Wednesday, 22 April 2015

High Hopes at Cinara

350 W Pender St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1T1
(604) 428-9694

Tastiness Factor: 6/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- There is no denying that Cinara is very committed to using only the freshest of seasonal ingredients.  Its a la carte menu has new items thrown in regularly and the tasting menu ("Carte Blanche") is always a surprise, created daily based on available ingredients.  On our visit in the very early spring, I appreciated their use of some often neglected produce from that time of year like sunchokes and jerusulum mixed with old favourites like squash and swiss chard.

Vancouver's dining scene is growing at an exponential rate these days, making it very hard to stay on top of all of the new openings around this wonderful food city (I am not complaining!).  My favourite way of keeping up is to check out Scout Magazine's "Anticipated Openings" section periodically to see what is coming down the pipeline.  Upon checking out the website a short while ago, I decided to go back to the 2014 openings, to see if there was any I had missed.  This is when I came across Cinara and immediately thought "why have I not checked this place out already"?

Opened in the summer of 2014, Cinara is the creation of one of the former owners of  La Quercia, one of Vancouver's most respected restaurants, and the newer La Pentola which is also quite good.  After splitting from his previous partner who still ones those aforementioned restaurants, Lucas Syme went out on his own and Cinara is his first solo venture.

La Cinara occupies the corner of West Pender and Homer in downtown Vancouver, not too far from Gastown in the historic Victoria Hotel.  There is not a whole lot else near it, especially at night, and it would be quite easy to walk past if you were not looking for it.  Although it might not look like much for the outside, the space you find when you walk inside is very welcoming, with many windows all around.  There is a brick wall on one side, and a small open kitchen (apparently their lack of counter space prohibits them from making large quantities of homemade pasta).  Tables are well-spaced, making the noise level seem quite low as there is no need to shout over your neighbours.  Unlike many Vancouver restaurants popping up these days, there is no attempt at making the design avant-guard or moderne.  Just like the food, the decor is very simple and understated.  The "no bells and whistles" approach.

We arrived at Cinara at 8pm on the Thursday night before a long weekend and surprisingly, there were only a handful of tables occupied.  We were immediately greeted by a very kind female server who took care of our every need throughout the evening.  She was obviously very engaged in her job and was knowledgeable about the menu.  For such a small restaurant that was otherwise quite casual, the service was at the same time quite refined, with dishes brought to our table in concert by multiple servers.  If our plates were not wiped clean, a server would ask if there were problems with the dish before taking the dish away.  Although our meal lasted a few hours, we were never made to feel rushed.  These guys definitely score an A+ in the service department.

It is therefore with great disappointment, after my so-far glowing review, to have to switch gears and describe our impressions of the food which, sadly, were not near as positive.  While I love the concept of simplicity that Cinara seeks to convey in its food, taste must be paramount and, to be frank, there were some dishes that were just not very palatable on our Carte Blanche Menu (8 plates chosen by the chef).  A "daily fresh sheet" is also offered, but we figured we would get the best lay of the land by splurging on the Carte Blanche ($60/person).  We did appreciate the menu alterations for the two pescatarians in our group.

Here is what composed our Carte Blanche menu, as well as our accompanying beverages:

Thyme cocktail- One of the best things I had all night, with a nice citrus flavour from the lemon and just a hint of sweetness.

Orange Fashioned- This was the cocktail of choice of the other 3 in our party and enjoyed all around, with some opting for a second round.

Watercress, fava beans- Just a few bites to start.  Simple but very fresh, loved the crisp favas.

Bread and butter- Included as one of the 8 courses, the bread was crusty but pretty average.  Som remarked though that without it, they would have left hungry.

Squash consommé with shrimp- I will go so far as to say I did not like this dish and found myself struggling to finish. The broth had an off-putting flavour (very "fishy"), and the large chunk of squash was undercooked, hard and awkward to eat without having a knife to cut it.

Scallop with reduction- There were two versions of this dish at the table- the regular version served with a beef broth and the pescatarian version with a port reduction.  While I quite liked the port reduction and the sun choke that nicely soaked up its flavour, the scallop had a very odd and rather unpleasant texture.

