Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Celebrity chefs give Vegas food festival some personal attention

Saturday, June 11th, 2016


The Vancouver Sun

The Las Vegas Strip glitters brighter than ever with all the Michelin stars. No longer a town of cheap buffets (deflated prices, inflated waistlines), it’s now dense with celebrity chefs.

And with 42 million visitors a year needing sustenance, Vegas has become an “it” city for foodies. For restaurateurs, it’s a lucrative gig — as the first one to drop anchor, Wolfgang Puck, discovered in 1992 after settling into Caesars Palace.

Over the past couple of decades, culinary royals became part of luxury hotel branding, in some cases, it’s not one, but two or three famous chefs. They include Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, Giada De Laurentiis, Alain Ducasse, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Pierre Gagnaire (I had to go to Paris to eat his food before), Hubert Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Michael Mina, Rick Moonen, Masaharu Morimoto, Nobu Matsuhisa, Charlie Palmer, Francois Payard, Gordon Ramsay, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Julian Serrano, Masa Takayama, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

In late 2016, David Chang brings Momofuku and Milk Bar. Recently, restaurant icon Danny Meyer plunked one of his casual Shake Shacks on the Strip.

“There’s nothing like the concentration of high-end restaurants as in Las Vegas,”  Mina of the namesake restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel said in a phone interview recently.  

“It’s funny, you used to have to go to New York to check out new restaurants and ideas but now you go to Las Vegas first because there’s so much happening in the way of food, design and concepts.” Mina operates 28 restaurants.

Is it any wonder that Bon Appétit magazine puts on the extravagant star-studded Vegas Uncork’d every year? I attended the most recent event and was staggered by the gigawatts of chef energy.

These chefs are commonly busy tending to other restaurants in other cities but they home in on this event appearing at brunches, lunches and dinners, cooking, shaking cocktails, speaking on panels, and even serving food at The Grand Tasting. The latter is like a super luxe food court, staged around the luxurious pool at Caesars Palace; over 2,000 guests were served by many of the celebrity chefs.

Ramsay had three stations representing his three Las Vegas restaurants and sprinted between them all, followed by breathless fans wanting photos with him. (His lamb stew was delicious.)

Susan Feniger of Border Grill has been involved in Vegas Uncork’d from the beginning.

“At that point, we were getting the celebrity chefs coming in, changing the focus from buffets and cheap eats. I think Uncork’d shows that Vegas is a culinary destination,” she said in an interview. “It’s a fantastic few days and people have a great time.”

Feniger was at her kiosk serving scallops with Mexican-flavoured couscous and a brownie ice cream sandwich with Negra Modelo beer ice cream.

With the combo of free-flowing alcohol and crowds walking at water’s edge you’d expect at least one misstep into the wet. Perhaps the food soaked up the alcohol and cut into the drinking time helping with sobriety.

“I can’t imagine people not falling in,” mused Feniger, “but you don’t see a lot of sloppy drunks at the event.”

Over the course of Uncork’d I had a dinner with Savoy; I swanned at a caviar, crab and champagne (and much, much more) brunch at Buddy V’s Ristorante; had another elegant brunch at De Laurentiis’ restaurant, Giada; I heard presentations by pastry chef Payard and Savoy; laughed through a very entertaining high-energy cooking demo by Ramsay; I loved the off-the-Strip culinary tour of the funky Downtown with Bon Appétit deputy editor, Andrew Knowlton; as well as experiencing an evening of food, drinks and entertainment at the Downtown Container Park (a cool new downtown area with food and shops).

Other events included sushi-making with Matsuhisa as well as an omakase dinner by him; a vegetarian lunch with Boulud; pastry-making with Payard; cocktails with Salvatore Calabrese, one of the world’s leading bartenders; and a high-end tequila tasting dinner with Feniger and Sue Milliken of The Border Grill.

For foodies, Vegas Uncork’d is a pretty amazing opportunity to get up close (but maybe not so personal) with famous chefs and take a selfie or two with a Who’s Who of the food world. 

© 2016 Postmedia Network Inc.

Staying true to his father’s vision – the Old Surrey Restaurant

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Philip Aguirre keeps his French roots while serving a loyal clientele

Tracey Tufnail

Philip Aguirre has run the Old Surrey Restaurant — opened by his father Valentine in 1974 — since 2007. Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun


Old Surrey Restaurant

Where: 13483 72 Avenue, Surrey 604-596-2313

Hours: Closed for lunch, Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday from 5 p.m. Closed Mondays

Food: 3 1/2 out of 5

Ambience: 3 out of 5

Service: 4 out of 5

Overall: 3 1/2 out of 5

Tucked away in a surprising spot in semi-suburban Surrey, Old Surrey Restaurant has been quietly going about its business for 36 years, an almost mythical length of time in the restaurant business.

Built in 1919, the former private residence was opened as a restaurant in 1974 by classically trained French chef Valentine Aguirre. The historic building offers an interesting, intimate venue for dining, with traditional decor including some fascinating photographs of old Surrey on the walls, hardwood floors and five separate dining rooms on two floors.

Valentine’s son, Philip Aguirre, has been running the show at Old Surrey, as well as the kitchen, since 2007. Keeping things fresh is a balancing act between being true to his French roots and catering to an increasingly sophisticated dining clientele.

“Our reputation was built on French traditional cooking,” Philip Aguirre tells me in a telephone interview. “But our customers also want change and innovation; I think we have been pretty successful doing that.”

He’s certainly doing something right because business was pretty good when I was there. The restaurant has noticed the impact of the harmonized sales tax “not at all,” Aguirre informs me when I ask. Old Surrey specializes in “special occasion” dining and has a strong base of returning customers, he says.

“We are not just a second-generation restaurant, we have third-generation customers,” he says proudly. “The grandchildren of original customers come here for their first wedding anniversary. People celebrate family occasions here, we become part of their family after a while.”

Old Surrey’s menu is heavy on old-school French cooking with more than a casual nod to the 100-mile diet trend — much of the menu is sourced from the family farm in Chilliwack, the change and innovation Aguirre refers to.

The farm supplies the kitchen with organic veal, lamb and pork, and Aguirre makes use of the entire animal. The farm also produces various vegetables throughout the year, with every effort made to buy local otherwise.

Seasonal specials rotate every two months and Aguirre offers a number of special-event menus centred on celebrations like Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. But it is the summertime Chateaubriand special that is most popular.

Offered every year from July to September, this menu centres around an Old Surrey specialty, table service complete with something else almost mythical on the restaurant scene these days — flambe carts. At a very reasonable $45 per person (minimum of two) for four substantial courses, this is a bargain — and it’s not just dinner, it’s dinner and a show.

The warm-up act is Prawns Provencal (half a dozen, fresh and lightly cooked with garlic, onion and fresh tomato) but it is the followup of Caesar salad that is the star of the show; Aguirre informs me it’s also the most requested item on his menu (even when it’s not on his menu).

In some sort of sleight-of-hand trick that an alchemist would be proud of, your experienced waiter (Spiro Saites, who has been tossing Caesar dressing here for 22 years, is the longest serving of a loyal, efficient service staff) deftly whips up a rich, frothy dressing and tosses it with crunchy greens (fresh), croutons (freshly baked) and Parmesan (you guessed it, fresh), presenting you with an enormous fragrant, garlicky mountain; Caesar salad doesn’t get much better than this.

The theatrics continue with large (eight-ounce) AAA Canadian tenderloins spectacularly flamed in cognac, accompanied by healthy servings of simply prepared vegetables — roasted potatoes, organic green beans and carrots, again from the family farm.

More hypnotized than hungry by this stage, we were relieved to see the Cherries Jubilee (fat, tasty fresh Okanagan cherries, which get the flambe treatment with a double whammy of kirsch and cherry brandy before being ladled over vanilla ice cream) were a more manageable size.

On a subsequent visit we decided, while nibbling on our amuse bouche — divine homemade pita crackers with fresh fig and prosciutto — to try to exercise restraint with the a la carte menu by starting simply with soup; a shrimp bisque that was deeply flavoured and redolent of cognac, but a little on the cool side.

The Aguirre family farm produced both our main courses (again, huge servings). A delicious rack of lamb ($29) was perfectly caramelized on the outside while being juicy and the requested medium within and served with the very traditional and perfect foil of a mint demi-glace; while the free-range veal scaloppini was more flavoursome than tender, with its hollandaise a little on the cool side again — something we put down to being a late reservation on what had obviously been a very busy evening. Despite bulging waistlines, we tried for dessert but the menu had been decimated by the time we got around to it, with two of the three selections sold out. A substitution was available but there was only a single serving of that, too. Pity, the Espresso Creme Brulee sounded great.

Old Surrey’s wine list is 90 per cent B.C. (Burrowing Owl, Blue Mountain, Kettle Valley, Lang and Road 13 all make an appearance) and several wines are available by the glass.

The Chateaubriand special ends Sept. 4, but tableside service of Caesar (for a minimum of two people only, $12 per person), Chateaubriand (again for two, only $37.50 per person) and Cherries Jubilee (also for two, $18 per person) is available year-round on the a la carte menu. Other special menus are listed on the restaurant’s website. Reservations are recommended — especially if you want dessert.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

A warm welcome, then a taste of India

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Rasoi owners create an inviting atmosphere for their fresh and authentic cuisine

Shannon Kwantes

Chefs Rakesh Kumar, left, and Harpreet Atwal are shown with the coconut prawn masala at Rasoi restaurant. Atwal, who opened the restaurant three years ago, prepares everything from scratch: “ I want the experience to feel like food made from home.” RIC ERNST / PNG



3268 King George Highway, Surrey, 604-536-4600

Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, noon to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, 4:30 to 9:30

Closed Mondays

One beautiful summer night, my mom and I were in the mood for Indian food, so we decided to stop at Rasoi restaurant in south Surrey.

