Saturday, 23 April 2016

Welcome with Open Arms at Vancouver's Cabrito

2270 Commercial Dr
Vancouver, BC
(604) 620-7636

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- This little gem showcases primarily local ingredients with a few authentic Spanish accents mixed in for good measure.  When we visited in January, the menu was chock full of winter veg (beet, celeriac, potato) as well as locally produced fare such as cheese from Salt Spring Island.  For authenticity sake, spanish delicacies such as Iberico ham are also up for grabs.

Reservations required?  We walked in easily without a reservation, but once this place catches on, it may be a different story!

Cabrito is one of the new kids on the block in the uber hip Commercial Drive which is quickly becoming populated one of the up and coming foodie neighbourhoods in Vancouver.  Having just opened in December, Cabrito is off the ground and running and had already found its stride when we visited in January.

Cabrito set up shop in the space previously occupied by the short lived Wishes and Luck, and made just some minor adjustments such as the eye-catching menu placed over the bar.  It is a very quaint space, with a bit more room in the summer when they open up the front wall of the restaurant and make a few more seats outside.  Without the front opened, it sits only about 30 guests, with seats against the far wall, a high top booth along the other side and a few seats at the bar looking into the kitchen.  The small number of guests makes for very attentive  and personal service, with water glasses always being refilled and lots of time taken for answering questions about dishes of interest.  I thought it was pretty awesome when, after I commented on their beautiful serving dishes, they offered to get me the email address and instagram info of the artist who crafted the dishes after I and even more impressed when the chef himself came out of the kitchen to hand-deliver it and speak with us.  He actually spent a good 15-20min outside of the kitchen chatting with customers which rarely ever happens in this city.  Major points for that!

I went to Cabrito expecting traditional Spanish tapas like those at the beloved Espana in the West End.  What I found though was a fusion of West Coast, Spanish and French cuisine (the chef himself is French).  I loved the light, fresh flavour that the chef incorporated.  He does not even own a deep fryer and everything is made with a good dollop of olive oil.  In true Vancouver style, they also offer, clearly indicated items that are vegan and gluten free.

In terms of dining style, the dishes are made to share around the table, with the suggestion of 2 tapas for each diner.  Hubby and I shared 4 between us, but ended up getting 2 extra because we wanted to sample more of what this talented chef had to offer.  Get your friends together and go with a big group so you can order a good variety of dishes.

Here is what we enjoyed:

Jengibre Margarita- This is not your typical sweet margarita, and very well balanced with grapefruit juice and lime, ended with a lovely salted rim.  It paired really nicely with the tapas as per the server's recommendation.

Fresh beet tartare- This lovely, light winter/fall dish came topped with a quail egg that we were told to mix in, giving it a nice texture for scooping onto the crostini.  It was finished herbs for a nice hit of freshness.

Scallops- These were my personal favourite. The perfectly seared scallops were creatively skewered with celeriac and placed overtop a mound of sweet potatoes that were to die for.

Meatballs- These were Hubby's choice.  I do not eat meat, but I greedily scarfed down every last drop of the tomato sauce around the balls as it was too good to leave behind.

Ceviche- I loved the addition of liquorice that came out subtly and added a unique twist.  Again, very light and refreshing.

Patatas Bravas- This more traditional spanish dish was smothered in a lovely piquant tomato sauce smothered with a hint of smokiness.

Risotto Galette- This was Hubby's favourite of the night.  The simple risotto (perfectly al dente) was seared for nice crispy edges and topped with arugula (that's about all you can see in this pic!).  Simply delicious.

Overall verdict?
Cabrito was a very pleasant surprise, both in terms of the food and the overall vibe.  It was one of the most personal and welcoming dining experiences that we have had in this city, and the tapas were equally impressive.  And to top it all off, we got out for under $90 for the two of us, and we had more than enough to eat.
With any luck, Cabrito will meet much future success!

Cabrito Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Jaw Dropping California Contemporary Cuisine at Quince

470 Pacific Ave, 
San Francisco, CA 94133
+1 415-775-8500

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved?  As it reads on the front page of their website: "Quince features California contemporary cuisine that celebrates the seasonal bounty of Northern California".  Chef Michael Tusk may specialize in French and Italian cooking techniques, but his ingredients are all about showcasing what California has to offer.

Reservation required?  Although not as tough of a table to get as some, be sure to book Quince well in advance to secure your spot.  I was pleased how readily available they were via email and how they rapidly responded to my email about dietary preferences within 24 hours.  They also graciously accommodated a change in our reservation time about 2 weeks before our visit due to changes in our travel plans.

