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Wednesday, 09 December 2009 02:15

Baan Thai | 1117 Blanshard Street | Victoria

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UPDATE, June 2015: This particular review (now six years old) may not be positive but Baan Thai has become our go-to Thai place in Victoria.  

I loathe buzzwords and the way they've penetrated popular language. An afternoon of coffee and biscuits in the Shoal Point Moka House can be ruined as soon as some goon drops a phrase like "Derek, we need to drill-down and start pushing the envelope". My heart beats faster, the adrenaline flows and I swell, Incredible Hulk style, to a towering giant of rage that wants to hit Chet & Derek so hard their skin flies off. Instead I sit, eat my Hobknobs and die just a little bit more inside.

"Global village" is another one that never fails to rile me, long-hair shorthand for the way telecommunications & travel have brought the many cultures of the world closer together. Not usually mentioned is that after being brought together they're split up like British children in wartime, shuffled into unmarked van and then then co-opted by people too lazy to develop personalities of their own. Growing up in Revelstoke, B.C. where ethnic food began & ended at Tony's Roma, I never learned to differentiate between one type of food and another. You ate at Tony's because his cannelloni was legendary and it was the only restaurant in town that sold anything other than hamburgers. There was never any particular value assigned to the fact that the style of cooking originated in the ancestral home of the pompadour.

Now I walk past The Noodle Box and see crowds of surly, humorless university students tucking into overcooked Asian food prepared by surly, humorless university graduates, everyone toe-top-full with pride at their culinary diversity. I cannot prove this, but it seems unlikely that deep in the hills of Vietnam, Hmong villagers sit down at meal-time to high-five one another over platefuls of hamburgers.

Years ago my eyes were opened to the huge array of exotic food available in the lower mainland and I was hooked. I didn't care whether what I was eating as authentic as long as it tasted good and didn't fight back. Eventually I picked some favorites and when I finally moved to Victoria thought I was in Elysian fields. The downtown was full of restaurants of every stripe, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, even Ethiopian, and I wanted to try them all. Of course what I ended up doing was continually eating in the first place I tried, and my experience of local Thai restaurants began and ended with Siam, on Fort Street. Coincidentally, after Max moved here he settled on the same place and so until now, we'd never gone very far afield. When the subject of lunch came up on this rainy day we decided to branch out and Baan Thai had come recommended. We arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush and were warmly greeted and seated immediately.

I finally settled on the Baan Thai Talay, "Burmese white prawns and squid, sautéed with red and green peppers, mushrooms, celery, carrot, kaffir lime leaves, fresh basil leaves and fresh chili" with a side of rice. Max's pick was the Pad Thai Moo, "rice noodles flash fried with pork, extra firm tofu, salted radish, egg, oyster sauce, tamarind, green onions, fresh bean sprouts, topped with roasted ground peanuts and spiced with chili." Thai food is of course known for its spice and the menu offered us our choice, from mild to "extra hot". Max went with medium because he is a weak-kneed woman and I went with the extra hot, because I am stupid.

Once our orders had been taken we surveyed our surroundings. The ubiquity of Thai restaurants means that some are starting to show the same kind of homogeneity found in Chinese places; plastic foliage, baffling wall decorations and lighting so dim you half expect to hear Mr. Kurtz draw his last breath. We were pleased to see that Baan Thai is a cut above those places - it's bright, clean and tastefully decorated, with high ceilings that help the place feel open and airy. The noise level was a bit high and being right near the kitchen we heard every note played by the spastic marching band they evidently keep in there but it was still better than an evening spent at the Irish Times and we could hear one another speak.

The waitress made sure that our waters were never empty during the brief wait for our food and checked in on us once it had arrived. It was here that my Baan Thai experience began to sputter a bit. The squid & vegetables were cooked just right and the various flavors were nicely balanced but it failed to coalesce into anything beyond the sum of its parts. Add in a disappointing lack of bite in the spice department and you've got the meal equivalent of a post-Joshua Tree U2 album: a couple hits but nothing memorable.

Max's meal on the other hand was a lot more appealing. Ordering a medium spice meant that heat was entirely absent but the taste more than made up for it. Max adores peanuts & peanut sauce and so a restaurant has to bring out their "A" game to impress him and Baan Thai failed to excite his enthusiasm. He said that the meal was "nice" but "lacked any defining taste or significant bite", which made him sound like half of my ex-girlfriends. Unlike them however Max didn't expect me to cover the cheque and my half coming to under $14 with tip makes Baan Thai's lunch a relatively inexpensive way to be bored.

Wednesday, 09 December 2009 02:13

Alzu's | 811 Bay Street | Victoria

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UPDATE - January 26, 2011: According to neighboring businesses, Alzu's was closed as of Thursday. "Personal vehicles" were seen out front on Friday, possibly loading equipment. As of today the restaurant sits empty. A local business owner says that he spoke to Julio Alzu last week and that Alzu claimed to be "tired of running the restaurant" and was going "home to Guatemala".

Now we mourn the passing of a giant. Let us blunt our grief with the words of W.H. Auden.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

This time, Max & I corralled our good friend Dan, took leave of civilization and braved the badlands. Dan’s majestic Monte Carlo rolled past the plains of Leng and the mountains where Rokhnm the cruel winter God slumbers, straight into the dust-blown hinterland known as Bay Street. Little is known about the history of Bay Street, although conjecture abounds: Some say it was partially hand-paved by Satan in the 12th century before he became bored and outsourced the rest of the job to a handful of Chinese schoolchildren. Some say that it’s been there since time immemorial, a lonely ribbon of blacktop waiting out the ages until Man found his way out of the garden and into the drug trade.

Victoria’s choice of late-menu eating options are limited to Alzu’s or Denny’s, while Denny’s presents better, with warmer lighting, brighter surfaces and more polish, for us it’s Alzu’s every time. Denny’s service tends to be lacking and the restaurant itself feels a bit like McDonald’s. Not the McDonald’s on the corner of Douglas & View you understand, which instead of a fast-food joint feels like an outpatient facility that also sells hamburgers, but a McDonald’s all the same.

