Friday, January 11, 2013

Ça Va is Startlingly Good

From our first bites of the lemon goat cheese ravioli--which danced on the tongue, the pasta light and soft, the cheese smooth and tangy, the lemon zippily delicious--Ilana and I knew we were in a serious restaurant. Just a month old, Ça Va Bistro is very, very good, reviving Fernwood as a place of importance for Victoria foodies.  

For mains, we had the beautifully roasted lamb, which comes atop five grains braised in dukkah (a middle eastern spice that manages to transform quinoa and its peers into something surprising and compulsive) and accompanied by an artichoke slathered in velvety labane, and the "fish pie," which seems to me better described as a marvelous rich fish bisque topped with a decadent puff of pastry. Both were so wonderfully executed that I'm convinced the rest of the menu is just as good. The food conveys a sense of tradition and grounding, not just technique. And yet, it is also unpredictable and precise. Ça Va is making food as it should be.

I'm glad to come out of semi-retirement to urge all Victorians to go to Ça Va. Now!

We didn't have this, whatever it is, but I'm sure it is superb.

For more info on Ça Va, click hereCa Va Bistro Moderne on Urbanspoon

Special thanks are owed to the grandparents Ross, who, in their annual sojourn in Victoria, resumed their tradition of having our children over for a night a week, making forays like this possible. Also to our friend Tim, a chef so refined that he almost never recommends a restaurant, for recommending this one. [Tim had the salmon, which he never orders, and gives it high endorsement].

Also, for my regulars (are you still out there?) I'll just mention, that while away from this blog I had a truly sublime meal at La Degustation in Prague. The best meal of my life. A work of a true genius. But, if you can't make it there, or are looking for a more affordable evening, try Ça Va. It's not a bad fallback.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Food for the rainy season

Well, that was a rainy day in Victoria. It was a Vancouver kind of a day. Scarcely a hint of light all day. Whatever our reputation, we don't usually go in for that kind of thing here in Victoria. Ilana and I spent a semester in Vancouver when she was finishing the coursework for her midwifery degree at UBC. And there it rained. I mean it really rained. All day, unrelenting, heavy rain. The kind of rain that makes you want to leave your porch light on all day. But here in Victoria we usually glimpse sunlight sometime in the course of a day, even in the depths of the rainy season. Today there may have been a tiny glimpse, but that was a stinker.

It put me to mind of food for the rainy season here in Victoria. The food I like tends to be good rainy weather food. You won't regret heading to Stage (still a delight, despite the "for sale" sign) when it is raining. But I've recently been to two fine noodle places that I'm trying to promote.

I Kyu Noodles, at 564 Fisgard St., is the best meal I've found in Chinatown. The restaurant is casual in the extreme, the menu is very limited, and service is not an area of emphasis. But you could do much, much worse on a rainy day in Victoria. The chef makes fresh noodles and dumplings every day, presenting both in various soups and sauces. The food is fresh and the flavours clean. You'll leave I Kyu clearer headed and warmer chested than when you went in. Not bad on a rainy day. To read more reviews, click on the spoon below:
I Kyu Noodles on Urbanspoon

I am also really keen on on new place, Lao Vientiane, 701-771 Vernon Ave, which is located on Blanshard Street as you leave Victoria, right in the middle of the "Little Edmonton" district that is still under development there.

I can tell you absolutely nothing about Lao cuisine. To even begin, I would have to do precisely what you might. But no matter, I had something spicy off of the chef's specials and was very pleasantly surprised. A noodle dish crowded with meat and veggies, it was nonetheless restrained and precise. The flavours came together with purpose. Their was no greasy overlay to the dish: it was fresh, clear, and well articulated. The staff were eager, anxious, and lovely. The place only opened this summer, and they are nervous and hopeful. They've made a good start in finding a talented chef. Hopefully success can follow, and they'll be able to move out of their current location into Fernwood Village.

