Thursday, June 21, 2007

Vancouver Diary 1

panorama of vancouver fig. a: super, natural vancouver

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It's safe to say we hit the ground running. Our flight out west wasn't nearly as (brutally) early as the one we took to San Francisco two years earlier (that time around, the only things that saved us were those two fully reclinable bulkhead Barcaloungers we were granted for the NYC-SF leg of our trip), but it was early enough to get us into Vancouver by 10:15 a.m., leaving us with virtually the whole day to mess around with.

When we got downtown we took the time to catch our breath, catch up with our hosts, S. and D., and take a good look around the Chateau Vermont, where every room has been decorated by at least one real Vancouver artist (and usually two!):

bunny mobile fig. b: living room/dining room

chinese telephone exchange fig. c: kitchen

crayon fig. d: hallway

bedroom fig. e: guest bedroom

studio fig. f: studio

But before long the city was beckoning to us, so S. led us out the door so that we could continue the Better Homes and Gardens tour on the town, and we began to reacquaint ourselves with a city neither of us had seen in over six years. Of course, Vancouver can be a little jarring at times--sometimes almost 28 Weeks Later-like, as D. pointed out--so we chose to ease our way back in with a stroll into Strathcona and a stop at the local community garden. There we admired the handiwork of the local green thumbs: the elaborate bamboo architecture, the landscaped ponds, and the poppies.

poppies fig. g: community garden, Strathcona

Afterwards, we made our way out of Strathcona and allowed ourselves to be drawn east towards Commercial Drive.

reminder fig. h: public art

We were anxious to check out old haunts and see how things had changed in our absence, and the closer we got, the more our memories fell into place, the more everything came back to us. And, sure enough, though there were a lot of new faces on the block, many of the old standbys were still pretty much exactly as we'd left them: Tony's Market, Sweet Cherubim, the Portuguese Club of Vancouver, WaaZuuBee, Joe's. We popped into a few places for old times' sake, but we needed coffee more than anything else, so we didn't waste much time, we went straight to our favorite Commercial café:

Continental Coffee

Continental's renovated over the last few years, including a spiffy new sign that reads "artisan roaster," and I didn't notice any drinking jars this time around, but aside from that, things have remained just as no-nonsense as ever and their coffee's still fantastic. We sidled up to the bar, got Nick to make us one of Continental's famous con pannas and a truly artful macchiato, and made our way back outside to catch some sunshine and check out the sidewalk traffic.

The First Ravioli Store fig. i: The First Ravioli Store

First Ravioli

I wanted to see if First Ravioli was still going strong, so that was our next stop. It's now almost 50 years old, but virtually nothing has changed in the decade since I was a regular: same decor, same selection of cheeses and antipasti, same assortment of homemade stuffed pasta at a very reasonable price. We picked up two types of pasta--porcini and carrot/onion--and decided to head back across the street to see what was shaking at La Grotta.

La Grotta del Formaggio

La Grotta doesn't have the most mind-blowing selection of cheese you're going to find, but everything they do, they do well, and the place has definitely got character, and back in the day it was easily my favorite Vancouver cheese shop. We picked out a few choice numbers, including an excellent dry, aged Crotonese and a locally produced chèvre with truffles, but the real find of the day was a smoked ricotta. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the one. It looked too much like the smoked mozzarella at Joe's Dairy not to be the genuine article. Turns out it's made by some "little old man" who lives in the neighborhood and makes it and smokes it at home. We snapped up a hunk and continued on down the street.

J, N, & Z Deli

A minute or two later, though, we'd made another stop. This time at J, N, & Z Deli, a place that looks as though it's been around for 100 years. It was impossible to pass by without stopping--that pungent smokehouse scent was way more than either of us could take. Funny thing is, though, I don't remember ever having noticed J, N, & Z way back when. Over the course of our week in Vancouver, Michelle and I had that same experience a number of times: things look different when you've left your vegetarian ways behind. Anyway, as it happens, J, N, & Z Deli occupies a location that's been a charcuterie for decades, but the present ownership has "only" been around for some twenty years. We felt instantly at home among the impressive collection of Eastern European-style smoked sausages, smoked bacon, smoked pork chops, and other delicacies. We felt even better after we'd bought some sausages and some bacon to take home with us. We meant to come back on Saturday, when they've got a slew of Saturday-only items for sale and apparently the queues stretch out the door, but Saturday we had a pretty full schedule.

And with that we headed back to the Chateau Vermont to regroup and figure out what our dinner plans would be.

Yes, there were deliberations, but they really weren't all that drawn out. We knew we wanted Asian--95% of the places on our hit-list were of the Asian persuasion. We knew we wanted to eat a fair share of Japanese. We were desperate for sushi--Nick Tosches' "If You Knew Sushi" had made sure of that. When we took everything into account, there was really only one choice: Toshi. So what if Toshi had a reputation for extraordinarily long waiting times just to get a seat? Surely those lines were a good sign. Plus, we'd flown 2,500 miles just to get to Vancouver. We were all too happy to exercise a little extra zen-like patience.


Quite simply the best sushi restaurant we've been to in ages, both in terms of quality and execution, but also in terms of affordability. We love Jun-I here in Montreal, but going there is still kind of a big deal for us. Toshi is pretty much our ideal sushi restaurant--the kind of place we could easily see ourselves going to weekly. Yes, we had to wait in line for a while to land a table for four, but what's 45 minutes when there's supremely fresh tuna belly sashimi at the other end of the wait? And that's exactly how we got started, along with some edamame, their spinach goma-ae, and their hot chili agedashi tofu. Standouts? Well, everything was exceptional, but if I had to narrow things down to just a few they'd be the mackerel roll,

toshi sushi 1 fig. j: mackerel roll w/ green onions, Toshi

the sea eel roll (which was much less sweet and much more flavorful than your typical freshwater eel roll), the massive salt-encrusted & baked tuna cheek, the tuna belly roll, and the extraordinary box sushi,

toshi sushi 2 fig. k: box sushi, Toshi

which wasn't listed on the menu, but which we'd noticed on the tables of a couple of seasoned regulars (including one guy who showed up with his fancy one-speed, brakeless bike, waited about for 45 minutes for a seat, got just that, ate it, and left). What was this mysterious "box sushi"? Scallop, shrimp, salmon and avocado served on rice and graced with a thin sliver of lemon. Heavenly. Actually, with the grand total coming in at just over $100 for four, including four king-size Japanese beers, our meal at Toshi was downright miraculous.

We were positively giddy afterwards, so we headed down Main a few blocks to Monsoon for some après-sushi drinks with some more long lost old friends.

Continental Coffee, 1806 Commerical Drive, (604) 255-0712

The First Ravioli Store, 1900 Commercial Drive, (604) 255-8844

La Grotta del Formaggio, 1791 Commercial Drive, (604) 255-3911

J, N & Z Deli, 1729 Commercial Drive, (604) 251-4144

Toshi, 181 East 16th Ave., (604) 874-5173



Unknown said...

Yummers! not Bummers!

kickpleat said...

mmm, i love vancouver and it's food! i guess that's one of the reasons why i live here. and i love that you visited my little 'hood of strathcona.