I have personally never eaten at Alzu’s during the day and though they advertise as being open 24 hours, part of me wants to believe that the place vanishes in the morning light, like Error the Bear’s Nightmare Carnival. Turn up at the witching hour and you’ll find that late night customers are usually few and far between. The insomniac, the addicted, the terminally lonely and the drunk all pass through the doors into the restaurant’s fluorescent glow.

On this occasion we arrived just past 11pm and the place was busier than usual. Nevertheless we were promptly met by one of Alzu’s premier night servers, Willam. He is one of the best waiters in Victoria and I’ll fight any man who says otherwise. He’s always welcoming, and helpful without being overbearing. The cynical amongst you will say that his brio is less than genuine and that the entire time we’re in his presence he’s imagining our brutal destruction by falling space rocks, but if so he’s never tipped his hand. Quite honestly, given how often he refills drinks and his uncanny ability to know when to leave you alone, he’s earned the privilege of hating us to death.

We were offered our choice of seating and after settling into the large corner booth our drink order was taken immediately. Mark also filled us in on the evening special, a bacon & cheddar burger for $8.95. If you’re new to this, when a diner offers you an “evening special” it means: “This is what our chef feels like cooking tonight. You may order something else, another burger, for example, and we’ll all get along fine. Order an eggs benedict and you will disappear into the hostile night, never to be heard from again.” Finding a loaded burger under $10 in this city is rare enough, never mind on a late-night menu, so that was the unanimous choice. Our drinks arrived shortly after, coffee for Max & I and chocolate milk for Dan.

As we waited for our food to arrive, we talked and listened to the radio, tuned to KISM out of Bellingham playing “Nights with Alice Cooper”, where the man himself plays some great overlooked hard rock gems. Compare that to Denny’s where you’re likely to get either canned music or god forbid, Ocean FM. I normally detest music in restaurants but a late-night diner is different; without musical accompaniment the only sound we’d have during breaks in conversation would be the hum of the lights, soft weeping and the sound of cocaine being snorted off a toilet seat.

Now and again I find myself thinking that it's impossible for a restaurant to screw up something as simple as a hamburger. Usually that kind of thinking makes it as far as the next time I’m hungry and find myself at the Bent Mast. Suddenly I'm back in ninth grade, Peggy has left me for that suave foreign bastard from her drama class and my heart is broken all over again. Then, with not a Vera’s Burger Shack in sight I return to the warm bosom of Julio Alzu to find solace and have my faith renewed. Our burgers were good, cooked all the way through, finished with actual cheddar cheese and four slices of bacon. Toppings were limited to lettuce and tomatoes, which is usually good enough although Max's tomato slice had started to turn. The fries met all the base criteria, being warm and tasting of salted potato, but didn't go much further. If buffets have taught us anything it’s that the only thing which can overcome mediocrity is volume and on this score Mr. Alzu failed to deliver: there were not nearly enough of our half-assed french fries. You may say that this is a minor quibble, because really, how much ketchup and Tabasco-soaked food should anyone be eating at midnight?

Alzu's is a comfortable place to spend a couple hours with friends enjoying good diner food and great service. If at midnight there's something else you're looking for it's probably not legal. Finally, on our way out we saw a very lovely, very drunk young lady bent double outside by the newspaper box loudly divesting herself of her meal in what was no doubt the high point of her evening. Not going to get that at Il Terrazzo, now are you?

It only now occurs to me that the View & Douglas McDonalds is also open 24 hours which opens up your options for late-night meals if you have no interest in eating anything that resembles food. You’re still better off at Alzu’s, though: the food and service are light years better, there are fewer derelicts hanging about and you're much less likely to be stabbed. You are however still just as likely to watch a drunk woman toss her biscuits on the sidewalk. Sometimes we nighthawks have to roll with the punches.

Update, March 28, 2012: Ma Miller's Pub has become Twin Peaks, a Hooters-style pub. There is some debate as to whether this location is part of the US Twin Peaks chain or has cribbed their logo. The US site does not list a Canadian arm. I haven't been to Twin Peaks yet but I assume the food is average and the view...inspiring.

Update, February 18, 2014: Twin Peaks did not last and eventually Ma Miller's re-opened. Now, word is that they are again about to close the doors.

Update, June 2015:  Ma Miller's is no more.

My grandmother, bless her soul, tried for most of my young life to teach me important values, things like “cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “never judge a book by its cover”. Unfortunately these lessons were lumped in with other material that forbade things much closer to my heart: “stop eating, you’re going to explode” and “if you fart in church again God will send you to hell”. Poor lesson planning like this meant that many of her pearls of wisdom were thrown out with the mental bathwater and the older I get, the more I realize that some those things would have served me well after she was gone. My entire school career would have been considerably more illustrious had I not judged many books by their covers. At the time, I reasoned if a weighty tome was named "Dithering Heights" or "A Short Walk Up a Hill" and had a cover that featured demure women in frocks sitting down to tea, they were unlikely to include scenes of frantic mud-wrestling in which those frocks were torn asunder as the women vied for the love of wealthy Lord Pennyfeather. My time thus saved I would replace the book on the shelf and continue on to the volumes with that had more promising covers, were considerably smaller and most importantly, could be held in one hand. There is no spot on the honor roll for the student who writes a book report on “Sherry Has Low Standards & No Knickers On”.

Ma Miller’s Pub in Goldstream is a fine example of a book that, if judged by cover alone, would have been left on the shelf and that would have been an injustice. Remembrance Day, 2009, my wife Nicky, Max, Dan & I found ourselves out at Goldstream to observe the salmon spawning. Nicky was born and raised in England, meaning that the only wildlife she’s seen wears hoodies and bums cigarettes at the bus stop so she finds interesting even the most mundane aspects of our ecosystem. It all ended in tragedy this time, when after seeing the rotting fish corpses that lined the stream she realized how the cycle of fish-spawning ends.