It is quite shocking that Quince had not even been on our restaurant radar until about a month prior to our New Year's trip to Napa.  To be very honest, the only reason we ended up making a reservation there was because it was one of the few on the Michelin list that would accommodate us on New Year's Day when we would be making our our way back from Napa prior to catching our flight back to Vancouver the next morning.

Fortunately for us, the stars aligned and Quince was able to accommodate us for what was to be one of the best meals of our lives.

Quince is located in the Jackson Square area of San Francisco in a beautiful historic brick building.  At the helm is chef Michael Husk, a well-seasoned chef who gained years of experience in Europe before moving back the to US to share his passion for French and Italian cuisine.  In addition to Quince, he also owns a more casual restaurant next door called Cotogna, where he serves his delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Quince has been toted as one of the most elegant rooms in the Bay Area.  It underwent a sizeable renovation in 2014 (apparently led by the chef's wife), adding beautiful a Japanese wall  to partition the space into different rooms, an impressive glass chandelier and beautiful artwork and flower arrangements throughout.  It is absolutely stunning.

As for the service, I must admit that it was not an instant success.  At the beginning of our evening, I couldn't help compare the service to our experience Meadowood the night before, where the servers were 100% genuine, talkative and personable.  Although the servers here were all very professional and attentive, I felt as if they initially seemed pressed for time and were always rushing off to the next table.  As the night went on however, the servers seemed to pick up on our passion for good food they warmed up to us.  We eventually had the sommelier himself, who found out that we were fellow Canadians, come out to our table to have a chat and hand deliver a complimentary glass of an amazing Napa Pinot Noir.  Then, to top it all off, we were invited into the kitchen at the end of the meal for a quick tour and a last little palate cleaner (a gin and tonic in a bite!).  Thankfully, the service really did a 360, going from rushed and impersonal, then skyrocketing far and beyond expectations, such that we felt very special by the end of the evening.  A very fortunate turn of events indeed!

Quince offers only one option to diners- its $200 prix fixe menu.  Having said that, they will gladly accommodate dietary restrictions and some general food preferences.  On the night of our visit, there were also 2 "add-on" options to the prix fixe menu, showcasing end-of-season truffles that were on display at the back of the restaurant.  In addition to the food menu, they also do cocktails and have a very extensive wine list, with over 100 pages of champagne and wine offerings.

The food ay Quince is described on website as "California contemporary cuisine that celebrates the seasonal bounty of Northern California".  There were notably french and italian elements weaved into the tasting menu, which stem from Chef Tusk's experiences in Europe as a young chef.  The most memorable, and one the of house specialties, is the fresh pasta which we were fortunate to get as 3 of our tasting menu dishes.  When we had our tour of the kitchen, we were shown a cooking station dedicated solely to pasta, which was apparently one of the chef's requests when the renovation was done.  Quince's more casual sister restaurant next door, Cotogna, also further showcases Tusk's knack for pasta.

I would advise coming to Quince with an empty belly.  We left more full than we had been after the French Laundry or Meadowood, as there were lots of special touches and surprises scattered throughout the meal which I found very fun and exciting.  There were lots of playful dishes as well, including very creative creative canap├ęs, food served with tweezers instead of cutlery, and a bit of smoke for good measure.  Also impressive were the serving dishes, including beautiful wooden bowls that we were told were designed by an artist who lives in the bush without a telephone!  Their attention to detail with plating really added to the experience.

Here is a peak at the dishes we enjoyed:

Overall Verdict?
As we were leaving Quince that evening, Hubby turned to me with a shocked look on his face saying "I think that may have been the best meal of my life!".  That is quite a compliment, considering we have just dined the last two nights at the French Laundry and Meadowood!  Quince was certainly the wild card of the trip, but ended up surpassing our greatest expectations.  We predict that it will not be long until Quince earns its 3rd star.

Quince Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Casual culinary excellence at Solbar

755 Silverado Trail N, 
Calistoga, CA 94515
+1 707-226-0860

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 4/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Brandon Sharp has worked as Chef de Partie at the French Laundry and has clearly learned a thing or two about being a locavore.  Out dishes were chock-full of winter veg from local farmers (as stated at the top of the menu) and the menu changes daily to reflect the freshest of ingredients.  I would love to return in the summer to see what Sharp has up his sleeve with a more bountiful crop.

Reservations required?  In high season, maybe so but when we were there in late December, there were tables to be had and we were able to change our reservation to a later time on the day of.  Seems like a place that welcomes walk-ins, and if you have to wait, there very cozy lounge, with spots at the bar and lots of comfy couches, is a great place to pass the time.

Solbar was a late addition to the restaurant roster for our New Year's Napa trip.  With French Laundry and Meadowood reserved, we were looking a third restaurant to sandwich between them that was more casual to give ourselves a chance to "recover" from one tasting menu and get ready for the next.  After some googling, I came across Solbar which seemed promising as a contrast to those two, with an eclectic menu and more chill, hip vibe and a Michelin Star to boot.

Solbar is located at the Solage Resort, a beautiful resort located in the up-and-coming Calistoga, located at the north end of Napa.  This little city has traditionally received much less press than other places in Napa but this is all changing with places like Solage and now the development of a Four Seasons resorts in the city of just over 5000.

Solbar is the restaurant at Solage, and is open for breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch and dinner.  There is also a nice lounge area beside the restaurant to enjoy cocktails and a few munchies, or even dinner at the bar.

The room at Solbar is beautiful, with nice high ceilings and and large windows framing the space.
Although there was a definite elegance to the space, the decor was simple and there were some rustic elements including the beautiful wooden sphere light fixtures.  At the time of year we were visiting, there were tasteful Xmas decorations around the room including a spectacular plus-sized wreath on the window behind the bar. All in all, the vibe was much more laid back than many Michelin star joints.  For the most part, guests wore jeans and other casual clothing, especially in the lounge where it seemed like mostly hotel guests winding down after a long day of wine tastings.

This casual and relaxed vibe came through in the service as well.  We first sat at the bar, where a very gracious and hard-working bartender served up some nice cocktails.  In the dining room, our main server was excellent, taking time to explain the menu, providing us with excellent dish recommendations and checking up on us regularly.  Other servers arrived in a timely fashion to refill our water, serve our dishes and double check to make sure we were satisfied.

At the helm in the kitchen is Brandon Sharp who has a very impressive resume, having worked at some of the country's best restaurants (Chef de Partie at The French Laundry and Sous Chef at Gary Danko in San Francisco.  And it shows in his food.

His menu is quite succinct, with 8 appetizers and 8 mains.  Each course is then subdivided into 4 "higher, lighter dishes" in green, and 4 "hearty" dishes in red.  Despite the small menu, there is something for everyone with a nice mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes.  The menu changes daily, with tweaks to dishes based on what ingredients are available that day.

Here is a look at the dishes Hubby and I enjoyed:

Amuse bouche

Corn bread

Autumn chopped salad- Based on this title, the dish I was served was not at all what I was expecting.  Having said that, I would venture to say that this was one of my favourite dishes of my trip.  It was very simple, with little piles of quinoa, avocado, mango and pear, but the combination of textures and flavours came together to make a very well-composed dish.  It is the mark of a truly great chef to make something seemingly simple become unforgettable.

Gulf shrimp a la plancha- Hubby's appie was also quite memorable, with bold and spicy flavours from the patties bravas and chile hot sauce that was balanced by sweet kumquats.

Garnet yam and shiitake dumplings- Again, my vegetarian entree was a real winner of a dish.  The pan fried vegetable dumplings were served with pretty little pieces of winter squash and served with a generous portion of healthy greens with an Asian-inspired vinagrette and scallion-daikon garnish.  I really appreciated this very creative and thoughtful vegetarian dish.

Snake river farms flatiron steak- The steak, from a small family owned farm known for some of the best steaks in the country, was perfectly prepared (medium rare).  It was served with a generous portion of veggies, including the most succulent hen of the wood mushrooms and brocollini as well as decadent leek fritters.

Portions were very generous, so we decided to opt out of dessert but the menu looked equally creative and, based on our dishes, would be no doubt worth the splurge!

Overall Verdict?
As the "wild card" on our trip, we did not come in with super high expectations but we left with very high praise.  This is the perfect place for those who love excellent food but are in the mood for a more low-key and casual evening after a long day of wine tours or whatever brings you to beautiful Napa.  Chef Sharp has recently opened a second restaurant in Calistoga called Evangeline, specializing in Creole food, which will definitely be on the agenda during our next Napa trip after our excellent experience at Solbar.  Definitely worth a visit!

Solbar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 13 February 2016

A Taste of Heaven on Earth at Meadowood Napa Valley Resort

900 Meadowood Ln, 
St Helena, CA 
1 707-531-4788

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Chef Christopher Kostow is dedicated to using local ingredients in his avant-garde dishes.  I loved the story we were told by our server about his use of whelks.  Apparently Chef Kostow used to love using lobster at the restaurant.  When the local fishermen would catch the lobster, there were whelks caught in the nets that were typically just discarded.  Chef Kostow started experimenting with different ways of using them in his dishes and he now embraces them.

Reservations required? YES-Aalthough not as hard to get as French Laundry, you still need to book far in advance (up to 3 months, by phone or online on Opentable).  You may have a better shot at getting a reservation if you are a guest at the resort but this is certainly not a given, especially in high season.  To be safe, plan far in advance!

Hubby and I had the great pleasure of not only dining at Meadowood but also staying at the resort over New Years this year.  What an experience!

Before I get into details on the dining experience, it deserves mentioning how phenomenal the resort itself is.  The attention to detail here is unrivalled.  To start, the Concierge service is outstanding.  On arrival, the concierge asked if we needed anything, so I mentioned a bunch of different things we were considering (wineries, Oakville Grocery, Oxbow Market).  Within an hour of our arrival, we were hand-delivered a typed personal itinerary for our next 2 days, including winery tours that the concierge had booked for us.  Other notable luxuries include a 24-hour car service to drive you around the resort, a beautiful hike around the grounds (with little water stops at intervals along the way), a full gym with multiple fitness classes throughout the day, a brand new spa, and much, much more.  Prepare to be amazed!

Now to the restaurant itself which is equally spectacular.  The room is magical, bringing in elements of Mother Nature like magical "floating" branches high on the walls of the front room, and a phenomenal pillar in the middle of the main room covered in bark that looked just like a cedar tree growing out of the floor.  The front room where we waited for your table and enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail was pretty chilly on the New Year's Eve night that we visited, but fortunately we were able to snuggle up near one of the massive fireplaces to stay toasty.  I loved my tequila based cocktail which had a great evolution of flavour from sweet to sour to spicy, while Hubby enjoyed the Butter Bourbon.

The service at in the Restaurant at Meadowood was some of the best we have ever experienced.  The servers were so genuine, so accommodating and so willing to entertain our questions.  We were introduced to our main server and sommelier right off the bat, and they made us feel as though we were the only ones in the dining room.  They seemed genuinely pleased to be spending their New Years Eve at work!  We particularly appreciated the free bottle of champagne given to each table to ring in the New Year.

The wine list at Meadowood is impressive, with glasses of wine starting at $30 and bottles averaging $300-500, with some more than $5000.  Although we stayed at the lower end of price range for wine, the very knowledgeable sommelier was very gracious in helping us make a choice that suited our tastes.  For those who are so inclined, there are also wine pairings available ($225).

Now to the star of the night- the multi-course dinner.  We had no idea what would be delivered to our table as we were not actually given the menu until the end of our meal (a beautiful keepsake, presented in a covering that looked cedar bark).  Our tasting menu had more "blow your mind" moments than any other I have had.  Chef Kostow threw in lots of surprises along the way (chicken cooked in sourdough, whelk that was transformed by combining it with scallop and butter, a whole pumpkin brought tableside and scooped out) without being overly theatrical.  There was just enough wow factor to make it fun and entertaining, but still classy and elegant.

The meal is very seafood-forward, and there were only 2 courses that needed to be altered from the Chef's Tasting Menu to accommodate on my pescatarian request.  Chef Kostow uses the best ingredients he can get his hands on, including produce from his garden (they use a greenhouse in the winter) and meat and fish sourced locally. Even their legumes were special, with heirloom beans brought in from Rancho Gordo which is renowned for bringing back extinct heirloom bean varieties.  One of my favourite treats of the evening was the matsumamaki mushrooms picked and delivered the day before.  Its not every day you have to eat those beauties!

All in all, there were 12 courses of deliciousness in total, starting with a few small bites and ending with cheese, sorbet and a small dessert plus a few chocolates as a farewell.  We left feeling perfectly satisfied, without being overly stuffed.

Overall Verdict?
Simply put, Meadowood is magical.  From the moment we drove through the tree-lines road leading into the resort, I knew I was headed somewhere very special.  And what I found was beyond anything I could have imagined.
Until we meet again, dear Meadowood!

The Restaurant at Meadowood Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato