Having grown weary of recommending the same old places to visitors to Victoria (Brasserie L'Ecole, Zambri's, Stage, etc...), I have made a concerted effort during the past two weeks to try some of the city's newer eateries. The results? Some very good, some not-so-good, as expected.
1) Foo is primarily a takeout place specializing in Asian street food. I was skeptical about the 'pan-Asian' approach but had heard good things about the place. The former chef from Sanuk is involved and I had enjoyed Sanuk the one time I had eaten there (sadly, it is no longer in business).
While the dishes at Foo sound fairly pedestrian (beef and broccoli chow mein; marinated octopus salad) they are elevated by use of top notch ingredients and a light touch with the oil. The beef in the chow mein is braised beef short rib meat. The broccoli are tender, slender, flash fried florets, leaves included, that seem more like broccolini to me than broccoli. The chow mein noodles are ordinary but it is hard to complain about a chow mein studded with hearty hunks of short rib meat.
The octopus salad was even better. The octopus, served warm, had been marinated and was very tender, with just a slight requisite chewiness. There were big meaty segments of octopus tentacle. The accompanying salad was delicious and featured thinly sliced marinated papaya. The dish had a pleasant citrus flavour.
We ordered the special, crispy pork belly with gai lan and steamed rice. The pork belly was sweet and sour and was definitely a home run. Mind you, doing good by pork belly is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel. The rice was adequate but pedestrian, but served its purpose in observing the juices from the pork.
Every item on Foo's menu was less than ten dollars. The food was not hot by the time we got home (it is served in those white cardboard takeout containers with the wire handles) but it was delicious nonetheless. My only beef with Foo is that the food was not very spicy. Otherwise, the flavours were great. I'll definitely go back. Foo is at the corner of Blanshard and Yates, across the street from the Capitol 6 movie theatres.
2) Aura, at the Laurel Point Inn. Okay so it is not new (has been open for at least a year) but I have not managed to get there until the past week. I had heard mixed reviews, but I am always on the lookout for new fine dining options in Victoria. My wife and I decided to try Aura for lunch, and our first impressions of this restaurant were lukewarm. Service was great: friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic without being intrusive. The room is modern and attractive and certainly affords lovely views of Victoria's inner harbour. The lunch menu was a bit of a hodgepodge. The chef is primarily going for the Asian fusion angle (i.e. their signature 'wonton crusted prawns') with detours to Mexico (crab quesadillas), North Africa (harissa spiced lamb burger), Greece (crispy calamari with orange segments, fennel and tzatziki) and the UK (good old-fashioned fish 'n' chips). This 'anything goes' approach is difficult to pull off, and sure enough the restaurant failed to meet expectations on the day we ate there. The wonton crusted prawns sounded great on paper: they came with a "togorashi mayonnaise, warm edamame, and lime salt." They were, however, unwieldy and awkward to eat, with a slivered wonton crust that did not offer much in the way of flavour. The prawns themselves were overcooked and dry and almost certainly not from local waters. In fact, they reminded me of prawns I ate as a child at inexpensive, inauthenic Chinese restaurants. The edamame was fine, but the dipping mayo that came with the prawns was not particularly interesting.
My wife ordered the prawns and the warm Comox brie and spinach salad. The spinach in the salad tasted as if it had come from a box, but it was difficult to tell because it was buried under a layer of gloopy dressing. The warm brie was good, as were the crisp apple segments in the salad, so it was not a total write-off.
My lamb burger was okay but not exceptional for $15. The lamb was fairly juicy but cooked well-done. I did not care for the bun. I was not asked how I would like my burger cooked. Is there some sort of law in BC dictating that all ground meat served in restaurants must be cooked well-done? In the US, I often get the option of specifying how I would like my burger cooked, but I have never been asked here at home. Go figure. Anyway, the burger was fine, and the fries that accompanied it were fine too, but there are places in Victoria that serve an equally good lamb burger for less money. The harissa spice was very subtle, which was probably a good thing because I wanted to taste the flavour of the meat.
The wine list at Aura is very BC oriented, and the mark-ups are reasonable.
I never judge a restaurant from one meal, unless it is devoid of any promise, so I am not writing off Aura. I wish the menu was more focused and did not try to take the diner on a global tour, because pulling in elements from so many different cuisines is virtually impossible to pull off.
3) The Edge restaurant, Sooke, BC. Located right in the heart of Sooke (on Sooke Road, near Otter Point Road), Edge is a new restaurant from Edward Tuscon and his wife Gemma (EDward and GEmma=EdGe). Some of you might be familiar with Edward as he was the executive chef at the Sooke Harbour House for the past 14 years. He has left the Harbour House and opened up his own place, which is remarkably downscale from his former environs. The room is plain and unpretentious, with laminate floors and largely unadorned walls. The Edge serves comfort foods that one would find in a nice pub. The prices are ludicrously reasonable; on the lunch menu, nothing is more than 11.95, with most items under $10. The dinner menu is slightly more expensive but still very reasonable, with appies in the $6-10 range and mains in the $17-24 range. The dessert menu is the same at lunch and dinner; all desserts are $6.95.
The Edge is a small, casual restaurant that is well-suited to the local Sooke demographic (I say this as someone who is married to a former "Sookie" and as someone who spends a heck of a lot of time in Sooke). Portions are big, prices are low, and there are plenty of carbs to be found. The lunch menu features burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, and pastas. The dinner menu focuses on seafood (i.e. halibut, tuna) and braised meats, like braised pork shank or curried lamb. The most expensive dinner item is the steak, at $24, which is served with housemade BBQ sauce and house-made potato-feta perogie.
What gives this restaurant an 'edge' over similar places is the quality of ingredients being used. The caesar salad, which my wife and I shared, features house-made bacon. The burger (which we did not sample) is topped with house-made pickles. There is housemade salumi and house-made ice cream on the menu, too. There is a focus on local ingredients, as one would expect from a restaurant run by the former Sooke Harbour House exec chef.
The Edge offers killer value. In addition to the aforementioned caesar salad, my wife and I sampled the "squid and chips with chili mayo" (11.95) and the scooby doo pasta with peas, prawns, chilies, olive oil and garlic (9.95). The squid portion was massive; four big pieces of panko-breaded squid. It was a bit chewy, but the SO and I both really enjoyed it. The chips were pretty good, too. My pasta was not fancy but the virtue was in the details; the prawns, 7 or 8 in total, were butterflied and were succulent, tender, and flavourful. They stood in sharp contrast to the dried-out, mealy-textured 'signature' prawns I had eaten at Aura the day before. The pasta was cooked al dente and garnished with romano cheese.
We could not resist dessert, as the menu looked amazing. Choices included creme brulee garnished with spiced, poached apricots; apple "spring rolls" served with whipped cream cheese and apple syrup; and lemon curd tart served with blackberry ice cream. We went for Trudy's brownie served with house-made coffee mint ice cream and hazelnut praline. There was also a beautifully sculpted apple garnish. Every component of the dessert was great: the brownie was moist, almost mousse-like, and chocolate-y; the ice cream was delicate and not overly sweet; and the hazelnut praline drizzle added another flavour dimension as well as a pleasant visual component that tied the elements together. The portion was moderate, but we were stuffed from the very large lunch we had just eaten, so we appreciated that the dessert was not a "gut buster."
I would not necessarily say that the Edge is a destination restaurant, as the menu is really focused on comfort foods. But the execution is spot-on, or 'spank-on' as the British say, and the restaurant offers very good value. For someone looking to explore Sooke (i.e. take a hike in East Sooke Park, swim in the Sooke Potholes, etc...) the Edge is a perfect place to sate one's appetite.
4) Prime Steakhouse.
Prime is where Sanuk used to be, on the corner or Courtenay and Gordon Streets. This is turning out to be a 'cursed' restaurant location; every restaurant that has been in this space in the Magnolia Hotel has gone under within a few years. Hopefully Prime will stick around for a while, because it seems very promising. We lunched there a few weeks ago, and while the food was not adventurous (when is a steakhouse menu ever adventurous?) it offered good value. Also, Victoria could use a real steakhouse. Prime offers cuts that one would hope to see in a decent steakhouse, like their signature, 16 oz bone-in NY strip. If I am going to pay big money for a meal at a steakhouse, I better have the option of ordering a bone-in cut.
The lunch menu is much smaller than the dinner menu and is not focused on steak. I had a lobster linguine with arugula, mushrooms and bacon in a cream sauce. A bit over-the-top and lacking in subtlety, you say? I agree, but I cannot argue with a dish that incorporates so many of my favourite ingredients (pasta, lobster, arugula, bacon, mushrooms, and cream?! Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!) My wife had a steak salad that was actually very good. The vegetables in the salad were fresh and crisp, and the salad greens themselves tasted very fresh and were not from a plastic box, thank goodness. The steak portion of her salad had been marinated, was tender and full of flavour.
I look forward to trying dinner at Prime.
5) Nar (translates to Among Friends)
This Turkish spot is a new addition to the Oak Bay dining scene. It is in a quaint part of a quaint neighbourhood, on Windsor Street not far from the Oak Bay marina. Nar offers a serene ambience in a house-like setting. The menu is traditional Turkish items like dolma (stuffed grape leaves), borek (baked phyllo with cheese) and kebabs. There are cold and hot mezes. I ate there for lunch one day and had their kofte, seasoned meat balls in tomato sauce served over rice. It was pretty simple, really home cooking, but it was comforting and the flavours were clean. I would like to go with a group of people and share some of their dishes; I think that is the ideal way to eat this food. I would put Nar in the 'promising' category. However, given its obscure residential location and Victoria's general unfamiliarity with Turkish cuisine, I am not sure if Nar will last (I am certainly routing for this place).
I will post more reviews of the above restaurants after further "exposure."