Hours later we found ourselves at Ma Miller's doorstep. With few windows to the outside and a forbiddingly Germanic front, Ma Miller's looked imposing on a rainy day, like the kind of tucked-away local that serves angry, cedar-scented men in flannel shirts who enjoy nothing more than roughly sodomizing unwelcome newcomers. Our appetites overwhelming our common sense we continued inside into what turned out to be a very full pub. Our status as interlopers was confirmed when half of those present, a group mainly made up of elderly men wearing medals, stopped what they were doing and eyed us warily. Once they’d figured out that we weren't the hated Kaiser or worse, their wives come to take them home, we were ignored entirely and left to find a seat. In Victoria there are a number of pubs that try to sell the “British pub experience”. With mood lighting and polished brass, they seem to be trying to evoke an atmosphere of European sophistication and poise when in actual fact it all puts me in mind of a marching band huddled inside a cave. The package comes across as forced and somewhat ridiculous, like casting Madonna as, well, the Madonna. In contrast, Ma Miller’s weathered wood & brass setting feels like a cozy neighborhood pub in Little Pudding without even seeming to notice. Before long the bartender came by to take our drink order and we found out that he, because of staff illness, was the bartender, host, and wait-staff for the afternoon. As bald as a newborn and forced to run back and forth like a man possessed, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that he'd started his shift with a full head of hair. Yet in the midst of what seemed to be absolute chaos he was a good guy. We never got the impression that we were an annoyance or had the wrong clothes on, as can happen if you stumble Into ceRtaIn downtown barS at tHe wrong Times.

The menu was standard pub fare, burgers, Max had the BBQ Bites, bits of seasoned deep-fried pork; Dan had a club wrap and Nicky, ever the light eater, the fries. Because of his handicap and the number of customers he had to serve it's not fair to take the barman to task for our dining experience being a bit like "Waiting for Godot”, our drinks arriving about the time Vladimir starts fiddling with his hat and the meal itself arriving sometime during Act 2. My pizza ($10), when it did arrive, was great and beat the pants off most pub pizza. The mushrooms were fresh, by God there was Cheddar cheese and the meat came from a real cow rather than swarms of African midges. The crust was crisp and not too thick, the sauce canned but pleasing nonetheless and the overall effect was that I ended up eating the entire 10” pizza in one sitting. Nicky & Dan were similarly satisfied with their meals although loud chewing and preoccupation with eating precluded my getting any further details. Afterwards Nicky did that the gravy tasted like “curry sauce” but that was as far as I’ve got. The lone holdout, that Grinchiest of Grinches, was Max. His pork bites ($8.95) were “dry”, “tasteless” and “represented the sad reality that a perfectly good pig had given its life for nothing.” He ate them of course but clearly he wasn’t happy about it. He’ll be the first to admit that there are only so many things one can do to deep-fried pig but a little salt goes a long way.

Grandma’s been gone a while now and although we had our differences, I miss her. She was part of a different time; a time when not everyone marched to the beat of the same drum, when cleanliness was next to Godliness and everyone was created equal so long as they clipped their nails. Ma Miller’s, I think, belongs to a similar time. It’s comfortable, friendly and priced low enough that you’ll still be able to afford that Phil Ochs record and take Mary-Ellen to the sock-hop. If you find yourself in Goldstream on a lazy Sunday afternoon, stop in and have a drink. Just keep your eyes peeled for orange suspenders.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009 02:07

It's Christmas Time Again

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Christmas is a busy time of year for us here at Largely the Truth. We are driven to eat everything within arm's reach while remaining mobile enough to pick up the phone and command Dan to deliver more. I'd like to say that the reason we do is that we run a food blog but the sad, simple truth is that we are gluttons. Handsome gluttons. Actually this year it seems like Max is watching his girlish figure so the burden of tradition falls on my broad shoulders and I have sworn to Crom that I shall bear it proudly. The table in our dining room is lined with enough sweets to give Type 2 diabetes to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and at our current pace I expect Nicky & I to be bleeding syrup inside a week. I've always said that for me Christmas is crafted from beautiful lights, music & the people I love rather than gifts & an abundance of food. While that still holds true I'd be lying if I said the box of Turtles wasn't a happy bonus.

You don't have to go far at this time of year to hear the lamentations of those who believe we've strayed from the true roots of Christianity, which, if the historical record reads right seem to be "attacking brown people because they make us self-conscious when we take off our trousers" and "persecuting Jews for killing our Lord & Savior despite the fact he was sent here to die for our sins in the first place." It's an even shorter trip to find people crying foul over the consumerist juggernaut that's blowing through at ramming speed, leaving scores of ravished credit cards & overindulged Wal-Mart children in its wake. Since both points have been beaten into the ground by other, more erudite and driven pundits I won't bother throwing in my two cents except to say this: shopping malls are abysmal at any time of year, the addition of several hundred people with more credit than brains will not make it any better - stay at home and shovel some snow instead. Christmas is not to blame for this - it is an unwilling victim of Mattel, Hasbro and that bastard Steve Jobs. Also, Jesus would probably be a lot more fun at parties than the people who march under his name.

Well, most of them. In his 2007 documentary "What Would Jesus Buy" filmmaker Rob Van Alkemade followed the Reverend Billy & his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they traveled across America to warn holiday gift-buyers of the impending "Shopocalypse", the collapse of society as brought about by over-consumption and rising debt. Usually I refuse to openly discuss religion, sticking instead to subjects about which I may know little but are less likely to provoke frothing at the mouth. Disagreeing with someone about the quality of the bison burger at Fifth Street Bar & Grill will probably end with some hurt feelings and a black eye or two. Daring to question the prophet is much more likely to end somewhere secluded with a knife expertly angled between my ribs. This one time I'd like to break that policy and mention that Reverend Billy seems like the kind of guy Jesus would have sat down to an armwrestle with. He's manic, devoted and absolutely sincere. The kind of guy who casts moneylenders out of the temple and then drops the elbow on them, just to cement the point. Speaking of points - what is mine? I forget. But let's start with Merry Christmas and end with Happy New Year. The in-between is up to you but do us all a favor and fill it with something worthwhile - introspection, masturbation, macrame - something. Just cut down on the shopping and stop saying "Happy Festivus".

