Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cocktail University

  Meeting my cousin David Wolowidnyk is like going to Cocktail University. Having a few of his drinks and discussing them with him is akin to getting a degree from said university.
  My main interest in beverages these days is in mocktails. This isn't new. I've accompanied some of my best and priciest meals with mocktails: Justin Lord's mocktails at Per Se were considerably better than the ludicrously expensive food there, and the mocktails accompanying my meal at Jose Andre's equally hard to get into and equally expensive E restaurant in the bowels of Jaleo in Vegas were infinitely better than its world-altering food. One drink in particular, made from pear nectar, green tea (despite 17 years in Japan, I have no tolerance for green tea) and "jasmine air" (whatever that is) remains the finest beverage that has ever passed my lips. The finest cocktail was also in Vegas, a passion fruit sour that accompanied the John Dory at Pierre Gagnaire's (the guy who turned Fernan Adria, for several years considered the world's best chef and Jose Andres' mentor, on to molecular gastronomy) Twist restaurant, also in Vegas. If you see a theme emerging here, it is that I have found Vegas to be the source of the best tastes I've ever encountered, and I've put a lot of effort into finding such tastes in the past decade. I'll be in Vegas for the 6th time in a couple of weeks. In particular, I'll be attending something called For the Love of the Cocktail with master mixologists Tony Abou-Ganim, Salvatore Calabrese and Francesco LaFranconi, in between my usual sublime dinners at Le Cirque, Guy Savoy, et al. So I had some prep to do. Just today, I got The Everyday Guide to Spirits and Cocktails: Tastes and Traditions from the library and will study its 6 lectures anon. But back to my cousin...
  David certainly has the right genes. His mother Sonia, technically a cousin but more an elder sister since she moved to California when I still lived there in the mid-60s, turned me on to the great Ukrainian food that never interested my mother, who never stopped denying her Ukrainian heritage though her mother spoke ONLY Ukrainian and made some great borscht on the few occasions I met her. I lived with Sonia's parents when I returned to Saskatchewan in 1969 and her mother, my aunt Kay made the best pastry I've ever tasted. So good taste buds run deep in David's family.
  My interest in beverages goes back at least to 1959 when I began attending a discussion group where the only available beverage was coffee. It was new to me, and it was delicious. The following year my family was making its regular trek from LA back to Saskatchewan and we stopped in Montana. I recall it was very cold, even though it was mid-summer. On the telly, maybe a political convention? Something relevant to the US presidential election that dominated the news that year. I had a cup of tea to warm me up. It instantly became my favourite beverage, and remains so to this day. Never went back to coffee. In the early 60s I did a lot of experimenting with different kinds of tea, both hot and iced. I still try new teas all the time. A universe of flavours one can never exhaust. Alcohol wasn't part of my beverage diet until I moved to Japan in 1971 and had no choice. Like green tea, you aren't asked whether you want it or not- There it is! Drink or die of thirst! But I never actually liked any alcoholic beverages until David turned me on to cocktails a decade ago. And that was also a slow process. The first cocktail he served me at his previous restaurant West was an alcoholic borscht, "in honour of our shared Ukrainian heritage" he told me. I preferred the actual soup. Next, he tried to interest me in a cocktail that tasted just like pumpkin pie. I preferred the pie. But gradually in visits to West, he introduced me to drinks that actually tasted good. More than good. One, called the Jolie Coure won him World's Most Innovative Bartender honours and certainly deserved to. He made it with and without alcohol for my wife Fumiyo and I, and then mixed them up, so we couldn't tell which was which. That's what a great mocktail should do. If you miss the booze, the bartender isn't doing it right.
  I had studied the list of mocktails on the Cin Cin website before venturing there. I looked forward to Buddha's cup: fresh pressed pineapple, lime, chamomile syrup and sugar; Orchard Breeze: apricot puree, lemon, sugar and orgeat; and finally Delizia: blueberry puree, lemon sugar and basil syrup. The best for me was the blueberry based beverage. I've been looking for a substitute for the sangria I've been guzzling since my last trip to Spain, and this was it! I drink a lot of blueberry juice anyway, and adding basil leaves really does eclipse sangria for my palate. I have loved apricots since growing up in LA (Applets and Cottlets for those who remember such candies) and mixing them with the almondy orgeat was quite inspired. I would never have guessed they would pair so well. I love pineapple in any form, but the addition of chamomile syrup didn't register. "You'd notice it if it were missing," David tells me. After the peary perfection at E, my 2nd favourite mocktail there was called Pineapple Upside Down Cake and it really made use of pineapple superbly, though not in the same taste pantheon as the pear mocktail. That's right- it Made Use of pineapple, this was just pineapple, with a bit of an addition, perhaps my palate isn't subtle enough to fully appreciate.
  After the menu goodies, David made the best glass of ice tea I've ever had (and I drink a lot of ice tea). 3 parts orange pekoe, one part mango rooibos, plus the usual lemon and sugar. I must find mango rooibos somewhere and get into that. To the extent that I have a favourite fruit, it would probably be apples, and David then concocted an apply beverage that was the best non-alcoholic use of the beverage I have ever encountered. I love mulled cidre, full of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice and this drink was indeed full of those spices. Made hot, and then cooled down, it reminded me of all the great mulled cidres I've drank over the decades,  and my parents traditional Christmas wassail bowl with the cloved oranges bobbing about. I'm drinking a glass of Longueville sparkling apple juice now as I write. You don't have to be William Tell to know you can't lose with apples.
  Next week it's back to the Keefer, Vancouver's most famous bar where Chinese herbs meet modern mixology. When my plane touches down in Vegas, and I meet its drink deities, I will certainly be prepared.
Thanks for the education, cousin.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A new mall comes to Richmond

