Sherman's Food Adventures: August 2011

Casual Gourmet Bistro

Face it. It is very difficult to avoid an ethnic restaurant in Vancouver. I've been told that I do far too much Asian food and yes that is true. But... That is merely a reflection of the actual percentage of restaurants that are Asian! Think of it, that includes Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Cambodian, Filipino and a few others! These cuisines can actually be further dissected into regions as well! Then we get into European, African, South American cuisine which leaves us with very little "non-ethnic" food. What further complicates things is that "local" food is largely represented by Chain restaurants and fast food outlets. Hey, I don't mind the occasional meal at these places; but it doesn't make for an interesting read if I keep doing it over and over again. So imagine how difficult it is to actually find an independent restaurant serving non-Asian or even non-ethnic food? So there you have the prevailing stats on why I have blogged about so many Asian restaurants. With that in mind, even my parents wanted something other than Asian for lunch. That got me thinking and I remembered Casual Gourmet Bistro in North Van within the Save-on-Foods complex.

I decided to try their Gourmet Burger which consisted of 100% prime rib beef with butter lettuce, tomato and avocado. I added some gorgonzola as well. By virtue of using prime rib and proper execution, the burger was very moist and flavourful. It leaned towards being salty; however, the fact that I added gorgonzola was partially to blame for that. On the side was their hand-made crisps which were like waffle chips. They were very crunchy and fresh. Viv went for the Ahi Tuna Burger which was the same as mine except for the 4 oz. piece of tuna. At first, I was concerned by the thinness of the tuna; but it was cooked perfectly as evidenced in the picture. The result was a moist piece of fish. This was good with fresh lettuce, tomato and ripe avocado. I would've liked a bit more creativity in the bun though. Even with that, this was a much better Ahi tuna sandwich than the one offered at chain restaurants such as Joey. For the kiddies, we got them an order of the Spaghetti Bolognese which at first glance seemed like a variation of the classic Bolognese sauce. The pasta itself was al dente while the sauce was a little on the saltier side. It was hearty though with lots of meat and in quantity as well. There seemed to be more sauce than pasta. In the end, my kids ate it; but for me, it was overseasoned.

My mom decided on the Prime Rib Beef Dip which in her mind was excellent. There was plenty of moist prime rib that had been lightly seared to warm it up which actually added a nice flavour and textural contrast. The baguette was fresh and crunchy. As for the jus, there was some thyme adding another layer of flavour. The jus was not salty while exhibiting natural meat juices. My dad ended up with the Turkey Breast Sandwich which consisted of house-roasted turkey with tomato, lettuce and cranberry sauce. This was a solid sandwich since there was so much moist turkey meat. Again, the fresh ingredients really helped. Since we only went for lunch, many of their specialties were not available such as the Schnitzel and Lamb. We found the prices to be on the higher side and one look at the dinner menu had me a bit concerned since many entrees are around $25.00. However, their commitment to fresh and quality ingredients has given me reason to return.

The Good:
- Fresh, quality ingredients
- Good execution on proteins (for what we tried)
- Excellent service

The Bad:
- On the pricier side
- A little heavy on the salt
- Place is what the name implies - a bistro, very small

Casual Gourmet Bistro on Urbanspoon

New Age Chinese Cuisine

Ever since our last Chowdown, Tweetup or whatever you call it at Kalvin's, there seemed to be interest in another get-together. Karl was nice enough (or brave enough???) to organize the next one. This time it was at New Age Chinese Cuisine. Mainly a Taiwanese joint with a little bit of Szechuan, this place is located within the Best Western on Kingsway in Burnaby. It really didn't look appealing outside; but on the inside, it had this modern bubbletea-like decor (think Pearl Castle). Originally, we were expecting over 10 hungry eaters; yet it withered down to 7 (including Karl, Ben & Suanne, Angie, Grayelf and Rey). No matter, more food for us!

Prior to the dinner, Karl had reserved some items and sent out a menu. We had to take off a few things since we were hungry; but not that hungry. Besides, Mijune wasn't there to clean up. We did keep the Taiwanese Hot & Sour Soup though. Now, there is a difference between the Taiwanese and Cantonese version. The Taiwanese version is light in colour and much heartier. So, there was plenty of pork, tofu, carrots and wood-ear mushrooms which made the soup quite filling. I found the flavours in this soup muted. It was more savoury than hot and sour. Next up was the Chicken in Xiao Sing Wine Sauce. This was prepared in a roulade sort of manner without the bones. Therefore, it was much easier to eat and uniform in texture. I found the meat to be sufficiently moist while there was plenty of wine flavour penetrating the meat. In addition, the wine was not too strong either where it was balanced off by a good amount of sweetness and saltiness.

Now, one of the dishes that we pre-ordered, was the Peking Duck (2 courses). For the first course, we had the usual crispy duck skin and steamed crepes. The skin itself wasn't bad. It was indeed crispy and was pleasing to the eye with a rich colour. Moreover, the layer of fat underneath wasn't too overwhelming and in fact, some pieces had the fat scraped off. The few pieces that had the breast meat attached were moist. Now, all of this was completely wasted because the crepes were plain awful. They were steamed far too long and as a result were stuck together and to itself. I couldn't for the life of me unfold one without it completely breaking apart. Epic fail. Thus, this became more of a Peking roll than wrap since that's all we could do with the crepes. From duck, we stayed with fowl in the form of the 3 Cup Chicken. At first, I was impressed with the generous amount of meaty pieces of chicken. I've had this at many places that had more bone than meat. And one bite into the dark meat revealed generally moist, properly cooked chicken. However, there was a lack of flavour. I didn't get any tang from the wine nor did I get a whole lot of sweetness. It was actually kinda bland.

Moving away from poultry, we had the Fish in Spicy Sauce served atop a chafing dish. Curiously, this wasn't all that spicy. In fact, there was a pronounced 5-spice slant to its flavour profile. If this was 5-spice fish, this would've been perfect. However, this was supposed to be spicy and it was not. On the other hand the Basa fillets were cooked perfectly and held together from spoon to plate. Then we moved onto another pre-ordered dish in the Fried Tilapia. Okay, lemme preface this first. I'm not a huge fan of tilapia. The soft, mushy texture of the flesh does not exactly fancy my tastes. Now, even with that disclaimer, the tilapia here was not very good. I found it even mushier than usual and the flavours were not very clean. I think Karl said it best, "the fish tasted muddy". Hence, the entire dish was not that pleasing to eat.

Arriving and looking like it meant business was the Chicken with Chili Peppers. However, it was more an illusion than anything else. It did have a kick; but not in any way reflective of how hot it appeared. With that being said, there was nothing particularly wrong otherwise. The chicken was boneless (which is not a given these days - see New Szechuan), moist and flavourful despite the lack of heat. If one didn't have the expectation of it being very spicy, there would be not much to complain about here. Now for one of our pre-ordered dishes - the Braised Pork Shank. This was executed quite well as the skin was gelatinous and appealing in colour and texture. Most of the meat was fork-tender and moist. Furthermore, the shank itself was a fair size portion (although it was $26.00, so it better be large). A small section was a bit drier and stringy; but that is pretty normal as there is not as much fat in that area. Unlike the one I had a New Szechuan, the majority of the meat was edible. On the other hand, I did find the starch-thickened sauce to be on the bland side and not exhibiting any depth or richness. The colour was there; yet there wasn't particularly any taste.

On the topic of no flavour, I found that the Fried Tofu with Spicy Salt to be muted as well. I mean, look at it, you can readily see peppers and chilis. That in itself would indicated a punch, a kick or an outright uppercut to the tastebuds. But no... Instead, we got a plate of perfectly fried tofu which was properly seasoned while mysteriously missing spiciness. It was like they were trying to play a trick on or confuse our sensory systems. So I'm sure you get the picture here. The meal as a whole was actually very good despite the lack of heat. If one wanted mild-tasting food, this would ace that request in spades. So despite our disappointment in the lack of spice, the food was good. Now, if you look at it from the angle that the food should have some pop and impact, then there was something definitely missing here. I guess how one judges the food will be specific to their personal tastes (which is generally the rule with any restaurant anyways).

