Sunday, 1 November 2015

Montreal's Joe Beef- very worthy of its spot on the world's best list

2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montréal, QC H3J 1N6
(514) 935-6504

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore approved?  YES- The daily-changing chalkboard menu features all kinds of local goodies.  Although it is notorious for its unique meats (horse, rabbit), it also has its own garden out back and, when there is not snow/frost on the ground, much of its produce comes from there.  Very local indeed!

Reservation required?  ABSOLUTELY YES!  I would recommend booking as far ahead as you can (several weeks at least), especially for a coveted weekend seat).  Having said that, it may be worth calling or just showing up the day of.  I booked online over a month before and the only time I could get for one person was 9:45 on a Tuesday night.  However, when I called the day before to see if they could squeeze my friend in as well, I found out that I had erroneously reserved the wrong month.  Despite this, they were able to accommodate by friend and I the night after anytime after 9pm.  So case in point- never hurts to try!

I had already spent one month this year in Montreal earlier this year without making it to the notoriously awesome Joe Beef, and could not allow myself to be back for a week and miss the opportunity again.  Lucky for me, a good friend was in town at the same time, so we ventured out together to see what all the fuss was about.

And there certainly has been a lot of fuss since this place opened in 2005 by David McMillan and Frederic Morin.  They have won the title of Canada's best restaurant on a number of different rankings, and, most recently,  earned themselves a place on the San Pellegrino list of the top 100 restaurants in the world.  Joe Beef is the only Canadian restaurant on this highly acclaimed list since 2010.

Unlike many of the restaurants on the list that are all about extravagance and fine dining, Joe Beef is about as laid back and casual as it gets.  It is located right in the centre of the city in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood surrounded by its sister restaurants, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillion. The space is quite small (expect to get cozy with your neighbours) with rustic wood trimmings,  animal busts on the walls and vintage dishes with dish towels as napkins.  On a trip to the restroom, you will also meet a life-sized stuffed buffalo.  Before the end of the night you may think you are in a cabin in the wilderness rather than the heart of Montreal!

In keeping with the super chill decor, the service is laid back and unpretentious.  They have come up with the formula for service that makes guests feel very welcome and at ease, while still maintaining professionalism and the utmost attentiveness.  Such skill in making you feel as though you are the only one in the room when it is packed to the rafters.  Despite the crowd, out waiter took the time to meticulously filet our smoked trout appie tableside and returned to our table over and over to see how we were enjoying ourselves.  And he did it all while looking as cool as a cucumber.  These guys are absolute masters of their craft.

As mentioned, the whole menu for the evening, including food and drink, is printed on a wall-sized chalkboard.  The wine selection is bound to suit any taste, from the wine rookie to the connoisseur.  We gave our server our preferred price point, and she chose us a lovely bottle of French wine that paired beautifully with our dishes.  Because we were seated at an angle which made it difficult to see the chalkboard, our server  took the time to walk us through the whole thing and was helpful at pointing out what was suitable for my pescatarian preferences.  He also kindly spoke with the kitchen for me about customizing a dish for me sans meat, to which the chef kindly agreed.

On the whole, the menu is heavy on meat, particularly on more unique varieties such as horse, rabbit, and of course the beloved foie gras.  As a pescatarian, I was totally fine (unlike some meat-heavy places, they do seafood REALLY well) but vegetarians will likely not find too much to please them.  Having said that, you will find lots of fresh and seasonal veg as accompaniments with meat/fish and there is a nice mix of lighter and heavier dishes depending on what mood you are in.

One other thing to keep in mind while ordering- although you may want to try one of everything, you will likely only be able to handle one main and one appie per person (or share dishes like we did).   The portions here are VERY generous by any standards, so you will not leave hungry!

Here are the dishes we enjoyed (a lot!!!) on the night of our visit:

Salad- Who says Joe Beef is all about meat?  I have had plenty of great salad in my day and this one was in a league of its own.  There was nothing magic about it, just lettuce, a bit of sheep milk cheese and pepitas, dressed in a simple vinaigrette but yet each component was so fresh and the ratio of ingredients so perfect.

