Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Union Bar: Easy, Breezy, Tasty

It was a girl date night with The Style Guru and we decided to walk from her place on mid-main street to the Vancouver Art Gallery for their Friday FUSE event (for info on FUSE click here- it was a very cool event, I recommend checking it out.)
As usual, we had a tough time deciding on where to go because we are both food nerds that have a long list of great places we like and new places we want to try. We walked past one such place I've been wanting to try for ages: Holy Trinity Ukranian Orthodox Cathedral and their perogy feasts that they serve up the first Friday of every month, simply because we wanted something a bit lighter and to sit somewhere and have a few drinks. As we got to the Main and Terminal area, TSG suggested we try The Union Bar, she had been before and liked it, I had never been- but heard good things.
The Union is run by the people to also run Latitude, Habit, and Cascade (higher up on Main Street) and the focus here is southeast Asian food.

I loved the atmosphere- big windows and high ceilings made the space feel open and breezy on a hot, stuffy evening. Most seating is at communal tables but there are a few small high tables and bar seating.
There are about 80 seats, much of the space is wooden and the walls are sprinkled with cool art and installations. The vibe is slightly hipster with a trendy, minimal, crisp, clean feel.

The Union has an impressive drink menu (much like Cascade,  and Habit, and Latitude) and keeps with the southeast Asian theme serving up exotic and delicious sounding banga cocktails in mason jars, an impressive beer selection and drinking vinegars. On a hot day, all I wanted was a cold beer, so I ordered Main Street Pilsner.
The menu is medley of South East Asian food: small plates- including beef satays, salads, banh mis, veggie pakoras, and chilli chicken wings, mains- rice and noodle bowls like Pad Thai, Butter Chicken, Bun Vermicelli, and a few tempting desserts (Coconut Pannacotta anyone?)

We shared a few dishes. First up was the Crispy Fried Tofu ($11). This was essentially agadashi tofu served in a rich, creamy Thai red curry sauce with bits of sauteed spinach and shiitake mushrooms. DAMN! This is fantastic- especially the sauce. It's reminiscent of the tofu and sauce at Toshi which I dish out as a big compliment. This sauce is so phenomenal, we also ordered a small side of Naan bread ($2) to sop up the deliciousness.

I seriously licked the bowl clean. I'm so classy.

Next up was the Sweet and Sour Fried Fish Vermicelli Bowl ($12). This was an noodle salad bowl with pickled carrot and daikon, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, fresh herbs, and a small side dish of nuoc cham dipping sauce. This was a nice dish for a hot day. Extremely refreshing. The fish was a bit bland but was well cooked, buttery soft on the inside with a light crispy exterior. Wouldn't have loved it on its own, but worked well with the dish as a whole.

Green Papaya Salad ($8) with shredded green papaya, mint, cilantro, spiced peanuts, chili lime dressing and crispy shrimp. This was a tasty, fresh, well-flavoured dish but pretty standard, with the exception of the tiny bites of crispy shrimp, which were delightful and a nice salty crunch. I found the portion size on this dish to be really small.

Service was fantastic and super speedy- our server was adorable, bubbly, friendly, with an awesome smile. I really did like the atmosphere and feel of the place too. This would be a fantastic place to come and hang out on a hot evening with a big group of people.

I have to give a special shout out and commend them for providing every table setting with a gorgeous presentation of hot sauces and chili oils. My heart actually skipped a beat when I saw that on the table.
Overall, the food was really good with awesome flavours but definitely not jaw-dropping or drool-worthy (except that tofu sauce) and the prices were reasonable. A very fun and breezy place to hang out on a hot evening.

The Union Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ethiopean Double Date at AXUM

My sister is newly engaged and so myself, the Sous-chef, Middle sister and the Admiral (her fiancee) decided to go out for dinner double date to celebrate. She asked me to pick the restaurant, I provided an extensive list. One of the options was an Ethiopian food place that our littlest sister loves and right away she wanted to go there, since she had never had Ethiopian food before. 

AXUM is located next to an auto shop in a fairly desolate area of Clark and Hastings (although The Waldorf, Gourmet Warehouse, and Au Petit Chavignol are all within walking distance.) When we entered just before 6, there was only one other customer in the restaurant. 