We were greeted at the door by an elegant woman– co-owner Sulinder Atwal, we later found out — dressed in a long black tunic with an orange-and-white floral pattern that fit perfectly with the minimalist modern decor.

We soaked in the contemporary atmosphere as she showed us to the patio.

The flavours, aromas and textures of the food that Rasoi serves are a testament to its authenticity. Most dishes are served a la carte style, and we shared everything. You can specify the heat level of each dish: mild, medium, or hot; we both chose medium.

The dishes are served in antique-looking copper bowls and plates with copper spoons to match. The presentation was lovely.

The Chicken Tikka ($10.95) appetizer came with a green cabbage lining, topped with relish and two-inch chicken cubes. The chicken had an amazing bright orange colour, and was juicy and tender; I loved this dish. It was a larger appetizer, big enough for three people to share.

There were also plenty of other choices to whet your appetite, including dishes such as vegetable pakora ($5.95) and Rasoi spring roll ($5.95).

Our Prawn Curry dish ($15.50) had a deep red sauce and a stew-like appearance. It’s hard to beat my mom’s shrimp curry, but I have to say that this was a serious rival.

The sides complemented the main dishes nicely. We had the Cucumber Mint Raita ($3.50), a blend of yogurt, mint and cucumber, and a Garlic Naan bread ($1.95) that I couldn’t get enough of. Another addition was the Pilau Rice ($3.50), which made the meal complete.

The vegetarian Aloo Gobi mix ($10.50) featured cauliflower, onions, potatoes and red peppers in a masala curry mix. I hadn’t had cauliflower cooked this way before, and I loved it.

Most of the items we ordered were Atwal’s recommendations. She also told us that the restaurant’s butter chicken dish is one of its most popular items.

Atwal works in the dining room on most nights, and I was impressed at the attention we received.

I felt well looked after.

The menu also featured wonderful desserts — we topped off our supper with ricotta with cream and cardamom; and refreshing Mango Lassie, an East Indian drink made with mango and yogurt.

The prices were very good, and so was the quality of the food. We took our leftovers home, something I don’t usually do.

Later in a phone interview, Harpreet Atwal said that opening Rasoi (the Punjabi word for kitchen) with Sulinder three years ago was a dream come true.

Food is his passion, and he chatted joyfully about some of his recipes.

He says he prepares everything from scratch to get the best flavours.

“All vegetables are fresh; nothing is from a can,” Harpreet said. “I want the experience to feel like food made from home.”

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Rural goes urban at Restaurant 62

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Executive chef Jeff Massey shops farm-direct to craft his seasonal menus at Abbotsford eatery

Shannon Kwantes

Alicia Bodaly and executive chef Jeff Massey show off Restaurant 62’s pan-seared Gelderman Farms pork chop, which is served with cippolini onion and garlic scape jus, roasted apricots, braised baby spinach, asparagus and mashed potatoes. Massey is a co-owner of the Abbotsford restaurant. Photograph by: Wayne Leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun, Special To The Sun

At a Glance

Restaurant 62

2001 McCallum Rd.

Hours: Weekdays: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5 p.m.-9 p.m.;
Saturday: 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

As we drove to Restaurant 62 in Abbotsford it was clear from the raspberry fields around us, as well as the signs advertising organic chicken, that this community is full of fresh, local foods. You name it, you can get it from a farm in Abbotsford.

Restaurant 62, which is located in a growing area in central Abbotsford, is one of several stops on a farm circle tour that features everything from an eco-dairy to a berry festival. On the day of our visit, coincidentally, one of the local newspapers featured a story about how Restaurant 62 executive chef Jeff Massey loves to cook using fresh produce from local farms.

At the restaurant, a server guided us down a narrow corridor past an open kitchen, with a chef hard at work. The chef looked up and warmly greeted us — a nice touch. The aromas were savoury, and I noticed a wonderful-looking entree with a cut of meat on it an inch-and-a-quarter thick (I discovered later it was one of their signature pork dishes), as well as fresh loaves of bread sitting on a large wooden cutting board. I wasn’t even at my table yet, and already getting excited about what might be next.

The layout of the restaurant wasn’t as open as I had expected, but our comfortable booth afforded us privacy from other guests. The wine list was extensive, and included one bottle that was $1,000. The dinner menu doesn’t have much for vegetarians, but some items can be found on the lunch menu.

