Friday, June 22, 2012

Wednesday at West with Wolowidnyk

David Wolowidnyk comes from a geneology of fine palates. I fondly remember his mother's beet leaves stuffed with rice, his grandmother's amazing pastry, and his great grandmother's (my grandmother) great borscht. But the bar manager at West restaurant is taking the long family history of palate pleasure to a new level. His winning the World's Most Imaginative Bartender award a couple of weeks ago is no surprise to me and the rest of his fans from that restaurant.
Fumiyo, Steph and I had seen the news segment about the award on the morning news and wanted to try his award winning drink, the Beldi. I unfortunately didn't make reservations so we had to wait, but didn't mind because he brought us the cocktails to drink while we waited. I felt Crosby, Stills and Nash serenading my taste buds as they went on their own Marrakesh Express. Maybe Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart would do a scene from Casablanca next. Certainly the Hope and Crosby flick Road to Morocco would come to life between sips. I felt I was in Morocco, where I have never been and am unlikely to ever go.
We also had other drinks. Steph had the KAFFIR FLING
pictured above. I had only a sip and will be back for a full cocktail soon. As someone whose last name is Ishikawa, it was only fitting that I had one of David's Japan-inspired cocktails, KAKKOII
Kakkoii means "cool" in Japanese. At this time of year, Japan is the last place you want to be unless you like living in a sauna. This drink was so cooling, it was almost an antidote to a Japanese summer, which needs as many antidotes as it can get. I finished my trio of cocktails with the Jolie Coure, no longer on the menu but David will be happy to make one for you as it won him his last Bartender of the Year award a few years back. When I first had it, it tasted like a sublime lemonade. This time the white grape flavour was more dominant.
I've been reading Micahel Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef, which I mentioned getting out of the library the day I dined at Boneta. Quoting Krishnendu Ray from that book, "And so cooking turns magical. And then for magic to happen you need magicians to claim that it is magic."  Jose Andres tries to make magical food and cocktails, at least at Minibar and "e." But Jose's concoctions are more about "magical" technique, not very often, taste.My cousin is certainly crafting accessible (for those of us in Vancouver) elixers to rival any, but the magic is made in the mind of the sipper. The sophistication is in the flavour, not the culinary oddity. Lucky us!
What I learned from the food I ordered was NOT to order the Tuna. The Gnocchi and Pea Croquettes Fumiyo and Steph ordered were quite good and the mushrooms in paper offered the most useful lesson to me: mushrooms taste much better in paper than in foil (I've had mushrooms, and other goodies cooked in foil at some local Japanese restaurants). What we all learned from our Wednesday excursion to West is to go back there again. To quote Bing and Bob, "Just like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Father's Day at Boneta

My daughter used to take me out for dinner on Father's Day. In her absence, I continue to go to restaurants on that day in her memory. Sometimes new restaurants, sometimes old faves. Last Father's Day, after seeing a great show on Surrealism at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I wandered over to Mis Trucos, a tapas place I wanted to try. Although I went there for the tapas, the special of the day was chicken and truffles. It was so good (I rarely eat chicken in restaurants because the chicken at a butcher shop we go to North Van has MUCH tastier chicken than I can get almost anywhere) that it inspired me to eat the Jidori (a kind of Japanese Free Range, even though from LA) Chicken, also stuffed with truffles and served with Savoy Cabbage at Michael Mina's when I was in Vegas in Feb. Best part of that meal was the cabbage. Maybe Mis Trucos uses the same farm as the North Van store for its chickens. When I finally got around to a tapa, I had a classical tapa, peppers stuffed with cheese! Not only better than any of the tapas I had from Vegas's great Spanish chefs, it was better than most of the tapas I had in Spain, and that's saying something. Where could I get food as good this Father's Day?
Ok, the phrase "good food" has changed for me recently. I had dined at Boneta a few times in the past. Food was good. Not the cocktails. My greatest memory of the place was my friend Frank having the John Dory on Boneta's menu. I had never heard of that fish before. Thankfully, thanks to Boneta, I at least knew it was a fish when I saw it on the menu at Twist,  one of my favourite places to dine and drink in Vegas. That John Dory meal could be the subject of a book or a movie. Not a mere sentence. So although the online menu wasn't that alluring, I suspected Boneta could at least familiarize me with something I could really get off on elsewhere. But my interest in a Father's Day meal at Boneta was more because of seeing a recent 8-part TV series called Gastown Gamble. Although Boneta is mentioned in the series, it's mostly about Mark Brand and his wife Nico's attempt to resurrect a community butcher shop. The plot was too melodramatic for my tastes, but I was intrigued by their social vision. They weren't in business just to make money and create great tastes, they wanted to help the Downtown Eastside, a community that can use it. This reminded me of what the great Spanish chef Jose Andres told Anderson Cooper on their 60 Minutes interview; that it mattered to Jose more what the 97% of Americans eat who never eat at one of his restaurants or any fine dining establishment than it did the opinions of the 3% who could afford such luxuries. Reminds me of the 99% vs 1% meme of Occupy, a movement sparked by my old mag Adbusters.
 Jose's recent James Beard Award as the year's best chef was as much for his advocacy to end hunger (based in Washington DC, he could threaten congressman to not serve them his spherical Sangrias and Mojitos if they didn't vote the right way on food legislation.) as for his bringing tapas and molecular gastronomy to the States.The reason Jose is my favourite chef isn't because he's served me the best food (not in the top 10, and that's just in Vegas) but because of the 60 Minutes interview, I came to view my whole quest differently.
  The quest began over a lousy cocktail (too much rosemary, not enough crab apple!) in the living room/lounge of the Hastings House restaurant on Saltspring Island in August, 2006. While drinking my unfortunate beverage and looking out the window into the gardens, I received a summons, a calling if you will. And not on my (nonexistent) cell phone. The sort of calling religious people sense when they are called into the priesthood, or the sort of call King Arthur received to go find the Holy Grail.The grail that was calling me was Fine Dining. "Follow the path of fine dining" was suddenly something I HAD to do. More of the background to that particular call will appear elsewhere, but I have followed the path since then and have had meals (such as the John Dory at Twist) so far beyond  what I considered possible with pleasure, I've been researching how the brain processes such things ever since. For example, if the heirloom tomato dish I had at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago in 2008 was the best thing I'd ever eaten, the next dish, morels, needed an entirely new scale. A different hedonic universe.
So, How Good Can Food Get? Since watching  Jose's discussion with Anderson, I've been reading the literature of the Slow Food Movement.   It's motto is that food should be good, clean and fair. That's asking a lot these days.
Last week, the Vancouver e-zine The Tyee had an article called How a Decent Meal Can Keep People From the Brink. I was reading 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. On page 43, Kahneman gets into the research proving the assertion of the Tyee article. When under stress, the brain needs more glucose. The people in the article, Vancouver's poorest and least mentally stable, are for those reasons alone under a lot of stress. Gastown Gamble features an episode about Save-on Meats contracting to provide meals for some of Vancouver's neediest. Is there a correlation here? More than just a tasty meal at Boneta, I wanted to talk to Mark about such things. I had met him before. While dining at Boneta with my friend some years ago, I was wearing my aged, tattered sweatshirt that had pictures of penguins on it. Mark recognized the penguins as from Melbourne, where he had previously lived. He asked if I had gotten the shirt in Melbourne, and I said no, Value Village. Perhaps this time we could have a more substantial conversation.
Boneta opens at 5:30, the downtown library closes at 5:00. I got to the library in time to invade its food stacks and picked out Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef because it was about a number of restaurants where I've dined. Seems like a good volume to peruse over dinner. I was also carrying a book a friend gave me, from the Slow Food Movement, Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, edited by Vandana Shiva, a woman I was familiar with from my Adbusters years.I had one more chapter yet to read, before diving in Ruhlman. As soon as they kicked me (and everyone else) out of the library, I started walking in the direction of Boneta. It had moved since I'd last been there. Still near the re-imagined Woodworth's Bldg. which I notice has its own grocery store. It was full of people. Then I walked by Save On Meats. I went in and it looked just like it did in the TV series. Curiously devoid of customers at an hour people would normally be shopping for dinner.  It's diner component next door was full. In the window, a young family with small children seemed to be very much enjoying their meal.. Maybe that would be ME at Boneta in a few minutes?
The new Boneta is full of windows. Anyone who reads this blog knows how addicted I am to reflected images, but alas, I was without a camera. The door was not locked so I entered, a space even emptier than Save On Meats. A waitress eventually appears. The soft bench I wanted to sit on turned out to be reserved, so I chose a hard chair. Not too bad. I discover the menu is quite different from online and and the cocktail menu is COMPLETELY different. I order a Paseo- The next best thing to a stroll down Las Ramblas (I'm quoting the menu, not offering a personal opinion): El Jimador Blanco Tequila, yellow Chartreuse, ginger liquer and Yerba Mate syrup. Served in a chilled cocktail glass. Barcelona is my 2nd favourite city only because Paris has better art, though Barcelona has MUCH better food- probably tied in architectural wonders.  I order the Sweet Pea Soup with Scallops and the Halibut which I recognized from the online menu. Halibut tastes great by itself, in the total absence of cheffery. The meal I consumed at Hastings House at the advent of the quest was a fine piece of halibut. Some of the great pieces of halibut I've had in Vancouver are shown and raved about on this blog from years past. Even if the halibut was as lousy as all the cocktails I'd previously consumed (a small number) at the old Boneta, it would still be pretty good, I figured. While I was figuring, my waitress Pam brought me a magazine. I was just taking Manifestos out of my bag. Pam had assumed, as I was alone with nothing to read (being without something to read for me would be the same as having nothing to breathe!) I'd enjoy the mag. It was called Imbibe, the latest issue. This is only the 2nd time a restaurant has offered me a magazine. The first being at Twist, when I first went there last year. Coincidence or just Really Good Service? My first sip of the Paseo: Very Strong. Tastes too much like tequila. I want to be kissed, not punched in the mouth by a beverage. My taste buds were hoping for more ginger. My losing streak with Boneta cocktails continues.The soup arrives and it's really pretty. In my decades in Japan, I had a lot of food that looked gorgeous but was barely edible. Would that be case here? I love fresh peas, which is why I plant them in my garden, but have NEVER had a good bowl of pea soup. Would this be the first? Yes indeed. The pea shoots are exquisite. I try the scallop. Scallops are hit and miss in Vancouver. This is somewhere in between. Then I try a sip of the Paseo with the scallop. The synthesis is extraordinary. The pea soup doesn't taste like any I've had before. No doubt the truffle oil helps.
The pea sprouts made the dish, but it's good to begin with and the Paseo gets better and better, both as an auxiliary and on its own as its ingredients mellow and blend. I finish the drink and order another.
My Toronto friend Bishop called me the other day, after witnessing a great come-from-behind Jays victory. When we weren't talking baseball, he mentioned a foodie/chef friend of his had just returned from Peru where he reported having the best meals of his life. I've had Peruvian food in Montreal and in Geneva but never in its homeland. To me, Peru means Pisco sours, a simple but tasty cocktail made from Peru's national spirit. I ordered a Machu Pisco- An undiscovered wonder in a glass. (the menu) Capel Pisco, Passion fruit, Pinneau des Charentes, creme de cacao, lime and egg white. Served in a chilled cocktail glass. It is stunningly good. Vegas good. I'm transported back to Twist where I had the greatest cocktail I've ever tasted. From Twist's online cocktail menu::
Stolichnaya, Green Chartreuse, passion fruit purée,
fresh basil simple syrup, fresh lime, splash egg whites
Exactly how good was it? You'll have to read my book to find out but this was surprisingly close.
After finishing the Manifestos, I open Imbibe. On page 35, an article called Dr. Drink: Harold McGee puts coffee and cocktails under a microscope, explores the world of flavour. "Flavour has always intrigued me. I love to know what gives us this pleasure." He's not alone in that. We should correspond. Thanks again to Pam for the informative mag.
The halibut dish appears. Like its predecessor, it's gorgeous. But whereas I'd never had a good bowl of pea soup before this evening, I'd likewise never had a bad piece of halibut in a restaurant. When I'm in the kitchen, that's a different story. As I'm eating, Pam comes by and tells me the dish is new to the menu. She requests my opinion as to the proportion of the herbs in the sauce. Only when it gets colder do I notice fennel having too strong a presence. As to which herb could be amplified in other iterations of this dish, I'd really have to taste them to have an opinion, I tell her. Hot food always deteriorates when it cools, which is why it's served and best consumed hot. I wonder, just as drinks in some places I've been come with devices to maintain their chill, would it be possible to serve hot food on warming devices, or would that just overcook the food? I've had this problem throughout the quest, and complained about it in numerous blog posts.It may not be a solvable problem in that most restaurant goers/humans eat faster than I do. No wonder I'm attracted to the slow food movement.
Boneta mixologist Ben DeChamplain comes over for a chat. Turns out he knows my cousin, one of Vancouver's best cocktail conjurers. We discuss the drinks he's made in some detail  The menu suggests I request a special concoction from the bar, so I do. We'd been discussing the use of Chartruese and Ben has an invention of his own with a splash of scotch. I've only had a cocktail with scotch once- when I asked the waiter at Michael Mina to have the bartender make me something to go with the Jidori chicken, he came up with a scotch/Barolo/lemon mixture that worked very well with the cabbage. My first sip of the new drink is just as medicinal as the Mina drink. It's the scotch, Ben advises me. Then I'm falling down a well of Chartreuse. This is serious alcohol. I tell him I have to walk to the seabus after the meal and wonder if I'm sober enough to do so, but he tells me it's only a few blocks. Blood seriously fortified, I'm immune to the Junuary chill and make my seabus back home. The meal was both gastronomically and socially satisfying.
Perhaps as part of the quest, I try and learn something from every restaurant (etc) meal. What I learn from Boneta is that Passion Fruit is My Friend. Boneta's website is called Boneta Loves You. I didn't know restaurants had emotions, but there is something chemically going on between me and the passionate fruit. I better not tell my wife.