To read more rave reviews of Lao Vientiane, click on the spoon below:
Lao Vientiane Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Discoveries

Well, I’m back from my summer hiatus. I travelled far, ate well, and made a few discoveries worth noting:

1. Swordfish can be good:

I can’t have eaten it in over a decade, having been scared by dry tasteless versions that seemed a poor man’s canned tuna on a rich man’s budget. But, during stint in the nation’s capital, I was convinced by two great friends and fabulous foodies to try their neighbourhood joint, Taylor’s Genuine, an unpretentious but ambitious little place. On a whim, I ordered the swordfish. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps I was intrigued by the waitress’s enthusiasm for something that I was convinced could not possibly be good. After ordering, I wondered to myself what I would say, when she inquired, after my inevitable disappointment. But at Taylor’s they did something surprising and delicious with the frequently mistreated dish, serving it browned and spiced, but luxuriously juicy. So swordfish can be good, and I heartily recommend Taylor’s to anyone who finds themselves in Ottawa.

See more reviews of Taylor’s by clicking the spoony thing below:

Taylor's Genuine Food & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

2. Eggplant can be good

More important, on the same trip to Ottawa I was introduced (by the aforementioned friends and foodies, who surpass all their other virtues in their generosity as hosts) to ridiculously tasty preserved eggplant. Again, I’m not a big fan, usually finding eggplant as soggy as a swordfish is dry. Excepting in Ottawa. Following my host’s lead, I loaded some oily eggplant slices onto the sandwiches we were preparing for our days at the office (his spent honing legal positions for our federal government; mine spent examining historical documents that detail the bureaucratization of Canadian racism). On a sunny park bench outside the Library and Archives of Canada, I took a bite and found myself surprised. This eggplant was firm but yielding to the teeth; assertive but complementary to its leading ingredients; spicy and oily but, well, delectably so. I'm hooked. Upon returning home, I purchased a jar of Valli Hot Eggplants in Oil for my own fridge, and have added these to my lunches for the past week. Yowzers! I think I’m going to have to drop my idea to write the feature: “where to buy food on the Uvic campus.” Let’s all just pack these delicious eggplant devils.

3. Dinner and Accommodation in Lunenberg NS

This one is a little less mind-blowing than discovering eggplant and swordfish in just four days in Ottawa. But it is close to my heart. On our now traditional vacation from our vacation, when Ilana and I leave the kids to surf with my folks (and sundry relatives) in Kingsburg NS and escape together for a night or two alone, we took advantage of a dinner and accommodation deal at Fleur De Sel, in Lunenberg. The restaurant was named one of the top ten in the country by Air Canada’s En Route magazine, which does great reviews. And it really is a delightful little gem, head and shoulders above anything else that I’ve tried on the South Shore, or indeed in Halifax. They have a new deal that includes a night’s stay in a charming room above the restaurant, a three-course dinner for two, and a private breakfast, all for $300. While not cheap, it’s a nice deal, and they’ve got a talented chef who deserves support. Brethren in the east: go to Fleur de Sel.

For more reviews of Fleur De Sel, click here.

Oh yes, in our annual summer stop in Brooklyn I had a plate of tripe that made me want to cry (tears of joy). But that is a topic for another day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cold Lobster and Cranky Collegues

Could it be, after all these years, that lobster is best served cold? I'm just back from a conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where, at the banquet, we were served fairly scrawny, but delicious, lobsters, chilled on ice and accompanied by piping hot butter. Cold lobster was a revelation. I’d once heard tell of it served cold for New Years in Nova Scotia, but I’d never tried it myself. Unfortunately, I had a hard time focusing-in on the culinary delights, having failed to avoid a heated exchange with a distinguished colleague just prior to the meal. Is there a lesson (or two) in this?

I began eating lobster at the age of two, so, as you might imagine, it was one of the foods that established me as “an eater.” I was never squeamish about the live boiling bit—I started dispatching crustaceans about as early as I started cooking anything—and I love the labour involved in extracting the meat from the shell once a lobster hits the plate. The work of shelling makes for a social meal: people laugh and talk as they inadvertently squirt one another with water and lobster innards. In fact, at our family vacation home on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, we’ve made it the regular Shabbat fare. A violation of the letter, perhaps, but not the spirit of the night. But I’ve always set in to eat the beasts as soon as they were cool enough to touch. Chilled on ice? Never.

It was also at about the age of two that I established myself as “an arguer.” A strong-willed kid, I accepted little (or nothing) without question, demanding explanations and proofs that, in turn, I was inclined to scrutinize. This tendency was much encouraged within my family, which, like many Jewish families, entertained the questioning of authority and delighted at the prospect of a child’s future career as a lawyer, or, somewhat less ideally, an academic. While this trait was decidedly less appreciated by my teachers (and sometimes peers), it nonetheless became a defining aspect of my personality. So, I was an eater and an arguer. A terrific combination!

And yet, there I was in Fredericton, with a heated argument distracting me from chilly lobster. The argument was probably about a few things. It was part academic turf battle, part my failure to meet an expectation of deference to seniority, and part a difference of academic philosophy. The last part is probably the most interesting. I think historians have a responsibility to be in conversation with one another. Each of our publications is necessarily imperfect, but hopefully our dialogue leads us somewhere interesting and useful. My interlocutor seemed to think that we should strive, when we publish, to offer a final word on a topic. He worries about “half baked” scholarship, whereas I see a shame in manuscripts wallowing in desk drawers while authors fret over possible blemishes. This all led to fairly raised voices.

Where does lobster fit in? I don’t know, maybe the point is that our personal patterns always run the risk being ruts. A defensible position doesn’t always need to be defended, especially if doing so runs the risk of putting a person off of his dinner. And maybe after a third of a century, I need to totally rethink the way that I am eating lobster.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Foie Gras Challenge

Hello Readers--The Hungry Historian team is excited to announce a new feature on this site: ingredient challenges. This feature will allow you, my faithful readers, to suggest uses of ingredients that I could not resist purchasing and yet am not quite decided on how to use. If one of you passes the challenge and I follow your suggestion, I'll report back to the readers on my impressions of your trustworthiness more generally. This is part of a larger move on my part toward interactive pedagogy, but I'll not belabour that point here. Rather, I'll get straight to the meat of the matter: The foie gras challenge.

I have, naturally, done some work with foie gras in the past. Perhaps most notably, I've cooked some delicious "mini foie gras club sandwiches" out of amuse-bouche, a rather high-brow cookbook that my in-laws purchased for me during a stay at the Culinary Institute of America. But I've never purchased a full globe before. I was sorely tempted for the 40th birthday of a dear carnivorous friend, but after buying ribeye for 12, and under the pressure of a communal budget shared with people who expressed some anxiety about my budget-busting propensities, I couldn't quite pull the trigger. But today, freed from the shackles of responsibility to others, I have stocked my freezer with one grade A globe--probably about 10 oz or so. Any suggestions?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

St Clair Ave West

What gives us our sense of connection with other people or feelings of rootedness in place?

These questions, which I write about as an historian, have been playing on my mind as I visit my family and the city of Toronto. Leaving Ilana behind to tend to the birth of a new generation of Victorians, the girls and I have spent the last week in Toronto, home to my siblings, parents, and a host of relations. Toronto is not where I grew-up, but while I finished my dissertation Ilana and I lived for two years on St. Clair West, in the heart of a predominantly Portuguese and Italian residential and commercial district. Eva was born here, coming into the world in the cramped back bedroom of a small apartment on Northcliffe Boulevard.

A modest stretch of immigrant Toronto, St Clair Avenue West is not sightly. It lacks the arching tree canvases and the early-century brick homes of the city’s more venerable neighbourhoods. It certainly has no mountain view. But the place has some magic in it.

