What's the most exciting food city in the Pacific Northwest? I'd tell you, but I'd be run out of town on a rail.
What’s the most exciting food city in the Pacific Northwest? I’d tell you, but I’d be run out of town on a rail. Luckily that rail is within whistling distance of my front door, the Amtrak train headed north for Vancouver, B.C. “Come eat!” it tempts. “What are you waiting for, an invitation?”
I jumped at the chance when the boss said “Go North!” to sample Vancouver’s multicultural menu. The sun was setting as I headed to Vancouver on a cold recent evening to meet my pal Abbie, who was flying in from New Mexico to join me on a professional food-lover’s holiday.
It will be tough to get a table at top-drawer Vancouver restaurants such as West or Tojo’s during the Olympic Games in mid-February — but the Olympics last only two weeks and you can indulge any other time.
A taste of South Asia
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Rather than explore Punjabi Market — the blocks-long stretch of South Vancouver that’s a magnet for the region’s quarter million Indo-Canadians with many sweet shops, restaurants and cafes — we headed to the South Granville area, just south of downtown, for a taste of the subcontinent at Vij’s.
Owner Vikram Vij is an international legend whose estrogen-fueled kitchen is operated entirely by Punjabi women. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find a crowd of locals in the queue outside his intimate bistro. They’re waiting for the doors to open at 5:30 p.m. when they’ll be ushered in to consult the brief menu while enjoying complimentary chai, pooris and pakoras. “Have the Lamb Popsicles!” urged the friendly stranger who chatted us up outside, insisting that Vij’s no-reservations policy extends to the rich and famous who also adore those lamb chops on the bone.
Instead, we opted for a “Punjabi Heart Attack,” a famously rich spoonful of chopped cashews mixed with paneer and ghee. My heart also skipped a beat for the artichoke-like jackfruit with cumin and cardamom, and Rajasthani-style goat curry.
Latecomers stood in the adjacent bar sipping India Pale Ale and waiting for a table, while others gave up and went next door to Rangoli, Vij’s casual cafe-sibling and take-out shop.
Vancouver offers many ways to celebrate world flavors, but it’s a sense of regional purpose — defined by a focus on ingredients locally farmed, fished, foraged or finessed — that gives the city’s finer-dining venues license to thrill with their West Coast cuisine. Among those that do it best is Vij’s South Granville neighbor, West.
Kin to downtown’s Italian CinCin, Yaletown’s seafood-centric Blue Water Café and Whistler’s Araxi, West is built with the clean lines of a French brasserie, yet distinctive for its regional bent and superior service.
Here, chef-exec Warren Geraghty paints the town well-fed with his four-star productions. Marquee status extends to a tower of freshest Dungeness crab and saffron couscous that was equal parts glamour and flavor, and to seafood chowder whose B.C. bounty (a delicate tidepool of scallops, spot prawns and sablefish) arrived with golden sea urchin astride a crouton canoe.
West’s marble-topped bar, backed by a temperature-controlled wine wall, is hosted by mixological magician David Wolowidnyk, whose top-shelf team takes their ice cubes, elixirs and haute hooch to a reverential level — though they take themselves far less seriously. Ask where they’d go to knock one back and they’ll direct you to drinkeries in downtown’s Gastown neighborhood like the Diamond, the Pourhouse or Salt (known for its careful pairings of wine, charcuterie and cheeses). Ask where you should soak up the aftereffects of a night on the town and they’ll sing in chorus: CaféMedina — in the micro-neighborhood between Gastown and Yaletown.
Café Medina to Japadog
Built as the daytime adjunct to next-door-neighboring restaurant and lounge Chambar, Café Medina made me reconsider my long-standing grudge against breakfast. The brunch bunch crowded its skinny front room, spilling out onto the sidewalk as I added my name to list hanging just inside the front door. This bought time to head down the block to the third venture in this tastemaker’s triumvirate: the Dirty Apron, a sleek new cooking school and retail shop co-owned by Karri and Nico Schuermans.
In Medina’s brick-lined rear dining room, seated elbow-to-elbow with locals quick to share laughs and travel tips, I marveled over my lavender-scented latte, a Belgian waffle with fig-orange marmalade and “Les Boulettes” — judiciously spiced Moroccan meatballs served in a cast-iron skillet with poached eggs.
From here, you’re not too far from Chinatown. And while it’s no secret that Vancouver’s scruffy Chinatown now plays second fiddle to the bright and shiny Chinese metropolis that is suburban Richmond, for me, the pull of the original remains strong. That said, having just eaten at Richmond’s grand, multistoried dim sum mecca Shiang Garden — easily the best dim sum I’ve had (take that New York and San Francisco!) I’m finally throwing over my old Vancouver favorite, the classic dim sum parlor, Pink Pearl, just east of Chinatown.
