December 01, 2016

Vancouver harbor

The first thing many non-Canadians say when I say I'm from Canada is "oh, are you from Vancouver? I love Vancouver!" There's a reason why so many people from outside Canada love that part of our country. When you live in Ontario, you don't hear much about the goings on in the West Coast. We're almost separated. Much of what you hear is of the high home prices and the trendy lifestyle of the people who live in those homes. There is more to it than that. To start, Vancouver has one of the best dining scenes anywhere in the world. From Asian influences, to fresh seafood to high end luxurious food, Vancouver has so much to offer those who live and visit there and love food.

Granville Island Vancouver

When my husband booked a conference in Vancouver for four days, I took full advantage of the opportunity to come along for the trip. It had been quite a few years since I went out to the West Coast to see British Columbia. On previous trips when I was much younger, I visited Whistler, Victoria and Vancouver Island, including Tofino. This time we were only spending the time in Vancouver and didn't have enough time to venture out any further. There is definitely enough to see and do in Vancouver itself to fill four or five days. 

On the first day, we explored Granville Island. Although it sounds kind of weird that there's a cool area of town "under the Granville Street Bridge" it has become one of the must-see places of the city. You can take a ferry to make you feel more like you're going to an island, or take a bus like we did. The community is like stepping into an arts and craft village with interesting shops, cafes, galleries and studios. A highlight is the Granville Public Market with vendors selling local cheese, meats, breads and prepared foods, similar to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. One of my must-see stops in any city is usually the main market. 

Go Fish Vancouver

Down the street a bit from the market near the harbour is the unassuming although popular Go Fish. Where else can you sit outside by the water in November eating fish and chips? I ordered the cod and chips. Mike ordered the spicy chili salmon sandwich special of the day. I liked how the coleslaw had a bit of a kick to it with a dash of spices. The fish and chips were fluffy and flavourful with most importantly no soggy bits.

I have mentioned in previous travel posts that I live by Lonely Plant guidebooks. We always joking about "doing things by the book" when we're traveling. The books have never steered me wrong. 90 per cent of the restaurants I chose on this trip were from the Lonely Planet recommendations. Doing your own exploring is good too by walking and seeing where your legs will take you. According to the step tracker, we actually walked about 20,000 steps each day. If you're ever wondering how food bloggers stay in shape...

Vancouver British Columbia

We went for our "special" dinner on the first night of the trip at Vij's Restaurant. I am a Dragon's Den fanatic and had also heard of Vikram Vij before he appeared on the show. This restaurant was on my must-try list, and it doesn't hurt that it is one of Vancouver's top restaurants. Normally, it is "save the best for last." This time it was jump right in and indulge first. I thought going on a Wednesday night would mean we would avoid the lineups. Instead, we took a nice walk around the surrounding neighbourhoods while waiting for our table and got our appetites up even more. You can also sit in the front bar area while you wait and see the view from the kitchen of the naan bread being made. My favourite touch was that servers came around the bar area with appetizers as a "preview" of the meal--and I'm sure to avoid that sudden onset "hangriness."

Vij's Restaurant Vancouver

When we did get our table, we were taken to the dining room that reminded me of an old style cozy Indian restaurant dining room. We started the meal with the samosas filled with beef and lamb. The sauce was some kind of chutney with a coconut type paste next to it. For the main, I went for it and ordered the fan favourite: wine marinated lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry over potatoes and spinach. Mike ordered the pork tenderloin in cayenne and ginger curry.

Vij's Restaurant Vancouver B.C

Vikram served this dish to Will and Kate when they went to B.C for the Royal visit. I mean, I pretty much ate like royalty. To be honest, as much as I love it, I don't normally go for Indian food much because it is so heavy and spicy. I had to go for it this time and I'm glad I did. The curry was rich and creamy, like a comforting spicy soup, and the lamb was soft and not chewy like many lamb popsicles tend to be. The naan bread was out of this world soft and buttery.

