Thursday, January 25, 2007


Dino and Krista wanted to take us to dinner at Coast, a Yaletown restaurant they had enjoyed before and Dine Out Vancouver appeared to be the perfect time to do it. Dine Out is a yearly event where Vancouver restaurants attract customers in a usually slow period (January, and with our weather recently it's amazing anyone goes out to do anything) with seriously cheap prices on a set meal. The two meals offered began with slow braised beef shortribs and Dunganess crab tacos (for Fumiyo and I) or Okanagan goat cheese salad, baby greens, toasted pecans, spiced apple vinagrette which Krista and Dino dined upon. They found their salads good, though not outstanding. Krista liked the wine pairing, which was Mission Hill '5 Vinyards' Chardonnay 2005. I agreed it went superbly with the crab tacos but neither Fumiyo nor I were impressed with the beef. Far too meatier for our tastes. When I was taking pictures of the first course, a waitress appeared (we were among the first customers in the restaurant) and offered to take pix for us. I said no, I'd do it and Krista commented that I'm kind of a food critic.
Well, if you want to call this food criticism. It sure improved the service.

The tacos were superb. We had to send the beef back, and were offered more tacos in exchange. With my almost non-existant appetite, I feared any more appetiser would supplant whatever capacity I retained for the mail course. I thought back to the beef I had with Frank at Chambar the previous week. The reason it was so good was the sauce. Meat (beef at least) has to be mitigated with serious sauce to taste good, unless you're lucky enough to be eating beef in Japan. This is something I discoverd on my first day in Japan, at the Hamamatsu Grand Hotel, in August, 1971 where I was served teppanyaki by the hotel restaurant and was astonished what grated daikon and soy sauce could do to beef. Anyway, this was not that meal.

For mains, Fumiyo and I had the 7 spiced ahi tuna, smoke salmon and green asparagus roll, lychee salsa

while our hosts had the Moroccan rubbed lamb sirloin, potato puree, roasted garlic jus.

Krista found the lamb rarer than she'd ordered but still good. Dino wasn't too impressed with the wine but I was happy to discover how well a red, in this case Mission Hill "5 Vinyards" Pinot Noir 2004, could complement the spicy (but thankfully not TOO spicy) tuna. A useful lesson.

The Chands (Dino and Krista) had given me a 6 month subscription to the BC Wine club and its first two bottles had arrived a few days before this meal. Both wines were from Stonehill Vinyards (serendipitously, my parents had spent the last 40 years living on Stonehill Place in Sherman Oaks, California- a street not noted for its wines). I had just opened the white, a 2003 Riesling and discovered it went poorly with the salmon stuffed with cream cheese and asparagus I'd had the previous night for dinner. The brochure accompanying the wines suggested I drink it with mussels (that ain't gonna happen!) or sweetly smoked salmon (yes, this works!). One dissappointment with my main meal was the "salmon roll," a sushi thing. I think the existance of sushi is an excellent reason to wipe Japan off the map. I plucked out the bits of asparagus and ate them with the lychee salsa, but avoided the rice like the bacteriological weapon I knew it to be. I still had some of the first 5 Vinyards wine left in my glass as I was eating the tuna, and it also complemented the fish but not as affectionately as the Pinot Noir.

Krista, Fumiyo and I all selected the roasted Granny Smith apple tart, caramel sauce, vanilla gelato (I could have lived without that) lovingly complemented with Mission Hill "Reserve" Late Harvest Riesling, 2004. I'm getting the impression Riesling is supposed to be consumed with something sweet. Krista doesnt normally eat deserts and found this one a bit tough. I'm sure Krista, like most humans, is much stronger than I am but I found the physical exertion needed to cut up the tart more rewarding than working out at the gym. Dino had the sweet chocolate peanut butter cup, chantilly cream and strawberry coulis. He seems to have survived.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chambar 3: Third time lucky

When Frank suggested we go to Chambar, the memory of the spiced food I had there the last time bubbled up into consciousness like lethal indigestion. However, upon perusing the online menu it seemed there were items that looked well worth exploring. They still had the best beer (no, make that best bottled liquid) in the world, but then so does the West Van liquor store next door to my parents' place. Maybe I'd discover some other wondrous Belgian beers this time, and the appetizers sure looked good.
Chambar is what they would call in New Orleans, a shot gun building. Looks so small when you go in, but down the narrow path it goes on and on. This was my first time in the back room. Very pleasent. Jst as the first time I visited Chambar, I started with what sounded like an intriguing cocktail. The Bazil Zayjax, billed as "a real drink named after a real man,"- well The Guillotine was named after a real man too. I wasn't so lucky with the rosemary cocktail I ordered at the fancy hotel restaurant on Salt Spring Island over the summer, but basil was also a key ingredient in the crab ravioli I coveted. The Zayjax is comprised of "fresh basil muddled with chunks of orange, shaken with pomegranate syrup and crisp white rum (how does a rum become crisp? Does Quentin drink it?) Served collins style with a dash of soda and a sprig of mint." OK, the sprig of rosemary at the Salt Spring restuarant was the most flavourful part of the drink. This time the basil segued perfectly with the fruit and the booze. It also went perfectly with this magnificent appetiser:

