A Complainer’s Lament

Coffee

When it comes to complaints, I’m better at the big picture. Inequities have a direct line to my indignation engine, so to speak. But for the smaller stuff – bad meals, long waits, disappointing goods or services – my strategy is different. I’m more likely to quietly get a refund and never return than I am to complain in person or online. Of course, I’ll ask for what I need, but I don’t generally make a formal complaint.

Recently, I made an exception. I had a bad experience at a café I love. I quietly asked for a refund and left. When I got home, I decided to write an email to the owners, because the service I’d received was entirely different from the reception I’d had there every other time I’ve been. I also realized I’d miss going there and wanted to see what their response to my email would be.

Happily, I received a wonderful reply from the owner, who offered an apology (which I accepted) and a gift certificate (which I turned down). I realized that I’d been quite apprehensive about the response and I started thinking about my relationship to complaints.

I realized there are two parts to my feelings about complaining: one, an old-fashioned, middle-class idea that complaining is vulgar (and yes, I’m embarrassed by all the implications of that feeling); the other, that I can’t know the whole story of where an interaction went wrong. I think the second part is the one worth investigating.

A few years ago, I went to a panel discussion called The Art of Food Writing, as part of the North Shore Writers Festival. The panelists were asked whether they wrote bad reviews and the response that struck me the most was from veteran food writer, Stephanie Yuen. She said that she used to trash restaurants, but eventually changed her tone, because she didn’t want to damage anyone’s career. She stopped writing about what she doesn’t like altogether, saying, “It’s only my taste, after all.”

It’s something I’ve been doing without really reflecting on it, whenever I choose to do reviews on my blog. I celebrate restaurants, events, and even products that I love, while remaining silent on those that I dislike. Since I don’t work for The New York Times, I think that’s an ethical strategy. Who am I to affect someone’s livelihood in that way? It’s only my taste, after all.

But clearly there is a place for complaints and we all have to draw our own lines. For me, an email from my personal (not blog) account to a business that matters to me is worth the effort. For others, a focus on consumer advocacy or restaurant excellence might mean that negative reviews are part of what they do.

I am curious to see where others draw the line. I’d love it if you’d share your own relationship to complaints and bad reviews in the comments.

A Best of 2015

Bestof2015

I know it’s cliché (as I’ve said before), but I enjoy looking back over the year through the lens of the posts you liked best. When I think about my favourite posts of the year, it’s the process that stands out for me – a new skill mastered, a story shaped and re-shaped until it achieved the effect I was looking for, a photograph (for once) well-made.

The list of top posts, on the other hand, show me which ones intrigued people enough to click through to them. It’s not a perfect measure of quality, to be sure – comments may be a better guide there. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what brought people here this year.

It’s also interesting to see that the top posts this year are completely different from last year’s list. I think it’s encouraging to see that the blog is at least a little dynamic, though I think the end of French Fridays with Dorie was part of the shift.

12. Made with Love

We start with a post that would count as one of my own favourites from 2015, in which I share the recipe for my mother’s spicy vegetable chili. It’s a winter dish, really, full of pantry staples and vegetables that are available year-round. But, it’s so popular, that we get requests for it through all the seasons. My mother makes enormous batches of it for the church and community gatherings she organizes. I make it for co-op meetings. We both make it for Kevin, who loves it so much that he’d happily eat it weekly.

But, it’s not really the recipe that makes the post, at least for me. It’s the story of how the recipe came to be and the love it represents.

11. Sucre à la Crème

I was surprised that this one made the list, as it’s a short post that shares two French language videos of people making a classic, homey French Canadian sweet. I’m a little fond of it, though, both for the winkingly nostalgic photo and the video of the Québécoise grand-mère.

10. French Food Revolution Friday with Dorie 2015

This year’s French Fridays with Dorie edition of Food Revolution Day was a lot of fun. I made a dish I’d missed when it came up in the rotation originally, reviewed some past favorites, and connected it all to the day’s goal of promoting cooking skills and food literacy.