Update: Since this review was published I have returned to the Pink Bicycle and tried the Black Bean Burger, which was very good. That said, I stand by my statement that the quality of their meals is uneven.

Update, June 2015:  It's probably been four years since I've been to the Pink Bicycle so who knows whether any of this is still accurate.

"Nobody's perfect" is one of those maxims that is not only true, but comforting as well. We all make mistakes, some of them little, like forgetting to turn off the coffee pot before you leave for work. Others seemed little at the time - that chocolate-powered five-year-old blowing through your living room on Christmas Day like a tornado made of underoos and wrapping paper, for example. Knowing that we're not the only ones makes it easier. Hell, in professional baseball you're considered a roaring success if you perform your job correctly one-third of the time. The legendary Ty Cobb has the distinction of holding a career batting average of .364, the highest in major league history which is a big deal for those of you who don't follow this kind of thing. This means that the most consistent hitter in major league history only did his job right 36.4% of the time and has been immortalized for it. If the restaurant business had the same kind of standards there would be Great Cannon Pizza outlets all over the city but mercifully that's not the case. In this business if you screw up 70% of the time you will very shortly end up in receivership and be forced to face your public and have rotten vegetables thrown at you. That is, of course, unless your establishments happens to have the location, short skirts & shiny brass geegaws to mask your total lack of quality or personality. Up until today the Pink Bicycle has had quality in spades. If we're going to continue flogging sports metaphors you could say that up until today they'd batted 1000.

I was out of town when the Pink Bicycle opened late last year but as a devoted fan of Vera's Burger Shack in Vancouver and the UK's Gourmet Burger Kitchen the news of a gourmet burger shop right downtown made me quite chubby with excitement. Since my return the lot of us have eaten there several times and always come away satisfied, so when I suggested burgers for lunch Nicky readily agreed. We arrived mid-afternoon, the place was packed and we were eventually seated towards the back of the restaurant, near the bar. If you've never been to the Pink Bicycle you should know that it's not very big and the noise level is usually somewhere between the sacking of Carthage and a jet taking off. We happened to be sat almost right next to the stereo system which was playing electronic music at a volume that allowed patrons near the front to hear. Sadly this also meant that the patrons towards the back were rendered deaf. The wait staff treated the situation with their customary indifference and continued to speak at their usual volume, looking puzzled when you asked them to repeat themselves six times, as if everyone but you is more than capable of conducting a conversation in the midst of a raging tropical storm.

We passed on the day's special, "Chef's Choice", which I assume means you get whatever is starting to grow ears in the refrigerator and instead had the breaded macaroni & cheese sticks ($6) to start, a bison burger with truffle fries ($15) for myself and a poutine ($9) for Nicky. After ordering we settled in to wait and chatted about our upcoming Christmas trip to Las Vegas, or rather we would have if the stereo hadn't already pounded our eardrums into submission. As it was we were reduced to sign-language and staring at one another, or the people around us. To my eye, the clientele at the Pink Bicycle never seems like the kind of people you'd find in a burger joint. A burger is a hands-on meal where you stand a healthy chance of getting dirty and yet most of the people there seem like the only time they've been in the proximity of dirt was when they watched the gardener plant their organic lettuce. After their food arrives I half expect them to try and release their burgers back to the wild and then stage a sit-in and sing nondenominational hymns around the glow of a campfire app on someone's iPhone.

The macaroni & cheese sticks were the first thing to arrive, panko-breaded logs of penne & smoked cheddar with a side of "Bike Sauce" in a shot glass. Yes, I said shot glass. This may have scored the chef style points back in cooking school it is absolutely maddening to try and dip something wider your thumb than a into a container about the same size around as a nickel. The sticks themselves were nice, the breading was crisp and the pasta inside was firm but not overly hard. The only (minor) complaint I had was that there wasn't very much cheese but it's not enough to discourage me from recommending them. The bison burger & poutine were a different story. For some reason there are chefs who think that an acceptable bison burger is a handful of ground meat and barbecue sauce rather than a patty and one of them works at the Pink Bicycle. The bun, sourced from Bond Bond's Bakery next door, was fresh and covered with sesame seeds, a favorite of mine but everything else put me in mind of something similar that my grandmother used to make and when your cooking puts me in mind of hers you have started down a ruinous path. The truffle fries weren't much better, too soft and covered with enough black pepper to induce a fatal sneezing fit. Nicky's poutine was also a disappointment - the fries, or "chips" in that charming moon language of hers, had been overcooked and then left to fend for themselves under the heat lamp in a vast puddle of congealing gravy. It is no exaggeration to say that the $4.99 poutine at MegaBite pizza in Vancouver was considerably better and that's sadder than a four-car-pileup on Christmas Eve.

Most of us will experience disappointment in our lives. We won't get that big promotion, we'll come home to find our wife in bed with the L.A. Lakers or we'll find out that our rich old uncle Franzibald died and left us only a collection of tin spoons and his palsied cat. Having for years endured the twin indignities of ugliness & male pattern baldness my skin is thickened to disappointment and a bad lunch at the Pink Bicycle wasn't enough to spoil my day but it has put me off coming back any time soon. The meal put me in mind of another burger I've had recently, this one at the Pacific Lounge in the Hotel Grand Pacific. It cost slightly more than what I paid at the Bicycle and while it wasn't worth it either it was of a much higher quality. At least there my $41 either got me a quiet place to eat and a waiter who didn't have tunnel vision. I imagine that at some point I'll venture back to the Pink Bicycle and give it another shot, but until then I'll keep eating the Awesome Burger at Alzu's and praying to God that someone will open a Vera's Burger Shack in James Bay.

Sunday, 03 January 2010 05:25

Cirque du Agincourt

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Recently my wife Nicky informed me that she finds frustrating the Canadian habit of avoiding direct answers. I’d never given it much thought, nor had I ever considered England, her home, to be a place full of assertive, Type-A personalities shooting from the hip. As a nation aren’t they collectively known for being ineffective and evasive? I don’t recall any scenes in “Notting Hill” where Hugh Grant stops stammering, bangs his fist down on a table and says “Dammit Julia, I am sick of being charmingly befuddled. Get your kit off and bend over that sofa.” Certainly in times past the British could be counted on to speak their mind; in his 1835 “Minute on Education”, Thomas Macauley expounded “[a] single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. This was about the time that the empire had decided to “help” the Punjab by taking it over. But in modern Britain? Aside from Gordon Ramsay, who can be written off as an anomaly, and Simon Cowell, who is most certainly Satan, there was no evidence of this directness. Then I recalled His Hughness’ 1995 arrest for the solicitation of a Los Angeles prostitute and I realized it had been there all the time! Instead of making himself miserable by submerging his manly desires, getting a divorce or forcing his lovely wife Elizabeth Hurley to engage in lewd and no doubt un-Christian sexual acts, he found himself a hooker. Rather than waffle about what to do, or worse, sulk, Hugh took the initiative and made sure that the sun wasn’t the last thing to go down on the British Empire. That’s shooting from the hip – rule Britannia.

With that in mind I’m going to start today with a bit of British honesty: I don’t much like the French. Specifically, I do not much like the Quebecois. It’s important to make the distinction between the true French people and the charlatans that live in Quebec because I don’t wish to offend the good people of France. During my brief time in their lovely country they were no ruder to me than the wait staff in a vegan restaurant and several of them were very nearly helpful. In contrast, almost every interaction I’ve had with a French-Canadian has made me want to punch something. Their insistence on being seen as exclusively French and taking themselves so seriously makes them sound like a pubescent cub scout hollering “Ten-hut!” and waxing on about the soldier’s burden. They’re just trying too hard.

The culture they aspire to has given the world existentialism and Carla Bruni, yet the best they’ve managed is poutine and Celine Dion so it’s hard to figure out why the Quebecois are so smug. They’re basically the National Guard of francophone people, less French than Algeria. They have given us Cirque du Soleil though, and even “My Heart Will Go On” can’t diminish something like that.

My first encounter with Cirque du Soleil was when Nicky & I happened to be in San Francisco at the same time as their traveling production “Kooza”. I was thunderstruck by the lavish sets and physicality of the performers. They seemed to represent the pinnacle of fitness, muscular, yet slim - strong, yet graceful. I was particularly moved by the exuberance of those onstage. Of course they proudly displayed their bodies, if I looked like that I would too – I’d take out 15-foot-high billboards featuring me wearing only a unitard and a smile – but it never felt like the preening of the empty-headed narcissists you see in a gym. Instead they seemed compelled to perform, to go higher and further, like they’d been put on Earth solely for the thrill of defying gravity. Since that time I’ve seen two more shows, “Zumanity” and “Love” and my devotion has only grown. If these men and women represent the ideal God had in mind for the human form it’s hard not to forgive His naïve enthusiasm in creating so many of us.

To see the wonders that wait at the limit of the human body is a revelation; like discovering that Mount Olympus and its Pantheon orbit a distant star. This awakening to worlds unexplored swells my heart. First with sorrow, because the supplicant’s trembling hand can no more cross the gulf between balcony and stage than it can that between Earth and Cygnus. But very quickly that sorrow is eclipsed by another, stronger feeling: the spreading joy of a soul that has found new seas to sail.

In September Cirque du Soleil’s “Allegria” will be making its way to Victoria for a five-day, eight-performance run. I have no doubt that it will allow us, if only for a while, to untether our spirits and lead them into Empyrian realms we won’t soon forget. You won’t be disappointed. And if you are? Blame the French.

Update, March 28, 2012: Lully's is no more, replaced by the Cleopatra Hookah Bar. As of this writing the hookah bar is not yet open to the public but, according to a source, hopes to be soon.

 

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Like any good origin story the beginning of the sandwich is the subject of some conjecture: are they a super-intelligent race of aliens rendered mute by their entry into our atmosphere? Ancient texts that have the misfortune of tasting like Montreal smoked meat? Both tantalizing theories, both unlikely ever to be properly investigated.

The origin of the sandwich is lost to time and that may be for the best. Scholars everywhere would never have recovered from learning that all their lives they've been using their lunch hours to masticate what's left of the Alexandrian Library. What is known about the sandwich is that name itself comes from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich . An inveterate gambler & gourmand he demanded of his servant something that wouldn't require his Highness to shift His bulk away from his beloved card game. A full-turkey is a bit unwiedly to eat whilst gambling away the manor house so a piece of salt beef, wait for it, sandwiched between two toasted bits of bread fit the bill nicely instead and soon Montagu's fellow gambling addicts would order "the same as Sandwich!". That makes our most commonly eaten modern foodstuff named after an obese gambling addict.

You may disagree with me as to its ubiquity but you are quite wrong. Walk around the city and you'll see shop after shop whose display cases are full of sandwiches. Sure, some of them are dressed up with names like "panini", which sounds like an Italian violinist and the "ciabatta" or "filone" both of which sound like supercars but it's all the same thing. Maybe it's the six years I spent working in a delicatessan but whatever you decide to call it, "butterbrot", "manwich" or "Stanley", to me it is still just filling between bread; the sort of thing served in the rest home by nurses with soothing voices who, after feeding you, tell you that your no-account grandson called to cancel his visit. Again. The sandwich I had at Lully's Sandwich Bar was miles beyond that, thick, filling and delicious, but on their own they wouldn't win my recommendation. Couple that sandwich with Lully's homemade soup and it's almost enough to give a man religion.

