Dim sum at Kirin Restaurant- Vancouver, BC Canada

Dim sum is one of the most beautiful and delicious culinary traditions that brings people together, turning an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning into an extraordinary magical weekend.  The Cantonese tradition of dim sum began in southern China as yum cha 飲茶, which means to ‘drink tea’, with road side tea houses offering a relaxing cup of tea for weary travelers on the ancient Silk Road.  Over the centuries, it has evolved from a quiet moment of rest and refuge into a fast-paced fun morning of crowds, conversations and consumption.  The high level of energy is everywhere, in the hoards of hungry patrons, in the numbers shouted through the microphone, in the trolleys that weave through the dining hall and in the speed of the multi-tasking waiters who replenish your teapot.

Outside of Hong Kong, one of the best cities to enjoy dim sum is Vancouver, which boasts one of the world’s largest Chinese populations per capita.  The city offers an amazing diversity of Chinese cuisine, from Szechuan to Taiwanese to Hunan, but due to the predominantly Cantonese population, Cantonese cuisine reigns supreme.  Most of these restaurants are south of Vancouver in the heart of Richmond, a large Chinese community, but we found a precious gem called Kirin Restaurant in the heart of downtown Vancouver.

Open since 1987, Kirin has become a successful chain with 4 other locations around the city. Unlike traditional dim sum restaurants, the atmosphere at Kirin is more tranquil, reflecting the tea drinking yum cha origins of the ritual.  There are no ear piercing microphone announcements of your waiting list number, there is ample space between each table, and there are no trolleys charging your way.  The absence of trolleys definitely take away from the dim sum experience, but it’s reassuring to know that each dish is made fresh to order.

Large steamed prawn and chive dumplings were meaty, plump and delicious. The benefits of made-to-order were clearly evident in the doughy dumpling skins made from rice flour, which would normally fall apart after being in the trolleys all morning.

Dumplings, or gao, are perhaps the most beloved of all dim sum plates.  Shrimp har gau made with whole shrimp wrapped in translucent skin and cylindrical siu mai stuffed with pork are standard players.  We opted for the steamed prawn, scallop and sweet corn dumplings, big purses of savory delight.

Though originally Shanghainese, steamed pork soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, have become regulars on dim sum menus. The art of making the perfect xiao long bao is a complex one, but the version at Kirin, with the perfect ratio of juice to pork, was one which was worthy of satisfying any critic.

Steamed pork spareribs in XO spicy sauce were tender, succulent and melt-in-your-mouth perfect.

Steamed preserved meat in Chinese radish pudding made with dried shrimp and shredded preserved pork had a comforting and delicate flavor.

Northern Chinese style jiaozi dumplings (steamed and then pan-fried) surprised us all when we bit into these giant packages of savory meat and hot juice squirted across the table.   Without a doubt the star player of the morning, these dumplings were incredibly delicious.

Dim sum is not complete without a hefty serving of chicken feet, or phoenix talons (鳳爪 fung zao) deep fried to puff them up, then boiled, marinated in black bean sauce and steamed.  These lovely flavorful limbs were served on a bed of steamed pork tripe.

Beef tendon braised in spicy sauce jiggled with collagenous bounce and succulent flavor.

Shark fin dumpling in a wonderful bowl of consommé was the perfect dish to complete the savory meal.

Kirin’s mango pudding with condensed milk had generous cubes of sweet mango.

Warm black sesame rice balls topped with crushed peanuts and sugar oozed with molten sweet richness wrapped inside a pillow of soft doughy goodness.

I love the organized chaos of dim sum- the quick pour of hot tea, the rapid-fire ordering of food, the piping hot bamboo steamers that descend onto the table like the dramatic opening act of an opera, the shuffling of dumplings and chicken feet across plates, the swift distribution of condiments along the circumference of the table, the laughter and conversation that escalate as the feast reaches its climax.  Every person, like a worker ant, becomes a team player in tackling the joyous banquet, and by the end of the carnage every morsel of meat has been cleaned and every dish has been emptied- only bones and satisfying sighs remain.  The success of the culinary celebration can be seen on the tablecloth in the brown splatters of XO sauce, loose black beans that slipped out of a careless chopstick grip, bright red chili oil splotches and a spilt tea stain slowly spreading across the table, still warm.  Ah, the beauty of dim sum.

Kirin Restaurant

102-1166 Alberni Street
Vancouver, BC V6E 3Z3, Canada
(604) 682-8833

Random trivia:  Did you know that the name XO sauce comes from fine XO (extra-old) cognac?  This cognac, which represents high quality, prestige and luxury, is especially popular in Hong Kong.


Thomas Haas Patisserie – Vancouver, BC Canada

Love is the most beautiful of dreams and the worst of nightmares’

– William Shakespeare

Love, oh love, how dark, bitter and semisweet thou can be, but chocolate, I prefer thee exactly that way. As bars, truffles, fudge and cake, no person can resist the allure of chocolate. From ancient Mayan civilization to modern 21st century times, the cacao bean has been an object of seduction, temptation and satisfaction. Processing, blending, tempering, decorating and molding is not as easy as one thinks, and it takes a true artisan to master the complex craft of chocolate making. I had the privilege of meeting one such chocolatier in Vancouver, once during dinner at Le Crocodile and the following day at his newly opened patisserie and café in Kitsilano.

Born and raised in Germany as a fourth generation Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was destined to follow in his great grandfather’s footsteps. His great grandfather opened Café Conditorei Haas in 1918 in the Black Forest village of Aichhalden, Germany. After graduating from school, Thomas went on to work at several Michelin starred restaurants in Europe before settling in Vancouver for his first executive pastry chef position at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was shortly after working alongside Daniel Boulud as Executive pastry chef to open the famed Michelin starred restaurant Daniel in New York that Thomas exploded onto the scene, winning numerous competitions and awards for his creations. He now runs 2 namesake patisseries in Vancouver, the original location in North Shore and the newest addition in the trendy neighborhood of Kitsilano, which happens to be right next door to Daniel Boulud’s restaurant db Bistro and Lumière.

Thomas Haas patisserie and café in Kitsilano is one of the few places in the world where you can buy handcrafted artisanal chocolates and pastries, and also enjoy it with a cup of coffee or tea. On any given day, you will see Thomas behind the counter, serving viennoiserie, packing chocolate truffles and working the cash register while answering questions and giving recommendations to customers with a friendly smile. For a busy konditormeister and restaurateur, it’s nice to see that he is so involved with the front of the house and extremely approachable. He even came over to our table with complimentary macaroons and took the time to chat with us about all of his beautiful creations.

Thomas Haas’ signature dish is the dark chocolate ganache with pecan, caramel and Brittany fleur de sel, but his silky dark chocolate ganaches with fruit flavors like cassis, rasperry, lime cachaça, lychee and passion fruit are also famous. Perfect little balls of chocolate truffles made with Jamaican rum and matcha are tantalizing, as well as his elegant pastries like raspberry financier and pistachio sour cherry tart. He doesn’t stop there- chewy caramels, pâtes de fruits, chocolate sparkle cookies in the freezer that you take home and bake, chocolate bars that come in several flavors and cocoa percentages (I love the dark chocolate rooibos-rose and milk chocolate chai), and hot chocolate made with Valrhona chocolate that come in gorgeous tins (the Aztec with chipotle and ancho chile has even made a guest appearance in a foie gras appetizer in one of my previous dinners).

Manjari chocolate cake with manjari chocolate mousse and rum crème brûlée with a cup of vanilla rooibos tea was seductively rich and subtly sweet with a slight hit of smooth rum, and the perfect dessert to follow our burger lunch at db Bistro. The white chocolate wedge printed with the Thomas Haas logo was a cute touch.

Cassis, chocolate, vanilla and passion fruit macarons were an absolute delight, and some of the best macarons that I have ever had, rivaling the Pierre Hermé, Fauchon and Ladurée versions that I have had in Paris. A perfect crunchy outermost layer, deceptively thin, that gives way much easier than expected to a moist meringue that collapses around the flavor packed center filling. The passion fruit is my favorite, as the filling is made with the perfect balance of sweet and tart, but they’re all light and soft with a clean finish.

Thomas Haas’ award winning chocolates and pastries in Vancouver are absolutely worth the trip, and Thomas makes the visit even more worthwhile by creating a unique atmosphere for those who want to stay for a cup of coffee and scrumptious pastries. His North Shore store, which houses the main kitchen, is constructed to look like the inside of a chocolate box. The Kitsilano location takes a more scientific approach to its decor, where the door frame is inscripted with the molecular structure of theobromine, the primary alkaloid found in cocoa and chocolate, and the mirrored ceiling tiles represent the structure of this chocolate molecule.

Love can be dark and bittersweet, but Thomas Haas’ dark and bittersweet chocolate creations will make you forget about lost loves and make everything just perfect.

Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates and Patisserie

Kitsilano store:

2539 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC V6K 2E9, Canada
(604) 736-1848

Random trivia: Did you know that chocolate contains over 1500 flavor components? Just like coffee or wine, chocolate has many different flavors due to complex layering of distinctive notes like cinnamon, tobacco, berries and rose. The origins of the beans (Ghana, Jamaica and Venezuela, for example), process of fermentation, soil and roasting process all contribute to distinct subtleties in flavors, which is one of the reasons why chocolate pairs with wine so well.

DB Bistro Modern- Vancouver, BC Canada

Vancouver is no longer just a destination for nature lovers and winter athletes.  The city is quickly gaining a reputation for being a culinary mecca where the diversity of cuisine ranges from Japanese hot dogs and chic wine bars to innovative Belgian fare and traditional French dining.  With more internationally acclaimed chefs opening restaurants and cafes, the dining scene in Vancouver is rapidly evolving.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a successful Canadian outpost called Market, bringing his sophisticated style of cuisine to the west coast.  A stiff competitor to this world renowned chef is another award winning Michelin star French chef Daniel Boulud, most famous for his namesake restaurant Daniel in New York which is considered one of the best restaurants in the world.

Like Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud has his feet firmly planted in New York where he runs Daniel, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, Café Boulud, db Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud while spreading his talents abroad in cities like Palm Beach, London, Beijing and Las Vegas (Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas just closed a few months ago).  He is the author of several cookbooks, a successful restaurateur and a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, an honor granted to him by the French government for his contribution to the culinary arts. There is no stopping this power house, who now boasts 2 Canadian outposts to his résumé.

In December of 2008, Boulud opened 2 restaurants on West Broadway in the trendy upscale neighborhood of Kitsilano- db Bistro Moderne, the casual sister restaurant to its Manhattan original, and Lumière, a Grand Chef Relais & Chateaux restaurant that offers upscale fine dining.  Rather than to sit through a long dinner at Lumière, which I would love to do on another trip, we opted to try db Bistro Moderne for a casual relaxed lunch that would comply with our busy itinerary.  Chef de Cuisine Nathan Guggenheimer oversees the kitchen here where French bistro food is given a Pacific Northwest twist with fresh local seafood and seasonal produce.

Prix fixe lunches are one way to go, where country pork terrine, coq au vin and rhubarb sundae can be had for a reasonable price, but I wanted a db burger and one of their tarte flambées, their specialités de la maison.  We started our à la carte lunch with the spring greens salad, a mixture of radishes, carrots and mesclun tossed in creamy hazelnut dressing over yellow beet carpaccio.

Wild mushroom and barley soup, topped with an earthy mushroom foam, was filled with generous juicy chunks of porcini, morel and crimini mushrooms.  It was the perfect medium for dipping their various breads, especially the airy focaccia and buttery baguettes.

The highlight of the lunch was the BC spot prawn plate, succulent sweet local crustaceans at the peak of their short season.  The prawns, served with shaved fennel, garlic and parsley, were so fresh that we spent our time carefully sucking out all of the savory innards from each prawn head.  Table manners weren’t an issue, as all of the adjacent tables were enjoying the sweet prawns with equally loud slurping noises.

db Bistro Moderne offered 4 types of tarte flambées, crispy Alsatian flatbreads, for lunch- wild mushrooms, smoked bacon & onion, smoked bacon & Gruyere, and smoked bacon & snails.  We couldn’t resist ordering the snail flatbread, which was delicate in presentation yet full of wonderful flavors.  The thin flatbread was sensationally crisp and light, with the meaty escargot dancing in a sensuous tango with the smokey bacon.

As much as I love burgers and the New York dining scene, I was still a DB Burger virgin, uninitiated to the famous mound of juicy meat and decadent ingredients that has become somewhat of a legend.  I was hoping for the full monty, the couture version with foie gras in the center, but the ‘original DB Burger’ offered here at the Vancouver outpost came sans foie.  A juicy patty of sirloin filled with red wine braised short ribs and black truffle served on a parmesan and poppy seed bun with oven roasted tomato confit, red onions, horseradish, fresh tomatoes and frisée fell short of my expectations, but the crispy pommes frites were superb.

db Bistro Moderne is a great place for a casual yet delicious meal that will please Kitsilano shoppers, business lunchers, romantic dates and hungry gourmands alike.  It may be wise to forego the burger in lieu of their crispy flatbreads and anything that features fresh catches from the local waters, but you really can’t go wrong with any dish at this respected establishment.  The beautiful dining room is especially inviting during the day when the bright afternoon sun shines through their large windows.  For the ultimate splurge and special occasion, Lumière next door is the culinary jewel where you will find world class fine dining and exceptional service.

DB Bistro Moderne

2551 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC V6K 2E9, Canada
(604) 739-7115

Random trivia: Did you know that 98% of barley grown in the United States will never make it into your soup?  Almost half of the entire crop is used for brewing beer, and the majority of the remaining crop is used for feeding livestock.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar- Vancouver, BC Canada

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the famous saying goes, conveying the notion that visitors should respect and understand other cultures by following local customs and traditions, but when I travel, my motto is “When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.”  One of the best ways to enjoy travel is to indulge in local delicacies, regional specialties and seasonal foods- a trip to Japan is not complete without sushi, a stroll through Paris is meaningless without freshly baked buttery breads, Italy is not the same without a real homemade pasta dish, and delectable tapas washed down with vino tinto is a must in Spain.  On a recent trip to Vancouver in June, I was determined to have BC (British Columbia) spot prawns, which were at the peak of their harvest season, not to mention Canadian salmon, fresh oysters and other locally caught seafood.

There are many seafood establishments in Vancouver, given its obvious geographical location, but we opted for a casual night out at Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar in the trendy neighborhood of Yaletown.  Blue Water Cafe is housed in an old warehouse with red brick and wooden beam construction on Hamilton Street, a brick-paved sidewalk lined with hip boutiques, galleries and restaurants in what used to be Vancouver’s garment district.  Heading the kitchens of Blue Water cafe since 2003 is Executive Chef Frank Pabst, who has trained at Michelin-star rated restaurants in Germany and France, and sushi master Yoshi Tabo who tends to the raw bar.  Together they serve exceptional fresh seafood fare using wild and sustainable harvest seafood at this restaurant that is noted for being a founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program.

Fresh seafood is the clear attraction in this beautiful restaurant where diners come for the casual atmosphere and exceptional service in the large dining room decked out in rustic maritime decor.  Many were indulging in the Blue Water Cafe Seafood Tower, a three-tiered ocean extravaganza with oysters, prawns, tuna, clams, mussels, ceviche, smoked salmon, lobster and sushi rolls, paired with local BC Rieslings and Chardonnays, while others snuggled up to the sushi bar for sashimi and rolls.  We were lucky enough to snag the last serving of fresh BC spot prawns, served raw with soy sauce and wasabi.  These local crustaceans were saturated with sweetness and so plump that they had a nice sharp crunch on the bite.

My favorite way to enjoy prawn heads is a simple deep fry with a generous squeeze of citrus.  These BC spot prawns, which were swimming around in the tank until the minute before preparation, were some of the best that I’ve ever had, full of savory green tomalley and bright orange eggs that imparted an indescribable umami to each bite.  BC spot prawn harvest season begins in May and only lasts for 8 weeks, so we were extremely lucky in timing our trip to overlap with this season.  We missed the annual BC spot prawn festival which is held at False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf, and didn’t get to sample all of the spot prawn specialty dishes at famed local restaurants like Vij’s and C Restaurant, but this simple raw preparation of fresh prawns at Blue Water Cafe was enough to satisfy my cravings.

I was ecstatic to see a whole page dedicated to oysters on their menu, with selections heavily weighted on local BC bivalves and a few from Washington state and the East Coast.  Of course, we ordered a BC platter, starting with the small plump Kusshi oysters from Cortes Island with a smooth and soft buttery texture.  Going from smallest to largest, the next were the Black Pearls from Quadra Island with a light and refreshing lettuce finish.  The Effingham Inlets from Barkley Sound, plump oysters in long blond shells, had a stronger flavor with a briny finish.  Beach Angels from Read Island were my favorite with its plump fatty flesh and pleasant briny finish.  Marina’s Top Drawer from Cortes Island had a flatter shallow shell with sweet fruity flesh while Fanny Bays from Nanaimo Bay, usually my favorite type of oyster, had a disappointingly muddy taste.

Dungeness crab salad, shrimp cocktail, baked scallops, or smoked sockeye salmon terrine?  All of the seafood appetizers sounded wonderful, but we went with the Albacore tuna carpaccio, a spice crusted thinly sliced delicately flavored carpaccio presented as a Niçoise salad.  Sweet smokey roasted red peppers, crunchy haricot verts, sliced eggs, crunchy cucumbers, tart radish slices, salty kalamata olives and microgreens all dressed in a wonderful anchovy vinaigrette were the perfect complement to the locally caught white tuna.

All of their seafood entrees sounded divine, like the white sturgeon with chioggia beets, miso sake glazed sablefish and Arctic char with braised leeks and fennel.  Our server was enthusiastic about the special of the day, grilled wild salmon with romesco sauce and broccolini served on a bed of basmati rice, chorizo, squid and shellfish beurre blanc saffron sauce, and so were we.  There’s really nothing better than locally caught wild proteins prepared with simple ingredients that enhance their natural inherent flavors.

A trio of sorbets- an incredibly tart cassis, a sweet guava and a creamy banana- garnished with berries and sliced star fruit ended our wonderful seafood dinner at Bluewater Cafe.

There are an infinite number of seafood establishments in Vancouver that offer the local ocean’s bounty, from oyster shacks and Chinese dim sum carts, to sushi bars and harbor view fine dining restaurants.  With seafood so fresh and flavorful, you almost can’t go wrong at any seafood joint, but the Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar is a true gem where you can savor both Western and Eastern preparations of fish, crustaceans and bivalves in one sitting.  A leisurely after-dinner stroll along the brick-paved streets of Yaletown for people watching and window shopping is the perfect way to walk off a full and content belly.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar

1095 Hamilton Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 5T4, Canada
(604) 688-8078

Random trivia: Did you know that spot prawns are protandric hermaphrodites, born as and spending their first 2-3 years of life as males, then changing into females to lay eggs at the end of their life cycle?

Chambar – Vancouver, BC Canada

Civilized debauchery‘ is the catchphrase at Chambar, a sexy restaurant in Vancouver’s Gastown that has been going strong for the last 6 years, and for well deserved reasons.  Chef and owner Nico Schuermans and his wife Kari, who manages the front of house, have created a beautiful setting where diners can enjoy superb Belgian food and scrumptious Belgian ales.  Chef Schuermans was born in Rwanda, Africa, after which he moved back to his native Belgium with his family.  There, after graduating from culinary school, he worked at several Michelin starred restaurants like Comme Chez Soi, and subsequently moved around the world to London, Puerto Rico and Australia to further his culinary career.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to put Chambar on my list of restaurants to visit on a recent trip to Vancouver, as it kept coming up on my searches with excellent reviews.  Exceptional Belgian food with hints of North African influences, a breathtaking cocktail and Belgian beer selection, superb pastries from a rising pastry chef named Eleanor Chow, an inviting dining room and bar area dimly lit by glowing red lamps, attentive service, rotating modern art to adorn the brick exposed walls and a hip Vancouver crowd jiving to sensuous jazz music couldn’t paint a more perfect picture for a Saturday night in the city.  The large L-shaped restaurant with a lounge area in the front was completely packed with the beautiful people of Vancouver dining in this seductive and gorgeous ambiance. There was no pretentiousness though, from the moment we were warmly greeted by the house staff to the attentive and courteous service that we received all throughout the evening.

Chambar is not just a pretty restaurant with good food- they are 100% committed to reducing environmental impact by supporting local suppliers in sourcing regional seasonal ingredients, using Oceanwise-certified sustainable seafood, cleaning and reusing Chambar Ale bottles, and participating in recycling programs with food waste going to community garden composts.  They strive to be a carbon neutral restaurant by using all natural environmentally friendly cleaning products, using biodegradable corn products and cardboard in lieu of plastic for takeout containers and consistently utilizing post consumer recycled paper for menus, cocktail napkins and stationary.

Chambar’s Belgian Beer menu is quite impressive, offering lagers, witbiers, blonde ales, trappistes, lambics and dark ales.  I chose Triple Karmeliet, a smooth and robust blond ale with a sweet fruity finish, that went wonderfully with a starter of grilled green asparagus with sautéed morels, black peppercorns & truffled mayonnaise and crispy parmesan tuiles.  The grilled asparagus had an amazing fresh flavor, accented by the wonderful waft of truffle aroma that enveloped the soft chunks of morel mushrooms.

All of their Les Petit Plats sounded enticing, like seared scallops with smoked Kurobuta pork cheek, a bison carpaccio with truffles and a spiced foie gras terrine with port reduction, but we opted for a plate called ‘Les Tapas’ which came with 3 dishes, each filled with delicious surf and turf offerings.

Smoked sardines with basil, sun dried tomatoes and shaved red onions were tossed in a light vinaigrette that added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish.

My favorite was the pan seared shrimp and calamari tapas with aji vinaigrette, cubed red, yellow and green peppers and caraway seeds. The squid was perfectly cooked to a tender consistency, melting under the luscious aioli as the crunchy peppers imparted a delightful juicy textural contrast.

Generous meaty chunks of king oyster mushrooms were sautéed with smokey chorizo and garlic and garnished with a heap of sunflower sprouts.

La brochette d’autruche, grilled ostrich skewers served with pearl onions pickled in sweet balsamic glaze, marinated prunes, five-herb pesto, capers, pine nuts, sunflower sprouts and crisp potato chips was fantastic.  The tender morsels of ostrich tasted like lean beef and paired superbly with the vincotto sauce and all of the condiments that added differing degrees of texture and acidity to enhance the flavors of the meat.

Les grosses pièces offerings like the BC spot prawn taster, slow roasted pork tenderloin, spice rubbed duck breast and braised lamb shank with figs and honey all sounded tasty, but we decided on the entrecôte grillée d’Argentine, a grilled AAA ribeye steak with chimichurri sauce, charred tomatoes, chorizo, baby arugula, watercress and crispy polenta.  The ribeye was grilled to a perfect medium rare, so tender that we barely needed to use our knives to cut through the fatty piece of delicious meat.  This was one good steak.

Being a Belgian restaurant, the house specialty is moules frites, and they offer 3 types of mussels- Coquotte with white wine cream, smoked bacon lardons and spring onions, Vin Blanc with white wine butter, braised celery and leeks, and the Congolaise which we ordered, with tomato coconut cream, smoked chile, lime and fresh cilantro.  A huge deep pot of mussels came to our table, piled high with juicy briny mussels that tasted amazing with the spicy coconut sauce.

Robert Stelmachuk, Chambar’s sommelier who used to work at Le Crocodile, was particularly helpful and kind to us that evening, and showed us around the restaurant, explaining its history and food with great enthusiasm.  He arranged a dessert tasting menu for us, an incredible array of artistic desserts created by its resident superstar pastry chef, Eleanor Chow.  I had already heard about her desserts from my server at Bluewater Cafe who gushed about her work.  She started our dessert course with an amazing passion fruit parfait, made with lime sponge cake, passion fruit curd, passion fruit seeds, a smooth and silky passion fruit ice cream and crispy tuile on top.  This slightly tart and refreshing dessert was the one that made me swoon with ecstasy.

A light orange vanilla sorbet reminded me of Orange Julius, a drink that I adored as a child, and the vanilla custard cream, garnished with thin pear slices, was one of the most flavorful and decadent custards that I have ever had the pleasure of devouring.  It was a straightforward custard made with simple basic ingredients, yet somehow this pastry chef managed to take it to another level.

Crispy and light mille-feuille with cherry compote and chocolate ganache mousse were excellent as well.

We were so stuffed by the end of our meal that we got the homemade chocolates brownies and white chocolate truffles to go. Needless to say, it was gone before bedtime.

As if Chambar’s amazing food, stellar service and magnificent restaurant wasn’t already enough to keep us happy, Nico Schuermans spreads his love in so many other fruitful ways for us to engage in ‘civilized debauchery’.  Chef Schuermans’ delicious Belgian fare can also be enjoyed at the casual Cafe Medina next door along with Eleanor Chow’s Belgian waffles with accompaniments of compotes, caramels and chocolate sauces that are especially popular for weekend brunch.   In addition, both chefs teach their tricks of the trade at The Dirty Apron Cooking School, another project that they are involved with in the Gastown district of Vancouver.  Here you can learn snout to tail butchering, sinful desserts that come with free panties and even an opportunity to meet your future spouse over fig compote in any of their singles cooking classes.

Chambar Restaurant

562 Beatty Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 2L3, Canada
(604) 879-7119

Cafe Medina

The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Random trivia:  Did you know that most birds do not have a copulatory organ, but the ostrich does?  In fact, the male ostrich has a retractable one that can measure up to 8 inches long.  Civilized….debauchery….?

Salt Tasting Room- Vancouver, BC Canada

A cured meats restaurant in Gastown district with a street address named Blood Alley sounds suspicious, if not a bit scary, doesn’t it?  The hunt for Salt Tasting room, a charcuterie, cheese and wine restaurant in downtown Vancouver was in fact a tad hairy.  The 19th century architecture and heritage buildings that line the cobblestone streets of Gastown have a retained historic charm and old world spirit, but one step into a back alley or a dark street corner and you can experience skid row as Vancouverites saw it during the Depression.  Salt Tasting Kitchen, which opened in the summer of 2006, is located in an unmarked alley between Water Street and Cordova Street.  At first we circled round and around the area on bicycle, asking locals if they knew of Blood Alley, only to get a confused ‘no’.  As we walked our bicycles down the alley, winding through homeless people and drug addicts, we saw the majestic grey flag with a salt shaker motif hanging over the front door.  We had finally found it- but before entering the restaurant, we had to go back out the alley to find a safer place to park our rental bikes.

This haunting street, full of haunted street residents, used to be lined with butcher shops, hence the name Blood Alley for the bloody mess that would ensue after a day of animal butchering.  In addition, Blood Alley was a location for public executions in the late 19th century.  A most interesting place to serve sliced salami, trimmed beef tongue and shaved prosciutto; yet the discretely located Salt Tasting Room successfully creates a safe haven for foodies to congregate.

Salt Tasting Room specializes in artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and a vast selection of wines, sherries, ports, beers and spirits which go through a constant rotation.  They offer wines from Europe, Australia, Argentina and the US, but most of their line up celebrates local harvests from British Columbia, like Okanagan Falls and Similkameen Valley.  Any of their liquids can be enjoyed by the glass or bottle, and one can also sample a wider variety through their 2 ounce tasters and tasting flights.

The entire menu consists of cheeses, charcuterie and condiments that are written on the large chalkboard wall in the rear of the restaurant.  The decor is simple, just a few tables and chairs aside from the large communal wooden table by the entrance in a brick exposed wall space, as the emphasis is on food and wine.  Diners assemble a Tasting Plate by choosing cheeses, meats and condiments, which are supplemented by crackers and bread.  It’s a simple and straightforward way of dining, which is actually refreshing in this day and age of complex menu items that come with encyclopedic descriptions.

Many of the charcuterie items come from local producers with whom Salt Tasting Room has a close relationship, and cheeses come through select cheesemongers all over the world.  On the day that we visited, the 10 cheeses included a Red Leicester from the UK, a French Comte and a local BC cheese called Happy Days.  The cured meats ranged from a fennel salami from Moccia’s, Sec Maison from Oyama Sausage Co., and hot capicollo from JN & Z.  Needless to say, with such a wide selection of delicacies, we chose our cheese and cured meats and entrusted our server to pair them with the appropriate condiments.

Our Tyrolean speck, a salt-cured and cold smoked pork charcuterie, tasted like refined and slightly more fatty prosciutto.  I loved that it was sliced paper thin, which gave off more smokey perfumes to aerate my nasal passages.  It was paired with a nutty and sweet Spanish fig & walnut bread.

Cured beef tongue from Oyama Sausage Co. was just what the doctor ordered.  With a hint of smokiness in the background, these luscious cuts of fatty and tender tongue practically melted in my tongue, complemented with a hit of locally produced grainy Guinness mustard.

A classic and most flavorful Italian Toscano salami with fig from Moccia’s was paired with briny meaty Basque olives, a perfect companion to enjoy with my glass of Alvear’s CB brand of Fino Jerez sherry from Spain.

We wanted to try a local British Columbian cheese, and our server gushed about the Ash Camembert.  It was paired beautifully with the honey-like fruity sweetness of Spanish quince paste.

Customizing your own Tasting Platter and pairing it with wines is the general rule at Salt Tasting Kitchen, but diners who may feel incomplete without a little more grub can order salads, soups, grilled sandwiches (for lunchtime only) and desserts.  Chef Lee Humphries of The Irish Heather, a local gastropub, also provides handmade terrines and pâtés.

Salt Tasting Room has a large room in their basement called The Salt Cellar which houses a long communal table that opens to the public on Friday and Saturday nights.  Otherwise, it’s used for private functions, parties and wine tastings sponsored by local wine producers.  We got to take a quick tour of The Salt Cellar, a beautiful industrial space that also houses their meat curing room, encased by clear glass on all 4 sides to entice hungry and tipsy diners.  What a perfect space to gather friends for a dinner party, drinking wine and sampling cheeses while enjoying an unobstructed view of hanging salamis and pork legs.