In Chinatown, Abbie and I paid the obligatory visit to Hon’s Wun-Tun House for wonton noodles, whose tasteless chicken broth was nowhere as good as I remember it. We searched for a lid for my wok (found among the dim aisles of Tinland Cookware) and frequented one of the touristy tchotchke-shops where I found a pair of fuzzy Japanese Domo slippers for my son.
Oh, how I wish he’d had been along to see the look on my face the next day when we visited Japan — via downtown’s street-cart sensation, Japadog, parked across the street from Vancouver’s classic French restaurant, Le Crocodile. Which, I’m happy to report, remains a standard-bearer for those willing to pay a steep price for homard à la vapeur. Can’t pay the French freight for lobster? Step right up for Japadog’s best-selling Kurobuta Terimayo.
A bargain at $6.75, that hot “dog” (one of many on offer here on the corner of Burrard and Smithe streets) is made from prized Berkshire pork, squiggled with teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayo and showered with dried seaweed. A second Japadog keeps the customers satisfied at Burrard and Pender, and a restaurant-style outlet is opening soon on Robson Street.
Tube steaks notwithstanding, Japan’s big dog in B.C. goes by another name: Tojo’s.
Hidekazu Tojo is the mastermind behind Vancouver’s premier Japanese restaurant, beloved since it opened in 1988. Today he’s ensconced in capacious new quarters — a dual-level dining room on West Broadway where his omakase-only sushi bar fronts a well-staffed open kitchen and his premier dining experience costs upward of $100 a head.
On my first visit to Tojo’s new digs, shortly after the 2007 move, I was disappointed by dismissive service, courtesy of the chef himself. Yet then, and again last month, I enjoyed omakase, a parade of hot and cold dishes including creative presentations of sashimi and maki (rolled sushi) and smoky sablefish “gift-wrapped” in parchment, its raffia ribbon untied to perfume the air with matsutake-scented broth. Less impressive was an indelicate mess of sea urchin baked in its shell and an air of ennui that pervaded the master’s ministrations, though the same cannot be said of his welcoming minions.
Next time I’m taking the sage advice of friends who insist my money’s better spent at one of the city’s growing number of izakayas, the Japanese pubs gaining popularity across North America. But I’ll hand it to Tojo for turning me on to something truly special: Granville Island’s resident sake maker, Masa Shiroki.
Granville Island’s delights
Shiroki’s tiny brewery and tasting room is tucked among the mini galleries and crafts shops under the sign Artisan Sake Maker — and set to expand along Railspur Alley this spring. While he someday hopes to cultivate his own rice in B.C., today Shiroki’s small-batch premium sakes, brewed with carefully polished rice imported from Japan, offer distinctive flavors you’ll want to carry home with you.
This sake lover was duty bound to declare a bottle of Osake junmai nama at the U.S. border (a bargain at $27). But what I really wanted to bring home was the entire contents of Granville Island’s Public Market stalls! The market, on the mini-island on the south side of downtown’s False Creek, is a one-stop food fantasy offering an A to Z extravaganza of unimaginable treats, from A La Mode’s potpies and Cornish pasties to Zara’s Italian Deli’s vibrantly colored ravioloni.
I sighed over Siegel’s Bagels and Lee’s Donuts, where I found my not-so-hole-y grail — my childhood favorite: “real” Bavarian cream-stuffed doughnuts. And I’m still dreaming of Dussa’s Ham & Cheese (double-smoked Danish bacon and triple-smoked German speck!) and Oyama Sausage Company’s myriad meats (chorizo, prosciutto, guanciale).
You’ll find a cornucopia of condiments, jams, chocolates and other locally produced specialty foods packed for easy travel at Edible British Columbia. And if you’re lucky, you’ll also find owner-chef Eric Pateman at his stall, readily answering questions about fortifying yourself — and your larder. He also offers Market tours, ticketed in advance.
On my last day in town I headed to the Kitsilano neighborhood (that’s “Kits” to the locals, eh?), home to such culinary lights as Refuel (formerly Fuel), Lumiere and DB Bistro Moderne, an outpost of Daniel Boulud’s New York bastion of foie-stuffed burgers.
I came with a single mission: to bring home “a dozen assorted” for my friend Clint, whose Vancouver addictions include Notte’s Bon Ton Pastry & Confectionary, beloved for its French pastries and famous for its Diplomat cake. Sadly, it was closed on Sundays.
But it was here on the main drag in Kits (think Queen Anne Hill, only flatter) that I found Minerva’s Mediterranean Deli.
Minerva’s is the Greek-accented answer to Seattle’s Pacific Food Importers, and I found Minerva herself working the grill behind her deli counter.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, Greek TV playing in the background and customers drinking Greek coffee with their eggs at cafe tables upfront.
“Thirty-eight years!” she said, in an accent as thick as her garlicky tsatziki, dished up along with a chubby bundle of stuffed grape leaves, two skewers of pork souvlaki and side of warm pita, God forbid I should go hungry on the way back to Seattle.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read her blog, go to www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat