Tuesday, March 24, 2015

West Coast Adventures: Vancouver, Point Reyes, San Fran

I keep suffering from the frustrating situation of having lots to write about, but no time to do so. But what's going on right now is just too good not to share. I have been having days of epic food adventures while I'm traveling for work and a conference. Here's a 'taste' of how I mix food and pleasure:

Friday, March 20: We Overdid It

It was an early morning (5am) wakeup call to catch my flight to Vancouver. I traveled alongside a neighbour and her daughters, so there was no sleep on the plane (that's okay, sleep is never my priority, and it was nice to have some time to visit with her), and arrived in Vancouver in time to make my way to Richmond for a business lunch. I tried to not overdo it at the all-you-can-eat sushi place, because I knew we were going to be hitting a few restaurants that evening.

I met up with my girlfriend downtown around 3:30, and after a quick trip to Long Tall Sally (the only store with clothes that fit this Amazon), we headed around the corner to have a cocktail at Hawksworth. Hawksworth is currently listed as the best restaurant in Vancouver, the second best restaurant in Canada, and the chef won bronze at this year's Gold Medal Plates competition. I have been hearing about it everywhere, and when I looked at the menu, I knew I had to try it out.

We started with champagne cocktails (you'll notice this is a theme), but this one blew all the others out of the water, as it included crème de violet, and smelled like a bouquet as I brought it close to take a sip. The combination of aroma and flavour were fascinating. My girlfriend's drink was more classic, and she said that while she liked the smell of mine, she preferred the flavour of hers. Which was good, because I wasn't interested in sharing.

We sampled a few appetizers, including KFC (what?!), which at Hawksworth stands for Korean Fried Cauliflower. It was a gorgeous combination of creamy cauliflower florets, crispy skin (those florets have lots of nooks and crannies to create even more crunch, not to mention surface for the red chile—maybe gochujang?—hot sauce).

We followed that with crispy fried oysters, which were served on a wooden board dusted with something that I couldn't quite place, only I knew it instantly reminded me of fish and chips with vinegar on them. That's because it was malt vinegar dust (of course it was!). There was a fantastic piquillo dipping sauce that we were tempted to just spoon up and eat on its own.

I also had to try the foie gras torchon, which was served in a way that was completely new and unexpected: it was shaved and served over coconut tapioca, exotic fruit and a macadamia nut granola.  They mentioned that some people were having a hard time with it because they were hoping for a more traditional presentation. I was completely engaged with the combination of flavours and textures: the rich, silky foie, made lighter and more airy by being grated, the crunch of the savoury granola, the sweet fruit, and tapioca pearls... It was an amazingly playful dish, and I would have it for dessert (or breakfast) any day.

We moved on from there to Blacktail, a new restaurant in Gastown, where we had another take on oysters, this time raw with a cucumber foam and fresh grated horseradish. Best oysters I've had in a long while, and they haven't been matched since, actually, and you will see that I have been eating a lot of oysters. We also sampled the beef tartare with truffle mayo and kale purée. It was studded with pickles and other savouries, but was surprisingly rich (not sure why I was surprised that raw beef came across as rich, but there you go). More champagne cocktails, this one called the Blacktail, and then we moved on to our dinner reservation.

That's right. We had two full on appetizer experiences at two amazing restaurants and THEN we went to dinner. I was truthfully quite satisfied at that point, but we were meeting two other friends that I haven't seen in a while and my girlfriend had told me great things about La Quercia, so we went.

Did we have to order the seven course tasting menu? No, we certainly did not. But when faced with the opportunity to let the chef just choose dishes for us, how could we say no? Things started getting a little fuzzy part way through the seven courses (likely due to the excellent Italian wine we were drinking), so I may not remember all of them...there was a sous vide veal with tuna purée and capers; braised pork belly and scallops with puréed carrots; a fennel salad in anchovy vinaigrette; agnolotti with ricotta and chard in a brown butter sauce; a combination of two pastas: amatriciana, and something else I can't remember; braised beef; a cheese platter; and a platter of two desserts: lemon torte and flourless chocolate cake. Then, because we'd been mildly harassed by some very drunk men at a nearby table, they brought us a second dessert: chocolate salami (a chocolate log studded with nuts and sliced to look like salami).

All fantastic. But definitely, considering the rest of the evening, too much.

We had made plans to check out a new breakfast restaurant before I had to catch my plane the next day, but when I woke up the next morning, I was nowhere near hungry. "Kim," I said, "I have to tap out. I can't possibly eat a full on breakfast right now." Instead, we drove to the airport so I could check in early, and we had a sad, sad airport breakfast. But it was all I could handle after a night of fabulous excess.

Saturday, March 21: Point Reyes Station

I was heading to San Francisco a day before my conference started so I could connect with a friend in Point Reyes Station. That meant I got to drive the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast and through redwood forests. Beautiful, and so much fun to drive that curvy, hilly highway! I was grateful to not have my boys with me, because I was pretty sure they'd be puking in the back seat.

By the time I got to Point Reyes Station and connected with my friend, it was after 7 pm. I had only really eaten the sad airport breakfast, so I was getting pretty hungry. The whole Point Reyes region is a huge tourist area, and we discovered the hard way that EVERYONE was into dinner in Point Reyes on a Saturday night. We finally secured an 8:45 reservation at Nick's Cove in Marshall.

While it was dark when we got there, I could see this would be a gem of a place. It's right on the water, and you can even order food down at the boathouse, where they have a wood stove you can curl up next to. In the restaurant they have a wood burning fireplace where you can make your own s'mores with house made graham crackers and marshmallows.

We signed on for fresh oysters, bbq'd oysters, and oysters Mornay, and then instead of ordering a main course, opted to share some fantastic side dishes, like warm mushroom salad with ham, celery root and truffle vinaigrette; chard with duck confit; a salad with pecans, goat cheese and buttermilk dressing; burrata cheese with kumquats; and fennel with Meyer lemon risotto. Luckily my friend's husband arrived and helped us finish off all the dishes, because our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. But it was all. So. Good.

Sunday, March 22: Foodie Serendipity

I spent Sunday morning basking in the gentle sunlight outside a nearby deli and organic market, waiting for the local metaphysical store to open. That's right, in a rural region of northern California, the only two stores on a country road are an organic market and deli, and metaphysical store. Is it any wonder I love it here?

I sipped a latte, tucked into a pretty fantastic breakfast sandwich of very fresh bread, ham, bacon, avocado, eggs, cheese and picante sauce, and watched the world go by. My friend and I visited some more and then I headed back to San Francisco to spend the night there before my conference started the next morning.

After returning my rental car, I checked into the Hotel Mark Twain, because why wouldn't I surround myself with Mark Twain quotes if I can, right? I walked a block to Kin Khao, a recommended Thai restaurant. It was a short wait for a spot at the bar, and I immediately honed in the Namprik Long Rua, a "funky, spicy, umami-bomb Kapi shrimp paste relish, served with caramelized pork jowl, crispy Passmore catfish, salted duck egg and vegetables." The disclaimer under it said, "don't order this if you're new to Thai food."

I struck up a conversation with one of the people that worked at the restaurant who was sitting next to me. She admitted it was technically her day off, but she still came to eat there anyway. Good sign, I thought. It turns out I was sitting next to the owner, which eventually came out in our conversation. When her food arrived, she kept offering me a taste, so beside the Namprik, I also sampled some fantastic chili lime squid, and equally spicy and funky steamed clams. I was in heaven, and grateful for the chance to share food stories with the owner.

Monday, March 23: Making up for conference food

I opted for a smoothie for breakfast and walked 20 minutes to my conference hotel. The conference itself is proving to be very useful already, but from a food perspective, our conference lunch was the most disappointing thing I had eaten in a while. When our workshop ended at 4pm, I walked the half block to the Ferry Building, and reveled in the food on offer there. I sat at the bar at the Hog Island Oyster Company, next to a couple of other women traveling on business, and of course the woman next to me does similar work to me, so we talked about how we get what the other does (in this case, running interference in communication between scientists and the marketing world).

After a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbles, I happily carried on my way, and picked up a fresh pressed root vegetable juice to make up for some of the excesses of the last few days.

I had a few minutes before the conference reception that evening, so I did a bit more research on nearby restaurants and discovered that Boulevard was only a block away. It had abalone on offer as an appetizer, and since that is on my 'must-try' list, I decided to stop in there before I headed back to my hotel. Close to the end of the reception, I ran into one of the people that had been in our workshop earlier that day, and we discovered a mutual love of food, so she came with me.

Even though the restaurant looked packed, we were instantly seated at the chef's table, which (delightfully) gave us a view of the chefs at work. We sampled the best scallops I've tasted in a very long time, as well as the abalone (delicious), and told food stories while the chef in front of us sliced meat and nodded approvingly at our conversation. He then suggested a couple of other restaurant options, which I may just have to try out in the next couple of days. Or do I go back to Kin Khao? Kin told me I should really try the curries...

So many restaurants, so little time...

Did I mention I'm blissfully happy?

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