Winding up a five day visit to Vancouver (after 15 years a stranger) during which finding great food was a top priority. Based on recommendations from this board and a few elsewhere, these are the places I tried (in rough chronological order): Rain City Grill, Sun Sui Wah, Blue Water Cafe, Congee Noodle House, Market, Sea Harbour Seafood, Guu (the Original), Refuel, Vij's. Also checked out the Richmond Night Market late on Saturday, Granville Island Public Market on Sunday and paid a couple visits to Bella Gelateria near Canada Place (and my hotel).
Overall view colored by the fact that the weather was sunny and gorgeous except for today (Tuesday) when it rained constantly pretty much all day into the evening. Am visiting from Portland my with 13 y/o daughter who is not a terribly adventurous diner and can be a trifle surly when her culinary preferences aren't being catered to. Want to thank Fmed for his thoughts and ideas and company one evening.
A few detailed comments:
1. Rain City Grill is doing farm-to-table local cuisine in an earnest and mostly successful fashion, but to be honest, there are at least a half dozen places in Portland that do it better. Having said that, I liked the way the dining room was set up with actual table cloths, carpeting and an effort to add an element of elegance. For a lot of reasons--some good, others not so much--Portland has a tough time with elegance.
2. Sun Sui Wah--Wonderful dim sum. Classic, ball room-sized dining room. Vast array of selections, all served fresh and hot in large portions. Didn't miss the carts although the computerish looking order card made me think I was taking the SAT again after a few decades. Grossed out the kid by working through an order of duck tongue and taro root while she enjoyed her outstanding piggie poetry: baked bbq pork pastry, steamed and baked bbq pork buns. I also fell for the chicken/ginger bun.
3. Blue Water Cafe ranks a solid A in my book. Beautiful, bustling room; outstanding range of seafood dishes; superb execution. Separated open kitchen and sushi prep station/counter gives diners a couple nice distractions. This is the kind of place Portland lacks (other than the much less impressive, much more corporate but still oddly venerated Jake's). Premium priced but worth it to me.
4. Congee Noodle House was where one of your local restaurant writers took us for lunch on Saturday. After a brief exchange in Cantonese, we had his favorite sea bass congee that was excellent and half a soya chicken that even the kid enjoyed. Simple place obviously well off the typical tourist trail that I felt privileged to try.
5. Market--weary after lots of walking and eating, this had the benefit of convenience to our hotel. Burgers were juicy and fine despite the loony refusal to cook them under well-done. Had a nice tom yum with coconut milk and chicken too. Overall, however, I wouldn't give Brand Jean-George another nickel after this meal (and another at the recently opened steak house at the Aria in Vegas). Mediocrity seems the B J-G credo these days. A shame to see a celeb chef stop caring as his surrogates keep opening new places with new concepts about every 10 minutes.
6. Sea Harbour. A nice shlep down to Richmond (though the place is only about 100 yards north of the Aberdeen Sky Train stop) for tony Hong Kong-ish dim sum. Much smaller portions and higher prices than @ Sun Sui Wah. Still, had a few unusual items, most notably the silky black chicken steamed in lotus leaf. Looks like they buried a few bird parts before the ritual wrapping and steaming. Once you get past the revulsion of eating black, rotten looking food, it wasn't so bad. Wasn't that great either, though. Loved the green-tinged deep-fried rice balls filled with black sesame paste, though I (and the kid) prefer red bean or yellow.
7. Guu--HEY, COULD YOU TURN THE MUSIC UP A LITTLE LOUDER!!! Fmed assured me this is all how it's done in Japan, so who am I to argue with overamped tunes and servers shrieking their orders to the kitchen? My travels have taken me over many parts of Asia, but not yet Japan. My ears are already blown out from too many Grateful Dead concerts to count spanning the 70's and 80's, so it wasn't really that oppressive--other than the server's/kitchen's inability to produce two grilled pork belly and garlic skewers in less than 20 minutes. Overall, I did enjoy the food a great deal as I do my favorite izakaya joints in Portland, Tanuki and Biwa.
8. Refuel-- A unanimous recommendation from Fmed and our writer friend for the West 4th Street wander my daughter and I planned this day. The drenching rain put a damper on our spirits which may have affected my perception of the meal. Our server, who I will designate Ms. Moonbeam, had a resolutely pleasant if vacant demeanor and seemed to operate in some kind of temporal phase shift. Meaning the service operated at a crawl even though we weren't in any particular hurry and the room wasn't exactly bustling. Loved the tomato soup. The pulled pork in the pulled pork sandwich special was rather stringy and dry, despite my efforts to revive it in the small pool of so-so bbq sauce that came with it. The kid's burger was OK, she said. Lots of mediocre fries on both plates. We passed on dessert.
9. Every good thing that's been said about Vij's is true. We arrived at 5:15 and were about 25th in line. Got seated in the first wave. They brought around the nosh on platters even to those of us who were seated. A little of this, a little of that. Sidebar: man, lots of beautiful women working here; in fact everyone except the one lucky gent who told me he's the manager and lucked into this job after a nightclub career. My old buddy Karl from PA would call that "falling into a bucket of shit and coming up with a blue suit on." Sadly, Mr. Vij was not there tonight, but his minions are well-drilled and were on top of every detail, beginning to end. They were always there when you needed them, but I still didn't feel like I was being hurried through. Lamb lollipops were all they were cracked up to be. For starters, we enjoyed the samosas, curried liver pate and an accidental bonus dish of portobello mushroom curry. The kid had the beef tenderloin dish which she actually ate (minus all vegetable matter) without too much bitching. She dug into the mango/pistachio kulfi with me such that we ultimately had to agree to alternating bites until it was gone. We got out of there about two hours, fifteen minutes after arriving, so two hours of table time.
10. Quick hits. . .Bella Gelateria has probably the best gelato at the highest prices I've ever eaten. Avoid conversation with the owner: it's like talking to a a born again anybody who must spread the word with intensity. Fmed listened; I hid. . . Richmond Night Market redeemed by fresh mangosteen, otherwise mostly junk food (and junk generally) doubtless with a few exceptions I wasn't sharp enough to locate. Reminded me lots of night markets in SE Asia. . .49th Parallel Coffee Roasters was the only great espresso I had during this visit. I expect better next time ;-) or maybe I just missed out on the others. . .For great charcuterie, one simple word: OYAMA (I may have to vote the Obama/Oyama ticket in '12 just because it sounds so cool). These folks have it dialed in.
Thx Vancouver. See you again soon.
1480 11th Ave W, Vancouver, BC V6H1L1, CA
838 Thurlow St, Vancouver, BC V6E1W2, CA
Congee Noodle House
141 Broadway E, Vancouver, BC V5T1W1, CA