Tuesday, November 25

Barcelona Tavern: ***

Barcelona Tavern is the new restaurant that opened last week in the old Belgo space. My initial thoughts on it are that there's potential (especially the tasty food!) but there are a few kinks to work out on timing and service.

One thing I would recommend is not approaching Barcelona as a restaurant. The whole Spanish lively tapas feel they appeared to be going for in the marketing materials had me thinking of an Ox & Angela / Model Milk / 80th & Ivy hybrid. In reality, Barcelona felt more like a bar that happened to have tasty Spanish inspired food. Barcelona is apparently owned by the same people who originally opened the Met, so knowing that tidbit the ambiance makes sense.

We got seated at a table relatively quickly considering how busy the place was (it was impressively busy, though they did not have the second level open). There were four place settings on the table, and no attempt was made to remove the extra two. We also later asked to move tables due to noise level at a table next to us, and the amount of turmoil that created was definitely disproportionate to a 4 foot move… Though perhaps let's let this go for now as it is their first week.

We started with a couple of cocktails - I ordered San Sebastian cava (vodka, Aperol, strawberries and sparkling) which was delicious, and checked out Ginny Hendricks, which had interesting flavour, but was not my thing due to added lychee. They also have quite the selection of gin and tonics, which I would have tried, but the initial round of cocktails took such a long time we decided to order wine instead. Wine selection is somewhat limited, but we did find a bottle we enjoyed. It also took a very long time to get to our table though.

 At this point, we were a bit concerned that we would never get to eat, but the food actually came out very quickly. In fact, it came out all together, which is probably not what one is going for at a tapas place - by the time we tried a couple of the plates, the rest were lukewarm. Taste wise though:

Patatas Bravas - Ox & Angela definitely does it better. While  the same basic flavours were there, the potatoes just weren't crispy enough.

Spanish Slammer - basically pulled pork sliders - were excellent. Best plate we had with bold flavours that complemented each other. Note we had it first and thus it was the proper temperature.

Veal Cheek, which came with parsnip puree - I could tell this had the right flavours but it just wasn't hot at all by the time we got to it, which was disappointing.

Manchego Fondue - I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would considering my obsession with manchego. The flavour of the cheese was a bit dulled.

Paprika Prawns - this was another tasty plate that suffered temperature wise. Grits were quite good with it, though I've had better interpretations of shrimp and grits in my life.

We also ordered a couple of desserts, Churros that came with dulce de leche and chocolate to dip in (excellent, then again, how do you screw up churros?) and Cowboy Bark. Cowboy Bark was a softer chocolate bark with bacon (needed more bacon!), marshmallow fluff, amaretto gelato (delicious) and pop rocks. It was not bad, but felt more like a hodge podge post dinner dessert selection that one gets going through their pantry. "Hmm, I've got this chocolate bark I made… Here's a half eaten jar of marshmallow fluff… Oooh, and pop rocks! Anything in the freezer, I must have something ice cream in there somewhere?..." Perhaps there was a unifying theme to it, but it was definitely lost on me.

Ultimately, I see good potential in Barcelona, if they work on timing and figure out a way to run a restaurant the size of Earls without it feeling like you're getting Earls level service. We shall see...

Barcelona Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 17

Modern Steak: ***

Modern Steak is a new steak restaurant / cocktail lounge hybrid situated in the old Muse location in Kensington. Muse closed back in late June, and Modern Steak opened about a month ago, so at a minimum they should get a prize for fastest venue turnaround in Calgary history (I'm looking at you, Rodney's). Now, I am not privy to reasons Muse closed, but I was sad when I found out, yet somewhat excited to see what the new concept will bring. Steak is always a good thing in my book, and even a website that looked like a 7 year old designed it in 2002 didn't deter me (yes, I am aware my own website is at best "basic", but then again I don't have investors or paying customers to entice, right? I know, I know, glass houses…)

So, my actual thoughts on the restaurant… We finally checked out Modern Steak this past weekend, and  first impressions were not bad - ultimately, it was still Muse space, but some design elements were cool (painted animal skulls on the wall) and some seemed dated (the bar) but I get the vibe they are going for. Cocktail menu was good if not as extensive as one would expect from a place calling itself a cocktail lounge. Pimm's Cup was well made (more difficult to find in Calgary than it should be!) and I did enjoy the Chunnel, a tasty gin-St-Germain-pineapple concoction I've never tried before. One little snarky note - if you are a cocktail lounge, you should probably spell St-Germain properly. Just sayin'. With the drinks, they offered up some truffle popcorn, a tasty Muse holdover which is always welcome. The wine list was quite decent as well (organized by style rather than location).

