Sherman's Food Adventures: August 2014

Caffé Roma & Lounge

What's this?  An invite to try out Caffé Roma & Lounge?  Um, isn't that the place with the green awning on Commercial Drive?  They have a lounge?  Yah, I was a bit confused (well, that is not that surprising).  When I arrived, I finally understood what it all meant.  Completely renovated inside and out, the new Caffé Roma has some style with modern appointments and a chic black and red colour scheme.  The reason for the invite was to try their new menu.  In fact, I was informed that there would be another revamp of the menu in the coming months as well.

For the items they currently have on the menu, we began with a couple of appies.  The Vegetable Arancini were served 3 ways with sundried tomato paired with pesto, zucchini with Parmesan cream sauce and mushroom with tomato sauce.  Overall, these were crispy with a cheesy and creamy, albeit slightly soft rice filling. The most impactful of the 3 was the sundried tomato as it had a salty tang that worked well with the strong basil-tasting pesto.  We found the Parmesan a bit too salty though, but then again, it had to make up for the mildness of the zucchini.  Next up, we tried the Prawns Camicia which were wrapped with pancetta and topped with breadcrumbs on top of a balsamic drizzle.  The prawns themselves were beautiful having a buttery snap and exhibiting a natural essence.  However, due to them being packed tightly together, some of the pancetta didn't crisp up as well as some of the breadcrumbs that got soggy.

Something that showed up as a surprise was a special chef's suggestion being the Salad Prawns & Avocado.  Although the prawns were a little small, their sweet buttery snap texture made up for it.  The light citrus dressing added a brightness that didn't overwhelm them.  There was plenty of lime with the really ripe avocado while the balsamic in the vinaigrette further amped up the acidity.  For our pasta, we tried the Spaghetti alla Papalina consisting of proscuitto crudo, egg cream and grana padano, which is a variant of carbonara.  If it weren't so salty, I would've loved this plate of pasta.  The spaghetti was a firm al dente while the sauce clung onto each strand lovingly.  However, with the pasta already well-salted, combined with a plethora of prosciutto as well as a generous dose of cheese, you can imagine the salt content.  If they dialed back the salt, the sweet pop of the onions would've been noticeable, hence creating more of a balance.

We also sampled their Pizza Margherita which was in a rather pale shade of light brown.  Initially concerned that it would be soggy, the pizza surprised us with a razor-thin crust that was well-browned on the bottom.  Therefore, it was super crispy and light.  I thought the tomato sauce was tangy enough while the fresh basil had impact.  Although not a Neapolitan pizza in the complete sense, it was decent for what it was nonetheless.  For dessert, we had the house-made Tiramisu topped with a fresh strawberry.  This was really good.  The soaked lady fingers had an appealing moist texture while emanating plenty of espresso.  The marscapone cream was light, smooth, and purposefully sweet with the desired consistency.  We found that the strawberry was more than a garnish as it added a nice acidity to each spoonful.  In the end, we thought that the food has potential.  In terms of execution, in particular the main item on each plate, was done right.  It's just the details that need to be worked out.

*All food was comped excluding gratuities*

The Good:
- Reasonable pricing
- Spacious and modern dining space
- Main items prepared properly

The Bad:
- Some tweaks are needed though

Caffe Roma on Urbanspoon

Modern Chinatown Tasting Tour presented by Vancouver Food Tour

For the longest time, I've never had the opportunity to experience the original Vancouver Food Tour.  Strange, in the meantime, I've gone on practically every other tour that our city has to offer.  Even after some invites, I still couldn't make it.  Was it the food gods trying to prevent me from ever experiencing it?  Was I scared of Melody Fury?  Maybe...  No, of course not!  Well, finally I was able to make one - the Modern Chinatown Tasting Tour which is aptly named since the food scene in Vancouver's Chinatown is rapidly changing.  Call it gentrification or call it the relocation of Chinese focus to Richmond, the choice of cuisine has never been any more diverse than we have now.

Meeting up with Carlos and some other guests in front of the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, we were given some brief information about the history of the area while walking over to our first stop - Calabash Bistro.  We were started off with a Calabash Dark and Stormy which is their take on Bermuda's national drink consisting of ginger-infused Goslings Black Seal with homemade ginger beer, Angostura bitters and house-made ginger syrup.  Suffice to say, this was one gingery drink with a definite bite.  At the same time, it was refreshing especially on a warm day.  Then we were presented a large platter which included 3 types of Patties including veggie, chicken and beef.  In the middle was Jerk Chicken skewers and on the side, Plantain Chips.  These patties were soft and doughy rather than flaky.  However, that didn't mean they weren't good though.  I found them warm and pillowy with a purposefully spicy filling.  I liked the beef one the best as it was moist and had depth-of-flavour.  As for the jerk chicken, it was moist especially for white meat.  The jerk sauce was tangy with a touch of spice and sweetness.

Already halfway full from the appies, we sauntered over to Mamie Taylors.  As if one cocktail wasn't enough, we were treated to the Mamie Taylor made of scotch, fresh lime juice, ginger beer and angostura bitters.  Somewhat similar to the dark n' stormy at Calabash but lighter with less bite and a touch more acidity, it was another refreshing drink. Oh and they also served us a glass of wine too.  Was this a beverage tour too?  We weren't complaining!  For food, we were presented with Pimento Cheese stuffed in a paper thin cannoli on top of celery salad and espelette.  I enjoyed the cannoli itself because it was light and crispy.  Too many times I've had overly thick and crunchy versions.  Inside, the pimento cheese was moderately chunky while still smooth with big hits of salt and a touch of spice.

The food didn't end there as we were served  2 more including the Turducken Scotch Egg and Smoked Albacore Tuna.  The scotch egg sat atop tomatillo while dressed with garlic mayo and scallions.  I've had this dish before and it didn't disappoint this time around.  The egg was not overcooked, hence it was not rubbery.  The sausage was moist and meaty with lots of depth.  It was encased in a lightly crisp exterior which completed the range of textures.  The bright and zippy tomatillo sauce brought the dish alive. Consisting of raw albacore tuna, spicy eggplant, black eyed pea puree and cornbread, the tuna was a composed dish.  It was buttery soft with a purposeful smoke flavour.  The crispy and firm cornbread added some body while the eggplant ensured there was some heat.

Our last stop was some place I had passed by earlier in the day.  Simply named The Emerald, I thought it was not open.  Well, apparently it opened a few months back and with a eclectic decor, live music and extended hours, it has potential for a late-night dessert spot.  We had yet another cocktail, this time the Gin Basil Smash.  Thankfully all of the drinks were refreshing and this one was no exception with the zip of lemon, the lightness of gin and of course the herbal basil.  To end things off for the tour, we were served a trio of desserts including Chocolate Mousse, Coconut Gelato and Banana Cheesecake Spring Roll with raspberry coulis.  I found the mousse light and not overly sweet, yet it could've been stronger chocolate-wise.  The gelato was smooth and creamy with an aromatic coconut hit while effectively sweet.  As for the spring roll, it was crispy with a sweet banana cheesecake.  There was a bit too much coulis though.  Now if you were paying attention, we had 3 full-sized cocktails, 1 glass of wine and a total of 9 food items.  Suffice to say, we were both full and potentially intoxicated (I held back because I had to drive).  For all the other food tours in Vancouver, this tour had the best combination of drinks, real portions of food and quality establishments.  Sure, it costs the most, but there is a reason for it.

*All food, beverages and gratuities were comped*

The Good:
- Lots of full-sized cocktails
- Plenty of real dishes of food that makes sense progressionally
- Engaging and knowledgeable tour guide

The Bad:
- Costs the most, but for good reason 

Shi-Art Chinese Cuisine

With all the activities in my life, the game of golf has seemed to taken a back seat.  Hey, I wasn't that great at it to begin with, but with only one round per year, let's just say the only good thing about golf is the eats afterwards.  So after our round of golf in Richmond, we headed over to Shi-Art Chinese Cuisine for Dim Sum (despite its poor 56% rating on Urbanspoon).  Why there you might ask?  Well, it was more about convenience than anything else.  There was at least a chance we'd find parking and table...

To start things off, we had the "healthiest" dish of the bunch being the Pea Shoots with bean curd skin.  Although they were prepared properly, I found the pea shoots to be a bit old and stringy.  The big pieces of bean curd skin were good with a slight chew.  The broth was flavourful enough to help impact the ingredients and the addition of shiitake didn't hurt either.  Arriving in different shades of brown, the Phoenix Talons (Steamed Chicken Feet) were also inconsistent.  The lighter coloured claws were soft and had a fatty texture while the darker ones had skin which was drier and chewier.  Underneath, the cartilage was a bit crunchy in all of them.  The dish was well-seasoned though with the flavours trending towards sweet.

Whenever there are more than 4, yet less than 8 people sharing Dim Sum, it means inevitably there will be an uneven amount of dumplings.  Hence, we ended up with 2 steamers of Haw Gow.  These were a fair size with a slightly thick skin which was a bit chewy.  The filling was a mixture of shrimp pieces and mousse where it was moist with only a mild snap.  It was mild-tasting with some sweetness and hint of sesame oil.  Luckily, the Mini-Lo Mei Gai (Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaves) came in groups of 3 which meant 2 steamers worked out perfectly.  Inside the lotus leaves, the glutinous rice was nicely textured being chewy while moist.  The filling was impactful with plenty of seasoning that featured possibly a bit too much salt and interestingly a sesame oil aroma.

Onto some fried stuff (yay fried stuff!), we had the Deep Fried Taro Dumplings with a Portuguese-style sauce shrimp and pork filling. Despite the golden brown exterior, these were not very good.  The filling was dry and mealy where it could've used much more sauce.  Furthermore, the sauce itself has no impact whatsoever.  I couldn't get any of coconut milk nor curry hints.  Strangely cut by our server, the Deep Fried Shrimp Spring Rolls were crunchy and hot.  As you can see in the picture, in addition to the diagonal cut from the kitchen, the rolls were further scissored into little nubs a the ends.  Boy, did some people at the table get short-changed!  As for the filling, it was similar to the haw gow where there was a mousse mixture that was moist with only a bit of snap.

Served with a purposeful amount of sauce, the Pan Fried Stuffed Eggplant were a bit oil-soaked (albeit still not too mushy).  Not sure why they put "pan-fried" in the description as these were obviously deep-fried.  The shrimp mousse filling was completely overcooked where the texture was rubbery and lacking moisture.  The aforementioned sauce was not just an accessory (as it sometimes can be) because there was a nice saltiness.  We ended up with 3 different types of rice noodle rolls.  Our first one was the Beef Rice Noodle Roll that interestingly featured pea shoots.  Unfortunately, due to the stringiness of the pea shoots, the firm texture interfered with the soft beef.  Other than that, the rice noodle was medium-thickness being soft with a bit of elasticity.

Without any unnecessary additions (such as the pea shoots in previous dish) taking away from the main ingredient, the Shrimp Rice Noodle Roll was more typical.  Well, there was the light smattering of flowering chives, but that only provided aromatics.  With a light snap, the whole shrimp were well-seasoned and good on their own.  However, the rice noodle was thicker here which meant a good amount of soy was needed for both flavour and moisture.  As for the Salty Donut Rice Noodle Roll, it was pretty "meh".  The donut itself was refried which meant it was too crunchy where the inside was no longer exhibiting the counterbalancing chewiness.  Furthermore, the donut was greasy as a result.

Moving onto some seafood, in particular fish, we had the Pan Fried Smelt with spicy salt.  Again, these were deep fried, not pan fried as in the description.  The smelt were full of roe (as per the Chinese name) and were crispy on the outside.  They were not dried out retaining a nice moist texture.  As for the spicy salt, it was not very impactful as it was neither spicy nor salty.  Next, we had the Steamed Fish Collars in black bean chili sauce.  Depending on which piece, the taste ranged from mild sweet fishiness to outright 5-alarm hot (when you got a pepper).  Being the collar, the fattiness of the flesh meant the fish was moist and buttery.  But for those afraid of bones, they should best steer clear.

Of course we couldn't get out of there without having the "partner dish" of the haw gow - Sui Mai (Pork & Shrimp Dumpling).  But for some reason, Gordo never had it before (and he is Chinese???).  Anyways, these were very mediocre as the meat was more chewy than bouncy.  Furthermore, the taste was one-note being "porky".  There needed to be more shiitake and shrimp in the mix.  Equally disappointing was the Steamed Pork Spareribs. The textures were inconsistent as some were chewy and others were too soft.  Mirroring the previous dish, the meat was "porky" without a good hit of garlic or enough seasoning.  The one positive was that all the pieces were mostly meaty (with no fat and cartilage).

Cue the ball jokes as the Beef Meatballs arrived next.  When you get 6 guys together with varying levels of maturity (heck, we have none), we were too busy making ball jokes rather than eating.  When we did get to the balls, they were slightly bouncy and airy.  The mix of water chestnuts and green onions was just enough for both flavour and texture.  We added one last dish which was the Soy-Fried Noodles.  This dish cost a whopping $16.80!  Not only was it overly expensive, it wasn't very good either.  The noodles were a tad undercooked being too dry and chewy.  Furthermore, the caramelization of the soy was incomplete, hence the flavours were flat.  Not only were we shocked at the pricing in general, they actually charged us for water.  Yes, you read it right.  We didn't have tea because we were thirsty after golf.  But they still charged us for water on the bill totalling $7.50.  So I get the 56% rating now...  Service wasn't as bad as people have stated, but the food was "meh" and the price...

The Good:
- Some dishes were okay
- Not sure about others, but we got good service

The Bad:
- Cramped seating
- Overpriced for what you get

Shi-Art Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Araxi Long Table Dinner

I'm sure most of you have heard about the farm-to-table craze where restaurants  source their food predominantly from local suppliers.  However, what if they did the reverse and brought the table-to-the-farm?  That's what I was fortunate enough to experience with Araxi's Long Table Dinner in Pemberton. Held at North Arm Farm (which incidentally supplies Araxi as well) right smack dab in the middle of their scenic field with Mount Currie in the background, it was the perfect day to enjoy a meal prepared by Executive Chef James Walt and his Araxi team as well as guest chef from Quail's Gate, Roger Sleiman.

Upon entering the farm, we were greeted with a cocktail reception featuring Quails' Gate Estate Chenin Blanc 2013 and Pemberton Distillery Vodka Cocktail.  Hor d'oeuvres included RR Ranch Beef Tartare with sweet peppers, Sundried Tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and Dungeness crab & smoked salmon in egg crepe. After some picture-taking and enjoying the scenery, I was seated along with 149 other guests at the long table.  The meal was to be served family style where we would share each course.  Well, they didn't skimp on the portion size as the platters were humungous. Our first course consisted of North Arm Farm Squash Blossoms stuffed with Saltspring Island Moonstruck cow's milk cheese, chanterelle mushrooms, tomatoes, green beans and sweet corn.  These were large, almost overstuffed blossoms which were crispy and light.  The thin layer of bread crumbs gave way to a mild-tasting cheese with a slight sharpness.  However, the real star of the plate was the super-fresh sweet corn that was a pleasure to eat texturally with a juicy pop.  

Majestically plated, the Hot Smoked Haida Gwaii Chinook Salmon was outstanding.  With a light grill on the outside, the flesh was appealingly rare where it was buttery soft while still flaky.  There was a light smoke with a touch of salt and fennel seed that didn't overwhelm the natural sweetness of the fish.  Underneath lay a mix of toasted farro, fava beans, North Arm Summer squash, O'Neil farm fresh apricots and pumpkin seeds which was a study in textures accented by a touch of acidity.  On top, the dish was finished with fennel and watercress that added both brightness and aromatics. Next up was the Duo of Rangelands Buffalo featuring a roasted fillet and orange, coriander and fresh herb sausage.  Served on the side was North Arm baby carrots, chimichurri and demi.  Despite the leanness of the buffalo fillet, it was perfectly rare where it was succulent with a firm and smoky bark.  The sausage was meaty and lean with pepper, fennel and coriander notes finishing off with the sweetness of orange.  I found the chimichurri to be interestingly creamy with garlicky and herbaceous notes finishing with a tang.  The demi was silky and rich with a definite red wine hit.

Moving onto dessert, we were spoiled with not one, but 2 plates of sweets.  The first consisted of North Arm blueberries and raspberries with Lemon Tart and Valrhona Mousse Cake.  Light and almost fluffy, the creamy lemon tart was purposefully sweet with only a mild tartness.  The minimal crust was buttery and firm which was a nice accent.  As for the mousse cake, there was layers of texture which included creamy, crunchy and fluffy.  There was a strong chocolate presence (of course, since it was Valrhona) that was not overly sweet nor bitter.  The dessert finished off smooth with the aroma of coffee.  On the next plate, there was a selection of Macarons, Pâte de Fruits and Caramels.  I was able to sample the coconut macaron and it was sweet and aromatic from the toasted coconut.  The exterior was nicely crisp that revealed a chewy, yet soft inside.  A wonderful end to a unique experience. Now, it is quite obvious I thoroughly enjoyed my meal that was held in a truly Supernatural BC setting.  Now at $175.00 pp including cocktail reception, four-course menu, wine pairings, tax and gratuity, it definitely isn't cheap.  But considering the quality and quantity of the food all served in a one-of-a-kind dining space, it doesn't seem so outrageous after all.

*All food, beverages and gratuities were comped*

The Good:
- The beautiful table set in a field with nature as its backdrop (need I say more?)
- Masterfully executed dining experience
- Not only quality, but quantity

The Bad:
- As much as I think it is worth it, it is still $175.00 pp
- Mother nature may not play nice, but it did play nice this time

Araxi on Urbanspoon

CHAU VeggiExpress

Normally, having lunch with Choobee includes the usual whining that the location of the restaurant is too far or it's not interesting enough.  Imagine the shock when she suggested we eat out on Victoria Drive and at Chau VeggiExpress.  What?  Somewhere East of Main Street AND vegetarian???  I knew she has a screw loose somewhere, but this was outright lunacy.  Fine, I guess I shouldn't be picky.  At least she was willing to travel for food...  Besides, I sampled the food before at a Tasting Plates and admittedly, it was pretty good.

We decided to share everything beginning with the Namahata or their version of a salad roll consisting of shredded bean curd, mint, quinoa, mung bean, green leaf lettuce, cucumber and crispy wheat crunch accompanied by lemon sauce.  This was an exploration in textures including the soft bean curd, crunchy cucumber, crisp lettuce and of course, the wheat crunch.  The mint really came through and the lemon added a nice refreshing acidity.  For our mains, I dug into the Candlelit Lantern Down the River first.  It featured an aromatic, yet impactful broth consisting of star anise and cinnamon encompassing rice noodles along with assorted tofu, mushrooms, lotus roots and herbs.  With familiar flavours akin to Pho, but without the meat, this was probably my favourite of the bunch as the noodles were toothsome while the ingredients made me forget about the meat.

Next, I tried the Golden Temple with quinoa served on the side.  Aromatic and purposeful, the turmeric curry broth helped highlight the combination of assorted tofu, veggies, yam, taro, kale and herbs.  I found this to be both light and flavourful at the same time.  The vibrant and firm veggies were a real treat as they retained their colour and textures.  I'm not sure if the quinoa was the best accompaniment as noodles or rice would've soaked up the broth more readily.  Finally, we had the Moonlit Midnight Swim consisting of wild rice blend, assorted tofu, veggies, kale, mushrooms and lotus root in a spiced peanut, mushroom sauce topped by lettuce, roasted peanuts and seeds.  This one was the most hearty of the offerings with firm rice and a nutty sweet & salty sauce.  We liked that there was a definite heat to it as well.  Similarly to all of the other dishes, there was a nice contrast of textures.  Okay, okay, I'm not afraid to say it - I like the food at Chau.  There I said it.  Now where is the closest steak house?

The Good:
- Impactful and purposeful flavours
- No meat and it's still hearty

The Bad:
- Maybe a bit heavy on the sodium at times

CHAU VeggiExpress on Urbanspoon