Happy Meals: Best Meals of 2010

December 16, 2010

Bits and Bites

Over the last 15 years, my husband and I have watched our neighbourhood, Davie Village, undergo a mini version of the Vancouver restaurant revolution. Amid the sex shops and dry-cleaners, there’s now a buffet of interesting cuisine served up with enthusiasm and knowledge. True to the personality of Davie, the new restaurants are casual, well priced, and—most important for tapas—open late. One of the great additions is Mis Trucos, where Kris Barnholden serves up true Spanish tapas with a Vancouver chef’s attention to the fresh and local. Earlier this year, I met Pilar Randolph, who heads up Wines from Spain, to talk business and work our way through most of the small plates on the menu. We met at 10 p.m., the proper time for tapas, and started with refreshing fino sherry and savoury white anchovies. An all-Iberian wine list made it easy to find pairings for other delicious classics, like salt cod fritters and braised octopus. Pilar and I enjoyed fabulous tapas and did business on a leisurely Spanish schedule. And yet it didn’t feel like Spain. It felt like Davie.—Barb Philip

Mis Trucos 1141 Davie St., 604-566-3960

 

Garden Wise

It was a meal so remarkable, I often reflect on that night and wonder why Sooke Harbour House hasn’t become an international sensation. This groundbreaking inn, perched on Whiffen Spit, outside Victoria, has followed an intensely local, hyper-seasonal philosophy for 31 years. To salute the beginning of spring, our five-course meal began with roasted onion and wild stinging nettle soup, the latter (surprisingly sweet) spinach-like green being one of the earliest to pop up in the woods. Almost every ingredient on the menu—from the tiny gooseneck barnacles to the bright-green sea lettuce foam—came from local farmers, foragers, and fishers. The rest was handpicked from the inn’s own certified-organic garden. Each plate was a sophisticated riot of colour (red-veined bloody dock, ruby-streaked mustard greens), flavour (peppery calendula petal oil), and fragrance (lemony Mabel Grey geranium in the butternut squash agnolotti). To finish, fennel spun into a birthday sponge cake layered with rhubarb, angelica, and apricot mousse. That’s what I call extreme (and extremely delicious) terroirism.—Alexandra Gill

Sooke Harbour House 1528 Whiffen Spit Rd., Sooke, 250-642-3421. Sookeharbourhouse.com

 

Off with Their Heads

Anyone who’s had the good fortune to go out on a commercial prawn boat, or pull a few traps of their own, knows how satisfying it is to snap off the head of a prawn right out of the water and suck the flesh from the shell. Lots of city restaurants now buy live B.C. spot prawns off the boat during the brief May season. But most of them don’t use the whole critter. Every season Miku serves a special spot prawn menu—salads, sashimi, aburi (lightly scorched) sushi, but best of all, as a group of us found out last year, with the heads deep-fried. Prepared this way, the heads—whiskers stiff, eyes like little black balls, crispy, crunchy, salty, and just a little bit soft inside—make for glorious drinking food. We paired them with Granville Island sake. (Perhaps by this May we’ll pair them with sake made from Cowichan Bay-grown rice, right next to where many of the prawns are trapped.) Even my skeptical guests agreed that heads are yet another good reason to prefer B.C. spots to the tails of Asian tiger prawns.—Christina Burridge

Miku 1055 West Hastings Street., 604-568-3900. Mikurestaurant.com

 

Field Notes

With the possible exception of a delirium-inducing dinner at Lumière, nothing has come close to topping this past summer’s Outstanding in the Field supper, held at Pemberton’s North Arm Farm. It was just one of dozens of outdoor dinners put on by California-based chef Jim Denevan and his merry troupe of travelling gourmands. Every summer they criss-cross the continent in an old 1950s bus, hooking up with local farmers, chefs, artisan producers, and winemakers to host multi-course dinners in “outstanding” natural settings. This one went down on a perfect day—still and sunny—amid the dramatic farmscape of North Arm (owned by Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy). I’ve never seen such a spread: over 200 guests seated at an unbelievably long table, draped in white linen. Araxi’s James Walt was in charge of the cooking: delicate crêpes of Dungeness crab in cool, garlicky gazpacho lead to fried squash blossoms stuffed with Salt Spring Island Moonstruck organic cheese, a ballotine of wild sockeye lit with peppermint-kissed salmon caviar, and a closer of Pemberton Meadows beef cheeks and shortribs laced with horseradish salsa verde. Walt rose to the occasion with such authority that when the last spoon was licked clean, all rose at the end to applaud.—Andrew Morrison  

Araxi 4222 Village Gate Square, Whistler, 604-932-4540. Araxi.com

 

Made in Vancouver

One night not long ago I found myself dining at Red Star with a group of seasoned Chinese restaurant pros that included Tony Kam (owner of Grand Honor), Wenshi Guan (of Shi-Art), and William Tse (supplier extraordinaire). Red Star has long been regarded for its in-house roasted meats and clean Cantonese-style execution of dishes, and it didn’t disappoint. The barbecue duck and free-range soy sauce chicken are among the best in the city, and local scallops stir fried with abalone mushrooms were luscious. But the standout dish of the night was fried wild rice with bacon and topped with shredded Dungeness crab. The balance of wok smokiness, fresh sweet crab, and nutty chewiness of Canadian wild rice was perfect. Even for these experienced restaurateurs, it was an eye-opener; throughout dinner, they talked about their goals of highlighting seasonal ingredients and creating more locally focused menus. I could have been having the same conversation with locavore champions John Bishop or J.C. Poirier. Chinese food in Vancouver has become as homegrown as Fraser Valley summer berries, and that’s what makes it some of the best in the world.—Lee Man

Red Star Seafood Restaurant 8298 Granville St., 604-261-8389; 2200-8181 Cambie Rd., Richmond, 604-270-3003

 

Steal the Show

Now I know what it’s like to be in witness protection. I wore dark glasses, did a visual sweep of the restaurant, made a beeline for a private room, and closed the gauzy curtains. Delilah’s Conviction Kitchen was crawling with a TV crew filming a reality show, and here I was trying to work as an undercover critic. The idea behind the restaurant, and TV show, was simple: a hard-boiled, talented chef from Toronto, Marc Thuet, and his wife would train ex-cons, recovering drug addicts all, to cook and serve in restaurants. Considering participants had mere days of training, and the operation was afflicted with mini-crises (did I mention part of the kitchen ceiling fell and Thuet almost shut down service during my visit?), the meal was remarkable. It was French bistro food with flair. Chilliwack pea froth with Qualicum Beach scallops and coconut foam. Sloping Hill pork cheeks and boudin noir with risotto. Bison sliders and frites. Nass River sockeye with chorizo, clam, and mussel ragout with gnocchi. Truly enjoyable. I was forgiving of the service. So what if we were charged for a bottle of wine we hadn’t ordered? Easy to correct. But handing my credit card to an ex-con was, I admit, a little unsettling.—Mia Stainsby

 

Liquid Lunch

Last-minute invites can be hard to accommodate. But last May, when a wine agent asked if I could meet the next day with St. Hubertus winery owner Andy Gebert at Sun Sui Wah (my go-to dim sum room), I couldn’t resist. This foray turned out to be quite different. No artfully contrived pairings or course-by-course commentary here. Instead, I found a round table with a cross section of industry types, including Hidekazu Tojo, and our host Andy Gebert, along with a half-dozen of St. Hubertus’ no-nonsense bottles. And then the food arrived: a classic cold appetizer platter with jellyfish (too-often shunned), a steaming platter of Alaskan king crab, crispy squab, and so on. Plates just kept coming. There were no discussions about what to pour with what—just great food, spirited camaraderie, along with some pretty good wine matches. Of note, the Riesling with spicy garlic prawns and rosé frizzante with the crab. It was all further evidence of just how well some B.C. wines can be paired with good Chinese dishes. The meal was memorable for its array of flavours but also, especially, for its delightful haphazardness and verve —all the more enlivened by Andy’s charmingly corny jokes.—Tim Pawsey

Sun Sui Wah 3888 Main St., 604-872-8822. Sunsuiwah.com

 

French Twist

I’m normally not a fan of classical French restaurants. I think foie gras runs neck and neck with pork belly as the most overused ingredient in North America. And crème brulée—well, actually, I always love crème brulée, but when you can buy it in eight-packs at Costco it’s lost some of its magical glow. So it’s odd that my most memorable meal was a super-sized ramekin of foie gras crème brulée at Le Crocodile. Everything about the setup was wrong. It was lunch, so drinking to excess was difficult to do discreetly. My dining companion, a notable chef, was seriously late. When he finally arrived the waitstaff actually moved us to a “better” table (that is, better than the one that had been good enough for me to cool my heels at for 45 minutes). Just when all seemed lost, the dish appeared without request—a hard-topped little beauty the size of the a small Frisbee. I cracked the crust like a metre-stick-wielding Mother Superior and all my troubles were gone. The crust had the familiar burnt, caramelly tang, which was instantly enveloped by the savoury creaminess of the whipped foie gras. We put it on bread, on crackers, even had a few spoonfuls au naturel. Paired with an Alsatian Riesling from Trimbach, the dish became unexpectedly great.—Neal McLennan

Le Crocodile 909 Burrard St., 604-669-4298 Lecrocodilerestaurant.com

 

Singapore Fling

Whenever Tony Hii comes to Vancouver, he makes a point of eating at Wang’s Beef Noodle House in Marpole. I know Mr. Hii because he’s involved in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, where I’ve been working on my new restaurant. Not long ago, Mr. Hii took the entire Hawksworth team to Wang’s, and now we know why he’s so fond of the place. The smell of broth when you walk in is intoxicating—you know this is the real thing. We ordered practically the entire menu, and the food was outstanding. I really like noodles, and the beef noodles are so spicy you break out in a full-on sweat. Perfect. The green onion pancakes (stuffed with shredded beef) are also very good, as is the deep-fried chicken thigh and the marinated pork hock. It was an unforgettable feast that reminded me how I love discovering great rooms in out-of-the-way places. I’m grateful to that gentleman from Singapore for introducing me to this one.—David Hawksworth

8390 Granville St., 604-266-7966

 

The New Local

It was an impromptu gathering of five friends. By sheer luck we scored the elevated round booth in the back corner of the city’s buzziest restaurant. Our perch was intimate, but we had sightlines across the room, all the better to spy on fellow diners. A round of cocktails kicked us off (the Chino Margarita with tangerine-infused tequila and rimmed with chili salt was particularly rousing). Rather than clumsily navigate the menu, we let our server lead the way (thank goodness for adventurous dining companions). Soon we tucked into mantou (pillowy soft steamed buns stuffed with braised beef shortrib and licked with hoisin), beef tartar (given an Asian makeover with preserved mustard root, ginger, and taro chips), dumplings (plump with prawn and chive), and chewy rice patties (stir-fried with earthy wood ear mushrooms). Tasty to be sure, but it was the crispy sesame flatbread sandwich—shao bing—piled high with braised pork butt, the richness offset by crunchy pear, pickled onion, and peppery mustard greens, that really hooked me. Discovering a new local, particularly one as stylish, worldly, and affordable as Bao Bei, is memorable indeed.—Rebecca Philps

Bao Bei 63 Keefer St., 604-688-0876. Bao-bei.ca

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