Well, part of it anyway. Most of the stores are still empty, but of  those that are open, here are a couple of reflections:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Portugese popular art, Mission restaurant

My favourite place in Vancouver, the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, is hosting an exhibition of Portuguese popular art this summer. Subversive ceramics and such. Reminded me of the comic strip art at the subway station they built for the World's Fair in Lisbon. Portugal seems to share with Japan, not only a lot of cuisine (borrowed by the Japanese) but a youthful, fun culture, though the Portuguese tends to be far less cloying than the Japanese immersion in cuteness.
After the museum, I had a reservation at the new restaurant Mission I had read a loving review of in our entertainment weekly, The Georgia Straight. The review said it was as good as Bauhaus, where I recently had perhaps the best meal I've ever had in Vancouver. And far cheaper. Ok, that was enough to convince me. And it was on my home from the Museum. How convenient.
There seems to be a goat theme happening at Mission. A large image of a goat greets you from the wall, little goats appear symbolically on the menu (they indicate a lighter meal) and the waitress tells me of plans to have someone dressed in a goat suit stand outside the restaurant and invite patrons in. Is goat cheese to be as prominent an ingredient here as for example, pears are at the Pear Tree restaurant? My amuse bouche certainly makes fine use of goat cheese, combined with fava beans, caramelized onions and herbs. I order a mocktail (I had asked about them on my reservation phone call), and was delighted with a beverage my mixologist later tells me he made from passion fruit puree, grapefruit juice and a citrus soda. It provided superb accompaniment to the food.
I normally avoid bread offerings, but the small sage roll looked manageable, and combined with Mission's mushroom jelly, it became an even more amusing bouche than the superb fava bean thingie.
As a child I remember eating, what were then called dollar pancakes. Larger than an actual silver dollar but smaller than regular size pancakes and meant to be consumed in volume. Apparently they're called blinis. At least on this menu. I look up the word and discover it is a Russian crepe. Doesn't taste like a crepe at all. Salmon with crepes makes sense, with pancakes it is, shall we say, novel. I'm told the blinis are infused with shrimp, but they just taste like ordinary dollar pancakes to me. The roe creme fraiche is refreshing. I would never have imagined salmon pancakes, and when I tell Fumiyo about them, she is just as skeptical. But the dish works! That's why I go to restaurants!.

Next up, a zucchini flower stuffed with ground pork, eggplant, puffed rice and herbs. It is a wonder. The only time I've had a stuffed zucchini flower  was at a restaurant in Florence when Fumiyo and I spent the fall in Europe in 2002. Bathed in egg whites and then deep fried, it reminded me of a ground pork and eggplant dish Fumiyo makes, but the puffed rice, as odd as the salmon sitting atop the pancakes, was a revelation.

Next up, cauliflower porridge with broccoli and brassicas. Hmm. I thought cauliflower and broccoli were already brassicas. Perhaps there are additional greens. I love broccoli and eat it often. Cauliflower is one of my favourite foods. Nonetheless, this combination did not work. It was far too bitter. Even the wonderful mocktail couldn't save it.
Last item was roasted potatoes and foraged mushrooms in walnut creme. Flavourful, particularly in contrast to the previous unpleasantness, but a bit too starchy, and far from revelatory.
2 for 4 isn't bad and the mocktail was a delight. The meal cost about half what I paid for an equal portion of food at Bauhaus, but not in the same galaxy in terms of flavour. You get what you pay for. Mission shows promise.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Keefer Bar again.

