Saturday, June 26, 2010

Catering to Coffeeshops

I love independent cafes, and I really do go out of my way to avoid (ball-and-)chain coffeeshops. However, I not really diggin this increasingly-popular trend of the cafe format being fused together with deli and/or catering getups.

I was recently exploring the yuppie-filled sidestreets and hippiecondo-filled blocks of Kits Point for new and quality coffeeshops when I spotted Quince just east of Burrard, on West 3rd Avenue. Quince is just one of the many catering outfits in the city that is also trying to pass as a cafe and deli. It reminds me of the now defunct Sensational Suppers or the popular The Butler Did It in that it is clearly a business focused on catering that attempts to attract passers-by with take-out meals and coffee. This is not a bad business model in theory but - like Communism or clear beer - it just doesn't work in practice. The focus on meal preparation, corporate customers, and large-scale food production makes it nearly impossible for businesses like this to create a setting wherein locals and people off the street can enjoy a quality coffee, tea, or baked good in a space that is comfortable and neighbourly.

Quince and the many catercoffeeshops that are popping up around town often offer quality product, in an isolated sense: they serve great coffee, they always have fresh pastry, the layouts are slick, they offer a wide range of catering services and options, and their take-out meals are outstanding. Unfortunately, when these elements are combined, the poor punter who is hoping to enjoy a crema-clad coffee at a local and inviting independent cafe ends up entering a space suffering from an identity crisis...a perfectly prepared, stylish identity crisis. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anti-Vampiric Nationalist

There are two big-ticket outdoor concerts coming to Vancouver's scenic Malkin Bowl this summer: The National (September 10) and Vampire Weekend (August 27/28). One of these concerts will be a highlight of the city's summer festivities, and the other will taint serene Stanley Park with hipsters, hipteenies, and nattering afro-prep pop music (yes...I just used an Oxford comma you can suck it).

Promoting their fifth and highly acclaimed album, High Violet, The National are at the peak of their creative powers right now. Hailing from Cincinnati and based in Brooklyn, The National produce a poetic, ponderous rock that is based around Matt Berninger's baritone vocals, and is reminiscent of The Tindersticks and Interpol. Their music is a mélange of shoe-gazing melancholy and percussion-driven East Coast indie rock, but the band's collective intelligence and ever-evolving sound prevent songs from becoming predictable or brooding. At times, I have worried that The National might fall victim to the forlorn, ruminant elements found in their songwriting, but their propensity for anthemic refrains and catchy rock riffs always pulls them out of the lurking doldrums. 

Having said this, I would take gloomy doldrums created by The National over Vampire Weekend's preppy-pep ska any day. I hate when Vampire Weekend is compared to the Talking Heads or The Police because VW is nowhere near as complex or talented as these two trailblazing bands from the 1980s. Sure, VW can muster up a few retro-infused melodies and clever lines, but they only have one sound. Their Congolese, Upper-West-Side-Soweto may have turned heads and sweater-vests on the Columbia campus, but the group has failed to develop and progress on their second and most recent album, Contra. Plus, how can you respect a lead singer that dresses like this (see image)?!  

I will admit that my feelings regarding these bands stem from interviews I have seen with frontmen Matt Berninger and Ezra Koenig. The former is witty, unaffected and passionate...and the latter is smug, cavalier and trendy. One should definitely separate the art from the artist when analysing, contemplating, and enjoying creative works, but researching these lead singers and watching interviews with the two bands have revealed that The National are established craftsmen and Vampire Weekend are merely transitory journeymen.

Both of these concerts have sold out, but you can probably find tickets on Craigslist. At the very least, buy/download High Violet!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blood Alley Tapas

Last week, my friend came up from Blaine for good eats, craft beer drinking, and a concert. During our lengthy evening of carousing, we hit-up three restaurants in and around the Downtown Eastside's lubricious Blood Alley. In the midst of an inevitable gentrification, this once-perilous locus has evolved into a gourmet, gritty smorgasbord of tapas and charcuterie eateries. While each of these trendy nooks had quality ingredients and dishes, their overall quality and recommendability decreased as the night (and our inebriety) progressed.

Six Acres - 203 Carrall
Located in Vancouver's oldest brick building at the entrance to Blood Alley, this cozy bar offers tapas-like plates designed for sharing and grazing. Once we recovered from the shock of discovering that the establishment lacks draught beer and fought our way through the forest of hipsters mulling about the ground floor, we identified and ordered victuals that met our needs. Even though I automatically resent places that fail to stock draught beer, I must admit that Six Acres has an impressive bottled selection. With an emphasis on Belgian blondes and saisons, Six Acres has over 40 bottled beers to choose from. While the Six-Layer Dip that we ordered was satisfying in its mediocrity, the stand-out dishes were the Wild Mushroom Risotto and the Black Truffle Sliders. I think Six Acres might be on to something with this greasy spoon tapas concept.

Salt Tasting Room - 45 Blood Alley
I had dined at Salt in the past, and thought it would be silly to visit Six Acres and Judas Goat (see below) without stopping in for some serrano and Piccantino salami. I like Salt for a number of reasons: they promote local products, they are always featuring new and interesting items, and it's a convenient place to grab a meaty snack before a show. From reviews I have read, it seems as though many make the mistake of assuming that Salt is a restaurant. This assumption will lead to an empty wallet and high cholesterol. It is a tasting room based on charcuterie, and its far superior to its twin below...   

Judas Goat Taberna - 27 Blood Alley
I have a fairly small stomach and a fickle appetite, so I am never one to complain about portions. Having said this, the portions at Judas Goat were ridiculous considering the prices. With the same owners as Salt and The Irish Heather - which serves hearty, bold pub food just a block or two away - I wrongly assumed that Judas Goat would also offer the same value with their Spanish-themed tapas. All of the items that we ordered were creative and delightful (especially the foie gras with rhubarb foam and the braised pork belly), but they should have been 1/3 cheaper. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should pay $2.25 for thin slice of baguette with a sparse spread of salsa verde and a few puny, pea-sized blobs of white anchovy. This isn't bruschetta! Judas Goat won't heard it here first!

Keywords: "Vancouver Tapas"

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Peaceful Meat Pancakes

Along West Broadway, near Cambie, there is a stretch of dirty, subpar, nondescript Asian restaurants. There is a pho joint, the Shalin Noodle Restaurant, a tacky sushi spot, and - finally - Peaceful Restaurant. Like many people who have dined here recently, I heard about this little cranny of a restaurant from Yelp and was excited to hear that a decent Chinese eatery has opened in the False Creek/Fairview area. 

We asked our perky and assertive server (who has a serious weakness for pork belly) for recommendations, since the menu is extensive and intimidating. We didn't order everything that she suggested, since most of it involved (you guessed it) pork belly, but we did order the Beef Roll, the Ginger Eggplant, the Sesame Chicken, the Szechuan Noodles with dao xiao mian, and the Pork Belly with Cabbage (which our waitress made us order). This is a Mandarin, northern Chinese restaurant, so they use wheat-based, hand-cut noodles made in-house, which are available as small "cat ears" (mao er duo), long sheared strands (dao xiao mian), or thick hand-dragged strands (cu mian). The noodles are often al dente, and they held Peaceful's sauces very well.

The Beef Roll appetizer was probably my favourite item, although every dish was fresh and clean tasting. The Roll's paper-thin five-spiced beef, crisp green onions and sweet hoisin sauce are united and enrobed by a light, flavourful pancake. It was like a Chinese burrito! My second favourite was the Pork Belly and Cabbage (!), which had an incredible texture. Mixing thin slices of marbled pork belly with wide swatches of pressed tofu, leeks, garlic, onion and green onion resulted in a gustatory adventure filled with crunch and spongy succulence.

There is so much on the menu that our table wanted to order, so I'll have to go back. Good thing I live in the False Creek/Fairview area!

Keywords: "Alphabet Review", "Chinese Restaurants Vancouver", Alex Dawkins