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Unlike most Vancouver food bloggers, my blog is focused on home cooking. And the more I cook at home–which is more and more over the last couple of years–the less I eat at restaurants. Now don’t get me wrong, I love eating at restaurants. Good restaurants, that is. What I hate is paying for a meal, thinking, “I could have done better”. Which is why when I go out to eat, I tend to gravitate to restaurants that serve classic French cuisine, particularly of the rustic country variety.

So when Kim of I’m Only Here for the Food and Sherman from Sherman’s Food Adventures invited me along to Bistro Bistro in an early celebration of Easter, I rearranged my schedule so I could make it. I had dined at this little Kitsilano eatery on my birthday and really enjoyed my meal and the atmosphere. One bite of their superbly cooked lamb and I decided that, along with Les Faux Bourgeois, it was going to be one of my favorite restaurants.

We arrived shortly after opening and were joined by Mijune from the blog  Follow Me Foodie. This is a restaurant that quickly gets packed, so our early arrival ensured our pick of tables. Of course, we ended up choosing one right by the window, which allowed in the maximum of sunlight.

We started with the tapenade and French baguette, which was served on a cutting board for that rustic, country touch. The bread was better than much of the bread served at restaurants, with a crispy, flaky crust and a soft, chewy interior that was fluffy at the same time. It was a very light baguette. I’d had the tapenade at Bistro Bistro before and it was wonderful. This time it was very bland, seriously undersalted, which was a disappointment.

Due to my recent dietary restrictions, I decided to assemble a meal out of several appetizers and ordered the escargots, mussels and pomme frites. For six dollars, roughly what you would pay for six or seven escargots at a Greek taverna, I got a nice little plate piled with escargots and a delicious side of lightly dressed greens that complemented the snails nicely. Although the presentation was unique and attractive, I also found the escargots bland. I felt they could have used a bit more of everything. More garlic, more butter, more salt. I’m the first to admit that I have a bit of a salt fetish and often find dishes underseasoned (see my post on La Brasserie) but my fellow bloggers agreed with me.

The mussels were served in a classic broth of white wine, shallots, and parsley. Although the broth was flavorful, it had a bitter, astringent aftertaste, which seemed to indicate that the wine was not properly cooked off.

At this point I will digress a bit and mention that one thing I enjoy about Bistrot Bistro is the way the food is served. Everything comes in little casserole style dishes or Dutch ovens, or in the case of the mussels and frites, little metal buckets. I think little touches like these go far to elevate the dining experience. In addition, both times I have gone to Bistrot Bistro, the service has been wonderful. Very attentive but not fawning in a way that one often finds annoying.

The Pommes Alumette Mayo were of the shoestring style. Although  I personally prefer a thicker fry, these were near perfect, with a hot, salted exterior and a fluffy, mealy interior that was not thin on taste.

I also had a chance to try some of my companions’ dishes. For a broader analysis of their meals, please refer to their websites by clicking on the links above. At this point, I want to mention the rabbit, which we all agreed was the highlight of the evening. Rabbit is not something I eat often, as in the past the rabbit I have eaten has been stringy and not well prepared. The rabbit at Bistrot Bistro was excellent. It was moist and perfectly cooked, served in a white wine cream sauce. The sauce was light and full of flavor, perfectly balanced. My mind raced, already devising a way of cooking such a sauce at home. The next time I go to Bistrot Bistro, I am definitely ordering the rabbit.

For dessert, I had the lemon tart, one my standbys at French restaurants. It did not disappoint. It had a creamy, tart interior, which I really enjoyed since I don’t like desserts that are overly sweet. It was served with a berry compote and a dollop of whip cream.

I also tried the chocolate mousse, which was light and airy with a deep chocolate flavor. I wasn’t supposed to be eating mousse (the eggs, the milk) but couldn’t seem to stop dipping my spoon into it. So much for dietary restrictions.

Overall, I enjoyed my meal at Bistrot Bistro and will go there again. Although sides are extra, the portions are substantial. The dishes were generally well executed and a great value for the price. It’s not easy to find such quality dishes at such a price point. The attentive service and bright, splashy atmosphere are also big pluses.

Bistro Bistro

1961 West 4th Avenue

Vancouver, BC

V6J 1M7

(604) 732-0004

Thank you to Kim-Kiu Ho from I’m Only Here for the Food and Sherman Chan from Sherman’s Food Adventures for providing the photography. Salut!


Bistrot Bistro on Urbanspoon

In the last couple of years, Vancouver has been home to a proliferation of bistro-style restaurants serving up the kind of rustic fare you might find in a French country kitchen–onion tarts, bubbling gratins, and hearty stews.  Exactly my favorite type of food. When I’m not cooking it, I’m making my way across this fair city, fork in hand, sampling the best these little French-style eateries have to offer.

Enter La Brasserie, bistro cooking with flare. Unlike its cousins Les Faux Bourgeois or Bistrot Bistro, this eatery offers French specialties with a German twist.  Sauerbrauten sits on the menu comfortably next to the steak frites, which shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems. This is exactly the kind of food you would find in Alsace, the region of France that shares a border with Germany. Fittingly enough, Alsace is also where the brasserie originated.

I had been wanting to visit La Brasserie since it opened, and finally rounded up a couple of food bloggers to come with me. It’s a small space, with only 35 seats and does not take reservations, so I met Sherman from Sherman’s Food Adventures and Kim-Kiu from I’m Only Here for the Food right after work, at 5:30. Showing up shortly after opening turned out to be a good idea. We were the first patrons of the evening but the place filled up quickly after our arrival.

I had briefly perused the menu online but as I thought about what I might order, I realized that the starters appealed to me more than the mains. There was an Alsatian onion tart, a truffle poutine, and a French onion soup gratinee–one of my favorite dishes. If you live outside of Canada, you might not have heard of poutine. It’s a French Canadian specialty which basically consists of fries topped with cheese curds and smothered with gravy. I finally decided to order the mussels and frites and pass up an appetizer, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to eat it all if I ordered anything more.

Our waitress brought us a couple of selections of bread on a wooden board, accompanied by some butter and a pork and chicken rillette. My table mates were not terribly impressed but I enjoyed it, gobbling down more than my fair share. I’ve rarely met a baguette I didn’t like. My philosophy about bread is … even when it’s not good it’s not that bad. The rillette, had a nice texture but was underseasoned for my tastes. Still, I really liked the idea of serving a rillette with bread.

However, I did sample Sherman’s poutine and Kim’s starter–the steak tartare.  I can say that it was a better than a lot of poutine I’ve had, though I didn’t particularly notice anything even vaguely truffly about it. The cheese curds provided the requisite “squeek” but the amount of gravy on the fries was overkill, leading them to become soggy quickly; this bothered my friends, who also thought the gravy was too peppery. I myself didn’t find this to be the case.

Kim’s steak tartare came with some thin and deliciously crispy toasts. The steak tartare had an overtone of horseradish  that overpowered the beef, and had some chives and onion in it to give it more texture. It was a nice touch, but like the rillette, I felt it was a bit on the bland side.

Our mains came in due time, and we all took turns sampling each other’s orders. Sherman and Kim had focused on the Germanic side of things by ordering suckling pig and lamb cheeks respectively; I felt as though I were dining in a Belgian restaurant with my mussels and fries. My mollusks came in a broth of saffron, white wine and garlic. It is hard to go wrong with mussels, and these were plump and delicious, though I didn’t really taste much saffron in the dish, if any at all. But the fries! Can I just tell you about these frites?  Piping hot and crispy on the inside with a soft, mealy center and a deeply potatoey taste. Dipped in a side of fresh mayonnaise, they were incredible and absolutely worth the price of admission.

Sherman’s pork was served with sauerkraut and schupfnudel–a dumpling that looks (as Kim put it) like oversized gnocchi. As these are staples at the Eastern European table, this dish was not something I would have ordered myself. The dumplings were heavier than they were supposed to be. The suckling pig was slightly dry but had a browned crispy skin–the best part of any pork dish, in my opinion. The sauerkraut, with its tartness, balanced the meal out nicely, which is the point of sauerkraut, is it not?

I sampled Kim’s braised lamb cheeks as well, which came with celery root puree, caramelized vegetables, and a rosemary jus. The vegetables were well prepared, which should be a given but it’s surprising how many restaurants fail in this regard. Although I love lamb, I had never had lamb cheeks before, and found them too gamey.