BC rockfish, mussels, pasta- While this dish seemed promising at the outset, it was majorly lacking in the flavour department.  The tomato sauce was under-seasoned and there was too little of it, while at the same time there was too much oil floating at the bottom.

Bronzino/steak, artichoke, swiss chard-  Both the regular (steak) and pescartarian (bronzino) versions of this dish were hands down the best savoury dish of the evening.  The pescatarian version was served with fresh artichoke (a personal favourite!) and a red pepper-anchovy sauce that was so good I wanted to drink it up off the plate.  The meat variation was served with the way-underutilized jerusulum artichoke instead of boring old potato and the steak was cooked perfectly.

Cheese course

Pineapple "carpaccio" with grapefruit (pre-dessert) - This was the most creative dish of the evening.  The "carpaccio" had a very interesting texture (in a good way) and its lightness made this the dish an ideal pre-dessert.

Chocolate ice cream with hazelnuts and wafer- I really wish that I did not scarf this one down before getting a picture as this dessert was the table favourite of the entire meal.  Super chocolaty, super creamy, super good.  Not much else to say.

Overall Verdict?  
There is no denying that Cinara has a lot going for it including a well-respected owner, a solid concept , a pleasing atmosphere and polished service.  But the one thing that was lacking on our visit was the food, which is a major issue that I just cannot see past.  Yes, there were some good dishes, but with over half the Carte Blanche dishes that were not palatable, I would have a hard time coming back or recommending it to others, especially for the price (over $200/couple).

In the end, Cinara failed to impress and we sadly walked away disappointed.

Cinara on Urbanspoon

Monday, 30 March 2015

The New and Improved Chambar

568 Beatty St
Vancouver, BC 
(604) 879-7119

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES-  The folks at Chambar are huge proponents of sustainability, in all aspects of their business.  With regards to their food, they use locally-sourced ingredients and insist on using only Oceanwise seafood.  They also care a lot about the environment, and have admirably become Vancouver's only carbon-neutral restaurant.

Chambar has been a beloved restaurant in Vancouver for many years so there were understandably many sad much sadness when when they announced last year that they would be closing their doors.  Fortunately, everyone was able to breath a sigh of relief upon learning that they would open their doors a few steps down the road, this time with a patio, a cocktail bar and a sizeable lounge space.  In addition, they would extend their hours to include breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Hubby and I had visited the old space on several occasions and had always enjoyed our experiences.  We were therefore eager to go and see what this "new and improved" Chambar was all about.  With our busy lives and with all of the other new restaurants to try in this city (a good problem to have!), we were a bit late making a reappearance but finally made our way there last weekend, about 7 months after they reopened in August 2014.

Our first impressions were very positive.  The new space is undeniably beautiful.  At first glance, it appears quite refined with dark wood paneling and leather booths.  On further inspection though, there are several funky and playful accents, including some chunky, colourful light fixtures.  The room is HUGE, with a second smaller room tacked on the back of the larger main room containing the bar.  There is also a large downstairs space.  There are a number of seating options, including booth tables at the front, a long high-top table by the bar and booths at the back.  All in all, the space is very efficient as it seats an impressive number of guests in a variety of arrangements without making the space feel at all crammed.  They obviously need to make good use of the space considering how popular Chamber is.  Not surprisingly, it was filled to the brim when we visited on a Saturday night, and it was still packed when we left after 10pm.

The service, just like the space, is very efficient- in a good way.  While our server was friendly and approachable, it was clear that she was very experienced and therefore could juggle many tables at once with ease.  She knew the menu well and was able to answer all of our questions effortlessly.  There were also several other servers that came to our table to refill water and clear plates, as well as do those "extras" like pushing in our chairs and folding our napkins when we left our seats.  We even had a manager drop by to see how we were enjoying our appetizers.  Furthermore, our cocktails and food arrived in perfectly-timed succession despite the crowd.  This place operates like a well-oiled machine.

