Sunday, March 31, 2013

Smitty's in Sidney - it feels like they are not interested in trying

Well I made a mistake the other day in Sidney and ate at the local Smitty's.   I had driven someone to the ferry and stopped in Sidney to buy a couple of things I needed.   By the end of that I needed to eat something for lunch and I really just wanted a quick burger.  I wanted to avoid eating at Macdonald's and decided on the Smitty's because it was on the way to the highway.

I had no idea that Smitty's was so expensive.    Their prices are comparable or higher than what I would spend at White Spot.   I should have walked out when I saw the prices but I was hungry and in a rush.

All I had for lunch was the burger with yam fries and gravy and I was on the hook for $17.89.    This meal was the complete opposite of what I had at the Boleskine Bistro.

The starting point was the burger at $12.99.  For this I would expect a decent quality burger which is not what I got.   The burger was much too salty and I like my salt.    It was verging on the inedible.  The bacon was burned, I could see that before I even took a bite.  Clearly no one in the kitchen was tasting the food as it was being prepared or cared if they put out improperly prepared food.

The yam fries were cold and I expect frozen ones they brought and deep fried.  If you can not be bothered to do your own fries from scratch, do not offer them on the menu.  In one hour a kitchen staff member can make all the fries needed for a day in place the size Smitty's, that is a labour cost of only $12-$14 to make dramatically better fries than the frozen crap way too many places offer.

The gravy was steaming hot but much too thick.  There was an odd graininess to it, I am can only assume they did not make it in their kitchen but used a powder.  I fail to understand why any restaurant would bother making gravy from powder when it is so easy and cost effective to make it fresh everyday.   As to what sort of gravy it was meant to be, that was not clear to me at all, the menu did not say what sort of gravy it was supposed to be.

Smitty's is trying not to be a fast food place but is making the food as if they were one but charging prices that are unreasonable.   I know they are a chain, but that is not excuse for bad food.  White Spot is a chain and can consistently do a good burger.

I have no plans to ever go back to this Smitty's and I suspect I will avoid all the restaurants in the chain.

Smitty's on Urbanspoon

Chocolate Arts Cafe

A couple of weeks ago Sheila was in Vancouver for work and I joined for the weekend.  Sheila had Saturday morning off and I took her to areas around False Creek that are not Granville Island.   We  stumbled in Chocolate Arts by accident.  

I grew up in the Lower Mainland, lived in Kits and East Van as an adult and was in the city at least several times a month until about five years ago - I did not know the city well and knew of many interesting places.   On this day I was looking for this wholesale jade store that was on W 1st at Pine.   It was unfortunately no longer there, neither was Lesley Stowe fine foods on W 3rd at Burrard.  Still there were many interesting places to investigate such Crystalworks - Sheila bought a nice pendant there.

The Chocolate Bar
photo by Sean Neild of Sean's Adventures in Flavourtown
A few blocks further east on W 3rd I saw Chocolate Arts.  Initially Sheila resisted going in because the two of us really do not need to eat more sweets, but I talked her into trying it out.    Inside at first it just sort of looks like any other coffee place until you notice the one side is all various chocolate treats.   Also near the door you can sample many of the bulk chocolates they have on offer.  

We ordered coffees and a small selection of chocolates:

Salted caramel - the caramel was nicely salty and had a decent bite to it, no wimpy liquid inside.
The Pallette - a dark chocolate disk with an almond, raisin and dried cranberry.   We did manage to share this one, but it was the hardest one to split between us.   It looks deceptively simple, but the combination of the nut and dried fruit was a perfect balance to the chocolate.

 Crispy stick - we had a raspberry milk chocolate filled one.    The fruit flavour was subtle in this one.  It had a nice crunch but it was by far the least exciting of the chocolates we had - though it is still one of the best chocolates we have eaten.
 The splinter is a serious of different nuts dunked in dark chocolate.   Once again a very simple idea but with high quality chocolate and nuts it is a stellar bite.

The last one was the framboise and it was beyond description of how good it was.  I would happily eat no end of these every day.

The owner Greg Hook was talking to a couple of people trying the bulk chocolates  Sheila joined them and then when the other two left she motioned for me to join them.    We tried all nine different bulk chocolates.  It is quite amazing how fundamentally different they can taste, as an example the Alto el Sol was incredibly fruity.  