Hummus and bread were served before dinner, but I would have preferred it if they had left the hummus to Greek restaurants and offered something else with the bread.

We had an appetizer for two ($20) that featured baked brie in phyllo with black olive tapenade, braised duck, and grilled lamb chop.

For my entree, I chose the special: Grilled Gelderman Farms double-thick pork chop with shrimp ($29). This dish appealed to me because one doesn’t often see thick-cut pork on a menu. I loved the pairing with the Oceanwise organic shrimp, shipped fresh. The side dish of creamy potatoes, aged white cheddar and chives was delightful comfort food. The meal also came with thick-cut carrots and asparagus.

My husband ordered the prix fixe menu for $24. The Caesar salad was excellent and the potato, chives and bacon soup was creamy and delicious. It was a bowl of warmth, a definite highlight. His entree selection was the Canadian strip-loin steak with balsamic glaze.

One of our friends had the seared Maple Hill Farms chicken supreme with bacon, shallot and sweet pea cream ($25). The chicken was tender and the sauce tasty.

The fourth person in our party had the mahi mahi prix fixe, also $24. This dish had a smooth and delicate but understated flavour. It could have been cooked a touch more. Pasta with olives gave the dish a real Mediterranean feel, a nice combination with the fish.

The prix fixe desserts were a tasty creme brulee and chocolate mousse with local berries.

Massey, co-owner of the restaurant, moved from Vancouver to the Fraser Valley in search of a country life and to be closer to where food is produced. He joined Restaurant 62 in 2006.

“Good food is hard work,” Massey told me in a subsequent phone interview. “We strive for the best regional and seasonal menu in the Fraser Valley.”

The menu changes constantly, depending on what’s in season. Massey gets most of his ingredients from local farmers, some of whom even drop by the restaurant with their harvests (such as the Lillooet farmer selling morel mushrooms).

There are some selections that run contrary to the emphasis on local food, such as New Zealand lamb and the mahi. Massey explains that lamb is difficult to get consistently, and the mahi has been a favourite that guests keep requesting.

Most tables featured abstract art on the wall, and I did get a downtown Vancouver feel, but some of the food tasted French country.

Restaurant 62 is a great spot for small celebrations and special occasions. Look for Massey online, as he plans in the future to host a new cooking show on YouTube.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Succulent surprises by the plate-full

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Executive chef Tim Cuff perfects sous vide cooking, while offering fresh local produce

Mia Stainsby

Lakeside Lounge patio at Aura, at the Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler, provides a casual setting for an evening meal.

Lime and chili-infused watermelon with scallop and cuttlefish ceviche.

At a glance

Aura at Nita Lake Lodge
2131 Lake Placid Road, Whistler.

Open daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Whistler restaurants seem impervious to the usual high-kill rates in the industry and stick around forever. So it’s something to note when a new and interesting one opens.

Strangely, the debut of Aura at Nita Lake Lodge has gone unnoticed; a shame, considering what a good job they’re doing. The lodge changed hands in March (bought by Ram Tumurluri, who owns 50 spas in India) just after the Olympics and the restaurant, formerly Jordan’s Crossing, is now called Aura (except on the website, which still refers to it as Jordan’s Crossing).

The new order includes Tim Cuff as executive chef. He has worked as sous chef at West under Warren Geraghty and has worked under Michael Allemeier at Teatro in Calgary and Mission Hill Winery’s restaurant in Kelowna. He’s also worked at the Wickaninnish Inn. In other words, he’s cooked at some of the best places in the country.

He learned the art of sous vide at West restaurant and I can tell you, it’s gold in his hands. A lamb loin wrapped in merguez done sous vide was wonderful. It was served with pine nuts, rosemary radishes, green beans and a sunchoke gratin. The meat was sheer succulence.

Pan-roasted Fraser Valley duck also got a long sous vide dunk to arrive at succulence, but only after Cuff dried the breast a couple of days in the fridge to concentrate flavour; he finishes it in the oven. Even the carrots were cooked sous vide with brown butter sauce and herbs from the herb garden.

Whistler is no longer in the hinterlands of fresh, local products. The Pemberton Valley produces beautiful product and Cuff is in summer ecstasy as farmers bring in their fresh produce. “You wait all winter for this,” he says. “It’s the most exciting time to cook. It’s definitely the purest.”

The starters were just as, well, thrilling. Beautiful scallop, spot prawn and cuttlefish, snuggled up to lime-injected watermelon. A dried wafer of pink lady apple and dry honey bitters finished it. Quail, duck and liver parfait with pearl onion and mushroom saute and nettles (it turned out to be spinach) was sublime. An appie that I eyed but didn’t order was Quebec foie gras bombe with Vidal ice wine, fresh brioche, olive oil, cocoa butter and amarena cherries. A savoury verging on dessert!