9. FFWD – Holiday Card and Recipe Exchange

This post is about something that’s become a yearly tradition amongst French Fridays with Dorie alumni. We exchange cards, and often recipes, at year’s end. It’s nice to have something to look forward to when checking the mailbox, isn’t it?

8. FFWD – Marengo As You Like It

I suspect people came to this post looking for a recipe, but it’s really just a recounting of my experience with Dorie’s recipe. Though many of my French Fridays posts were designed to have wider appeal, others – like this one – were really addressed to our group. Posts like these are travel diary entries for a journey through a cookbook.

7. Eastside Coffee Culture

This post was a lot of fun to research. It’s a celebration of the coffee shops in my neighbourhood and it’s meant to be the first in a series of themed explorations. More will come along, slowly, as I gather enough intelligence on each subject.

6. Baking Chez Moi – Brown Butter and Vanilla Bean Weekend Cake

A short, fun post on a delicious cake I’ve made over and over again.

5. Holiday Book Reviews – True to Your Roots

I very much enjoy writing my cookbook review series, so I was happy that one of these posts made the list. This book intrigued a number of people and the person who won it in the giveaway was thrilled. I’m very happy, myself, that it’s now on my cookbook shelf.

4. FFWD – Brioche and Nutella Tartine

Who can resist the siren call of Nutella? (Not me.) However, my favourite part of this post is the beautiful braided brioche I made.

3. FFWD – Celebration Week #1: The AHA Moment

I’m so glad I “cheated” on our assignment for this post. As a result, it’s a lovely guided tour of my French Fridays years.

2. Spring Book Reviews – Teatime in Paris!

Another book review, for a cookbook I turn to on special occasions. Thinking about Jill’s pâte sucrée makes me want to start my holiday baking all over again.

1. Eat Local: Kin Kao

The number one spot this year goes to one of my (very occasional) restaurant reviews, for one of our favourite neighbourhood spots. I’m quite pleased that reviews took three of the top five spots. I’ve been enjoying writing them this year more than almost anything else.

So, there you have a list of some of the buzziest (in the very calm, sort of backwater way that my blog can be said to generate buzz) posts on my blog. And I have food for thought about the directions I may take the blog in 2016. I hope you enjoy clicking around the list as much as I did.

You’ll hear from once more before the close of the year. I hope the dwindling days of 2015 are treating you well!

G-W Portraits: Terrence Feng

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It’s hard to tease apart the DNA of a good neighbourhood, but I’m certain that one can’t survive without local businesses that are as engaged as its residents. That’s true of Grandview-Woodland’s business community, especially the grocers, retailers, and restaurateurs along Commercial Drive and Hastings.

It’s certainly been true of the owners and staff of Kin Kao Thai Kitchen. Since they opened in February of this year, they’ve done a roaring business with patrons from across the city. But they’ve also become great neighbours, who always remember your name and your favourites from the menu and are happy to say hello when they run into you around the Drive.

Their food has become a regular habit at our house and they’ve been especially careful and thoughtful around Kevin’s gluten-free and vegan requirements.

Now that they’ve been denizens of the Drive for the better part of a year, I thought I’d ask Terrence Feng, one of Kin Kao’s owners, to share his thoughts about Grandview-Woodland.

You can find out more about Kin Kao on their website and in the review I published when they first opened. We love them for dinner and takeout, but don’t forget to try their lunch and brunch menus.

You can find the rest of the interviews in this series here: G-W Portraits

Eat Local: Chau Veggie Express

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I love telling you about what my neighbourhood has to offer, but it’s not good to stick to your favourite haunts all the time. There are too many neighbourhoods across the city and region to explore, with their own characteristic offerings. Part of being a savvy urbanite is not just knowing where to find what you need close to home, but also knowing when what you’re looking for is elsewhere.

I’m good at travelling the east/west axes of the city, but I need to spend more time looking north and south. North Van is just a short trip away by transit and the next neighbourhood to the south of us, Kensington-Cedar Cottage, is full of restaurants, delis, and fresh markets.

Victoria Drive is one of the anchor streets in the area and it’s known for having good food from a number of cuisines along its length, attracting foodies from across the city. We found ourselves near 33rd and Victoria a few days ago, so we decided to check out a restaurant that’s been on our list for a long time.

Chau Veggie Express has become famous amongst vegans in Vancouver for serving a fresh, delicious take on Vietnamese classics. Their menu is vegetarian and vegan, but there is nothing on the menu that feels like it’s a substitute for dishes that normally contain meat. Instead, their bowls, soups, and salads seem like welcome extensions of Vietnamese flavours, complete in themselves.

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This is because they’ve worked so hard to develop broths and sauces that balance flavours in the same way as traditional ones, while making the most of their vegetarian ingredients. The food arrives at your table as quickly as it would at a casual food stand, but the layering of flavours and the attention to presentation bring a fine dining sensibility to their dishes. The room splits the difference, with welcoming communal wooden tables and light, charming decor.

I had the Rickety Rickshaw Bowl, which was deeply filling and flavourful – with shredded bean curd and tofu, yams, and spring rolls, even a meat-eater couldn’t have complained that the dish was too light. At the same time, the fresh vegetables and salad and the lemon vegan fish sauce kept the dish from feeling heavy. It’s the kind of meal that leaves you invigorated.

My partner tried the Tropical Rainstorm Bowl and may not ever try another dish. The toasted coconut sauce is everything he’s been looking for since he became vegan. He also appreciated the heartiness of the thicker noodles in this bowl. The best part is that much of the menu is gluten-free, or can be easily adapted. He didn’t think he’d get to have good spring rolls again, but he tried one from my dish and he was grinning. He may order a separate plate of them next time and we’ll be buying some lemon vegan fish sauce to take home. We’ve been looking for a good vegan, gluten-free version and this is it.

The fish sauce isn’t the only thing you can take home, either. Many of their inventive broths and sauces are for sale, along with pints of their famous vegan ice creams.

Come early, as there’s often a line. You can get great meals all day, but you can also stop in for coffee and treats, or bring a crowd for drinks and snacks.

If you’re lucky enough to come at a time that’s not busy, the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their menu – we enjoyed hearing about their dishes, their philosophy, and their practices almost as much as our meal.

Chau Veggie Express is going to become a regular stop for us, but I’m also planning to explore more of the neighbourhood. I want to know what else we’ve been missing.

Click to add a blog post for CHAU VeggiExpress on Zomato

Eat Local: Kin Kao

Kin Kao

Every neighbourhood has spaces that are just crying out for the right restaurant. Places that have had a history of good tries or also rans. When you live close to one of these rooms, it becomes a local topic of discussion, as everyone shares their ideas for what they hope the next venture will bring.

Which meant that when the paper went up over the windows of a failed sandwich shop near Venables and Commercial, there was a lot of speculation. And when signs followed, announcing a Thai restaurant would occupy the space, locals started to get excited. As the restaurant started to take shape, the care taken with the physical design suggested equally considered food and the neighbourhood started to get impatient.

In February, Kin Kao opened and justified that impatience. They experimented with their menu for the first few weeks. We were a bit apprehensive to go during this period, as my partner has celiac disease and is also vegan, which can be hard to work around. But, they were able to modify some dishes for him beautifully and now there are permanent selections on their menu that are great for vegans and gluten-free folks.

We’ve been back more times than I care to admit, for lunch, dinner, and takeout and we’ve tried a number of dishes across their menus. Omnivore that I am, the red curry with duck is my favourite, but I’ve been happy with every dish I’ve tried. For Kevin, the green curry with tofu has become his go to dish, with the vegetarian Phat Thai running a close second. They’ve also got a very well chosen drinks list, with the beers from local brewers 33 Acres and Strange Fellows making particularly good accompaniments to their meals.

Take out

I have to warn you, though, Kin Kao is not a Drive North secret – people from all around the city are lining up nightly to enjoy the space. It’s worth the wait, but if you live close by, don’t overlook their take out menu. Their food is just as enjoyable at home. And lunch is a particular pleasure, starting out with soup and moving on to satisfying one plate meals. It’s also not quite as hectic, so it makes a good start to a day on the Drive.

Kin Kao is just the right addition to the north side of the Drive. I think it will boost the business for the lesser known gems around Kin Kao, while acting as an anchor to attract more interesting businesses. It’s also another feather in the cap of our neighbourhood, which is attracting excellent iterations of specific cuisines, like the perfect Neopolitan fare at Via Tevere.

On a more selfish note, we’ve wanted a restaurant of this calibre on this side of the Drive for some time now. And it does Thai food better than most places in the city. They’re going to keep seeing a lot of us.

Kin Kao on Urbanspoon

Eat Local: Kingfisher’s Waterfront Bar & Grill

Sean

Meet Chef Sean McCarthy. He’s the Executive Chef at Kingfisher’s Waterfront Bar & Grill. He also happens to be my little brother. In the photo above, Sean’s showing off some of the sunchokes the restaurant receives in their farm box of produce each week. He’d heard about the difficulties the Doristas had in sourcing this vegetable and wanted me at least to know that I should have talked to him before running around all over town looking for them. Lesson learned. Having trouble sourcing an ingredient? Ask a chef. They know where to find everything you might need.

Sean brought the sunchokes out to show me a couple of weeks ago when my mother and I stopped by Kingfisher’s for lunch after visiting the West Coast Christmas Show in Abbotsford. I don’t get the opportunity to visit the Fraser Valley often enough, so I wanted to make the most of my trip.

Views

You’re used to me extolling the virtues of farmers and local, seasonal food, so you shouldn’t be surprised that my brother shares those values, along with the owners of Kingfisher’s. They take every opportunity to showcase the local goodness around them, like the Gelderman Farms pork loin chop I chose for lunch, which Sean paired with roasted carrots and fig jus. I also got to try a draught from my own neighbourhood with my meal. One of Kingfisher’s rotating tap selections was Bomber Brewing’s Choqlette Porter, a variety I have a hard time passing up.

Food

Kingfisher’s menu is quite varied, so my mother was able to choose a favourite from farther afield, the lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, then we finished with pumpkin crème brûlée. In general, though, you’ll find the menu dotted with the provenance of the products they’re using, both in the restaurant and behind the bar. It’s the kind of establishment that’s taking hold across our region, building community with its customers and suppliers and introducing eaters to producers.

Now, this can’t strictly be a restaurant review, since I’m the chef’s sister. But what I’d like to mention is that it’s Buy Local Week and that’s a perfect opportunity for you to seek out just this kind of restaurant in your own neck of the woods. You’ll be supporting a local business that supports local businesses in turn and you might just discover your new favourite butcher, farmer, or brewer along the way.

Fort Langley, Again

Flowers on Fort Langley's Brae Island

Last week, I wandered around Fort Langley for an afternoon, while waiting for my mother to get her hair done. I took Roxy to Brae Island Park, then met my mother for lunch. It wasn’t as leisurely a stroll as we’d been expecting – there was a new television program filming up and down the main street. I’m pretty sure that Roxy’s barking ruined at least one of their takes…

Set-building near Jacob Haldi Bridge in Fort Langley

What we thought was a new ice cream shop turned out to be a set for a new series called Cedar Cove, which was filming all around us as we looked for a place to have lunch.

Say Cheese in Fort Langley (with bonus film industry reflection)

I think I may have offended one of the actors, who was leaning against the glass of this sandwich shop, when I asked her to move a little out of the frame. You can see the crew in the reflection. It was a busy day in Fort Langley.

Say Cheese in Fort Langley

Say Cheese is tiny, but their sandwiches are good – we opted for the Butter Chicken, which wasn’t as Indian-spiced as we’d hoped, but enjoyable all the same.

The sandwiches at Fort Langley's Say Cheese

The sandwiches, in all their glory.

Gasoline Alley in Fort Langley

We took a look down Gasoline Alley, which has small shops, including Cranberries, Naturally (famous for being included in the Oscars gift extravaganza last year). We stopped in at a new store, Mangia e Scappa, then popped in to watch the beans pour out of the roaster at Republica Coffee.

