Saturday, February 28, 2009

Illuminate Yaletown

Vancouver's first Illuminate Yaletown light and music festival. My friend Jeremy Scott's band Tea played in a car dealership as fans milled about the minis. Unfortunately, my favourite local restaurant Cioppino's served me a tasteless black truffle and prawn dish followed by a far too fishy sea bream that was the day's special. I would rather have eaten one of the ice sculptures.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

RIP: Howie

Another delightful young friend enters the great darkness.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Jean George and the Wow Factor

Jean George, the other adventuresome 4-star chef from New York, opened his place, called Market at the new Shangri La Hotel a month after his rival Daniel began dispersing his burgers. It opened on a Saturday, closed the following day, and I arrived early for it's opening on Monday. I wanted to find out where one could catch a cab, and discovered, nowhere. Not a good thing for a 5 star hotel. They were still setting up when I arrived 15 minutes early for my 6:00 reservation. They allow to me sit in their waiting room, or wait in their sitting room. I wandered outside onto their deck, which would be pretty in the summer, but it's a long way from summer. They eventually let me in, the first customer in a very elegant space. I open the menu to discover prices I would never have expected to find in a restaurant of this quality, or at least fame; quality will be determined soon enough. Commenting on the egullet western Canada forum later, I described it as mining zircons and discovering diamonds instead. You can get a whole tasting menu for $65. They must be setting these limbo champ-challenging price points just to reel us in, there's no way they could pay the rent here at those prices, unless more is going on that I know, or would care to. As long as the food's top quality, I shouldn't look a gift horse in the gullet. JG is famous for his cheap (or more accurately, of great value) lunches in NYC. But let's see how the food is.
See is the word. They keep apologizing for having the lights on. Jean George himself comes by and apologizes. I tell him I'm delighted at the ability to actually read the menu. I had wanted to come to this restaurant the week he was in town himself opening it, and then compare the same dishes when he departs. He seems pleasant enough, for a food god.
While awaiting the food, I order an orange cointreau elderflower cosmopolitan, with some trepidation as the bartender is from Boneta where I've never had a drinkable cocktail. Thankfully this is much subtler and doesn't attack me like those two Boneta drinks did.
I ask a server which of the dishes are from his NYC restaurant and am steered towards the scallops, always a favourite food of mine. I had read glowing reviews of the Foie Gras Brule, Dried Sour Cherries White Port Gelee on egullet so I've decided to try that as well, though I've never ordered foie before, indeed only sampling it once at the Serious French Restaurant Signatures in Ottawa a couple of years back, and found it far too meaty for my tastes. Seared scallops Caramelized Cauliflower Caper-Raisin Emulsion sounds like a good idea. A tangy comfort food. Not sure whether it was the raisin or the cauliflower that brought on that comfort vibe. The scallops, however, weren't so good. I kept thinking of vastly better scallops I'd had at Rain City Grill, Deuce, even C in the old days. Nice emulsion but the key ingredient wasn't up to what was done with it. He needs to find a better scallop source Fast!
The wine pairing, supposed to be a Chablis Fevre, but they were out so instead a Rioja, at first taste amplified the tanginess, a good thing, and then served as a palate cleanser, a function I would have preferred performed by the ice water. Not a bad pairing at first, if only the scallops were bettter. The comfort factor is definitely from the cauliflower. The more into the Rioja I got, the more it seemed to fight against my enjoyment of the raisin emulsion, making it bitter. The scallops do improve the more emulsion I smear on them, and the less the Rioja intrudes. The puzzle here is not that it's so good, it's that it's so cheap!
The famous foie makes its dark entrance. It'll be intense, I'm sure. It can't help itself.
Trepidatious as I was about the foie, it was so dark when it arrived I had no idea what I was eating. It tasted like the world's best Christmas cake. The candied fruit of course. Instead of being heavy and meaty, it was light and fruity, particularly elevated by the port gellee. A crust of pistachios on top, not one of my favourite nuts but they sure work well here. The chunk of foie falls apart like Daniel's divine burger. It's intense. It's complex. Many things are happening in my mouth and I can't keep track of them all. It's more of a desert dish, as the ingredients would suggest. A superb segue from the raisin emulsion in the last dish. An erotic mixture of crunchiness and creaminess. One's mouth finds itself doing more work than it's used to., and greatly benefiting from the exertion. The Armajan sauterne is perfectly paired. It doesn't take it to another level so much as it sustains the goodness of the brule, and highlights the right flavours, unlike the previous Rioja which aimed its lance at the raisin windmill.
Suddenly citrus. Ah, the candied fruit. One revelation after another. The last taste in my mouth from the dish is the pistachios. I don't recall any dish ending successfully on a nutty note before.
A revelation!
The server had recommended the sable fish nut and seed crust sweet and sour broth. If that's what Jean George considered his top dish tonight while he was still in the same country as the kitchen, I might as well check it out. Now, normally sable fish is too fishy for me. Fumiyo usually orders it, and her tastes are far from mine. But I may never get to taste a Jean George dish from that close to his preparation again, so I dive in.
Yes, there is a slight fishy aftertaste, like a tiny fish in a large lake. Before I taste it, I'm seduced by the aroma of the vegetable- enriched broth. When I requested an appropriate pairing, I was told that the flavour was so complex, it was hard to pair. A Hugel Riesling was finally chosen.
Before I even sample the fish, I have a lima bean, actually too starchy for the delicacy of both the broth and fish, but all together they work so well they should get a union.
The Hugel blended splendidly with the broth, but had less confluence with the starchy vegies. More a palate cleanser than palate enhancer with them.
I'm thinking, this fish is not only not fishy, it's not filling. And I've already consumed, by my standards, a Lot of food. Fumiyo had asked me to bring some food home for her, so I requested a "doggie bag." As it was only the 2nd day of the restaurant's existence, they didn't have anything to put the fish in, finally improvising something I was able to successfully transport the last half of the sable fish to Fumiyo. Unfortunately the broth wasn't transportable, and it was the highlight of the meal for me. The fish was so light, instead of Daniel's hamburger that eating only half made it hard for me to walk two blocks to my car, now I can stroll the several blocks over to the subterranean skytrain as if I were made of balloons.
A couple of weeks later, my friend Frank and I show up around 6:30, without a reservation. The dining room is full, but this is an opportunity to try their cafe food. I'd looked at its menu on my first visit, and commented that the food didn't seem as good as the main restaurant. "Lighter, not inferior" the woman corrected me, and I told her if she didn't think like that, she wouldn't be working here. I'd read a great review of the cafe pizza and if this food was from the same brain as the exquisite meal I'd so recently savoured, it'll be great. There was another couple when we were seated just before 7:00, but they left and we were alone in what suddenly seemed a large space. A very pleasant space. The fire place was comforting enough. But it was odd. Next to a full room, an almost empty one. In between, a bar, but this space had the good, I mean super comfortable seats. It makes you feel like Caesar discussing the properties of a good grape with his favourite philosophers and mistresses.
One of the staff calls me by name, an oddity anywhere. He suggests they could squeeze us into the main dining room, perhaps because it was my 2nd visit and obviously not my last, this time with another hunger. We decided to try the cafe menu, but it was nice to know there was another option.
We both looked at the black truffle and fontina pizza, and our server told us it would be a good appetiser for us to split. I asked which would be a better experience, the crab with 3 kinds of mayonnaise or the crab cakes, and we went fresh rather than caked.
I started with a ginger cocktail, and was rewarded once again with a drinkable beverage, subtle yet fully gingeresque.
The crab was refreshing, particularly with the ginger drink, but the pizza was a revelation. It seemed quite simple, what seemed like a whole wheat pita bread crust, cheese and truffles. I can vaguely recall going to a restaurant with sawdust on the floor, on Van Nuys Blvd, in the late 50s, and eating pizza whose glory was multiplied by the ambiance and the novelty, so different from what we normally ate. This was that kind of pizza. There was before I ate two tiny pieces of this truffle beatified bread, and there is now, a much better place.
I had planned to have the short ribs, on the main restaurant menu, I knew it was from his NY menu so it had to be good. Fumiyo and I had just bought some "fall off the bone" spare ribs from M&M the day before, but put off eating them so my palate would be closer to neutral when I had Jean George's beef. Meat, BBQ sauce, and their resonance are all factors to juggle. I'm writing this days later, after consuming the ribs, which were indeed worth waiting for but hardlly JG quality.
Frank ordered the tuna burger. It came with shiso. One of the best tasting plants that has ever appeared on my palate. The bite I had was fierce but made delicious enveloped in shiso. I decided to try the beef tartare, as I was primed for a beef experience. A red wine came with the beef, hardly paired at all. Although it wasn't bad, it tasted like tuna salad. Now, I love tuna salad. Maybe the only reason for the existence of white bread is that it helps the tuna salad wrap itself around your teeth long enough to want to keep eating that for the rest of your life. No, this wasn't that good. Frank looked at my dish, and said, "wow, that's more beef than you can eat," and I'd already had a few bites of crab and some life altering pizza. I commented on it to one of the ubiquitous servers. I'd had some splendid beef carpaccio at a couple of Italian places recently and they tasted like beef, not tuna. The server said it was the traditional recipe,with cornichons, which I knew more from the song than my taste buds. The red wine pairing was a bad mistake. I told the server a sparkling wine would have been better and he agreed, too late. The problem wasn't so much the wrong ideas from the servers, it was their ubiquity. Frank and I could hardly begin a conversation without a server interrupting. Far too frequently these days, I'm confronted with waitstaff asking my opinion of the food before I have a chance to finish chewing my first bite. Hopefully this will improve soon.
On the day before the restaurant opened, Jean George told the TV reporter visiting his restaurant the reason to come to Market was for the "Wow" factor. You don't get your 4 NY Times stars without causing enough wows to swallow an incoming asteroid. The foie was astonishing, the sable fish swam against the current of what I thought the fish could taste like, the scallop dish was a great idea in need of a quality ingredient, but "Wow" was not a word I'd use here, compared to what I ate in Chicago last August. The black truffle and fontina pizza was an arrow soaring in that direction.