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.

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Animal

Pig trotters, pig ears, sweetbreads, oxtail and headcheese have made an explosion in the Los Angeles food scene this past year.  A restaurant these days is not complete without offering at least one of these items on their menu.  It took a long time, but I’m ecstatic to see that Angelenos are finally starting to appreciate and enjoy these once dismissed animal parts that used to be tossed to the hounds.  The pig’s ears at The Lazy Ox Canteen and Church & State have been the talk of the town in previous months, making it seem like a novel concept, but the one restaurant that’s been way ahead of their times is Animal.  Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened Animal restaurant in June 2008 to widespread acclaim after they’ve already stirred up a mountain of awards, a TV show and a cookbook.

Ever since they first met in culinary school, this male duo has practically been attached at the hip.  They’ve worked together in various restaurants in Florida, Colorado and California, and after they established themselves in the culinary world they opened a catering business called 2 Dudes Catering.  They had a TV show on The Food Network by the same title and eventually published a book called Two Dudes, One Pan.  They fought hard in an eggplant battle against Iron Chef Cat Cora, only to lose by 1 point.  Is there anything that this talented duo can’t do?  The only thing left for them was to open their own restaurant, and Animal restaurant has been consistently getting rave reviews.  I’ve checked out their menu before, and I knew that this was my kind of joint- one stop shopping for hard core carnivores and offalvores where the food is actually really good. 

We started our Animal adventure with a refreshing salad.  Thankfully somebody in our party had the common sense to order this starter of baby kale with pecorino cheese ribbons, smashed croutons and lemon dressing because this ended up being the only vegetarian dish for the evening.  The citrus flavoring added a mellow yet wonderful level of zest to the sharp kale, and in retrospect I wish that we had this dish halfway through our meal to revive our palates that gradually fatigued from too much animal fat.

3 rounds of chicken liver toast started off our carnivorous feast with a bang with its beautiful rich flavors.  The creamy liver paste was paired with a seductive topping of sweet balsamic shallot glaze that almost tasted like vintage port wine.  The wine list at Animal was pretty interesting, with sprinkles of rare Portuguese, French and Italian wines.  After tasting a few options, we opted for the House Cabernet which, for $20 a bottle, was quite impressive.  I can’t remember how many bottles we ended up drinking, but it paired really well with our meat-centric banquet.

Perhaps the most glorified, popular and symbolic dish of Animal is the pig’s ears with chili, lime and fried egg.  Compared to the crunchy fried pig’s ear dish at The Lazy Ox Canteen, these cartilaginous delicacies at Animal had more of a porous and spongy consistency from soaking up all of the tangy flavors of lime and chili.  It almost tasted like pure tabasco, and the fiery heat went amazingly well with the rich ooze of egg yolk. 

Barbeque pork belly sandwiches were so good that we ordered 3 rounds.  Close your eyes and imagine yourself picking up one of these sandwiches in slow motion, caressing the pillowey softness of the warm brioche bun that yields under the grasp of your supple fingers.  The chunks of pork belly are so delightfully fatty that they’re barely maintaining their solid state, and begging for you to release them into liquid form. As your long silky hair cascades behind you from the blowing wind that’s coming out of nowhere, you sink your teeth into the food in one bold determined bite.  The thick cut of savory pork belly squirts hot fatty juice onto your cheeks which slowly oozes down your chin and onto your wrists.  You lick this animal sap in an upward motion with your quivering tongue as it runs down your forearm.  The sweetness of the tender pork entwines with the creamy cabbage cole slaw inside your mouth in a tantric dance and your eyelashes flutter every so slightly.  You finish off the bite with a circular lick of the tongue to sweep off that rich glob of brown sauce dribbling out of the corners of your mouth.  You cock your head back as the tension in your muscles melt away and you let out an uncontrollable moan.  That’s what we were all doing at the table, and yes, it was really that good. 