Chambar has separate menus for breakfast, weekend brunch, lunch and dinner.  The menus are changed up at regular intervals to reflect seasonal availability, although daily specials are not offered. Their dinner menu is divided into "amuse gueule" (aka amuse bouche), petits plats (small plates/appetizers), mules frites (yes, it deserves a section of its own!), grosses pieces (mains) and accompagnements (sides).   They also offer a nice selection of house-made cocktails, a diverse beer list and an extensive wine list.

Here is what Hubby and I enjoyed on our recent visit:

Moi et Fernet- This was my first foray into the world of fernet and Hubby warned me that it may be too bitter and too floral for my liking but I decided to put my trust in Chambar's new cocktail bar and give it try.  Fortunately, this cocktail was very well-balanced, with a perfect mix of bitter from the fernet, sour from the grapefruit and a hint of sweetness.

Ploughman's Old Fashioned-  This was Hubby's pick.  This was quite different from your regular Old Fashioned as it contained rum and was sweetened with wild honey.

Sweet potato bread- A note to all bread lovers- do not expect a free basket of bread to be brought to your table unless unprompted.  If you are craving carbs, you will have to order the "pain du jour" from the "Amuse Gueule" section of the menu and it will run you 8$.  Although this is a little steep (in my opinion), you do get a mini loaf of bread that can be easily shared, unless you are Hubby and eat the whole thing to yourself.  Although he enjoyed his whole meal, this bread, served with whipped butter and sea salt, was among his favourite eats of the evening.

Le Jardin de Beeterave- I think that by now, I definitely have earned myself the nickname "Queen of the beet salad" since I order it pretty much without exception every time it shows up on a menu.  Chamber's version was certainly was unique and whimsical with a savoury sorrel sorbet (be sure to eat it quickly before it melts!) and beautiful colours from the beets and a granola for some crunch.  The only element I was not as fond of was the orange blossom yogurt as I thought it clashed with the other flavours and I thought that there was perhaps a little too much going on on the plate.  Kudos to them though for putting a thoughtful spin on the run-of-the-mill beet salad.

Thon Tropicale- Hubby had his eye on the pork belly appetizer but when the server recommended the tuna, the raw fish-lover in him could not resist ordering it.  This turned out to be a wise decision, as this was a stellar dish in both appearance and taste.  The beautifully fresh tuna (Oceanwise, of course!) was front and centre, and was accompanied by a coconut-jalepeno remoulade underneath and a clever puffed rice element on top.

Passe-Pierre et Morue-  I was debating between this dish and their vegetarian main but I too opted to go with the server's recommendation and chose the sablefish.  This beautifully composed plate had two small piece fish atop an outstanding miso-mustard sauce.  On one side, there was a little mound of sea asparagus (usually a garnish) as a side which I loved.  On the other side was a Japanese sweet potato puree which I liked at first, but found a little over-sweet and rich but the end.  Overall, this was a phenomenal dish.

Moules Frites (Congolaise)- If you are a fan of mussels, it is imperative that you order them at Chambar as they are a house specialty.  They offer 3 varieties, and are brought to the table in a small dutch oven.  As expected, these Congolaise mussels with tomato coconut cream broth, chilies and lime were spectacular.  As if the mussels themselves were not awesome enough, they were served with a bowl of perfectly crisp fries and a dijonnaise dipping sauce.  Are you salivating yet?

Overall Verdict? 

Based on our visit, it appears as thought the new Chambar, which was pretty darn good before, actually has managed to improve upon its old self.  While the food and service are as consistently great as ever, the new space is what really knocks this new version out of the park.  Chambar has, for obvious reasons, always been among Vancouver's top restaurants and the new Chambar can easily  challenge any of its contenders for the #1 spot in the city.

Chambar Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, 23 March 2015

Tasty Thai Food on The Drive at Kin Kao

903 Commercial Dr
Vancouver, BC V5L
(604) 558-1125

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 9/10

Service: 10/10

Locavore Approved: YES- While the flavours are all about authentic Thai, the ingredients are all about home-grown goodness.  The vegetables used in the dishes are incredibly fresh and the menu changes regularly to reflect the seasons.  They also pay homage to Vancouver in their selection of local craft beers on tap. 

