Sherman's Food Adventures: October 2011

Signature Dish Dining Festival (Burnaby)

Okay, here we go again. Just like Merry & Pippin and their 2nd breakfast, I was about to embark on another night of the Signature Dish Dining Festival food tour with our 2nd and 3rd dinners. Much like the pig-out session I did last time in Richmond, we were doing 3 restaurants in Burnaby. Although Burnaby doesn't even hold a candle to Richmond's outstanding selection of Chinese restaurants, they seemed to have picked 3 good ones for the tour. Great, I thought. One less restaurant than last time, hence less food? Yah, wishful thinking on my part. When I arrived at our first destination, I quickly learned that the number of restaurants was insignificant when they start serving more dishes! So this was exactly the case at Alvin Garden. The owner was so gracious, she took requests which bumped our dish total to 10. Uh... After this full meal, we were to go eat again at 2 other restaurants? Oh man... And why exactly are we doing this? For those who didn't read my Richmond post on the Signature Dish Dining Festival, this is part of the Chinese Restaurant Awards where restaurants do a sort of Chinese "Dine-Out" with set menus at some pretty reasonable prices. For me, I was lucky enough to be part of it and got to try some of the best Chinese dishes in the city.

Our first dish at Alvin Garden was their Award-Winning Hunan Smoked Duck. Smoked with Pu'er Tea or Bo-Lay as I know it, the duck had a good amount of flavour that didn't mask the inherent gaminess of the meat. This, combined with meaty, yet tender flesh made for a great smoked duck. Too many times, smoked duck can be dry and too salty. Not in this case. Next up was the Spicy-Flavoured Chicken which was essentially shredded poached chicken doused in a chili oil hot sauce. Despite looking like a bowl of fiery hot food, this was merely all bark, no bite. We would later learn that they had prepared the food at 1/5th of the regular spice level (so not to scare or maim any media members). That was bit disappointing for some, including myself, but I can see why they did it. As for this dish, the chicken was almost jelly-like in texture due to the perfect poaching and immediate cool down. The chili oil sauce on top was a bit nutty, a touch vinegary and only mildly spicy.

One of the requested dishes from our table was the Sliced Pork Heart with Five Spices tossed in chili oil. Hot damn, I was pretty happy with this special dish. I love offal and especially spicy offal! Well, this was prepared very well. The texture of the heart slices was chewy while easy to eat. In addition, the slices were the right size, which may seem trivial, but is essential for eating enjoyment! It was very mild-tasting with classic 5-spice flavouring, yet again, it was due to the conservative spice level. One dish that I thought could've been better was the Stir-Fried BC Prawns & Scallops with asparagus. Although the scallops were just barely cooked, the prawns almost appeared to be boiled. Either the wok heat was slightly lacking or there was too much moisture (as evidenced by the liquid at the bottom of the plate). On the other hand, the seafood could've been water-blanched first which would explain everything. I found the prawns to be a touch rubbery and visually, they were not all that pleasing. However, I did like the flavouring agents. There was a good combination of garlic, sweetness and a touch of spice. Moreover, the asparagus was still crunchy.

Yet another dish that was not on our menu for the tasting was the Home Made Tofu with Pork. Nothing really interesting about this dish other than the nicely textured fried tofu (which was the right balance between being dense, but not too dense). The rest of the items (peppers, wood ear mushroom and pork slices) were pretty typical. Okay, someone please enlighten me here. Although the Cauliflower with Alberta Pork arrived plated in an interesting pan situated atop a wooden basket, the dish itself was boring. What we got was some cooked cauliflower with overdone pork. In addition, the bottom of the pan was watery. Hence, any hint of spice (which was dumbed-down for this meal) was washed out. This was very "meh" to me at least.

As for the next dish, I was really not sure what it was. I mean, I could tell it was beef with cilantro, peppers and pickled vegetable, yet it did not completely correspond with any of the menu items. So, I'm only guessing that it was the Stir-Fried Beef with Pickled Green Chili? Why the confusion? Well, the predominant flavour for me was the cilantro combined with some spice. Was it from the pickled green chili? Could be, but it was overshadowed by the cilantro. The meat was tender and not dry (despite its appearance) though. One of my favourite dishes here was the Stir-Fried Spicy Chicken with Peanuts and Amoy dark soy sauce. Really good wok heat in this dish as illustrated by the the great colour and lack of moisture on the plate. The chicken was tender and full of flavour while the crunchy peanuts was the textural contrast. Once again, the reduced heat level of the dishes prevented this dish from being a home-run.

Moving along to the Pan-Fried Green Beans with Minced Pork, we were treated to just slightly past crisp oil-blanched beans. The combination of easy-to-eat minced pork, chili peppers and pickled vegetable provided a mix strong flavours. Once again, this was fairly mild, so there was no "pop", but that was the intention. Now, even with a "dumbed-down" version of their Ma Po Tofu, I still found it to be very good. Despite being soft and almost silky, the tofu retained its shape. Furthermore, there was no pool of liquid other than the slightly spicy meat sauce. We needed to get some rice for this, which ultimately soaked up the tasty flavours.

Finally at the end of the unexpected 10 dish foray at Alvin Garden, we headed over to Metrotown for our second restaurant - Fortune House. With a much more sane menu (fewer items!), we had the Deep Fried Crab Claw stuffed with Shrimp. This is a typical offering seen at Chinese weddings and baby one-month dinners. These were served on individual plates with a side of fruit salad. The exterior was fried perfectly crisp without being chewy (this happens sometimes and makes it hard to bite). Inside, the minced shrimp was sweet and had a nice snap. For me, I'm not a huge fan of mayo and fruit, so I was indifferent about the fruit salad. However, the mayo went really well with the claw. Call it a Chinese-version of ebi mayo... We were presented with an appetizing plate of Sauteed B.C. Geoduck with Asparagus and Pine Nuts next. Personally, it was a treat to see geoduck on the menu since I haven't had it in awhile. Gosh, these mollusks used to be 99 cents a pound. Before it became a staple in Asian cuisine... The thin slices of geoduck in the dish were sweet and crunchy. It is very important not to overcook geoduck as it will take on the properties of rubber. The accompanying asparagus was vibrant in colour while still crisp. Not sure how the pine nuts worked in this dish, but I love pine nuts, so I really didn't care.

Continuing with the seafood theme, we were treated to an impressive plate of Pan-Fried Jumbo Prawns with Spicy Hawthorn Sauce. These huge suckers were sweet and meaty. One bite into them and yup, that was what we all crave from prawns - that lovely snap and crunch. So good. The hawthorn sauce was sweet with a nice zip. For those who grew up eating haw flakes, you will be well-versed in the flavour profile of this dish. Yup, haw flakes come from the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn plant. Moving away from seafood, we had the Pan Fried Alberta Beef Tenderloin with roasted walnuts in bird's nest. This was a pretty straight-forward stir-fry. The beef tenderloin was predictably moist and tender, especially since it was cooked just right (as in slightly past medium rare). There was a nice sear on the outside which added flavour while the veggies were colourful and crunchy. We were served a portion of the bird's nest as well and it was still fairly crispy despite the moisture from the food sitting atop of it.

Our last savoury item at Fortune House was the Fried Rice with shrimp and dried scallops encased in lotus leaves. Prior to them opening up the lotus leaf package, it resembled a circus top, which was quite neat-looking. We were served a bowl of rice each and I found it to be fragrant from the dried scallops and influence of the lotus leaves. However, it could've stood to be a little less dry. As mentioned, the dried scallops were quite prominent as a flavouring agent while the shrimp only served as a texture more than anything. For dessert, it was a pleasant surprise that we got something a little different than the usual. The Five Flavour Rainbow Pudding, as offered on their menu for six and Mango Pudding, as offered in their menu for four, were interestingly plated with fresh fruit. Chinese desserts will never be in the same class as say... French desserts, but at the same time, I appreciate their attempt at being more creative. In terms of flavour and texture, the pudding was pretty good. Nothing Earth-shattering, but pleasant nonetheless. On the other hand, the mango pudding shaped as a koi fish exhibited plenty of real mango flavour.

As I waddled my way out of Fortune House, I was preparing myself for our 3rd meal at Grand Dynasty. The newest restaurant of the 3, Grand Dynasty is located in the Villa Casinos complex near Hwy 1. We were presented with the Signature Cold Cut Platter to begin. Similar to the one we had at Northern Delicacy, in terms of both plating and items, the bean curd skin roll was a bit different being fried. I like both versions, however, the fried one is naturally more oily and less healthy. The other items on the platter (clockwise from the bean curd roll) were sliced beef shank, jellied pork, marinated jellyfish and pig's ear. Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the pig's ear as much as I was. If I had to make an analogy, think of it as a form of head cheese, except for the cartilage.

Then, a platter of what I though was shrimp toast arrived. In fact, the menu name was Pan-Fried Prawn Dumplings with Custard Powder. Okay... whatever, to me these were a high-class version of the long-forgotten Dim Sum dish of shrimp toast. Rather than minced shrimp meat, there was a whole prawn sitting atop a round piece of toast. Deep-fried until golden brown, this little bite was predictably oily. Nothing against the dish, rather, when you place a piece of white bread into hot oil, it'll act like a sponge. This was good, albeit a strange item for a dinner menu.

The most visually stunning dish of the night was the Roast Alberta Beef Dragon Bone with ground biscuit powder. It was majestically plated with its delicious bone marrow beckoning for us to eat it. The meat and tendons were super tender and moist where it practically melted in my mouth. However, the flavour profile of the entire thing reminded me of a beef stew. A good beef stew though, just lacking some impact. It just didn't match its prominent appearance. The biscuit topping was an interesting mix of dry pork floss and ground biscuit. With all of the interesting things we had tried, it was pretty much anti-climatic when the Pan-Fried Double Lobsters with Amoy home-made sweet sauce arrived. Yah, pretty pathetic to not be excited about lobsters eh? Well, despite being completely full and not really all that enthusiastic, I still enjoyed the lobsters because of the flawless preparation. The lobsters were fried until just cooked while just the right amount of sweet and savoury sauce clung to each piece.

Our final dish of the night was probably my favourite, which was the Roast Alberta Pork Chops with Amoy black vinegar sauce. There are times when the pork chops are either over or under-tenderized, but not in this case. The pork chops maintained a meaty texture while being tender at the same time. Furthermore, the sauce was rich, sweet and had a tartness that exhibited depth. And much like the lobsters, there was the perfect amount of sauce that clung to every chop. *Burp* Excuse me. What an incredible amount of eats! And I thought I had already seen it all on the Richmond portion of this Signature Dish Dining Festival tour. Once again, I'd like to thank the organizers for inviting me. If you want to sample some of these dishes, check out the website and make a reservation.

Ebisu on Robson

Recently, I was asked to try out the Suika Me Silly Dining Package by VANEATS.ca. However, due to my hectic schedule and the fact I had just posted on Suika, I had to pass. However, I had promised to take on the next one offered up by them. So a month later, Viv and I tried out the Cheers Ebisu Dining Package by VANEATS.ca, which goes live from November 1st to the 30th. These "dining packages" are somewhat an alternative from those group-buy coupon sites which offer a discount of some sort. Instead of a set discount, we see a set price ($25.00) for an array of items which make of the "package". This particular one consists of an Izakaya-type focus and includes a pitcher of Premium Sapporo Draft. Viv and I struggled to even down half of this pitcher and were wondering if they really had to give us so much beer... Egads! I would have never said such a thing 10 years ago! Oh well, that in itself already made this package a fabulous deal even before the food.

Now for the food... The menu included 2 Cajun Tuna Tacos served on the same long plate as 2 pieces of Tiger Mayo. Nestled within the light crispy taco shells was seared fresh tuna & shredded mixed salad dressed with house ginger sauce. Despite the Cajun seasoning on the outside of the tuna, the taco was very light and almost refreshing. The ginger added a nice zing, yet the taco still could've benefited from more acidity (lime?). As for the Tiger Mayo, these were deep fried Black Tiger Prawns served with sweet chili mayonnaise dip. Prior to receiving the entire "package", we were erroneously served a full order of the tiger mayo (which suited us just fine!). We were really impressed with the quality of the prawns. They were fried up perfectly crispy while the prawn itself was meaty and sweet. The chili mayo had a nice kick to it and we appreciated that they didn't douse the entire order with it. Normally, we are pretty troubled by how ebi mayo is served with an obscene amount of sauce drizzled on top which resembles the conclusion of a cheap porno flick... Ew?

With those 2 items out of the way, we received the main platter of eats which included from left to right: Thunder Fries, Chikuwa Cheese, Chicken Karaage and Kansai Steak Sliders. The Thunder Fries were essentially sweet potato fries served with cajun mayo dip. Hidden within these tempura-coated sticks was one cheese and onion fry and one yellow pepper fry. Kinda random, but it did give a bit of diversity. The sweet potato fries themselves were thick-cut and cooked properly. They were soft while not becoming mushy complete with a light crispy coating. Moving along, we found more fried goodness with the classic Chikuwa Cheese. For those who are not familiar with chikuwa, it is a tube-like fish cake that consists of surimi and seasoning. In this application, the chikuwa were filled with cheese (mozzarella for this one), battered and deep-fried. As you can see in the picture, the chikuwa were finished off with mayo and sauce. These were pretty large and overall well-executed. The only thing I might have changed was to leave them uncut. The chikuwa cheese were cut on a bias which was good for presentation purposes, but not so much in terms for maintaining the melted cheese.

With the deep-fryer working overtime, we tried the Chicken Karaage next. These boneless pieces of dark meat were juicy and fried nicely. We found some parts to be rather salty, but then again, I much prefer that over being bland. Maybe a lemon wedge would've balanced the flavours out more. Finally, we got to the last item which was the Kansai Steak Sliders consisting of sauteed sliced beef marinated in yakiniku sauce sandwiched with avocado, onions, mushrooms & spicy mayo. These were saucy and quite good. We found the beef to be moist and juicy accentuated by the sweetness and crunch of the onions. The small piece of jalapeno actually added a nice bite to the slider. We could've used more actually. We found the bun to be perfect. It was soft while still holding together despite the wet ingredients. By now, we were pretty stuffed and I was woozy from the beer. Ack! I'm now a cheap drunk! The humanity... Anyways, the bottom line is that this package of all the items you have read about including a pitcher of beer only costs $25.00! This, in my mind, is a pretty good deal and can easily feed 2 people.

Mandarin Garden

The Chinese buffet. Never a great place to find good food and really not my cup of tea. Where else can you find fried meat coated in sauces that represent all the colours of the rainbow? Well, call it a moment of weakness, desperation or just plain lack of judgment. We went to a Chinese buffet, in Abbotsford no less. Okay, lemme set up the scenario first. We were at Castle Fun Park which was the reason we were in Abbotsford. We had not been out here since our University days when boredom meant driving out to Abby for Jungle Golf. Well, my son loves mini-golf and that is why we made the trek out. Sure, there is mini-golf at Playland; but we decided to make things interesting.

So afterwards, we were hungry and despite all the other choices of eats, we ended up at Mandarin Garden. The idea of a Chinese buffet was thanks to a Facebook comment from a friend. The didn't say which restaurant; but I took an educated guess. I'm still not sure if this was the right restaurant. Whatever, we were hungry and they had a 50% off the second meal special on Tuesdays. Good enough for me. On my first pass through the buffet, I gotta admit that the food didn't look all that appetizing. That was probably a given due to my aversion to this type of food. So as you can see on my plate, there is a very yellow Chicken Curry, a very red Sweet & Sour Pork, some Fried Rice, a Fried Pork Chop and hiding in the back, a Fried Chicken drumstick. Okay, first things first. The fried rice was laughable and so was the really dry pork chop. However, the curry was not bad except for the precooked chicken tossed in. The sweet 'n sour pork looked like someone just had their jugular sliced wide open; but it did taste okay and the pork was moist. The fried chicken was surprisingly juicy and flavourful.

There was a feeble attempt at Dim Sum with such items as Sui Mai, Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaves, Bean Curd Skin Rolls and Black Bean Chicken (?). The only thing that stood out was surprisingly the black bean chicken. Great flavour and moist too. The Black Pepper Beef looked strange as well in large cubes; yet it was tenderized perfectly and had a nice rich flavour. There was regular Chow Mein and also Black Bean Fried Flat Rice Noodles. Well, we really didn't get to try the latter because there was only a few strands and it was never refilled. There were the standard Wonton Soup and Hot & Sour Soup to choose from - both surprising decent. Of course our expectations were tempered. The all-pork wonton was actually of a decent texture while the broth tasted quite good. The hot 'n sour soup was mostly sour and lacking in depth; but in a buffet setting, it was half-decent.

As for dessert, there was a strange assortment of items including Fruit Gelatin, Rice Krispy Squares, Gum Drops, Candy Bar, Fortune Cookies and Jelly Beans??? Well, it's kid-friendly then. I must really give them kudos for a nice selection of hard ice cream. It was actually quite good. Okay, I know my description of the food here is pretty boring and non-descript. You have to understand that there is not much to get excited about. However, the food was actually decent considering everything. It could've been more fresh; but I forgive them since we arrived after 1:30pm and it was a weekday. If the food was refilled and hot, I could see it being better. Honestly, I have not much to complain about since it only cost $8.99 for each adult lunch and the second one was only $4.50 (Tuesday special).

The Good:
- Lots of choice
- Friendly staff
- Cheap

The Bad:
- Although there was some decent items, most were pretty average at best

Mandarin Garden on Urbanspoon

Nagoya Sushi

With all the random sushi joints in Surrey, it is really hard to get excited about any of them. C'mon, there is only that much difference between them. Most, if not all are pretty average and only serve the neighbourhood they are situated in. *Yawn* Excuse me if I seem completely bored. That was my attitude going into my meal at Nagoya Sushi. Think of it. The place is small and it's located in a fairly non-descript strip mall away from most other services. I wasn't holding out for much really. By shear coincidence, the day (Wednesday) I chose to visit Nagoya was the day they feature all their sushi with brown, white and black rice.

To get a true sense of the menu here, I decided to go for their Dinner Combo which seemed to include quite a bit of food (which I was about to learn...). As a bonus, they served up some Salmon Belly as an appetizer first. It was a pretty large portion and incredibly moist. It literally melted in my mouth with a nice crispy skin. Despite the large amount of sauce, it was neither too salty nor sweet. After that, I was presented with a really large bowl of Ebi Sunomono. I found the dressing to be on the lighter side with only a mild vinegar taste and an equally mild sweetness. The noodles still had a bite while the cucumbers were fresh and crunchy. The ebi were a touch soft, but not fishy.

After the 2 smaller appies, the Appetizer Tempura arrived. Despite the appearance of too much batter on the prawns, it was actually quite crisp and not heavy. I found that the veggies were perfectly cooked and of good quality. At this point, I was getting worried because I hadn't even gotten my main items yet. This was a lot of food! I was already getting kinda full and then I was presented with a really impressive plate of food. It included a whole Dynamite Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll and Sashimi. I gave the Sashimi a try first and it was pretty good. The texture of the salmon was pleasant and it was quite sweet. The tuna was good too, but I found it sliced a bit too thick (which is not necessarily a bad thing if it were down to portion size). It was a bit dense to eat, but then again, it was good nonetheless. Due to the use of rice other than plain ol' white sushi rice, it was a bit difficult to make a proper assessment. Predictably, the sushi was more heavy and filling. The Dynamite Roll was packed with imitation crab, cucumber and a relatively crispy ebi tempura. I enjoyed eating it. I'm not sure what happened when I got to the Spicy Tuna Roll because I couldn't eat anymore. Really. I was too full to eat another bite. This is rare. A normal dinner combo defeated me. Not that a spicy tuna roll is ever that spicy, but this one was a bit bland and the tuna was in big chunks once again and was rather dense. Again, I'm not sure if the fact I was super full had anything to do with it.

I really couldn't believe it. A measly dinner combo kick my ass. Well, I guess it wasn't so small after all... I was not only impressed with the portion size here, I was equally happy with the quality as well. The food was prepared with care. Furthermore, the proprietors are super-friendly. Fine. I'll concede that this Japanese food foray in Surrey was better than I expected and in fact, a candidate for a return visit. Now excuse me while I... *YAWN* And it is not because of boredom. More like a food coma!

The Good:
- Good portions
- Decent quality
- Friendly owner/operator

The Bad:
- Not a whole lot of seats, don't bring a big group

Nagoya Sushi on Urbanspoon

Fenders

You know what? I never really paid attention to how much gas my car was thirstily slurping up each month. Until now. One look at the total damage and I was about to freak out like I just lost my parking spot at Aberdeen. $500.00?!!?!?! WTF? You know how much food that can buy??? Yah, one meal at Tojo's! LOL... Okay, the gas consumption needed to change. Pronto! So without too much debate, we decided to take the plunge and buy a hybrid. Originally, I would've preferred buying the car at a dealership close by, however, it turned out that I'd have to wait until December at the earliest for it arrive. Ultimately, I had to head to the Richmond Auto Mall instead, where my car would be available in September. Originally, I had my heart set on Central Richmond for eats (LOL... The things I do for food...), but a longer than needed visit to Watermania meant we had to eat nearby. Well, the only "restaurant" that is close to the Automall is Fenders. Nope, not necessarily a place I would visit otherwise...

By virtue of being the only full-service restaurant in the Richmond Automall, Fenders tries to be everything to everyone. There is a little bit of diner, a dash of Chinese food, some Italian and breakfast items. One thing is for sure, they are really friendly here. From the moment we walked in to the time we left, they made us feel at home and valued as a customer. As for the food, I decided to try one of the lunch specials which included a choice of soup - I had the Clam Chowder. Now, if you've ever had clam chowder in a HK-Style cafe, then that describes this one. With no clam taste despite the presence of clams and a creaminess only reserved for starch-thickened broths, this would make most chowder purists cry. However, I have been exposed to this type of chowder all my life and I really didn't mind it. I merely accepted it for what it was - a starchy vegetable soup with clams. I opted for the Curry Beef on Rice as my main and it was a pretty typical Chinese curry. Ignoring the one piece of beef that was slightly rare (bottom right-hand corner), the rest of it was tender with still some chew. The curry had some spice, yet could've benefited from more salt. The chewy and dry rice was the perfect canvas for the plethora of sauce.

Continuing on the Chinese theme, we also got the Flat Rice Noodles with Beef. There were 2 versions to this dish - one with sauce and the other wok-fried. We had the "wet" version and hence, it would never be as flavourful as the fried version due to the lack of caramelization with dark soy. Therefore, this one is usually on the bland side and it was indeed light in flavour. It had the same tender beef and vibrant veggies though. Lastly, we moved away from Chinese and had the Meat Lasagna. Okay, we knew not to expect an authentic lasagna, so bear with me here. The tomato sauce was a starch-thickened concoction consisting of tomatoes, onions, meat and lots of salt. It was goopy and did not resemble a tomato sauce at all. With that being said, it was alright in a convoluted kind of way. It was a pretty large portion and the noodles were not too soft. Now if you have been paying attention, you would get the sense that the food is pretty mediocre here. However, with very reasonable prices and good portions, one can almost overlook that. Considering there are no other restaurants really nearby, Fenders does the job for people who are there and need food.

The Good:
- Wonderful people
- Large portions
- Low prices

The Bad:
- Food is pretty mediocre
- Decor is a bit dated

Fenders Restaurant on Urbanspoon