Mangia e Scappa

We walked away with two pizzas (one was a gluten-free treat for my partner) and a small sample of bread. Giulia, the owner, makes everything herself, even growing the herbs she uses.

Roasted beans pouring out at Republica Coffee Roasters

There’s nothing like the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans.

Fort Langley's main drag

The main drag.

The view from Brae Island Park in Fort Langley

The view from Brae Island Park

FFWD – Deconstructed BLT and Eggs

The finished salad, with greens on the bottom and bacon, croutons and mayonnaise-dolloped eggs on top.

Your perfect greasy spoon may be someone else’s idea of the eighth circle of hell. Opinions on the best breakfast spot can cause nearly friendship-rifting arguments. For some reason, the short-order grill menu evokes loyalty to an ideal that is broadly agreed upon, though the details are fiercely contested. Think about your favourite lunch counter sandwich – you know exactly how your grilled cheese (or maybe it’s a tuna melt, Monte Cristo, clubhouse, or Reuben) should be made. So, deconstructing the BLT – the ultimate greasy spoon sandwich – is a daring undertaking.

Cherry tomatoes from my mother's garden, halved and whole.

This week’s French Fridays recipe turns the sandwich into a salad, adding oeufs mayonnaise for some extra protein. Nothing about the recipe is difficult, but it’s a multi-step process that can take some time to complete. Hard-boiled eggs, crisp chunks of bacon, cubes of country bread browned in bacon fat, halved cherry tomatoes and chopped sun-dried tomatoes – once these ingredients are prepared, it’s almost meal time. Once the greens and tomatoes have been tossed in vinaigrette (I used Dorie’s Everyday Vinaigrette recipe, as suggested), the rest of the ingredients are scattered on top and the dish is complete.

Chunks of bread ready for their transformation into croutons.

I followed the recipe almost exactly, only straying when I found myself adding dried parsley, ground rosemary and garlic powder to the bread cubes as they cooked. It was a nice addition. The salad divided nicely into three generous dinner portions and was a surprising hit. I enjoyed it more than I’ve ever liked an authentic BLT. (Feel free to start vilifying me now, Team BLT.)

The bacon, in the pan and ready to be cooked.

So tell me, what is the most important thing that makes a greasy spoon great? What changes would make your favourite dish there inauthentic or disappointing? What would make you take a road trip to find out if a breakfast joint was as good as advertised? And lastly, what was the name of your long-lost favourite cheap eats spot? I know there is one; so many have disappeared over the last few decades.

The finished salad, in a blue bowl on a white lace tablecloth.

You can find many other blogged descriptions of this week’s FFWD recipe here: Deconstructed BLT and Eggs

Holidaying on Main Street

After Saturday’s Baking Swap, I took my haul (including some beautiful squash and beets I’d picked up) and headed down Main Street. The stretch of Main between about 8th and 30th is full of eclectic stores, good coffee shops and excellent restaurants. There were holiday craft fairs at Little Mountain Studios and Heritage Hall and the shops along Main were full of present-worthy goods. I had something else in mind, though.

There’s a wonderful tearoom called Shaktea at 21st and Main and the chilly, damp day was making me crave a good cup of tea. (Those who know me will know that there is very little that doesn’t make me crave a good cup of tea, but it would not be kind of them to mention that.) I decided that I would indulge myself there for a break from shopping. I ordered a cup of their holiday tea, a black tea with winter spices, citrus and rose petals. Many winter or holiday spiced teas can be a little overpowering. This tea, though, was flavourful and fragrant, with just the right balance between the spices and the tea itself.

There were two harpists playing while I was there and I got to hear Greensleeves, one of my favourite traditional tunes. The tea, the music and the cosily appointed room all worked to make me feel relaxed and invigorated at the same time. If I hadn’t had to go meet my partner, I’d have had difficulty leaving. I consoled myself by buying a bag of holiday tea to take home and went on my way.