Which reminds me, the only dish that showed signs of weakness was a frozen yuzu parfait with blueberry syrup, shortbread and yuzu curd (yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit). While visually appealing, it was bland. More citrus, please, my mouth demanded.

However, my partner’s dark chocolate ganache with Morello cherry sorbetto and chocolate “paper” was a dish of surprises. In fact, the sorbetto was so insanely good, I could have sat with a tub of it in my lap and had nothing but that for dinner.

There are three menu options: $45 for three courses, letting you choose what you want for each course; a $65 five-course tasting menu where the chef surprises you (add $45 if you want wine pairings); or you can order a la carte.

During summer, on Sundays, the restaurant does a $25 all-you-can eat barbecue off the patio for lunch and dinner (kids under 12, free). The proteins change but when we visited, there was a big ham, ribs, steak, sausages and salmon along with several salads and starches. (Great value if it’s mom, dad, and a couple of kids under 12.)

The wine list is mostly B.C. and new world; the program is headed by Ryan Dyck, from the Wickaninnish Inn.

The lodge is located at Creekside. Coming from Vancouver, turn left off Highway 99 at Lake Placid Road.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Newlyminted Calabash Bistro brings the flavours of the islands to Vancouver

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Music, food and a laid-back Caribbean vibe

Mia Stainsby

Calabash Bistro owners (from left) Roger Collins, Sam Willcocks and Cullin David hoist a couple of cold ones at their Caribbean restaurant. Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun / PNG

At a glance

Calabash Bistro

Where: 428 Carrall St.
Open: Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.

Are you a Caribbean foodie? If so, there’s something you should know, something I learned upon interviewing Cullin David.

He, with the loud, striped Caribbean tam upon his head (the flashy striped knitted Caribbean headgear), is the chef and one of the owners at the newly splashed down Calabash Bistro, another opening in Vancouver’s tenderloin district.

What you should know is that ackee, a staple in Caribbean cooking, is no laid-back reggae kind of fruit. It has a streak as vicious as the sound of its name. Unless it is harvested, prepared and cooked just so, it can kill you, but more likely, it will make you sick. Long story short, do not try cooking it from scratch yourself.

“Traditionally, it’s served with saltfish and normally, it’s eaten for breakfast,” says David, who grew up in Guyana.

Calabash Bistro, on the other hand, is pretty laid back, as a Caribbean restaurant should be. You’ll enjoy the music (at least I did), spun by a DJ or playing live, downstairs in the loungier space. Expect reggae, jazz, R & B, soul, hip hop. Roger Collins, the second partner, also runs Foundationradio. ca. Third partner, Sam Willcocks, was co-owner of Cassis Bistro until a year and a half ago.

David’s last gig was as a sous chef at Provence Marinaside, under Jean-Francis Quaglia, kicking up the Mediterrean food with a hint of the Caribbean. He’s also cooked at Reef (another Caribbean restaurant in town) and at Giraffe, in White Rock.

At Calabash, murmurs of Provence sneak into dishes like the warm curried goat cheese over mixed greens and the Italian stew (in a spiced-up coconut sauce). But make no mistake, it’s Caribbean food. Jerk dishes, ackee and saltfish, curries, oxtail stew, calliloo soup, rice and peas, plantain chips, fried coconut dumplings and specials daily.

The cuisine is a pastiche of the history of domination, slavery and colonization of the islands by many nations, a patchwork of African, British, Spanish, French, and Indian influences — but brought together in a uniquely Caribbean way.

My favourite dish was the oxtail stew ($12.50); it’s intense and delightfully tender. The advertised home-made dumplings, however, were either infinitely tiny or missing. The three curry offerings ($10 to $13) are served entree-style or in a roti with a side salad. Rotis are made with white flour. (I think whole wheat rotis are nuttier and more flavourful.)

Jerk mussels with jerk french fries, on special, featured fresh seafood and just-right seasoning. Fry fish ($12), fried in spiced flour, however, was very un-Caribbean and barely seasoned. An avocado and mango salad ($11) is a refreshing contrast to intense flavours. Much of that comes from the spices and the cuisine makes great use of what North Americans generally consider to be baking spices, like allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. (Allspice takes its name because it was mistakenly believed to be a blend of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.)

Curries are gently spiced for wussy tastebuds. Considering the scotch bonnet, one of the hottest peppers, is on the Caribbean roster of spices, consider yourself lucky. But if you have intestines of steel, just ask for the fire-breathing version. It might also be able to withstand many samplings from the excellent rum list here.

Calabash is a package deal. The food’s priced for comfort, the room’s funky and cheerful and the staff look like they’re best friends forever. It’s kind of a Cheers with spicy food and good music.

The block is a postal code in transition. Look out the window and you see it before your eyes. There are purposeful professionals and then there’s, well, the old guy, sitting in a medical scooter that’s been tented in plastic on a hot, hot July evening. For 15 minutes, he sits in what must be a sauna, re-arranging what looked like Moses’s robe; then in the blink of an eye, he roars off, full throttle, down Carrall, and stops again. Peking Chop Suey, said a faded painted sign above him on the brick wall, a ghost from another era entirely.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Lolo fits right in to the Lonsdale locale as the cool new neighbourhood hangout

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Great food, great wine, better prices

Joanne Sasvari

Owner Michael Moller with some of the fare at Lolo restaurant in North Vancouver. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun, Special to The Sun

Dining at Lolo is a bit like hanging out at a good friend’s place. Things aren’t always perfect, but the mood is so friendly and the food so good that the slight hiccups just don’t matter much.

Besides, at these prices, you can always just order another glass of wine. And that always makes everything seem a lot better.

“Lolo,” for those readers who don’t live on the North Shore, is the nickname for Lower Lonsdale, that trendy area of sleek condos and funky restaurants just up from Lonsdale Quay.

Lolo, the restaurant at the corner of Lonsdale Avenue and Second Street, fits right in as the cool new neighbourhood hangout, a minimalist-chic wine bar that specializes in charcuterie and small plates, with live piano music most nights.

“Probably the most common comment we’ve been getting is North Vancouver needs a place like this, because of the price point and the casual nature of the operation,” says manager Michael Moller.

“When it comes to food, a lot of people scratched their heads at first, but now they get it, the cheese and the charcuterie.”

For a restaurant without a full kitchen, serving cured meats was a logical choice. It helps that Lolo has sourced its charcuterie from popular local sausage-makers TN & Z and Mocchia Meats, and plans to add products from Oyama soon.

The choices are interesting and at times daring — it’s not often you see spicy head loaf on a menu — and include such highlights as the black truffle-studded dry-cured pork sausage and a mild, beautifully balanced Serbian salami, as well as Mocchia’s exotic, clove-and-cinnamon-spiced Toscano.

It’s an evolving selection, too: Moller hopes to add several beef products soon, as well as patés and terrines, which will be made in-house by chef Oscar Zaragoza.

Meanwhile, Zaragoza is whipping up exceptional house-made condiments, such as the sweet carrot mustard, tangy tamarind chutney and tart pickled beets that arrive chopped into a pretty confetti alongside a generous heap of sliced meat or cheese.

Lolo also offers savoury flatbreads such as the popular “Zola,” its tender crust topped with gorgonzola and figs, or the rich “Tarti,” a crisp, buttery base slathered in a mash of potatoes, bacon lardons and melted cheese.

Then there are the spreads, such as the addictively creamy white bean and artichoke, enlivened with garlic and lemon, or the fresh-flavoured Moorish Fava Bean and Mint.

Best of all, for diners on a budget, almost every menu item is under $10. You can eat quite well here without spending a lot of money, especially as all this fun-to-share food is partnered with a nicely edited international wine list, much of which is, happily, under $40 a bottle, with several selections $30 and under.

Like the food, all the wines by-the-glass are under $10, and offer plenty of interesting options, ranging from a sparkly Prosecco to lush sherries and ports, as well as food-friendly aromatic whites and light, crisp reds.

“The guiding philosophy is three things,” Moller says. “First is how well it goes with the menu. Then price point is very important to me. Thirdly, quality. I look for very good value.”

It’s such a good deal on such good wine, it seems almost churlish to quibble about what it comes in, but unfortunately the thick, heavy, too-small glasses at Lolo do the wines absolutely no favours at all.

Then again, Moller points out that nice new wine glasses are on the way.

Also in the works is a much-needed update to the slightly barren decor: “We are looking to inject more colour and more life as well,” Moller says. Meanwhile, the warmth of the staff may well make up for the chilly décor. True, service can be hit and miss, but everyone here is just so darn nice and genuine that it’s easy to forgive pretty much anything.

You know, just like at a good friend’s house, especially if your friend’s name is Lolo.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Nuba – Atmosphere fabulous and so is the food

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Owners of restaurant located in the basement of the Dominion Building takes on the feel of Beirut in the 1940s and ’50s

Linda Bates

Victor Bouzide, founder of Nuba, a Lebanese-style restaurant in the basement of a heritage building in downtown Vancouver, presents a specialty dish. Photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

Sitting in the bustling Nuba, looking out over the cosy space filled with, among others, goateed film students, middle-aged men in suits, groups of young women direct from the office and a large multi-generation family — all attended to by genuinely friendly servers — I said to myself, “I like this place so much I almost don’t care what the food is like.”