The Good:
- Generally well-executed food (except for the really bad crepes)
- Spacious, clean and modern dining space
- Lots of parking!

The Bad:
- Where's the heat? ( I guess one could ask for more though)
- A little pricey (but there is a discount on Mondays)

New Age Chinese Cuisine 京園小館 on Urbanspoon

Sanafir

*Restaurant is now closed*

Another Glowbal Group restaurant? Yah, I know. To many, the Glowbal Group is not exactly the first choice for incredible food. You have to understand 2 things though. First, the Glowbal Group is a chain restaurant that isn't. You see, all of their restaurants are "different", as they focus on different cuisines (except for Italian Kitchen and Trattoria). But at the same time, these restaurants do what most chain restaurants do, such as offer generally safe food in a predictable environment. That environment would be one of an attractive staff within a trendy, chic, youthful, modern, club-like or whatever you call it atmosphere. Secondly, Glowbal offers different methods of acquiring a discount which makes its restaurants accessible. For me, I'm just curious and want to try them all, which has finally brought me to Sanafir - the last one I had not been to. Coincidentally, I wasn't aware of their Tuesday 50% special, which was a pleasant surprise when I got the bill at the end.

Another common theme with all of the Glowbal restaurants is the art of sharing. There are generally a large selection of menu items which can be had in one large platter to be enjoyed with others at a per person price. With that in mind, Viv and I got the Mezze Platter. Starting on the bottom going clockwise, we have the Tuna Confit Crostini, Tandoori Prawn, Black Pepper Calamari, Vegetable Pakora, Braised Shortrib Crostini, Mediterranean Ribs, Lamb Kofta and in the centre, Watermelon & Valdeon Salad. As simple as a Tuna Crostini can be, we didn't mind this one. There was plenty of tuna with zing provided by the capers and the tapenade underneath. There was good flavour from the olive oil and the fried onions on top. Furthermore, the crostini was nice and crunchy. Nothing amazing; yet pleasant nonetheless. Next, we tried the Tandoori Prawn and for us, this was disappointing. What looked to be a plate full of flavour was actually quite bland. We could see the tandoori spices and the flavourful charred parts; but it all came out flat. Moreover, the most problematic thing was that the prawns were undercooked. It was especially noticeable in the head portion. The chickpea and arugula salad underneath was okay in my books; but Viv felt it was lacking in punch.

Moving clockwise around the platter, the Black Pepper Calamari was really tender and cooked perfectly. I liked the ample use of black pepper on most pieces. It really upped the flavour quotient. The lime aioli had a good zing and was a nice compliment while the peppers and red onion added another layer of spice. The one issue I had with this was the level of grease. Particularly with the pieces on the bottom, the grease was literally dripping off them. And on the topic of greasy, we had the Vegetable Pakora topped with sweet chili sauce next. No matter though, it is made with deep-fried chickpea flour, so it's not health food for sure. These were decent. Lots of cumin, very crisp and full of potato, peppers and chickpeas. Although we didn't mind the sweet chili sauce, it would've been preferable to have it on the side since it only served to moisten the perfectly crisp exterior of the pakora.

Onto our second crostini which was the Braised Shortrib Crostini. Similarly to the tuna, the shortrib was served cold. With the combination of dates and pequillo peppers, the flavour profile was distinctively sweet. I liked the grated egg on top, it looked nice. Not that I noticed it much while eating the crostini though. The shortrib itself was moist and tender. Normally, we gernerally like shortrib served hot; but this was alright in our opinion. Back to fried food, we had the Mediterranean Ribs with olive oil, Parmesan, espelette lime and fried herbs. The positive was that the ribs were very moist, fall-off-the-bone tender with a crisp exterior. Furthermore, there was great flavour from the Parmesan, black pepper and the herbs. However, once again, we found it to be quite greasy. One bite or one squeeze of the meat and the grease was quite visible.

The last savoury item that we tried was the Lamb Kofta which I ended up eating it all (Viv is not a huge fan of lamb). She gave it a shot; but it was indeed very gamy. For me, that was no problem at all since it just meant more flavour. I found that there was more than enough seasoning from the spices (particularly cumin) to compliment the lamb. The lamb was moist and the kofta was not overcooked. It rested on a bed of mint & parsley couscous, which I could've had more of. At the centre of the platter was a Watermelon and Valdeon with olive oil and pumpkin seeds. With sweet watermelon combined with the salty ingredients, it made for a nice refreshing treat from all the fried food. Strangely, the valdeon didn't look the part, it tasted more like Parmesan. Didn't matter though, it went well with the watermelon.

As if there wasn't enough food already (the 2 men sitting beside us shared this platter and didn't finish), we got a side of Fried Brussel Sprouts and Cauliflower. As it arrived, the aroma from being fried and tossed in chili, Parmesan and lime was intoxicating. I particularly liked the colour of the dish even though Viv had the opposite reaction. Similarly, she didn't like the dish while I did. I thought that the brussel sprouts were pretty good despite the fact I don't really like them. They were fried until crisp and there was just enough flavour from the cheese. As for the cauliflower, I still prefer the one from Nuba; but this was alright too. It was not mushy and again, had just enough seasoning on it.

Okay, we weren't finished yet. We had also ordered the Paella Valencia consisting of grilled tiger prawn, mussels, chicken and chorizo. Now, if you are familiar with an authentic paella valencia, I'm sure you'll notice that this paella is more of a hybrid of different types of paella minus the snails. For me, authenticity is not an issue if the food tastes good. After all, who are we to tell people what they should like. If it tastes good to someone, nothing else matters really. Okay, for those who want to whine about the paella not being served in the pan it was cooked in and yada yada yada... Yes, we noticed that too. No big deal in this case as we weren't expecting as much. Bottom line was that the rice was not overcooked and there was plenty of seafood flavour. We could see the saffron; but it was quite mild (it could be the quality of saffron). As for the seafood, the clams and mussels were very good; however, the prawn were really underdone, especially the heads. In fact, the heads were predominantly still dark gray, which indicates that it was not cooked all the way through. We liked the big chunks of chicken and chorizo, except there was only like 2 pieces of chorizo though. Yah, the paella had its issues; yet at the same time, we didn't dislike it. We'll filed it under "not bad".

Lastly, we actually had room to share a dessert after all this food. We opted for the Rice Pudding which arrived steaming hot. The temperature of the dessert actually helped activate some really nice aroma that hit our noses before we even put a spoon in our mouths. The smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves was very appealing. However, once it hit our tongues, the overwhelming sugar rush from the brown sugar was overpowering. It was too bad really. If it had been less sweet, this would've been a really good end to the meal. Now, many would expect or assume that I would now dismiss Sanafir as another Glowbal restaurant that is merely interested in style and little substance. Okay, that is not necessarily untrue. Yes, Sanafir does have style. It has attractive staff and a beautiful decor. Is that enough to make a restaurant? Well, no. As much as the food had its issues, Viv and I didn't mind it. With all the money-saving opportunities that the Glowbal Group offers, it is a decent alternative to some of the really overpriced chain restaurants out there. At the very least, they are trying to be different. Now would it be our first option for eats at this price point? Not really. But for the half-price Tuesday, we considered it a good value.

The Good:
- Consistent with other Glowbal restaurants, great decor and atmosphere
- Service we got was good

The Bad:
- Some items sound better on the menu than in reality
- The ottoman-like stool we were sitting on was very uncomfortable

Sanafir Restaurant and Lounge on Urbanspoon

Savary Island Pie Company

There was a time when West Van was a place that I would frequent. You see, Rich Guy lived up in the British Properties and his place would be a meeting place of sorts for everyone. And why not really, the house was large complete with an indoor swimming pool, sauna and pool table. Ah... The life of a Rich Guy... Now that he has moved, West Van has become a forgotten place of sorts for us. We are rarely out there other than passing by on our way to Whistler. Even when we're somewhat close by (after our hockey game in North Van), we can't even eat here due to the fact everything closes so darn early. Last time I was in the area, I really wanted to give Savary Island Pie Company a go, but the lineup stretched out the door. And you know my love for lineups... So it hasn't been up until now that I had my chance.

Mijune was free to meet me for lunch and we had originally wanted to head to the new Pinkberry location in West Van. We never made it there because we paid a visit to Savary Island first and never left (something about Mijune and sweets...). We got a couple of things to share starting with the Grilled Chicken & Basil Sandwich. Gawd this thing was buttery. From the buttered bread and mayo to the pesto, it was artery-clogging goodness. Large hits of basil thanks to the green onion pesto and whole basil leaves sandwiched in between moist chicken breast slices, tomato and lots of pepper. This was one fine sandwich and would've been perfect if it weren't so salty. We also got a slice of the Chicken Pot Pie and despite its modest portion size, it was satisfying. The crust was rich and buttery while the filling was equally rich with moist chicken, peas, carrots and potatoes. I found the flavours in this pot pie to be well-balanced. I didn't feel the need to add more pepper, salt or anything else. Arriving on the same plate as the pot pie was a cup of Split Pea and Ham Soup. At first, we were trying to figure out what was different about this soup and it was due to the addition of dill. Although it gave the soup some character, I thought the dill didn't really go. In addition, the soup itself needed more salty-smokiness from the ham. It was a bit flat. What I did like was the chunkiness of the ingredients. Personally, I like this more than the smooth version.

Now a visit to Savary Island would not be complete without their pies right? Well, that and the fact Mijune was around. Like we could leave without dessert... We kicked things off with a classic Apple Pie a la Mode. This, my friends was a very good slice of pie. The crust was super flaky, buttery and not soggy in the least. The apple filling was perfect consisting of a nice balance of tart and sweet. I really liked how the pie stayed intact even after slicing and plating. At first, they served the pie cold and it was pretty good. We got them to warm it up and *bam* - this is when the flavours hit us. Definitely get them to serve it warm. The vanilla ice cream on the side was filled with vanilla bean and was super creamy. We were shocked when it was revealed that it was from GFS. I guess GFS has higher-end ice cream too...

For our second slice of pie, we had the Lemon Buttermilk with berries. The best way to describe both the texture and flavour would be to call this a lemon cheesecake flan (with a poorly made flan). Now I'm not dissing the pie because it wasn't a flan; but the texture was that of a badly made flan. In this case, it didn't matter because we liked it. It was smooth and creamy. The flavour was very similiar to a lemon cheesecake which suited me just fine. I really liked this slice of pie. As if this wasn't enough sweets already (since I'm not really a dessert guy), Mijune walked back up to the counter and ordered 4 more items! We tried the Cranberry Orange Pecan Muffin first and it was fantastic. Once we got past the huge crispy muffin top, it reveal a moist semi-sweet center that was bursting with hits of orange and cranberry. Definitely a good deal of zing which acted as a good balance to the sweetness. The crunchy pecans on top were a great textural contrast.

Moving along, we sampled the large slice of Carrot Cake next. It was super moist with lots of carrot and intermittent chunks of apricot. At first we thought the green bits in the cake were zucchini. Upon further inspection and inquisition, it was actually carrot. With some research, we found out it could be due to the use of organic carrots which react to baking soda and could make it turn green. Now this is just speculation. We weren't exactly sure why the carrots turned partially green. Whatever the case, the cake was good and the cream cheese icing on top was perfect. It was super smooth and creamy while not being too sweet. Yum. By now, I was in a food coma; yet there was still more to sample. We moved onto the Apricot Almond Scone which looked great visually. Too bad the scone itself was a bit too dry. I suppose if we slathered it with butter or jam, it would've been better; however, I was either too lazy or too full to go through that trouble. I did like the crunch of the exterior and hits of sweet apricot though.

Lastly, we had the Chocolate Granola Bar. This thing was pretty huge, barely fitting onto the plate. It was chock full of chocolate chips while having a nice balance between being chewy and slightly crunchy. Due to the high chocolate content, the bar was rather sweet though. In the end, Mijune and I thought it was well worth the drive out to West Van for Savary Island. The place is quaint and has got that eclectic feel (a la Portland) to it. It is quite apparent that they take real care in their food and really know how to bake. Only problem is the place is small and it gets busy. Not good for people who hate lineups; but it is a good indication there is something good happening here.

The Good:
- Very good pies and baked goods
- The place has a certain charm

The Bad:
- Place is tiny
- Had a tough time getting information out of staff (seems like a few are very green)

Savary Island Pie Company on Urbanspoon

Venice Garden

For those who have ever watched Seinfeld, you are well aware of Jerry's arch-nemesis. Yes, he is affectionately known as "Newman". He bears a striking resemblance to that dude who gets killed in Jurassic Park... Anyways, Milhouse has a Newman of his own. He is one of the managers at the former Happy King Restaurant. Milhouse swore never to return due to the fact that this manager would not only rush us out the door when we were there for late night "da lang", he actually removed a dish Milhouse was in the middle of eating. Ever since that incident, he did not want to return, even if it was the only restaurant open. Fast forward to the present and Happy King is no more. It has given way to a new joint named Venice Garden. Enter classier furnishings and a much cleaner floor. Apu suggested we head there for late night after Friday night hockey. He indicated that the place was under new management. Okay, sounded good to me. Although, it did take a bit of convincing for Milhouse to join us. And guess who was there to greet us when we walked in the door... Newman.

I guess the place is not under new management after all... In fact, other than the addition of a new floor, new furnishings and a build-your-own-noodle menu, everything else looked the same. With that in mind, we didn't do the da lang thing though. We ended up ordering our own things. We'd just have to see if Milhouse would be able to finish it without it being removed from the table. Originally, Milhouse, Ginseng and I were wanting to share a Chinese Salty Donut (this sounds incredibly suggestive...), hence we all got congee. Turns out they didn't have any salty donuts left, even though there was one sitting in plain view for all to see. I guess it was either stale from sitting there all day for all to see or they were saving it for themselves. Anyways, Milhouse and Ginseng both had the Preserved Duck Egg and Salted Pork Congee. From all reports, the congee was more than adequately seasoned (with lots of MSG) and full of salty hand-shredded pork. The congee started off thick; but became watery at the end. For myself, I had the Fish Congee and it was full of tender Basa slices. I found the congee a bit too flavourful; but in the end it was decent. I wasn't satisfied with just a bowl of congee, so I added a order of Wonton Noodles as well. I wasn't expecting much and to my surprise, it was a solid bowl of noodles. The soup base was flavourful and steaming hot while the noodles were just a tad past al dente. There was still a slight chew to them though. The star of the show was the humungous all-shrimp wontons. They were bursting with whole crunchy well-seasoned shrimp. These were really good wontons.

Boss Woman had 2 dishes starting with the Chow Gwei Duy or Singapore Fried Flat Rice Noodles. This was a fairly large serving of noodles; yet there was very little in the way of shrimp, BBQ Pork or peppers. It was mostly noodles. The noodles were cooked alright remaining in one piece while still soft. In terms of flavour, there needed to be both more curry powder and salt. For her second dish, she had a small dish of Scrambled Eggs with Shrimp. This was a well-executed with lots of cold-water shrimp and perfectly prepared eggs. The eggs were just cooked being slightly runny.

Lastly, Bear had the ever exciting bowl of BBQ Pork on Rice. Since this was essentially the end of the day, the BBQ pork was predictably dry. He didn't elicit much response to this standard item. I guess it did the job for late night eats; but it wasn't anything that could rival HK BBQ Master. So there you go - Venice Garden appears to be a renovated version of Happy King. At the very least, the food quality as a whole seemed pretty good for what we ordered. I was particularly impressed with the wontons especially since this is not a place you'd associate with good wontons. For the time of day, the food did the job and now it is a whole lot cleaner too. Oh and Milhouse got to finish his meal without it being prematurely snatched from him.

The Good:
- Pretty good wontons and congee
- Open late
- Renovated

The Bad:
- Indifferent service
- The other items we had were so-so

Venice Garden Seafood Restaurant 海皇美食 on Urbanspoon