Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gold Medal Plates dinner

The last time I wore a suit was in 1988. I was teaching at Otsuma Women's University in Tokyo, and at the end of the school year, the women would don kimonos and throw an elaborate party at a ritzy hotel for their teachers. My chance to eat some of the best roast beef in Japan, well worth putting on a suit for a few hours, once a year.
So naturally, putting on newly purchased, black-as-a-funeral suit and seeing myself in a mirror, I had no idea who that person was. But I was up for some good food.

There is an internet collection of food lovers called The eGullet Society I discovered a couple of years ago, when I was getting into restaurant reviewing. I had never posted to the site and consulted it rarely, when I wanted opinions on one restaurant or another. Recently, on reading an article in the Sun about a new restaurant from an old chef in Paris (L'Atellier de Joel Robuchon) just as I was contemplating a trip to France that would put me in Paris for a few days, I decided to look up a list of the world's best restaurants, which is easy to do online. I had never heard of The French Laundry until October, or any of the other restaurants that appear on the list. It widened my horizons in reading about chefs whose cuisine I enjoy in Vancouver, as several of them have indeed worked at these famous restaurants, from which they have certainly learned much. EGullet had a little thread about an upcoming food competition in support of the city's upcoming Olympics. Although I have less than zero interest in the Olympics, a chance to try "the best" by a dozen of the city's top chefs seemed worth donning suit once again.
I knew the Westin Bayshore only as the hotel Howard Hughes lived in while he was in Vancouver in the early 70s. Was it famous for something else? I had purchased my ticket on line, having been told one would be sent me. As it wasn't, I had to have the people at reception scroll through their long lists of attendees to finally find my name and let me in. I was told to come back to the reception desk at 7:30 (it was now 6:00, the time we were supposed to arrive and indeed, the food was ready to eat) to be told which table I would be seated at. I assumed it was a sit-down dinner.
Instead, amidst a sea of other men in black suits and women in the female equivalent, I found little islands of food. Restaurant Stations, they were called. In the middle of the room, what looked like small children but were probably seriously starved teens twirled about gynastically. I was given a glass before entering the room, and discovered that by standing in a line, I would get a small plate, the restauarant's entry into the competition, and my glass sample of paired wine. At an event like this, the wine would be paired PERFECTLY, I thought.
My first line turned out to be for West, the restaurant that had enchanted both my previous night's feast as well as its leftovers, a pheasent that gave wings to my taste buds, for lunch. After the pheasent landed daintily on my stomache, I walked over to my local rec centre (about a mile round trip) and worked out, hoping to expand my famously tiny appetite to enjoy this top of the line food. I was ready. A glass of red accompanied West's offer. But oddly, instead of being the sky above the pheasent, I forgot what I was eating while I was still eating it. I next tried some food from Fuel, where I had such fine food for my birthday. Again, all I can remember is that it came with yet another glass of red wine. Two totally forgettable mini-meals is not a good start to a competition. Maybe they were good? Don't recall. Had 2 cameras and a microcasette recorder and didn't use any. Didn't seem to be an option. Some folks I know reccommended the "Roulade of Buffalo" from the host hotel. I had seen it when walking in, but noticed the buffalo roamed with its Oyster buddy. I have never eaten an oyster that didn't immediately make me want to puke. But these are the tops chefs! The food olympics! Surely they can make oysters edible? Nope. OK, this is not going well. Two nothings and then I'm poisoned. Thankfully, I was rescued by a short rib hamburger from Lilliput. Or no, that's Rob Feenie, the city's most famous chef. Having just lost his restaurants a few days before, I was surprised to see him there, and even more surprised to see his double, a life size portrait, being auctioned (as were many bottles of expensive wine) off to get more of those tiny burgers into the micro-stomaches of needy gymnasts. I just wish I could get something to drink other than Red Wine! And the fact that there were no tables and chairs. I learned that this was the food event. The sit-down would be to listen to athletes speak. I was here to have the chefs speak at their most eloquent, tales of culinary magic- not words but dishes! To sing me into higher states with choruses of beets and beef, duck ascending heavenward, oysters made edible at last!
At least I got the beets. The "duck breast wtih trio of baby beet roots" from the Hyatt restaurant was excellent, or at least the beets were. The duck, as well as pork, were more fat than flesh. Who eats fat? Amidst all these starving athletes? It just seems rude.
By this time, I'm starting to suffer from my inability to sit down anywhere and enjoy what I'm eating (ever hopeful!). Slowly. Digest. Ponder. What is that? And particularly to savour with the wine. OK, my experience with red wines is tinier than a Feenie burger. Aside from sangria, I only drink red wine when a restaurant pairs it with what I've ordered. This usualy works. However, as last night at West, when the food is over, I find, however well the wine went with the food, it's now undrinkable. So I doubt I could ever appreciate red wine in itself. Paired with beef, pork, etc, it's part of the culinary experience. One part. Red wine without food is like Maggie hitting the horn on her toy steering wheel while Marge drives home on the opening of the Simpsons. But one red wine after another, led me to increasingly pour them out quickly after they did their job with the bites of meat, then not know if the new one worked with the new dish or not. My palate was becomming increasingly confused. I also had to spend considerable time keeping a look out for empty space on one of the small tables there to collect our discarded plates, so I could get rid of mine. Something I found myself doing more and more often. The "Olive oil poached BC Spring Salmon" from Bacchus finally got me some white wine, but it provoked the gag reflex even more than the oyster (more than one dish featured it, to my horror). I had to pour several sips of white wine into my throat to wash away its nausea. And I was planning to go to Bacchus. On its website, it looks like someplace to wear a suit. But perhaps not to Eat!
Chambar, where I have usually dined well, did not dissappoint with its short ribs with applewood smoked cheddar, a regular resident in my fridge. Actually beef was pretty good throughout. A woman came by and offered me what looked like sushi rolls, and chopsticks to speer them, but they were ox! Babe-olicous! But horrors did not cease. The worst thing that wormed its way into my mouth turned out to be elk! It promptly came back out. Maybe I read the eGullet post wrong. This was a competition for the WORST CHEFS IN VANCOUVER. The black suit, of course! I'm at my own funeral! I've been poisoned! I'm in Food Hell!
And then, I'm not. I have a really good scallop. I have to remove it from its porcine environment and just feast on its goodness. I ask the chef, and he tells me it's infused with vanilla bean. That's pleasureable just to say. My thanks to the Whistler Hilton for remembering the emperor of local food, the scallop. Half a dozen of the best meals I've had in Vancouver have involved scallops. We have some tasty ones here or ways to bring them here.
Actually, the last thing I had was the best. I never wanted it to end. It also featured white wine, so it was my friend before it entered my mouth. I'll let an expert describe it:

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.

I've never heard of him, but I agree.
I've never felt like less like an expert. With a palate as sophisticated as the judges' and I assume, the chefs, I might be able to appreciate what was being done with all those intricate flavours and enjoy them appropriately but aside from the mushroom soup and that solitary scallop, there was nothing here to surpass my usual restaurant fare. The ox sushi and Feenie's microburgers were both tasty and the beets were refreshing, in a Kerouacian sort of way. I remember the pheasent from West, my fantastic lobster gnocchi as well as the wondrous adventure my palate went on through the morsel of Fumiyo's smoke infused-chicken. But I don't remember the famous chef's entry in the following day's food olympics! Maybe it needed a cocktail.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fancy Drinks at West

I noticed in the newspaper that my cousin the bartender at West had won an award as the city's best. This seemed like a good excuse, considering it was Toshiko's last night in Vancouver, to once again sample West's fine beverages and food to match. Fumiyo and Toshiko were promised non-alcoholic versions of the Joliecoeur, while I get the one with vodka and wine in it. Or that was supposed to happen. Fumiyo sampled mine and said it was sweeter than hers. Mine tasted like a subtle lemonade. Then the bartender (not Dave, he's in Toronto competing with Canada's best tonight) runs over and says he made a mistake. Fumiyo's is the boozey cocktail, mine is the virginal beverage. He makes her a new one and I finish hers. Ah, the wine really makes it delicious.
Our bouches are amused with a tiny sablefish croquette and some sort of mousse. Bullwinkle?
For starters, Steph and I had the lobster gnocchi with basil sauce. Amazingly good, but very filling.
Fumiyo had the mushroom ravioli, which seems to be on the menu all over town these days.

