beefy. However, it was surely spicy. In fact, with the right spoonful of broth, it got downright tongue-numbing. However, once the chili oil got a bit low, the soup wasn't as spicy. The beef was really tender and moist; yet curiously bland. The noodles themselves were cooked properly

Now for the regular Beef Brisket Noodles, they were of course not brisket. Yet once again, they were moist and in fact, the gelatinous tendon in the shank was pretty good. It practically melted without the need to chew. The soup base, without the benefit of the chili oil, was flat. Actually, the soup was dominated by the pickled mustard greens which made it too sour. That was not a pleasant taste. I like my mustard greens in TBN, but I don't want it as the main flavour. Noodles were good though. Whenever I'm at a Taiwanese restaurant, a plate of offal is usually in the cards. So, I went for the 3 Marinated Meats Plate which included pork intestine, tripe and sliced beef shank. This was pretty average at best. First of all, the meats were served far too warm, so the intestine and tripe were basically mush. That also indicates that they were cooked too long as well. Normally, there is a sauce drizzled on top; yet in this version, the braising liquid acted as the sauce. The whole thing became watery. The sliced beef shank was okay though.

Another appie was the Green Onion Pancake Beef Roll. It was made with the same sliced beef shank, so that part was okay; but the pancake itself was a touch dense. Not a big deal though since it was thin and pan-fried nicely. It could've used a bit more hoisin though. Viv's mom ordered the Fried Tofu and at first thought it would be a boring dish. Although, it wasn't exactly exciting, it was executed properly. The tofu was fried perfectly crisp on the outside and was silky on the inside. The accompanying dip was a bit weak since it was mostly sweet. Would've been nicer if it had more of a salty kick since tofu is really a blank canvas.

By virtue of not being a Shanghainese restaurant, we were not expecting much out of the Xiao Long Bao. And it delivered more or less what we expected. The dumpling skin was on the thicker side and doughy while there was a complete absence of soup inside. The meat was not too bad though. It wasn't gritty and did have some resemblance of meat flavour. Yet, there was no mistaking that these were not Shanghainese XLBs. Strangely, these compared similarly to the ones I had at The Shanghai Kitchen... Which doesn't bode well for The Shanghai Kitchen I guess. Whereas the XLB was nothing to write home about, the Potstickers were pretty decent. Presented in the classic long Taiwanese-style, they were pan-fried nicely on the bottom. Moreover, the dumpling skin was not thick at all which made these easy to eat. The meat filling was quite nice. It was substantial while not being heavy either. It was not gritty and there was enough seasoning which made the dumpling good on its own without the need for any vinegar.

As for the kiddies, we got them an order of the Soup Noodles with Fried Chicken Leg. Arriving first was the bowl of thin noodles in a light broth. The broth itself wasn't too bad considering that there was no meat in the bowl to help it out. Although it could be a bit bland for some, it worked out okay for the kids. The thin noodles were a bit softer than the thick ones; yet wasn't a big deal for the kids. I probably would've liked them more chewy. The fried chicken served on a separate plate was "interesting". They essentially deboned a chicken leg and fried all the pieces up with a lot of flour and/or starch. Then they also fried up the bones, which yielded very little meat. Now about that meat, it was obvious they had cooked the chicken prior to frying it. The result was very dry chicken with no juices to speak of. We actually liked the crisp exterior and the seasoning; however, the dry chicken ruined it all. The precooking of the chicken is a shortcut that shouldn't be used. If they had fried the chicken from raw, this would've actually been very good due to the crispy exterior. This pretty much summed up the food here at Wang's. In a city full of Taiwanese joints, Wang's was a bit hit and miss for us. There was too much "averageness" to elicit any excitement from anybody. With that being said, the food wasn't terrible. So it is an option for people in the area looking for a quick meal. However, if one was mobile and willing to travel, there are better choices in Richmond and Burnaby.

The Good:
- Prices are okay
- Service was okay for us
- Seating is spacious

The Bad:
- Food is so-so

Wang's Taiwan Beef Noodle House 王記台灣牛肉麵 on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Farina

Fads. We saw it in the 90's with bubble tea and those silly po' boy hats in the early 2000's (I still have one!) More recently, we have a noodle fest with ramen. At least for BBT, fad would not
necessarily be the correct term since it is still very much with us and so is ramen. Yet, the whole phenomenon of multiple restaurants opening up serving the same thing trying to one-up each other can be "fad-like". The latest one would definitely be the Neapolitan-style pizza. With choices such as Nicli Antica, The BiBo and Verace, there has never been so many wood-burning oven thin-crust pizzas available in Vancouver. The latest to join the fray is Pizzeria Farina located in the Cobalt Hotel. Yes, that is not a typo. It really is located in the Cobalt! That information really troubled both Rich Guy and Snake. It was particularly a concern for Rich Guy since he and dives go together like a calm shopping experience and Stupidstore. Nonetheless, I dragged them both including willing diners, Costanza and Vandelay, down to Pizzeria Farina.

Make no mistake about the place. It is truly basic with a simple menu, communal seating and order at the counter protocol. This results in a much more reasonable price compared to the other joints. Another thing you won't find here is fancy ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes or buffalo mozzarella. Nor do they have a wood-burning oven. No frills, no gimmicks. They make due with what they have, which makes it incredibly impressive that their Pizza Margherita is the best I've had to date in Vancouver. The crust was very crisp and thin hot out of the oven. It was consistent in texture from the middle out to the edge. There was a decent amount of charring (or leoparding) on the bottom and edges of the crust. The crust was actually flavourful on its own since it was properly salted. As for the tomato sauce, it exhibited a good balance of flavours with just enough tartness. The fresh basil and drizzle of olive oil completed the package. No offense to the other pizzerias (they are good in their own right), but I just personally like the one here more.

Snake and Costanza both had the Finocchiona consisting of fennel sausage, provolone, Parmesan and spicy peppers. This one was much more complex in flavours compared to the Margherita. The liquorice-ness given off by the fennel combined with the saltiness of the Parmesan really worked with the spicy peppers. Lots of "pop" from this pizza. Since Rich Guy had the Margherita as well, I was praying that Vandelay would order something different. He came through with the Calabrese which was topped with Soppressata and Nicoise olives. This was another flavourful pizza due to the saltiness of both the soppressata and olives. Combined with the same great tomato sauce and crust, I enjoyed the slice that Vandelday graciously offered to me. Similarly to Nicli Antica, Chili Infused as well as Oregano Infused Olive Oil were available table side. We all agreed that they were impactful and added much to the pizzas. In the end, even Rich Guy conceded that this was some fine pizza even though he would've never visited the place on his own. I'm not sure what the future holds for Pizzeria Farina because The Cobalt has seen better days (or has it?). Are they going to stay at this location or will they relocate? One thing is for sure - if they keep doing what they are doing and maintain their current pricing, this is not only the best Neapolitan pizza in town, it is also the least expensive too.

The Good:
- Outstanding crust
- Inexpensive
- Does one thing and does it well

The Bad:
- Interesting location which is a very small
- Parking in the area sucks

Pizzeria Farina on Urbanspoon

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