Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Zesty's lives up to its name

I can still taste the Greek salad, an hour after the last bite of crispy, refreshing green pepper. The idea originaly was to go to Frenchies, up the drive on Commercial. It was decided that it was too bright, so the restaurant X usually conducts her interviews in for her magazine was our new destination. Zesty's. The darkness was welcoming, though the constant stares of a man in the corner annoyed my friends. The starer soon left. Perhaps his eyes were tired. We were left almost alone in a spacious restaurant and the food began to arrive.
X said it wasn't really a Greek restaurant, just a place that had Greek food. My experiences with such places, particularly in Saskatchewan, has, up until now, been disastrous. When the zuchini sticks arrive, I suspect it's closer to White Spot, a "family" restaurant for people not concerned with the quality of the food. Zuchini sticks are like french fries for slightly altered taste buds. Not really enthnic, but not Macdonalds either. More a snack than a restaurant course. But before I could dive into them, still awaiting the all-essential tsaziki sauce, Opus's chicken (the restaurant's signature chicken) was before him, as was X's own private Idaho of fries. Then my garlic prawn meal arrived, with the Greek salad, potato, rice, bread-a sort of a portable universe of starch with guest vegetable galaxies. And the prawns. Were they of this planet? Hints or Arabian Nights type spices. Far to the East of Greece. It was like my tastebuds climbed upon a magic carpet. What was that spice? Something to found empires fighting for.
Opus suggested I try his chicken. Under the carmelized onions, Opus detected balsamic influence. It reminded me of every bbq'd chicken I'd ever eaten and ever will, though they will all be different. A Platonic essence of crackle. The first kiss of fire upon chicken. Only a bite but it was memorable. Opus swore the next time he was in Vancouver he'd come to Zesty's and eat it again. And he lives far away.
Earlier this afternoon I purchased a very good kitchen knife. Fumiyo decided that the old one was getting beyond sharpening and something new was needed, before our fresh new tomatoes were mangled into anti-antipasto. Thankfully there's a knife store at a nearby mall. The salesman explained that the Japanese style was popular for tomato-chopping, although the particular knife was German. It's weighted at the tip to make slicing the most challenging fruit a breeze. I just tried it bisecting a small section of orange. The orange was so ashamed at its lack of resistance it blushed itself into tomato parody.
Is the magnificence of the Zesty's Greek fusion tangents due to the quality of their knives, I wonder? How much more can be done when one can control the size of ingredients? It borders on mathematical fantasy.
There has to be some explanation why some dishes are so good, and others with the same ingredients aren't. Knives surely help. But expectation helps even more. If you expect something to taste great, and rely upon the expectations of others to make a living, it'll probalby taste great. One gets spoiled expecting greatness in Vancouver restaurants. If only that were true for everything.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Planet Simpsons

I recently read the Canadian book Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation by Chris Turner, which began life as a magazine article a decade or so ago (now yellowing in my archives). Although the message of the book is refreshing and often entertaining, Turner's lengthy summarizing of the plots of what seems like hundreds of Simpsons episodes is tedious. One can just watch the episodes, which are shown endlessly on TV. The book reminds me of Greil Marcus's contention of an "old, weird America"- perhaps he means people that agree with him, in his book Lipstick Traces. At the end of his book, Turner writes "Right around the time I'd begun to suspect that my society was a very large and powerful machine moving steadily in the wrong direction, The Simpsons entered its Golden Age to vividly chart the movements of the beast and the chinks in its armour." So are all those Simpsons viewers (a very large number) or fans of The Firesign Theatre (a ridiculously small number) an antidote to the wayward beast? If only works of art had that power. The book is worth checking out of your local library, if only for Turner's relentless optimism and the fervour of his belief in the redemptive (for America Inc.) power of the show.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Commercial Drive

When I'm not shooting flowers, my cameras are usually aimed at reflections in various windows. These are on Vancouver's counter-culture/ethnic HQ, Commercial Drive. Despite the name, a delightful street to walk along, even without a camera.
I love the serendipity of relfections. What you see depends on a combination of what's in the window and then who walks by the window, what colour clothes they're wearing, what colour cars drive by or park, and of course the lighting conditions at the time. Sometimes you get lucky.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

R.I.P. Mary Vanderheyden

I just learned that my aunt, Mary Vanderheyden, died recently.
I was lucky enough to meet her in January of this year. She was 91 and no longer capable of speech, just barely capable of eating when my parents took us out to lunch at a French restaurant near their house in L.A. So many of my memories of Aunt Mary are about food. I had some wonderful latkes at a Jewish restaurant in Venice (the one in Italy, not California) but they were but one of many wonders in that city. Aunt Mary's potato pancakes were probably the only reason to go to LA at all.
As far back into my childhood as I can remember, Mary and her husband Al (who died in 1966) were people I always looked forward to seeing. And not just for the latkes. I always felt comfortable with them. Visiting them for Christmas in Chicago in 1955 as my family moved from Saskatchewan to LA was such a pleasent memory, whenever I meet someone from Chicago, I think they must be lucky people to have come from such an enchanting city. At least it was to me in 1955, thanks to Aunt Mary.
They moved to LA in 1959, living in an apartment not far from my parents in Van Nuys. It was there I learned the joys of watching the news with Al and Mary- so much more civilized than watching it with my parents who would rant and rave at their TV screens. Mary and Al were cool. The news was a learning as opposed to a debating opportunity. This was a time when science first began to be taught in LA elementary schools, and Al and Mary's continual encouragement of my scientific curiosity did me far more good than any of my teachers, fumbling through their brand new curriculum full of dread of the Russian space programme (these were the days of drop drill, when the school alarm bell rang at 10 AM every Friday morning and we took shelter under our wooden desks, or as much shelter as they'd provide against Russian nukes about to detonate in the schoolyard). Even in those dire days of the cold war, Mary kept smiling.
Talk about Great Jobs, Mary was a "food demonstrator" in supermarkets. The highlight of everyone's shopping has to be the tastes of free food offered there. Not just my curiousity, but the curiousity of multitudes was encouraged by my aunt. It's a better fed world because of her.
No longer capable of speech, Aunt Mary squeezed my hand at our last meeting. Curious to know who I was, in a restaurant full of curious food. Assured it was her nephew, and not a waiter or a chair. I hope good memories flooded her last years, as so many will have good memories of her.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Happy Birthday Bree

On meeting Bree at the Melting Point last Sunday, I was reminded of the Firesign Theatre's single "Forward, Into the Past" which features a commercial for "Bree! Bree! Bree! Clean! Clean! Clean! " On discovering Bree is a skateboarding nurse, I am reminded of a character in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series. Cinematic and audio theatre references swirl about. What else are birthdays for?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Mythos, of time, place and taste

Mythos has been my favourite Greek restaurant on the North Shore for as long as I've had one. Not the great competition for great Greek cuisine one finds overtown, still, when Dino suggested we eat on Lonsdale, and then more specifically, at Mythos, it was like winning the Olympics. To taste it's trusty eggplant stuffed with crab is to momentarily deny the gods their meal for the evening. I wonder if they're sore losers?
This was the first time we'd been to Mythos with Steph, Dino and his friends, so Dino ordered vast tablesfull of food for all tastes. Soki ordered chicken livers, and relished them when they came, to the shock of some of the other diners but those who tasted them swore by their goodness. I ate them not. Instead, I dealved into the garlic prawns. Always Bit's favourite at Mythos, and most everywhere she could get them. Many of us had memories of garlic-dripping prawns dissappearing into her mouth and into Myth, like the maidens painted on the wall to inspire eyes to other Cretes.
More prawns appeared.
It was the day mint first met tomato.
In future memory on yet-undreamt uses of silicon, it will be remembered.
One swims as a prawn through the sauce. Anything else it touches is instantly annointed.
Dino's stuffed squid was another novelty to me. In the swarm of new taste sensations that was assailing me that evening, it did not stand out, but he was pleased.
Fumiyo was delighted with her bowl of lemon soup and nibbled happily on the swollen tablesfull of delights. My crabfilled eggplant was its usual wonder, but I ended up taking most of it home. Lamb had been ordered, and the last lamb I had at Mythos was with Joel whose taste buds are kept polished in the fine eateries of the Bay area and extensive travel, who pronounced his rack of lamb top of the rack. I had a taste, and indeed it was. This time, I had a morsel of some other lamb cut. And flashed back to the first meat I consumed, a lamb chop, at the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis when I ate at the home of a friend. I had never been served meat before, and knew not what it was. My friend's mother was so puzzled at my approach to her shared meal that she called my mother and told her I did not seem to know the difference between "fat" and "meat." My parents promptly switched from Nothing But Fish to 3 beefsteaks a day. Since then I've had lamb rarely. It is a large part of Indian food and the substitution of ground beef for ground lamb in moussaka is a loss, so I would miss it were it to dissappear from the planet, but not as much as many others. The morsel I consumed in the Greek Food Tsunami was delicious. There were an increasing variety of flavours at Mythos I didn't know existed, and would never have ordered as an entree, fixated as I am upon the perfection of the crab. Steph suggested I order more of the sublime tomato prawns but there was too much else to explore this time. The daily specialized Halibut made its appearance. The queen of fish. Strongly herbed, as it would have to be to complete with the armies of flavours overflowing the plates. Took some home with the crab and it retained its pungency. In the middle of a piece of chicken I was surprised to discover Was chicken, it seemed that I had stumbled into 1001 Arabian nights. The banquet tale. Oh there isn't a banquet tale? There is now.
The table is a wine-dark sea of sangria. Was it always on the menu or is it new? I am confused. Did the tomato-mint-prawns by divine intervention exist earlier in time? I had been far too incurious in my previous visits to Mythos. Curiosity must not be allowed to atrophy.

I'm reading Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill at present, very much about how ancient Greek ideas live on among us. Would Socrates have had anything like modern Greek food? Are ingredients unchanging and meals the same for any people over thousands of years? For many, there are new options. Will we see a culinary explosion to rival the intellectual explosions of the ancient Greeks? A mathematics of taste.
The gods we thought we stole those meals from really just set us up. The journey to perfection is endless. But on the voyage, you eat really well.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Layers of colours

I picked up the tallest plants from a plant sale at the local rec. centre several monthes ago, having no idea what they were or what they'd become. The closer lower plants were more recently installed as already blooming flowers. Serendipity plus. Ideally the garden should have these layers in height and depth. The nurseries are emptying out and shutting down. Will have to wait til next year to see if I can do this in more than a corner of a small garden.