Wests was as good as any.
Toshiko had the fois gras. I declined a taste as some was coming with the pheasent I ordered.
Before the main course, I had another of David's creations, this one called a Noyeau Glace. Very peachy. The flower parts (?) on top didn't help though. I was expecting a flower on the Jolicoeur, but only got a grape.
Fumiyo and Steph each had the chicken. The taste I had seemed to be smoke-infused. Intriguing. That's why one goes to restaurants like this, to taste things for the first time.
Toshiko had the very scenic halibut. My forkfull melted in my mouth.
Pheasent was a special of the day, not on the menu. This was only the 2nd time I've eaten pheasent, the first time on a bed of red cabbage and spinache with a fois gras filled brioche. My parents had sent us a food basket containing a pheasent a few years ago for Christmas. It tasted like ham. I love ham. This tasted more like very moist chicken. Probably the sous vide. Perfectly paired with a red wine, it was far more than I could eat. The half I took home made a splendid lunch the following day, perfect preparation for my venture into the Golden Plates Food Olympic competition. See next blog post.
While the women feasted on sweets and specialty coffees, I had another one of David's acts of creativity, this one called Pie. It really did taste like pumpkin pie. Thankfully not as filling. While I was enjoying it, a server came and said she'd just heard from Toronto that Dave had won best mixologist in Canada, and was off to France to compete for the world title. On the strength of these cocktails, I can't imagine him losing.
Grapefruit sorbet with a sauce made from some kind of tea. Does the cleverness never end? It was great to have something to take home from West. Although we arrived at the usually busy time of 7:30, the restaurant was never busy all the time we were there. Everyone should be here enjoying these amazing things to eat and drink, before this restaurant dissappears.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Cook's Tour

This is the 2nd book I've read about food. The first, referred to in an earlier post, was Last Chance to Eat, a volume from which I learned a great deal. I took notes. This book, actually a TV show turned into a book by a "chef" famous as a writer/personality, not for anything he's actually cooked, had a couple of pages of describing his meals at Arzak in Spain and The French Laundry in California which I copied because I plan to go to both places. Although the book is very well written, entertaining, and frequently amusing, the author's taste in food (or that of his Food Network patrons) is as far from mine as possible. Good writing about gross food cancels itself out. The only show I've ever watched on the Food Channel was Mario Eats Italy, before we went there 5 years ago. The show was entertaining but its contention that the gnocchi of Sorrento is the best in the world was proved wrong our first hour in that city. We've had better gnocchi in North Vancouver. Mario looks like a fun guy to run into in his restaurant. Bourdain, I'd run away from.
The books's subtitle, In Search of the Perfect Meal, sounds like a trite TV premise but a good goal for anyone who likes to eat. I gather that includes everybody. When not diving and frolicing in guts, Bourdain sprays French food words (without explaining them, like the kinder Last Chance to Eat author) I know I should learn. I continually suffer from lack of knowledge when I read menus in "fine dining" restaurants. This is somewhat made up for by my famliiarity with Japanese ingredients that flood the better restaurants in this and many other cities. While most of what he gorges happily on would make me ill to watch on TV, his written reaction to the Japanese national dish Natto is the same as mine. Nothing could be viler.
Although he certainly knows French food from childhood, he doesn't make it sound any more appealing, perhaps less so. He complains endlessly about having to do stuff for TV that doesn't interest him, but he's certainly interested in getting paid to eat and babble. I kept looking for some bit of wisdom, which is why I've entered this genre. Finally, towards the end of the book, upon his visit to the "pilgrimage site" The French Laundry in rural California, he has an epiphany worth wading through his book to get to. Unlike him, and all the other chefs he pals around with, the Laundry's Thomas Keller (whom I had never heard of until a few weeks ago) does not compete. The anti-Bourdain. The food Buddha.
"The one compliment'explains Keller,"that I enjoy most is someone saying, "This reminds me of"- and they'll tell you of this wonderful experience they had somewhere else." quoth Bourdain quoting Keller. And then he riffs on Memory, "a powerful tool in any chef's kit. Used skillfully, it can be devastatingly effective." "It's good enough when a dish somehow reminds you of a cherished moment...When those expectations and preconceptions are then routinely exceeded, you find yourself happily surprised." p. 248
In recent visits to some excellent restaurants, memory has had a lot to do with my enjoyment of various meals. I'm not surprised the creators of those meals were doing it intentionally. "Cherished moments" are the ones we most seek to summon, by definition.
"We remain the kids we were, and our ideas stay rooted in our autobiographies, far more than is usually assumed. Those bios are not mere backdrop for the thoughts. The thoughts don't exist apart from the lives in which they are embedded. They are warp and woof."
"The Autobiography of an Idea," by Rick Salutin, The Walrus, Nov. 2007.
We are what we have eaten. The more memorable, the better.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Aurora Bistro

I'd read good things about The Aurora Bistro even before I noticed it at the top of an alphabetical list of Vancouver's best restaurants by our local paper's food columnist Mia Stainsby. I had just read Last Time to Eat by Toronto food writer Gina Mallet (the first food book, as opposed to cookbook, I've read- it's title an obvious reference to Douglas Adams' travels to see dissappearing animals in his book Last Change to See) in which she pronounced scrambled eggs with truffles to be the perfect food, at least from the vantage point of her childhood in France. Seeing scrambled eggs with truffles on Aurora's brunch menu, I hustled my wife and houseguest Toshiko over to the tiny restaurant in serious industrial Vancouver to taste them. The hash browns were a bit overpowering, but in a good way- luscious memories of heavy breakfasts in the past. The truffles were the equivalent of travelling a long way to experience something very good. Kind of buried in the eggs, like the yuzu flavour in the shrimp I'd recently blogged about from The Salmon House. There was nothing special about the eggs. They weren't from some chickens that had been fed with wonderful grains and then led long and happy lives, or at least not that I could tell from eating them. But the combination of eggs, and eventually revealed truffle flavour was intriguing. The pot of vanilla tea I had with the eggs was even more intriguing, as good a complement as any wine paring I've tasted.

Upon looking at the menu, when I pointed out that sablefish was on the menu and one of Fumiyo's faves, she said she never ate fish in the morning (ok, this was around 130 in the afternoon). Actually Fumiyo almost never eats fish at any time of day. But she did order the sablefish and actually enjoyed it. The taste I had was delightful, in a smoked fish kinda way.

Bacon fan Toshiko went with the eggs and duck bacon. She found it good, but the bacon was too salty for her tastes. I quite appreciated the two strips of bacon that came with my truffled eggs, and I dislike salty food.
The while the women awaited their desert, I switched from excellent vanilla tea to the house signature Aurora cocktail. It tasted too heavily of alcohol, not fruity enough for me. Fumiyo asked what the base was, and I wished I hadn't been able to so readily identify the gin. As far as I'm concerned, if you can taste any particular kind of booze in a cocktail, it's not made right.

Another specialty, the donut balls. The women enjoyed them. I was reminded heavily of why I dislike sweets.
I would come back here for dinner. Eating in the day time is not when my taste buds are fully awake and able to enjoy what I'm eating. In a biography of James Joyce I once read, Joyce talked about drinking wine only after the sun goes down, because while the sun is in the sky the grapes are still absorbing the sunlight. As the biographer pointed out, this was Joyce's oblique way of saying he couldn't afford to start drinking in the day time. Still, a very poetic image.
Moderately synchronistic, the local paper's recipe of the week was scrambled eggs with truffles.