Crispy quail fry was served on a bed of grits and swiss chard with a wedge of bacon and a generous drizzle of maple jus.  The quail halves were perfectly deep fried to a crunchy exterior and steaming hot moist meat.  I loved the smooth creaminess of the grits which were some of the best grits that I’ve ever had.  As if we didn’t need any more reminders that we were in a meat house, there was a slab of juicy bacon to accompany the quail. 

A majestic portion of duck confit was served just the way I like it, with tender meat that fell right off the bones and crispy crunchy skin that was fully injected with juicy fat.  A cheerful blend of apples, pecans, sweet dates and arugula balanced out the oleaginous cut of bird.

Foie gras with biscuit and maple sausage gravy was one of those dishes that we couldn’t resist ordering. Who can refuse foie gras, or sausage, especially when served in the same dish?  After the pork belly sandwiches, this was the second most popular dish of the evening.   I was flabbergasted by the generous and enormous hunk of beautifully seared foie gras that arrived at our table.  It was like the Garden of the Gods Balanced Rock in Colorado Springs, a massive formation of (un)naturally occurring liver that somehow sat perfectly calibrated and poised on a flaky buttery biscuit base.  Coupled with the richness of the creamy gravy, this was one spectacular but hearty dish that should be served with a garnish of crushed aspirin and Lipitor for anybody over the age of 40.

A few at the table were squeamish about sweetbreads, but I put my foot down and insisted on an order.  The deep fried sweetbreads were crispy and light on the outside with that characteristic creamy burrata-like consistency inside.  Hen of the woods mushrooms and creamed spinach paralleled the earthy flavors of the thymus glands while capers, chopped parsley and citrus wedges livened things up with their snappy flair.

Animal’s version of the classic Hawaiian loco moco also came with a liberal serving of foie gras.  The Animal guys don’t hold back on the good stuff, and for what we were paying I appreciated their generosity and wondered if they were breaking even.  The combination of rice, hamburger, fried egg and gravy in a traditional Loco Moco usually fatigue my taste buds into a state of overload, and the addition of Spam and foie gras in Animal’s version was definitely too heavy, knocking us all into a saturated food coma state.

The flat iron steak with sunchoke hash and truffle parmesan fondue that we ordered medium rare came to us well-done, and we had to send it back, but the parmesan cream was thick and luscious.

We ended our carnivorous feast with a rack of balsamic pork ribs.  The glaze could have been a little less sweet, but the meat was incredibly tender and moist, effortlessly falling off the bones.

Our meal ended with a fantastic bacon chocolate crunch bar dessert with salt and pepper anglaise.  Sweet and savory united in a loving embrace as they coalesced to created beautiful flavors.  The contrast of the crunchy bacon toppings with the soft chocolate tickled my tongue, and on that delectable note, our impressive meal came to an end.

By the end of our meal at Animal, I think I was starting to grow a tail and a snout.  I wanted to roll in the mud and plop down for a nice snooze.  This is one serious restaurant where carnivores are put to the test, and the true alpha males of gastronomy will prevail.  It’s definitely about the animal in all its glory, preparing its meat, fat and connective tissue with utmost respect and revelry, but it’s also about flavor, essence and creativity.  It’s no wonder Shook and Dotolo have won so many awards, from Food & Wine Best New Chefs of 2009 to a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant.  Except for a few dishes that were too heavy for us to handle, the overall meal was masculine, inventive and downright good.  Given the restaurant’s name, I hope that the chefs will take their concept even further and do true snout to tail dining.  I would love to see these 2 dudes prepare more offals and delicious preparations on their menu.

Animal Restaurant

435 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 782-9225

Random trivia:  Did you know that sweetbreads are thymus glands? The thymus gland is an organ that produces T lymphocytes which are necessary for immune function.  Traditionally the sweetbreads that are used for cooking come from lambs and calves (ris d’agneau and ris de veau in French).  In the novel (and film) Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Dr. Hannibal Lecter served human ‘sweetbreads‘ at a dinner party, excised from an orchestra flautist whom he killed.

 

Life in Burgundy – Bourgogne, France

On my last trip to France, I spent a few days at my cousin’s house in Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.  It’s always a joy for me to visit her, because I get to experience country living at its best, surrounded by the best foods and wines in the world.  Her husband Patrick Bize is the 4th generation winemaker of Simon Bize et Fils, which for me means a 15 second walk down to their wine cellar for unlimited access to their wines, 24 hours a day.  My cousin, who is an excellent cook, made simple but hearty and delicious meals for me every day to complement their beautiful wines.  Here are some photos of the good life in wine country…

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Wine aging in the cellar

Wine aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

One of the first lunches that my cousin cooked for me was Poulet de Bresse baked in the oven with house white wine.  All foods and desserts that require wine are cooked only with their Bize wine.  The last time I visited them, she cooked an outstanding coq au vin with 2 bottles of their pinot noir.  Although it seems like such a luxury from my point of view, this is ordinary daily life for winemakers.  What a life!

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse, given an AOC status, is the most prized chicken in France.  Everything from rearing to quality of soil, from diet to slaughtering, is strictly regulated to maintain its famous gamey yet tender and delicate fatty flavor.

Poulet de Bresse

Poulet de Bresse

The Bresse chicken dish she made me was garnished with a simple cream and mustard grain sauce (using Dijon mustard, of course- Dijon is only about an hour drive away), accompanied with fava beans sautéed in butter and baguette from the boulangerie down the street.  I was lucky enough to score the tender chicken foie, while my cousin enjoyed the gizzard.

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

One afternoon my cousin dropped us off in the middle of the forest, telling us that we needed to forage for our dinner.  This forest was her secret place to pick wild asparagus, les asperges sauvages, which I had never even heard of until then.  In this dense, dark, cool and quiet forest, we diligently picked these long and thin wild asparagus stalks in silence.  They were quite abundant, and I was so excited to be able to forage for my own food.  It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to see where your food comes from, and to be able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling salt water, then tossed them with spaghetti, sea salt and olive oil.  It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

One of their winemakers brought over a basket of freshly picked baby greens from his garden, which he dressed with a simple viniagrette.  We enjoyed these fresh vegetables with terrine de foie de lapin (rabbit liver terrine) and an award winning jambon persilles (ham with parsley) from Maison Raillard in Beaune.  Paired with never-ending supplies of their house wine, this al fresco family dinner was one of the most memorable meals in my life.

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Jambo persilles aved terrine de foie de lapin

Jambon persilles avec terrine de foie de lapin

On another evening, we gathered on the terrace to watch the sunset with a bottle of 1999 Moët et Chandon rosé and grougere, which is a type of cheese bread.  The inside of the bread was soft and doughy with a subtle and elegant cheese flavor.

Champagne toast with grujere

Champagne toast with grougere

Grujere cheese bread

Grougere cheese bread

My cousin made a delicious tuna, onion and tomato quiche one day.  Everything is made from scratch here, with great love and care.  Her dried cherry tart was also fantastic- freshly picked cherries that were sun dried on the terrace.

Tuna, tomato and onion tart

Tuna, tomato and onion quiche

Dried cherry tart

Dried cherry tart

For my last dinner, she pulled out the good stuff.  Burgundy escargot with garlic and butter, and house made duck leg confit.  The escargot were succulent and juicy, and the duck confit had perfectly crispy skin covering tender meat that fell right off the bones.

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

House made duck leg confit

House made duck leg confit

Other dishes that she made include asparagus soup and strawberries marinated in house red wine.  Oh, and don’t forget the cheeses.  Every meal concluded with the obligatory assortment of French cheeses.  My favorite was the Epoisse, perfectly stinky and incredibly creamy. My time in Savigny-les-Beaune was magical, beautiful and happy.  Everything was prepared with great care and detail.  Every night we would gather around the table as the kids talked about how their school day went and Patrick about his predictions for this year’s harvest.  With laughter abound, delicious food filling our content bellies, and Patrick returning every half hour with yet another bottle of wine, mealtime was always a place of love and warmth.  Although I enjoyed my dining experience in Paris, from local bistros to high end restaurants, the food that I had at my cousin’s house was truly priceless.   Oh, I miss them so much…

Cheese plate

Cheese plate