Most of their bulk chocolates are single source.   They do not make their own chocolate from raw cocao nibs, it was when I started talking about trying to make chocolate from nibs myself and how it is more or less impossible to grind it properly that it because clear to Greg were food geeks.   He then said to us  "So you want to come and see the back?"   What could we say other than yes.

We had a chance to see how the operation runs and talk about details of foodie geekiness that interests us and Greg.    Much of the conversation was about the science behind food and how understanding this makes such a huge difference to how you cook.   In part of the conversation we talked about the reality of what machinery is needed to be able to actually grind cacao nibs into the raw chocolate paste - the starting price of a machine that is not really good enough is around $50,000.

When we saw the running taps of milk and dark chocolate we realized our third son Stephen was going to be very jealous that he missed seeing this.   Stephen is 12 and loves to work with pastry and chocolates, Greg said Stephen was welcome to a tour when he is next in Vancouver.   On every level it is clear that Greg Hook has a complete passion for what he does and wants to share it with others who have a similar passion.

Greg said one of the reasons they opened a cafe was because of his own coffee addiction  having an espresso machine on site saves him a lot of money each year.

When we go to Vancouver I am going to make a point of always stopping in here for coffee and chocolates.

  Chocolate Arts Café on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 29, 2013

Boleskine Bistro

Finally, a nice little restaurant in our neighbourhood which is the Burnside-Gorge area.  Okay, there are some other places to get food, but if you eliminate take-out and a couple of questionable Chinese smorgs the pickings get slim pretty quick.

Over the several years we have wondered about the fate of a rather dilapated old corner store across from Rudd Park on Boleskine (the part of Harriet between Burnside and where it becomes Saanich Road).  About a year or so ago the building began to show sign of occupancy, that quickly became demolition.  We were intrigued.  Then a bit puzzled when the new building went up on the same footprint.  Then it turned a bright coral color - hard to miss!  We were still in the dark though, we hadn't heard what might be going into the betwixt and between spot.  Finally a paper appeared in the window announcing the upcoming opening of the Boleskine Bistro.  We have been looking for the  opening and today as we saw an open sign - and a special offer, burger and a beer for $10.  We were sold.  We were walking to dinner tonight.

Max, Bernard and I set off on foot and in just a few minutes we arrived.  There is some streetside parking and a lot behind the building too.  As I mentioned, it is bright coral and stone on the outside.  The inside is decidedly more neutral.  Lots of windows let in the evening sun and coupled with the neutral wall colour, the space feels airy and roomy. The dark tones of the tables and bar provide an anchor for the space and are as comfortable for sitting as for looking.  I was also impressed by how quiet the space was.  Boleskine is well-travelled but I never heard any road noise while we were inside.  The space has obviously been invested in with high quality tile work, fixtures and furnishing that will serve the restaurant well for many years.

The menu is small and comfortable.  In a very nice way.  The fare is upscale pub in style with some unique bits to make it their own.  Pricing is good, an entree will run you $10-$15 and drinks are upwards of $5 with a nice mix of beer, wine and cocktails.

For our dinner Bernard and I stuck with the special which was specifically their "Bistro Burger" - a basic burger.  Bernard had the yam fries and I tried their house potato chips.  For Max we had them dumb down their grilled cheese to just cheddar and pepper jack, leaving off the carmelized onion and tomato that the menu listed.  He also had the basic fries.  As I said, basic food, the very best kind of basic food, well done basics.

The burger was one of the best we have had in some time, I almost scorched my hand with the juices that ran out on the first bite.  The patty was clearly habd formed by the cooks.  The buns were fresh ones from Portofina and nicely enhanced the burger.  A lightly spicey house aioli added a lovely touch and the lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle were all exactly as they should be - fresh and crisp.  The house made potato chips we very tasty and which ever aioli I got for dipping was great.  I cleaned out the wee bowl of it I got.  Which brings us to the next thing I like.  A reasonable portion of food.  Not so skimpy you want to eat again at home nor so much that you think you may never eat again if you finish.  Just a nice amount.

Bernard handily cleaned his plate too with an equally good opinion of the food.  Even my picky little  Max downed his grilled cheese with almost no prompting (small miracle there).  I stole a couple fries and found them quite good too, as were the yam fries I sampled.  The beer part of the meal was Piper's Pale Ale draft which was as tasty as always.

Service was good and timely.  The restaurant was about 1/2 to 2/3 full during our time there, moving towards the fuller side by the time we left (about 6:45).  The staff all seemed comfortable with the space and though there were some items not available yet (specifically the pavlova they have of the desert menu) just having everything go so smoothly so soon bodes well.  Bernard initially got potato fries rather than yam fries but he quickly had a plate of yam fries to remedy the issue.

Although pleasantly full we did opt to try their flourless chocolate brownie for dessert.  We let Max devour most of it and had to move the plate out of reach before he licked up the raspberry sauce (or I did).  The brownie itself was dense and quite tasty and the acidity of the raspberry sauce balanced its richness nicely.

While I am talking about flourless brownies, I did note that the menu had vegetarian options and that gluten-free options were available.  They also asked to be informed of allergies.  Given that the food was obviously cooked to order and that changing things for Max was a non-issue I think this is a place where anyone with dietary restrictions will find easy accomodation.

On the not so great side, for us, was the lack of any kid options or pricing and we were't fans of the radio station as our background music.  On the bright side, when we brought those issues up, they mentioned that both issues were on the to-do list and we could expect both to change.  Apparently they will also be having some patio seating as we move into summer.

Overall, Bernard and I are both quite pleased with the new neighbour and will be happy to have such good food such an easy walk away.  Welcome, Boleskine Bistro, we look forward to getting to know you better.

 Boleskine Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Efes Doner Kebap House

I had noticed Efes Donner Kebap House  had opened on Yates a couple of months ago and I had wanted to try it out because I do like Turkish cuisine.   In my opinion Turkish food is the underlying origin for much of what we understand as Greek, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern food especially the döner kebap.   All these areas shared a common Ottoman government for centuries and this really influenced a lot of the food.

When I lived in London in the early 1990s I had a chance to try Greek, Turkish, Cypriot Greek, Cypriot Turkish, Israeli, Persian, Syrian and Egyptian food.  I found the Turks made the best food.   Turkey is a country that I would really love to visit - stunning beaches, wonderful ancient sites and amazing food, but I digress.

I went here the other night with Sheila and Max and I was impressed with the food, the staff and the prices.

It is a short menu but it is done well.   I had the lamb kebap on rice.   The lamb was tender, nicely spiced and well cooked.  The plate came with a large salad and two cups of rice - Turks and Persians cook some of the best rice I have ever eaten in my life.   The salad was fresh and flavourful, there was some thought behind what they put on the plate because there were no mealy bland tomatoes and their horrid ilk.

Sheila had the falafel, she was hesitant because her experience of falafel has been that they are dry leaden balls.   The guy serving our table assured her these were the best in town so she took the risk and was rewarded with moist and tender falafel on a plate with the same sort of rice and salad I had.   More than enough food for her.

Max is four and even with foodie parents he often will tell you he does not like something before even knowing what it is.   The waiter proactively offered to make a plate of food to order for Max.   Max got a plate with plane rice - the rice Sheila and I had on our plates had two sauces with it - minced fried chicken in a mild sauce and a plainer salad.  A lot of food for a four year old, but they only charged us $4 for it.
The dish made special for Max
All of this has been great so far, but their rice pudding is something else.   Rice pudding says to me that stodgy English ethnic food that really was not intended for human beings to eat.   Efes has something they call rice pudding that I am not sure how they make.  It is a smooth and silky rice custard that has a wonderful vanilla flavour.  My four year old thought it was better than ice cream.  

All of this food for a price that is I think really too low.   You would be hard pressed to eat at McDonald's as cheaply.

Can I do better at home?  No.   I can not make rice this good and I have tried over the years.  I do not have the skills to cook the lamb like they did and I have never managed to make a falafel anywhere as good as they make.   Finally, I am not sure where even to start to replicate that rice pudding.  

We will go back.

  Efes Doner Kebap House on Urbanspoon