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 .

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lunching at Devour with Tillie

Devour has been an intriguing lunch option in Victoria since it opened a couple of years ago. Today for lunch I found my way there with my recently four-year-old daughter, Tillie. I had a grilled flat iron steak topped with stilton cottage cheese and surrounded by assorted roasted veggies. My lunch was lovely, but my companion ordered better. After carefully surveying the menu she selected, and indeed devoured (a word that interested her), a brie-bacon-pesto sandwich on baguette. I hadn't advertised the pesto, which she found a delightful addition to the mix.

I came away with the impression that Devour might somewhat miss the contributions of Alison Bigg, one of the founding chefs who has opted for less taxing professional pursuits. Perhaps some of the creative magic left with her departure. But my companion was highly enthusiastic, declaring it on par with her other favourite eatery in the area, the Pink Bicycle. And she is not to be taken lightly as a food critic, having recently selected Oyama fennel salami as an appetizer for her birthday celebration (when we went to Ottavio's to sample and select appetizers the staff recalled her making a similar excursion for her third birthday).

Of course I shamelessly encourage Tillie's foodiness. How could I not? Our children remind us of ourselves, but in strange and wonderful ways.

So this is Tillie's review of Devour--which gets a hearty thumbs up.

(And many thanks to the staff for being so welcoming of a four-year-old during the business lunch rush)

To see more information about Devour click on this icon: Devour on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Gefilte Fish Boiling Done

It is 1:13 in the morning, and the gefilte fish is finished boiling.

The first taste was . . . not promising. Soggy. Mealy.

But maybe the cooling process helps that? They're in the fridge over night. We'll see how it goes.

On Campus Eats

The gefilte fish is still cooking. So, while I wait, I'm introducing a new feature: "On Campus Eats." This is particularly for my UVic readers.

I've been eking out lunches on university campuses since 1994. And it looks like I'll be eking them out for some time yet. Of my campuses--McGill, Penn, and UVic--Penn wins the lunch competition hands-down. Some of the lunch trucks around the campus were just genius. My favourite lunch at Penn--as others headed to the much lauded burrito guy on Walnut--was a meatball sub prepared by a somewhat surly eastern European woman at the corner of Chestnut and 34th. The onions, "American" cheese, and yellow mustard (yes yellow mustard) went on first, so that as the cheese melted they'd form a molten core. And then the dense, foamy meatballs, no extra sauce. Finally, a couple of shakes of something that was very far from real parmesan cheese. Brilliant!

Unfortunately UVic has nothing comprable to offer. It's dreary dining up there comrades, I know. But in this feature I will offer a guide to surviving the culinary morass of the UVic campus.

To start, and I say this at great risk to my own pleasure, go to the Finnerty Express in the basement of the UVic bookstore and get a pain au chocolate. Not the absurd chocolate croissant with gigantism and the artless zig-zags on top. Rather, the small, understated one, with chocolate tastefully tucked away inside. It is a startlingly good pastry, totally unlike the other clunkers in the cafe. It is light, and buttery, and chocolaty, and just plain delicious. It's a great pick-me-up on a grey and hungry day up on campus.

The cafe doesn't make them, of course. They come from Bond Bonds Bakery. But so does most of the other stuff and, well, stick with the pain au. Trust me.

More guidance will come. Fear not.

Finnerty Express on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gefilte Fish

I'm not afraid to admit that I love gefilte fish.

This morning, as I was trying to describe it to Brock Windsor (chef at the superlative Stone Soup Inn, reviewed here), Ilana intervened: "It's one of those things that's so bad it's good." Her view may represent many, but that's not at all my meaning. As far back as I can remember I took seconds of gefilte fish every Passover. I still bound into the kitchen after polishing my first plate, thrilling at the prospect of another piece of ground and boiled whitefish. I almost always contemplate thirds, even as the matza ball soup--that obsequious crowd pleaser, shameless panderer--begins to hit the table.

Gefilte fish is an easy dish to get wrong. White fish, traditionally carp or pike, is ground and mixed with onion, egg, matza meal, and a healthy portion of pepper. Wet and sticky, it is rolled into balls and then boiled for hours. It is served cold, with a heaping spoonful of horseradish, and, in my my family, a leaf of iceberg lettuce. Its a dish that makes no compromise for the squeamish. It "tastes like fish." Done right--firm but light, subtle but not bland--it is both entirely distinctive and delicious. And my Bubbie always got it right.

My Bubbie communicated a quiet authority over her small and immaculate house in Forest Hill, an early suburb of Toronto. I can't recall that she ever had to spell-out rules for her grandchildren or descend to the level of discipline. Instead, she carried herself with a poise that seemed to demand reasonable comportment, particular decorum. A short woman, she walked very upright, almost stiffly, and she spoke softly. She and her house--with lamps poised on three-legged wooden tables, hardcovers held in place by bookends with tiny sword letter openers, glass bowls with sugarless candy--set silent boundaries on any rambunctiousness.

And she cooked a great family meal. She made the hearty unpretentious food of mid-century mothers and wives. A brocoli casserole, creamy and topped with a breadcrumb crust. Baked meatballs in a sweet and savoury red sauce. Hearty cuts of beef, cooked long, slow, and wet. But I think she took particular pride in her Jewish cooking, and perhaps especially in her gefilte fish. I don't recall her ever saying so, but I think she noticed that I always took seconds. She smiled satisfaction at having gotten it just right for another festive meal.

I'm the last one up in my house tonight, waiting out those long hours of boiling. For the first time, I'm trying to cook my Bubbie's gefilte fish. I feel far from home tonight, here on the West Coast, thousands of miles from my Bubbie's house, which is now, having been sold to an orthodox family after her death, likely filled too with aromas of boiling fish. I've had to make substitutions. No one in town has even heard of whitefish. There's no carp for sale. And I'm a novice, working alone. But I have my Bubbie's recipe, words of encouragement from my mother, and I'm sure hoping that I get it just right.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I think food can sometimes achieve perfection.

Generally speaking, of course, perfection is an exceedingly rare experience. I've been trying to explain this to a student of mine. She finds that the more she learns about a topic that she's been closely studying for months, the less she knows. Her rooting through archives reveals, as much as anything, her inability to find the answers to her questions. Ultimately, the inquiry leads down an infinite number of paths, whereas her capacities are tragically finite, constrained by the hours set by the seniors who volunteer at a local archive, the deadline looming at the end of the semester, the energy that she has in a day.

I'm reminded, by her recognition of the impossibility of perfect knowledge, of Soren Kierkegaard. I read Kierkegaard, who disdained cafe intellectuals for their inability to focus their minds, in a small and smoky Second Cup on St. Denis in Montreal. More than anyone I'd ever read, Kierkegaard laboured under the burden of imperfection. Kierkegaard strove for a kind of position, or disposition, that recognized the impossibility of achieving perfection while simultaneously striving. But poor Kierkegaard abandoned the love of his life because he could not love her perfectly. He could not overcome his finitude.

Maybe he just didn't eat well. Because food can, somehow, sometimes, be perfect. It's not easy to explain and perhaps it's not replicable. Perhaps it can only happen when a tongue meets a morsel under peculiar and particular circumstances. A splash of wine that is balanced but assertive, the right sauce, distinctive but not domineering, and a seared, juicy, tender bite of flesh. Or perhaps an old tradition, perfected over generations and served without pretension.

I first tasted perfection in a white chocolate bar. It was summer, and my family was traveling through Europe, a formative trip for the three kids squished in the back of a red compact rental car. In Switzerland we stopped in historic and picturesque Grindelwald, and there my father and I descended the lowest portion of the Jungfrau, the "maiden" mountain of Bernese Alps. When we got to the bottom we were walking bow legged, our prevent-your-body-from-hurtling-down-the-mountain muscles having received an unprecedented (and never again replicated) workout. Somewhere along the way, in a small wooden shack, we purchased a white chocolate bar. Descending that mountain with my dad, surrounded by a majesty that I can scarcely even attempt to describe, on a day that was crisp, and cool, and sunny, that chocolate bar was just perfect.

I spent years purchasing white chocolate bars attempting to recapture the feeling before giving up. For the most part, white chocolate is just awful. But on that day, on that mountain, it was perfect.

Perhaps the lesson of the Jungfrau shares much with Kierkegaard's striving. White chocolate can be perfect in its time and place. Perfection happens when limits are not so much transcended as matched. Capacity is never boundless, but sometimes harmony is achieved.

I'm tired now, and Ilana is waiting for me to finish blogging about my youth, but I'll point to two restaurants that I think are coming pretty darned close to perfection. The chefs at each are somehow harmonizing limits with ambition, finitude with the infinite. They may not play a perfect tune on your palate, but they pretty much do so on mine. I've recently found moments of perfection at:

Chen's Shanghai in Richmond, which takes the dumpling to a higher plane.
Chen's Shanghai Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Also, if you're ever in New York, Al di La in Brooklyn makes a tripe dish that soars above the limits of the everyday.
Al di Là Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Disparate references, I know, but perfection is rare.

What about you, ever had a perfect bite?

Monday, April 4, 2011


This afternoon I was hungry. An 11:30 meeting, meant to be over in an hour, bled close to 1:00, which marked the start of a far from vigorous but still very enjoyable tennis match against a colleague. As that ended I was off to retrieve my daughter and a friend from their respective schools and home for a play date. In all, it was well past 3:00 when I finally wandered into my kitchen for a late lunch. I was a hungry historian.

When I’m very hungry, I feel it in my teeth. On very busy days like today, I’ll sometimes miss lunch at school. On days that are still rarer, I will also have skipped breakfast that morning, having begun work at 5:30 AM with a coffee and then failed to find time before the demands and routines of the morning for my own feeding. I usually first realize—as I’m scrambling to complete the budget justification on a grant proposal or reading aloud to myself in my office, for what feels like the dozenth time, an article manuscript that I’m hoping, finally, to send off by the close of the day (they don’t come often, but these are the days when a lunch will be forgotten)—that I’m loosing focus, that my mind is starting to spin. And then as I feel a pain emerging in behind my eyebrows, it dawns on me: I’m desperately hungry. Wait, did I skip lunch?!? And when my teeth start to ache I know my work is over.

This is a blog about enjoying great food in a place where it abounds. And in my life, hunger is a kind of a tamely masochistic game that I play on hectic days. But I’ve also begun to think lately about hunger, and I realize that I’m not even sure what it means. Recent estimates suggest that just under a billion people are chronically undernourished. About 1 in 7 people in the world are actually hungry, as a state of being. I don’t comprehend that kind of hunger, as a human and bodily experience. When a person lives in hunger, does the body cease to signal pain? Or does chronic hunger mean constant discomfort, a throbbing head, aching teeth?

Historians are accustomed to thinking of the world as profoundly and complexly stratified. We have intricate ways of conceiving and measuring the ways that societies have been and remain unequal. Some people have grasped more than others. Some of us have been granted a larger share while others have been denied. And yet, I’m not sure that we appreciate this fundamental division among people: luck, privilege, and the exercise of power open a chasm between those for whom hunger is a game and those for whom it is fundamental concern and life characteristic.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Stage: Getting Even Better

I have been a fan of Stage since it first opened, but lately it has been getting even better. The other night--with Ilana and the kids out of town--I settled into the bar at Stage to enjoy one of my few favourites that remains open on Monday nights. The special (on March 28, 2011), was a pan-seared rock fish with fresh (first batch of the season) spot prawns, both drizzled in a spot prawn bisque. It is a stunning creation, one of the best uses I've yet encountered of our superb local prawns and surely one of greatest dishes to emerge from the inspired kitchen at Stage. Also for the first time, I tried the Lonzino--a house-cured pork loin that they gently spice with cinnamon and fennel. It is a marvelously tender and moist charcuterie, a lighter cousin of proscuitto, and one that I wish I could buy bulk among their grocery offerings. In all Stage continues to impress and improve. What fun!

Click here to find Stage.

Stage on Urbanspoon

Warning: Fol Epi Sandwiches Out of Hand

Since my previous visit to Fol Epi they introduced a new and divine roast beef sandwich. The baguette, is, well, their baguette. The roast beef itself is tender and subtlety herbaceous. It is topped with a perfect smearing of French mustard and, perhaps, aioli, and the cheddar is sharp and clean but never overwhelming. The lettuce is unnervingly crisp for a pre-made sandwich. With this new addition, the sandwich section is entirely out of control. The experience of ordering and eating there is now almost unbearable. The moment of choice--local shrimp? ham and cheese? smoky albacore tuna? or, now, divine roast beef?--is agonizing. Inevitably I leave several superb sandwiches there, staring up at me from behind the glass, sandwiches that I could only dream of during the long dreary week of lunches on the UVic campus. And then, the experience of eating is heartbreaking. Why fall so hard if, some few minutes later, the dance of flavour on my tongue will be nothing but a memory? I'm swearing the place off, and I suggest that my readers stay away too.

Fol Epi is located at:
398 Harbour Road
Victoria, BC V9A 0B7
Phone: (250) 477-8882

Fol Epi on Urbanspoon

Ulla Restaurant: Refreshing Fine Food

I ate at Ulla last night with my wife on a rare date night. We usually count on our reliable favourites--Stage and the Brasserie--but took a chance on a new place with great reviews on this site. And it was well worth it. Ulla is serving refreshing fine food with simple, well chosen ingredients. The menu is small, but presents plenty of intriguing options. The food is plated beautifully and every main accompanied by creative and enticing sides (e.g. short rib steak with cauliflower ravioli). We had the tomato soup with tasty cheesy toasties, beef tartar, the tender grilled octopus, and the Ling Cod. The latter two were especially delightful, with the Ling Cod, which can sometimes be served a touch understated for my taste, a crispy, light winner with perfectly balanced sides. We'll definitely be back.

Click here to find out more about Ulla.

Ulla Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Stone Soup Inn: Destination Dining in the Cowichan Valley

In September we went to Stone Soup Inn for my wife's 35th birthday. Wow! What a memorable, wonderful evening.

The property is both a farm and a restaurant, and proprietor/chef Brock Windsor uses his own produce and livestock as well as other local ingredients to create a new six course tasting menu every night. The food is impeccably executed, merging inventiveness with restraint and delivering dish after dish of tightly controlled, ingredient-driven, deliciousness.

The dining room is beautiful; we sat in front of the fireplace, which was delightful. The menu changes daily, but our meal began with a beet and blue cheese salad accompanied by show-stopping tomatoes, which I believe were grown on the farm. The next dish was a flawlessly seared "idiot fish" accompanied by white beans and house-raised bacon. The lightly seared porcini on the side of this dish perfectly represented the chef's commitment to letting his outstanding ingredients speak for themselves. Next, roasted pork on a flavourful bed of sautéed local corn and cauliflower mushrooms, a mellow but flavourful combination that vied for the high-point of the meal. This was followed by braised venison, seared polenta, and eggplant that had somehow absorbed the ideal quantity of soy sauce. After the fresh precision of the previous dishes, this heavier, meatier plate brought the meal to a perfect finale. With the real eating finished, Brock brought out duck egg crème brûlée, sending us happily and sweetly off to bed.

We chose to stay at the Inn with our kids, who had eaten earlier and slept in a room just up the stairs from the dining area while we ate. This was a great arrangement. Both Brock and Eric, who runs the dining room and waits tables, have young children and they were terrific with ours. The Inn is, in essence, a small house, so our kids could easily pop down when they needed us. The rooms themselves are clean, spacious, and very tastefully decorated.

The breakfast the next morning was just what you might imagine-more show stopping tomatoes, more home-grown bacon, and wonderful home-grown poached eggs. With great advice from Eric about other lesser known attractions of the valley, we set out for a wonderful day. The Stone Soup Inn is in the hands of generous and tremendously talented people. It is destination dining.

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