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….?

Bottega Louie

My friends and I headed to Bottega Louie one Saturday night in search of a fun dining experience.  Bistros, gastropubs and restaurants have been popping up all over downtown LA this past year, and so far all of the places I’ve been to have been fabulous.  I was surprised to find out that Bottega Louie didn’t take reservations, but we decided to wing it.  How bad can the wait be for a party of 4 at 8:30pm, even on a Saturday night?  Well…pretty bad.  This place was packed like the opening day of the Barney’s Warehouse Sale.

What’s impressive  is that the space could actually comfortably accommodate the waiting masses.  The brightly lit restaurant, on the otherwise dark and desolate corner of Grand and 7th in the heart of downtown LA, is beautiful.  As we approached the restaurant on foot, it made me feel like I was back in New York City, walking along the sidewalks of Chelsea as taxis whizzed by and steam rose up through the manholes. Our excitement rose as we walked through the doors and instantly felt the high level of energy in the room.

IMG_1367The space is massive.  With a deli/bakery to the right, an open kitchen in the middle, a bar with tables to the left, and the dining room in the rear, it’s a Dean and Deluca-meets-Pastis type arena.  Immensely tall ceilings with beautiful and intricate moldings reminiscent of a classical Parisian apartment are awe-inspiring.  Beautiful marbled floors, long black banquets lining the multiple sections of the dining room, a wood-fire oven in the rear, and bustling kitchen activity add to the fascination of this bistro-like atmosphere.  What an irony to be in this grand contemporary  space surrounded by beautiful people sipping on martinis while looking out through the large windows onto the homeless roaming the deserted streets.

Waiting an hour for our table didn’t seem so bad as we took in all of the  action from the swank bar, toasting to the night with champagne and mojitos.  It was an exciting place to be in, and I could feel the energy in the room charging our conversation and fueling our laughter.  Or was it just the deafening noise level that we had to shout over?

The menu is very simple and straight forward.  Salads, soups, pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, entrees and side dishes inspired by American and Italian cuisine.  Most are classic dishes like penne pomodoro, eggplant parmigiana, roasted chicken and meatball sandwiches, and nothing is too fancy or creative.  There’s an impressive list of small dishes, 30 in total, ranging from $7-9, ideal for sharing with a large party.  We started with a simple wild arugula salad with red onions and parmesan shavings that was refreshing and crisp.

The white anchovies on tomato with micro greens were just okay, as the anchovies were a bit on the fishy side.  This isn’t something that I would recommend here.

One of the most popular dishes at Bottega Louie that our server almost required us to order was the portabello mushroom fries.  The concept of deep fried portabello mushroom wedges did indeed sound immensely appetizing, and we were quite excited for this.  However, they were soggy, limp, tasteless and lifeless.  The delicious herb aioli made us wish that the fries were more worthy.

The fennel sausage pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella was pretty good.  We definitely wanted to get something cooked in their wood fire oven, and this was probably our best choice.  The thin crust had a nice balance of doughy and crunchy, and the amount of cheese was perfect to complement the delicious fennel sausage.  It wasn’t a bad pizza for a downtown LA restaurant, although of course it didn’t compare with the other famous pizzerias in LA (the best fennel sausage pizza is hands down at Mozza).

The shrimp scampi with mariniére sauce was a disappointment.  The large jumbo shrimp were succulent and meaty, though not the best quality I’ve ever had.  What really put a damper on the dish was that the mashed potatoes under the shrimp were cold and dry.  I mean, really cold, as if it had just come out of the fridge 15 minutes ago.  At the end of the evening our server asked us why we didn’t inform her about this.  We would have, if we could have flagged her down at the time but she was nowhere to be found.  It was so busy in the restaurant that we hardly ever saw her.  Besides, even if we were able to get a re-do on the dish, it would’ve taken another 30 minutes to get it.

The grilled rib eye steak was perfectly cooked and quite tasty, although again this item was cold.  Cold!  For a grilled steak to be served cold is not only inexcusable, but unfathomable.  The restaurant was packed and the service was really slow, but was it so busy that our steak was sitting there on the counter for that long?  It came with 2 sauces- a Gorgonzola sauce and an onion steak sauce.  The gorgonzola sauce was too much like regular gravy sauce, and it was also dark brown.  Isn’t gorgonzola white?  The other sauce made with sweet onions and worcestershire sauce was too sweet.  What a pity for this fine cut of steak to meet such an ill fate.

The side of corn, swiss chard and bacon was really nice.  Our server was telling us that some farmer somewhere had a whole corn field just for Bottega Louie.  The corn was really sweet and succulent, and I could tell that it was really fresh.  I wish there was more bacon presence though- there was a lack of bacon fattiness to add more savoriness to the dish.

We ended with the meatball sliders.  Another dish that our server highly recommended to us that completely flopped.  Each adorable mini burger had 1 large meatball, tomato sauce, and a gigantic heap of melted provolone cheese like there was no tomorrow.  The tomato sauce was plain, the meatballs were tasteless and dry, and the amount of cheese made me think the impossible…”enough cheese already!”  It’s a tell-tale sign that something’s off when a basket of fries is left half full.

Although the restaurant space is strikingly beautiful and dynamic, the confidence and poise that the atmosphere exudes is disappointingly absent in its food.  I would hope that all of these other people, so willing and eager to wait for hours for a table at this restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, would be fairly rewarded with astonishing food.  Given that this place is open every day from breakfast to dinner, and offers deli selections as well as cocktails, it’s a good place for people to congregrate in downtown LA.  The location makes it ideal for business lunches and after-work happy hour.  However, it may not be worth planning an evening around, at least not yet.

Bottega Louie Restaurant & Gourmet Market

700 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 802-1470

Random trivia:  The world record for corn eating is held by Cookie Jarvis.  Despite flying in from California to Florida on a red-eye flight the morning of the contest, he snagged the title in 2004 by eating 33 1/2 ears of corn in 12 minutes.