Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vancouver: Ultimate Comfort Food at Burgoo Bistro

I love Burgoo. It must be one of the restaurants I miss most about Vancouver (plus the general seafood and fresh sushi, of course!). The Burgoo I frequent is off West 10th - since then, other locations have opened in North Van and on Main Street. This was a favourite of mine when I lived on campus...the perfect comfort food in a cozy, rustic setting. Who wouldn't love a restaurant that specializes in stews and soups??

Favourite items at Burgoo include the decadent French onion soup, Kenturky Burgoo, lamb tangine, cheese fondue and for dessert, the chocolate banana bread pudding. I originally fell in love with Burgoo over a Singapore Laksa, but it's been a long time since it disappeared from the menu...sadness. They always change and expand their menu, adding items of different origins and also a lighter offering during Summer, more suited for the warm weather. The Winter stews and soups, of course, are why I love it though!

Without any fixed plans on our "free" day in Vancouver last week, we made our way to Burgoo for lunch. Sure, we could have gone to Main Street, but I'm emotionally attached to the West 10th location :) We stopped in just before 1pm, and funny thing, it was PACKED. Late lunch for a lot of people on a balmy Friday afternoon I guess! The menu has expanded since I was last there, but the old favourites remain. We started with a delicious wild mushroom pate that was topped with salted hazelnuts. It was served cold and MUCH bigger than I expected. If I really had to eat 50% of it, I probably would have been full! Luckily, if anyone loves mushroom pate more than me it's probably Tony! We also couldn't resist ordering the Fonduemental fondue - Guyere and Emmenthal melted with white wine and other herbs, served with grapes and bread. Sooooo good! As you can imagine, we were already quite full after our "starters." But we pressed on, with a new item on the menu (new for me!), paella. It was quite big, so it's a good thing we didn't each order a "main."
It was as deliciously savoury as I had imagined, but I think not as unique as some of the favourites I like. Still, we inhaled it all. And sure enough, we bravely ordered the chocolate banana bread pudding. Even the waitress was impressed we could still eat....BARELY, but it was worth a try. The chocolate banana bread pudding is really AMAZING, with melted chocolate chips on top, it's actually not too sweet either, because it's dark chocolate with banana bread. The fruit crumble is actually quite good as well, but really, how can you have room for more than one dessert after all the amazing food to start?

Burgoo, will you please open in Toronto? I promise to visit all the time!

Burgoo Bistro, Vancouver
4434 W10th Ave/3 Lonsdale Ave (North Van)/3096 Main St

Friday, February 18, 2011

Valentine's Day: A Phenomenal Meal At Lee Lounge!

I wasn't sure where we were going for Valentine's was going to be a surprise! But I had a sneaking suspicion when by chance, I found Susur on twitter last weekend, and noticed that Lee Lounge was going to be open for the 14th, and I was right! Arriving at Lee, we quickly discovered Lee Lounge was really an extension of the always popular Lee, breaking through the East wall of the existing restaurant into a more laid back and open lounge/restaurant area. A case of mismatched expectations, we thought Lee Lounge would be a totally different restaurant like Susur and Madeline's had been in the past, but it actually shares the Lee menu. To be fair, we've always really liked Lee, it just wasn't what we were expecting for whatever reason. We were excited to see Susur in the house and knew we'd have a good meal ahead! There is a refreshed menu, which still boasts favourites like the Singapore slaw, braised beef, cod, orzo and others, but with some new items we were eager to try. Lee was also featuring a "double happiness" Valentine's special menu. We ultimately ended up with a phenomenal feast, a party for our pallets, and one of the best meals we've had in a long time. Susur, we've missed you!

We started with half a dozen oysters from the Valentine's feature menu, topped with a bit of salted chili, shallots and calamansi lime. It added just a hint of flavour to enhance the delicious oysters. And we were on our way for the food adventure! Next came something from the Lee menu, spicy tofu served on a thick honey glaze, coated with a secret mixed spice, aptly named "golden dust" and topped with mushroom and pepper compote. This tofu was AMAZING! You may read a lot of "amazing" in this post, but the tofu was one of the most surprising and enjoyable dishes we had all night. The firm tofu cubes was just loaded with flavour, and not actually too spicy. Every bite was exciting!

Then came the seared diver scallops, also from the regular menu. They were gigantic, seared just right of course, and boasted a familiar old school dim sum flavour while not being traditional at all. I can't tell you exactly what that familiar flavour was, but we felt like the scallops really embodied "modern" Chinese food with traditional influences. No one integrates flavours quite like Susur. We also had the peking duck from e Valentine's menu... served with a deliciously light foie gras mousse. This dish was so intricate and detailed, from the delicate rice wraps, to the exceptionally tender (and plentiful) duck, to the assortment of cucumbers, green onion and persimmon strips that accompanied. It was a fun course, making our fancy little duck wraps and topping it with foie gras, you really can't go wrong. It was light and just enhanced the taste perfectly! Could our meal get any betterr??

The answer is yes. Next came a new addition to the Lee menu, Susur's dish from Top Chef masters, where he scored the highest score on the show: green curry chicken with chili mint chutney and sun fried tomato jam. I don't exactly remember the episode to recall the judge's reactions, but simply this dish was WOW! I was expecting some normal curry dish (sauce like) with chicken; but instead, was served breaded chicken with a unique infusion of green curry flavour accented with other great Thai flavours scents. It tasted so amazing I felt obligated to tell the couple next to us they had to order it (they were already spying on our dishes, I might as well!). This is a MUST-HAVE if you are stopping by Lee, no over-rated dish here.

Needless to say, we were pretty full by the time we got through our dishes, but couldn't possibly pass up dessert. We had the combo platter with chocolate lava cake (always good and a favourite on the menu) with black sticky rice pudding (black barley), and also the new French and Chinese tong-yuen (glutinous rice balls filled with sesame, nuts and other goodies) served on individual spoons. Sooo good and totally worth stuffing our already stuffed bellies.

Lee did not disappoint us this Valentine's Day! We have found some V-Day menus to be sub-par in the past, but Lee's renewed menu along with the new, more luxe and spacious Lee Lounge was definitely a treat for us. Definitely one of the best meals we've had this year! Please stop by and eat the green curry chicken, the tofu and the tong yuen! My one recommendation for Lee Lounge is they need a bigger assortment of cocktails to live up to the lounge name :)

Lee/Lee Lounge
603 King Street West

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Chic Experience at Scarpetta Toronto

We don't often head out for fancy Italian, French is more our cuisine of choice, but I had a craving for some good carbs last night. There were a couple restaurants that had opened in the last year that I had been interested in checking out but never made it was a toss up between Enoteca Sociale and Scarpetta. I was craving some good tagliatelle, and Enoteca Sociale's offering with goat ragu was definitely calling my name; unfortunately, they were full for the night (with a chance of walk-in availability of course). But we were quite hungry and didn't want to risk having to search out another restaurant should it be we went to Scarpetta instead for some New York charm.

I've stayed at the Thompson Hotel before for a stagette, where Scarpetta is housed, it's a swanky hotel that exudes the uptown, sophisticated New York vibe it's going for. I was always a little skeptical but the Thompson has done a fine job. It is definitely a very chic crowd. Apparently, this crowd is there 7 days a week, which amazes me more...where do they come from??

Scarpetta is an extension of the chic charm of the Thompson, not unexpectedly of course. I was amazed by the number of service people on much there probably wasn't enough for everyone to to do, since I noticeably saw them sitting around, but I'm not one to complain about dedication to service. I'm not going to lie, I found there to be an air of snobbery, but it was the food we were there for and for that, I couldn't wait. We had previewed the menu online and there were a couple items I already had in mind.

Before our starters even came we were served a great assorted bread basket. I was most excited by the bread that kind of looked like a cinnamon bun with layers of prociutto (or some other ham) in between the layers. It was sooo good! I bypassed the rest of the bread although it looked very good...had to save room for my main starches!

Yellowtail Sashimi: it was ok, nothing spectacular. I'm not sure why I decided to have this, because choosing sushi in an Italian restaurant doesn't really make sense, but I must have come across a couple reviews that had mentioned it, rendering it a recognizable item on the menu I felt like we had to try. I've had "fusion" sushi/sashimi dishes before at other restaurants where added ingredients really are great, but in this case it wasn't anything spectacular. The fish was certainly very fresh, but the oil it was served with was not to my liking. I just prefer good, fresh fish if it's going to be simple. It wasn't BAD, but I can't say it was my favourite or something I'd have to have again.

Raw Waygu Beef: Raw beef is a favourite of mine so of course we decided to give it a try. A tight cluster of tartare was served with wild greens, mushrooms and a side of hazelnuts. I don't know what else it was made with but it was really delicious! The beef was very fresh, firm (I hate mushy raw beef) and prepared with simple accentuating ingredients. Even Tony enjoyed the accompanying greens and he would normally never choose salad :) I thoroughly enjoyed this modern dish.

Polenta with Truffled Mushrooms: I can't say I would have picked this dish right off the menu, other than the obvious attraction of "truffled mushrooms." But I did stumble upon a review that claimed having the polenta was like he had died and gone to heaven. That is a pretty big statement! Thankfully, it did not disappoint! The polenta came in a little bowl, and the truffled mushrooms in its own accompanying pot. Our server spooned a small amount on the pollen, and we of course drenched some more on our own plates. I was wonderful, and I liken it to having high-end, adult mashed potatoes and gravy....same kind of comfort and satisfaction. This was Tony's favourite appy while mine was the beef, but I would definitely want to order this again, one of those great dishes you can not get enough of.

Duck and Foie Gras Ravioli: Little triangle pockets of duck and foie gras made up this dish. I loved the one bit triangles, although it was hard to discern if I was tasting more duck or foie gras. It a very distinct taste, almost like duck egg. Although it was very good, and certainly very unique, I'm not sure I could have finished a whole plate by myself - probably would have been too filling.

Rabbit Tagliatelle: Since this is what I was craving, I was immediately drawn to this item on the menu. It did not disappoint me - the tagliatelle thick. I really enjoyed it but not sure if it was actually fresh pasta, it didn't have that lightness that fresh pasta, quickly cooked and ready has. It was a little more starchy and heavier than fresh pasta usually has. In any case, it was still very good, I actually quite liked the big thick noodles, and the braised rabbit was exactly what I wanted, and even a little lighter than I expected so it all came together nicely. I easily could have eaten the whole dish, but I did spare Tony some to try!

Coconut Panna Cotta: This was truly delightful, made with caramelized pineapple bits (amazing!) and served in a guava soup (again, amazing!), and topped with a sorbet to refresh your taste buds should it be a litle sweet, and also a really good deep fried coconut crisp. Sometimes, crisps served on dessert are a bit stale and soggy, but this was crunchy and very good! All the elements worked nicely together, making for a wonderfully refreshing dessert to finish a great meal.

There was also the option of assorted cheeses, which I was too full to completely indulge, but like any good restaurant the server was happy to bring me the one cheese that did catch my eye, a cow/goat/sheep soft cheese. It was served with a simple fruit chutney that perfectly complemented the taste. Was great! It also came with a bubbly biscuit (lifesaver like in shape) which I didn't have much of since I was alreayd full and didn't feel like it added anything.

Scarpetta was a good splurge. The food was unique, delicious and beautifully served, just what I expect from a high-end dining establishment. I was previously concerned it was overrated but I am thoroughly satisfied with its quality and appeal. This is definitely a place to celebrate a special occasion...or if you're like us, just randomly want a nice night out with some good, specially prepared food. A couple of watch outs - the tables on left side of the restaurant when you enter leave the person sitting on the banquette facing the window AND the parking lot across the street, I had some bright lights in my eyes a couple times...not bliding but a bit annoying. I did appreciate, however, that they did not fill all the tables in the section, so you actually had some privacy when dining. And speaking of the parking across the street, it was not readily available as we had expected and that lot charges $15, same as valet. We did find street parking a block or so away which was only $4 something...the street parking right by the lot was mysteriously blocked by pillions.

Scarpetta (@ Thompson Hotel Toronto)
550 Wellington


WINTERLICIOUS: Contemporary French at Celestin

Another Winterlicious has passed us and time to reminisce about our last meal of the "season." Our first taste of Celestin was several years ago when Tony bought me a delicious birthday cake from the bakery. Truthfully, I had heard mixed things about the restaurant so I couldn't wait to check it out for myself. And really, you can't go wrong during Winterlicious - even if a 3 course meal were bad, it's not like you blew a lot of money trying a new place out.

Celestin is a fairly small intimate restaurant, contemporary in nature but not too sleek and still holds some traditional charm. The good and bad thing about Winterlicious is you don't need to spend a lot of time studying the menu, you only choose between a couple set options, but part of the fun is evaluating the options and deciding what to eat! In any case, we were quick to browse the menu and made our decisions.

There was no doubt what started I would have, the lobster bisque, one of my most favourite things in the world, how could I ever resist?? It was as delicious as I expected, with a light froth and solid lobster meat (it is my pet peeve when there is no actual lobster meat!). I definitely could have used more in my little bowl. Tony had a delicious ricotta gnocchi, was light and just right as an appetizer.

I had a braised lamb shoulder with prawns and white beans as my main, which was quite good except that I don't like white beans very much (I must have overlooked it on the menu!). Tony's roast sea bream was really good, the fish was prepared just perfect and served beautifully. Although both our mains were tasty, I thought the fish was more exceptional in its preparation. I love good fish when it is cooked to the right level with just enough flavour added.

I can't say the portions were exceptionally large so I definitely had sufficient room for dessert - a Creme Arlequin which was some version of a creme brûlée topped with this amazing layer of dark chocolate. It was amazing! We also had a Winter Pudding with caramelized apples, which was also very yummy. i think the best part was that the desserts were delicately prepared and not too sweet. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, but the Creme Arlequin was definitely the better surprise of the two.

Overall, we really enjoyed our experience at Celestin. The food was good, the restaurant nice and quiet enough to catch up with friends, and the service was friendly and intimate. It's a little more modern than Auberge, but food still quite good, although more simple. I appreciate when a restaurant doesn't overbook themselves for Winterlicious. We felt comfortable and had a nice time. As we looked around the room, it looked like a lot of regulars visiting. A nice side benefit is that there is a public parking lot across the street from Celestin - having parking is an underrated asset. We've wasted a lot of time driving round and around the block to find street parking in the mid-town areas and is very annoying, enough to deter me from visiting again.

623 Mount Pleasant Rd.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

WINTERLICIOUS: Quality Food, Service and Ambiance at Auberge du Pommier

We were most excited about our Winterlicious reservation at Auberge du Pommier, a lovely French restaurant in North York. Although minutes from my office, it has always been a bit far to trek on the weekend. This year, we got an early reservation to drop in right after work with our friends Al and Gloria...perfect!

I think Auberge is one of those restaurants that really takes pride on delivering a great Winterlicious/Summerlicious experience, which can't be said about all participating restaurants. When you make a reservation at Auberge, you know it will be a quality experience. It was our first time at the restaurant so we were eager to start eating.

To start, Tony and I were both most interested in the puff pastry with goat cheese...but since we always want to try as much as possible, we also ordered the sweet shrimp cocktail salad. The puff pastry did not disappoint - it was a simple dish (not to understate the actual complexity to make!), delicious, and served beautifully accompanied by delicate. The shrimp cocktail salad was a VERY good choice, it came as a tower of shrimp served with dill and tarragon and was super tasty! I felt like I could have had a whole second plate and was eager to sweep up the remaining sauce with bread. It always pays off to try more items on the menu! In the end, I think this was my favourite dish of the night.

Choosing mains was tough, all 3 options sounded good. We ultimately settled on peppered Wellington County beef and baked pickerel, giving up the coq au vin. The beef was very good, had great "beef" flavour, which is always hard to find. The flavour was almost baked into the meat, it was slightly dry but great flavour made it for me. My fish was prepared just perfect, although not outstanding in any particular way, I still really enjoyed it. It's not always easy to serve baked fish with just the right texture, tenderness and flavour.

For dessert, I opted for the cheese plate with "Le Blackburn" and
Tony salted caramel mousse with caramelized white chocolate torte and banana chocolate sorbet. My cheese plate was good, but a little disappointing. I was expecting an assortment of cheeses - simply my misunderstanding. The cheese was actually quite good, but as I prefer soft cheeses, I think I "under" enjoyed it. Tony's dessert, on the other hand, was wonderful. Everything on the plate was good! I was initially hesitant because I am not in love with caramel, but the salted caramel mousse was really tasty along with the torte and the all came together beautifully. Having chocolate banana sorbet is just awesome - who doesn't like chocolate and banana??

We had a great experience at Auberge - it is a solid French restaurant, a rustic house adding to the simple and understated charm. I also appreciated the exceptional attention to service, our plates always came with two servers at a time...these small details matter. I always feel a tad rushed for Winterlicious meals, but and although our food came quickly Auberge did not compromise quality or service.

Auberge du Pommier - guaranteed for a good Winterlicious experience!

Auberge du Pommier
4150 Yonge Street