Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dine Out and C Restaurant

When it comes to Dine Out, there are a lot of mixed feelings.

Before I go any further, let me explain Dine Out briefly. It's where a list of restaurants across Vancouver have set menus for either $18, $28 or $38 dollars. You can find a list of them here .

Anyway, like I was saying. Mixed feelings. People working in restaurants generally dislike it because it usually means a TON more customers who aren't paying as much...which means you have to turn over a lot of volume to make up the extra money. Which means you really have to hustle. For fine dining restaurants in particular this can be very difficult, because of plating and standard of service and what have you. For the kitchen it's a massive pain too because you have to churn out so many extra meals, and with that comes a ton of extra mise en place.

However, customers love it because you can usually score a great deal, especially at some of the finer restaurants. It's an excuse to go someplace you've never tried before. And usually you can get a bigger group of people together and make it a party.

But even for diners it can be a mixed experience. I remember a couple years ago having dinner at the well-attended CinCin restaurant. Not knowing any better, I was drawn there by all the mentions I kept hearing about this celeb or that so-and-so eating there. Yeah, I really didn't know any better at the time. All I can remember is a very darkly lit dining room and this risotto that was gluey and nearly inedible. It was chalk white with some kind of cheese but it tasted a strange combination of sweet and cheesy. I didn't finish it. And I am NOT a picky eater.

Anyway, you take your misses with your hits. We headed out to C Restaurant tonight. It's renowned for maintaining ethical seafood standards and also generally being a great restaurant.

I like going to a new restaurant during Dine Out because it speaks to me about their level of service and food. If you can maintain a consistently great level on both those counts while trying to serve hundreds of people, you're really doing something right.

So here's what our dinner was like at C.

First up: seaweed bread. It had a soft, crumbly texture which I actually like. There were fresh ribbons of seaweed throughout. I don't know if I loved it, but it was an interesting concept.

First course:

Green Tea Cured Dr. Albright Trout
Origin Organic cucumber pickles, arugula, Granville island sake emulsion

You could faintly taste the green tea cure when you had the trout alone. Together, not at all, although the dish was delicious. Very acidic. Loved the pea greens in the salad. It would be a recurring theme throughout dinner.

Next up:

Octopus bacon wrapped scallops with peas cooked with bacon and leeks and a foie gras vinagrette

**This was an extra we ordered because it sounded delicious. And it was. They thinly sliced octopus and smoked it (I think) and wrapped it around these deliciously sweet scallops. In fact, both the octopus bacon and scallops were wonderfully sweet. The peas were also fantastic. I love peas.

Main course:

Pan Roasted Keta Salmon
Ragout of spring vegetables, smoked ham, lemon condiment
Parsley sauce

I really thought the salmon would be a standout given the restaurant's reputation. The dish was very good, but there was nothing particularly outstanding out the salmon. The peas (again, more peas) were FANTASTIC. Again, I love peas. And these peas were sweet and delicious. The parsley sauce didn't seem to add anything to the dish, but didn't detract from it. There was also a pile of pickled sea asparagus on the side. They tasted a lot like Chinese preserved prunes we always have for treats. They added nicely to the dish. Plus miniaturized vegetables always look so adorable.

Finally, dessert:

Chocolate brownie
Vanilla liquid marshmallow, orange Chantilly

I love chocolate cake for dessert. I'm not going to lie, I tend to order this kind of dessert at every restaurant. So I think I'm a pretty good judge of what a good chocolate cake dessert should be. The brownie was nice and dense and rich...but the combination of two kinds of cream was a bit redundant in texture. The liquid marshmallow contrast seems bourne of the molecular gastronomy trend but I don't know if it worked with this particular dessert.

Service wise, it was very efficient. However, and this is probably just for Dine Out, there seemed to be a LOT of servers. If you've ever eaten at C, there's a narrow corridor where the servers have to travel between the kitchen, the front door and the rest of the dining room. We were sitting RIGHT at the entrance of the dining room, which didn't help. I felt a bit claustrophobic. Luckily the wine helped.

All in all though, great meal. I came away happy and satisfied and that's all I ever ask of any meal. I count this among my more successful Dine Out experiences. If a restaurant like C can pull off Dine Out well, there's no excuse for any other restaurant to do any less.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Here, piggy piggy piggy...

The great thing about food is not only is it delicious, but you can shape it into anything you want it to be. Case in point, a new venture by three Vancouver cooks. They've started up The Wandering Spoon -- their take on "renegade" dinners where a lot of what happens is up in the air.

So what IS this "renegade" style meal I speak of? It's where you're told a date for the dinner and perhaps there are some details about what they'll serve. There's a fixed price, and the location changes. So basically you're agreeing to put yourself in the hands of the cooks...because you're at their mercy.

It's part of an underground dining movement that's been happening around the world for some time. It allows the cooks to bypass local bylaws and liquor laws (it's strictly BYOB)...like a dinner party but with mostly strangers. The appeal for the cooks is that they can serve whatever they like and let their imaginations run wild. The appeal for diners? In my case, having a completely different and new dining experience that turned out to be tremendously fun.

As you can see from the top photo, we ate our way through an entire suckling pig. Imagine walking through the door of someone's loft and seeing that face. But it wasn't merely roasted whole. The pig was butchered, its hind legs removed, ribs and tenderloin removed. The loin was wrapped in spinach and forcemeat, placed back in the pig, the whole thing to be roasted for four hours.

The ribs were cooked up with rosemary, garlic and butter. My personal favourite part, served with cabbage cooked with carrot and bacon. Everyone at the table loved it; it was the first item to go.

The legs , as you can see, were served on top of a dish of cauliflower.
I'd never had an entire suckling pig served to me before, so it was as much fascinating as it was delicious. And it really was good. To the best of my knowledge it was the first time any of the cooks had tackled a dish like this, which made it a great experience for them as well.

Besides the delicious food, most of the enjoyment of going to a dinner like this is the atmosphere. You sit with a bunch of people you don't know (yet). I met yet another Twitter follower who had seen my tweet about the dinner and thought, what the heck? He turned out to be a City of Vancouver planner who seemed to really enjoy himself. Everyone did. We all had at least one thing in common: we like to eat!

Everyone at the table was in great spirits. The wine and beer probably helped a lot. One diner even offered up her plate for this photo you see on your left.

The coziness of seeing the people making the food was also a great treat. Cooks are some of the most passionate people I know, and are always at their best when they're in their element and talking about what they do. If you get a chance to engage a cook, do it. They don't realize how much they light up when they're talking about what they love.

Dessert was appropriately homey: apple tarte tatin with oatmeal ice cream. It was warm, delicious and comfortable, like the rest of the meal.

And like other fabulous dinner parties...we got to take home some of the leftovers. Believe me, even between 11 people there are a LOT of leftovers!

I'd never done any underground dining before this, but it won't be the last. The Wandering Spoon will be hosting dinners about once a month, so keep your eyes peeled to their blog. You're going to love it when this spoon wanders your way.