Lemon crab ravioli with basil & absinthe butter and fenel salad. Don't think I've ever had absinthe. Will this turn me into Toulouse Latrec. Sure is good. Is this really legal?
Frank orders The Chimay Red beer, with its own glass, perfectly beery for him, along with the maple-seared scallops, walnut oil tossed lentils, pancetta with sweet potato crips.

I had thought about ordering the scallops, but I think I had them here before. Also considered the ostriche. However, Frank and I both agreed to slaughtered bovine for our next course. Or as the menu would define it, Filet Mignon a la Bernaise. Seared beef tenderloin, potato fingerling, taragon salad, smoked tomato Bernaise.

This was so good I never wanted to stop eating it. Actually the beef was a bit too rare, and I had foolishly consumed most of a slice of mushroom pizza in a great pizza joint in the libary about 3 hours before this feast, so after a mouthful of this divine sacrificial cow, I found myself rivetted to the floor. Turned to statue. A Hindu curse? Or just my usual inability to eat large quantities of food. The Tripple Karmeliet beer I ordered, billed as the King of Trippels in the menu, made me crave a homer, or at least a double in its place. Where was Lyle Overbay when we need him? The extravagantly deceitful menu calls it a "wonderful drinking experience." Sounds like Cheyney talking about waterboarding. I had to send the beer back, and ordered a Schaarbeek Kriek, "a nod to the birthplace of Belgian chery lambics, dark rum infused with granny smith apples, cinnamon and organic honey shaken with cherry nectar and a dash of citrus. Served martini sytle with a sun dried mixed berry nougat." Intensely delicious. I slowly attempted to chew another gram of great beef. Blessed with stomache largesse just when needed, Frank ordered the roast squash and apple soup with apple and cardoman fritter. I knew better than to fritter away further coins ordering further food, but I did get a seriously cherry Bellevue Kreik beer after my cherry influenced cocktail. Its a beer I drink at home occasionally. Goes well with cherrys. Alas, the devine Duchesse du Bourgougne beer is only on the online menu, no longer in the restaurant. The cocktails were festive and complemented the food superbly. Must come back and try the ostriche and see if the scallops are as I remember them. The meals were a bit larger than I care for in an appetiser, but then I eat less than most humans. Frank was able to appreciate the menu better. His 2nd beer, a Duvel, he found too fruity. I remembered buying a couple of bottles of Duvel in a brand new department store accross the street from the english school I was teaching at in the city of Hamamatsu, Japan in Halloween, 1971. Will I remember this meal as distantly in the future? There is a distinct possibility. Its four days since the meal and its citrussy resonances still echo in my taste buds like the 3 Stooges suddenly discovering bopping.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Revel With a Cause

I read more books every year than I go to restaurants, unless I'm travelling. So this year, instead of mostly restaurants, I want to at least briefly review the books. Right before I picked up Not Enough Indians, I had finished Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America by Stephen E. Kercher. I had seen this book advertised in my favourite mag, The New York Review of Books. It had a picture of Lenny Bruce on the cover so I knew I'd enjoy it. I was right.
First of all, it's hard to write a book about comedy. One goes to "comedy" and "acadamia" for different things. Revel did not have a laugh a page, or even as many laughs as I got from the Shearer novel. Actually the number of bits of humour cited in this academic tome are rather few. But now I know where I can get a lot more. That's worth purchasing the book for.
The book covers mostly the 50s, a decade I remember about as well as can be expected since I was 9 when it ended. MAD magazine was something I enjoyed from those days, but the other things referred to in the book were too adult for me at the time. The book spends a lot of time on editorial cartoonists. I do remember Bill Mauldin, though I was unaware of his WW2 career, and Jules Feiffer has been churning out comics as long as I've been alive, but to the best of my knowledge I've never encountered Robert Osborn. Must do something about that. I remember being mildly entertained by Pogo, but Peanuts was my favourite comic strip in those days.
When the books goes deeper into the past, talking about radio, I can recall what Fred Allen's voice sounded like but don't think I ever heard one of his radio shows. I was a devotee of Jack Benny (long after his radio show went off the air) and knew he had a long-lasting feud with Fred, but I had no idea that Fred was so central to American satire. Thankfully many of his old shows are now online for my enjoyment. I do remember Stan Freberg, but he had gone from lampooning advertising to working in that industry when I was in Elementary school. I remember the TV show That Was The Week That Was mostly from Tom Lehrer's tunes, which still pop up on the radio when satire is needed. SCTV refers to a great Canadian TV show in the 70s and 80s for me and most people not from Chicago, though the origins of this improv institution predate the show I know by many years. Likewise, I thought the Committee was a late 60s comedy group, contemporary with the Firesign Theatre, only to discover from this book that they were also old vets when the Firesign started in 67.
Like any good scholarly work, Revel goes deeply into the roots of its subject and more than lives up to its intention to show where Jon Stewart and his colleagues came from. Long after the last Beatnik shaved his goatee, I became a fan of Beat literature, particularly Kerouac. I did not know that Mort Sahl, whom I remember more for his sweater than his humour, was considred just as jazz-influenced as Kerouac. I don't know if I'd find Sahl's riffs on Eisonhower funny now, but it's worth looking into. I was reading about the British comedy group Beyond the Fringe (in the book, referred to as The Beatles of Comedy, something the Firesign Theatre would aspire to a few years later) when the skit Kercher was quoting from appeared on the radio. Not that much of a surprise: Santa Cruz radio station KUSP has a show called The Surrealist, where-in DJ John James plays old comedy (and not so old) records and shows on Wed. 12-2AM which I listen to online when I can stay up that late.
The book ends in the mid 60s with Lenny Bruce, whose humour I didn't hear until after his death, and Bruce accolyte Paul Krassner, whom I have had the great pleasure of meeting, and who is still doing the stand-up comedy Lenny urged him to do more than 40 years ago. Paul's mag, The Realist, ceased publication, then came back, and is now permanently retired, or perhaps not. Paul is a youthful 70 something. If Lenny Bruce were still alive, would he still be doing standup? For sure, he'd still be funny.
The history of comedians and the times that gave them their jokes is of particular interest to the comedians themselves. The Firesign proudly proclaim their Dada roots. When we were in Zurich in 1980, it was moving to me to walk the streets where that artistic movement began after World War 1. For Mort Sahl to be considered the Will Rogers of the 50s, it's a good idea to know who Will Rogers was. I know enough of the Beat movement (from research, not memory) that Kercher's cultural history does not exist in a vacuum for me. In the straightest of times, there were always clever people doing very non-straight things, and getting away with it. If there weren't, we would have all died of boredom before civilization could get started.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Never Enough Shearer

Just finished Harry Shearer's novel Not Enough Indians a few minutes ago. It continues to resonate like a slot machine that just opened up for you and still hasnt stopped.
Watched Harry's flick Teddy Bear's Picnic twice over the weekend, with opposite reactions to it. Although watchable enough, it just didn't seem up to the level of story I'd expect from Harry Shearer, the voice of audio treat Le Show for decades and one of America's most reliable masters of funny/seriousness.
The novel however. I listened to Le Show this morning at 10 as usual. When I can't make that appointment, it's on line soon enough. If there's been a Le Show I've missed since it went on line, it would be a mystery. Harry's private collection perhaps.
Then the great treat of a new Simpsons. Not as many Shearer voices as usual but it's almost impossible to Simpsons without Shearer.
Then finished the book I'd started yesterday. The sentences were all in Shearer's voice in my head. He was doing the characters just as he does on the Simpsons. I think anyone would experience this. There are wonderfully hilarious descriptions of people and things that seem to have erupted out of Simpsonsland. I started underlining passages I wanted to quote, or recall. The first was:
One of the things about being compulsively amiable is that you could never just say something simple, you had to keep embellishing it with an unstoppable flow of what you hoped didn't sound like desperate attempts at attention retention.
p. 52
It's funny, memorable and gripping. It's not something I'd immediatley want to re-read any more than I'd want to watch the Simpsons episode immediately after watching it. Same with Le Show. Shearer captures the hilarity of now as well as anyone I've heard, and weekly, a task otherwise known only among cartoonists. I first heard him as part of The Credibility Gap on LA radio in late 60s-early 70s. Thier 3 Stoogesesque- phone repairmen skit during the LA phone strike should not be listened to by anyone operating a vehicle, holding a sharp object, or near a stairway as convulsive laughter can be dangerous.
I wonder what an episode of The Simpsons written by Harry Shearer would be like?