Friday, January 29, 2010

Toshi Sushi Girls, You Got The Wicked Style

I had never read a review of this little nugget (at 16th and Main), but I had walked and driven by numerous times and noticed groups of people milling about outside. I had never heard of Toshi (and I have crazy foodie friends), so I wrongly assumed that these crowds were accumulating due to the lack of good Japanese restaurants along Main and/or cheap prices. Well, I ate there a couple weeks ago and am thoroughly happy and excited to report that Toshi's is always busy because IT IS FRIGGIN AWESOME!

My posse ordered: salmon/toro sashimi, gyoza, the house roll (prawn, cucumber, avacado, roe), negitoro maki, miso and a bowl of udon. I adored everything but the gyoza. They are deepfried, and I hate deepfried foods (except for Mars bars... and halibut... and doughnuts... and hot wings... and......).

Everyone agrees that the food is great here, but I would like to emphasize how wonderful the staff are. First, there were five servers, and only about ten tables. This is a 2:1 ratio! Second, Toshi always has at least three sushi chefs working together, in addition to chefs in the back prepping hot dishes. Our items were at our table within five minutes of ordering.

I was also coddled by several of the middle-aged female servers because I whipped out my own chopsticks, along with their sleek bamboo carrying case. Little did I know that these cases are primarily used by schoolchildren...I really couldn't tell whether these jolly Japanese ladies were laughing with me or AT me ;)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chuckanut Brewery - Drink Local!

My dad and I were invited down to Bellingham last month by family friends for one of Chuckanut Brewery's seasonal Beer Dinners. The meal consisted of a beer apéritif followed by three courses with accompanying beers, all served in the brewery, next to the very vats which hold the beer that you are enjoying!

Before each course, Brewmaster Will Kemper explained how each distinct beer is made and why it was being paired with each course. He also asked the two chefs at the brewery to come out several times and explain how they designed the dishes around the beer made at Chuckanut. In a pleasant and unexpected twist to the evening, Will informed us that we could help ourselves to as much beer as we would like, since "It's a brewery, afterall!"

The first dish was a delicate, crisp and invigorating Wild Greens Salad with Artichoke Cakes. This was paired with a Bavarian-style pilsner, the hoppiness of which acted as a counterpoint to the tang of the artichokes.

The entree was Beef Tenderloin and Wild Mushrooms, accompanied by Parmesan Potato Gratin Wedges and Garlic Haricot Vert. This was partnered with an Altbier (a German "old"-style beer). Altbiers are made with warm, top-fermenting yeast, and the beer is then aged and allowed to mellow for a short period after fermentation. This old-style process originating in Westphalia - involving fermentation at unusually low temperatures and the aging of the beer in cool conditions - results in a rich yet light and clean ale. This ale was a perfect choice because it complimented the beef, rather than overwhelming the dish, which could have happened with an English-style dark ale. 

The dessert was a Hot Fudge Brownie, which was served (and made!) with Chuckanut's Foreign Stout. In addition to the glass of stout, the dessert was also served with a Stout Float, comprised of Thomas Kemper Root Beer, ice cream and...stout. I loved the ways in which the malty, earthy, leathery notes found in the stout were reflected in the dark, bittersweet brownie, but I didn't dig the float. The stout was packed with esters and cocoa qualities, so the float was just unnecessary. If anything, the float detracted from the stout.  

Brewmaster Will Kemper told us something at the end of the night that was intuitive and logical, yet poignant: "Drink local beer!" Beer does go bad. Hops do react to sunlight and become bitter during transport. Changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature, light and storage facilities definitely affect carbonation, flavour, bouquet and bitterness. Drinking locally provides you with better beer, and it supports your community. For you Vancouverites: try Granville Island over Grolsch, imbibe some Phillips Blue Buck instead of some Pacifico, and buy a pint of Okanagan Spring next time you hit the pub rather than a pint of imported Oettinger Hefeweissen.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Retro Nu Needs Renewal

Nu opened in 2005 as the third tentacle of the culinary cephalopod that is Vancouver's Harry Kambolis Restaurnt Group. With C and Raincity Grill doing well in a town that adores seafood and oceanviews, Kambolis took a risk by a) opening a dining establishment forty feet away from C and b) renting a space that is known for its high turnover rather than its apple turnover (or albacore turnover in this instance?). I read about Nu when it opened, and recently heard about Executive Chef Robert Clark's attempt at providing a 100-Mile Menu, so I supported this restaurant's bid in hosting our annual Christmas work dinner.

I have noted in previous reviews that one should always be cautious of restaurants offering amazing views and/or convenient locations, as these draws often result in subpar meals. I should have heeded my own warnings when considering Nu, where it felt like our meals took a backseat to the loungey ambiance, the wonderful waterfront views of False Creek and the borderline gaudy decor. Speaking of seats, Nu has the most uncomfortable seats I have ever parked my rear in. Kambolis went for Saarinenesque cool over lumbar-supporting comfort.

There are some tasteful components to the decor, such as the brass-tiled ceiling and the marble counter tops. There are strong elements to be found in the menu, with its focus on local products and a classic meat n' potatoes format. There are also engaging features found on their website, with its virtual Flash buttons and updated menu specials. BUT...the decor is overdone, the food does not live up to the menu, and the website is choppy and distracting. Nu is like the Ford Pinto of Vancouver restaurants: good parts put together badly.

I did not blow-up whilst dining at Nu, but at least this would have saved me from the crunchy "roasted" seasonal vegetables that were served with my decently prepared bison steak. Other dishes ordered at our table included the duck crepe (tender with a clever presentation), the gnocchi (which disintegrated at the table and were reported to have resembled mashed potatoes rather than Italian dumplings), the beef tenderloin (well cooked and presented but arrived luke warm), the featured frutti de mar (a pleasant but forgettable linguini adorned with mussels, clams and scallops), and the featured poutine appy (which really couldn't hold a fry to any streetside, vendor poutine in Montreal). Everyone seemed content - but not enthralled - with their meals.

Nu is no longer new, and this space may soon be occupied by another ambitious restauranteur who believes he can sail effortlessly and successfully upon the picturesque shores of North False Creek. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

ABCD's Top 10 Albums of 2009

My top albums are surprisingly accessible this year. It's not that I seek out obscure music, but I do usually enjoy music that is on the experimental, innovative side. The music of 2009 was fairly low-key, and I found the highlights to be from those bands that I heard of several years ago and are now hitting their prime. And yes, I am rebelling against many of the authorities on what is hip and cool by not placing The Flaming Lips' Embryonic on my Top 10. For shame! 

These are in no particular order.

1) Metric - Fantasies : While Metric's sound has remained fairly consistent over their career - which is comprised of three kickass LPs, thus far - this album presents a group that has found a balance between post-punk dance rock and insightful songwriting. Metric still teeters upon Emily Haines' anti-capitalistic angst and youthful antagonism, but the band is now able to deliver this discord in a more articulate and thoughtful fashion.
2) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix : I enjoyed but basically dismissed Phoenix after their last two LPs, lumping them in with short-lived indie-pop sensations such as Franz Ferdinand, Spoon, The Strokes and Peter, Bjorn and John. This album has changed my mind about the band, however, as the boys from Versailles have (somehow) simultaneously become more poppy and sophisticated. Still on the up and up.

3) Matt and Kim - Grand : Like everyone else, I fell in love with 'Daylight' and prematurely labeled the song a One Hit Wonder. I downloaded Grand out of curiosity (after seeing the adorable couple on Jimmy Kimmel and being blown away by their intensity) and quickly realised that while Matt and Kim may indeed fail to create an oeuvre for future generations of music lovers, they most certainly have created a classic, idiosyncratic album that is well well worth your $11.99.

4) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest : I actually think that Yellow House is a stronger album overall, but after seeing Grizzly Bear this past spring I must declare Veckatimest as one of the best of 2009...due to the fact that this band is so incredibly talented. The band's blend of folk, retro acoustics and irregular melodies require you to listen attentively and patiently, but once you are attuned you will be drawn in by the outstanding harmonies and complex compositions. The band members line up across the stage as equals when they play live, rather than adopting the typical band stations, and their music reflects this unified, unique formation.

5) Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle : If I were a pessimistic, cerebral, established singer-songwriter who wanted to produce an album right after my beautiful and insanely talented girlfriend named Joanna Newsom left me for a goofball SNL actor named Andy Samberg and I wanted to focus my frustration and step-up my game...I'd probably create a bold, witty, melancholy, top-notch album like this too!

6) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! : The YYY's have always been able to produce catchy, compact songs, but they had never created an outstanding album prior to It's Blitz! Every track on this album is solid, from the disco anthem 'Heads Will Roll' to the New Wavey 'Soft Shock', this is an all-around amazing album...aaaaaand I want Karen O's babies.

7) múm - Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know : I've loved múm since Finally We Are No One, and I still love them even though the Valtýsdóttir sisters are no longer involved. In addition to Grizzly Bear, I also saw múm this year which deepened my appreciation for their frothy yet intricate compositions. This is literally the music of elves. My ears grow pointy just listening to it.

8) Brand New - Daisy : I know, I know...I might as well list Saves The Day and The Used on here while I'm at it, right? I truly do hate formulaic emo and insincere screamo, and I have never been impressed by anything Brand New has created. However, I do know that magical things happen when the worlds of emo, screamo and well-constructed rock combine (see: Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come or Hopesfall's The Satillite Years). Brand New's brand new album is surprisingly dark, and pleasantly troublesome. Out with the emo and in with the hardcore. 

9) Mos Def - The Ecstatic : I like hip hop, but there is very little of it that holds my attention or moves me. There are some rappers - such as Busdriver, Immortal Technique and Slug - who are able to combine tight rhyming, original beats and creative substance...but this is rare. I've always wanted to like Mos Def more than I ever have, so it feels good to finally get behind an album of his. It's sharp, it's eclectic and it's intelligent.

10) The Swell Season - Strict Joy : The strength of Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard lies in their ability to write acoustic-based love songs that avoid cliche, sap, repetition and one-dimensional vocals. There are many factors that set this duo apart from their folksie peers: the distinctive harmonies composed of Hansard's coarse singing style and Irglova's delicate trills, multi-instrumentalism, an unbelievable band history, and a sincerity that simply makes you forget about the Oscar they won. An absorbing follow-up to Once.  

Tags: "Alex Dawkins", Vancouver, "Vancouver Music Listings"

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Rennie Collection (Loquation, Loquation, Loquation)

I first heard about Bob "Condo King" Rennie's art collection in a Vancouver Sun article by John Mackie a month and a half ago. While this collection and its space are a benefit to Vancouver, there are many things that I dislike about this new gallery.

First, Bob Rennie is a tycoon trained in the art of selling, schmoozing and fabricating. This is not necessarily the type of person that I associate with the collecting of good artwork for public consideration. Second, this is a private gallery, and Rennie never lets you forget it. You must reserve a spot on a tour, which runs every Thursday during each particular show (there will be three per year). When you enter the historic Wing Sang building on East Pender, a clueless receptionist from Rennie Market Systems greets you in a tasteful yet corporate lobby and prompts you to sign a waiver, really hitting home the fact that the owner is not comfortable with the public all up in his bid'ness. Third, I read a quote from Rennie stating "The only goal [of the gallery] is that artists want to show there." This one sentence proves that the rejuvenation of the Downtown Eastside, the educating of the public, the supporting of BC arts and the meaning of the artwork come a distant second to the promotion of the Rennie brand.

Despite the misdirected motives and corporate principles behind this gallery, I must admit that it is a valuable addition to East Pender. With the infamous Carnegie Centre just one block away and the sad architectural situation in Strathcona, this building demonstrates some of the ways in which neighbourhoods can be revitalized from the inside out. Of course, gutting heritage buildings and opening new, popular establishments within old and/or run-down neighbourhoods always comes with the risk of gentrification, but Rennie's conversion of the Wing Sang building succeeds as a symbol of both preservation and progression. Rennie has created a hidden lair of idiosyncratic artwork and commerce in one of the oldest parts of Vancouver, but at least his Ivory Condo fails to infiltrate the atmosphere and ethos of Chinatown.

The gallery provides Rennie with a surprising amount of open space, and an even more surprising amount of wall space. There is a small exhibition area of about 400 square feet on the groundfloor which is perfect for smaller pieces, such as photographs and canvases. The two primary rooms are on the "second floor". I use quotations here because the second floor is comprised of the the top three floors that were destroyed and transformed into exhibition space. There are basically two rooms upstairs, and the main room is actually too lofty in my opinion, but it does give Rennie and the curator(s) freedom to present larger installations. My favourite thing about the building is the way in which elements from the original interiors have been incorporated into the gallery space, such as raw brick wall and distressed wainscoting. I encourage you to visit the gallery for the architecture alone.

Book your tour:

I just hope Rennie's Wing Sang project doesn't lead to a Starbucks opening within Sun Yat-Sen Garden!

Keywords: Bob Rennie Gallery, Wing Sang Building, 51 Pender Street