Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Great eats in the Philippines

I'm baaack!

Ten days in the Philippines, and I gained 5lbs -- that's only possible when you're me! :P I was only able to check off three things on my to-try list (espasol, taho, and the Spirals buffet at the Sofitel hotel again) -- but that's okay, because everything I did have more than made up for it.

My many awesome relatives know the Philippine food scene even better than I know Vancouver's, and between visiting and hanging out with them all, I sampled much of the best foods -- at the best places -- the Philippines has to offer.

My first dinner there featured the best roasted chicken (see above) in the Philippines, from Savory Chicken`s Chinatown location. I thought it was amazingly good even before my aunt told us this as we ate it at her kitchen table (I'd thought it was homemade). It was juicy and flavoured with this excellent marinade -- but I liked the saba (fat bananas) chunks that came cooked with it even better; at first I thought it was weird that they'd cook the chicken with the saba, but the sauce made them super-tasty.

There was also homemade bicol express (a stew made with long chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste, onion, pork, and garlic; see above), fried bangus (milkfish; see below), and more -- a great way to start my trip.

Breakfast featured a different menu every day. There's no way I'll be able to cover everything I ate over ten days, but some of the best foods I had for breakfast included liverwurst with bread (I forgot the brand, but it way better than the liverwurst I had in an open-faced sandwich at the Scandinavian festival in Burnaby last month), bola bola siapao and congee from Ling Nam, misua (salted Chinese noodles made from wheat; see below), fresh pandesal from Pan de Manila, atis (a delicious fruit also known as a sugar-apple, or sweet sop, that's way tastier than a soursop, which I also tried), leftover wedding cake from my cousin's wedding (a carrot fondant cake), and turon (not a breakfast food, but made the morning we left so we could try some).

Freshly-made turon -- saba (plantain) and jackfruit wrapped in a lumpia (springroll) wrapper, dipped in brown sugar, then fried (see below) -- is sooo good. The ones we had at my aunt's were double the length of the ones featured, and way better than any of the ones I've tried in Vancouver.

Lunch involved a lot of tasty home-cooked meals and eating out. One of the best places we ate at was the Highland Steakhouse (reputedly the best steakhouse in the Philippines, exclusively open to Tagaytay country club members) in the Tagaytay Highlands. Unfortunately, in a sudden lapse of judgment, I ordered fish (doh!) for my entree, because I was sitting next to my aunt, who I didn't know at the time didn't eat beef, who was inquiring about all the other menu items and made me forget that we were in a steakhouse. :S I think I will be kicking myself about not ordering a steak for a long time to come. :(

I had a bit of the best prime rib and barbecue baby back ribs I've ever tasted off my mom and little sister's share plate, and some pretty good lamb chops from my aunt. I had the cheesecake below for dessert. It wasn't particularly good, and neither was my fish (I think it was a pan-fried Mexican sea bass), which was bland, and came with pasta in a sauce I didn't like. It didn't taste any different from the fish I eat at home, but apparently, it's (according to our server) the best thing out of all the restaurant's non-beef options -- bottom line: order the steak!

The two salads we ordered to start (a garden salad and a smoked salmon caesar), which had vegetables and fruit fresh from the gardens of Tagaytay, were both really tasty.

I also had a taste of my cousin's clam chowder, which the restaurant is also apparently known for, and a scoop of my aunt's pumpkin soup. The clam was creamy and quite good, but I liked the pumpkin soup better. I love pumpkin, and the soup wasn't so rich as to make me feel slightly queasy like most cream-based soups do.

Another really good place we ate at was Ristras, a relatively expensive new Mexican restaurant, where I actually really enjoyed the food.

If you read my post on Dona Cata's Mexican Foods in Vancouver, you'll recall that I'm not much of a Mexican food fan. In fact, I tend to end up disappointed every time I go out for Mexican, no matter what I order. From tacos, fajitas, mole, and enchiladas, to deep-fried ice cream, nothing (apart from the delicious torta subs at Duffin's donuts and lamb meat in the lamb tacos at Dona Cata's) I've tried has ever really made me go "mmmmm".

At Ristras, aside from the sugarcane lemonade (made from fresh sugarcane and lemons), which I thought tasted weird and didn't really enjoy, I thought everything was delicious, especially the gigantic burritos they are famous for (see below for one of the fajita burrito options with the chicken and cilantro rice).

For fillings (see below for a making-of-a-Ristras-burrito photo -- I got hungry just watching one after another being put together), you can choose from two different kinds of rice (cilantro lime or chorizo brown rice) and four different kinds of meat (steak, chicken, pork, or beef) -- high-quality and deliciously marinated, and opt for black beans (a regular burrito) or sauteed green peppers and onions (a fajita burrito), and red or green chili, or have all the choices in a fajita burrito bowl like I did.

I actually don't recommend doing this; instead, I'd go with a friend, order a burrito with two meats and one kind of rice, have it halved, and split it with my friend, who I would have order a burrito containing the alternative fillings. The tortilla they use for the burrito is excellent and really complements the fillings, and you get a better chance to taste all the ingredients mixed together when ordering them wrapped than when eating them with a fork out of a bowl -- which is great, since everything goes together so well.