It was a rainy Friday night and Hubby and I were feeling pretty mellow after a busy week.  We were in the mood to eat out, but not somewhere that required changing out of jeans and a t-shirt.  Rather than heading to one of our tried-and-true favourites, I was also keen to try somewhere new so I consulted my favourite and most reliable source, Scout Magazine's "Anticipated Openings" to see what had popped up in the last little while.   Hubby was overjoyed when we came across Kin Kao, serving Thai food (one of his favourite cuisines) on Commercial Drive.  The Drive is not a place that we venture out to often but, for Thai food, Hubby was more than happy to make the trip.

Kin Kao opened just last month by a Bangkok native which certainly comes across in the authenticity of the food.  They are open for lunch, dinner and take-out.  The ambience is inviting, with light-coloured walls and wood furniture.  The decor is minimalist and clean (no tackiness in sight!), which was a perfect match for the friendly, no-fuss nature of the restaurant.

We arrived at around 8:30pm on a Friday night to what appeared to be a very long line, especially since the space only holds 25 seats.  I was first skeptical when the girl working front of house said we would have a table within 15 minutes, but she was true to her word.  We were first offered seats at the bar but opted to wait for a table which only took an extra 5 minutes.  So whatever you do- do not let the line scare you away!

Everything about our visit to Kin Koa was great, but the thing that perhaps stood out the most in my mind was the service which was some of the friendliest service I have experience in Vancouver in some time.  No pretension, no attitude, just 100% sincerity.  All of the server we met were very genuine and treated us like friends.  Despite the fact that it was a packed house, they spent ample time  answering our menu questions, explaining their spiciness levels, pouring my husband a perfect beer, frequently refilling our water glasses and checking in on how we were were enjoying things.  These guys made it look easy and certainly made us feel very welcome!

Proportionate to their compact space, Kin Kao has a small menu with about 5 starters and 10 mains with a nice mix of veg, seafood and vegetarian.   They also offer a limited drink menu with a handful of beer (both local and Thai), one each of red and white wine and a few thai-inpired non-alcoholic choices including iced lemongrass which seemed quite popular.

Here is what Hubby and I enjoyed on our recent visit. I highly recommend sharing so that you can try as many of their phenomenal flavours as possible!

Papaya salad- This generously-portioned salad can be easily shared, although it is pretty darn good so you may want your own.  It was composed of thinly-shaved papaya and carrot with a few green beans and tomatoes.  Pretty classic, but the flavours were spot on and the ingredients were super fresh.  A word of caution though- these guys do not skimp on spice, which our server amply warned us about.  We love spice and medium was about all we could handle comfortably!

Pad Thai with Chicken- Hubby has had his fair share of Pad Thai over the years and this was easily amongst his favourites which is high praise! No surprises, just authentic pad thai prepared in the hands of experts which is exactly what this place does so well.

Stir-Fried Eggplant with Thai Basil- Again, the flavours in this dish were delicious.  This is a good choice for those who enjoy more mild flavours as the spice factor was much lower (also available with chicken or pork).  I appreciated the little pieces of green bean that soaked up the tasty sauce, since the eggplant was unfortunately undercooked and therefore was not able to absorb the flavours very well (the only little slip-up all night).   I would highly recommend the side of jasmine rice and fried egg that can be added for just $2!

We thoroughly enjoyed our night at Kin Kao.  It was just what the doctor ordered on this rainy Friday night- casual, friendly, and serving the best Thai food once could hope for!  We knew it was a hit when Hubby started planning his return visit on the drive home!

We will most definitely be back, and likely soon!

Kin Kao on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Abbey: Vancouver's Disappointing new "Tavern"

117 W Pender St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1S4
(604) 336-7100

Tastiness Factor: 7/10

Atmosphere: 2/5

Service: 2/5

Locavore Approved? Kinda...While they did a nice job of incorporating seasonal produce in their menu (i.e in my nicoise salad) and do profess on their website that they use "high quality seasonal and regional ingredients", I was disappointed that they had no daily specials except for a cocktail.  After my experience at Fat Badger (also tavern-style) with its daily chalkboard showcasing a variety of novel creations, the stagnant menu at The Abbey was a let-down.  

