Monday, November 14, 2011

YRS in Vancouver: Long Lineups, Overrated Breakfasts, Great Ramen Noodles And Japadog

After a long weekend in Vancouver hunting out some of the more popular restaurants in town, I've become convinced of an oft stated YRS opinion: Popularity and long lineups do not necessarily translate into good restaurant. I've always known this to be true in Victoria with places like Blue Fox, John's Place or Red Fish, Blue Fish, but the no-reservation phenomenon is alive and thriving in Vancouver, and it seems to be paying off in spades for the eateries that employ it. Restaurateurs have all sorts of lame rationalizations for abandoning a reservations policy, often complaining that a reservation system results in no-shows and therefore lost business. I call BS on this. I think the real reason some of the more trendy places refuse reservations is to feed the manufactured buzz surrounding their restaurant. Here's how it works. You get loud buzz going around a restaurant, the foodies get curious, and when they arrive to see what all the fuss is about they note the long lineup and instantly deduce, "okay, this place must be great if I have to wait out in the cold rain for 45 minutes or an hour!" They proceed write about it, spread the word, calling it the new great restaurant in town. At some point, after the foodie elite and dedicated followers of fashion are on board, a business-buzz critical mass takes hold, and at that point the food gets overshadowed by the buzz and hype. But who cares. The restaurateur has a wildly popular restaurant and is making cash hand over fist. At this point  the restaurant could almost get away with serving dog food under the guise of some fancy French name and unwitting diners would still come away thinking they've just been through a truly unique and special restaurant experience. Of course, there are instances where popularity and restaurant goodness merge, but I've increasingly found the reverse to be true. Vancouverites seem especially prone to fad-influenced dining behaviour, in which being part of the trend & vibe and being associated with an in-crowd that will wait an hour in the cold rain to eat eggs and toast off a fancy plate surpasses the reason we dine out -- the food. Sometimes, for these folk, being seen among the in-the-know crowd is the raison d'être. Case in point, Cafe Medina, located in the outer reaches of Gastown.

Cafe Medina, 556 Beatty, Vancouver, BC

Cafe Medina has all the elements of a great urban cafe/bistro, not the least being its creator, Executive Chef Nico Schuermans, who was schooled at the prestigious CREPAC School of Culinary Arts in Belgium. With an already critically acclaimed Vancouver restaurant (Chamber) under his belt, Schuermans places emphasis at Medina on morning food, breakfast and brunch. Standing in line here for about an hour on Saturday morning, we had a pretty good chance to absorb the vibe and buzz surrounding this popular eating place. The regulars seem of the Yaletown fashionista ilk, followed by the odd curious average Joe or food tourist. I can deal with all this, and I've come to accept that getting to great food sometimes means being among people who are way way richer, more fashionable and cooler than me. As long as the food is good, I usually leave happy.

My wife and I both ordered the Tagine (2 poached eggs, spicy tomato stew, merguez sausage, sundried black olives, and cilantro. Grilled foccaccia with humus, $14), which is served in a shallow clay pot. Most of their breakfasts are served in iron skillets. On paper the Tangine turned out to sound much better than it tasted. My wife found the dish to be much too saucy and sloppy. I enjoyed it a bit more than she did, perhaps because of the unique use of North African influence and spices. I'd describe the dish as more interesting than delicious. We both agreed that the dish was much too sour, which we later learned was due to liberal use of sumac, or so the server speculated. That's too bad, because with a bit less sour, this dish really has potential to shine.

Medina is also famous for its Belgian waffles, although the big stack of them showing through the front window suggests that they've been sitting around for hours and are re-heated. The best waffle is one that's made to order, like the ones cooked up by local waffle experts at Wannawafel.   

By the time we left Medina, more than 2.5 hours had passed, half of that time waiting in the cold outside. If this place accepted reservations, I'd almost surely go back to try something else, or maybe not. But in accordance with a YRS edict, I don't do long lineups for food. Cafe Medina is overrated and not worthy of long waits, interesting as the pricey breakfast food might be.
Cafe Medina on Urbanspoon

The Red Wagon, 2296 East Hastings, Vancouver, BC

In stark contrast to Cafe Medina is its apparent antithesis, The Red Wagon. This gritty little diner, at first approach, hearkens back to a bygone, simpler restaurant era. The problem is, Red Wagon strives to be more than that by infusing silly food trends into its menu. As much as I like pork belly and pulled pork, sometimes a classic breakfast is better left as a classic breakfast, rather than turned into a classic breakfast with an inferiority complex. Like Cafe Medina, there's considerable foodie buzz surrounding this East Hastings diner, which means... yes, you guessed it, no reservations allowed and long lineups

My wife had one of the pork belly & egg dishes, which she expressed disappointment with. I tried to keep my breakfast as no-frills as possible, opting for a cheese, spinach & mushroom omelette, which tasted bland, lacking in any seasoning, slightly overcooked. My pan fries were undercooked, cold and lacking in that necessary crispy exterior. The thick slices of "sourdough" toast tasted more like thick slices of Wonderbread, and obviously the thickness is intended to pad the rest of the food on the plate, serving as a carb-filler.

The Red Wagon's nostalgic ambience is fun, and it does draw a much more earthy blue collar customer than a place like Medina, thus a more relaxing ambience, but at the end of the meal, it's classic diner food with an attempt to be more than that. With so many places in downtown Vancouver or on Commercial Drive serving a much cheaper, no-frills breakfast, I see no reason why I'd want to go all the way out to Red Wagon, stand in the rain for an hour and pay more for the privilege.
The Red Wagon on Urbanspoon

Twisted Fork Bistro, 1147 Granville St, Vancouver, BC

The best dining experience had during our weekend visit was at the Twisted Fork Bistro (TFB), inconspicuously located in the Granville entertainment district. This is a traditional French style bistro reminiscent of Victoria's Brasserie L'école, casual enough  to avoid pretension, yet high enough quality cuisine to avoid being a bistro pretender. They keep their menu simple, confined to a single sheet and offer very affordable multi-course specials most days of the week. TFB's interpretation of scallops wrapped in bacon is an interesting deconstruction of the classic appetizer and the result is surprisingly delicious. My wife's main course, Beef Bourguignon, was more sophisticated and elegant than what we've come to expect from this dish. My main dish, roast duck breast, was of high quality, although I did find the duck meat a tad too salty. The rest of the plate's trimmings were fantastic, making the whole dish much stronger than the sum of its parts. You will also find long lineups here. It's a small room. But we'd learned our line-up lessons by this time and made a point of showing up 10 minutes prior to dinner opening.

Along with Bin 941 Tapas Parlour, Twisted Fork Bistro is now among my favourites in Vancouver.
Twisted Fork Bistro on Urbanspoon


Going Japanese in Vancouver

Unlike the insular restaurant scene of Victoria, Vancouver's dining options are many and sprawling throughout the metro region. While more is good, this can also be problematic as finding the really good places can involve eating your way through a lot of bad food. Doing a little advance research helps, but as I've said above, popular by no means translates into good. In Vancouver Japanese restaurants are a dime a dozen, mostly a result of the sushi wave of the past couple decades.

Having lived in Japan for a total of four years, I'm pretty familiar with Japanese cuisine and I miss the real thing. One of my favourite comfort foods during my time in Japan was ramen. When done right, quality miso ramen is the best bowl of noodle soup on the planet. I have yet to find a single bowl of ramen in Victoria that didn't taste like instant, re-heated noodles. Vancouver, however, with its many homages to Japanese food, has some true contenders in the ramen department.

Like most great cultural and culinary things in Japan, ramen originated in China, but the Japanese over the centuries have styled it into a dish that is all their own. Ramen's foreign roots are suggested via the katakana usage for the word, ラーメン. The katakana syllabary, as opposed to hiragana or kanji, is used to express words of non-Japanese origin. If you are visiting Tokyo and you are serious about your noodles, you'll of course be sampling all sorts of styles of ramen and soba, the flavours and nuances of which tend to vary according to regional influence. But if you ever are in this part of the world, one of the most delicious and entertaining museums is the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, which is part kitschy theme park and part food fair documenting the history of ramen.

Benkei Ramen, 1741 Robson St, Vancouver, BC

Benkei Ramen has five locations scattered around Vancouver, and the only reason we went to the Robson Street location was because our first choice, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka 火頭山, had... you guessed it, a really long lineup. Our second choice was a block down near the Corner of Robson and Denman, a place called Kintaro, but the line there was even longer than the one at Hokkaido. Situated between the two was the lineup-free Benkei Ramen, where the miso ramen is better than instant packaged noodles, but a far cry from the glorious version I recall from Japan. The real trick with ramen is as much in preparing the soup stock as it is using fresh, preferably housemade noodles. Benkei's version seemed lacking in both elements. The slices of pork served on top, too tough. The broth was lukewarm, and ramen broth must be piping hot. We left disappointed, but vowed not to give up on ramen in Vancouver.
Benkei Ramen (Robson) on Urbanspoon


Hokkaido Ramen Santouka 火頭山, 1690 Robson St, Vancouver, BC

Several hours after our experience at Benkei, and several drinks later, we decided to give Hokkaido Ramen Santouka a late night, inebriated try, and much to our delight the lineup was short, we were seated within about 15 minutes. Japanese restaurants, in Japan, often feature a lot of yelling back and forth between kitchen and floor staff, so when we entered this ramen shop to sounds of that familiar Japanese communication, I knew it was a good first sign. We both ordered miso ramen and shared an order of gyoza. After my first couple drunken bites of each, I started getting pleasant flashbacks from my countless blurred late nights carousing the congested lanes of urban Japan in search of a great izakaya or soba-ya. In other words, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka on Robson Street is the best bowl of miso ramen I've had outside of Japan. Richly textured miso broth and chewy, perfectly cooked noodles to die for. And the gyoza were not bad either.

In Victoria, at the location of Tibetan Kitchen, there used to be a fantastic udon noodle shop. The older Japanese couple used to hand-make enough udon for about 30 bowls a day, and they usually sold out everyday. Unfortunately, the couple closed shop after only a couple years in business and went back to Japan. Since then, I've not found a single decent Japanese noodle in Victoria, be it udon, soba or ramen. If you know any best kept Japanese noodle secrets in Victoria, let me know.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka 火頭山 on Urbanspoon


Japadog, 845 Burrard St, Vancouver, BC

Hailed by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and other folk of food fame, Japadog has somehow managed to gain an almost food cult status in Vancouver. I suspect much of this is due to timing. I recall much of the buzz around Japadog happening during the 2010 Olympics. Talk about a captive food cart audience.

I finally had a chance to try it to judge for myself, and while it's a decent dog, I don't know what all the fuss is about. I concede, a few shreds of seaweed paper and some wasabi flavoured mayonnaise does liven up an otherwise boring wiener in bun, but is the hype justified? YRS says no way. And at 8 bucks, I conclude that this is an overpriced hot dog riding the tail end of the Japanese food wave in Vancouver, a hot dog cart that has done little more than dress up a classic hot dog with a couple of Japanese flavours and has convinced locals to pay too much for the concept.
Japadog (Burrard & Smithe) on Urbanspoon