Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Healthy Living Cult: Victoria's Triple Threat

"I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast." 
       --Alvy Singer (played by Woody Allen) in Annie Hall

Cafe Bliss, 556 Pandora Ave, Victoria, BC 

I think I need to go to places like Cafe Bliss to remind myself why my past flirtations with vegetarian and vegan diets were exactly that - flirtations. Bliss takes it a step further, boasting an entirely raw food menu, all foods apparently sourced locally. Funny that, they have a number of "chocolate" items, so I guess I must have missed the cocoa plantations in the local agriculture belt on my last drive into town from Swartz Bay. Or maybe cocoa is harvested in the wilds of Metchosin? 

Today I had the misfortune of sampling both savoury and sweet offerings from Bliss. The Asian spicy soup looked really good on paper, but from the bowl & spoon was anything but. Imagine raw pieces of cabbage, dill weed, onions and large chunks of raw ginger with sour, warm miso soup splashed on top. The menu claimed the soup had Korean kimchi in it, but none was found. Some real kimchi spice might actually improve this soup substantially, but I suspect that real Korean kimchi does not qualify as a raw food, thus you get Bliss' interpretation of the ingredient. Furthermore, I love ginger, it's one of my favourite spices, but crunching down on big raw chunks of the stuff, as I did eating this soup, results in bursts of pure bitterness. 

The raw salt in the raw wound here is the raw price: over 10 bucks for a bowl of this stuff. Oh, but you do get thin raw food crackers resembling congealed bird seed with this soup, so at least you have something with which to cleanse the palate a bit.

The next item thoroughly not enjoyed also sounded great in name: "Spicy Nori Stick." This small $3.50 treat had the consistency of sea sponge and the taste of a gourmet dog biscuit (yes, I've eaten a gourmet dog biscuit before, don't ask), with notes of turmeric and just a flutter of nutty tofu burger!

The tiny chocolate ball I finished with, all $2.50's worth of it, was sort of like a real chocolate truffle, but without the chocolatey goodness.

Bliss' web site alleges, "Our menu is bursting with living food lovelyness...." Oh really? Just what is living food as opposed to unliving food? I concede that for health food cultists who restrict their diet to raw food, Cafe Bliss must be the greatest thing since tie-dye fashion and patchouli oil. But for the 99% of the rest of us who don't restrict ourselves to this diet, well, I can only speak for myself in concluding that it is not bliss, but overpriced food misery.  
Cafe Bliss on Urbanspoon

Mo:le, 554 Pandora Avenue, Victoria, BC

Next door to Cafe Bliss is another of the city's healthy eating, locally sourced, organically grazed trend-setters, or at least so they at Mo:le proclaim. If there's one thing I am immediately suspicious of in a restaurant, it's when they blow their own horn to deafening decibels. Mo:le's web site arrogantly declares that they have "grown from a simple eatery into an institution in just a few years." Um, no, you haven't. You are still just a simple eatery, but one with too high an opinion of yourself, which you confuse with the notion of institutional status. The Empress Hotel is an institution. The Catholic Church is an institution. Mo:le is just a simple hole-in-the-wall diner on lower Pandora Street, albeit a very nice red brick hole-in-the-wall (think Blue Fox, with prettier, healthier people). The fact that old town architecture and heritage in that part of Victoria is something of an historic institution doesn't mean that the tenant who just moved in 4 years ago inherits that prestige. Truth be told, YRS didn't even know about this place until just a few days ago when someone mentioned it. I recall many times walking by this place, so how could I have missed it so many times?  Maybe my good, subconscious instinct for hipster pretension has steered me away from stopping and paying much attention during those many strolls down that block.

Today we had a chicken sandwich off the Mo:le lunch menu and an omelette off their breakfast menu, sharing between two of us. Both dishes were okay, but not great. This is standard diner food served in a pretentious setting. Don't get me wrong, I love good, healthy, locally sourced diner food, but I don't like paying $15 a plate for said food in a place brimming with uber-coolness. I would advise anyone in this neighbourhood looking for this kind of fare to cross the street and walk a block up to the much more down-to-earth Cabin 12, where you get just as good diner food, if not better, and pay substantially less.

The service staff today at Mo:le seemed a bit lost in space. When we eventually were seated, it took a good 5 minutes just to get water, and another 15 minutes to get our orders taken, all the while the frazzled staff fumbling chaotically about the small room like headless free run chickens. 

If you, like YRS, are one of the great unwashed who seeks a decent breakfast or lunch in a relaxed, plebeian atmosphere, then you aren't missing much by skipping Mo:le. If you are, however, among the blessed few and wish to be seen among, be part of this great imaginary healthy eating institution, it's all yours. 
Mo:le on Urbanspoon

Rebar Modern Food, 50 Bastion Sq, Victoria, BC

If there is a healthy food eatery in Victoria with roots deep enough to qualify it as an institution, it is Rebar. These guys have been cooking up great vegetarian cuisine for what seems like decades. Rebar was doing the health food and energy drink thing long before it was trendy to do so. Many moons ago, during my flirtations with vegetarianism, Rebar was always an oasis. It still is, and you don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the food here. Nor will you feel that pretentious, uber-coolness, post-hippy, eco-ethical-superiority-complex vibe associated with other eateries in this genre.

Rebar doesn't subscribe to a strict veg-based or raw food dogma, which means there's more vegetarian latitude in their menu, and stuff gets cooked & prepared properly and therefore tastes good!

One of the traits of a great restaurant is its ability to make great dishes that seem simple, effortless from a dining vantage. When Rebar published their own cookbook I recall how stymied the recipes often left me. I'd read, re-read, re-read again the recipes from the book, and it was like trying to solve a physics puzzle. To this day, Rebar's cookbook remains one of the most difficult and user-unfriendly in my entire collection. And don't get me started on smoked chipotle peppers....

I say bypass the cookbook, and let Rebar chefs do it for you. I hesitate to single out one or two favourite dishes here because they all tend to be very good and I've eaten all menu items at least a couple times over through the years. Just go to Rebar, enjoy and be part of the healthy living cult with less of the cult part of it.

Rebar Modern Food on Urbanspoon