Lully's opened in mid-October last year and has very quickly risen in popularity amongst the office lunch-hour set. When I stopped in last week I wasn't sure what to expect as, for reasons already stated, I usually avoid soup and sandwich joints, and when I need my quick lunchtime fix it's hard to walk past La Fiesta Cafe without stopping. In the bottom floor of the SoMA building, shoehorned between Japanese Villlage and the world's most high-tech parking garage, Lully's glass frontage & bright lights seem welcoming from the outside and that feeling stayed once I stepped inside. The restaurant itself is small, three counters and a handful of stools separated from the kitchen by a chest-high tile wall, itself topped with jars of cherry peppers & pickles. Everything very bright, everything very open and cheery, including the greeting I got from Scully White, owner and operator.

I ordered the "Rocknrolla Roast Beef Sandwich" on rye, the spicy potato & leek soup and a coffee. I defaulted to a Coke after learning there was no coffee. With only two other diners in the place I had a fair amount of room although I'm sure that changes on a busy lunch-hour. Above the front window there is a raft of Liverpool F.C. gear, a nice change considering that most European League football fans in North America are fixated on that pack of hooligans Manchester United.

There was also a television that was tuned, unsurprisingly, to a football game. Despite spending 5 months of 2008 living in the U.K. I still think watching a two-hour football match is more boring than the driving section of the Times-Colonist so while I waited I focused my attention on the floor-to-ceiling windows rather than the television above. "People-watching" is a fun way to kill a bit of time and you're forever learning new things. It has taught me, among other things, that Victoria has far too many severe-looking career women with pulled-back hair who appear to have bartered away their breasts to God in exchange for a scowl that could curdle milk. You can't learn these kinds of things in school.

When lunch arrived I was immediately impressed. The sandwich itself, roast beef on black forest rye with horseradish, lettuce, tomato, pickle, cucumber & a cherry pepper, was enormous, fresh and delicious. And the soup? Oh the soup. Hearty without being rich, nice big chunks of potato and just spicy enough that you notice, don't tell my grandmother but it was easily the best soup I've ever had. Apropos of nothing, Scully brought the few customers in the place samplers of the other three soups he had on that day: barley, pea & cream of broccoli. Each of them was perfect, the barley for one had a strong but not overpowering taste of rosemary that set it off perfectly. The cream of broccoli particularly impressed me because I don't normally like the stuff and I finished the entire cup that I was given. By the time I was finished I was absolutely stuffed, so full and so pleased with the quality of what was on offer that the $16.57 I'd paid for soup, sandwich & soda seemed a great deal. No, it's not cheap but it's worth it. My only real complaint is the lack of a hot drink selection on the menu. It doesn't need to be fancy, no one needs a latte with their smoked-meat sandwich but a straight-up cup of joe would have finished the meal perfectly.

When your only complaint about a place is one item missing from the beverage menu you know they're doing something right. In the case of Lully's Sandwich Bar they're doing a lot of things right and the fact that they're doing so after only having been open a few months is staggering. I know I'll be back. Hopefully there's a cup of coffee waiting.

Flying is idiotic. Not all flying of course, I'm well aware that without the power of flight bumblebees, herons and the like would have a hard time getting around. Human beings however were not born with the benefit of wings and are not particularly aerodynamic so we've spent the better part of our history tottering about on two legs, trying not to fall from high places and doing just fine. A pack of maniacs who women tend to avoid decided that their free time would be best spent trying to defy nature and eventually, after much tribulation, we had the aeroplane. The start of the airline industry meant that ordinary folks like you and me got to experience the immediacy of mortality courtesy of a flimsy metal tube hurtling across the sky at 500 miles an hour. Because government bodies thrive on misery the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was passed, which gave airlines & passengers carte blanche to stop caring about anything.

From then on ordinary folks like you and me still got to experience the glory of the Skycoffin but now with two hundred other people dressed in sweat-pants, all with whooping plague, enjoying the same level of comfort offered in a cattleyard. Add in turbulence and the looming possibility that some resentful virgin who spends too much time on the internet has hidden explosives in his underpants and air travel for fun makes as much sense as trying to kick a bear in the testicles. The only time I will consent to air travel is when time is short, such as this weekend past when Nicky & I visited our friends Rose & Scott in Portland.

Flying in the Dash 8 aircraft used by Air Canada for short hops like Victoria-Vancouver & Vancouver-Portland is to feel like you've been packed into a Port-a-John and launched by catapult. I'm not normally a religious man but but if the almighty has an answering machine then by the time I got to PDX I'd filled the tape. It was all worth it though, to see good friends, have good times and eat good food. Portland eateries have almost never disappointed me and Helser's comes in at the top of what was already an esteemed list.

Like Victoria, Portland has a wide variety of breakfast joints whose will fans swear that their spot is the best in the city. If we'd been unaccompanied it would have been far too easy to walk into the Portland equivalent of the Swiftsure but thankfully with Rose & Scott to hand we ended up in Helser's, which runs more to the "Blue Fox" end of the scale. Entering the restaurant I wasn't very impressed; the decor is bland, the ceilings high, lots of light, big windows and though it wasn't very busy noise was getting ready to become an issue. The waitress who sat us made us feel right at home though and once I saw the menu my opinion change completely.

I was impressed by the variety of things on offer that went past the usual omelettes and benedicts; for example, as of this writing one of their weekly specials is "Grilled Chorizo & Jalapeno Polenta". Maybe you can't handle spicy food for breakfast but I think it's reassuring to know that Helser's caters to people who can. People who love hot food are slightly mad and almost always from the south which means they're a temperamental lot who are guaranteed to be armed. Having them in one place might seem like a bad idea but in reality no good ol' boy is ever going to stop eating long enough to draw one of his eight guns. It's when they start playing cards that you need to keep one eye on the door.