Overall, I had an enjoyable meal at La Brasserie, though the food was generally underseasoned for my palette. I don’t think my blogger friends will rush to go back to this place, but I see a bucket of those frites in my near future. Plus, I want to try that onion tart.

La Brasserie is open seven days a week from 5:00 pm to midnight.

La Brasserie

1091 Davie Street

Vancouver, BC

(604) 568-6399

All photographs are courtesy of Kim-Kiu Ho of the blog I’m Only Here for the food. Thanks Kim!

For more photos, or reviews of the Vancouver restaurant scene, check out Kim’s blog.

Shermans’ review can be found here and Kim’s here.

La Brasserie on Urbanspoon

nubabar

People often ask me what my favorite type of food is, as if there is ever an answer to such a question. When pressed, I will answer “Mediterranean food”. I think this is very clever of me, given that this can mean the cuisines of a wide variety of countries: France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, even parts of Africa and the Middle East.

I often go through food phases, where I fixate on certain dishes or the foods of a particular region. Lately, I’ve been obsessing about the Middle East in general, Lebanese food in particular–which led me to Nuba, a restaurant in the Dominion building on Hastings Street.

I had my doubts about the location, worrying that any restaurant that was located in a basement would have a dungeon-like atmosphere, but I was pleasantly surprised. The owners of Nuba have gone to considerable expense renovating the space. Their inspiration? The Beirut of the 1940s, when the city was considered the Paris of the Middle East.

To bring more light in, part of one wall was replaced with glass bricks. The lighting is soft and warm and a long beautiful bar dominates the room, with the tables placed strategically around it in an arrangement that is roomy and comfortable. No need to worry about your neighbor eavesdropping on your conversation.

Our server immediately brought us water, which I noticed had an usual aftertaste. Cucumber water, I soon realized. Even though it was a cool day, it was oddly refreshing.

My friend and I decided to split a couple of appetizers, unable to decide on what we wanted to eat most. I was in the mood to try a little bit of everything. I had heard that the portions at Nuba were on the small side, and I kept this in mind when ordering. This turned out to be a mistake. Each appetizer offered more than the two of us could comfortably put away, and by the time my meal came I was afraid to admit that I was rather full.

We started with the baba ghanooj, the eggplant dip with a deep smoky flavor, served with a stack of pita wedges. M. wanted olives, so we ordered the olives and feta. As I’m not a lover of olives,  I cannot comment on their quality, but I was impressed that the hunks of feta on the plate were of the Macedonian variety. If you are not a big fan of any cheese that requires keeping in brine, I urge you to try Macedonian feta.  Its smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture, its salty creaminess, will transport you.

Next was the roasted cauliflower, an entry in Vancouver Magazine’s 101 Things to Taste Before You Die and a dish that put Nuba on the map. Known as Najib’s Special, it’s simply cauliflower roasted with lemon and sea salt, but it’s natural earthiness tinged with that edge of bright citrus is proof that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be extraordinary.

Finally, our entrees were brought to the table by our server, who was attentive without being intrusive. I had ordered the lamb kafta, a grilled patty of halal lamb, which was served with salad, tabbouleh, hummus and pita bread.

As soon as our server set my plate down in front of me, I groaned inwardly. Had I know that my meat would come with such a variety of accompaniments, I would have skipped all of the appetizers except the crispy cauliflower. The lamb kafta portion was very small, however, less than the size of my palm. M. had ordered the chicken tawook, local chicken grilled in Middle Eastern Spices. The portion size was about a half chicken breast and although it tasted delicious, it was slightly dry for my tastes. I enjoyed my lamb, but had I not eaten so many appetizers, I might have preferred a larger portion. Still, for $11.95, I found my entree a good value. As a member of the clean-your-plate club, I generally do not like large portions in restaurants. I think it encourages overeating. I prefer to sample a variety of tastes, and to this end, Nuba delivers.

Full as we were, M. and I couldn’t resist splitting a dessert, the Turkish Coffee Tiramisu beckoning to us from the menu. I often make Tiramisu but not once has it occurred to use Turkish coffee, which ironically, is a staple in my ethnic background. It added a deep richness, a stronger coffee taste to the tiramisu than that of regular espresso. The dessert was light on the biscuit and heavy on the whip cream, which offered a nice contrast to the coffee.