Onto the food! I ordered the french onion soup and it had good flavour, but was far too salty for my taste, even when eating it without the cheese. Tuna tartare was good, and had an interesting spicy note to it I couldn't quite place, but all I could think of is the tuna tartare I once had at Muse a few years back that literally blew my mind. I liked the Modern Steak version on its own merits, but location invited the unfavourable comparison unfortunately. The mains - I ordered the char, which was well cooked, and I enjoyed the flavour of the sauce and even the brussels sprouts. Potatoes that came on the side though were unfortunately so big they didn't really have any flavour imparted on them and just tasted like well cooked boiled potatoes. A bit of a thud there. I did try the steak which was delicious and very well cooked - it's nice to see more places that offer wagyu! The sides ranged from quite tasty (mushrooms, brussels sprouts with bacon) to just okay (asparagus with 63 degree egg which was overcooked and mashed potatoes that weren't the most flavourful). I did enjoy the mac & cheese quite a bit as well. We were all pretty stuffed by the end, but did check out the gelato with balsamic and cherries, which I would definitely recommend.

In the end, the food and service were good, but not outstanding, and the menu is not very imaginative. I see what Modern Steak is trying to do here, but for my money, Vintage is already doing it better. And I miss Muse.

Modern Steak on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 8

My (wee little) Wedding Food Rant

Ah, weddings… Embarrassing uncles, drunk acquaintances, three toasters you never wanted in the first place - and, of course, public declaration of one true love. I've been to my share of weddings - though not as many as some of my friends - and my favourite remains, well... my own, of course (for one, I think people getting married were just the best…) Apart from that, I've been to some really great ones - and a couple terrible ones. To be honest, though, no matter the size, venue, status of open bar, or my personal views on compatibility of the soon to be newlyweds, I always dread the food.

There was a show on Food Network Canada that I used to watch, called "I Do… Let's Eat", which centered around the preparation and subsequent serving of wedding banquet food. (According to Wikipedia, it still exists, though I haven't seen it on in a long time.) If you remember, the show always focused on the ethnicity of the couple, and the first thing out of (usually) the father of the bride's mouth was "In our culture, we love weddings. Love, families coming together, blah blah blah. But what us Italians/Chinese/Mexicans/Nigerians really care about, is the food". Basically, what I learned about from "I Do… Let's Eat" is that we might be look different and speak different languages but when it comes to shoving our faces full of cake at a wedding, we are all the same. Quality of that cake, though? That's a whole other issue.

Frankly, it is nearly impossible to satisfy palates for 50 to 500 of your nearest and dearest, and it's a losing proposition to try. It used to be you were just compared with what your cousins did and what people (read: other brides) saw in wedding magazines. Now, there's Pinterest, and Style Me Pretty, and every celebrity wedding profiled in People. Before, you fed people dinner and wedding cake and perhaps a couple of stuffed mushrooms during cocktail hour and they were happy. Now there's candy buffets, and midnight junk food is a must, and did you notice how unimaginative the hors d'oeurve selection was??? As a group, our food expectations have sky rocketed (even Red Lobster is concerned with presentation these days) and yet most hotels and caterers haven't turned into Michelin star establishments overnight. And I will be the first to admit - I am one of the people with unreasonable expectations.

