Sherman's Food Adventures: February 2019

Talking Trees Tours + 3-Course Indigenous Inspired Dinner (Collaboration between Talaysay Tours and the Fairmont Waterfront)

If a first-time visitor to Vancouver asks you where should they stay and what should they do, there are some pretty standard answers. If we talk about activities, we get the usual Capilano Suspension Bridge, Science World, Grouse Mountain, Granville Island and of course Stanley Park. Now if one wanted a more unique and truly local experience, many of these would be classified as "touristy". However, I recently participated in something a bit different with the Talking Trees Tour by Talaysay Tours. They have partnered up with the Fairmont Waterfront to provide a complete experience including a stay at the hotel and a 4-course dinner inspired by the Tour.

Let’s talk about the tour first. It is run by Talaysay Tours by mother and daughter team Candace and Talaysay (it is named after her). The Talking Trees tour focuses on the indigenous foliage in the area (in this case Stanley Park) and their many uses by the indigenous peoples. This is only one of the tours that are available. Back to the Talking Trees Tour, we were shuttled by the hotel to meet up with Candance and Talaysay in the Stanley Park train parking lot. From there, we made the short walk to one of the trails. For roughly 90 minutes, we were taught how various trees and plants were used not only for medicinal purposes, but how were used for food and building materials. This was a low impact walk with many stops and also hot tea near the end.

After being shuttled back to the hotel, we had some time to refresh before heading down to The Arc restaurant for a 4-course dinner consisting of local ingredients and items found on the Talking Trees Tour. We started off with an Amuse Bouche consisting of an Oyster with herring roe, kelp and hemlock & eucalyptus emulsion. This was a simple bite that was briny and sweet with a background herbal essence. Next, we were presented with the Elk Tartare with elderberries, blackberries and hazelnuts with a side of bone marrow sabayon. As lean as the elk tartare can be, this one was still buttery soft and tender. The bone marrow sabayon added the necessary fat to create body and add a meaty flavour. Loved the little pops of sweet tangy berries as it added sweetness and acidity. Normally, I don’t talk about flatbreads very often, but the one here was perfect, being fluffy and soft with a firm exterior char.

Onto the main dish, we had the West Coast Salmon Kedgeree with wild rice, 63 degree egg and madras curry veloute. It was suggested we mix everything together including the salmon. So we mashed everything up into a dirty rice of sorts and yes, it was very good. Loved the firm chewy rice and the tender flaky salmon along with the silkiness of the egg and aromatic creaminess of the veloute. There was just enough curry for aroma without overwhelming the salmon.  For dessert, we were served Fry Bread (Bannock) with berries and dark chocolate mousse.  Coated in cinnamon sugar, this was a crunchier and chewier version of a churro.  Naturally, the blueberries was a nice add to the dessert while the chocolate mousse was light, creamy and semi-sweet.

Another great thing about the Talking Trees package is that it includes a one-night stay at the luxurious Fairmont Waterfront starting from $514.00 based on double occupancy. We were put up in a Signature Harbor Stanley Park View Room with a fabulous view of the Stanley Park and the North Shore.  Tastefully appointed with plenty of space, the room featured a 47" flat-screen TV and a comfortable Sealy Posturepedic king bed (2 doubles available too).  Our bathroom came with a large rain shower, but could be had with a bathtub as well.  Toiletries were Le Lebo Fragrances branded under the Rose 31 line.  They were a large 90ml size and I barely put a dent into them for one night.  Soap bars were plenty big as well.  Yes, they did not skimp on anything.

Probably the best feature of this 20th floor room was the outstanding view.  I caught myself just staring out the window on many occasions.  However, with its convenient location across the street from Canada Place, there was no reason to just sit in our room (despite the cold weather).  Even then, the heated outdoor pool was beautiful (with also a view of the harbour) and warm enough to use.  But in reality, a quick dip into the adjacent hot tub kept things from getting too frigid.  Overall, I thought the Talking Trees package was original and well-priced.  Starting at $514.00CAD (Fairmont City View Queen), you not only get a stay at the hotel, it includes a 3-course (4-courses with the amuse bouche), walking tour and transportation to and from Stanley Park for 2. Worth checking out if you are a visitor to the city or live in the city itself.

*All food, beverages, tour and hotel stay were complimentary*

The Good:
- An experience that is original and truly local (not too touristy)
- Well-priced inclusive package
- Thoughtful indigenous-inspired dinner

The Bad:
- If you have a car to park (other than electric), it will cost you $49.00

Ugly Dumpling

Some say we eat with our eyes and some go even further to say that if the food ain't pretty to look at, it isn't worth eating at all.  For me, I do enjoy a nicely plated and composed dish, but really, it is all about the flavours and execution.  Don't even get me started on this because many of the most delicious Asian foods are not particularly photogenic.  That is basically the concept at the newish Ugly Dumpling which took over the ol' Merchants Workshop.  With Japanese and Chinese influences, the menu is definitely Asian-inspired, but really it is all-over-the-place.  Yes, the food isn't particularly IG worthy, but again, if it tastes good...  Recently, I visited the place with Steph.

We decided on the 10-course tasting menu priced at a reasonable $60.00.  Wine pairings were very affordable at $30/$40 (3/4 pours).  We were started off with the a pair of Marina's Gold Oysters with cedar-aged vinegar and horseradish.  This was a simple starter, but sometimes, simple is better.  We found that the vinegar and horseradish was purposefully restrained where the natural sweet brininess of the oyster really came through.  The oyster itself was creamy and delicate.  Next, we had the Winter Greens Salad with soba crackers, pickled grapes and miso dressing.  Not overly complex on the surface, the salad ate typically until we got to the pickled grapes.  Beyond the sweet tanginess, there was a pointed fermented taste that was akin to kombucha.  Add in the crunch from the crunchy soba noodles and the salad was pleasant texturally as much as it was taste-wise.

Accompanied by toasted bread, sunchoke, carrots and radish, the Chicken Liver Pate was creamy and aromatic.  It was definitely on the sweeter side where it didn't really go with the sweet wine pairing.  However, on its own, the silky-smooth pate was a great compliment to the earthy sunchokes.  One thing that cannot be overstated is that they did not skimp on the portion size of the pate as there was more than enough for the bread and crudites.  Now the place wouldn't be called Ugly Dumpling if they didn't offer up what we had next - Curry Pork Dumplings with vegetables.  No, they weren't ugly.  In fact, these were firm and tightly wrapped which kept the filling from being too loose.  The meat was tender with texture while the veggies weren't overdone, which kept the everything from being mushy.  Loved the thin dumpling skin as it was delicate with an appealing elasticity.

Probably the most IGable dish was the Pine Mushroom Omelette with a side of king mushrooms.  If there was ever a time where I could compliment the chef on perfect execution, this omelette would be it.  Expertly folded and fluffy, the egg was teetering on the edge of barely cooked.  Sweet with earthiness provided by the mushrooms, each piece of omelette or should we say tamago, was a tasty cloud of fluffy heaven.  Topped with the nori and green onions, the House-Cured Mentaiko and Egg Bowl was another subtle but tasty offering.  Texturally, the chewy rice was beautifully enveloped by the onsen egg which created a creamy silky "glue".  The ample amount of cured mentaiko added a salty-brininess.  The umami quotient was kicked up a notch with the nori and the green onion provided brightness.

Continuing the theme on seemingly simple dishes, we had the Steamed Ling Cod with XO sauce.  This normally is accompanied by peanuts, sambal and dried shrimp, but with Steph being allergic to peanuts, we did without them.  Buttery and soft, the ling cod was perfectly prepared.  Beyond the usual savoury soy notes, the XO was pretty low-key where we knew it was there, but the spice and brininess was not overly strong.  This may have been intentional because the ling cod could've been overwhelmed otherwise.  Technically, our last savoury item was the Homemade Zaru Soba.  In terms of texture, the noodles were excellent maintaining a firm chewiness.  The side of dipping sauce was mild and balanced.  It wasn't to salty and exhibited the umaminess of bonito flakes.

Not to waste the dipping sauce, we were presented with a thermos full of fish broth to mix it with.  We simply poured as much as we wanted into the small bowl (naturally, more for mild and less from a bit saltier).  This was neat and supposedly good for our skin.  We finally made it to dessert where we were presented with Coconut Mochi with red bean and Quince Vanilla Pudding.  We found the mochi to be nicely textured with a bit of chewiness to go with equal parts fluffiness.  What threw us for a loop was the quice vanilla pudding as the little nuggets of tender quice were purple due to being poached.  What really made this dessert appealing was the pudding as it was rich and creamy.  Not too sweet either.  All-in-all, the food we tried at Ugly Dumpling was pretty solid.  Yes, nothing was particularly ground-breaking and honestly, to Asians, it can even be considered fairly typical.  But prices are fair and service is good.  Worth a try.

The Good:
- Reasonably-priced with all things considered
- Solid eats
- Servers seem to really care

The Bad:
- For some, the food is nothing ground-breaking

HaiDiLao Hot Pot

At one point in time, the hot pot game in the GVRD was limited to eating at home and the occasional AYCE restaurant.  It wasn't known as a destination at all and frankly, the lack of service and drab decor made for a basic experience.  However, as with most things, time has changed all that.  We now see a whole spectrum of choices when it comes to hot pot in the Lower Mainland.  Mixed in with the usual AYCE spots, we now find high end hot pot chains setting up shop, particularly in Richmond.  Haidilao is the most recent addition in the old HML location.  This Chinese chain boasts outstanding service as well as high-quality ingredients.  Miss Y and I decided to check it out early one evening before heading to Riverport for a movie.

When I say early, I meant we showed up at 4:30pm.  Even with that, we waited for 20 minutes for a table.  When we left at 6:30pm, there was a 2 hour wait!  Seeing that is a regular occurrence, they offer freshly popped corn, grapes and Werther's for patrons to snack on while they wait.  During this time, the staff was always checking in on us making sure we had something to drink and were comfortable.  Once our table was ready, we were seated and handed an iPad to do our order.  It was like buying something on Amazon, where we added things to our cart and then after we submitted it, the food began to arrive.  Ever since I spotted the 4 different soup bases in one pot on IG, I knew that we had to get it.  In addition to the basic Pork Bone Broth, we also had Tomato, Mushroom and Spicy.  We agreed that the tomato was the best being a bit thick and aromatic with a fragrant tomato essence.  The pork bone was pretty standard while the spicy was impactful, but not tongue-burning.  The mushroom was definitely full of umaminess, but probably the weakest of the bunch.

Before we even got to the food, we helped ourselves to the Sauce Bar that set us back another $3.99 per person.  In addition to the impressive array of sauce and ingredient options, we found some snacks such as spicy peanuts, pickled veggies and edamame.  Right beside it, there was some fruit such as oranges, grapes and pomelo.  Consistent with the service, the sauce bar was kept stocked and sparkling clean.  If someone made a mess (which they did), someone swooped in and got rid of the evidence faster than Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction.  As for the food that we had ordered, we decided on the Beef Rib which was pricey at $26.00, but oh was it worth it.  Each medium-thick slice was buttery soft and tender.  It had a great meaty taste and the even marbling of fat created a certain richness.  We also got the Sliced Lamb and it was also very tender.  It wasn't super gamy probably because it wasn't too fatty.

We decided to go strong with the seafood starting with some Fresh Oysters.  At first, I thought we only got 5 oysters, but they carefully placed 2 small oysters per leaf.  These were really good being buttery soft, appealingly briny and sweet.  By virtue of being smaller, these cooked a whole faster than the large ones you'd find at AYCE hot pot joints.  Loved how they were kept on ice which meant we were in no rush to cook them all at once.  Beautifully arranged, the Assorted Seafood platter was also kept on ice.  There was a nice selection of shrimp, mussels, cuttlefish, basa and scallops.  Once again, the quality of the seafood was top notch.  This was especially true the scallops as they cooked up plump and sweet.  While we were enjoying our seafood, one of the servers offered to de-shell the shrimp for us.  She took the seafood away and brought it back with the shrimp perfectly de-shelled with the head still on.  Yes, the service rocks.

We also got a few smaller items including Lotus Root, Rice Cake, Beef Tripe, Napa Cabbage and Assorted Mushrooms.  These weren't particularly expensive in the grand scheme of things and really, the prices at HaiDiLao are not out-of-line with the rest of the higher end hot pot restaurants.  Nothing particularly special about the these items other than the fact that the beef tripe was rolled up and then sliced.  Overall, we thought the experience at Haidilao was special enough to warrant the higher prices.  The service was almost too good where we could've been left alone at most times.  However, we'll gladly take it over indifference.  Food quality was high while the seating arrangement was comfortable.  Definitely worth a try, just be aware that the lineup can be ridiculous during peak times.

The Good:
- Over-the-top service
- High food quality
- Comfortable experience

The Bad:
- Pricey
- Lineup is scary

Vij's

This revisit to Vij's has been a long time coming.  Every year, I keep making plans to go and for some reason or another, it never materializes.  This has been further exacerbated by the fact Viv has never been there.  Yes, as unbelievable as it sounds, she has never eaten at Vij's.  So when Costanza and Elaine asked where she wanted to go for her birthday dinner, it was pretty much the perfect time to go.  Of course we arrived before opening to stand in the iconic lineup to snag a table.  Even though it was in the dead of Winter (not too cold though), it spilled out onto the sidewalk.

As we were seated, the usual complimentary appies were offered including pakoras and lentil chaat.  Not to worry, we did order some smaller plates of our own to share including the fantastic Eggplant in thick yogurt curry.  What really made the dish was the fried onions on top as they not only added a crunch, the aromatics and sweetness combined with the nutty batter added layers of flavour.  The eggplant itself was tender while retaining a bite.  It was bathed in a rich curry that was tangy with a background spice.  Equally tasty was the Jackfruit in black cardamom and cumin curry.  Each nugget of jackfruit was tender and juicy.  Again, there was a balancing amount of tanginess (from the pickled ginger especially) to go with the slight spice and earthy notes from the cumin.

Another classic dish was the Garam Masala Portobello Mushrooms in porcini cream curry.  It was rich and smooth with little pops of lentils and rice.  Naturally, it was woodsy and aromatic while deceptively spicy.  Being creamy, the spice didn't hit until midway through each bite which helped create waves of flavour.  This would be repeated again and again as all the dishes were both subtle and impactful at the same time.  Our last small dish was the Rabbit with onion-jalapeno-ginger sauteed in raw sugar.  Naturally lean, the rabbit was still tender and moist.  Again, there was enough tanginess to offset the sweetness and spice.  Loved the sharp, almost "sundried tomato-like" onion jalapeno ginger which created pops of sweet tanginess.

Onto the mains, it was a foregone conclusion that we would order the Wine-Marinated Lamb Popsicles in fenugreek cream.  This iconic dish has been copied by others but never executed like the original.  Only lightly gamy, the lamb was tender and cooked perfectly (with some pink).  Beyond the caramelization on the outside, the subtle wine notes were in the background as the cream took centre stage.  It was aromatic, sweet and lightly earthy.  As much as I sopped as much on the lamb as possible, the cream was subtle enough to let the lamb shine on its own.  Interestingly, I was rather fond of the Coconut Curried Vegetables on lentil & brown rice pilaf even though there was no meat.  I found the potatoes and cauliflower to have enough meatiness to stand up to the mild aromatic (due to the coconut) curry.

Although I really enjoyed the texture of the Duck Koftes in creamy tomato & kale curry, this was one dish that was a bit out-of-balance.  The koftes were too salty in our opinion which helped obscure the creamy tomato curry.  Fortunately, the spice level was a bit higher in this dish which meant it somewhat offset the saltiness of the duck.  Texturally, they were meaty while being tender.  Lastly, we had the Braised Shortribs in fennel & mustard seed curry which was also a well-executed dish.  The shortribs themselves were fork tender with enough fatiness so that the meat was also buttery and soft.  I found the curry rather mild with only a touch of licorice essence.  Loved the kale as it was lightly blanched where it still had a bright crunch.

A long time ago, I criticized the Naan that came with our meal was hard, thick and dense.  Well, that is clearly not the case now as it was thin, crispy in parts and soft and elastic in others.  Beautiful charring with an appealingly nuttiness.   This, along with the rice was refillable upon request.  We really didn't need to do that since we had more than enough food that was rich, full-bodied and complex.  Nice to see that Vij's still has that going for them after all these years.  The time until my next visit won't be as long...