As much as I wanted to eat the whole thing, I asked for the rest of it packed up. The server even added an extra container of rice and naan bread for me to eat it with the next day. I am not ashamed to say I ate it cold in the hotel room the next day for lunch. As you can see from the photo, it was one of those perfect looking and tasting dishes. 

Lamb popsicles on curry at Vij's Restaurant Vancouver

Don't get me wrong, I was extremely happy with the food. The funny thing was the highlight of the meal was probably the chai they brought out to us for "dessert" even though we didn't order any actual dessert. I don't know how they made it taste so lovely. I thought it was just chai tea, milk and spices. The server said there is all sorts of magic in it. I told him if I worked there I would fill up mugs by the dozen with that chai. I love those little touches that end the experience and make it that much more special. 

Seabus Vancouver

The next day after recovering from all of the food the night before, we took the Seabus to North Vancouver to go up Grouse Mountain. We started the day with lunch at the Acme Cafe in Gastown. According to the reviews, the shrimp melt is the popular choice. It has shrimp, onions topped with provolone cheese on a ciabatta. I ordered the sandwich with the thai butternut squash soup.

Acme Cafe Vancouver

All of their sandwiches come with either soup, broccoli almond slaw with potato chips or mac and cheese. Any restaurant where you can get mac and cheese as a side is alright by me. Mike ordered the burger special with the broccoli slaw. I loved the hip, diner feel of the place with the white and black booths and counters. By hip, I also mean, it had a high concentration of hipsters too.

Acme Cafe Vancouver

Like on every trip, it is essential to go to the top of the highest point to get scenic views. My vertigo loves it when we do this. In London, it was clinging to the sides of the pod on the London Eye, in Milan it was having a meltdown on the top of the tallest cathedral and in Peru it was climbing to the top of Sacsayhuaman in Cusco. This journey only involved sitting on a gondola for 8 minutes, which I guess isn't so bad. It is the initial "taking off" that gets to me. Once I'm up for a bit in the air, I start to feel alright.

Grouse Mountain Gondola Vancouver

The views from the top were definitely worth it. The price tag for the trip is a little steep at around $40 per person. I suppose it's one of those things you only do once in awhile. Grouse Mountain is about 4,000 feet up at its peak and overlooks most of the city. 

Grouse Mountain

In the winter it's a major skiing destination with 26 runs. And in the summer and fall, it's just nice to take a ride up there to feel on top of the world. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can climb up to the top on the hiking trail lovingly called the "Grouse Grind" or "Mother Nature's Stairmaster." No thanks, I will take the gondola up and sit in the chalet with a hot chocolate admiring the views. 

Grouse Mountain Vancouver British Columbia

Once the sun sets, it is lovely to see the city light up and the view start to change. Getting to the mountain is about a 20 minute bus ride or a Seabus ride and then a bus ride. Why wouldn't you take something called a "Seabus"? 

Vancouver British Columbia Canada

After "mountaineering" we had a quick dinner at Japadog. The concept was so weird and wacky, I had to try it. Japadog started as a food truck in Vancouver serving hot dogs with crazy Japanese inspired toppings, such as tempura, seaweed and kimchi. I had the Yakisoba with soba noodles and some pickled ginger. My companion had the signature Terimayo dog with teriyaki sauce, mayo and seaweed. The soba noodles were an interesting choice if a little difficult to eat. The sausages themselves have a bit of a kick to them and the toppings add a lot of interesting textures. I think I would have preferred the Terimayo, as I think it needed something crunchy instead of soft on top. You have to try it to believe it.

Japadog Vancouver

For the week, we stayed at the Delta Vancouver Suites downtown. The location could not be beat with a 5 minute walk to Canada Place and down the street from the hip part of Gastown. The rooms were comfortable and spacious, even though they were not necessarily "suites."

Delta Vancouver Suites

When you go by the book, you find some great places you might not have noticed yourself. I mean, Googling "lunch nearby" can only get you so far and I think I would have walked right by this place if I hadn't of known. Finch's Tea and Coffee House is an old style tea room type cafe with a menu that will make you feel like you're sitting in a cafe in Paris. You can order beautiful cheese plates, salads and outrageously stuffed baguettes. I ordered the Continental: egg, cheddar, prosciutto, lettuce, tomato, red onion and dijon mustard. I also had a few bites of the baked brie baguette with melted brie, roasted walnuts and prosciutto. I don't know where else you can find such a beautiful selection of sandwiches, sorry, I mean, baguettes and anything with melted brie and bread is heaven. 

Finch's Vancouver

The waterfront is one of the most stunning things about Vancouver. I love it when a city uses its harbour space so creatively and pedestrian friendly. It is obviously a focal point because of the gorgeous views from the harbour and walkways. 

Downtown Vancouver Canada

Canada Place Vancouver

Canada Place Vancouver

After a few nights, I learned to accept the norm of restaurants with no reservations and waiting more than an hour for a table. The places I always want to go seem the busiest too either because they have been recommended and everyone else wants to go there too. Isn't that a good rule for finding a place to eat? The place with the longest line is probably good. We walked down to Chinatown one night for dinner at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie.

Bao Bei Vancouver

The food was probably comparable to any other Chinatown restaurant. In this case, they have turned the concept of Chinese food into sharing plates in a lounge type environment. It looks like most other trendy bistros with fancy cocktails with the food a take on modern Chinese. We started with the mantou steam buns with pork belly, bean sprouts and a peanut type sauce.

I had the most interesting non-alcoholic cocktail I have ever tasted. I still can't decide if I actually liked it or not. It had some kind of smoked tea in it that made me feel like I was drinking a BBQ with a hint of sweetness. In the style of sharing the food, we also ordered the fried rice or the "kick ass house fried rice" as it is called with minced beef, egg, jicama, broccoli and pickles. I was so hungry after waiting for a table that the warm bowl of fried rice was so comforting and spot on. We also ordered some steamed pork dumplings and the won ton soup. All of the items are ordinary Chinese menu items, however they dressed things up a little and added a bit of a modern flair. 

Bao Bei Restaurant Vancouver

I would also give an honourable mention to Pure Bread in Gastown. I strolled down there for a coffee one morning and stood gawking at the pastries and breads with the other patrons for about 5 minutes. Everyone in line was also having trouble deciding what to get because there were so many beautifully displayed options. Then it's a matter of choosing sweet or savoury and that's just an overwhelming prospect to make before coffee.

Pure Bread Vancouver

The selection was on the mammoth side, as well as the pastries themselves. I actually went back the next day to pick something else out of the display. I ended up with a sundried tomato pesto muffin and a pecan sticky bun. I loved seeing everyone's eyes light up and trying to choose what to get when I was sitting there having my coffee.

Pure Bread Vancouver BC

You have to start your day strong if you are exploring a new city. Our travel days always seem to revolve around walking and eating. We walk for a bit and then take a break to eat and then walk some more. Vancouver's transit system is also top notch and easy to figure out, so we did take advantage of the buses and trains to get around some places. 

Stanley Park Vancouver

There is also so much walking to be done. For starters, there is Stanley Park that actually rivals Central Park in New York City for size at about 1,000 acres compared to Central Park (about 843 acres). You could most definitely get lost in the park for days. The Seawall is a neat walkway around 8 kilometres of the park on the water, which is kind of similar to the pathway along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. These parks are such a magical part of any city where you can feel completely in nature and at peace even a few minutes from downtown. 

Stanley Park Vancouver

After taking a late afternoon to evening walk in the park, we took the bus back into Gastown for our last meal of the trip. Of course, it had to be at a Vancouver institution, Tacofino. You have to have seafood at some point during your West Coast trip. Similar to Japadog, Tacofino started out as a food truck concept and grew into full-size restaurants, as well as burrito bars, in Vancouver and Tofino. We went to the Taco Bar location in Gastown. 