After some record shopping at Red Cat and more craft fair browsing, it was finally time for a meal. My partner and I chose Burgoo, a restaurant specializing in comfort food and a perfect choice for an increasingly cold and rainy day. Burgoo’s interior reminds me of a quaint English pub. Some of its menu would fit into that category, too. The rest is a selection of comfort food from around the world. My partner chose butter chicken, which he said was a healthier version of the traditional dish. The chicken was tender and the sauce was tasty and light, lacking the rich creaminess he’s come to expect elsewhere. I had the split pea soup with the ham and brie sandwich. The soup was fantastic, tasting of thyme and ham and with a chunkier texture than many versions I’ve tried. The sandwich was good, but I wish the brie had been warm and melty, rather than cold. It would have been perfect, then.

I have to admit that we went home that day without finishing our Christmas shopping, but I’ll be back on Main again this week, with a little more focus and a little less indulgence.

In the meantime, here’s a short round up of a few of the places you ought to get to know, if you’ve still got some names left on your list:

The Regional Assembly of Text
Urban Source
Front
Lucky’s Comics
Pulp Fiction
Three Bags Full
Bodacious

Shaktea on Urbanspoon

Burgoo (Main Street) on Urbanspoon

Eating out gluten-free gets less complicated

Sadly, Perch is no more, but it had a wonderful run. El Barrio has morphed into X-site Grill & Bistro, but I hear they still know how to take care of their gluten-free customers.

What could be better than living in a city with a diverse and affordable restaurant scene? Going out to eat is more common than home-cooked meals for a lot of city dwellers, and although I love to cook, I have to admit that eating out has always been one of my regular habits. But these days, eating out isn’t as easy for me as it once was, at least when I’m dining with my partner. He has celiac disease, which means that anything containing gluten is harmful to him. It’s much easier to make sure food is gluten-free at home, especially when you cook with whole foods. Restaurants, on the other hand, are gluten minefields for people with celiac disease.

Gluten itself is poorly understood, even by food professionals. It’s amazing how many misconceptions there are about what gluten is, what foods contain it and how to safely prepare gluten-free food. Since it doesn’t kill you on the spot, as an allergy may, celiac disease has often been taken less seriously by restaurateurs. Even when there is truly gluten-free food available, cross-contamination is difficult to avoid in most professional kitchens, since there are limited surfaces for food preparation.

We still go out, but there’s always a risk of gluten or cross-contamination, unless we go to a gluten-free establishment, like Panne Rizo or Quejos, both of which specialize in sandwiches and baked goods. We also have some favourite, trusted restaurants that do a great job of making sure that there are at least a few items on the menu that Kevin can eat. Still, there are foods he’s despaired of ever eating again, especially diner food and almost anything billed as comfort food.

But then he went out to dinner a couple of weeks ago, with another fellow who has celiac disease. They met at The Wallflower for pizza and beer. A gluten-free miracle, if you will. It certainly wasn’t a meal that Kevin was ever expecting to have again. If you’re not familiar with the gluten-free beer world, you’re generally pretty lucky. The ones that are available here are, for the most part, watery tasting. As for pizza, even when the pizza is gluten-free, the oven it’s baked in usually isn’t.

The owners of The Wallflower found a brand of beer that’s a great approximation of a pale ale and they bake their thin crust pizza in a celiac-safe way. They have a gluten-free menu (along with a vegan one), in addition to their regular menu. They even had their kitchen and cooking procedures assessed to ensure that their gluten-free food was truly celiac-safe. If you haven’t guessed, this is extremely unusual and really, really impressive. There’s only one other restaurant I know of in Vancouver that’s gone to such lengths for their gluten-free customers, El Barrio. It’s a favourite of ours, too.

There's a wheelchair accessible entrance at the back.

The owners of The Wallflower have extended their food philosophy to their new location, Perch. This is good news for us, because Perch is just down the road from where we live. Perch takes its pizza even more seriously than The Wallflower, baking it in an authentic pizza oven. And yes, there are shelves in that oven which have never known gluten, so their gluten-free pizzas are baked right on the stone. The food at both restaurants is good comfort fare, done very well. We’ll be eating there often.

If you have recommendations for celiac-safe restaurants, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Wallflower Modern Diner on Urbanspoon
Eat, Drink & Perch at the ARC Cafe on Urbanspoon