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.
Bard and Banker on Urbanspoon