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.

Click here to find out more about the Stone Soup Inn

Stone Soup Inn on Urbanspoon