The space is quite spacious, extremely clean, and nicely decorated with basket-woven chairs, wall hangings, paintings, bright lighting and interesting little faux grass centrepieces. 

We weren't in a rush to eat so we ordered some drinks and chatted for a while before even looking at the menu. The owner, who was also the only floor staff at the time, was very attentive and friendly. Ethiopian food is excellent for group dinners: it's food for sharing, trying everything from a family-style platter. 

We ordered a Vegetarian Combo with four items ($10): Gomen (front right)-Fresh collared green and spinach simmered in mild sauce seasoned with mild sauce seasoned with spices and herbs, Tikil Gomen (far back left)- Cabbage and carrot simmered in mild sauce, Kik Alicha (middle right)- Yellow split peas simmered in mild sauce, and Akkilt Wot (front left)- Fresh green beans & fresh carrot simmered in flavoured mild sauce. 
We added to the combo ordering Shiro ($10- middle left and back right) Pureed split peas cooked with red onion and garlic and Inguday Tibs ($10- centre) Portobello mushroom marinated and sauteed with onion, garlic, pepper, fresh tomato, herbs and spices. Our order arrived with the combo on a large platter with injera and our server brought out the additional items in bowls and scooped them onto the injera. Injera is a large, thin, pancake-like flat bread and since there are no utensils, you rip it into pieces and use it to scoop the food. They provided a side plate with two stacks of rolled injera. This injera was fresh tasting and it had an awesome spongy texture to help enjoy the sauces. My favourite item was the slightly spicy Shiro.

Service was friendly and prompt, the food was warm, delicious and packed with flavour (herbs and spices) and prices are extremely affordable. This is a fun, cheap and tasty place for a more adventurous group meal... if you don't mind eating with your hands!
Axum Ethiopian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 23, 2012

Richmond Night Market by the River Rock

There are two night markets in Richmond this year. Along with the Summer Night Market (I've been the last two years posts here and here) near Home Depot and Ikea near No.5 Road, there is now The Richmond Night Market by the River Rock Casino. On a hot and sweaty Sunday evening, The Leggy Redhead and I arrived to check it out and get some tasty bites.  We arrived around 6:30pm (they are open Friday-Sat 7-midnight and Sunday 6-11pm.This market comes with an admission fee of $1.50 per person. I don't really agree with this - why pay $ to go somewhere to pay $? Where is this $ going?

There is the typical assortment of retail booths with discount merchandise from iphone accessories, unique artwork, kitschy toys, bizarre beauty products and a stage with live entertainment. We didn't let ourselves get distracted and headed straight for the food booth area. 

Fortunately, at this point in the evening, it didn't feel too busy and the rows of booths felt quite spacious and well organized. This market features a wide variety of delicious looking food- even original Oktoberfest booth, fusion burgers, Mango Tapioca Icy desserts, grilled meat skewers, bubble tea, fresh lemonade, egg waffles, dim sum, lobster, bbq pork Humburger (not a typo or spelling), soba noodles, crispy taiwanese chicken nuggets, rotatos (hurricane potatoes), japanese corn dogs (a deep fried hot dog with a crispy yam fry exterior), korean, filipino, rice burgers, japanese crepes, taiwanese oyster omelettes...and even more.

The Leggy Redhead made the first purchase with an order of Pancit ($3.50) from the Filipino stand. TLR loves her friend's mom's pancit and feels compelled to order it whenever she sees it. She found this good, but not great. 

There were at least a couple of booths selling BBQ Squid (one of my night market favs). We compared and thought this booth looked the best. 

We ordered a small "hot and spicy" for $6.00. The squid was fried and spiced to order. 

It was chewy (which I like), tasted fresh, and had an awesome, truly spicy, seafood flavour. The portion was huge- good bang for your buck!

Bandudanyaki for $5. I've tried to try this item twice before when they were a food trailer operating near the River Rock- once I attempted to go there for lunch to find that they were only open for dinner and then I tried again, to find that they had moved and weren't serving there anymore. I had read that they were serving at this night market and figured this was finally my chance. Takoyaki, is a ball-shaped snack made of flour based batter and filled with small chunks of seafood/octopus. 

Instead of making small balls, Bakudanyaki is one huge battered ball of seafood- it's basically the size of 4 takoyaki together. Each fritter has squid, cabbage, corn, ginger, shrimp, rice cake, egg, green onion. They offer a few different flavour options, I asked the girl taking the order for the most popular, she recommended Wasabi or Curry, and I ordered Wasabi. It took about 5 minutes and our order was ready, smothered in Wasabi Mayo sauce and topped with bonito flakes. This was quite tasty but unfortunately didn't quite meet my hyped-up expectations. I wish the outside texture of the ball was crispier (like smaller takoyaki's) but instead I found it a bit soft and soggy. 

I did love how it was jam-packed with ingredients like whole shrimp! The flavours were good and blended together nicely- but I didn't find it was spicy at all from the wasabi. Everything gets quite mushy and goopy as you get to the bottom. 

I finished off my night market experience with a refreshing, cold, and palatte pleasing single scoop of green tea ice cream for $2. We left around 8 as it was starting to get really busy and crowded. Definitely recommend this experience. There is something here for everyone!

Richmond Night Market on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sharing: New Food Finds

I have two new awesome food treats to share.

I like things spicy so I've actually started bringing a small travel bottle of hot sauce with me when I go places. Reactions are usually mixed when I bust my mini hot sauce out. Weird! Awesome! If you've never been to someone's place before, you don't know what kind of condiments they've got on hand. I prefer to always be prepared.
I went to a BBQ this past weekend and as I was pulling my hot sauce out of my purse, one of the hosts actually stopped me to ask what I was doing. I explained, and he told me that he is actually in the hot sauce biz on the side and pulled out a bottle of his product: Jumpin' Johnny's. It's thick, well textured sauce that clings well to whatever you put in on (I smothered my turkey burger in it). The colour is bright and you can see the flecks of herbs and spices, the smell is vinegar-cayenne with kick. The taste is fantastic with a tangy vinegar hit, herb-acious notes, and a nice even flavourful heat from the cayenne (I'd rate it medium spice). You can buy it at a few North Vancouver grocers, including Queensdale market.

Now, after some hot sauce, I'd like to share a cold, refreshing beverage with you....ZEVIA! I love carbonated drinks (drink at least one club soda with lime every day) but I really try to limit my consumption when it comes to pop and cola. Recently, some friends who work in the natural foods industry were drinking Zevia at a picnic. At first, I was intrigued because it looked like cans of foreign beer, but when they told me it was a zero calorie cream soda sweetened with stevia, I asked to try some....AND I LOVED IT! They have a whack of other flavours (I want to try their Ginger Root Beer) and you can buy them at selected Capers, Whole Foods, Choices, IGA's.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fray Brunch: A charming brunch

This was my second meal at Fray. This restaurant is literally right around the corner from my home.
My first visit was okay- but nothing amazing. See blog post here.
My list of places that "to eat in vancouver" list is pretty huge and keeps growing, so unfortunately I don't usually end up eating the same place and usually always try somewhere new. But there is a definite charm and allure to this place as I've watched it grow (it's location and awesome online presence) so I have kept wanting to go back and try it again. They've built up some great positive buzz, switched up the menu, set up a small patio, started offering brunch (and even more recently lunch) and running weekly Weds trivia nights.

One of my best buddy's Ashley and I made plans to go for a Saturday morning run followed by brunch. I threw out a few suggestions and was pleased when she selected Fray.

It wasn't too busy when we arrived at 10am-ish but the place definitely was starting to get busier throughout our meal. It's a fun, retro-cool-hipster atmosphere and it was definitely warm and inviting with the sun streaming inside. I love the quote on their website from Vancouver Beer Blog,
“If Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer from Seinfeld lived in East Vancouver, Fray would be their hang out spot for sure.” We sat in a comfy booth and perused through their brunch menu. This menu has two salads, two omelettes, a traditional breakfast, a meat-centric breakfast, cornflake crusted french toast, five bennies, a BLT, two burger options, mac and cheese, their popular appies: bacon wrapped figs and portobello fries, and a kids menu.

I was really tempted by the Cornflake-Crusted French Toast (menu description is mouth-watering).....but I was definitely feeling savoury that morning, not sweet. Ashley and I picked two options to share.

Traditional Breakfast ($7.95) Two eggs, two double-smoked slices of Fraser Valley bacon, two slices of toasted focaccia and Cajun roasted potatoes. Eggs sunny side up.
They nailed this brekkie standard, everything was done really well- from the eggs with thick, oozing, bright yellow yolks, to the fresh cut crispy roasted potatoes (not too greasy with nice flavour), the thin wedges of crispy artisan focaccia. Not all bacon is created equal. You can taste the quality of this meat. This was a simple, slightly classier version of the greasy spoon standard.

Mountainview Burger ($10.95) House-made falafel chickpea patty, grilled eggplant, roasted red pepper sauce and goat cheese spread on a whole wheat bun.
The chickpea patty was tasty and had a nice thick consistency that was a slightly crispy on the outside.  The goat cheese added some richness and creaminess.

Unfortunately, I didn't really notice the grilled eggplant or roasted red pepper sauce, if they were on there, the flavours were pretty muted and didn't really add much. I doused mine with mustard and hot sauce to give this dish a bit of a needed flavour kick. This veggie burger option could benefit from the addition of some flavour power ingredients- sliced jalapenos, fresh beets, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, etc. I loved the side salad and it's zingy balsamic vinaigrette.

Our server was fantastic. She was so nice, so on top of coffee refills, and I loved her enthusiasm for the food. She was knowledgable and great with suggestions. Her shift was ending as we were settling up our bill- I asked her what her other favourite dishes were and she took the extra time to walk us through the new summer menu and point out her favourites and answer more questions. I love fellow food nerds. I'll definitely come back for a Trivia night and looking forward to trying something new from their new summer menu.

Fray on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 6, 2012

Nine Dishes on Kingsway

Asian Superdirector wanted to take me for a belated birthday dinner since she missed my racetrack celebration. We had chatted about Nine Dishes before and it has been our hitlist for places to check out serving spicy chinese grub- AND it's also located in my neighbourhood (near another favourite place of ours Green Lemongrass). It's a modest place serving up Northern Chinese fare that has built up some positive food blog buzz for their low prices and spicy food. The interior is clean, pretty standard decor wise (fish tank in the middle) and the restaurant was quite busy throughout our leisurely meal (seemed like mainly regulars). It was the Asian Superdirector, new pal- The Italian Stallion, chowing down and they were ordering as I arrived (although they did ask for my opinion). There are actually 5 separate menus with pictures (but no drink menu) with a wide variety of Chinese BBQ, noodles, hot pot, main courses, and appetizers. The server gives you a piece of paper and pencil to write down your order.

First to arrive was the C5A House Special Spare Ribs $9.99, which arrived in a claypot. This was simple but tasty. The meat was soft and tender from slow braising. The flavour was quite rich and heavy. Spare Ribs aren't my favourite but there was no denying that this was a good dish. But not amazing.

Next was L3 Cucumber with Garlic $3.99. I love this dish and usually order some variety of cucumber salad when I get NC food to balance out the meat and noodles. This is a simple dish- diced cucumbers with vinegar and garlic. It was tangy, vibrant, delicious and fresh. I wish the cucumbers were a bit crunchier.

K4 Sheep Kidney Skewer $2.99 each Asian Superdirector ordered this and didn't love it. I wasn't inclined to try it.

Kla Lamb Meat Kebab with cumin and chilli $0.99 each I really liked this skewer- it smelled amazing, it was tender, juicy, slightly spicy and you could really taste the nice cumin flavour. The ASD said it was too "lamb-y" for her tastes but I thought it was pretty perfect.

K3 BBQ Eggplant Skewers $0.99 each These were smothered in a BBQ/Hoisin type sauce and cooked so there was a slight crisp on the skin and the flesh was soft and mushy. Fantastic texture and flavours. Loved this!

We also ordered the M4 Cold Noodle with Chilli Sauce and Shredded Chicken $5.99 This dish was interesting and our group was kind of split on how we felt about it. It was too spicy for some with Scihuan peppers. I found the peanut flavour to kind of overwhelm the dish- which wasn't necessarily a bad thing because I like peanut- and liked the spice. I also really appreciated the balance of the dish from the shredded cucumber.

We kept waiting for our L8 Deep Fried Lotus Root stuffed with mince meat $3.99 to arrive but it never came. We finally asked our server who told us that they ran out.....which makes me that dish more.

Service is pretty lackluster and non exisistant here. It's a bit confusing if you only speak English and I didn't find service very friendly. The food did come quickly, which was good. And a huge shout out for their delicious house hot sauce (above), cheap Yan Jing beer, and self-serve rice station (for no extra charge.) I will definitely be back and I'm determined to get me some of that Deep Fried Lotus Root! A huge thanks to the ASD for treating me to such a fun and tasty dinner.

Nine Dishes 九道 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dirty Apron Cooking School - Izakayaka Style

I have amazing friends that bought me a gift certificate to use towards a Dirty Apron Cooking School Class. I've heard amazing things about these classes and that they are pretty much the creme de la creme for cooking classes in Vancouver. Dirty Apron Cooking Classes are part of the Chambar/ Cafe Medina/ Dirty Apron Deli brand. They offer a wide variety of 4 hour hands on classes for $150.00.
I'm pretty frugal, and when a cooking class costs that much, my expectations are set pretty high, and I was pretty picky when choosing which class to take. The minute I came across the description and menu for the Izakaya Kings class, I knew that was the one I wanted. The menu sounded amazing- all dishes I've eaten before and love. I tried to book this class a few times over the past year, but unfortunately, the dates never seemed to work out. Finally, I picked a day, booked the class (as an added plus- Leggy Redhead signed up too!) and counted down the days!

The class started at 5:30pm. From the moment we walked in the front door, we were well taken care of. A friendly staffer greeted us warmly, took our coats, checked us in, hung our coats, gave us a folder with the recipe's that we would be cooking with that evening and our own apron with nametag and seated us in a side dining area. There was sparkling wine poured for us and little appetizer plates to nibble on. Talk about a warm welcome. The class size was pretty small, about 16-20 people with one large group (students, I think?) and we had a main instructor, and two assistants. This kitchen is stunning! You share an oven and full counter station but there is plenty of space. And everything is state of the art. It was so fun to use all of the fantastic appliances, an amazing assortment of knifes, utensils, and fancy dishes.

The whole evening flowed really swiftly and seamlessly, from instruction to cooking to sitting down to eat- and then doing it all over again. For the instruction/demo portion, there are two rows of chairs facing the demo counter and mirrors on the ceiling so that you can have both a direct and bird's eye view of the preperation and cooking.

When it comes to cooking each dish yourself, the ingredients are pre-measured and brought out on trays. There is minimal chopping and cleaning as you put your dish together. Everything has been extremely thought out so the process goes smoothly. As you eat the dishes that you've prepared (in courses) there are two sous chefs that come and clean up your cooking station and give you the ingredients needed for the next dish. You watch and learn, then you cook that dish for yourself to eat in the dining room.

Our instructor, Takashi, was awesome. He explained things so clearly and talked us through every step of the demo carefully. Along the way, he would tell personal stories about eating these foods in Japan, growing up as a Japanese kid in the GVA 'burbs years ago and how far Van city has come in terms of becoming a Japanese food mecca. Unlike a few other classes I've taken, Takashi was really great about offering suggestions for ingredient substitions... like if you were cooking for vegans or vegetarians or if you needed to save time and take a short cut. He is a fantastic teacher!

First up, Chicken Yakitori with Tuka Dare (Teriyaki Glaze) and Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancake). We also made the miso marinade for our sablefish main.

Next up, Prawn Sunomono Salad and Spinach Gomae.

The main dish: Miso Sake Roasted Sablefish.

We didn't learn to make any desserts, but they provided us with a serving of in house made green tea ice cream and raspberry coulis.

This was an all around fantastic experience and a wonderful night. The food all turned out amazing and I can't wait to make all of these dishes at home. It's a hefty price tag but for me, I'd do it again for the right class, for a special occassion. It's 4 hours of entertainment, a delicious 4 course meal, drinks, and fantastic service. A huge hug and thanks to my girlfriends who gifted me with this fun night and a big thanks to the Leggy Redhead for bringing even more food nerd fun into the evening.

Dirty Apron on Urbanspoon