Monday, February 25, 2013

Pho in Vancouver

Pho Extreme has three things going for it: location, hours, service. Vancouver has such a dearth of 24-hour eating establishments that I'm tempted to give Pho Extreme an 'A'. However, their food is "extremely" average so I'm forced to stick with a 'B'. I went here with my parents and we all felt, based on the menu and nature of the restaurant, that we should stick with soups rather than ordering a noodle or rice dish. I ordered the steak pho, my dad ordered the steak and brisket pho, and my mom ordered the chicken pho. I always avoid pho ga, but my mom said it was pretty good. All of the soups contained a generous serving of protein, and this is great value when considering the $6.50 pricetag. The broth was forgettable, but pho is designed to be customized with various sauces and additions, so forgettable stock has never "broth"ered me. We also ordered the saladrolls to start, which are very reasonable at $4.50 for two rolls (four pieces). I should also mention that this place is family-run, and that all of the servers are polite and straightforward.

I don't think I will ever become a regular at Pho Extreme, but I'm sure it will draw me out from the 99 on those nights I'm bussing past after bar-hopping on Commercial or Main. I am a semi-regular at two other pho places though. I really like Golden Train Express II on Broadway and Blenheim, and Ha Long Bay on Pender and Richards. The former has some atypical soup options, and the latter serves amazingly tender raw beef in their pho bo.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Valentine's Dinner at La Quercia

There is always that one restaurant in your city that you keep wanting to try. I have intended to eat at La Quercia several times. One time we wanted to have a birthday dinner there for a friend but the small space could not accommodate our numbers. Another time I tried to walk in off the street with my aunt and they were fully booked for the night. As soon as January rolled around, and I began thinking about Valentine's Day plans, I decided to book a table at La Quercia, more than a month in advance.

Our dinner here was incredible. While La Quercia does offer a small a la carte menu, the servers (and chefs) encourage adventurous diners to opt for their familia set menu. This is $50 per person and consists of seven shared courses, based on items that are fresh in the markets and in the kitchen. Before I describe what we had, I should mention two things I noticed about the restaurant. First, the kitchen is jam-packed with chefs. For a restaurant that only seats thirty people, they had four chefs, a dishwasher, and an expediter. Second, the service was outstanding. I can't stand the austerity of staff members at many fine dining establishments. The price of dishes should not alter a server's personality, nor burden the customer with behavioural expectations or forced formality. The serving staff at La Quercia were faultlessly attentive without being intrusive, and they came across as being both relaxed and extremely proud of what they were serving.

Now down to the nitty-gritty!

Our first dish was Trout Three Ways, which consisted of trout mousse along with an in-house smoked and cured version of the fish. This was served with celeriac slaw, wholegrain mustard, and watercress. I liked the sashimi-like texture of the cured trout while my partner favoured the subtlety of the smoked version. The mousse was great with the baguette that came with this starter.

Our second dish was a rich, perfectly baked Parmigiano-Reggiano souffle. This would have been great on a large bed of greens, but it only came on a token bed of arugula that could not support the piquant richness of the cheesy sformato. Good thing we had some of that thinly-sliced baguette left!

Our third dish was a polenta gnocchi dish with a braised rabbit and white bean ragu. My girlfriend found this dish too "slippery", but I thought that the density of the gnocchi and beans perfectly absorbed the gaminess of the rabbit. I definitely would not want a bowl of this to myself, however.

Our fourth dish was a handmade lumache all'amatriciana, a pasta with smoked pork cheek and a light tomato sauce. This dish almost had a palate-cleansing effect after the pungent gnocchi.

Our fifth dish was pork belly with homemade headcheese and roasted vegetables with a herb aioli. My girlfriend hadn't tried either of these pork-based "delicacies", and we definitely both liked the former more than the latter. Headcheese is just not easy to appreciate or wrap your...head...around when considering the ingredients and preparation. 

Our sixth dish was lamb shoulder with roasted cauliflower and hazelnuts. The cauliflower was cooked in a pleasantly sweet balsamic sauce, which also contained raisins. At first I was a bit disturbed by the raisins considering the garlic and herb backbone of the lamb and cauliflower, but they really complimented the lamb and were a natural match to the hazelnuts.

Our final dish was a chilled pannacotta with raisins and hazelnut streusel. We were both struggling at this point, but pannacotta acts in a similar way to a mild cheese or creme caramel in that it's soft, fairly easy to digest, and neutral-tasting...which is a nice way to end a big and bold dinner!    


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winter Beer Review 2013

I have not only been dabbling in barleywines this winter, I have also been riding the craft beer wagon to Hoptown. Having a friend who brews - combined with the opening of Vancouver's Portland Craft, combined with my frequent visits to the States - has resulted in a regular imbibing of rare and wonderful beers over the past while. Here are some unique beers my girlfriend and I have sampled over the past month:

Maui Brewing Coconut Porter - A-

I instantly liked this beer for two reasons. The first is that Maui Brewing went against my expectations by avoiding sweetness with this porter. When I bought this I was hoping it wouldn't taste like a Mounds bar, and it didn't. This beer has a dry, toasted coconut finish, which is better suited to sipping on the beach than a caramely winter beer that tastes like a candy bar. The second reason is that Maui is a practical, environmentally-conscious brewery. For example, they only use aluminum, and every can displays an explanation of why glass bottles are so inefficient when considering the production and consumption of beer.

New Belgium Brewing Biere de Garde - B

Before commercial yeast strains...and industry cleaning standards...and the conglomeration of independant breweries, brewers often made batches of beer in the winter to have on-hand in preparation for the unpredictability of summer heat and the naturally ocurring yeasts floating through the air (and fermentation vats) during the hot months. This type of beer is now commonly referred to as saison and farmhouse ale, and it was known as biere de garde ("beer for keeping") in northern France back in the day. 

New Belgium, based in Colorado, is making some awesome beer right now. They have a line of progressive beers that they call the Lips of Faith series, and the Tart Lychee Belgian Sour from this line was one of my favourite beers last year. Their Biere de Garde from the Lips of Faith series has been brewed with Michigan's Brewery Vivant, and it packs a wallop. Maybe it had something to do with the whimsical chickens on the bottle, or maybe it had to do with the fact that this beer advertises it is made with orange peel, but I was expecting a light, dry farmhouse ale. Instead, I got a copper-coloured, Sorachi Ace hopped, high alcohol beast that was more invigorating than refreshing. It's not that it was bitter (it sits at 18 IBU), but it was soooo complex. A satisfying beer, but bold!
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout - C

All of this winter beer drinking has raised the recurring question: what is the difference between a stout and a porter? The short answer is vernacular and semantics. There is a lot of crossover, and historical misuse has made clear definitions nearly impossible. However, online research has resulted in a simple - and perhaps simplistic - way to distinguish one from the other. Stouts, and especially dry stouts like Guinness, should only use two-row barley and should have zero to miniscule amounts of hop aroma and flavour. Porters historically contain a variety of barley types, crystal malts, and hops. With these two definitions in mind, I often seek stouts during these cold dark months because they are rich and easy to drink. Sadly, pretty much every one of the some fifteen "stouts" I have sampled over the past two months are hoppy and/or sweet, which I find becomes oppressive if consuming these types of beer regularly. I was hoping for something along the lines of Maui's Coconut Porter with Lagunitas' Cappuccino Stout, but it was a far cry from the well balanced flavour and dry finish of the Hawaiian beer. It tasted like someone just poured old coffee into a batch of hoppy porter rather than integrating the grounds into the brewing process. And it was really flat to boot. My search for the ideal porter continues!