Check out the photo (taken from another site, so I can't account for the wonky date -- November 25, 2009?!) below to get a sense of just how huge these things are -- the burrito bowl's on the left and the two halves of the person's burrito are on the right.

The soft shell tacos (basically the same as the burrito, only you get the ingredients on a plate and make them into a taco yourself) were my favourite. The quesadilla (see below) was gigantic and delicious, as was their enchilada, the albondigas soup (steaming, hearty, and filled with meatballs and vegetables), and their yummy nine-layer dip nachos.

I'm happy because now I finally know what good Mexican food tastes like (Canada's just doesn't cut it). The restaurant's chef is famous in the Philippines, having already opened very successful Greek and other restaurants. Though the prices are pretty high for Mexican food (290 pesos for most mains, which is equivalent to around $7 CDN -- veeery expensive in the Philippines, where a burger, soft drink, and spaghetti combo at Jollibee -- a fastfood chain that's more popular than McDonald's in the Philippines -- costs just 80 pesos, or ~$2 CDN), Ristras is the place to be for Mexican food in the Philippines right now, and I thought the food was worth it.

Note: You might say that my review is slightly biased, as two of my cousins are part owners of Ristras (which is why I got to eat so much -- they treated us to almost everything on the menu! :)), but I'm surprisingly not up-playing anything (at least not intentionally). I was actually both excited (because it apparently got great reviews from Philippine food bloggers, like this one, which I read before I went) and scared to try the place, for fear of being let down like I had at so many other Mexican restaurants and having to blog about how it had failed to impress me. My point: If I hated the place, I probably would have just left it out of my post. :P

I also went to the Spirals Restaurant buffet for a second time (hooray!), this time for lunch. Unfortunately, it was not as good as I remembered. The selection was (understandably) smaller, and all the French cakes I had been unable to try the last time I was there (such as Opera cake and Saint Honore cake, with the most delicious caramelized profiteroles) and other desserts like taro pudding weren't available. I did, however, try some of their delicious paella and a mango and banana crepe, and some really good white chocolate mousse. I won't go into this meal, since I already elaborated on the restaurant quite a bit in my last post.

One of the first dinner spots I tried was Max's Restaurant, where fried chicken is the specialty -- so much so that the restaurant's tagline is "the house that fried chicken built." The fried chicken (see below) was fantastic (some of the best I've ever had), but all their other dishes were just okay.

Their halo halo (a popular Filipino ice dessert that literally translates to mean "mix mix") contained red mung beans, leche flan, ube (purple yam), gelatin, bananas, macapuno (coconut) balls, langka (jackfruit), grated cheese, pinipig (crushed rice), sago (tapioca), and maybe more. I had the halo halo special, which means that it came with a scoop of ice cream -- in this case, ube-flavoured). When it was served, it looked like the one below, but halo halo is meant to be mixed, so it got pretty messy after that. While it looked amazing, it unfortunately didn't taste nearly as good. The leche flan didn't taste like what it's supposed to -- it was too hard and way too sweet.

I had halo halo at three other places at the Philippines (some make-your-own-halo-halo at Spirals's dessert buffet that my little sister made, one at Razon's (see below), and one at Chowking.

The one at Spirals was just okay. The ice wasn't very good, as it was pebbly instead of finely shaved. There also wasn't that great a selection in terms of ingredients.

The halo halo at Razon's and Chow King were much better. Both are known for having some of the best halo halos in the Philippines, and both versions are extremely different, so I can't really pick a favourite -- they're both delicious!

Razon's serves its halo halo with shaved ice, leche flan, macapuno, sweet banana, and milk (see below). Their leche flan is to die for -- creamy, melt-in-your-mouth... the best I've ever had. I was sad when I mixed my ingredients and the taste was lost. Razon's claims that you don't even need to put sugar in the halo halo, believing it to have the perfect blend of ingredients. I think it's funny that anyone would need to add sugar to a halo halo, but it's apparently a very Filipino thing to do. A lot of my relatives do it.

Chowking's halo halo (see below) had pretty much everything that the one at Max's had (minus the ice cream, since I didn't pay extra for it), only it tasted much better.

In the Philippines, halo halo costs just a little over a dollar, sometimes going up to $2. In Vancouver, it can go anywhere from $2.99 at Pinpin's (unless they raised the price) to $5.50 at Josephine's and Goldilock's -- and their versions are not anywhere near as good as the ones they have in the Philippines. I wish that Kuya's in North Van were still open (I think it closed just this year) -- their halo halo used homemade ingredients and was pretty fantastic (especially at only $3.50).

If you've never tried it before, I'd suggest forgoing the ice cream (the halo halo special). It takes away from the flavour of the other ingredients, and vanilla flavoured ice cream is often the only option (since ube ice cream is so much more expensive in Canada, while ube and vanilla are the standard flavours offered in the Philippines).

I found this post on the top twenty Filipino desserts as voted by Filipinos, and am happy to report that I had 13 during my trip, including maja blanca, cuchinta, sapin-sapin, puto bobong, puto, ice cream (including Selecta-brand Queso Real), sans rival, buko pandan, pastillas de leche, bibingka, turon, halo halo, and leche flan. The only ones on the list I haven't tried before are banana-cue and halaya ube -- maybe next time.