Some of that magic is in the food. When we lived here, I used to buy my meat at Macelleria S. Gabriele, a bustling emporium of farm and game meats, prime cuts of beef as well as the inexpensive organs that are cooked mostly by relocated peasants. One of the butchers, smiling over a blood soaked smock, once showed me the enormous cow hearts that he puts on display for the biology students at a neighbouring high school. Half a block west of the Macelleria is Khmer Thai, where Ilana and I went for dinner on an October evening when she hoped that spicy food might send her into labour. Several hours later she felt her first contractions, so what better review could I offer? The St. Clair Fish Market stands a block further along. It was there, with the encouragement and advice of the lively Greek couple who run the place, that I first began to buy and cook octopus. I returned there this week for the same purpose, and cooked my favorite recipe, the grilled octopus from Molto Italiano, for my family. The couple, still there and excited to remember me, insisted on choosing my octopus and on giving Tillie a handful of Greek biscuits. Carry on and you reach Palermo, an originally Italian bakery/café now in its second generation of Portuguese ownership, where you can get a Cappuccino that glides gently and smoothly across the tongue and leaves you bolt upright. We were regulars there during our stay in Toronto. The owners bought Eva a dress when she was born and warned us off of Victoria. “It rains there 200 days a year” warned Ishmael, who is currently visiting his village in Portugal. “Maybe not for the whole days, though,” Adelia, his wife, suggested, injecting some cheer into a saddening good-bye.

Some people are deeply rooted in a place. Identities are formed and communities sustained on strips like St. Clair Ave West. Others seem to pass through, seeking advantage and pleasure in their choices of location but not a source of self. I think I probably belong to the latter set. I’m not sure that there is a place where I belong. I love living in Victoria, but I wouldn’t describe it as my particular spot in the world. And, although I marvel at St. Clair, I don’t think that’s my place either. I’m sure that many who live there, like Ishmael, off tending to his house “back home,” feel the same. But even for birds of passage there is something special in a place that becomes bound up with the people we love and the events we cherish. Particularly if that place can also furnish a fine piece of ham and a plateful of sardines.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Historians in Wine Country: Or, Avoiding the conference hotel hallway buffet

I come to you from Kelowna, wine country British Columbia, where I'm attending an academic conference. Sometimes conferences are the bane of scholarly life, "culminating" in a terrible buffet of re-warmed food served in a dark windowless hallway of a mid-level hotel, with graduate students and faculty members shuffling around a faded carpet and trying to advance their careers or at least pass the time without falling into the extreme awkwardness that can sometimes beset academic conversation. But they can also be a delight: think of a foie gras stuffed bugger in an off-the-beaten-track Chicago find, consumed over a spirited conversation among smart people with like interests that can, at its best, come to feel like a collective project of intellectual inquiry and dignified lipsmackification.

For this conference, a graduate student and I arrived a day early to assure well rested alertness in our presentation (we'll give a talk entitled "Who Bought Vancouver's 'Japantown'"--an exploration of the Canadian government's resale of the Vancouver area properties that it confiscated from Japanese owners during WWII). With a day to spare in one of the province's most picturesque and renowned regions, I rented a car and we toured the lakes, desert landscapes, and wineries of Penticton and Naramata, just south of Kelowna. It is a stunning area. The landscape slopes steep, brown, and rugged into immense wind-swept lakes, virtually empty of any activity, at least at this time of year. Signs marking hiking trails alert travelers that the rattlesnake season has begun, surprising and frightening the two of us, who are more comfortable in the convivial company of bears and cougars on our perambulations. And then there are hundreds of wineries, too many to visit, most of them beautiful.

We drank at two of them, the Hillside Estate where we ate lunch, and Volcanic Hills, where we bought wine. At the Hillside Estate Bistro, they serve food and wine pairings in a rustic but elegant dining room or out on a sun-bathed deck with beautiful views of the valley. The offerings (I had a merlot paired with a duck confit ragu on tagliatelle), while by no means superb, did nothing to take away from the setting and the scene, which were both precisely what I had in mind setting out as a wine tourist for a day. Volcanic Hills will celebrate its first year in business this summer and it may be a comer on the BC wine scene. They already claim a number of international awards (don’t there seem to be an awful lot of international awards around for wines to win?) and to my mind they make a fine, light Gamay Noir, which they sell for under $10 at the winery. It can be had for just a little more than that in Victoria, and I think it is a good sipping wine (I used it for the four cups at my Passover Seder). The trip, the food, the wine, the scene—it all made for good conversation, as often on scholarly topics as not.

In all, it was a great start to the conference. We’ll hope it doesn’t end in a hotel hallway.

For reviews of my Chicago find, click on the symbol: Sweets & Savories on Urbanspoon.

For reviews of the Hillside Estate Winery Bistro, click here Hillside Estate Winery & Bistro on Urbanspoon .