Almost choosing the Black Bean Chili Scramble, I instead went with the Pear & Havarti Pie ($7.95), "Bartlett pears and havarti cheese baked in an egg custard served with crème fraiche, fresh fruit and a toasted crumpet" with a scotch egg on the side & Nicky had the German Pancake ($6.90), "Whipped eggs, flour and milk with lemon zest. Oven baked until golden brown". The pie was magnificent, warm, not too sweet and with a great texture. The separate tastes of pear & cheese worked well together and combined with the custard was quite unlike anything I'd tried before. The scotch egg? Delicious and everything that a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage can be.

Nicky's German pancake looked like a large Yorkshire pudding and tasted light and sweet. The lemon and sugar inside set it off perfectly and she loved every bite. As texture goes it seemed to be halfway between the usual, IHOP-style pancake and a crepe although I never actually got to try a piece so I can't say for sure. My fork made a brief pass in the direction of Nic's plate and I nearly lost a finger, so I took the hint. The pressure is now on for me to cook this at home. Good thing I've recently installed new batteries in the smoke detector.

Travel is en vogue now, you can't throw a rock without hitting someone who's been, or going on, a round-the-world trip. Even some of the most extreme tourists are starting to lose their cool cachet as more and more people write books about how they backpacked Angola while wearing only a codpiece made of wattles. This can only be a good thing - as Mark Twain said, "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime." Sure, on this occasion we didn't venture very far out of our corner of the world, hell we didn't make it out of the Pacific Northwest, but we did end up with some broad, wholesome views of a great city and its food. Helser's was just the beginning and it set the bar high. Next week we'll be back in Victoria with a review of one place or another. I'll be as surprised as you. See you then.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010 05:20

Review: Cafe Brio | 744 Fort Street | Victoria

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Update, June 2015:  While the experience described below was less than stellar, don't let that discourage you from trying Cafe Brio - their food is generally excellent and their service is even better.  Make sure you try the olives ascolani

 

For the longest time fine restaurants held no appeal for me. Growing up in Revelstoke, most of what I learned of upscale restaurants I learned from the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". I came to associate fine-dining with soft music, portions scarcely bigger than my thumb and DJ Jazzy Jeff being thrown through French doors. The details of eating in bistros or brasseries, like "salad forks", seemed weird & impenetrable, like French, and having to wear a jacket and tie just to eat dinner seemed diabolical. A jacket inside? And a necktie? Hell. Neckties are the miserable invention of some secret pervert with an interest in auto-erotic asphyxiation. You can't use them to sop up gravy, blow your nose or wipe your....er...nose, so I ask you - what does that leave?

Once I started paying for my own meals I headed straight for the type of place that didn't have dress codes. The best amongst them actively discouraged the wearing of anything hinting at affluence. Were you to enter the Central Station Pub in Kamloops wearing a suit, or even a pressed pair of trousers, the night would end with you upended in an alleyway trash-bin. Now and again, though, there are times when I want a quiet meal somewhere I won't be rolled for my pocket change. This weekend our friend Joline stopped in while on vacation from the U.K. and we decided to take her to one such place, our favorite "nice" restaurant, Cafe Brio.

Our reservation was for 7:30 and we arrived just a little early. If you've not been there, it's worth stopping in just to check out the decor. On either side of the entrance is an enclosed patio with wrought-iron railings, the perfect place to enjoy a midsummer night's meal. Once inside I'm always struck by the deep autumn colours and unique light fixtures. Make no mistake, Cafe Brio is one of the best-looking restaurants in the city. It's also one of the best-staffed; we were greeted, seated and given menus right away.

Nicky was disappointed to learn that the lamb she'd had on previous occasions was out of season but after some deliberation she happily settled on the "roast foie gras-stuffed duck breast with potato cannelloni, roast beets and green onion" ($29). I ordered the same, Joline the the "potato gnocchi and shredded chicken confit with cabbage, mireppoix and red wine jus" ($23) and we decided to start with three "Olives Ascolani" ($2 each).

They arrived before long, large stuffed olives breaded & lightly fried. I am Italian and thus genetically hardwired to enjoy olives so when I say these were delicious you would be forgiven for thinking my opinion biased. It's harder to dismiss Nicky's endorsement; she loved them and this from a woman who tries to avoid anything not manufactured by Cadburys.

The handful of times I've been to Cafe Brio the serving staff has been friendly and efficient and this occasion was no different; they were always on hand to make sure that our water glasses were topped up and we had enough bread. Nonetheless, after a while it occurred to us that our meals were taking their sweet time finding the way to the table. If the Rocky films taught me anything it was that chickens are much harder to catch than ground squirrels or the measles so I started to think that maybe in the kitchen some poor sous chef was chasing around the poultry meant for Joline's confit.

It was unlikely that ducks could be the cause of any real trouble as they seem to be a placid and unclever species. In fact it hardly seems sporting to eat them at all but that kind of morality is a minefield. Cows have less defensive capability than a chesterfield and if we eliminated them from our diets we'd be down to pigs, birds and tofu, none of which delivers a worthwhile steak.

When our meals arrived we were both impressed until we uncovered the breast and realized that it looked very much like a Thrifty's hot dog. I'll admit that my only other encounters with ducks have been at Chinese restaurants and in front of the Hotel Grand Pacific but I've never imagined that their insides naturally looked like Nathan's Famous Frankfurters. Joline's meal arriving separately several minutes later made for an awkward moment as we stared at our plates and tried to determine whether etiquette allowed us to start eating before her.

Of course we did, and a good thing too, because our meals were already less than piping hot. The duck itself was unimpressive, slightly rubbery and as I said, not very hot. The flavor wasn't terrible but underwhelming for what is normally a very flavorful bird. The roast beets were nice, firm and flavored as they were with the jus & the cannelloni was good as well; the potato filling was rich and creamy and the shell itself crisp and rich if not very warm. Joline's meal, eventually arrived and she was satisfied but not impressed. The potato gnocchi were too soft which gave them a gummy texture but the flavor was nice and went well with the mirepoix & jus. The confit was rich and pleasing but suffered from the same temperature issue as our duck.

"Jersey Shore" has taught me that abs & a spray-on tan are enough to make you a success in the eyes of the world, or at least America, no personality required. In a lot of cases having a personality can make your life a lot harder by rendering you unable to be an effective cipher on which unimaginative idiots can project their own limited version of the world. It's rare to find a combination of looks, talent & personality and that's why it's so disappointing to say that this particular meal at Cafe Brio was a waste. It's a great restaurant with a lot going for it but consistency counts more than anything and getting burned for $29 makes me skittish about going back. When my $4.99 chicken wings at the Bird of Paradise sit under the heat lamp too long I'm not that put out. Cafe Brio has a higher standard to live up to and my serving of "Duck a la Oscar Meyer" didn't even come close.

Wednesday, 03 February 2010 05:10

Review: Earls | 1199 Government Street | Victoria

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There are a lot of reasons why it might seem pointless to review a chain restaurant: the recipes are mostly the same at every location from San Francisco to Jacksonville, and, as a friend pointed out, if a formula is successful enough to generate franchises who am I to argue? Well, over the years I've eaten at Boston Pizza, Red Robin & Ricky's All-Day Grill, and the only thing they do well is back up what H.L. Mencken said about getting rich by underestimating the taste of the American public. The quality of a restaurant depends more on the competence of those preparing the food than it does on recipes alone so if the folks behind the scenes have as much enthusiasm for food as I do honest work then your dining experience will be as much fun as mopping the floors in an adult theatre.

Almost any franchise that opened up in my hometown of Revelstoke over the years has either folded or maintained a consistently execrable standard, the only obvious reason being the available pool of listless halfwits willing to work for the wages on offer. Paying peanuts will most assuredly get you monkeys. Dan has always been a devoted fan of the Earls chain, for which I've hassled him endlessly but his ability to ignore me is almost unparalleled. Only my wife does it better. So when Dan informed me that Earls would be the chosen venue for his 26th birthday I figured there was no point poking fun and that inferior factory-prepared food would vindicate my snobbery. And you know what? The bastards made us a great meal and I barely had enough room left to eat my words.

We hadn't bothered to make reservations so when we showed up at 8:30 with a party of seven to see a busy restaurant I thought we were sunk. The hostess though was completely unfazed and in less than five minutes had managed to put a suitable table together, earning my admiration & setting a high standard of service that was kept to the entire evening. The decor of the Earl's on Government is baffling, with it's hanging lights, mirrors, orange glass and wood panelling it looks the Starship Voulez Vouz from planet ABBA, crash-landed in Victoria a thousand years ago when its engines ran dry of cocaine and polyester. I told myself that the repetitious, bowel-shaking bass note coming over the speakers wasn't actually the work of the mad DJ Hochschulegeld Vergeudet but was instead the Voulez Vouz's ancient SOS casting its plaintive cry for rescue to the stars: "Dear Emperor Gibb - Send the Manero-bot. And roller-skates." We could still hear each other with minimal effort so the music wasn't as loud as it could have been, or had this been Friday night, would have been, but in my heart I am a seventy year old man and would have preferred it either turned down or off.

A few of my previous reviews have commented on the fact that our food spent some time getting a heat-lamp tan before deciding to join us at the table so I was thrilled with the speed at which our appetizers arrived and the fact that my "Cracked Pepper Ribs" were still too hot to touch. While they cooled I exercised my right to eminent domain on Max's spinach & feta dip with bread and was very impressed. Nicky found the feta taste overpowering but it hit the right notes with everyone else and we were all happy that the amount of bread provided was just enough to finish the dip. We were all in agreement on the ribs as well, they were evenly covered in cracked pepper and cooked to perfection with very little fat on the bone. My main course was the grilled chicken & baked brie ciabatta with apples, spinach & fig jam ($13) and it too arrived quickly and oven hot. The chicken was juicy & the apples provided a nice sweet counterpart to the heavy taste of brie. The fries were competent if not on par with those on offer at Red Fish, Blue Fish, and they combined nicely with a side of hot sauce.

Nicky ordered the oven-roasted chicken with potatoes and seasonal vegetables and while she said everything was up to par it felt a bit on the light side given the $19 price tag. For dessert we shared the sticky toffee pudding with chocolate sauces and vanilla bean gelato ($7.55) which was nicely presented with oh-so-artistic swirls of chocolate sauce and a lattice of brandy crisp but turned out to be very dry in the middle, probably owing to too much time in the microwave. Concerns about price aside the table was almost unanimous on the food's quality and we all walked away satisfied and considerably heavier.

Birthdays are a strange kind of celebration, the one day a year when Death makes sure to softly tap us on the shoulder and say, "Hey buddy, how you doing? Been thinking about you lately. You look good, been working out? Careful with that bench-press stuff - drop one of those weights and, well, you know. Drive safe." Then he palms a a few canapes into his pocket for later and heads off into the sunshine to fill someone else's big day with nagging thoughts of mortality. We're not the only species that mourn the dead but as far as I know we are the only ones who merrily tick off the beads on life's abacus while singing a song.

When I was a kid birthdays meant running through Oliver's backyard or cramming down handfuls of Brenda's delicious peanut-butter Rice Krispie bars and these thoughts couldn't be farther from my head. The world seemed endless, the people in it ageless and the only thing I needed to worry about was what my grandmother was going to inflict on us for dinner - pork chops and potatoes or potatoes and pork chops. Now I see that we're all of us aging just a little bit each day, and the birthdays keep stacking up, but I've concluded that as long as we have more good days than bad we're doing just fine. Dan's birthday dinner at Earls was a good day and a great time and I can't think of much that could have made it better. Except some of those Rice-Krispie bars.

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