Thursday, July 19, 2012

Final Post: Mission Accomplished!

YRS is definitely done, and this is definitely my last post to this blog. We are planning to do some extended travelling next year and have embarked on a serious austerity plan in preparation for that sojourn, which means no more lavish nights on the town. Indeed, no more any nights on the town, and a whole lot of $10 cooking competitions at home. In Victoria, it's pretty easy to cut restaurants out of the home budget. I'd find this budget cut much more difficult were I living in a bona fide food city like Vancouver, Portland or San Francisco. In any case, some closure for my fans, foes and all the rest of you who accidentally find this site in months or years to come.

I started YRS in January, 2010, and never intended it to be more than a short-term experiment in blogging and review writing. As such, I have accomplished what I set out to do, and am happy with what I accomplished. There will be no more restaurant reviews posted to this blog. I will leave the site open for now because the archive of existing reviews posted to the site is still relevant, relatively fresh. Having said that, things change in the restaurant sector, places close, some places improve, some get worse. There are some good reviews on YRS, some of which I'm actually quite proud of. But note the date of the review you are reading because any review is snapshot in time.

To be blunt, even if I were to continue posting new reviews, they'd increasingly seem stale; they'd reflect the lack of an exciting, thriving restaurant culture in Victoria. Reviewing this city's restaurants was fun for the first year, but after that I felt increasingly like Tordenskjold in  Kierkegaard's "Endless Parade":

It is like Tordenskjold with his famous parade:  it uses over
and over again the same few troops, but when they have
marched past the reviewing stand they turn into a side street,
don another uniform, and thus continue the parade.....of
the incalculable forces of the garrison.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

San Francisco - Napa Valley - Portland

Napa Valley via San Francisco, Coast Starlight train to Portland

The fog comes
on little feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

          -- Carl Sandburg

I can't think of a better way to do a first-time visit to Napa Valley than to sandwich it between my two favourite cities on the West Coast, San Francisco and Portland. If Napa turns out to be the tourist trap bust I suspect it might be, I've got reassuring bookends to make it all worthwhile.

My wife and I would begin in San Francisco, shacked up at the Chancellor Hotel near Union Square, which, by the way, is a great bargain if you like centrally located classic, vintage hotels. I've been making sporadic pilgrimages to SF since about 1990 and I never get tired of the city, always discover something new. My favourite activity when visiting is exploring the city on foot; SF is, for my money, the best walking city in the world. The hilly, end-of-peninsula geography provides one great hilltop vista after another in a bay setting that is unrivalled. The character neighbourhoods and Victorian architecture make even the less interesting reaches of town interesting. The landmarks, from the fog-enveloped Golden Gate Bridge to Coit Tower, from City Lights Books to the majestic Castro Theater, capped with a sunset martini from the Top of the Mark... the list of iconic places in this city goes on and on. I'm also of the opinion that the sprawling Golden Gate Park is the world's greatest inner city park. One could spend days exploring and getting lost in this park's botanical gardens, museums and pathways.

Before I mention some food highlights, I will boast about our scoring tickets to see Elvis Costello at the historic Warfield Theater, which was, of course, sensational. This guy is a true performer, and how he managed to successfully incorporate carnival side show elements into his performance, I'll never know, but it worked. Also got a chance to see two Cy Young winners (Lincecum  vs Halladay) duel it out at AT&T Park. I took in an opening day Giants game about 20 years ago at Candlestick Park, and missed that old stadium ambience this time around. All the new ball parks these days seem less like homages to baseball and more like homages to corporate branding. Sitting in these new parks feels a bit like being in a TV commercial. 

Tadich Grill
240 California St, San Francisco, CA

Tadich's Seafood Cioppino is the best I've ever had, exquisite broth. This establishment lives up to its storied reputation as the city's most historic restaurant. Older, experienced servers donning spotless white coats and ties not only add to the classy, historic ambience, but this detail underscores a high level of professionalism that is increasingly a rarity in the fine dining scene. I generally avoid eateries that refuse to take reservations at night, but Tadich is worthy of the wait, which you can reduce if you are prepared to sit at the bar. Tadich Grill is arguably among the best seafood restaurants on the entire West Coast.  

For other places I visited in SF, check them out here.