Smoked trout- I am still thinking back to this dish, and it remains among the best of all those I have had in 2015.  This appetizer, meant to share, was really enough for 4 people, but my friend and I happily devoured the whole thing after out server filleted it tableside.  To start with, the trout (smoked whole) was melt-in-your-mouth, unlike any smoke fish I have ever had.  It was paired with mustard seeds and pickled veg to balance some of the richness, then served with a creamy egg yolk sauce overtop.  As if that wasn't enough, it came with house-made crepe and an herb cream on the side as an accompaniment.  I still salivate just thinking about it...

Trout with cream sauce, mushroom and pearl onion- This was my main which they very kindly altered for my pescatarian request (the original dish had a veal-based sauce).  I was hesitant to do trout again for my main, but I could not resist a dish that came with a heap of mushrooms on the side.   And who could get sick of fish this good?  I was so full but ate every last morsel.

Lamb shank, lamb sausage with eggplant salad-  This was my friend's choice of main, and included 2 large piece of lamb shank, housemade lamb sausage and a nice fresh mound of salad on top.  Everything again was excellent, particularly the sausage.  Again, the serving size was VERY generous and made for very special leftovers for my friend the next day.

Overall Verdict?
Joe Beef is proof that the amazing food does not have to come with a formal dining room, white tablecloths and stuffy service.  We need many more places like Joe Beef, where guests can let their hair down, relax and enjoy themselves, while eating some of the best food imaginable.  If you find yourself in Montreal, just go.  They more than live up to their reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world.

Joe Beef Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A Truly Magical Evening: Terrace Restaurant at Mission Hill Winery

1730 Mission Hill Rd, West Kelowna, BC V4T 2E4
(250) 768-7611

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 5/5 (I would even argue 6/5!)

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- The menu at the Terrace is small and concise (always a good sign!) focusing on the freshest seasonal fare that the Okanagan has to offer.  The meats and produce that they can find at any particular time are listed on the bottom of the menu, and the farms they source from are listed on their website.  The Terrace is the real deal when it comes to sourcing local as much as possible, from produce to meats to seafood.  

Reservation required?  Highly recommended, and in the summer months, you will want to book well in advance for a coveted al fresco table.  Note that they close after Thanksgiving and reopen in May.  

When making dinner reservations for our quick weekend trip to Kelowna in late September, we figured that our plans had to include at least one meal at a winery.  Upon asking friends for recommendations and doing some internet digging, there was a clear standout- Terrace Restaurant at the Mission Hill Winery.

As soon as you drive onto the property, you will see see why Mission Hill has won the Canadian Winery of the Year several times and why the restaurant is ranked among the top winery restaurants in the world.  The grandeur of the winery grounds is remarkable, with a massive set of arches to walk through as you enter, leading into a sprawling courtyard with a belltower and even an outdoor amphitheatre (find out more about the impressive architecture and go on an interactive tower here).

Unlike the larger-than-life winery grounds, the Terrace Restaurant is small and intimate, and perhaps one of the most romantic venues one could imagine.  I must admit, I was a little shocked when I realized that the whole restaurant, kitchen included, was outdoors (should have guessed with the name "Terrace"!) but even this late in the season, we were comfortable sitting there way passed dark with the overhead heaters, the cozy blankets that we were offered and, of course, the wine to warm up the insides:)  The outdoor setting, overlooking rows of grapes and the lake, was nothing short of magical, especially since we hit the jackpot with a full moon on the night of our visit!

The service was professional and polished, yet personable.  Our main server was very knowledgeable about all of our wine pairings and dishes, and took the time to explain them all in detail.  At the end, when things had died down for the night, she spent more time chatting and answering some of our questions.  Other servers came consistently to clear plates and refill water, making us feel well looked after all night long.

As mentioned, the food at the Terrace is an homage to the Okanagan.  Don't be disappointed if the online menu is not identical to the one that you get, as the small menu is constantly getting tweaked reflect the newest, freshest ingredients of the season (always a good sign!).  The menu divided into appies and mains, with a few tapas-style dishes and a few sides.  Although we definitely did not regret our decision to order a side of their heavenly french fries, the portion sizes are certainly generous enough that sides are not necessary.  In terms of drink, they have a paired wine suggestion next to each dish (from Mission Hill Winery, of course) and conveniently offer both 2oz (for tasting) and 5oz wines by the glass.  It is a fantastic opportunity to try some of their Reserve and Terroir Collection wines that are only available at the winery itself.

Here is a peek at what we enjoyed on the night of our visit:

Pear "cider" (Amouse Bouche)- I cannot think of anything that I would have enjoyed more sitting out outdoors on that fall evening than this hot drink-able soup with cinnamon and nutmeg.  They nailed it.

Homestead Farm Greens- This incredible salad tickled all of my tastebuds.  Nestled on the freshest mixed greens one could imagine were some of two of my favourite late-season ingredients- beets and rhubarb (the rhubarb vinaigrette was divine).  The flax cracker served on the side had amazing crunch and added substance to the dish.  Simple but unbelievably satisfying.

Homemade Rigatoni & Braised Beef Rib- Hubby could not stop swooning about the flavours of this starter pasta dish, with preserved tomato and rosemary broth to add depth.

Pan-Seared Okanagan Char-  Another well-composed dish.  The nicely cooked fish with great crispy skin was served over a nice cabbage slaw, with a particularly noteworthy potato smoked char cake on the side.  Some pickled apples strewn around the plate really rounded the whole dish out nicely.

Roasted Scallops- Hubby was a little less excited about this dish than the rest of the meal, but it was still no doubt well-executed with homemade capicola and risotto.

Frites- Again, we had more than enough food between our applies and mains but who can say no to frites, especially when they are this good?  They were SO crisp, perfectly salted, and served with a tangy, creamy aioli.  I eventually had to ask the server to take them away so I did not finish the whole huge bowl.

Farmer's Vegetables-  Since I did not get a lot of veg with my main, I decided to get this as a side.  And I got exactly what I bargained for- a crisp, fresh assortment of veggies sautéed in a bit of butter.

Complimentary sweet treats to bid farewell:)

Overall Verdict?
This late-fall al fresco dining experience was memorable in so many ways.  The break-taking atmosphere (complete with full moon!) is enough to make me recommend Terrace Restaurant to all visitors to this region, and fortunately the food also earned top marks. If you are looking for a magical evening, I cannot think of a better place to go.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Waterfront Wines: A Kelowna Local Hotspot

1180 Sunset Dr, Kelowna, BC V1Y 9W6
(250) 979-1222

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 4/5

Reservation required? Highly recommended, especially in the summer months

Locavore Approved? YES- The menu here changes quite frequently with little tweaks here and there to their online menu to reflect the changing seasons.  They keep the menu fairly small, with only a handful each of apples and mains, which allows them to constantly switch things up and provide high quality dishes made with the freshest of Okanagan ingredients.

This was only our second visit to Kelowna in the 5 years that we had lived in Vancouver, and we only had 2 nights to check out the best restaurants that the city had to offer.  A quick peruse of the internet led me to Waterfront Wines, which had unanimously awesome reviews and had won several awards including Vancouver Magazine's "Best Okanagan Restaurant" for 7 years running.  That sounds too good to pass up, so I booked on the spot.

The restaurant is located in Kelowna's picturesque downtown, pretty near to (but not right on) the water.  The relatively small space is quite charming, with the perfect balance of being formal enough to make it feel like a special night out but not so formal that it comes off snooty or pretentious.  I appreciated the nicely spaced tables, which is a rare find in a place of this size, and the division of the restaurant into a few rooms which made it feel more intimate.  The decor had a rustic edge to it, including a very interesting wooden fixture that took up pretty much the whole ceiling in the room we were sitting in.  The place was still hopping when we arrived at 9:30pm on a Friday evening in late September, especially the main room that housed the open kitchen and the bar.  A local favourite no doubt.

The local spirit really came through in the service, which was personal and warm.  We had 2  servers throughout the night, one who very friendly male server brought us water and checked in on us periodically, and a knowledgeable female server who helped us with menu choices and brought out our dishes.  I noticed the chef emerging from the kitchen on a few occasions to chat with some locals at the bar.  Chef Filatow is also the restaurant's sommelier (he was accepted into the International Sommelier Guild a few years back) and has worked his way through some very well-respected BC restaurants including Vancouver's Bishop's and Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn.

The menu here is simply composed of tapas/appetizers, mains, cheese and desserts with a handful or two of choices for each.  In addition, there is a very nice selection of cocktails and many wines available by the glass, most from the Okanagan of course! There are quite a few interesting appetizers   (we enjoyed these more than our mains) and I would recommend sharing a few as Hubby and I did for more variety.  Although we did not have any, there is also a nice selection of digestifs and "dessert" drinks if you are so inclined.

Here is what we enjoyed on the night of our visit:

Spice-dusted octopus-  This was hands-down the best dish of the evening, and was something special by any standards.  The perfectly cooked octopus had a nice salty, spicy bite and married perfectly with the zippy agile underneath.  The side of slaw added a nice refreshing touch and balanced the spice.  Sadly this is no longer on the menu but here's hoping they bring this dish back ASAP!

Stoney Paradise Sungold Risotto- What a lovely fall dish, and a great homage to the delicious sungold tomato.  This risotto was prepared in a creamy sungold tomato base, with even more creaminess added thanks to a runny quail's egg on top.  And if that wasn't enough, there were a few lardons mixed in for good measure.  Considering its richness, the portion size was small enough that it still passed for an appie, but we enjoyed sharing it for a few bites each of decadence.

House-made ricotta cavetelli, grand padding and sage brown butter- I opted for the only vegetarian dish which proved to be an excellent choice.  This beautifully fresh dish highlighted some of the best fall ingredients, including carrots, fennel, green beans, turnips and greens (pretty much a whole garden!).  The cavetelli were soft and pillowy and were the perfect vehicle to soak up the fennel and carrot puree.  The lentils added a nice hit of protein and texture.  A truly exceptional vegetarian dish.

Grilled peppercorn crusted heritage angus flat iron steak- As he often does at a new restaurant, Hubby asked our server what the restaurant's most popular dish was and she replied that this steak was the only dish on the menu that never got taken off the menu (it has been on there for 11 years!) due to its popularity among customers.  So Hubby went with it, but unfortunately he was disappointed.  Although he could not find fault with any particular part of the dish, it lacked the personality of the appetizer courses and was, well, boring.  If you come with a guest who is a "meat and potatoes" type, this may be their cup of tea but otherwise, this place has much better dishes to offer.

Overall Verdict?
All those I spoke to in Kelowna told me that this was the city's best restaurant, and the vibe here makes it clear that it is truly a local hotspot.  As a visitor to the Okanagan, Waterfront Wines should definitely be on your list of places to check out, and bear witness to all of the great work being done by this multitalented chef/sommelier.  By the end of the night, you will feel so welcome that you may even forget that you are a tourist!

Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Honest to Goodness West Coast Cuisine at The Mackenzie Room

415 Powell St, Vancouver, BC V6A 1G7
(604) 253-0705

Tastiness Factor: 8.5/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- MacKenzie room is about as local as they get.  Their menu changes so frequently that printed menus just don't cut it, hence the large chalkboard menu on the back wall.   Most of their veg comes from local farms in Abbotsford, so is extremely fresh.  They focus on sustainable meats such as game (I have not seen yak at many other places!) and subscribe to the "nose-to-tail" philosophy (we literally got a dish of pig's tails!).  

Mackenzie Room is among the new hot spots to have popped up in our great food city this year.  Hubby and I had already managed to check many of the others off our list including Big Trouble and Supermarine which were both quite impressive, so we were looking forward to another newbie.

Mackenzie Room is located in Chinatown where you might not want to find yourself alone at night (do not let the cab ride there scare you off!).  On the plus side, it is quite near the Vancouver Urban Winery which is a great spot for a pre-dinner drink.

When we arrived at the restaurant at around 8pm, the small room was packed to the rafters and we were ushered over to the bar to squeeze in for a drink while we waited for our table.  The decor is fairly rustic, with lots of wood furniture and minimalistic fixtures which nicely jives with their farm-to-table/nose to tail philosophy.

I feel the need to give a special nod to our phenomenal server for the evening, who stood out as one of the best I have had in some time.  He knew the dishes inside and out and took time to explain every single element including where each main ingredient was from.  Despite the busy room, he gladly answered all of our questions and stayed around to chat for a while at intervals.  AWESOME!!!!!!   Meanwhile, the co-owner made her way around the room, filling water glasses and ensuring everything was running smoothly, despite obviously being quite advanced in her pregnancy.  She made it look easy, with a big smile all night long.

The menu items at Mackenzie Room are constantly changing depending on seasonality of ingredients, and all dishes available on any particular night are found on a large chalkboard at the back of the restaurant.  There are about 5 each of small and larger plates, and a few desserts.  Sharing is encouraged.  Drinks are also found on the board, including a number of local beers and a small selection of cocktails.

The easiest option, perfect for the indecisive diner, is the "I Want It All".  For $47 each, you get all menu items that night to share (minimum of 4 people).  Our server also told us that there were a few dishes available that would appear of the next week's new menu so added a few of those as well (at an extra cost).  The menu included some very unique proteins (yak, pig cheek, pig tail), as well as a nice selection of seasonal vegetable dishes.  The only issue we had with the food was the quantity.  For the price we paid (close to $200 just for Hubby and I, with a few drinks each), Hubby and the other men at the table were still very hungry.  Although there were quite a number of dishes that arrived at our table, it really was not all that much when they were divided by the 6 of us (only a few bites of each at most).

Here are the dishes we shared on our "We Want It All" menu:

Herb Bread

Veggies from the Garden- bagna caudal, rye bread

The Showstopper (my favourite!)- legumes, farmer's cheese, pistachio (the cheese on the dish is actually made using the buttermilk whey on the rockfish dish below.  Nothing gets wasted here!)

Shrimp ceviche with edible flowers

ByCatch Crudo- rockfish, buttermilk whey (our server explained that it is called "ByCatch" because rockfish is considered an inferior fish that is usually hauled up incidentally when fishing for halibut or salmon.  But here, the "waste not, want not" philosophy made them get creative and make the rockfish shine in this simple crudo).

Don't Talk Back- yak tartar, chicken skin, foie gras

Kiss My Reuben- beef tongue, horseradish cream

Mexican street corn- mayo, cheese, lime 

Roger Rabbit Cacciatore- parsnip puree, wild mushrooms, peas

Octopus- sofrito, pea shoots, pickled onion

 Breakfast for Dinner- pig cheeks, savoury oatmeal, salsa verde

Double Rainbow- whole trout, chorizo, walla wall onion, fennel

A Girl and her Goat- cornmeal cake, honey lavender ice cream, poached fruit

Homemade pie and ice cream

Overal Verdict?
Undeniably, the Mackenzie Room has a lot going for it- a genuine eat-local and nose-to-tail philosophy, passionate staff and a pleasant environment in an up-and-coming part of town.  The food was, for the most part, well-executed but I fear that the price point relative to portion size may be a deterrence to some.  With a bit more time under their belt, I have confidence that they will strike a good balance of quality, quantity and price point so that diners will be lining up to come back for more.  Here's hoping for a bright future ahead for The Mackenzie Room!

The Mackenzie Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, 25 September 2015

Expectations Far Surpassed at Big Trouble

237 Union St, Vancouver, BC V6A 3A1
(604) 336-1698

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  100%!- These guys are locavore's through and through.  Their menu is chock full of BC produce (our salad was picked that day at a nearby farm), as well as sustainable seafood and ethically raised meats.  Not only that, but, as our server explained when he greeted us, they are committed to the environment, striving to be a zero waste establishment.  Kudos to you Big Trouble! 

I was dismayed to learn of the closing of the Parker over on Union St., and disappointed to have missed on opportunity to get back before its demise (see a glowing review of my first visit here).  Vancouver had certainly had some success with high-end vegetarian in the last few years and The Parker was one of the frontrunners in making vegetarian food accessible for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining to the Parker's closing- the opening of its equally impressive replacement, Big Trouble.  Although not vegetarian, Big Trouble puts a very strong emphasis on local products including lots of fresh fruits and veg and remains very skilled in its preparation.

Hubby and I chose to go out on a limb and head to Big Trouble for our anniversary meal 6 short weeks after it opened its doors, knowing that it was a bit of a gamble this early in its existence.  It made us nervous when we passed by on our way to grab a pre-dinner drink at the near-by Union and saw only a handful of tables occupied.  I must admit, we almost called off the visit completely but in the end, we fortunately persevered.

When we returned about an hour later at around 8:30, there were about 10 others there which, for this  tiny space, is almost half full.  The atmosphere has not changed much from its Parker days.  It has a VERY small "kitchen" at the far end, which is pretty much a stovetop and an oven with just enough room for the chef and the sous chef to work their magic.  Fortunately, we snagged a table right in front of it, and I had a grand time watching them prepare our dishes with the utmost care and precision.  In addition to the 24-seat indoor space, which they have jazzed up with some cool "XX' lightbulbs, they have added a cute little outdoor "patio" space with room for about 4-6 in the summer months.

On the night of our visit, there was a single server for the whole restaurant who frankly did a better job than most restaurants do with a dozen servers.  He greeted us as soon as we arrived, got us our drinks right away and came back to take our food orders within 5 minutes.  Throughout the meal, he checked in on us regularly and we waited no longer than 5-10 minutes between dishes.  He did this all while looking totally relaxed and taking the time to joke around with us when he stopped by.  Other restaurants a thing or two from place- with only 2 kitchen staff and 1 server, they have it running like a well-oiled machine!

The food certainly did not disappoint either.  They offer West-Coast fare, with a touch of Asian influence in most dishes.  Hubby and I chose the Chef's Tasting Menu which was an absolute steal for only 29$/person.  It included 4 dishes from their small 8 dish plus a dessert.  All dishes are served to share in the order that they came out of the kitchen.  The kitchen is more than happy to tailor the Tasting Menu to preferences/food restrictions/allergies.  Because we were sharing and Hubby wanted some meat, we stuck to the regular menu which included one meat dish, but I had more than enough to enjoy from the other dishes.

Here are the dishes we enjoyed:

Biodynamic greens, shaved veg, sherry vin- I just loved this simple salad, with its generous portion of the freshest greens you could ever taste (picked that day we were told, 15 different varieties!), lightly tossed in an oil and vinegar dressing.   So simple and so delicious- why mess with a good thing?

Wild spring salmon, cucumber, pickled shimejis- All dishes of the night were exceptional but this one takes first prize.  The first bite was a bit of a surprise since I was not expecting cold salmon.  The chilled slow-cooked spring salmon was very delicate, and reminiscent of sashimi, and paired with  the perfect accompaniment of thinly sliced cucumber ribbons in a creamy sauce.  I loved the cute little pickled shimeji mushrooms that added a touch of sweetness.  I would eat this day in and day out if I could!

Peking quail, beets, wild rice- Hubby adored the quail (prepared like chicken wings!), while I happily chowed down on the beet tartare and the beetroot puree which were to die for.  I did not feel like I was left out of this one at all!

Sake marinated sablefish, braised daikon, dashi- I am not usually a fan of broth-based fish dishes but this dish totally turned this prior opinion on its head.  The perfectly-salted dashi broth married perfectly with the expertly cooked sablefish, and infused great flavour into the accompanying vegetables (snow peas and turnips).  After this dish, I am a broth convert!

Chocolate mousse with coffee crumble, strawberries and basil-  This had all the components of a winning dessert- chocolate, fruit, and not too sweet. A perfectly light yet satisfying end to a perfect meal.

A chocolate truffle each to say farewell:)

Overall Verdict?
Big Trouble is Vancouver's newest hidden gem, but I suspect (and hope) that it will not stay secret for long.    We could not find fault with any aspect of this place, and the food was nothing short of stellar.  Thanks for the perfect anniversary meal that far surpassed our highest expectations!!!

Big Trouble Chinatown Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato