Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

What does it mean when a good portion of my favourite albums for 2013 were electo-pop and upbeat? Does this say something about trends in good music right now, or did I gravitate towards this type of music due to my state of mind and musical taste at this particular point in time? Perhaps 2014 will answer these questions for me, but what I do know about the ten albums below is that I didn't love many of them right away. Throughout the year I bought and downloaded a huge number of albums, and my digitization job enabled me to put in many hours of careful listening. This resulted in my returning to albums that I listened to cursorily early in the year, and eventually understanding and really enjoying them. I was an instant fan of Kveikur, Olympia, and If You Leave but only began to become obsessed with Empty Estate, Move in Spectrums, and Run the Jewels during the second half of 2013. Here are my faves in no particular order...except for Sigur Ros who hold the number one spot...because they are the best band of all time. Ever.

1) Sigur Ros - Kveikur

I have a friend who went to the Airwaves music festival in Iceland last winter. Sigur Ros was (logically) headlining this blustery event, and their show at the end of the five days was oversold, to say the least. My friend said that this group of Sigur Ros fans was particularly passionate about the music, and knew every word to every song. This is impressive since many Sigur Ros lyrics are derived from a made-up language. While the band was flawless and the crowd was in rapture for most of the performance, many people reacted when Sigur busted out 'Brennisteinn' and the title track of this album, as a special preview of the songs they were working on. Sigur Ros is soooo good, and their fans soooo loyal, that these reactions were by no means negative but were rather a result of confusion and uncertainty. Kveikur is the complete opposite of their last album, Valtari. While the latter is the band's slowest and most reflective album to date, the former is the band's fastest and most boisterous album to date. I saw Sigur Ros twice this year, in San Francisco and Vancouver, and was also unsure of this elfish group's newfound industrial edge, but it is now one of my favourite albums. Ever. Kveikur has cojones. Yes, even elves have balls.

2) El-P and Killer Mike - Run the Jewels

I really like half of this album, I really dislike half of this album, and I wholly respect El-P and Killer Mike for every song that they created here. The good songs - 'Run the Jewels', 'A Christmas Fucking Miracle', 'Job Well Done' - are tongue-in-cheek, raw, and packed with astoundingly literate rhyming. The bad songs - 'Ddfn', 'No Come Down', 'Get It' - are sapped by bland, dark beats and fall into the rap-traps of self-aggrandizing and sexism. I had a feeling this album was important when I kept coming back to it on my iPod, and continued to be impressed with the wordsmithing despite "disliking" certain songs on the whole. The friendship and chemistry between these two very different men and musicians is also adorable.

3) Daughter - If You Leave

I saw this London trio at the Doug Fir in Portland in May and was an instant fan. They are like a broody Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Elena Tonra - with her short, dark, banged hair - even resembles Karen O at times. Pretty much every song of this debut deals with the mindset of an insecure and angsty young woman, the lyrics rife with concerns revolving around reproduction and loneliness, and this can be wearing when you listen to If You Leave from beginning to end. The songs are so delicate and mysterious, however, that you often do want to listen to the complete album every time. Bonus points were given to Daughter when the lead guitarist whipped out a bow for 'Touch', in an effective homage to my favouite band, Sigur Ros. Daughter actually opened for Sigur Ros in Europe this year as well.

4) Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

I dismissed Chvrches before I gave them a chance. I gave them an initial listen and thought the upbeat tempo of most songs and teenage vocals of Lauren Mayberry were twee and superficial, but then I revisited the album a few months later, influenced by all the hype I've read online. While I still find some songs obnoxious and poorly written (see: 'Gun' and 'Night Sky'), I find others (see: 'Tether' and 'Lies') carefully layered and perfectly composed. Mayberry's utterly charming brogue and the sheer danceability of most every song got under my skin and has made this a go-to album for me.

5) Atoms for Peace - Amok

I think Thom Yorke is a musical genius, in the true sense of the term, so basically everything he touches is ranked in my top albums each year. Atoms for Peace - whose songs are all propelled by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco's forro rhythms and Flea's dancing basslines - is not Radiohead-like, and it takes a few listens to adjust to Thom's voice with a different band in the background. This album is full of laptop-generated breakbeats and glitches that at first sound facile when compared to rock elements found in Radiohead songs, but the depth of the loops and layers created by Atoms for Peace become apparent once you finally convince yourself that this is not Radiohead! I appreciate how the musicians on this album do not get completely absorbed by the complex textures that they are creating, like a jazz jam band at Minton's Playhouse, forgetting the fact that there is a passive audience trying to engage with the music being produced. Atoms for Peace walks the line between frenetic innovation and accessible rock without falling into either, and this is what makes Amok so awesome.

6) Half Moon Run - Dark Eyes

Is this folk? Is this indie? Is this Sixties-inspired harmony rock? The first few times I listed to this album in its entirety I found the twinkly keyboard-driven tracks 'She Wants to Know' and 'Judgement' frothy and irksome, especially in contrast to the album's serious and evocative tracks. The songs 'Full Circle', 'Need It', and (my favourite) '21 Gun Salute' perfectly blend harmony, foreboding bass, poignant lyrics, and driving percussion, and help to counteract the jangly superficiality of the album's lighter compositions. I have read reviews of Dark Eyes that draw attention to the overworked sound and congested musicality of the album. I too agree that many of the songs sound busy and overly ambitious, but I chalk this up to the band's enthusiasm and immense skill. These Canadian guys are in their early twenties, are experiencing great early success, and are incredibly creative...I will forgive them for sounding too talented on their debut.

7) Au Revoir Simone - Move in Spectrums

I liked this album the first time I heard it, but I didn't love it. It is safe, pleasing, electro made by Brooklyn hipsterettes. Then the songs 'We Both Know' and 'Let the Night Win' caught my attention after a few full-length listens. These songs are long and very well balanced. Drawn out yet engaging. I have never been a fan of dream pop per se, but in my mind these two songs epitomize this genre. I appreciate how Au Revoir Simone has pop songs but counterbalance the naive toe-tappers on the album with thoughtful and complex songscapes that push six minutes in length. This was on heavy rotation between September and November. I also like them just that much more after finding out that their name comes from a line spoken near the end of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, one of my favourite movies as a kid.

8) Austra - Olympia

The more I learn about Katie Stelmanis the less I like her. But the more I hear of Austra the more I like them. Yes, her crazy range and powerful vibrato drive this Canadian electropop outfit, but the band is super tight and is coming up with some really unique backdrops for Queen Katie. The layering of synth and keyboards is even more dynamic on Olympia than it was on the band's 2011 debut Feel it Break, and - shock! - the other members of the band were actually allowed to contribute to this album. Their backing vocals on many of the tracks contrast nicely with Katie's operatic leanings and provide this album with a more eclectic feel than their debut. I think one of Austra's problems is that they are better than they know they are. I have seen them live twice now, and their performances did not reflect the polished quality or gravitas of their recorded material. I am not saying that Austra is a studio band - their concerts were good - but I do think that when their persona catches up with their talent we will all be in for a treat.

9) Wild Nothing - Empty Estate

I thought this EP was just good until I started focusing on the transitions between songs 'Ocean Repeating' and 'On Guyot', and 'A Dancing Shell' and 'Hachiko'. Most of the songs on this album, and Jack Tatum's last album Nocturne, would not be as vital and energizing were it not for his inclusion of long and atmospheric interludes such as 'On Guyot' and 'Hachiko'. It is always a bit risky recording instrumental, long, meandering tracks, but this is especially true when one specializes in New Wave pop. However, these instrumental, long, meandering songs make this album, on the whole. I don't like Jack Tatum, and feel bad for the musicians who tour with this ego maniac, but his music is very well composed and appealing. Separate the art from the artist, as the saying goes. 

10) Bleached - Ride Your Heart

The Pitchfork review of this album states that most songs are "unimaginative" and based upon "generic declarations of love". But you don't listen to Bleached for insightful lyrics or sophisticated instrumentation. This is a band comprised of two sisters - Jennifer and Jessica Clavin - who fronted a popular underground punk group called Mika Miko in LA between 2007-2010. While the Clavins have taken a Sixties surf approach with Bleached, their basic formula of genuine and unpolished rock - with a generous dousing of Americana and grit - remains constant across both bands. I also agree with Pitchfork's observation that while over half of these songs are well balanced and really fun, some are just boring fillers. But I suppose it wouldn't be a record made by the Clavin sisters if it was ambitious and carefully created...that ain't them. But the good songs on here are really, really good.

Keywords: "Top Albums 2013", "Pitchfork Top 2013", "Alex Dawkins Vancouver"

Friday, November 15, 2013

Omakase at Octopus' Garden

Two years ago I went to Tojo's for my birthday. My friends and I went all out and ordered the omakase, or "chef's menu", which consisted of six adventurous courses. Tasting menus are always exciting because you are putting your trust in the chef's ability and in those ingredients which happen to be fresh that day. In my mind, the excitement is elevated when ordering this in a Japanese restaurant because the daily fresh ingredients are often an array of rare and wiggly sea creatures. I wanted to try omakase at Octopus' Garden because it is about 33% cheaper than Tojo's and I know two people who think it is just as good. My girlfriend treated me, which is extra special due to the fact that she can be a bit squeamish when it comes to raw bivalves and bottom-feeders.

The first course was a delicate salad of pea shoots, beet blossoms, and organic greens topped with one piece of wild salmon and one piece of wild smoked salmon. We had heard, through Yelp and friends, that the chef often starts things off with the restaurant's trademark quail egg and uni shooter. We had been dreading this mucousy concoction so were relieved when this beautiful, light salad was offered in its place.

Dun, dun, dunnnnnnnnnnn...the shooter was the second course! We thought we had avoided it, but no. There it was in front of us, in all of its slimy glory. A gelatinous raw quail egg floating atop two oozing orange uni sacks sitting in a base of okayu. Erin and I just stared at one another, trying not to look scared or disappointed over the monstrosities sitting before us in two transparent shot glasses. We whisked this unctuous mixture with our chopsticks and then reluctantly raised the glasses to our mouths, silently daring one another to take the first seafoody slurp. The flavour - an earthy and salty umami - was not bad, but the texture challenged our internal fortitude and triggered our gag reflexes. Three chewy sips and it was gone. The third course could not have come any sooner.

The third dish was a palate-cleansing white-and-brown mushroom soup, served in a joka (a small ceramic kettle commonly used to serve shochu). The broth was rich but clear and light. The thinly-sliced mushrooms in the soup were tender and comforting. We both agreed that we could eat much more of this. It was like a mylar first aid blanket for our mouth holes.

The fourth dish was a grilled pork medallion coated with a thin layer of uni. After never having uni before, we had it twice in one night! This was an interesting dish. I liked it less with every bite due to the strong flavours of the charbroiled pork and salty uni. It was satisfying though, and suited the rainy weather outside. This was a hearty dish.

The fifth course was sashimi. Beautifully presented on a long white ceramic plate, we were given the following uber fresh selections: blue fin, otoro, octopus, smoked mackerel, cod, and herring roe. The textures and subtle flavour differences between all of these samples were really enjoyable. The chef did a wonderful job of including creatures that offered unique mouthfeels and tasting characteristics. 

The sixth course was arguably our favourite. It was so simple, yet so elegantly prepared. It consisted of a thin slice of rock cod that was poached and served in a mildly sweet baby shiitake broth, topped with a sprinkling of green onion. Like the mushroom soup, Erin and I wished that there had been copious amounts of this. But I suppose it would not have been as memorable or as precious had there been more of this expertly-crafted dish. So good.

The seventh dish came in a charming painted box, and we were excited to see that this was the long-awaited nigiri course. Containing house-smoked salmon, blue fin, mackerel, smoked mackerel, cod, and tamago to finish things off, these nigiri were dainty and delicious.

At this point, we were feeling the protein coursing through our veins and sensing that even one wafer-thin mint would do us in. However, our dimpled and hospitable Japanese waitress came to our table with yet another dish, a dessert of matcha tiramisu. We didn't really want to eat this final dish, but the mascarpone was so light and the cake so moist that we couldn't resist. It was served with pear green tea, which was the perfect end to the meal, since this is my favourite.

While I believe that omakase should only be ordered once in a while due to the cost and richness involved, it is definitely a memorable experience that everyone should try. Thanks for such an awesome dinner out, Erin :)

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Omakase Tojo's", "Octopus' Garden Vancouver"    

Monday, October 28, 2013

Analysis: Three Pumpkin Beers III

In October of 2010, I reviewed three seasonal pumpkin beers. I found the experience so rewarding that I repeated this squash-based beer tasting last year with three different products. At this point, I have reviewed the following: Howe Sound Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Brooklyn Brewing Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Granville Island Pumpkin Ale, Tree Brewing Jumpin' Jack Pumpkin Ale, Phillips Crooked Tooth Pumpkin Ale, and Steamworks The Great Pumpkin Ale. I scoured the liquor store shelves this year to find three more that I have yet to try. I tried these three with my family using a blind taste test. We added Crooked Tooth to mix this year as well, to see how the winner from last year stood up against these newbs. Here are the results:

Pumpkin Beer Taste Test 2013
1) Fernie Brewing Pumpkin Head Brown Ale
This was the darkest of the three beers we had and the blind taste test revealed unanimous similarities made between this beer and typical winter ales. With a vanilla bouquet and coffee finish, this beer was sweet but was controlled with light hop usage. Two of the tasters argued that this could not be a pumpkin ale! I insisted that it was, although they have a case since the label of this beer states that it is a "brown ale brewed with pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg". In my mind, this is not a true pumpkin ale because it does not share many characteristics with typical pumpkin beers and is first-and-foremost a brown ale. Having said this, everyone really liked it, and it was easy to drink due to its low carbonation and and subdued sweetness.  B+

2) Nelson Brewing Organic Pumpkin Ale 
I lived in Nelson for four months, four blocks from Nelson Brewing, and grew to really like their beer. I still buy it today and think that their After Dark black lager is one of the most drinkable and well-made beers being produced in BC. Therefore, I was really excited to try their Organic Pumpkin Ale, as this is the first year that they have made this. This beer poured a light copper colour and had a nice head. Similar to Fernie's Pumpkin Head, pumpkin was not the dominant flavour. This beer packs a spicy wallop, and two members of our group noted that it tastes a lot like chai tea. One person really disliked it because of the after taste, which she associated with Jagermeister. This beer was not sweet, so its heavy spice characteristics suit both dinner and dessert.  B

3) Central City Red Racer Pumpkin Ale
We all reacted negatively to this beer. Although the pumpkin flavour was arguably the most evident in this beer of the three that we tried, it was also quite hoppy and very tangy. It had an acidic quality too, and the extremely high carbonation did not do anything to improve the drinkability of this poorly-balanced ale. Despite local acclaim, I have never liked Central City beers, as it seems like the unfavourable traits in one beer can be identified in all made by this brewery. It is also strange how this particular beer was unpleasant while previous pumpkin ales made by Central City have been decent. That's another point off for inconsistency!  C

Keywords: "BC pumpkin beers", "Night Owl Pumpkin Ale", "Alex Dawkins"  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pronto Caffe

Several of my friends and fellow Yelpers have recommended this tiny trattoria, and I was charmed upon entering this neighbourhood restaurant last night. The simple wooden chairs, narrow layout, and coffee bar overlooking the kitchen sparked flashbacks to my travels in Italy, and the staff were accommodating and friendly when my friend brought his baby unexpectedly and we requested a larger table. This initial charm and the great customer service were the highlights of the restaurant, however, as the food only detracted from our first impressions. 

To start, we ordered the appetizers on special which were a tomato-beef soup and a skewer of prosciutto-wrapped prawns. The soup was hearty and thick, which suited the brisk autumn night, but it was also a bit heavy. The prawns were large and well cooked, but the chef coated them in breadcrumbs after they had been wrapped in prosciutto, and this coating was soft and moist when it arrived. The flavour was amazing, but the soggy texture didn't really have us wanting more.

The mains ordered were the spaghetti pomadoro (with a side of meatballs), the gnocchi special, and the shortribs special. The spaghetti was solid, made with a fresh and vibrant tomato sauce. The meatballs were okay, dense and only lightly herbed. My friend's wife said that the kitchen cheated with the gnocchi, making them from a rolled dough rather than as individual hand-formed dumplings. This wouldn't have bothered me, personally, except for the fact that they tasted like they were from a roll of dough...a little bit tough, with sharp edges. The shortribs themselves were great - probably the best thing that was ordered - but they were served atop a Milanese (= parmesan and saffron) risotto made with long grain rice. Long grain rice?! I am not a snobby foodie, but I was kind of shocked over this, even if Pronto categorizes itself as a "blue-collar" trattoria. The flavour was good. The texture was awful. 

And the ciliegia on the cassata was that they did not have any draught beer. The negroni I ordered was very good, but Pronto is going to need to do better than bottled beer to snag some of the adjacent BierCraft crowd. Especially since BierCraft has pretty decent food.

Keywords: "Pronto cambie street", "cincin review", "Alex Dawkins"

Sunday, September 22, 2013

33 Acres Brewing Company

I am going to do something I have never done before: review an establishment through the recollection of a conversation I had with the staff.

Setting - A sparse white rectangular room with uncomfortable white stools, white-washed walls, and white Macs on the counter being used as registers.

Characters - Alex (myself), Friend (Ramon), Staff (clubmaster bespectacled hipster)

Enter Alex and Friend, thirsty for beer:

Alex: "Huh. No menu or any signage describing our options. Strange."

Friend: "Oh, there's a small white menu near the till. And by till, I mean iPad."

Alex: "Sweet. Man...that writing is small. It's like this place doesn't want us to drink beer. Like you need a password or an ironic tattoo to get the lager flowing. Well there are five taps, let's just ask."

Friend: "Excuse me, what are your five taps?"

Staff: "Ummm, we only have two beers. We just have five taps."

Friend: "Huh. Okay. So the menu here says you have an Amber and an Amber Light? I can barely read this but I think that's what it says."

Staff: " Ummm, no. You are looking at the coluor description.They are both amber. You can't order by colour. One is a West Coast amber lager and one is a hoppy amber pale."

Alex: "So the lager is your light option?"

Staff: "No. Like I said, the lager is made in the West Coast style so it's also hoppy."

Friend: "So they have a hoppy beer and a hoppier beer. Do you want three of the lager and two of the amber?"

Alex: "I...guess? Do you have any other beverages because a member of our group doesn't drink beer."

Staff: "No, only beer.  Would you guys like 1.5 ounce glasses or 10 ounce glasses?"

Alex: "1.5 ounces? That's kind of odd. Umm, all 10 ounce glasses please."

Staff: "Okay. You can just stand at the end of the bar and we'll get working on pouring those."

Friend: "Weirdest. Setup. Ever."

Part Portlandia skit and part exercise in terrible customer service, I believe this dialogue alone indicates that we will not be back to this pretentious bland bunker hidden away in Vancouver's small manufacturing district. The space was put to better use when it was a glove factory, even though the beer is - unfortunately - pretty good. 

Keywords: "Vancouver breweries", "Vancouver craft beer", "Brassneck Brewing"

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Twelve Days of Seafood

I spent the final two weeks of August travelling the remote corners of Nova Scotia with my girlfriend's family. While I have backpacked across Canada twice, I ran out of steam (and funds) before I could reach the Maritimes during both efforts. Have you ever actually looked at a map of Nova Scotia and PEI? They are essentially islands east of the Eastern Seaboard. I was really excited to see New Scotland, partly over meeting Erin's relatives, partly over visiting some of my own family heritage sites, and partly over the world class seafood that comes from this quaint province. I was so excited by the prospect of eating East Coast marine life on a daily basis that I set a challenge for myself: The Twelve Days of Seafood. I did this with Mexican food when I visited LA and Pasadena with my dad in March of 2013, and I found this intense culinary schedule rewarding when comparing specific dishes and (literally) internalizing the cuisine of a unique locale. The idea of an enchilada wasn't all that appealing for a few weeks after returning from LA, and I am not currently host to a burning desire for smoked haddock, but I maintain that this approach to dining in foreign cities and cultures has its obsessive compulsive advantages. I now present to you, The Twelve Days of Seafood: 

Day 1 - Lobster Roll

Knowing that I had this mammoth gastronomical challenge ahead of me, I was craving crustaceans as soon as I entered the province. We went to a new bar-bistro in downtown Halifax on August 20th to meet a group of Erin's highschool buddies. It was called Two Doors Down and is a slightly more casual version of the city's celebrated Chives Bistro. They had a cool menu, featuring local seafood and Halifax beers. While they had numerous attractive options, I zeroed in on the Brioche Lobster Roll, the quintessential East Coast sandwich. This was a starter, so it was small (it even came with miniature potato chips) but it was all claw. It was also lightly dressed, so the lobster was the focus. A great start to the trip. 

Day 2 - Whole Fresh Lobster 
After running some errands and grabbing a coffee at Dartmouth's outstanding Two If By Sea, we drove down to Nova Scotia's South Shore, which is about two hours south-west from Halifax. After visiting the UNESCO town of Lunenburg and seeing the near-complete Bluenose II, we picked up four giant local lobsters and quickly drove them back home. We cooked these beastly bugs outside by steaming them in Boxing Rock Temptation Red Ale, which imbued the lobster meat with a sweet and slightly hoppy flavour. Erin and I had never bought and cooked our own lobster, so this was a memorable night indeed. 

Day 3 - Halibut 
We departed for a mini road trip beginning on August 22nd, heading up to the North Fundy Shore to Advocate. After visiting with Erin's maternal aunt Jane in Economy and buying a wheel of Stinging Nettle Gouda from Den Hoek (aka Damn Dutchman Cheese), we headed towards Cape Chignecto for dinner at Wild Caraway. This converted boutique hotel and restaurant is quietly becoming famous in the province for their exquisite use of local ingredients. I ordered the Atlantic halibut with baby hodgepodge and Erin ordered the local scallops with nasturtium salad. The halibut was braised and moist, and the buttery hodgepodge was composed entirely of new carrots, peas, fingerlings, and beans. 

Day 4 - Sole 
We headed north from Chignecto towards Amherst, at the New Brunswick border, on August 23rd. After a fascinating pit-stop at the Joggins Fossil Museum (with interactive eroding cliffsides!) we spent the evening at the Amherst Shore Inn. The Inn has a restaurant with a rotating daily menu, and the owner Mary Laceby takes pride in serving Nova Scotia seafood. I had the Sole Florentine. It was a warm and hearty meal. The sole was stuffed with spinach and basil, and then baked with tomatoes and garlic. 

Day 5 - Maple Smoked Atlantic Salmon 
We spent the 24th driving to the beach house that once belonged to Erin's maternal grandma at Cape John. This was also Erin's dad's birthday, so we loaded up on beer and sausages from the cleverly named Pork Shop in Tatamagouche for an evening pig-out. "Pork isn't seafood, Alex!" I hear you proclaiming. I know, dear reader...I know. Fortunately, we picked up some smoked Atlantic salmon to enjoy for lunch on the beach at Cape John that day. Phew! The Twelve Days of Seafood was nearly spoilt. St Mary's River Atlantic salmon products are a Maritime staple. 

Day 6 - Halibut 
The Chanterelle Inn is a hidden hilltop house right on the Cabot Trail that offers quiet, quaint rooms and an exclusive restaurant that seats no more than twenty people. Owner Earlene Busch and chef Bryan Picard are incredibly proud of what Cape Breton has to offer, and this is reflected in the décor and cuisine. The fish of the day on our first night at the Inn was line-caught halibut with roasted baby tomatoes. I preferred the flavour of this halibut to the halibut at Wild Caraway, but it was also a bit drier and dense than the fish at Caraway. It was a lovely meal with a calming sunset out on Chanterelle's covered patio. 

Day 7 - Seafood Bouillabaisse 
The dishes prepared by Bryan Picard at the Chanterelle Inn were so good on our first night that we opted to dine in for our second night there. Like the aforementioned Amherst Shore and Wild Caraway Inn, the Chanterelle features local ingredients. The ingredients that Bryan uses are not only all from Nova Scotia, they are from Cape Breton itself, and the daily fresh menu lists the origins of each product. Incredible! The feature on this second night was the Seafood Bouillabaisse which contained crab leg, haddock, scallops, shrimp, and one large poached oyster. The broth was translucent and carried just a hint of spice. 

Day 8 - Cape Breton Mussels 
After driving some of the Cabot Trail and walking the Skyline, we stopped at Cheticamp for a light lunch. Well, it was supposed to be a light lunch. Little did I know that the $9 mussel lunch at the Acadian would consist of nearly 50 bivalves, presented as a pile in front of me. Basking in schadenfreude, Erin and her parents watched as I worked my way through this mound of unbearded and gamey-tasting mussels. Not my favourite Nova Scotia meal, but memorable. 

Day 9 - Digby Scallops 
We were in Bear River at Erin's cottage from August 28th-31st and planned to meet Erin's Aunt Blanche and cousin Meaghan at The Digby Pines. The Pines harkens back to the age of destination resorts, shuffleboard, and black tie dining. It has adapted to, and essentially suffered through, the current economic recession but still has an exceptional restaurant and property. Since we were in Digby, my entrée choice was a no-brainer. My seared scallops were simple, sweet, and succulent. They were served with a garlic bread pudding and some sautéed seasonal vegetables.

Day 10 - Oysters 
Family friends, Phil and Diane, came to Erin's cottage in Bear River and brought two dozen oysters with them. This was a great opportunity for Erin and I to try shucking for the first time, and it was harder than we thought it would be. These oysters did taste different from BC oysters, but I'm not really sure how to describe it. They were meaty but fairly mild. It seems like many oyster species grown in BC waters are smaller and more metallic tasting. Thanks Phil and Diane! 

Day 11 - Fried Clams 
One of my dad's friends, Scott, is from New England and always complains that it is impossible to find fried clam on the West Coast. It's actually true. Fried clams are not a "thing" here, despite our access to good eating clams. So, knowing that I was venturing to the Eastern Seaboard, Scott insisted that I hunt this delicacy down. We found them at Vicki's Fish and Chips outside of Annapolis. They fry the entire clam at Vicki's, which is much preferable to clam strips, which are just the feet (foots?) of the clam. I showered my ginormous pile of clams with lemon and vinegar and dug in. If only Vicki's served cold beer...  

Day 12 - Crab Cakes 
I actually forgot to eat seafood on our last day in Nova Scotia. We were busy packing and doing chores during the day, and then we went out with Erin's friends in Halifax that night. While drinking at The Split Crow, I was recapitulating my culinary accomplishments when one of Erin's friends asked what I had consumed that day. My jaw dropped and, at 10pm, I called the waiter over to see if the kitchen was still open. It was, and I ordered crab cakes, which were dense and paired nicely with my Propeller.

People keep asking me what my favourite meal was, amidst all of these gastronomical delights. And in all honesty it was the simple marinara and cold beer that Esther and Dennis, Erin's parents, prepared for us right after we arrived. Meeting and enjoying the company of the two people that produced my one true love was undoubtedly more memorable and meaningful than any umami oyster or savory shellfish.

Keywords: "Best Halifax Seafood", "Two If By Sea", "Alex Dawkins Vancouver"

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sissiboo Coffee Roasters in Bear River

Between August 28-31 of this year, I visited my girlfriend's family cottage in Bear River, Nova Scotia...all the way from Vancouver! At first, this village looks dull and sleepy, but things are happening in Bear River. Residents are looking inwards to agriculture and local talent rather than outwards to tourists for economic stimulation. One example can be seen in the Flight of Fancy art gallery, which features local and provincial artists, and another can be seen in Sissiboo Coffee Roasters. The unique name 'Sissiboo' was derived from the Sissiboo River in southwest Nova Scotia. This river was named by a Loyalist settler who mistook a Mik'maq who was pointing out six owls ('six hiboux') instead of pointing out the river. Stupid colonialists. 

Based in the historic 'Rebekah' building, Sissiboo was started three years ago by Erin Schopfer and Jon Welch. After many years of analysing and learning about the coffee industry, Erin and Jon made the careful decision to launch a micro roastery in their hometown. Jon checks each batch by eye, hand, and smell at least four times during his roasting process - a process that is applied to each seven-pound batch. Each batch has an individual roasting time which has to be explicitly followed, a few seconds too long and the batch takes on an undesired flavour. This is different from most roasters, which employ laptops and software and crazy expensive machines to monitor their beans. Erin and Jon do not yet have a storefront or café, but I think this is a no-brainer for their brainchild. 

I have tried three of their roasts: Fundy Storm (Peru, dark), Tobeatic Wild (Guatemala, medium), and Fly by Night Decaf (Peru, swiss water, medium). I did not like the lack of body and bitter finish of the Tobeatic Wild at all, but Fundy Storm is great as both a dark pourover or espresso. They do, for your information, have an espresso roast as well, called Night Owl!

Keywords: "Sissiboo Coffee", "Bear River, NS", "Vancouver Roasters"

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Northwest Coast Native Art - Some Clarifications

Justin Rivard Wrap Ring
Art of the Northwest Coast Native peoples - indigenous cultures based in British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon - is distinct from art produced by other cultures within North America. This brief overview has been created to clear up some misconceptions about Aboriginal art and culture from the West Coast of North America.

First, there are twenty-seven unique Native cultural groups in British Columbia alone. These groups have their own languages and idiosyncratic aesthetic systems. The term 'Haida' is often used to describe Native art from the Northwest Coast, but the Haida are just one of many groups producing artwork...although this particular culture is indeed more productive than many! A more accurate general term is 'Northwest Coast Art'.

Second, the politically correct term to describe indigenous peoples in Canada and here on the West Coast is 'First Nations'. While blanket terms with anthropological roots such as 'Aboriginal' and 'Indigenous' are not incorrect, preferred terms are 'Native' and 'First Nations'. Terminology is different in the United States, where 'Native American' is still commonly used, and the controversial and outdated 'Indian' tag is still carelessly thrown around in everyday parlance.

Third, art and jewellery from Washington State and BC are based upon family crests. Crests are figures and symbols used to visually communicate an individual's family history and mythological origins. For example, the Gitksan of northern British Columbia are all divided into four clans: Frog, Eagle, Wolf, and Fireweed. Members of each clan then inherit secondary crests which are used when creating regalia and objects of adornment. This adherence to animal symbols (in such a structured fashion) is unique to the Northwest Coast when considering indigenous art from North America.

'Salmon Life Cycle' by Kelvin Thompson
Finally, a noteworthy trait of Native artwork from this part of the world is the specialization of hand-engraving. Hand-engraved jewellery is difficult to find to begin with, and has its roots in European jewellery-making, but First Nations artists in BC and Washington State have really made inroads into this field. Jewellery-making and silversmithing is common with other indigenous cultures in North America - as with the amazing silver and turquoise pieces created by both the Navajo and Hopi - but the Northwest Coast is the only area where you will find intricately hand-engraved collectibles. Northwest Coast Native artists are always in high demand to engrave custom wedding rings here in Vancouver!

By far the best place to familiarize oneself with carving and jewellery from the Northwest Coast is Vancouver's Lattimer Gallery. In business since 1986, this Vancouver landmark carries works for every budget and strives to represent those artists who are determined to push this art form forward. The Etsy shop Art From Above Native Jewellery is also spectacular.

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins Vancouver", "Native American Jewelry", "Native Art Vancouver"

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pizzeria Barbarella

The pizza wars in Vancouver are heating up! Heating up like a Neapolitan wood fire oven! Craft breweries, food trucks, Thai restaurants...we are finally catching up to the foodie-friendly cities of SanFran and PDX. Like many friends and family, I have been making the rounds to Vancouver's best pizza joints and was excited to try Barbarella after hearing about it for several months. Like Farina and Nook, the menu at Barbarella is limited and emphasizes the ingredients placed upon the pizzeria's thin crusts.

When I think of Neapolitan pizza, two things automatically pop into my mind.

The first is a pizza I had in Milan from La Taverna on Via Francesco Anzani, a pizzeria run by a family from Naples. I had this with my sister during our Round-the-World trip in 2011 and it blew us away with its flavourful (and minimal) toppings, paper-thin crust, and uber fresh Roma tomato sauce. I hate this phrase, but it actually did "melt in our mouths".

The second is a Lonely Planet episode I saw when I was about 16 on Italy where the host went to one of the oldest pizzerias in the south. The chef - a cocky teen with a sneer and slicked hair - said that a true Neapolitan pizza must be super super thin and should really only be made with sauce, basil, and fresh mozzarella. The host was sceptical of this simplicity but took a few bites and proclaimed that the pizza he was eating was genuinely the best pie he had ever consumed.

Thus, in my mind, a Neapolitan pizza should be very thin, crisp, and PACKED with flavour!

I have high standards when it comes to thin crust fire oven pizza and was a bit disappointed in Barbarella. The portions were better than expected, and our group was fine with two pies for three people, but the crust was too chewy for me. We ordered the Cavolini and the Salsiccia. The combination of the Brussels sprout leaves and pancetta on the Cavolini was really great, but the chef added too many greens and the cabbage flavour overpowered the fior di latte and ham. The decor also bugged me. With its plain painted cinder block walls and careless placement of cheap tables, the interior of Barbarella reflects the food they serve...simple and satisfying, but a bit slapdash.

Keywords: "Vancouver pizza", "Pizzeria Farina", "Alex Dawkins"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Vancouver's Food Truck Festival 2013

For the past two years I have been invited to Yelp's Elite Food Truck Festival Preview and allowed to sample all food truck fare, for free. The doors opened one hour prior to public access and dozens of Yelpers descended upon the trucks like vultures to wounded voles. We only had one hour to eat as much as we could and with over 50 attendees and 15 trucks, small lines formed at each cart. I was worried about not being able to try everything, but I managed to try 14 of the 15 vendors.

The Best

There were several trucks that excelled in both customer service and food production. Soho Road Naan Kebab provided the best service and were amongst the few vendors to offer Yelpers several options, instead of a single option with tiny portions. While I knew of Soho Road before this event, from working downtown, I had only tried their Indian-themed wraps once and was ho-hum about it. They won me over at the Food Truck Festival though. Their tandoori chicken was super moist and the fresh naan was thick and light.  

Ah-So! Roaming Dragon Rice Balls!
Another truck was at the event that I had seen before but never tried, Roaming Dragon. They offer pan-asian dishes. They definitely had one of the best free items with their Fried Chinese Rice Balls, which were light and crispy and packed with Chinese sausage, shrimp, and bamboo shoots. They were topped with a drizzle of teriyaki sauce and curry aioli. I was tempted to buy a full portion of these!

The Average

No wonder I had never heard of JJ's Trucketeria! It's based in Surrey. The land that culture forgot. Just kidding, just kidding. Actually, I'm not. Surrey has food trucks? JJ's creates Filipino fare that includes Lemongrass Chicken and Garlic Fried Rice. They were offering their Vegan Market Bowl at the Yelp event. My first reaction was "Wow! Big portion! Tangy curry sauce!" which was quickly followed by my secondary reaction of "Meh. It's just rice and veggies. Not enough sauce." The large Filipino dudes that own this truck are jolly and obviously passionate about food, but their menu options and presentation are average. I wouldn't pay to eat here.

Huge Portion! Hugely Average!
The majority of the dishes designed for sampling at this event were average. Ze Bite, a truck offering French items with a North African kick, was serving a pathetically small portion of a Moroccan curry. Their regular menu looked pretty blah too. Unfamiliar with this truck, I was hoping to spot some confit or steak frites but all I saw was baguettes and bland blanquettes. A peek at the other reviews of this place will echo my observations on the portions and prosaic dishes.   

The Sub-Par

The Juice Truck? More like The...The...Gruff Truck! I'm not good at insults. Sorry. Not only were the staff here rude and flat, but the smoothies they were serving to us Yelpers were nasty. Warm and chalky, the tablespoons of pink paste that The Juice Truck were handing out (in unappealing medicine cups) just weren't worth finishing. It looked like Pepto-Bismol. Maybe it WAS Pepto-Bismol! The girl that flippantly served me didn't even tell me what I was about to drink...well, more like chew.

I have a problem with food trucks that produce comfort food. It seems like a bit of a cop-out considering the stiff competition out there, and most comfort foods are unhealthy and gluten-rich. I didn't really like any of the comfort-food-doling trucks at the Food Truck Fest: Holy Perogy, Reel Mac and Cheese, and Taser Grilled Cheese. They weren't "bad" but I would never buy any of this food with my own money. It's heavy, and I can make it at home.   

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Best Vancouver Food Trucks", "Food Truck Festival"

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Spring Beer Review 2013

As more and more craft breweries pop-up (three new ones will be opening in Vancouver within the year), more and more seasonal options are appearing on liquor store shelves. Over the past few months I sampled a selection of beers that possessed decidedly springy qualities: light, dry, and moderately hopped. These beers have been designed to help drinkers transition from the warmth and heaviness of winter concoctions to the light and fruity characteristics of summer brews. 
Buckman Brewery Apple Beer - A-
Buckman Botanical Brewery is a tiny operation located in Portland headed by ex-Rogue brewer Danny Connors. It features low-hop to no-hop brews, which is atypical for Oregonian breweries. Buckman grows many of its own ingredients, and uses additional botanicals from the Portland area. I bought a bottle of their Apple Beer from the Rogue stall at the Portland Saturday Market and only drank it last week back in Vancouver. I was expecting a sweet, low alcohol summer beer which would be closer to cider. My expectations were off. This beer is 8% abv and is only appley in its nose and finish. With a smoky orange colour, biscuity mouthfeel, and bold malt profile, this beer is appropriate for sunny days but is not really quaffable. I'm really glad that they have controlled the sweetness levels with this one. I will definitely be buying this again, and hope to visit their taproom in Portland some time.

New Belgium Brewing Transatlantique Kriek - B+
Most people assume fruit beers are going to taste like alcopops. I blame coolers and improperly made lambics for this assumption, for the fermentation process in beer-making transforms fruits to shadows of their former juicy selves. Adding fruit to the boil or cooled wort does impart fruit flavours, but the added yeast will consume sugars from these fruits and create a drink that is much more subtle and earthy than any cooler or cider. As with most beers that are part of New Belgium's Lips of Faith series, the Transatlantique Kriek is complex, expensive, and completely original tasting. This beer starts its journey in Europe, where it begins as a naturally-fermented (using wild yeasts floating in the air) and sour kriek made by master brewer Frank Boon in the Lembeek region of Belgium. This authentic and tart lambic is aged for two years and then shipped to New Belgium in Colorado where it is diluted with a golden, Belgian-style ale. The addition of this golden ale cuts the acidity of the European kriek and helps to round out the beer's finish. This was an interesting and satisfying drink, but one that I will probably not crave on a regular basis.

Parallel 49 Hay Fever Saison - B-
I like most of Parallel 49's beers, but Hay Fever is the only one that I buy regularly to drink at home. Saisons are becoming more and more popular in the Northwest and are a bit hard to define as a style of beer. This type of beer originated as a low alcohol, bottle-fermented beverage that was made in the fall, aged over the winter, and then cracked in the summer before the next batch of malt and hops was available. It was originally a yeasty and drinkable pale ale with a dry finish. It is largely the same nowadays, except saisons are generally 6% abv and above, and hoppiness can vary a great deal depending on the brewery. Hay Fever pours a cloudy straw colour, lighter than many saisons, and has a nice tart finish. It is springy and appropriate for hot weather, but has enough hops to demand respect.

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Brassneck Brewery", "Vancouver Craft Beers"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pajo's in Steveston

Not only does Pajo's have the best dining location in the quaint fishing village of Steveston, it also provides some perks that other places do not. They have numerous (excessive?) condiments and garnishes for your fish. While most fish n' chips places I've been to either provide you with an inadequately teeny container of tartar sauce or - zounds! - charge you for it, Pajo's offers free tartar. And as much free tartar as you want! Along the same lines, they also keep a hugemongous bucket of lemon wedges on the service counter. I know they are just lemons, but it's nice to have the option to take as many as you want. I hate rationing my lemon juice when seafood is involved. I went mental at Pajo's...I even squeezed three wedges into my iced tea.

We ordered halibut, chips, and a side of coleslaw. I am really picky about fried fish because I have had many more bad experiences than good. I hate thick, flavourless, artery-clogging batter, so I always focus on this rather than the fish itself. The batter at Pajo's is good. It's not great, but it is fairly thin, which I appreciated. I wish it was a bit crispier though. I really liked the coleslaw. It was light on dressing and contained crunchy sunflower seeds.

Tip: if you are visiting Steveston from Vancouver, leave the car at home and bike! We live in Kits but it only took us an hour and a half to get to Steveston by biking to Cambie, taking the Skytrain to Aberdeen, and then cycling along West Dyke. I'm not sure I could handle a two-piece Halibut without exercising before and after my meal! Plus, it's a beautiful ride.

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Vancouver breweries", "Vancouver fish and chips"

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Steve and Rod Smith - Collaboration & Contrast

I studied Art History as an undergraduate and was initially drawn to the diverse media and subject matter that make-up Modern Art from the Western world. From blown glass to formaldehyde fetuses - and from psychoanalysis to automatism - art from the Twentieth Century was so complex and varied that it met many of my intellectual needs, as a right-brained nerd in his early twenties. As I began to consider applying for a Masters degree in this field, however, I found it more and more difficult to find a particular artist or subject to focus on. There was simply too much diversity in twentieth-century art, and I couldn’t think of something that I really wanted to dedicate my time and money to. During my final year, I began working at Vancouver’s Lattimer Gallery. I was not particularly fond of British Columbian First Nations art prior to securing this position at the gallery, but it did not take long for my understanding of this art to develop, and then for my appreciation to pullulate. One of the things that I found so satisfying about this art form was that it had historically-defined and aesthetic constraints, unlike modern art from Europe and North America. There are subjects and shapes and colours that define the creative output of artists from the various cultures along the Northwest Coast, and it takes truly creative individuals to produce novel and innovative works within these artistic and cultural traditions. My time at Lattimer Gallery sparked a passion for Native art from the West Coast, and this is what I ended up getting my Masters degree in.

Two artists that best demonstrate this rare ability to propel Northwest Coast Native art, given these aesthetic and thematic boundaries, are brothers Steve Smith Dla’kwagila and Rod Smith Galuyagmi. Their father, Harris Smith, was an established Kwakwaka’wakw artist who was very successful in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island during the 1980s and 1990s. He developed a distinctive style of painting based on the abstraction of Northwest Coast First Nations design elements. The ovoid, split-u, and s-form would cover surfaces from rustic burl vessels to iconic totem poles in a fluid and dynamic fashion. Harris still produced conventional masks and prints and paintings, but he created many pieces that were blatantly non-figurative and notably innovative. Steve and Rod took-up this style of painting and design sense, but went slightly different ways with it. Most of Steve’s pieces cling to the figurative, while Rod has really embraced and perfected painting in the abstract. Having said this, both brothers have a lot in common: they possess the awe-inspiring ability to apply their idiosyncratic painting style to most any shape and surface, and they have consistently created new and completely original works for over twenty years.

Lattimer Gallery is holding an exhibition of Steve and Rod’s work between June 22nd – July 20th. The show is titled Collaboration & Contrast, and in addition to highlighting the differences between these two unpredictable artists the exhibition will also contain pieces that the brothers have made cooperatively. Steve and Rod are in their prime right now, both born in the 1960s, so I strongly encourage anyone interested in Northwest Coast Native art to go and check out this show. Also, if you can at all afford it, I would advise that you purchase a piece by one of these artists as well!

Keywords: "Steve Smith Native Art", "Alex Dawkins", "Native Art Vancouver"