On to Napa Valley

It is time to get drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk without stopping! On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.  --Charles Baudelaire

Take out the poetry and virtue part of Baudelaire's celebration of wine, and you have the Napa wine tasting circuit. The fact it's virtually impossible to access this region without a car seems almost a cruel irony.

Yes, a rental car from SF is a must if you expect to have any mobility and freedom touring this region, although I suppose a day trip via guided tour does at least save you the worry of getting busted for impaired driving. We approached the valley via the 101, across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is much more scenic and interesting than the route we took back via Oakland and the Bay Bridge. Whatever my opinion of the Napa wine trail, it must be said that this is a gorgeous region and a pleasure to drive through. It's not hard to see why vintners and farmers settled here over the past century. Not only geographic beauty, the region boasts ideal climatic and soil conditions (terroir) for wine. If you saw the film Bottle Shock, or if you know your wine history, you'll know that both red and white wines from this region stunned the French wine establishment in the mid-70s when they won a blind tasting competition in Paris. Napa wines would go on to win several more such competitions, securing California’s rightful place on the world wine map, much to annoyance of France's wine elite. This historical event not only annoyed the world's wine establishment, but it really did pave the way for other regions (like our own Okanagan, Australia, Chile, etc...) to jump on the wine wagon, realizing that terroir, not snooty Paris wine critics, was really all a region needed to produce great wine. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our first tasting in Napa was at the famous Stags' Leap, which left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and would come to represent much of what I dislike about the region. The first shock was learning that a simple tasting would cost us 30 bucks! For a tasting! I don't recall paying anything more than 5 or 10 bucks in the Okanagan; many of the tastings there, I recall, were free. I don't care how great and prestigious a winery thinks its wines are, $30 for a tasting is akin to highway robbery. During the tasting we were given the hard sell on books and videos. It turns out this winery had been bought out by some Asian mega-conglomerate, the once family-owned estate preserved only in name, brand, and to some extent the wine. Thus, not a surprise, in hindsight, that the experience here had all the manifestations of a well oiled corporate marketing enterprise. I'm sure they do really well with the bus tours.

The corporate takeover of vineyards in the valley is no secret (think Mission Hill near Kelowna, but on a much bigger scale). Much has been written and said on the topic. However, it's important to note that Napa Valley is a vast region with hundreds of vineyards, a share of them still small, family estates making top shelf wine. It was at these types of places where we had the most fun and rarely paid more than $10 for a liberal tasting session. It was also at these places where the people exhibited more salt-of-earth character, where we ended up having great conversations about wine, food and life in the valley. Summers Estate Wines and Lava Vine, both at the north end of the valley, are a couple of these more earthy places that deserve mention.

We stayed a couple of nights at a hot spring spa resort (Roman Spa Resort) in Calistoga, which was exactly what the doctor ordered. Laid back oasis with great hot spring pools that use minimal amounts of chlorine, close to the centre of town, lots of great eating options within a couple blocks. Situated at the north end of the valley, Calistoga has a much more relaxed, bohemian vibe than the uber-snooty, trendy, expensive Napa town in the south.

Morimoto Napa
610 Main Street, Napa, CA

Emperor Morimoto has no clothes! There, I said it. Simply put, this celebrity chef-owned eatery is overpriced, the food far overrated by critics and foodies whose judgement seems to have been impaired by Food Network indoctrination, culinary fusion fads and fame worship. The sushi we ate here was standard issue, and Morimoto's interpretation of "ramen" takes a perfectly good Japanese classic and turns it into something resembling a small portion of Vietnamese pho, minus the goodness that usually defines pho. The neo-Zen design of the place is interesting upon initial approach, but quickly becomes pretentious. Make no mistake, what customers are paying for here, whether they admit it or not, is a celebrity brand and bragging rights, to boast to those back home that "I ate at a place owned and named after a real Iron Chef!" I say save your cash for the Napa wine tastings, or seek out better, local culinary creations at half the price at any number of places in the Valley. 

For other places I visited in Napa and Calistoga, go here.

Coast Starlight to Portland
Rather than returning to SF and flying back home from there, we opted to take the night Amtrak train from SF to Portland, in sleeper car of course! The train leaves SF at about 10pm, and arrives in Portland the next afternoon. I've had the pleasure to take this train from Seattle to SF once before, so it was nice to experience a return vantage.

Portland remains a favoured destination for us. Just love this town, its progressive transportation infrastructure, its humane, pragmatic approach to the homelessness question, its fantastic food scene, its amazing microbrewery scene and its lifestyle. I've written before about Portland. Here is a highlight discovered on this recent trip:

Pok Pok 
3226 SE Division St, Portland, OR
Not only some of the best Southeast Asian food I've ever eaten, but possibly among the best food I've ever eaten. And I say this as a guy who lived in Asia for 4 years and has travelled extensively through the region. The spicy chicken wings are, without equivocation, the best wings I've ever eaten. The boar dish served with sticky rice and fresh, crisp greens, gives new, exciting meaning to wild pig, a meat I'd eaten many times while living in Japan but never much liked up until Pok Pok. The eggplant salad, another winner. Even the table water served here has a hint of some mysterious Asian herb, adding to the overall experience. My only regret was having to leave without trying a few other menu items. Pok Pok is in an unassuming part of Portland that won't lure the average tourist, but this tourist declares it is every bit worth the effort getting there. Huge thumbs up tp Pok Pok!
See above links to my YRS Urbanspoon to see other Portland highlights. 

On the future of YRS blog

I never like to say never, so as for future local food reviews on this blog, I'll keep the door slightly ajar for now.

I have been continuing to review local places, but in short, mobile posts directly to the Urbanspoon reviews sections for eateries. Not sure I care much anymore about linking my reviews via YRS blog to Urbanspoon blog sections. Frankly, I think more people read the reviews posted directly to the site, not the blog posts linked to the site. So if you want to see what I've been saying about local and other restaurants of late, go to Urbanspoon and look for YRS reviews. Recent local reviews:

The Clay Pigeon Restaurant, Victoria, BC

Where's the beef? My "Knuckle Sandwich" left me wondering, where's the beef? The very tiny, thin segment of baguette contained but a sparse few cubes of beef and some greens. I could have eaten the entire thing in a single bite. At $9, I find this sandwich exorbitantly priced (it will cost you an extra $4-to-6 to add soup, salad or chips). Moreover, since this sandwich is an interpretation of the classic beef dip, would be good if they lightly toasted the bread so that it doesn't dissolve into mush when dipping it into the au jus. Having said all this, the sandwich ingredients were fresh, tasty, more than edible, but far from transcendent. My tiny cup of $4 onion soup was disappointingly cool, leaving the impression of microwaved canned soup. The service was a bit too nonchalant, approaching unfriendly, which is shocking considering they just opened up. It's a nice, cozy, minimalist space with a good selection of beer, wine & drinks. But in the end the small portions make this place feel like more of an overpriced tapas bar than a bistro of real substance.

Other local eateries I`ve reviewed in the last couple months: Canoe Brewpub (bad experience), King Sejong (like it), Futaba (another sushi pretender) and Kuma Noodle (okay Japanese ramen).

Best regards to you all,

Monday, March 12, 2012

YRS Update, Future Plans

Dear friends, foes and other sundry YRS voyeurs,

This is a not-so-quick update to inform you that I'm still alive, I still use the Internet (albeit, to much lesser extent), and am considering a return from my hiatus in the next couple of months.

Although I did title my last entry "On Hiatus," there was a tone of finality within the text, leading some, including myself, to suspect YRS may be done for good. I've had a lot of kind e-mails of encouragement since that blog entry, asking me to return. I've also had a couple months of time to ponder the question.

While I remain uncommitted to YRS's future, I can offer you this glimmer of light, or glimmer of darkness, depending on whether you've been fan or foe: Leaner, meaner reviews not exceeding 150 words if YRS does return.

As much as I despise aspects of social media (call me a self-hating blogger), the reality is that media content is changing; indeed, it has already changed. We've crossed the Rubicon. We are losing that 'free ideation' that Marshall McLuhan so cherished about the post-Gutenberg era of the written word. We are returning back to a kind of tribal, village interconnectedness where the mob rules on a grander scale, especially the anonymous factions of that mob. The art and craft of writing is increasingly being raped, beaten down and twitterized into sound bites, quips, abstracts and summaries.

Most people searching out information on something as frivolous as a restaurant review want it fast and to the point. Hence, if I do return to reviewing restaurants, I will be doing reviews that are short and bittersweet, mostly via my mobile device (iPhone). While the art, craft and quality of writing will be indubitably compromised via this transition, there are benefits to be had in writing shorter reviews. Confining my reviews to 150 words or less will truly test my editing skills and my economy of diction. This process will also consume a lot less time, which is good because I continue to pursue those other, more important life activities and projects alluded to in my January 8th blog entry.

Furthermore, I've reconsidered my relationship to Urbanspoon, at least the ranking aspect of that relationship. The ranking system is a complete farce and reflects absolutely zero correlation between content quality and rank. These rankings are only about quantity of review posts, not quality of review writing. The ranking badges you see appended to blogs playing the Urbanspoon game (I have removed my ranking badge from YRS for good) are little more than vanity badges aimed at massaging the egos of blog writers, thereby keeping them connected, thus generating more traffic and business for Urbanspoon. At the end of the day, this ranking issue is, for me, meaningless and a distraction. I do see some value in continuing to link my reviews to Urbanspoon pages, but only because this gets my reviews a wider audience. I actually think reviews on Tripadvisor reach an even broader, more diverse audience than Urbanspoon, so I'll be looking at expanding in that direction.

Next month we are planning a trip to San Francisco and Napa Valley. It's been a long time since I've been down there, so if you have any restaurant/winery suggestions, hidden gems perhaps overlooked in the guidebooks, let me know:
I'll try my best to post some highlights from SF and Napa via my iPhone, so stay tuned.

If this rumination on YRS's future does materialize, it will likely be in late April or May. If you don't see any review activity by June, it's pretty certain that I ended up reconsidering my reconsideration.

Best, as always,

Sunday, January 8, 2012

YRS On Hiatus

Dear YRS readers, 

I've decided to put YRS on sleep mode indefinitely as I pursue other personal projects and lifestyle resolutions. The blog will still remain online, but there will be no new activity for a long while. I am also suspending my Sunday Letters segment, so any correspondence sent to will still be read, but not shared via this blog.

Part of my reasoning for this move can be read in my December 18th entry. Otherwise, lifestyle change is also motivating this decision. We've decided to go off the digital grid, somewhat, at home. We've cancelled our TV cable and home Internet service effective tomorrow in an effort to strike a more balanced, mind-healthy lifestyle. Thankfully I'm old enough to remember life with no Internet, you know, when people actually talked to each other and engaged in meaningful social interaction. We'd like to reclaim a bit more of that on the home front. Further, I have other non-virtual-world projects I'd like to pursue, books I want to read and such. While I've enjoyed writing this blog, it has always been a very peripheral hobby that likely went a lot farther than I'd ever expected it to. I'm not ruling out a return of YRS review activity in the future, but for now a lengthy hiatus is in order.

I want to thank all of you, including the various guest writers, who have helped make YRS one of Victoria's top restaurant review blogs. 

Keep dining out in search of the perfect meal and never be afraid to rake a restaurateur over the coals for lousy food or service. Don't be afraid to call BS on the latest food trend, and never hesitate to declare that the "emperor has no clothes." Conversely, don't hesitate to shower accolades on deserving eateries and staff, especially in Victoria where those great places are so few and far between.

Yours most sincerely,

Sunday, January 1, 2012

End Of Year Wrap: From Mineral Springs To Old School Greasy Diners

Dear readers,

Some end-of-year notes on how I spent the dying days of 2011.

Salt Spring Spa Resort, Saltspring Island, BC

Yes, there actually are salt springs on Saltspring Island!

Unlike most hot spring resorts in North America where the public pools contain chlorine and unruly packs of screaming children (we all know what happens when you mix kids and warm swimming pool water), Salt Spring Spa boasts 100% unadulterated, unfiltered underground mineral water that is piped directly into each chalet's bathtubs. I lived in Japan for 4 years and really became quite the hot spring enthusiast, and have lamented the absence of similar hot springs resorts in BC ever since my return to Canada. The mineral water at Salt Spring Spa brought back fond memories of what it's like to soak in untreated, natural mineral-rich water, and I'd recommend this resort for the water alone. The chalets are rustic, spacious and very private - perfect for a romantic getaway. We loved the minimalist, no frills concept, and I suspect the minority of critics complaining about this resort are the typical urban cretins who can't live without their TV or tech necessities for a night or two. If you want to go to a resort to sit in bed and watch TV, Salt Spring Spa is not for you. But if you want a great mineral bath in a lovely, quiet, private and salubrious location, this place is just what the doctor ordered! This may be one of the Gulf Islands' best kept secrets.

Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill, 100 Manson Rd, Salt Spring Island, BC

Salt Spring Island actually used to be a very quaint, remote place before the big real estate developers and corporate-style tourist operations moved in to cash in on the quaintness. It is still a lovely island, especially when you get out of Ganges and into the more rural areas.

I hadn't been to Ganges in about 10 years, and it seems a lot more developed and urbanized than it used to be. Before heading to Salt Spring Spa, where we would do all our own cooking, we needed lunch and decided on the first place that looked open, which happened to be Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill. Not a bad looking place and great views of the harbour, but more mixed reviews of the food. My chicken clubhouse sandwich was oozing with way too much mayonnaise, which softened the bread into a mushy goo. It took an eternity for the two servers working the small upstairs section to fill our coffee cups and when they did, I eventually noticed coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup. The cup of chowder that came with my sandwich was really good, but not enough to redeem the other flaws. The place was frigid, like dining in a walk-in cooler. This is never a good way to impress the customers. Note to restaurants: If you are going to open your doors in winter, make sure the heat has been on for a good hour prior to opening to warm up the room. Our server was jovial and was obviously working hard to make the best of a less than ideal situation. 

Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

The Nest Bistro, Old City Quarter, 486A Franklyn Street, Nanaimo, BC

After a couple of days soaking in the glorious mineral water on Salt Spring, we decided to spend a night in Nanaimo, a place really hard hit by the economic downturn. For a while last year it had the dubious distinction of having Canada's highest unemployment rate. I believe that distinction now rests with Duncan. In any case, and in the spirit of the staycation movement we decided to donate a few tourist dollars to the Harbour City.

We asked around for a good restaurant and one cafe proprietor mentioned the newly opened Nest Bistro. What a nice find. This tiny bistro in the city's Old Quarter is run by a couple of ex-Vancouver chefs and their focus is on local, fresh. Bistros tend to be heavy on pretension, but we detected very little upon entry, and the menu was refreshingly straight forward and minimal. Among our appetizer sampler was an avocado & shrimp salad, which was seasoned with masala - a pleasant, counter-intuitive notion that worked deliciously. For my main, I had a chicken breast stuffed with herbs and cheese and it may be one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of chicken I've ever eaten. My wife's potato-encrusted wild salmon was also a simple, yet exquisite dish.

I wish Victoria had a few more places like this. Too many bistros here, and elsewhere, are big on concept and the over-finessed food ends up getting lost in presentation and creative overkill. The Nest Bistro keeps it simple, with the focus squarely on the food. The result is big success with a quickly growing loyal customer base.
The Nest Bistro on Urbanspoon

Paul's Motor Inn, 1900 Douglas St., Victoria, BC

Our last breakfast of the year was a return to simplicity. The diner at this iconic Douglas Street motel is a throwback to a simpler era. From its veneer wood trimmings to its classic diner booths, Paul's restaurant is a reminder that you needn't wait in 2-hour line-ups at places like Blue Fox and John's Place in order to get a cheap, basic, greasy, starch-heavy breakfast. It's straight shooter blue collar food, served with a big smile, where all the customers seem to know each other and communicate with staff on a first-name basis.

Incidentally, I'm amazed that copper thieves haven't yet stripped this motel's roofing. Maybe this brand of criminal is too stupid to look beyond Telus cables, and power pole wiring. 

Pauls Motor Inn on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Clive's Classic Lounge: The Art & Science Of Mixology

Clive's Classic Lounge, Chateau Victoria Hotel, 740 Burdett Ave, Victoria, BC

Work is the curse of the drinking classes -- Oscar Wilde

I always seem to be at the tail end of a late evening bender when I enter Clive's for a drunken nightcap. This is likely due to its convenient location, just a few blocks from home, and one of the last places on my route home to grab a drink before blacking out face-first into the sofa (or living room floor). The only reason I haven't already reviewed Clive's -- based on past visits -- is because I'd have been unable to recollect the experience for purposes of a proper non-fiction review. A visit last week to Clive's for one of those late night goodnight drinks was foggy, but memorable enough to piece together some key details for a review.

I preface the following opinion by admitting I'm not a cocktail guy. I'm much more of a beer and wine guy. If I do go harder or more exotic than that, it's usually a single malt scotch straight up or a shot of ice-cold akvivit. Having said this, I appreciate the skill set required for true mixology. There is a lot of chemistry and flavour combinations at play in the craft, and it takes a skilled mixologist to know how to make even classic cocktails. It takes an even better mixologist to create new cocktails that have the ability to evolve into classic drinks. One doesn't need to be a skilled drink-maker to be able to detect greatness in a drink, and the one thing I've always taken away from Clive's is that detection of greatness. The drinks are memorable and they have finesse, staying power, even if I can't remember the drinks' names. Whatever I had last week (and don't ask me to tell you the name of the drink, because I haven't the foggiest clue) was a sublime libational experience. I can tell you it had tequila as its base, some spices and was kept chilled in the glass by a big ball of ice. My wife's cocktail (again, no idea what the drink's name is) was a play on lemonade, or was it limonade? In either case, a far cry from that bottled toxin known as Mike's Hard Lemonade. No, this was real lemon (or lime) and had a half a squeezed lemon (or lime) right in the drink to remind us that they don't use anything but fresh-squeezed to order. It was served in what looked like a steel camping coffee mug. Brilliant, as the steel maintained a nice chill down to the last lemon (or lime) drop.

The lounge layout is dark, discreet and inviting, usually empty by the time I arrive close to last call. But this is not a place I'd recommend for anything other than the mixology magic happening behind the bar. Clive's has plenty of media accolades to support my opinion. In addition to great drinks, the bartender has carefully and thoughtfully selected a short, but very excellent beer list, which includes some exceptional Belgian ales and some good local micro-ales. The food at Clive's? No idea. Every single time I've arrived there, the kitchen has been closed. One of these days I'll try and arrive at a less respectable hour to try out the grub.

Clive's is located on the lobby floor of the Chateau Victoria Hotel, and as the New Year's parties gear up for this Saturday's pomp and ceremony, I'd say you could not go wrong by soaking up a Happy New Year cocktail or three at this lounge at some point, or at all points, during the December 31st festivities.
Clive's Classic Lounge on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Of Bards, Bankers, Bloggers And Other Ruminations (Review updated, January 2, 2012)

[Editor's update, January 2, 2012: I have one belated beef with Bard & Banker and feel strongly enough about it to post this amendment to the below review. While my original positive sentiment about this pub stands, I have to speak out about the price point on the fish & chips. The specials board outside the pub lists the deals for each day of the week, listing prices for most days ($9.99). This is deceptive because it doesn't list a price for the Monday Fish & Chips 2 for 1 special. Unwitting customers may simply deduce that fish & chips at this pub sells for $9.99, and that you'd get two orders for this price. Reason would seem to dictate that $9.99 (or less) would actually be about right for a single order, wouldn't it? But after getting our bill today, we noticed they actually charge 18-friggin-dollars for a single order of fish & chips. Our bill today showed a total of $36, minus half to reflect the 2-for1. And we're talking 3 fish sticks, fries and a bit of slaw. $18 dollars for cod sticks? Bard & Banker, are you insane? What gives with that bizarre price point? Was the fish caught ultra-sustainably via single barbless hook by unionized fishermen from a gold-plated row boat, or what? 18 bucks for fish sticks? When we queried our server about what looked like an error, she was almost apologetic, acknowledging our complaint, tacitly agreeing with what is clearly a serious gouge on the price for this menu item. I will continue to patronize this pub, minus the fish & chips.]

Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn't the mountain ahead that wears you out - it's the grain of sand in your shoe.  --Robert Service

Sometimes I think that bad restaurants are the proverbial grains of sand in my shoe. There certainly are more important battles to be fought, more vital hills to defend in this world. One can only say so much about restaurants in a culinary backwater like Victoria before a mundane state of deja vu sets in. In January I'll give some serious thought to the future (or lack thereof) of the YRS project. YRS has always been a hobby, borne out of peeves and frustrations related to the inconsistent food quality and often horrendously bad service in this city's restaurants. The great dining experiences, even the good ones, are still the exception to the rule. And as YRS nears its 2-year anniversary, I feel the mission has been met, the peeves aired, a statement has been made, not much more to say.

Aside from providing a platform for my restaurant opinions, YRS has also been an experiment in social media and citizen journalism, a term I'm uncomfortable with because while I am a citizen, simply firing up a vanity press (blog) does not make me a journalist. Real journalists are skilled, trained practitioners and they are increasingly getting squeezed out of the trade by media concentration, as well as by bloggers and 'citizen journalists' who are all too willing to provide content for next to nothing, often nothing.

My experiment in blogging has resulted in a couple of proofs. A clear focus and strong content can equal blog success. I've intentionally left this blog as minimal as possible to test this hypothesis. No Twitter, FB or other social media on YRS. I find these and other common "bells & whistles" more distracting than informative when I read other blogs. Too many blogs I read are all over the map, trying to be all things to all people. One of my favourite local food blogs is Victoria Burger Blog because its focus is narrow, crystal clear and has decent content.

I've purposely excluded food photography from YRS because food photos are ubiquitous, they are everywhere to the point that they've been rendered almost meaningless. If I see one more angular close up of a glistening piece of food.... In my opinion, good food writing should be able to tell the story without relying on photos. I'm a big fan of the great photojournalists, and there's good reason every last one of them did not earn their reputation shooting food.

As stated, this blog remains a hobby, but it's a time consuming and expensive hobby. Dining out regularly to fuel this blog does not come cheap. One of my 2012 resolutions is to reduce my visits to restaurants significantly. If I go out, I'm going to be highly selective, opting for tried and tested favourites. I also plan to do much more cooking at home. Thus, this post could represent the beginning of the end of YRS. I'll give those issues careful thought over the holidays and make some kind of decision in late January.

Bard and Banker Public House, 1022 Government St., Victoria, BC

In the meantime, on with the show. One of YRS's hallmarks has always been honesty, often brutal honesty. I am not influenced by polls, other reviews or popular opinion. Case in point, Bard & Banker Public House. This is a place that has a 50% approval rating on Urbanspoon, and many of the reviews are scathing, damning. I'm not sure what planet these reviewers are on or whether they would know a good pub if it steamrolled over them, but they're wrong.

I've always loved this pub, and a midday visit yesterday solidified my positive opinion. Set inside one of the city's historic buildings on Government Street, Bard & Banker's sprawling 2-storey interior, with its secret nooks and private alcoves, is likely what the pub in heaven is like, if I ever make it there. The fantastic layout, amplified by the ornate furnishings and wood trimmings, is made even better by the spectacular selection of tap beers, not to mention fine whiskys. In the spirit of Bard Robert Service, Matt Phillips has crafted an ale that is only available at this pub (and its sister pubs). According to Phillips, the "Service 1904" Scottish-style ale "is interesting as it requires making hot rocks and dumping them in the kettle to caramelize some of the sugars.” This traditional brewing method, says Phillips, produces “full, rich, round, sweet flavours.” I'm not a big fan of the malty Scottish ales, but this one is lighter in body, smoky with a dry finish. In addition to specialty beers like this, Bard & banker has all the great regional micro-brews on tap, and a good number of imports, all served in proper glassware.

Bard & Banker's food has always been a bit of an afterthought, something to help the great beers go down, but it's not bad. We usually have nachos or chicken wings, pub classics that are very hard to screw up.

At night there's usually live music, which adds to the ambience. In the past couple years, we've seen former Grapes of Wrath front-man Tom Hooper play countless times, and he never fails to deliver the musical goods.

Yes, Bard & Banker is a bit on the touristy side, and prices slightly higher than other pubs, but in the offseason when it's mostly locals hanging out there, it's a great place to fulfil one's libational dreams or just chill out over a plate of nachos and some live music.
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