I recommend every one of the desserts I tried. Mmm... when they're done right, they're soooo tasty! There's a reason why sans rival translates to "without rival" (think crispy, sweet, baked meringue layered with sugared butter and chopped cashews; see below). Fresh pastillas de leche are also melt-in-your-mouth good.

Other desserts I had included lots of baked goods from Red Ribbon (one of the best bakeries in the Philippines). I tried their ensaymada and cinnamon rolls, as well as two roll cakes -- ube macapuno (purple yam and young coconut strings; see below) and halo halo. I also tried the mocha mamon and ensaymada from Goldilocks (the other really famous Filipino bakery). Definitely try an ube macapuno cake from Red Ribbon if you get the chance, and the halo halo cake if you like langka -- they're really tasty and stay soft even after several days.

There were so many good dinners I had that I don't know where to start. We had some fantastic, apparently authentic, Italian wood-fired pizzas -- Al Quattro Formaggi (four cheese) and a seafood one -- and pastas (one with pesto sauce, which I like very much, one with carbonara sauce, and another I don't remember) at Amici. Unfortunately, I had to forego the gelato, as I had an infected stomach and wasn't supposed to be eating at all that day. :(

I also sampled two gourmet pizzas and steak at Chelsea's during another night, where I had the best shaken iced tea ever, blended with real peaches and served in a glass that was as tall as three mugs placed on top of one another. We finished off dinner by splitting a light lemon meringue-like cake, that was ever so tasty.

I also bought a red velvet cake cupcake from Cupcakes, a bakery in Makati. It looked and sounded authentic enough, as it was bright red, made with Belgian cocoa and glistening with cream cheese icing. It was good, but didn't taste like chocolate at all. A friend who's tried it in the States tells me that it's not supposed to taste chocolately, since it's only supposed to have a minute amount of cocoa in it. So yay, I guess I tried real red velvet cake (which I blogged about in a previous post). It wasn't particularly amazing or different.

Other memorable foods I had included some of the Philippines' best pancit palabok from Pancit Malabon (see above), fresh steamed lapo-lapo (or grouper, the national fish of the Philippines), fried pigeon, fresh buko (young coconut) juice, and real lechon , featuring an almost-whole roasted pig -- the head and legs were there, but the body was cut up and ready to serve buffet-style (see below for a photo of a whole lechon).

We visited quite a few Chinese restaurants (including one famous for its peking duck two times), but I won't discuss them since Chinese places don't interest me very much, however good they may be. A difference I will note is that lapo-lapo seems to replace black cod as the fish of choice in Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, and tastes exactly the same when steamed.

I think that the biggest surprise for me during my trip was learning what a huge deal kid's birthday parties are in the Philippines. If you think their hotel buffets sound lavish, you should attend a child's party. My cousin celebrated her two sons' birthdays at the Philippine Convention Centre (not unlike our Vancouver Convention Centre).

The way a birthday party works is, you choose a theme (in this case, Pokemon), hire entertainers (in this case, a magician/balloon animal maker/game show host), hire caterers with food similar to what you'd find at lavish hotel buffets (complete with a full kiddie section and an adult section), and buy lots and lots of great party favours and prizes (enough to last through the more than seven games played, where at times over 20 children might receive one, including huge boxed action figures, and even some transportable chairs, which quite a few of the adults snagged). Check out the photo below that my little sister snapped of the main stage area of the event, during one of the games the kids participated in (a relay race).

Buffet food included spaghetti, kebabs, spring rolls, and hotdogs on a stick for the kids, and rice, inihaw, lechon, tempura shrimp, some kind of chicken, and a seafood and vegetable mix for adults, with a salad bar and misua, and a dessert section featuring maja blanca (corn pudding), leche flan, seven kinds of really tasty mini cakes (including mocha, strawberry, vanilla, raspberry jam, marble, chocolate, and pandan), coconut cupcakes, mango crepes, and the yummiest buko pandan (see below) I've ever tasted.

Before the buffet even opened, kids and adults alike could line up at three stands serving cups of fresh, warm taho, small containers of nachos topped with melted cheese and ground beef, and mini sugar cones of three kinds of homemade ice cream -- cheese, ube, and cookies and cream.

I was especially happy about the taho stand -- my cousin's husband had told me that some peddlers put plaster of paris in their taho as filler, or burn the sugar so that the taho smells better, so I'd never have gotten to try it off the street. It was too sweet for me, and because I don't particularly like white bean curd, tapioca, or brown sugar, I didn't really like it. See below for a photo of the traditional version of this tofu dessert (mixed with a brown sugar and sago (tapioca balls) syrup upon serving), and a Baguio version made with strawberry syrup, which wasn't available, as it's a specialty of the city of Baguio. Next time, I'll have to go out to Baguio city and see if the their version is any better.

The end of the event featured a cookie tree made up of giant cookies on sticks that looked like lollipops featuring various Pokemon, such as pikachu and squirtle. I snagged one, and it was really tasty: a sugar cookie covered with my favourite -- hard icing, like the kind they use at Goldilocks to make the flower decorations for their cakes.