Salt Tasting Room is open every day from noon till midnight, and an ideal place for quick nibbles, mid afternoon booze or late night eats.  With cheeses and charcuterie that change daily, you will never have the same plate of food here, and every experience will be a new journey into gourmet heaven.  Dare to take the adventurous and shady walk down Blood Alley to find this gorgeous restaurant where they’ll reserve your space with a name tag and a not-so-bloody piggy bank to welcome your arrival.

Salt Tasting Room

45 Blood Alley Square
Vancouver, BC V6B 0C4, Canada
(604) 633-1912

Open daily noon till midnight

Random trivia: Did you know that ancient texts and historians suggest that Eve’s fruit of temptation in the Garden of Eden may have been a quince, rather than an apple?

Market by Jean-Georges, Vancouver, BC Canada

What does an accomplished 3 Michelin star chef do after opening 9 successful restaurants in the US and just as many around the world?  Why, continue expanding of course.  Jean-Georges Vongerichten is unstoppable in every way, enlarging his empire beyond French fine dining and casual cafés, and boldly venturing into Asian restaurants and even Japanese soba.  For this internationally acclaimed chef and world renowned restaurateur, who began his training with Chef Paul Haeberlin in Alsace (Hubert Keller also trained with him) and subsequently Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier, global domination comes easy.  His namesake restaurant, Jean-Georges, in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan, remains one of New York’s 3 Michelin star restaurants while others nearby like Spice Market and Matsugen offer more casual ethnic fare.  Although half of his ventures involve partnerships with hotels, he is very much involved with the other half, taking a direct hands-on approach in the kitchen to prove that he’s not just a celebrity name.  Shanghai, London, Paris, Istanbul and even Bora Bora have been graced with the magical touch of Jean-Georges. His next stop?  Canada.

Market by Jean-Georges opened in the Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Vancouver in January 2009 as his first Canadian and West Coast outpost.  Similar to Market in Paris and in the W Hotel in Boston, the menu is a collection of his ‘best hits’ items from his other restaurants, using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.  Prices are kept reasonably low to match the casual and relaxed vibe, although it’s apparent that they didn’t skimp on the gorgeous interior.  Market in Vancouver has 4 dining areas to match your mood and purpose- a casual café with a fireplace, a heated outdoor terrace with breathtaking city views, a chic bar made of black marble, and a minimalist dining room with 2 private rooms.

The retro-chic dining room with geometric patterned carpets, white leather banquettes and large cylindrical ceiling lights evoked Eames architecture.  The private rooms, with floor to ceiling windows that beautifully framed the bustling streetcorner of Thurlow and Alberni, were breathtaking.  For a grand dining experience in an alluring restaurant housed in a world class hotel, prix fixe lunch for $29 seemed too good to be true.  For a bargain price, this lunch came with 1 first course, 1 entrée and 1 dessert.  Choices for the first course included raw items like beef carpaccio pizza with mushroom, parmesan & arugula, and hamachi sashimi with muscat grapes & buttermilk dressing.  Also available were soups like clam chowder, salads like roasted beets with goat cheese & crystallized wasabi and appetizer choices like asparagus risotto, smoked salmon pizza and seared scallops with caramelized cauliflower.  We enjoyed the most amazing glasses of cherry yuzu soda and jasmine lemonade while we narrowed down our choices.

The tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger dressing was a great starter.  Tuna and avocado is always a great combination, each playing off of the other’s rich fatty buttery flavors.  The tender tartare was pleasantly contrasted by the distinct spiciness of the radishes and the prominent presence of grated ginger.  Spicy chile oil was used liberally in this dish, its piquant properties lingering on my tongue for a good stretch while the nuttiness of the underlying sesame oil flavors slowly infused into my taste buds.

Black truffle and fontina cheese pizza immediately caught my eye, but I was quick to initially dismiss it as an option as I couldn’t imagine it truly delivering truffle flavors in a reasonably priced prix fixe lunch menu.  Our server encouraged us to get it, in fact insisted, saying that it was the best selling and most popular item at Market.  Thank you to our wise server, for I may have missed one of the most incredible truffle pizzas to ever take plate on this earth.  The dough, so soft and pillowy, the cheese, a most fitting partner for the earthy flavors of black truffle, and the frisée greens, a delightful augmentation of texture.  They didn’t skimp on the truffles, its flavor and essence fully infused into every molecule of this pizza to where it was more powerful than an actual fresh truffle.  Its distinct seductive aromas wafted through the air, attracting envious stares from all directions.

‘Like attracts like’ when it comes to good food and discerning palates, and friendships can blossom from the most unexpected culinary moments.  The diner sitting at the table next to us presented her spring pea soup with parmesan foam to me for a photo opportunity, and with a click and an ‘Ahh’ an instant connection was formed.  This wonderful nurse from Oregon already had me at pea soup, and continued to wow me with her stories from Per Se.  She joined us for subsequent meals in Vancouver and we bonded over ostrich at Chambar and chicken feet at Kirin.  Such is the joy of eating and sharing- new encounters and lasting friendships.

For the second course, we had choices of fish and meat entrées.  Nut & seed crusted red snapper and slowly cooked Arctic char sounded appetizing, but my dining partner chose Pacific Halibut with sautéed spinach and sweet garlic lemon broth.  The herb crusted halibut was moist and cooked perfectly, going well with the Asian flavors infused in the chile oil and szechuan peppercorn like flavors within the spinach.  Jean-Georges’ long history of working and traveling through Asia can frequently be seen in hints of sauces and garnishes.

Soy glazed short ribs with apple-jalapeño purée, seared BC hanger steak with gingered mushrooms & soy caramel sauce, and the Market burger with Russian dressing & onion rings sounded mighty enticing for this hungry carnivore, but in an odd twist of events, I ordered the grilled tuna burger with miso mayonnaise and shiso instead, simply because I am a sucker for anything shiso.  The miso mayo was creamy and salty, adding a deep level of flavor to the juicy tuna patty.  The pickles were mild and its signature tartness was subdued so that the whole shiso leaves could play their part.  It was a delightful and satisfying burger, strong on sharp flavors but light on the stomach.  Their fried potatoes were pretty amazing too.

For dessert I was too full and content to stuff myself even more, and settled for a simple fruit plate that was refreshing and simple.  My dining companion got the rhubarb and strawberry crisp with honey ice cream, an adorable bowl of wholesome flavors and thick doughy textures that oozed with just the right sweetness.

The Shangri-La Hotel provides a gorgeous backdrop for this restaurant where the service and ambiance match its sophisticated world class level.  The menu honors seasonal and local ingredients by keeping concepts relatively simple, yet remaining solid in its execution, presentation and flavor.  With a Jean-Georges ‘best dishes’ amalgamation, the menu at Market is practically fool proof.  Another satisfying and delicious meal for me, another restaurant destination crossed off the list for Jean-Georges.  He recently opened Market and Spice Market in Doha, Qatar.  Where will this culinary tycoon set foot next?

Market by Jean-Georges

Shangri-La Hotel

1128 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, B.C. V6E 0A8
T: 1 (604) 689 1120

Random trivia:  Did you know that rhubarb was so immensely popular for its wide variety of medicinal uses that in the mid 1600’s it sold for twice the price of opium?

Le Crocodile- Vancouver, BC Canada

Young competitive chefs are making headline news in the culinary world these days by reinventing modern cuisine with new techniques, but as a diner, there is something very reassuring and special about dining at a traditional restaurant with an established chef and seasoned staff.  It’s important to have an open mind in trying new restaurants and novel food concepts, but there is a comfort in being able to let go of all of that for a meal that is guaranteed to be good and sophisticated service that is sure to please.  On a recent trip to Vancouver, we chose to have our first dinner at Le Crocodile, a traditional French restaurant that came highly recommended to us by a local.  Chef Michel Jacob has been heading Le Crocodile for 25 years, maintaining a high standard of cuisine and an excellent reputation that has remained unchanged.  I wanted to have a quiet and relaxing dinner where I could sit back and put my full trust in the chef and my servers, and Le Crocodile seemed like the perfect choice.

Le Crocodile is named after Au Crocodile, a famous restaurant in Strasbourg which received 3 Michelin stars under Chef Emile Jung where Chef Michel had a life changing inspirational experience.  When Chef Michel was apprenticing under Chef Johnny Letzer in Strasbourg, he and his other colleagues were taken to Au Crocodile for a first hand dining experience where he was introduced to a new culinary style and philosophy that would eventually motivate him to follow the same path.  After numerous other stints working in restaurants in France, Switzerland and Belgium, Chef Michel eventually moved to Vancouver to open Le Crocodile, a fine dining French restaurant.   After 25 years, Le Crocodile still remains strong as one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants under his leadership and with the help of original staff who have remained loyal from the very beginning.

The restaurant is just off of Burrard street, one of the main strips that runs through the city center.  Crisp white linen tablecloths, red leather banquettes, classical music and hanging oil paintings set the stage for elegant candlelight dining.  French servers sporting crocodile tie pins welcome you with a genuine smile and a joke or two.  Here you will receive old school hospitality and superb service in a beautiful dining room, but somehow it doesn’t feel stuffy or formal at all.   It’s an unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere created by the generous staff, making for a pleasant experience for business dinners, romantic anniversaries and even family gatherings with children.  The menu is classical French cuisine incorporating fresh local ingredients.  Steak tartare, duck liver terrine, escargots, Alsatian onion tart and duck confit stand out as French classics, but Le Crocodile also offers many bounties of the local seas with entrées like oven roasted loup de mer, broiled sea bream, lobster tempura, grilled tiger prawns and lobster bisque.  We started with a complimentary appetizer of smoked pork belly, foie gras and fresh herbs tartlette, a luscious and creamy tartlette that was served piping hot right out of the oven.

Trio de Saumon: tartare, fumé et ‘Style côte-ouest’

You can’t leave Canada without eating Canadian salmon.  We ordered an appetizer of BC salmon prepared three-ways: candied salmon with tartar sauce, salmon tartare with cucumber, capers, tobiko and quail egg on a bed of sliced cucumbers, and smoked salmon with crème fraîche, capers and chopped onions on blinis.  Candied salmon, made by curing salmon in honey and spices before smoking, is a popular way to enjoy salmon in Canada.

Confit de canard sauce au cidre

The duck confit, served with apple cider jus, was incredibly juicy and meaty, cooked to perfection with crisp and flavorful skin.

‘You cannot have a meal without our pomme frites!’, our server said with a wink, and brought over a plate of complimentary crispy shoestring fries.

Ris de veau aux cèpes; réduction aux agrumes, purée de navet

Luscious veal sweetbreads with meaty chunks of whole cepe mushrooms were served with silky spoonfuls of turnip purée in a citrus reduction sauce.  The sweetbreads were prepared extremely well, with just a touch of wholesome gameyness that was complemented by the crisp frisée and the acidity of the sauce.

Poêlée de cuisses de grenouilles à l’ail, beurre ciboulette

I was excited for my plate of frog legs, as it’s not something that I can find easily in Los Angeles.  I love the light flavor and the easy texture of frog meat, and Le Crocodile pan fried theirs with garlic and butter and dressed them with a chive butter sauce with lots of fresh parsley.  The tomato concassé elevated the flavors of the dish with its acidity and refreshing flavors.

Soufflé au Grand Marnier

After a palate cleanser of complimentary pear sorbet and raspberry mille-feuille, we perused the dessert menu to see how we could complete our fantastic meal.  A cheese plate?  Alsatian apple tart with vanilla ice cream, made-to-order pear tart, chocolate crepes or crème brûlée?  We went for the special of the day, the most sensational Grand Marnier soufflé, a warm, airy and light pillow of delight that melted into heavenly bliss with the warm vanilla sauce.

Chocolates crocodiles

Every meal at Le Crocodile is finished with a complimentary plate of darling little dark and milk chocolate crocodiles which our jaws clamped down on and consumed without hesitation.

Le Crocodile is an upscale French bistro without outrageous prices, attitude or pretentiousness.  It was a joy to have an elegant and relaxing meal that was superbly orchestrated by our lovely French staff who treated us with great respect and care.  It’s hard to find such good hospitality without paying a hefty price, and for that Le Crocodile is a true gem.  It’s no wonder they’ve been standing strong for 25 years and why they are adored by Vancouverites.  Le Crocodile has all of the makings of a top class restaurant- history, reputation, class, authenticity, service, quality and most importantly, consistency.