Tacofino Vancouver

The service was incredibly speedy and we got our tacos within minutes of sitting down. We got a bit of everything with the fish, steak, chorizo and crispy chicken tacos. Each taco came with an interesting array of toppings and flavours: the steak had a bit of pineapple, the chorizo had some avocado crema and the crispy chicken had some pickles and chimichurri. Compared to many other taco joints I have been to, these were up there with a good texture (not too soggy), bold flavours and huge chunks of meat and fish. I think it was a perfect ending to a whirlwind of food and West coast living.
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November 16, 2016

butternut squash and feta spinach pie

Canada it seems, is one of the most seasonal places in the world. There are not many places that have such extremes between summer and winter, and such distinct seasons. I find myself now living in what many people have referred to as a "seasonal" town. The summers are packed with people, gorgeous weather for the beaches and many activities. So what happens the rest of the time? From what I have seen, everything still flows through with the passing of the seasons, especially things like fruits and vegetables. 

We are so lucky to live in a place where we have access to an abundance of local food. Although there are sometimes fewer options in the fall and winter months, there are still creative things you can do with all of those root vegetables and winter greens. I bought a butternut squash a few weeks ago from a local farm that according to my kitchen scale actually weighed 10 pounds. I bought 2 pumpkins, some decorative gourds, a few vegetables and the squash for about $20. Sadly, the farm closed for the season last week, however, I am still using up the giant squash.

Israeli couscous salad with butternut squash

My first order of business with the squash was to attempt to cut it up. My pro tip for butternut squash is to slice the peels off of the cubes before you roast it. If you roast the cubes with the peels then you end up trying to peel mushy bits of squash and it turns into a huge mess. I made this Autumn Pearl Couscous salad for a Halloween party we attended. I liked how the squash added some colour to the salad and I liked the recipe even though generally I'm not a huge fan of eating squash cold. On Halloween night, we lit up the porch on our new place (we have a real porch now!) with some pumpkins and handed out candy to the little ones. As usual, I ended up eating more candy than I gave away.

Then it was time to get even more creative with the butternut squash. I made butternut squash soup (kind of boring) and wanted to do something a little more exciting. With some extensive internet searching, I found recipes for squash pastas, curries, chilis and all sorts of things. Is everyone else googling "what can I do with this giant squash?" I stumbled across a pie recipe that was a take on a Greek Spanakopita with squash and made a few changes of my own. I am totally alright with some buttery pastry, squash and a lot of cheese. I guess there's some spinach in there.

butternut squash and spinach pie

Butternut squash and spinach pie

1 package frozen phyllo pastry
1 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic
1 butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 box of spinach
2 eggs
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tbsp olive oil

1. Drizzle the butternut squash with 1 tbsp of olive oil and roast on a baking sheet in the oven for 20-30 minutes at 400F.
2. In a pan, add 1 tbsp olive oil and cook the onions and garlic until slightly browned.
3. Put the spinach in a colander and pour boiling water over it to soften. Make sure to squeeze as much water out as you can.
4. Combine the onions, garlic, spinach and eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. You can also add a bit of oregano, basil, parsley or thyme.

phyllo pastry

5. Lay the phyllo pastry out over a round pie dish. I like to centre it so half of the pastry hangs off so I can then fold it over the top. Brush the first layer with olive oil. 

butternut squash pie

6. Add the butternut squash after you have let it slightly cool from roasting. Then add the spinach and cheese mixture and mix well. 

butternut squash phyllo pie

7. Fold the pastry over the top of the pie filling and trim the edges. Brush the top with olive oil. 

phyllo pie

8. Bake the pie at 375F for about 40 minutes until the top is golden brown. 

butternut squash pie

Spinach and feta pie is such a classic that is hard to stray away from. I liked the addition of the squash, as it added almost a bit of sweetness to it. It didn't make the pie feel too dense like some squash or pumpkin dishes do sometimes. You could also use goat cheese with the butternut squash for an interesting pie combination. This pie would also make a great vegetarian dish for Thanksgiving or the holidays. 

butternut squash and feta spinach pie
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October 24, 2016

Chateau Laurier Ottawa

I am taking a look back to May at part of my birthday celebrations. It is bittersweet to go back about 6 months because some things have changed since then. For one, I no longer live in Ottawa. We moved from Ottawa a few weeks ago, so I am glad I can now look back on the many amazing experiences I had there, including afternoon tea at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. With having a special momentous birthday for me this year, I wanted to do something extra special to celebrate. I requested the fanciest high tea in the city at the historic Chateau Laurier

Afternoon tea at Fairmont Chateau Laurier

The hotel serves afternoon tea every day in Zoe's Lounge. The lounge was named after Sir Wilfred Laurier's wife Zoe Laurier Lafontaine who was also a piano teacher. It features elegant comfy chairs, chandeliers and an amazing atrium style view of the Parliament Hill surroundings. As soon as we walked in, I felt special and even a little bit regal to be able to sip tea and eat nibblies in the gorgeous setting. 

The first thing you need to do is pick your choice of tea. A tea sommelier comes around with a vintage tea cart of the Fairmont selection of teas that you can smell and look at to make your choice. As a tea lover, it was neat to see the cart being brought around and being able to see the tea being brewed in front of me. You need good tea to have a satisfying "afternoon tea" after all. I believe I chose a classic Earl Grey as my flavour.

Afternoon tea at Fairmont Chateau Laurier

The second part is a classic fruit salad. It is a nice start to the service as well, and I liked how not everything was brought out at once so you could take your time with everything. Then they brought out the main attraction on tiered plates. The food at the Chateau Laurier tea room is selected by Chef Darren McGrady who was a former chef to Queen Elizabeth II and Diana Princess of Wales. So you know the finger food will be of the finest and most royal quality. 

Afternoon tea at Fairmont Chateau Laurier Ottawa Ontario

Starting from the bottom of the tray were classic scones with clotted cream and jam. Then the middle of the tray included the savoury--and my personal favourite--finger food options, including an egg salad sandwich, a curry chicken salad sandwich, a smoked salmon and rye wheel and roast beef with beet and horseradish. The combination of beets, roast beef and horseradish was apparently a favourite of Princess Diana. The top tier featured gorgeous mini desserts such as a French macaron, chocolate tart and a jam and custard sweet sandwich. 

You might be thinking "what a dainty selection of finger food, but hardly a meal." Yes, it looks deceiving, but you would be wrong. Although the size of the individual pieces is small, the overall tray is actually quite a lot of food. That is why I would recommend going either right after lunch time or just before dinner time (around 4pm like we did), as you may find yourself too full for a meal afterwards. Also, you tend to also fill up on liquids, like tea (although you can opt for the "champagne" or "cocktail" service as well) so everything together is surprisingly filling. 

Living in Ottawa, I walked by the hotel many times on my way around Parliament Hill or downtown, but to sit in the lounge and see the passersby as you sip tea, as well as people watching other people having high tea, is also an experience. For children, they will also create a Little Prince or Princess tea with smaller portions and a smaller price tag so they can have the experience as well. 

When I thought I was stuffed with bite sized goodies, they surprised me with another tray for my birthday. I think someone tipped them off that is was my birthday...As much as I loved the personal touch and great service, I had to take those ones home because I couldn't eat another bite. I would recommend afternoon tea at the Chateau Laurier if you are looking for something special to do in Ottawa, however, it definitely not an everyday activity. Another more affordable option is to just take a quick detour through the lobby of the Chateau Laurier to admire the architecture on your way to the Rideau Centre for some shopping. 

We walked back along the Rideau Canal on the lovely holiday Monday day that it was. I will miss those walks along the canal now that we have moved. Because my husband's birthday is also in May, there are usually two different cakes and celebrations close to each other. I made him a chocolate orange cake and he showed off his decorating skills with an immaculate cake for me. The balloons from Urban Outfitters were my touch and stayed up on the wall for the entire month. 

Even though my big birthday didn't include a crazy big party, I was perfectly alright with how I celebrated. I don't need all of that pomp and circumstance anymore, although I definitely appreciate feeling like a princess for a day. 

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