 What is a good drink? A drink that takes you to a better place. A new, but comfortably familiar recliner, with stars appearing in only your skies. And your throat is so thankful.
For the second time, friend Frank and I ventured into the Keefer bar. I was anxious to savour its libations after the latest issue of the BC liquor store mag Taste awarded the Keefer queen Danielle Tatarin its bar star of the season. I follow the stars. Alas, she did not appear, but instead, Monsieur MacAlpine minus dreadlocks appeared to evolve realms of taste and intoxication I would otherwise have doubted existed. Good work, Mac. He was the bar star Frank and I had hoped to meet when we were last at the Keefer bar 2 1/2 years ago. It's rare you encounter someone who is trying to elevate the universe of taste possibilities. More often in cheffery, but the best things to enter my taste buds in Vegas have been extraordinary drinks, even better than the sublime food.
I told Gez I'm a man of sangria and this menu item immediately came to mind. Although the egg white made it somewhat heavy, it was worth every molecule. "Fantasy Island:
absolut elyx vodka, pomegranate, lemon juice, fantasy island tea syrup, Chinese happy wine & egg white - served up with a toasted coconut & cacao sugar rim." I had seen it in the online menu, described there as "fruity." It certainly was that. A wonderful drink.
We ordered some soft tacos, mine with shitake, Frank's with duck, as well as shrimp spring rolls. The spring rolls were amazing, but I made the mistake of allowing my taco to touch the hot sauce on the plate. Frank wisely avoided it. We also ordered chicken skewers with peanut sauce, but they never appeared. I'd never had Happy Wine before, but the Keefer specialized in using Chinese ingredients (it is in Chinatown). I was offered a sip of the wine of happiness and it slightly reminded me of a port wine that came in an endless bottle at a hotel I stayed at in Lisbon. A very good memory.
"Next was the mother of dragons: The west winds gin, lemon juice, dragon pearl green tea syrup, dry curaçao & apothecary spitfire bitters." Another delicious cocktail. I'm particularly fond of the tea chain David's dragon fruit tea. It is both a refreshing and a substantial fruit when liquefied. Two of the best drinks I've ever had, both in Vegas, were made from green tea; though I find green tea undrinkable on its own. This was wonderfully drinkable. A lot of wonderful cocktails are being made in Vancouver with homemade bitters these days.
From the note from Gez:
"After this was the one you weren't so fond of which is a shame! It's usually a big crowd pleaser. It was a twist on the tangerine dream, which I usually make with rye, but switched it up as you don't like whiskey. Hennessy vs cognac, ramazotti, tangerine dry vermouth & general Ambrose aromatic bitters."
My first sips of this reminded me of the last time I was in Paris, around Halloween, 2002. Odd in that I drank Normandy Cidre, Calvados and Orange Widow while in France, not cognac that I can recall. Although initially involving, I think the cognac eventually chased away my enjoyment of this drink.
"Finally we got back on the right track with a twist on a paper plane. Havana club anejo blanco rum, aperol, amaro nonino, lemon juice and a touch of creme de violette."  I think violet was the way to go with this one. Yet another fine beverage. Once more I experienced mixology at its best. Yet again I am excited by the possibilities of flavour. Now I know where to take thirsty out of town guests. In the press clipping section of the Keefer website, they link to an article naming Keefer one of the best bars in the world. All the other bars are in distant countries, but the Keefer is in my city! Lucky me!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Fun with photography

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Phil Austin goes to a better world

  "There are some people, and I'm one of them, who suspect that there is no better world than this lousy and crooked one we see all around us." So begins Phil Austin's radioplay Down Under Danger. He acted the cynic well. Hell, he was a great actor, who often complained to me about the infernal acting he was observing.
  In this picture, Phil is recording lines for my radioplay Neal Amid. Of the 4 members of the Firesign Theatre, I think Phil Austin had the least interest in the Beat generation, but volunteered to star as the dying Neal Cassady in this play. I don't know how much he sounds like the Beat muse, but Caroline Cassady told me Phil captured Neal's real intelligence, and didn't portray him as a hick. Phil gave me a lot of direction on this play, and his insistence on a narrative envelope, with the Beat-like typing creator was a stroke of genius. If I live a million years, I can't imagine ever creating something as good as Neal Amid again. Thanks, Phil.
  If there is a better world, it is one brought into existence by people like Phil Austin. People who inspire us to see beyond a heaven/hell dichotomy made lyrical in Phil's album Roller Maidens from Outer Space. "If you can laugh at it, it has no power over you," Phil told an interviewer in 1970. I asked him if he still believed that in a Q&A on Whidbey Island in 2010, the last time I'd see the 4 of them. He said he had forgotten his long ago eloquence but it was still true for him. He said those were perilous times, and as Bergman often bragged, the Firesigns brought a lot of laughter to places where it was desperately needed.
  "There's only one thing that can be truly said. And, hell, I've forgotten what it is."
Down Under Danger. Evoking Elvis, Phil's death was reported as Nick Danger has left the building. Yes, Nick was an Austin creation that resonated deeply within our civilization, but Phil was a detective of a higher sort. He looked for and helped create spaces of refuge, places of imagination that can be built beyond imagination, where no Sgt. Bradshaw can tell us what to do and dogs will always help us out. Lucky are we for the vast offerings of those visions courtesy Phil Austin. We must be sad, but we are sad in a higher place. Nick Danger has left the building, but it is a much taller, grander building. A great spirit has been breathed into it.
  Love is a rare topic in Firesign works, but more than any of his colleague's solo work, Phil Austin's stories are infused with love. Love bursts forth like a blond bombshell from his words. Tales of the Old Detective is an engine powered by the trans-formative energy of love. It is a state you want to experience. If you've never been in love or been loved, this is what you want to listen to. This is what you need to learn. Dogs don't need to learn, but people do. Phil's love for the Blond Bombshell, his dogs and the humans that crossed his path is a visit from a higher consciousness, one we can aspire to.  
  When asked where he got his great ideas, Isaac Newton said he was standing on the shoulders of giants. I feel the same about Phil Austin. Phil and his fellow Firesigns show us a better world through a better use of our brains, a less clouded awareness, a fertility of spirit. We don't have to dwell in the depths. There are ladders.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Father's Day at Bauhaus restaurant

 Father's Day was always about my daughter  Bit taking me out to a restaurant. I continue this tradition in her absence. I'd heard about a new German restaurant in the old Boneta space. Somewhat ambivalent about German food, the fact that the chef had a Michelin star and was considered a culinary star in Deutchland made me choose  Bauhaus  as the place I would have my father's day dinner this year.
  After walking around taking pictures and working up a good (by my standards) appetite, I appeared at Bauhaus. The doors were open but the restaurant was not. I was told to come back in "half an hour, or 40 minutes." This did not bode well. When I finally consulted my watch buried in the bowels of my bag, I discovered it was 5:20 and my reservation was for 5:30. Oh well, I'll just take some more pictures. They'll be in another blog post. When I returned at 5:50 I was finally welcomed. The vast thirst I'd worked up with all that walking on a summer afternoon was relieved by prompt ice water and then a gin basil cocktail, a bit too sweet to be thirst-quenching but it paired well with the onslaught of wondrous food.
  To amuse my bouche, a tiny (my Favourite size) dish of mushrooms in various incarnations. They began crunchy, then gelatinous and finally creamy ending on a final ethereal ascent that spoke of all the mushroom would wish to tell us, if we could but hear. A sip of the basily beverage. Bliss.
  The two best dishes I've had in Vancouver have both been soups. Young Saskatchewan chef Dale McKay did wonders in Daniel Boulud's upscale Vancouver eatery Lumiere and when he opened his own restaurant, Ensemble, he kept winning awards for his cuisine. I commented on it on my blog at that time. After describing an appetizer of melon and crab which Fumiyo and I had seen Chef McKay make on TV, I wrote this about his soup:

Next up, another award winner, the black cod in BBQ pork broth. Heavy on the Asian influences- bak choy being the main solid in the soup, and yet, it spoke more to my palate of what Joel Robuchon has been able to achieve with Asian synthesized French food, thus earning him the title Chef of the Century. Vancouver food as good as Vegas? I didn't think it was possible, but once again, I was wrong. As I told my server, this wasn't a broth you sipped, it was something you dived into. This is what I was expecting from Guy Savoy's famous truffled artichoke soup. This was something worth getting on a plane and traveling from the other side of the world to taste.

It was the best thing I'd eaten in Vancouver up until that time, and that was 2011, after I'd discovered the great French (etc) chefs of Las Vegas. Previously, the best food I'd consumed here was another soup at a, sort of food Olympics in 2008. Gold medal went to a chef whose restaurant Cioppino's has been my go-to restaurant to take to out of town guests who want to know how good food is in this city. This is how a food expert described this soup:

The gold medal for our Vancouver event this year was awarded to Chef Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s. The banner above his station described the dish simply as a “porcini mushroom and chestnut soup” – and indeed it was, served in a coffee cup like some kind of cappuccino. But the texure was profoundly enriched and the layers of mushroom flavour were dramatically deepened by melted foie gras and a scattering of crunchy truffled brioche croutons. In a ceramic spoon set on the saucer of the “coffee cup” was the other element of the dish – a square of chilled mushroom jelly and a roasted mushroom salad served at room temperature, the supple textures and contrasting temperatures working beautifully in the mouth. The judges were unanimous in awarding the dish maximum “wow factor”. As an accompanying wine, Posteraro chose a Niagara Chardonnay that proved an inspired match – Pillitteri Estates Winery Chardonnay Sur Lie 2006.

James Chatto, National Culinary Advisor, Gold Medal Plates.

Ok? We're talking of some serious soups here. The mushrooms had a Michelin star twinkle, let's see what chef Stefan Hartmann can do with asparagus soup. It was advertised as featuring Spot Prawns, a local delicacy I cook as soon as they appear and look forward to see what local chefs can do with them. Alas, the season is over, so lobster instead. My expectations sink.

And then the soup arrives. It is one of the wonders of the world.

When I'm thinking anywhere east of France, I'm thinking creamy soups. Dale McKay's soup was brothy and Asian, Pino's was thick. I love all kinds of soup but most of the great ones have been thick. Not long ago, there was a local Czech restaurant that had pretty boring food but fantastic take-out soups. So I've had some good ones. My Ukranian grandmother would always insist I fill my bowl of borscht with "smetana," sour cream. She was right. My Austrian grandmother died when I was 7 so I don't recall her cuisine, but my Germanic relatives liked thick things. Soup too.

A thick asparagus soup just makes sense in itself. Though it can be enjoyed refreshingly as Fumiyo and I discovered in Barcelona, I normally think of asparagus smothered in hollandaise, a soup clone. Hartmann's asparagus soup is essentially herbs in cream sauce, er, soup. The fact that there's lobster is in it instead of spot prawns really doesn't matter. It is herb-lore as keen as an elf's. One can't stop eating it. Normally I avoid bread in restaurants, but this time I was delighted to have some bread to soak up the last molecules of Hartmann's soupy nirvana. As I said of McKay's soup, it's really something you want to dive into. The last thing I ate, a tiny morsel of asparagus floods me with all the goodness I've ever gotten from this vegetable, long a fave. "Look how delicious I am," it screams and coos at the same time. I feel like Charlie Parker discovering a new groove. I sense Bit would enjoy this just as much.
Thanks, soup.

Halibut and restaurants have not gone well with me recently. Although I had the best halibut ever at Rob Clark's Fish Counter last year, when I went back for the same fish and chips a few days ago, it was nowhere near as good. I dined with my cousin at Chin Chin a few weeks ago. One of the city's best Italian. Had the halibut. It was good. But that's the point. Halibut is good enough by itself, it kinda defeats cheffery. You don't need to do anything to it. After numerous great lunches (all except the first) at Hawksworth, I finally went there for dinner last autumn and had the olive-encrusted halibut. It was good too. You'll notice I use the word good a lot in this paragraph. That's not a good thing in a blog about food. If my greatest appreciation of a dish is to describe it as "good," maybe I should be reviewing something else. And then Hartmann's halibut swims onto my plate.
Halibut is thick and dry. Those are good things. But they aren't the whole universe of
halibut. Hartmann brought the liquid realms that are the halibut's natural environment right into my palate. Again with the textures. The caper crust gives you the same introduction as the crunchy mushroom in the amuse, then blends seamlessly into the fish and its surrounding textural/aesthetic levels. Pureed beans function as a ladder into the sauce vierge like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I'm thinking of Alain Ducasse wondrously layered sauces for so much subtle yet necessary invention. Why does halibut always have to be  solid? Why not weave it back into its oceanic identity? An Ocean Wise lesson for the mind. Best father's day meal since Bit was alive.

 halibut,caper crust / bean puree/lemon butter