Le Crocodile

100-909 Burrard Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 2N2, Canada
(604) 669-4298

Random trivia:  Did you know that crocodiles sweat through their mouth?  That’s why crocodiles are often seen on river banks with their jaws wide open- it’s their way of cooling off.

Japa Dog- Vancouver, BC Canada

“Travel north.  It will bring you good luck,” my feng-shui studying friend told me one day.  And with that, my trip to Vancouver, Canada was planned on a whim.  Despite having traveled all over the world from Sierra Leone to Laos, and Cuba to the Canary Islands, I had never set foot in Canada.  I suppose it’s the comfort of knowing that I could go any day, given the proximity to the US- the same excuse of ‘local laziness syndrome’ that applies to trips within the US that I haven’t been able to materialize yet.  With the excitement of the Winter Olympics this year, it seemed only natural to travel way north past Napa, Portland and Seattle up to Vancouver to seek good luck, good fortune and of course good food.  Once my plane ticket and accomodations were secured I started researching Vancouver restaurants online, and was quite surprised to find the most buzz not in a 5 star hotel restaurant or in a harbor-view seafood dining establishment, but in a street food cart called Japa Dog.

Japa Dog, a street vendor specializing in hot dogs reinterpreted with Japanese flavors, was started by Noriki Tamura who moved to Vancouver in 2005.  Combining traditional comfort food with haute ingredients and giving it a fresh new twist seems to be the trend these days- maple bacon cupcakes, squash blossom & burratta pizza, kimchi kalbi tacos and black truffle & foie gras burgers.  Who isn’t reinventing our beloved staples?  Spruced up hot dogs aren’t a new concept either.  Hot Doug’s in Chicago is probably the first place that comes to mind for their innovative ingredients and flavor combinations.  Their signature foie gras dog had to be removed from the menu for obvious reasons, but they’re still an epic establishment.   Los Angeles has its share of gourmet wiener joints too.  Let’s Be Frank tops their grass-fed beef dogs with a marvelous Indian pickled pepper relish, Downtown Dogs serves a beef dog with avocado, arugula, basil aioli, tomatoes and fried onions,  Dogzilla demonstrates Japanese flair with their yakisoba and furikake dogs, and Wurstküche offers exotic dogs such as buffalo, alligator, duck, and my favorite rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño .

Japa Dog has several locations, and I was happy to discover that there was one practically outside of my hotel lobby on the corner of Burrard and Smithe.  The Burrard strip, lined with boutiques, hotels, tall office buildings, restaurants and the occasional historical church has an energetic Manhattan vibe.  Buses and yellow taxis whiz through the city grid as pedestrians with the haste and determination of a New Yorker scurry by.  It’s the perfect backdrop for a hot dog stand, only this one has happy and energetic Japanese staff in bright orange uniform ready to shower you with plenty of pep.  It was after the lunch rush on a weekday, but there was still a long line of tourists and locals waiting for their Japanese dogs.  I can’t imagine the craziness that these street corners experienced during the Olympics- news reports say that Japa Dog was one of the most popular pit stops for international visitors who waited for up to an hour in the winter chill for their hot dogs.

Japa Dog offers standard dogs such as all-beef, Kobe beef , turkey, kurobuta pork, jalapeño & cheese, bratwurst and veggie, but these are not what attract the masses. It’s the unique themed dogs, dressed up with classic Japanese ingredients like daikon radish and dried seaweed, that diners adore.  In true Japanese spirit, Japa Dog carts even sell dagashi, old-fashioned snacks and candies that evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for people like myself who grew up in Japan.

The Japa Dog staff recommended the Terimayo dog, the most popular selling item.  An all-beef dog tucked in a soft steamed sesame bun with teriyaki sauce, drizzles of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, fried onion and dried nori.  Japa Dog’s slit sausages are first boiled then lightly grilled to order, giving them a nice snappy crunch with a juicy moist interior.  Due to the immense popularity of the Terimayo concept, all of their other dogs can be made Terimayo style.

My favorite was hands down the Oroshi dog, a bratwurst topped with generous heaps of tangy grated daikon radish, special soy sauce and chopped green onions.  The light flavor of the bratwurst with the refreshing bitterness of the oroshi daikon was amazing.  Oroshi daikon is a staple in Japanese cuisine, adding texture and flavor to grilled fish, shabu-shabu, tofu and minced meat patties, but who knew that it could liven up a hot dog so perfectly?

With room only for one more dog, I skipped the Okonomi dog made with kurobuta pork sausage, okonomi-yaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, fried cabbage and shaved bonito flakes, and instead went for the Ume dog.  The light flavors of the oroshi dog made me want something even more refreshing.  Ume is short for umeboshi, salty and sour pickled plums, and it was used to garnish a bratwurst with thinly shaved onions.  I was hoping for a prominent ume flavor, one so strong and sour that it would make me pucker my lips and squeeze my eyes shut, but it was rather mild, possibly tempered for non-Japanese palates.

Other unique wieners at Japa Dog include the Edamame dog, a bratwurst impregnanted with whole green edamame beans, and a Kurogoma kimchi dog made with a turkey smokie with toppings of black sesame and kimchi.  Research revealed a Misomayo dog with Japanese mayonnaise and miso paste, but perhaps it’s been buried in the Japa Dog vault as I didn’t see it at any of the current carts.

Eating a juicy hot dog on the busy street corners of an urban jungle makes for a satisfying meal, but enjoying a delicious gourmet dog with Japanese flavor and flair is a special experience.  Vancouver’s got a good thing going in Japa Dog, which is why the owner has his eye on expanding to the US.  What better place to start than New York, where he plans to open a Japan Dog by the end of the year.  City dwellers will undoubtedly take to these loveable trendy wieners that have already gotten a stamp of approval by Anthony Bourdain in the Vancouver episode of No Reservations.

Japa Dog

available at various street corners in Vancouver, BC Canada

Random trivia: Did you know that the average hot dog is consumed in 6 bites?

“The noblest of all dogs is the hot dog- it feeds the hand that bites it.”  -Lawrence J. Peter