I will definitely try Nuba again, this time taking it easy on the starters and perhaps leaving a little more room for a taste of their baklava.

Nuba offers many vegan and vegetarian dishes. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and sometimes features live music. There are two locations: one on Hastings, the other on Seymour Street, which goes by the moniker “Nuba Cafe”.

Nuba

207-B Hastings Street (at Cambie)

Ph: 604-688-1655

Nuba Cafe

1206 Seymour Street (at Davie)

Ph:778-371-3266

Nuba (Hastings) on Urbanspoon

“Er, where are we?” I ask my friend Paul as he pulls into the parking lot of a strip mall in what I call Little Vietnam. His girlfriend Rachel and I exchange glances. “I thought we were going to a French restaurant.”

Paul has been talking about Les Faux Bourgeois for ages–one of Vancouver’s hottest new eateries. We’ve waited for a Friday night reservation for three weeks. I look across Fraser Street to the woman standing on the corner. Is she a lady of the evening, I wonder? As we step into the little bistro with its dim lighting and worn wood floors, we are immediately transported to a Parisian neighborhood circa the Jazz Age. I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s going to be alright.

The hostess greets us with a smile and leads us to a table by the window. I happily ease myself into a bench seat. This prime piece of restaurant real estate has already made the wait for a reservation worthwhile. As I take a closer look at the decor, I note that it actually has a retro appeal. The walls are covered in wood paneling and the lamps look much like those that hung in our living room in the seventies.

lamp

There is nothing kitschy about the menu, though–simply a lineup of the best classic French country cooking you’d find in a Parisian bistro: escargots de bourgogne, steak frites, chicken pot au feu. There’s even a chalkboard listing the daily specials. Most of the entrees clock in at an average of sixteen dollars, which as surprisingly inexpensive for French food of the quality this promises to be.

I start with the Coquilles St. Jacques, the scallops in white wine sauce. I also can’t resist ordering the frisée aux lardons, since it’s the only frisée salad I’ve seen on a menu since my visit to France last year. The scallops arrive piping hot, served in the traditional shell and smothered in bubbling sauce. The sauce is smooth, rich with wine and butter and a perfect foil for the velvety scallops underneath. The portion is small but that’s okay. I’m just getting started. The salad is fresh and crisp, tossed lightly with a traditional vinaigrette, and a nice light segue to my entree of choice, the cassoulet.

Cassoulet is a rustic casserole of beans, duck, and pork sausage. It actually looks simple but requires a myriad of ingredients and at least a day to prepare–if not two–which is why I never make it at home. I cannot resist ordering it whenever I go to a French restaurant, and the cassoulet at Les Faux Bourgeois does not disappoint. As I take my first bite the crunch of the golden breadcrumb topping gives way to a silky interior that is a melding of rich and complex flavors: tomato, garlic, pork, with notes of pepper and thyme. I decide right then and there that it’s the best cassoulet that I’ve had in the city.

My friends have ordered the duck confit and the poisson du jour (fish of the day), which happens to be salmon. Everything looks so enticing that we offer to exchange bites for future reference. The duck is fall-off-the-bone tender, served on a bed of wilted greens with roast potatoes, finished with a large dollop of a sweet yet earthy sauce of veal.

duck

salmon

The fish is seared perfectly; light and crispy on the inside, moist and fork tender on the inside. It’s accompanied by spinach in a light yet flavorful cream sauce and a side of mashed potato and root vegetables.

As delicious as my cassoulet is, the portion is large enough for two people. I’m full before I eat a third of it. However, I always have room for dessert. I order the lemon cream tart, which has a sharp, bright citrus flavor with just the right amount of sweetness in a soft and flaky shell.

lemontart

I take a bite of Paul’s chocolate mousse, which is as light as spun sugar, not too sweet, with the slight edge of bitterness that comes with really good quality chocolate.  These sweet treats are the perfect cap to an evening filled with wonderful food and friendly yet unobtrusive service.

Les Faux Bourgeois is located at 663 East 15th Avenue at Fraser Street in Vancouver. Reservations may be made by calling 604 873-9733. The hours are from 5:30 pm to midnight. The restaurant also serves as a cafe from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm, serving organic fair-trade coffee and specialty croissants from Thomas Haas bakery.

Les Faux Bourgeois on Urbanspoon

redwineThe words Main Street can mean different things to Vancouverites.  It can mean the blocks of trendy cafes and hip restaurants extending North from West Broadway.  It can mean Chinatown and the rough and tumble area at the intersection of Hastings Street.  Or it can mean somewhere in between; underdeveloped lower Main, steps away from Pacific Central bus and train station, and a stone’s throw from the downtown core.  The latter is the setting of one of Vancouver’s newest restaurants, a casual Italian eatery run by the owners of Fuel.  No matter how down-market the neighborhood, a hip new restaurant will attract diners.  In 2008 Food & Wine magazine included Vancouver in its top ten list of restaurant cities in the world.  If you build it, they will come. At least at first.

CB032869Stepping into the restaurant, I’m struck by the contrast of the warm, inviting atmosphere to the dingy cold outside.  A friendly hostess approaches me immediately and offers to take my coat, which I happily part with.  Although the decor is modern and streamlined, with concrete walls and sleek Scandinavian style furniture, the place still has a cozy feel to it, due in part to the cork floor and the original old growth fir beams.

Tim Pittman, one of the owners, comes over to our group to welcome us and explains that Campagnolo’s interpretation of Italian dining encourages the sharing of several courses around the table.  This is reflected in the menu, which offers a wide variety of antipasti, first and second courses, as well as pizza and side dishes.  This sounds good to us, and we start with an appetizer of seared albacore tuna studded with salt-roasted onions and chives, served on a soft mound of cannellini beans.  The tuna has a clean, mellow flavor, as if it has just been caught, prepared, and brought to our table with a minimum of fanfare.  We follow with an order of chick peas with arugula and mint.  The chick peas are fried; crunchy but incredibly light in texture, like popcorn, slightly spiced and without a trace of oil.  For a moment I think they’re roasted.  So far, the chick peas are  my favourite offering of the evening.

Before diving into our main courses, we try a sampling of Chef Robert Belcham’s salumi and cured meats paired with a basket of fresh crostini.  The pate di campagna is a country pate, slightly smoked and mild.  A little too mild.  The taste is not unlike that of cooked ham and lacks the intensity I have come to expect in a pate.  The cured venison sausage, however, has a good balance of smoke and garlic, allowing the true flavor of the meat to shine through without tasting gamy.

pastaNext come our pastas.  In true Italian style, these dishes are served as a first course, with just enough on the plate to satisfy.  We start with the tagliarini in a pork and beef ragu with basil and pecorino, followed by egg noodles with sausage, walnuts, and dandelion greens.  Also in true Italian style, both of these pasta dishes are lightly sauced.  To Italians, the delicate flavour of a pasta is just as important as the sauce.  We North Americans, however, consider pasta a neutral canvas which allows the sauce to take center stage; thus, I find them a little on the bland side.

We decide to share a couple pizzas amongst us.  We start with a pizza bianca topped with garlic, olive oil, and a generous shaving of grana padano cheese.  What makes a great pizza is pretty subjective but I find the crust a little too chewy for my taste.  I like that it’s thin and not loaded down with heavy toppings.  My favourite is the credenza, a simple pizza of anchovy, olive, and pickled leeks.

espressoFinally we finish with dessert.  Continuing in the spirit of sharing, we decide to sample a Nutella tart and an olive oil cake.  The tart pastry has a delicate, flaky texture; the filling is a deep, dark chocolate underscored with hints of hazelnut and Frangelico.  Oil cakes can be heavy, with a strong flavor, but this one is light yet rich at the same time, balanced by a garnish of spice-roasted pears and cinnamon cream.  It’s the perfect finale to our delightfully varied meal.  When I’m ready to go the owner quickly produces my coat.  A nice conclusion to an evening of attentive yet unobtrusive service.

Campagolo is open for lunch as well as dinner and also boasts a 25-seat wine bar with a wide selection of wines and beer.  With many wine choices under the eight dollar mark and food prices that are reasonable for the quality,  Campagnolo provides a much-needed venue for those living in or visiting the lower Main Street neighborhood.

Campagnolo on Urbanspoon

Images courtesy of Microsoft Office

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