When I first moved to Canada, it took a while for me to get over the fact that cakes from Western and European bakeries make their cake flower decorations from the same icing they use to cover the cake -- it's just not the same as hard candy flowers, which I sometimes like even more than the cake itself. If you have a sweet tooth, you've got to try one. They're individually embedded to the cake with a toothpick.

The Philippines never fails to surprise me each time I return, and I can't wait to come back. Maybe I'll get to try a real inihaw platter (see below) this time -- I love the one at Pinpin Restaurant (6113 Fraser) in Vancouver, so the ones from the Philippines can only be that much better.

If you're from the Philippines or know a lot about Filipino food, let us know what to try where from the Filipino restaurants in Vancouver, or in the restaurants in the Philippines, for when I visit again. :)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Candy-gram: Gone eatin'

I'm off to the Philippines, and will be gone from June 8 to 20. Whether or not I end up posting on my eating adventures there will depend on how often I'm able to access the internet, and how packed my schedule is.

On my list of things to try are taho, ice desserts from Ice Monster and Jollibee, espasol, saba con hielo (see above for a photo), masareal, dodol, kalamay, bukayo (see left), and Lety's ube and buko pandan pies.

I'm crossing my fingers that I'll get to eat at a five-star hotel buffet -- in the Philippines, they trend toward featuring tons of "multi-cuisine open cooking stations", where you can see many delicious items made in front of you, including mouth-watering, made-to-order crêpes (which I tearfully had no space left in my stomach to try).

The buffet I went to two years ago at the Spiral Restaurant at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza (Pasay City, Metro Manila; see here for a menu) was one of the best buffets I've ever tried -- the photos this blogger took don't even begin to capture its vastness.

Below are two of her pics of some of their dessert stations (they had like six or seven devoted to desserts, which included six kinds of ice cream, a halo halo station, about ten kinds of whole French cakes, a bunch of individual cakes and mousses, four kinds of crêpes, three kinds of crème brûlée, fresh fruit, white and milk chocolate fondue fountains, and more!).

This is also a great post about the buffet. At P1950.46 - 2196.11 (depending on the day) per adult, it works out to be $48.76 to $54.90 CDN for dinner. If you're ever in the Philippines for even just a day -- which was exactly how much time I had the last time I was there :( -- I recommend eating there, unless you're on a diet... in that case, stay far, far away! :P

Anyways, if I don't end up posting anything while I'm at the Philippines, I'll be blogging in spirit, like I do at every place I visit.

Check out the caricature I had done a few weeks ago, below. It doesn't look a thing like me -- especially now that I've had a good chunk of my hair lopped off -- and I'm not one to go "Mmmmm" over a boring ham, but that's me, alright -- always ready to talk about food! :)

Let me know if there's anything else you think I should try!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Eat me!: Deep-fried ice cream

The things I do for my readers!

Over a span of six days, I've tried three different kinds of deep-fried ice cream -- on a full stomach -- just so that I could give you accurate comparison of the three.

My somewhat painful taste test unintentionally began last Saturday, when, after giving up on ever trying deep-fried ice cream at Belgian Fries (1803 Commercial Drive) -- they never have any available when I'm in the area -- I dropped by Andales Mexican Restaurant (1175 Davie St.) and had some chocolate ice cream fried up Mexican-style, with a coating of cornflake crumbs. It was a ball the size of a fist, served in a glass cup, and looked like the one below, minus the whipped cream.

I had it with three friends, and none of us liked it very much -- out of the many things we had to eat that day (which included green tea shaved ice dessert, hamburg, saba, tuna belly donburi, and pumpkin banitzel) it was the dish we liked the least -- S. thought it was too greasy; K. and I didn't notice the grease, but still didn't think it was very good. Deep-fried cornflakes just don't taste that great.

The restaurant had both chocolate and vanilla ice cream options. The chocolate Baskin-Robbins ice cream we went with was the best part, and tasted better alone than mixed with the crunchy cornflakes (which got soggy as the ice cream melted). For $4.99 (plus tax and tip), it wasn't really worth it -- but I was happy because I finally got to try deep-fried ice cream.

So I was super-annoyed when I arrived at the Richmond Night Market today and saw that not one, but two stalls were selling deep-fried ice cream, for far lower than the $4.99 price both Belgian Fries and Andales charge.

I wasn't going to buy any -- given my disappointing first experience, and the fact that I had no one to split the ice cream with, since the friend I was supposed to come with couldn't make it --but it seemed like everyone I passed was talking about the deep-fried ice cream, either to comment about it, to talk about getting some later, or to buy some there and then. I felt obligated to try some just so that I could tell you about them.

By the time I'd decided to do my deep-fried ice cream taste test, I'd already consumed a green tea tiramisu, black sesame crème brûlée, and "red bean sherbet" (a shaved ice dessert with red beans, fruit cocktail, rice powder condensed milk, and strawberry syrup). So I was pretty darn full. (Note: Going to the Night Market without an eating buddy or two is a baaad idea.)

