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
Canada
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?

Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.