My dad came to visit from Newfoundland recently and, when thinking of places to bring him for dinner, The Abbey immediately came to mind.  It had been on my "need-to-go" list for quite some time, and I knew that my dad enjoys pub-style food so The Abbey seemed like a slam-dunk.  Having been to the Fat Badger a few months ago and really enjoying the experience (see my blog post here), I was really looking forward to seeing what The Abbey, with its similar concept had to offer.  I was even more excited when I realized that it was owned by the fine folks that own Pied-a-Terre and Sardine Can which I can say, from experience, are top notch.

So off we went to the outer edge of Chinatown where the Abbey has its home.  The location is pretty isolated and we almost walked right past the very inconspicuous door.  But it was the inside that was the real shocker.  I have been to a number of pubs in my lifetime and the Abbey did not look even remotely like anyone of them.  The only thing that was the least bit reminiscent of a pub was the large "A" printed on an odd drape hung at the back of the room.  The rest of the decor, from the ornate bar to the tables by the window, made the space look like a cross between a lounge and a bistro.  Right off the bat, it was clear that the Abbey has an identity crisis.  Compounded on the puzzling atmosphere was the fact that the Abbey was completely dead on the Thursday night that we visited (I can count the people there on one hand).

On the positive side, there were two private rooms on each side of the restaurant, each up a windy staircase (again, does a windy staircase really belong in a pub?).  They occupy quite a bit of the space so perhaps this is what a main purpose that the owners had in mind?  Based on the number of people that were there when we visited on a Thursday night (I could count them on one hand), lets hope they are more successful on the private party front.

After I got over the fact that I just didn't get the ambience, I was ready to look past it and enjoy the rest of the evening.  Unfortunately, things kept going downhill.  The service was absolutely abhorent. Our server mumbled just a few words to us the whole night and when I asked her about dinner specials or about the ingredients, she looked at me like I had 10 heads.  She was obviously not enjoying herself that night, although I will give her credit for at least filing our water glasses frequently (in silence of course).

Now onto the food, which, while not on the same level as Sardine Can or Pied-a-Terre, was fortunately the best part of our whole evening.  The menu is divided into a number of sections including "tavern favourites", which includes the only dishes that are the least bit reminiscent of pub food.  The rest of the sections, including small plates, mains, "for two" and sweet, include dishes that could be seen at any of the many other "West Coast-inspired" places in town.  The identity crisis continues.

In terms of drinks, the Abbey does have a nice selection of draft and bottle beers.  In addition, they have a remarkably long list of wines (wish there had been more picks form BC) and quite an extended cocktail program which again, really didn't help with their pub persona.

Here is what we tried on our visit:

Sausage rolls- Hubby and my dad chose this little starter from the "tavern favourites" section of the menu  and, as advertised, it was a piece of pastry rolled over sausage.  Both men liked it, but my dad was a bit caught off guard by the spiciness of the mustard which could definitely be toned done a few notches (think wasabi x 10!).

Venison burger- Every tavern needs a burger!  The Abbey's version, using venison, was plenty hearty, piled high with a mound of cheese and a generous portion of bacon.  It was served pretty rare which may not jive well with some guests, and it would have been helpful to have been told that when it was ordered.  The fries (topped with salt and vinegar) were less successful as they were overdone and therefore became way too crispy when cooled.

Nicoise salad- This was my pick and it was by far the best part of the night for me (besides the company of course!).  The salad base was a nice mix of super fresh greens with a generous portion of perfectly-cooked tuna.  It also contains a myriad of other goodies, including nice crisp green beans with small potato medallions, tomatoes, anchovies, olives, and topped off with a cute soft-boiled quail's egg.    The only letdown was the plating, as there all of the dressing was clumped on one side of the plate, therefore making that side quite soggy.  And again, not to belabour the point, but does this look like pub food to you?

Overall Verdict?

I have said it many times and I will say it again- The Abbey has a identity crisis.   Combine that with subpar service and mediocre food, and you have a place that will not be attracting many return customers, including myself.  I hope that the experienced owners who are doing such brilliant things at The Abbey's sister restaurants can somehow resurrect this latest addition to their restaurant family but, based on our dining experience, that is going to take a considerable amount of work.

The Abbey on Urbanspoon