Here is the deal, though. I am about to blow your mind. Wedding food doesn't have to be disappointing. And here is my recipe for success:

  • If exceptional quality food is that important to you, you are going to need to step up your budget. But you already knew that.
  • Moreover, if food is important, limit your guest list. There is a reason why the French Laundry seats 60, and the Cheesecake Factory 600 (that is not even that much of an exaggeration. Cheesecake Factory in Dubai seats 526, thank you Google!)
  • I think this one is key: irrespective of your guest count and budget: limit the options, and let the venue / caterer stick to what they know. If you say picked Teatro as a venue, you should probably not expect - or request - they do traditional Thai food.  That's an extreme example, but anyone who has watched Top Chef knows that going outside of your comfort zone and trying to do too much will generally not produce desired results. 
  • One important note: if you did a tasting (and please do a tasting) of the food that is in the chef's "comfort zone" and it's still not great, remember that it's not going to taste better on the wedding day - this is again an obvious one, but thought I would point it out.
  • You are not going to please everyone. There will always be people who will complain (this applies not just to food, but everything in wedding planning - and frankly life). Ignore them and make sure you are happy. 
  • Lastly, guests: lower your expectations (I will try to follow my own advice). You are here to support your loved ones, and food, after all, is just fuel to ensure you have enough energy to do the chicken dance.

Wednesday, November 5

Goro + Gun: ***

Goro + Gun opened up in the +15 of Scotia Centre earlier this year when the Concorde Group took over the old West space. I must say, early reviews I picked up weren't exactly raves but I finally tried it recently, and I actually quite enjoyed it.

The space is modern and clean, with an open kitchen, and surprisingly comfortable wooden benches along the long tables, as well as booths all around perimeter of the restaurant, with anime playing on the many TV screens. It was quite bustling, which is to be expected at lunch time on a Friday of course. The service was friendly and helpful, although a touch slow, especially when it came to getting us the bill at the end.

Anyway,  back to what I came there for - food and drinks! The menu features quite the sake selection, a decent slate of beer and wine, and even house cocktails.  After a somewhat rowdy Thursday night though, I was craving some green tea, which was piping hot and just what the doctor ordered (note they also have a couple of cold teas they offer). Foodwise, there was actually a lot of tempting options I would have liked to try, as the menu had tons of tasty sounding appetizers, rolls, sushi and sashimi. I  ended up sampling the rainbow roll which was not bad (they offer rolls and sushi both on white and brown rice).

For the main event, even though I was very much tempted by the Tepanyaki (Japanese BBQ), I went with ramen - after all, it is on Goro + Gun's logo! I ordered the Shio Ramen. The soup came in a giant bowl (I can't believe it's only $12!) with the most ridiculous looking spoon I have ever seen - it was more like a shallow ladle really - but it did the trick as there was no broth left by the time I was done with it! From what I understand, Shio is a lighter, clear both, as opposed to Miso, which is opaque and more hearty. Even though it was the "lighter" option, the broth felt quite substantial and delicious in its fattiness. The noodles were nice, though I am used to ones that are slightly thicker and toothier (let's be honest though, I am no expert in Japanese food, so I won't question the authenticity here). The ramen also came with kikurage mushrooms (aka black fungus… interesting in texture), red ginger (no complaints) and bbq pork which was basically slices of pork belly - delicious! Just a touch of chili oil (ok, maybe more than a touch) added a pleasant kick to my soup - all in all, perfect lunch for a dreary day.

I'm glad I finally tried Goro + Gun - it's a great addition to the downtown lunch selection. If it were a spice, it would be the ginger of ethnic restaurants, interesting but decidedly not intimidating (in this world, vanilla is Italian, and ghost chili is… Mongolian maybe? Or you know, Scots with their haggis. Or anything involving ant larvae.) And on that note... Try Goro + Gun! It's tasty!

Goro + Gun on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 1

Piroshky Piroshky: ****

I am really excited to do a short but sweet review of this restaurant. Piroshky Piroshky (pronounced pirozhKI - don't forget to roll that 'R'!) is a Russian style bakery located in Pike Market just steps away from the original Starbucks. It lines up into the street, and with good reason - delicious baked goods! How could one ever resist those?

As the line snakes past the window, you get to see all of the options (pictures and the real thing sitting on the shelves!) - both savoury and sweet. Though it was difficult to pick, I ended up with a Potato Mushroom, a Cabbage and Onion, a Marionberry Vatrushka and a Poppy Seed Roll. Breakfast of champions if you ask me!

The savoury piroshky were especially excellent, with tasty chewy dough and delicious fillings - both cabbage and potato mushroom are classic combinations. Poppy seed roll was also wonderful, and the only thing that slightly disappointed was the Vatrushka - classically, its filling should be closer to ricotta than the cream cheese that Piroshky Piroshky uses, so while it tasted great it just wasn't what I expected. My uneducated guess is that back in 1992 ricotta wasn't widely available, and the owners went with the next best thing, and by now it's too late to change something that its customers love.

I am definitely visiting Piroshky Piroshky next time I am in Seattle!

  Piroshky Piroshky on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 29

Vendome Café: ****

I finally checked out Vendome this past weekend to see what the fuss is all about. Vendome, of course, is a coffee and wine bar just on the edge of Kensington in Sunnyside that serves all the meals and drinks you need and even has live music on Thursdays. Unfortunately the weather was not conducive to seating on the sizable patio, but we did enjoy lunch and some (non-alcoholic) beverages. When we got there, the line was out the door, which made me a bit nervous about getting a seat but Vendome has ample seating (I’m looking at you, Analog) and from what I can tell the line-up is more a function of how quickly the kitchen can turn out the food. Having ordered our food, we found a table with church pew seating and a view of the dumpster (less terrible than it sounds actually – and very much hipster approved) and sipped our drinks while waiting for the food. Cappuccino was good, the tea they offer is Mighty Leaf which is always welcome, so Vendome definitely has you covered on that end.

We ordered a Duck Confit panini, which was delicious if a bit greasy, and Bacon Mac & Cheese. Now first of all, that is way too much food for two humans. I would recommend ordering a half panini, but then again, is there such a thing as too much duck confit?.. I certainly don’t think so. The panini also came with a little dish of apple jam to dip it into, which was a nice touch. I loved the way caramelized onions worked with the duck, and my only complaint was the fact that it probably sat on the counter for too long and was a touch less hot that I would have liked. To be fair, I have recently discovered that I am very sensitive to not hot enough food, so take that with a grain of salt. The Bacon Mac & Cheese was also quite tasty, with vegetables attempting (in vain) to balance out the unhealthiness (and hence deliciousness) of bacon and cheese sauce. It came with a side salad (ha, as if I will waste the precious space in my stomach for that!) and what they billed as “toast” which was a piece of herby bread that was quite dense and didn't seem toasted to me. Having been defeated by our meals (thankfully there’s always takeout containers), we enjoyed a couple of macarons for a sweet finish. The cherry one that I was looking forward to the most actually didn't have much of a distinct flavour, but chocolate orange was lovely.

The verdict on Vendome? Good drinks, excellent food, lots of seating – what’s not to love?

Vendome Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 26

Canon: *****

So, continuing on with Seattle theme – let’s discuss Canon!

I have been to Canon a couple of times now, and it really doesn’t disappoint. Great ambiance, great drinks, and they will not allow it to be crowded. It might be tiny, but you can actually breathe, which is nice. If you must get in on a particular night (and you must) they even take reservations. For $25 per person, which will go towards your bill, they will hold a table for you. No brainer!

While last time I was there I didn’t have any food, we did try a bunch of cocktails, Banksy Sour (essentially a scotch sour with an imaginative presentation), Milk N’ Cookies (for those of us in love with peaty, peaty, peaty scotch… and cookies), Zombie For Two (braaaaaaaaiiinzzz! that is all), Cubed Old Fashioned, and many more. Negroni Experiment is also highly recommended. I’ve had food at Canon before and it’s been quite tasty as well, but let’s be honest, I come for the cocktails.

What I also really love about Canon is how it’s literally wall to wall bottles – even in the bathroom. Now it might be for space saving or design reasons (most likely both) but the effect is great. Check that place out!

  Canon on Urbanspoon