The food, I’m happy to report, is equally appealing.

Nuba, which specializes in Lebanese cuisine, occupies the basement of the Dominion Building on the corner of Hastings and Cambie, which, according to Ernesto Gomez, a partner in the business, has been a restaurant of one kind or another since 1910.

Gomez and Victor Bouzide, who founded Nuba, spent six months creating a space that echoes Beirut of the 1940s and ’50s, when it was known as the Paris of the Middle East.

They decided to “embrace the underground feel,” stripping the paint off the original wood and tiles and leaving the pipes exposed. The result is a warm, exotic-looking space with a heritage feel.

Nuba started out in another location as a take-out lunch place, but this incarnation, with a full dinner menu, has allowed Bouzide, 74, to stretch out and develop a Lebanese menu with both very traditional and more adventurous dishes.

The mjadra, organic green lentils and rice with onions and jalapeno, is a take on typical peasant food, but has been a huge hit, says Gomez.

My favourite was a newer dish — the eggplant with Lebanese ratatouille, made up of layers of sauteed eggplant with ratatouille and a pomegranate-red wine reduction. This was a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.

Other dishes we tried and would recommend are the labneh — fresh-pressed yogurt garnished with extra-virgin olive oil and spices, served with pita bread — and the classic Lebanese dishes, tabouleh and falafels.

For dessert, a creme brulee with cardamom knocked our socks off.

Full dinners are available also, with meat dishes like grilled lamb, cornish hen, beef tenderloin and more, but I had better luck with the many delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. In fact, after over-grilled lamb on one visit and chicken on another, I was starting to suspect subterfuge: Was there a vegan running the grill, out to teach us carnivores a lesson?

(In both cases the server removed the charges and showed genuine concern when I expressed dissatisfaction.)

The service is so outstanding I asked Gomez if they have some kind of special training program. He said they look for people who genuinely like the food and the restaurant — it’s more important than previous experience.

The emphasis here is on food that is fresh and, where possible, organic.

“We try to be not too fancy and to keep it healthy,” Gomez says. Bouzide goes out each morning to buy whatever is freshest.

There’s a good selection of wine and cocktails, all, like the food, at very reasonable prices.

There’s also live music some nights.

If you go, make a reservation or prepare to wait: “Nowadays,” Gomez says, “we don’t have a slow night.”

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

At Bishop’s, expect quiet perfection

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

John Bishop does not rest on his laurels as one who has defined the way we eat

Joanne Sasvari

John Bishop and chef Andrea Carlson pose in Bishop’s Restaurant in Vancouver with Milan’s Heirloom Tomato Salad. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun, Special to The Sun

John Bishop is nothing short of a legend in Vancouver, and not because of those White Spot ads. Or, for that matter, the four books, charity work and public appearances.

Over the past quarter century, he has quietly defined the way we eat and the way we think about food in this city, all from a tiny, 800-square-foot restaurant on a busy stretch of West Fourth Avenue.

Ironically, though, thanks to the culinary revolution he helped start, there are so many fancy new restaurants to visit, it may have been a long time since you actually dropped by the one that started it all.

And that’s too bad, because there has never been a better time to dine at Bishop’s.

All the elements in this elegant little eatery, from owner to service to chef, have come together perfectly, all at a time when the city’s culinary scene has never been more exciting.

“It’s a great time in this city and this province to be in food,” Bishop says.

Bishop, of course, was one of the first local chefs to promote the now nearly universal idea of using local ingredients, back when he opened his restaurant during the recession that had Vancouver in its grip less than a year before Expo ’86.

A soft-spoken Englishman, he’d arrived in Vancouver in the early 1970s planning, like so many others, to stay a year. Then he fell in love with both the city and the woman who would become his wife, decided he might as well stay a while longer, and went off to cook for another local culinary icon, Umberto Menghi.

Since he went out on his own in 1985, countless talented cooks have gone through his own kitchen. But the best fit may just be his current chef, Andrea Carlson, formerly of Sooke Harbour House and Raincity Grill.

“I was instantly taken with her,” he says. “She’s just an amazingly passionate person. She seems very much in that Alice Waters style, only more so.”

Like Waters, the woman often credited with starting the California cuisine movement from her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, Carlson is as much gardener as she is cook.

“She cooks with her palate,” Bishop explains, adding, “There’s a wonderful complexity to her food.”

Still, the question is: After 24 years and countless imitators, not to mention those White Spot ads, how does the city’s original West Coast restaurant hold up? Remarkably well, it turns out.

Bishop’s is an oasis of cool, quiet calm in a city where the noise levels even in fine-dining establishments can be riotous, and the décor almost as jarring. It is still a small, cosy space on two levels, with pale walls, white tablecloths, white orchids and a fine collection of first nations art.

Remarkably, given the economy, most nights are sellouts here. (“Being small helps,” Bishop says lightly.) Part of that is certainly due to the service, which is perfectly, easily, casually attentive without ever being intrusive.

Credit the charming maitre d’ Abel Jacinto for a team that’s so thoughtful that when a guest sneezes, a packet of tissues quietly appears at her elbow. But good service and nice paintings aren’t enough to keep a restaurant full, especially when the entrees are over $30 and so many people are watching their budgets.

The real magic here is happening in the kitchen.

It comes as almost a shock to remember that food can be this good. This is not fussy food, drenched in sauces or molecularized out of recognition. It has a strong background in the classics, with a lively sense of flavours and a strong respect for ingredients.

For instance, an evanescently seasonal zucchini blossom fritter stuffed with ricotta is perfectly crisp and light, arranged prettily atop tender baby beets and grilled sweet Walla Walla onions.

Perfectly seared duck breast arrives on a bed of tiny, savoury spaetzle. Stuffed rabbit loin is nicely paired with nutty, chewy wild rice studded with tiny chanterelles and the surprise of tartly sweet roasted apricots.

The wonderful flavours continue into dessert, whether it’s the richly chocolatey, hot fudge brownie sundae or the crisp, sweet fried fig empanada with brown sugar ice cream.

But the highlight of the evening is when Bishop himself comes over to quietly say hello, as he does with every guest every night that he’s in the city.

“When I’m here,” he says, “that’s where I want to be.”

And most of his guests would agree.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Latitude brings bistro style back to Main

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Menu features South American flavours tinged with a taste of the Mediterranean

Mia Stainsby

Larry Nicolay and Lisa Henderson at Latitude, their new restaurant, on Vancouver’s Main street. Sablefish with kale, fennel and buttered beans is one of their dishes. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

What Larry Nicolay wants is sacrilege. I wanted to shriek out: “No!”

Nicolay and his wife Lisa Henderson recently opened Latitude, the newest comer on Main Street, a smart, affordable restaurant. The bling-iest part of the room is the bar of white Carrera marble on the counter and sides.

While I’m fretting about marble’s delicate nature, Nicolay’s saying he can’t wait until it’s stained and worn, and he’s not worried about its pristine beauty.

“I want patina. I want this place to age like those places in France. Someone, please stain it with red wine,” he said. Someone, please! Slap 20 coats of sealer on it, I say.

Another item of visual interest is the back wall, interesting enough to draw you in for a close-up.

It’s a mosaic of Douglas fir tiles, each with a circle of red wine stain (stamped on with a wine glass). So what’s up with Latitude and red wine stains anyway?

Henderson and Nicolay returned to Vancouver after running Rainforest Cafe in Tofino for about 10 years, a place that brightened my visits to the town.

(It’s now called Spotted Bear Bistro, operated by Vincent Fraissange, most recently the sous chef at Vancouver’s dearly departed Chow restaurant.)

Latitude brings the couple closer to family; in fact, Nicolay’s brother and sister are part of Cascade Room and Habit (still in recovery mode from a fire), also on Main Street.

Henderson is in charge of the kitchen at Latitude and Nicolay manages the front.

The menu reflects their love of South American flavours but takes detours to the Mediterranean as well.

Similar to their outlook at Raincoast Cafe, the menu tries hard to stick to sustainable, organic foods.

Under starters, soccas (chickpea crepes) and chickpea fries (very much like panisse) take us to sunny Nice; a large serving of ceviche and an avocado and mango salad with spiced pepitas (pumpkin seeds) zips us across the Atlantic to Latin America.

The lamb shank, slow-braised in a Malbec sauce, is fall-apart tender and very tasty.

The paella, with tomato arborio rice and a lovely bunch of seafood — spot prawns, mussels, halibut — as well as house-made chorizo, was very hearty and the seafood, very fresh.

We expected flank steak (with chimichurri sauce) to be hearty as well, but it was a modest serving, too small really for a main dish; however, it was tender, delicious, organic and local.

Halibut with avocado crema, a quinoa fritter and butter roasted radishes was also delicious.

I wondered if Henderson would have South American arepas (cornmeal flatbread), which I love, and they’re coming. She’s tweaking the recipe.

Henderson‘s menu is earthy and served bistro-style with the sort of quality lost on Main Street when Aurora closed last year. Appetizers are $8 to $15; mains are in the tight budget range at $16 to $20.

The wine list backs up the food with a nice selection of well-priced Pacific Coast and South American wines as well as hard-to-find B.C. wines, like the Twisted Tree Tempranillo, Pentage Cabernet Franc, Seven Stones “Speaking Rock” Pinot Noir, Averill Creek Pinot Gris and Orofino Vineyards Gewurztraminer.

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