The Good:
- Full-bodied with complex flavours
- Something a bit different than usual Indian restaurants
- On point service

The Bad:
- Can be rather heavy, order accordingly (which we didn't)
- Although there are limited reservations available now, you generally still have to lineup

Mangia Cucina & Bar

Sometimes I wonder why pasta can be so expensive.  After all, it is not as if the ingredients are necessarily that costly.  Of course I'm not that stupid to assume that is all that goes into a plate of pasta.  Naturally, the quality of the pasta as well as complimentary ingredients and sauce make a difference.  Add in the operational costs of a restaurant and one can begin to understand why a plate of pasta can be $40.00 at Cioppino's.  However, when one wants to have a reasonably-priced and carefully crafted pasta, it gets a bit more challenging (and I'm not talking about Anton's...).  Well, we decided to check out Mangia Cucina & Bar in a quaint little house on Manitoba Street since we've heard they might have the pasta we've been looking for...

Before we got to that, we did the obligatory appies including the Fritto Misto di Pesce with deep fried calamari, whitebait and prawns.  I found the batter to be light, not greasy and well-seasoned.  There was much more whitebait (smelt) than anything else on the plate.  It was flavourful and tender.  The 2 large prawns were meaty with a moist snap.  For some reason, we didn't get much calamari though.  As much as it can be a small detail, the large lemon wedge was welcomed as we got plenty of tangy acidity.  Dressed with arugula, parmesan and balsamic reduction, the Carpaccio di Manzo was actually sliced quite thick.  As such, the texture and flavour was much meatier and robust.  That didn't mean it wasn't tender though as it certainly was, but with just a tad more chew.

Continuing on, we were served a really big Arancina Bomba consisting of saffron rice, mozzarella and pistachio pesto.  At first, I was concerned that the temperature might be compromised due to its size, but that was unfounded.  Beyond the crispy golden exterior, the arancina was evenly hot throughout.  The rice was tender while retaining a slight chewiness.  It was certainly cheesy and aromatic as well.  Trying to hit all the sections of the menu, we also got a salad in the Poached Pear, Gorgonzola and Walnut.  This was not a complex salad as all of the ingredients were present and did their part.  The crisp greens were lightly dressed and benefited from the sharp cheese and mildly sweet pear.  Of course the walnut added the necessary crunch and nuttiness.

Onto the pastas, we ordered my favourite in the Spaghetti alle Vongole sporting fresh clams and also more clams hidden underneath.  I thought the pasta was perfectly al dente with an appealing chew.  The addition of chili afforded a balanced spice while the garlic did its aromatic thing.  We thought that even more clam brininess would've kick this up a notch, but that was nit-picking as we enjoyed this pasta very much.  Packed with guanciale, the Spaghetti alla Carbonara was rich and creamy.  I'm glad I got to it when it was still steaming hot.  At that stage, the pasta was appealingly chewy while cheesy and purposefully salty.  Later when it cooked, it naturally got clumpy.  Make sure you eat it right away!

Staying with the theme of "trying something from each section", we got the Risotto Funghi Porcini.  OMG, this was absolutely delicious. They did not skimp on the marscapone as the risotto was cheesy and rich.  Little bursts of woodsiness were thanks to the generous amount of porcini mushrooms.  Best of all, the arborio was not overcooked, yet at the same time was tender.  A very well-executed risotto and yes, best eaten right away too!  For our pizza selection, we tried the Salsciccia and Rapini with mozzarella and tomato sauce.  As shown in the picture, the crust was nicely charred which meant it was nutty and crunchy.  I found the middle of the pizza a bit squishy, but that was due mostly to the wet ingredients including the sauce and rapini.  I thought the tomato sauce was excellent being tangy and full-bodied.  There was ample tender sausage on top for impact.

We weren't planning on ordering dessert, but they offered us up the Eclaire al Pistacchio since the pizza took so long.  Nice gesture.  At first, one would assume the pistacchio glaze on the outside was basically it, yet on the inside, there was a tart and tangy berry filling to go with the nutty sweetness.  All-in-all, a very pleasant experience at Mangia that could be repeated many times due to the reasonable pricing.  Of course there is fancier, more elevated Italian restaurants out there, but if you were looking solely at the food in a quaint little space, Mangia is a great choice.

The Good:
- Solid eats
- Friendly service
- Reasonable pricing

The Bad:
- Very small and packed, be prepared to wait
- Can be loud due to the acoustics