I tried the Japanese/Chinese-style fried ice cream first. The stall was selling two kinds -- strawberry and vanilla. I opted for strawberry, knowing that the other stall only offered vanilla.

Watching ice cream being fried is somewhat disturbing. The ice cream was coated in a white dough that the vendor described as "butter and bread", and then dipped into a huge pot of oil, where it was dunked repeatedly until it was cooked to form a crisp, golden shell. The dessert was served in a cup with a piece of napkin in it to soak up some of the grease, and the grease was very visible when I first got it, though it sank into the dough and disappeared after awhile. I can't find anything that looks exactly like it -- it's kind of like a rectangular pillow of tempura, with no garnish of whipped cream on it or anything. The pic below is the closest one I can find.

I didn't think it was going to taste very good -- it's essentially an ice-cream-filled donut, and when you eat the sections individually, neither part is that great. But when you get just the right amount of each together, oh my is it good.
I recommend doing away with the spoon and just biting right into the pastry and ice cream, as the spoon is really only good for scooping up the ice cream part. It was worth the $2.50 I paid for it. This was advertised as the "promotional price for today only" -- the vendor said that they would be raising the price to $3.50. The signs didn't look like they'd been changed from any other day, however, so if you end up going to the Night Market sometime this summer, let us know if the price really does go up.

Feeling slightly queasy from eating so much rich, sweet stuff, I waddled back to the dessert place where I'd gotten my first two desserts to try their deep-fried ice cream. It was $3 for one dessert, or 2 for $5, so I bought a "dragon" fried ice cream and chocolate-dipped pistachio cheesecake. That stall gives a coupon for free dessert at the Boathouse Restaurant in Richmond for every two desserts you purchase, so I came away with two free dessert coupons.

I had initally thought that their deep-fried ice cream was coated with cornflakes, but the vendor said it was coated with a mix of things. I think those things might have been cookie crumbs. The ball came topped with whipped cream and two chopped quarters of strawberry.

How good their version of fried ice cream tasted was also a matter of getting the right mix of everything in a bite -- without the strawberries and whipped cream, it wasn't that great, but with it, it was quite tasty -- at least better than the one at Andales.

When it came time to go home, I met my little sister, T. outside, and it turned out that she had opted to buy a deep-fried ice cream too -- the vanilla tempura version that I hadn't tried, so I had a bite of that as well. Unfortunately, all I got was a lump of dough with a spot of ice cream melted into it, so I wasn't able to gauge how good that was. T. thought it was alright.

So now I've tried every kind of deep-fried ice cream there is: coated with cornflakes, tempura batter, and cookie bits, with chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream. Of the three, I'd have to say that the one made with tempura batter was surprisingly my favourite -- I say "surprisingly" because I almost didn't buy it because it looked so unappetizing. It doesn't help that you see it being made right in front of you, so that there's no fooling yourself about its fat content.

The tempura-batter guys don't have a store, and I don't know where else in the city you can get deep-fried ice cream made in that style, so if you're hankering to try some, you'd better head over to the Night Market sometime this summer before they're gone.

While you're there, I recommend trying one of the desserts at the other stall -- I.C. Desserts. Their mini-desserts are all $3 each, or 2 for $5 (with some on special today for $2, as a Canada Day special). I thought their green tea parfait and black sesame crème brûlée were amazing. They torch the crème brûlée right in front of you.

The chocolate on the chocolate-dipped pistachio cheesecake was really good, but I couldn't really taste the pistachio cheesecake. That could very well have been due to the numbing effect all the sweet stuff I'd already eaten before might have had on my tastebuds.

Anyway, I recommend that stall. The photo above is taken from their Facebook site, and all three of the items I mentioned are pictured.

And just so you know, the shaved ice dessert I had at the Hurricane Potato Fries stall was good, but not fantastic, because the ice was more like small pebbles than fine shavings -- and the ice makes all the difference. The toppings were great though -- a huge scoop of red beans, some fruit cocktail and strawberries, a small scoop of rice powder, with big squirts of condensed milk and strawberry syrup on top, all for $3. It was a smaller portion than you'd get at a restaurant (about a cup and a half?), but given the amount of eating you'll probably end up doing at the Night Market, it's not bad.

If you've been to the Night Market (in either Richmond or Chinatown) this year and tried anything particularly good, tell us about it, and if you try either or both of the fried ice creams there, be sure to give us your take.

As well, if you've tried any other deep-fried desserts -- like deep-fried Oreos or deep-fried Coke -- let us know if they're worth trying!

I can attest to the yumminess of deep-fried mars bars and fried jam sandwiches!

Make sure to leave a good chunk of stomach space for them! :P

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Who knew: Canada on a platter

Happy Canada Day, folks!

Time to bust out some maple syrup for your pancakes, opt for a 100% Canadian beef or salmon burger, and treat yourself to a big, chocolately nanaimo bar for dessert.

I don't know what qualifies as "Canadian" food (here's Wikipedia's take), but I did have fun getting food to represent Canada for an art exhibit I made back in high school.

The fast food meal above consists of a burger, some fries, an English muffin, and a straw, all served on a platter.

If creating art were one of my talents, you'd probably have an easier time seeing how it's linked to Canada and attempts to capture all four of my exhibit's themes: optical illusions, hidden images, word play, and Canadian pride.
  • The burger: Nothing shows Canadian pride like sewing a Canadian flag on your backpack -- unless you're an American trying to pass for one of us (and who can blame them?).

  • "French" fries and "English" muffin: Bilingualism and our French/English background rock.

  • Straw: Paired with an English muffin/puck, this hockey stick is just the thing for a game of one of Canada's two national sports, hockey!

  • Platter: So it doesn't look exactly like a beaver tail, but it beats the one below (though that BeaverTail sure looks tasty!).

Hope you were able to sample some tasty Canadian treats today; let us know if you had anything particularly interesting -- flipper pie, nougabricot, and bakeapple pie come to my mind.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ask, and I will find: A good paella place

J said...

Find me a good paella place, preferably in the cheap-moderate price range, good value, family atmosphere, etc :)

May 27, 2009 9:40 AM

According to studyspanish.com, "Paella is a traditional dish of Spain. Its home is Valencia, but variations exist in the different Spanish provinces. A colourful mixture of saffron-flavored rice and various meats, paella's name comes from the paellera, the flat, round pan in which it is cooked. Traditionally, the paella is cooked out of doors, over a wood fire."

I don't know what makes a "good" paella (I've never had an authentic, homemade one before), but I highly recommend the paella at the Diamond Alumni Centre (SFU Burnaby Mountain -- on University Drive East at the north end of the SFU campus, overlooking Indian Arm and Deep Cove), where I tried my first one.

I loved every bite -- from the yummy seafood (mussels, shrimp, etc.) and veggies to the yellow saffron rice. The lemon-blueberry cheesecake I had for dessert was also amazingly good (see below for someone else's photo of it), and I hardly ever find a cheesecake I really like.

I know that the great meal I had at the DAC wasn't a fluke because I attended a wedding reception catered by the restaurant a few years later, and found the food there to be better than any I've tried at other Lower Mainland buffets -- including several more-expensive ones at hotels. I enjoyed every one of the desserts they had available (and there must have been around 20 different kinds!), especially one of the cheesecakes, which was up there with some of the best I've ever had. But I digress.

The Diamond Alumni Centre is one of my favourite secret spots, and not only is their paella super-tasty, it's also one of the least-expensive in the Lower Mainland.

Sadly, I don't think that paella is a regular menu item anymore. I know that the DAC still serves it, because a menu from a Mexican-themed lunch buffet it had back in May listed "Spanish paella" as one of the entrees, but I'd call to check whether or not and when it's available.

I've had paella at La Bodega Restaurant (1277 Howe Street) as well, which neither I nor my dining companion liked. Although the restaurant is known as one of Vancouver's most authentic Spanish tapas places, we found its paella to be dry and unflavourful, with only a small amount of seafood. To the left is a photo of La Bodega's "Paella de la Casa" from its website.

The only thing I liked about the paella was the price -- I remember that it wasn't too expensive -- maybe around $10.95? Back when I had it, reviews described La Bodega's paella as "lacklustre" and "oversalty"; however, I've also seen other reviews that have been more positive, so it wouldn't hurt to try it yourself, as it's quite affordable.

To get a more holistic view of Vancouver's paella offerings, I looked through reviews of pretty much every restaurant serving paella in the Lower Mainland. Sadly, I haven't found one place that garners consistently good reviews about its paella.

Here are some of my findings:
  • Latin Quarter (1305 Commercial Drive): Apparently, their $45 paella (meant for two people) is their house special. Here's what one reviewer from Feb. 2007 had to say: "Disappointing -- flavourless -- boring!! ... My partner and I shared the paella which is their signature dish -- which I guess at $42 [old price] just means it's the dinner with the most profit in it for them. Mussels undercooked, shrimp overcooked, rice flavourless, empty clam shells -- If they think that's how paella is meant to taste they had better go back to cooking school -- I won't go on -- but I definitely won't be going back to this sham of a restaurant. I think enough said about this place -- you have been warned! There are plenty of great choices on The Drive but this one is certainly not one of them." Later reviews and comments all appear to show that nothing has improved over time.
  • Baru Latino (2535 Alma St.): Their $20 "Paella Classical" consists of "Spanish chorizo, mussels, prawns, chicken and halibut, rice, fresh cilantro and smoky tomato salsa, served with homemade flatbread. One reviewer from May 2008 commented that "... Baru's paella tasted more like jambalaya than it did paella."
  • Me & Julio (2095 Commercial Drive): Their $18.25 paella consists of "smoked chicken, red wine poached chorizo, poblano peppers and fresh local seafood steamed in a spicy tomato and saffron stew, [accompanied with?] crispy chili plantains." Of the many reviews I found on it, none made it sound particularly good:
  1. From May 2009: "The paella entree was probably the weakest of the items we chose. However, my dear husband liked it. It had nice, fresh seafood and decent flavour -- I just found it had too much broth for my liking."
  2. From August 2008: "The food is good, but I must say I was a bit underwhelmed each time. On my dinner visit we tried the tortilla soup (sopa de tortilla) and paella –- both which were a bit light on the spices..."
  3. From May 2008: "[the paella] was bland and uninteresting. It seemed to cry out for salt, but at the same time one knew that would simply change it, not improve it."

Other restaurants that have had mixed or no reviews about their paella include --
  • Chivana Restaurant Bar Lounge (2340 West 4th Avenue): They have two kinds of paella. Their Havana-style paella ($21) is a "fresh mixture of shrimp, chorizo sausage, scallops, black tiger prawns, chicken, mussels and daily catch with saffron, pineapple and lime, coconut sauce", while their vegetarian paella ($14) is a "fresh mixture of green peas, broccolini, sugar snaps, snow peas, baby carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and saffron, pineapple and lime coconut sauce."
  • Century Restaurant & Bar (432 Richards St.): Their $18 Spanish paella consists of "saffron rice, halibut, mussels, clams, prawns, seasoned chicken, chorizo sausage, lemon, green peas, and sweet peppers."
  • Senhor Rooster Restaurant and Catering (850 Renfrew St.): This Portuguese Restaurant serves paella that's a whopping $29.95 -- a "rice casserole with mussels, clams, prawns, pork, chicken, and chorizo."
  • Senova Restaurant (1864 West 57 Avenue): This Portuguese and Spanish restaurant dishes up seafood paella every Sunday. From the description of the Spanish paella they served during their Spring Paella Festival this May, it likely consists of "clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, chicken, chorizo and porti."
Senova's owner and sommelier, Manuel Ferreira, was invited to prepare paella for EAT! Vancouver 2009's International Culinary Stage -- which might indicate that Senova's paella should be particularly good -- but I haven't found a single review that mentions Senova's take, except the following review, which also discusses Senhor Rooster's paella:

"I have heard really good things about the food [at Senhor Rooster] from some of my friends. It's not the greatest 'hood but not bad. I also heard that he will make things that are not on the menu if you call ahead and a friend of mine says that the Paella there is fabulous (you have to call ahead for it I think) which is great as someone else told me they were really disappointed in the Paella at Senova. Having said that, isn't Paella a Spanish dish?"

La Masia (19209 Fraser Highway) also serves paella, though you won't find it on the menu. A Spanish friend of a colleague of mine said that the paella there was very good and was authentically made by a Spanish family, so I emailed them about it, and here's what they had to say: "We serve paella when people ask for it when they come for dinner; we make it for two people or more; it is a seafood and chicken paella and it is $30.00 per person."

In the end, I still recommend trying the paella at the Diamond Alumni Centre. I can vouch for its great taste, and it meets all of J's criteria: It's moderately priced, set in a great atmosphere (with a gorgeous view), and delivers great value.

Now that you have a list of the great majority of places serving paella in the city, you can try whatever sounds good to you.

If you have a favourite paella place or have had a poor paella experience, let us know.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Menu review: Marcello Pizzeria and Ristorante

I don't normally make repeat visits to restaurants. Usually, it's never as good the next time I try it, and if I didn't like it, it doesn't get any better -- even if I really, really want it to be.

So I was a bit skeptical about giving Marcello Pizzeria & Ristorante (1404 Commercial Drive) a second shot, as I wasn't impressed by it the first time I went, despite having heard very good things about it (both from a friend and from online reviews).

Marcello is known as one of the best pizza places in the city -- apart from Lombardo's Pizzeria and Ristorante (1641 Commercial Drive, and 970 Smithe St.). Lombardo's and Marcello actually used to be owned by the same guy -- Marcello Lombardo -- until his ex-wife was awarded Lombardo's as part of their divorce settlement. Apparently, Lombardo wasn't a very honest guy: "... Lombardo had secretly skimmed almost $300,000 from his previous Commercial Drive restaurant, Lombardo's Restaurant and Pizzeria, which he ran with his wife Patricia for years before they separated. Marcello used $200,000 of the money to start Marcello Pizzeria a few blocks away in 1999, the judge found earlier."

Both places have pretty similar menus, and both use wood-burning ovens, though I'm sure Lombardo's oven can't be as cool as the one at Marcello (see below).

The first time I went, my friends S, K, and I split a medium pizza ($13.95). We had one that was half "Marcello" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies, black olives, capers, and onion -- see below for another blogger's pic of this pizza), and half "Palermo by Night" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, salame, inferno sauce, and baking cheese -- see below for yet another blogger's image of this pizza type).
I was intrigued by the anchovies (which I had never had on a pizza before, and which ended up tasting pretty much like sardines) and the baking cheese. We had one slice of each kind of pizza apiece, and they were good, but unmemorable.

We also shared a small "al quattro formaggi" gnocchi ("traditional Italian home-made potato & egg dumplings sauteed with 4 mouth-watering cheeses and broiled to perfection"; $12.95). I can't find anything that looks exactly like it, but if you picture the gnocchi below without the black specks, with more uniform shapes (a rectangular/squarish, tubular shape) and a whiter sauce, you'll get an approximation of what it looks like.

It was the first time I had ever tried gnocchi, and I was excited, because a friend who had eaten at Marcello had said it was really good. Unfortunately, none of my dining party particularly liked it, although we all agreed that it was interesting. It was just okay, and very rich (we had quite a bit of it wrapped up, since we had to save room for some dessert on the Drive!).

Fortunately, today's meal at Marcello was one of the few times when my second dining experience was much better than the first; from appetizer to dessert, it was all delicious.

I let my dining companion, the talented writer DB, lead the way with the ordering, since he's dined at Marcello many times, and has lived in Venice (though he's not Italian). We started with a red wine and an "insalate pomodoro e cipolla" (a tomato and onion salad with gorgonzola dressing; $9.95).

I actually enjoyed the wine, which surprised me, since I generally don't like reds; I don't know what kind we had though -- from an online list of their wine offerings, it may have been a "Tommasi, Amarone, Veneto".

It's too bad that I can't find any pictures that come close to capturing the salad, because it didn't look any other I've ever seen before (apart from when DB made it during a dinner party, with boccocini instead of gorgonzola cheese). Basically, it was three huge wheels of juicy tomato with gorgonzola cheese smeared on top, on thick white rings of onion, submerged in a pool of balsamic vinegar, with one slice of some of the tastiest foccacia (normally 95 cents for one slice) I've ever had. I'm glad DB suggested it, since I never would have thought to order it, as it sounded quite boring on paper. I did find a pic of one of Marcello's caesar salads, however, with a wedge of foccacia on the side (see below).

Next came the pizza ("thin-crust pizza baked to perfection in [Marcello's] wood-burning oven"). DB was adament that we stay away from the half-and-half option -- stating that it was something introduced for Americans -- so we stuck with a single option and shared a medium "al due formaggi" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, salame, baking cheese, and mushrooms).

It was one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. I think it had a lot to do with the baking cheese -- DB explained to me what it was but I can't remember anymore, so maybe he'll comment and let us know what it is if he ends up reading this. The Palermo by Night I'd ordered the first time I came to Marcello was supposed to have had baking cheese on it, but I don't think I'd had any on my slice. I feel gypped now that I've actually tried some.

Baking cheese is sooooooooooo yummy. I don't know how to describe it, but it's even better than mozzarella. I wish it had been more evenly distributed on the pizza, as one of the slices on our pie today didn't have any baking cheese on it either.

I can't find a shot of the exact pizza we had, but it looked as good as the professional shot of a Marcello pizza featured below. The crust, toppings, and everything looked and tasted soooo good, and DB thinks it's because we ordered our food right when the lunch rush ended (after 1:30pm), which gave the chef time to get our pie just right.

That's something to keep in mind if you decide to head to Marcello -- the first time I went was during a busy Saturday night; sometimes it pays to eat later during the day.

Our waitress asked if we wanted dessert, telling us that the tiramisu (it's called something else on the dessert menu, but I don't remember the exact name; $9.95) was amazing. Since they were all out of their white chocolate dessert (boo!), and I'd never had an authentic tiramisu before, we split one.

It didn't look like the cake I was expecting -- it came in a wine glass, and consisted of two layers of marscapone with chunks of lady fingers in between, soaked in Frangelico at the bottom of the glass. It didn't have the sprinkling of cocoa on top that I've come to associate with tiramisu. It was very good -- better than all the other tiramisus I've ever tried -- but I wasn't blown away. DB pronounced it very good. I would not recommend getting one on your own, as it's extremely rich.

Along with dessert, DB had an expresso and a grappa, and I had a caffe mocha. DB thinks that there's nothing like a coffee and grappa to end off a meal.

Grappa is "a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of Italian origin, made by distilling pomace and grape residue (mainly the skins, but also stems and seeds) left over from winemaking after pressing... It was originally made to prevent waste by using leftovers at the end of the wine season... [and in] Italy is primarily served as a 'digestivo' or after-dinner drink."

DB let me take two sips of his grappa (which I'd never even heard of until today), and it was really interesting -- it felt like drinking liquid echinacea, making my nose tingle -- and left a pleasant aftertaste.

The mocha was okay, but I wish it had tasted more strongly of chocolate, because I couldn't detect a hint of it in my drink -- to be fair, I think that the taste of coffee seems to overwhelm my tastebuds whenever I have it, regardless of what it's mixed with.

Overall, it was an excellent lunch -- DB pronounced it as being perhaps the best lunch he's had in years.

Contrary to the dinehere reviews I saw just before my meal, the service we got was excellent, our pizza was perfect, and I was very happy with all aspects of my meal.

My second experience was more in line with those of Yelp reviewers and the people on tripadvisor.com, which is a good thing.

DB tells me that the pizza at Lombardo's is actually better (their pizza options sure look more intriguing), while Marcello is better for the ambience.

This post on which place has better pizza seems to favour Marcello.

I'd say try them both yourself. I still need to try Lombardo's!

Note: I just remembered something not so great about our otherwise fabulous meal -- we found a hair on our pizza plate, and since neither I nor DB have short brown hair, I don't think it was from us. Hmm...

If you've had anything at Marcello and/or Lombardo's, let us know what you thought -- and if you know of an even better pizza place, be nice and share your pizza-expertise, please! :)