May 03, 2015

Shizen Sushi, Downtown Victoria

Shizen Sushi has a good reputation for Japanese in Victoria. Myself and my friend spoke to the owner of the local newsagents on Government after our meal and told us if Jo is cooking, it's always great.

I'm guessing Jo has been in session the last two Wednesdays I've been in. The first time I had the BC rolls and a couple of Tuna Nigiri. The BC rolls are a mix of smoked salmon skins, real Dungeness crab and avocado. They have this delightfully sweet yet savoury taste, with a little texture mash up of crunchy from the skins and smooth from the avocado. The Nigiri was a plump cut of fish, with lots of texture in the mouth and a burst of flavour. The meat is cold but not chilled so that you can't taste it.

So, I wanted to go again and headed in there with my good friend. I ordered the BC rolls again, along with a Katsu Don. This pairing is pretty much my go to Sushi combo. The rolls didn't disappoint. Again artfully made and balanced in the flavours. The Katsu Don was a big bowl of rice, topped with breaded pork cutlet, pre-sliced and smothered in a fried egg. This didn't amaze me as much as the sushi. The egg was just too much, and the breading was a little soggy from it. The meat tasted good, and the rice cooked just right. It filled me up, but was not as good as other places in town.

My friend raved about the fried yam rolls she had, saying they were pretty much the best ever. She also had the spicy tuna rolls, which were also declared a massive hit.

One oddity on the menu is they advertise Shark Fin nigiri. This is, I was told, the imitation shark fin, made from the shark fin melon. Which is good, as I was a bit uncomfortable eating in a place that has the real thing... a wasteful harvesting of the shark, for a meat that I'm told only tastes of what it is cooked in. The shark fin melon has much the same stringy consistency and also soaks up the flavour. So you can happily eat shark fin salad and sushi without maiming a shark and letting it die on the bottom of the ocean, the rest of the carcass unused, the animal in excessive pain. Of course, hooking fish up from the sea suffocating them and then slicing them up for food could be argued to be morally wrong as well, but at least the whole animal is used, and a more of the fishing is sustainable.

The restaurant itself is a good size, with a higher level with individual two person tables and 3 or four large booths. The lower level features the sushi bar and a few more four person seating tables. There's little fuss or decoration inside, and two large windows provide the necessary lighting. Simple and effective. Our server was great, keeping us topped up in green tea and water, and otherwise getting the job down with no issues.

I'd definitely go back again for the rolls. Next time, if Jo is on, I may try some more nigiri cuts and see if they can beat out Ebizo for the best in town.

Shizen Sushi on Urbanspoon

April 26, 2015

Vista 18, Downtown Victoria

It's the Time Colonist 10km race weekend, and I've just worked out this is my fifth year of taking part.  Unlike last year,  was gunning for a time, just running for the joy of it.  If I go back five years, "running for the joy" of it was not a phrase I ever used. More like 'run or die', if we paraphrase the words of Dr Duvenage at Harris Green. He had a much nicer manner than that, but it was a wake up a call, and I put myself down to walk around the course as a goal.  I ended up running parts of it, amazed that I could actually run for 1000m, all at once.

Now I run because it means I can get the endorphins to flow. And keep eating out with good food.  My reward after a race is breakfast, and my favoured meal at these times is steak and eggs.  I believe this would be more suited for someone who'd just done an intense weights session, to restock on protein.  But whatever. I run. I eat.

The race was very enjoyable. I enjoyed the view over the Juan De Fuca on Dallas Road. I loved the cheering crowds and the percussive groups playing along the streets. I got a buzz from the smiling faces around me.  I also apologise to the lady who tried to engage in conversation around the nine-kilometre mark.  I was a zone, but my grunt was hardly the proper reply to your encouragement.  I ran in the sort of time I expected, with no tweaks or aches.  I got my photo taken by the talented Kirsten James. Talented, as she made me look good.

In short, I had a good time, and the run really does show off Victoria's good points, in the people and in the course.

I had booked up a sixteen seater table at Vista 18 in Chateau Victoria. I have to give them respect for accommodating not only a last minute change to get that big a group, but also the way we kind of filtered in over time. I was hanging with friends, some of who had run the race, and some of whom are part of my breakfast crew. A bunch of people I hang out with on a basis that sometimes never quite often enough.

Vista 18 is on the 18th floor and has great views across the city, overlooking the harbour, the Empress, along Dallas Road and then back out towards Mount Tolmie.  I feel like I must have written about the location before, but I haven't.  It's probably the best view in Victoria, both during the day, and at night.  I've had good drinks up there before on more than one birthday.  The dinner menu isn't the greatest, for value or portion sizes, but as a lounge venue it works well.

The breakfast is solid.  The steak was cooked medium-rare to perfection.  That browned savoury flavour on the outside from the Maillard reactions. And the pinkish, rare flesh in the centre.  I love it when I can see the different stages in how meat cooks through... the graduations of protein denaturing, the reaction of the myosin breaking down on the outside, but keeping it firm in the middle. The strands of the muscle fibres being clearly seen on the surface, but turning into a purplish, slightly shiny mass in the middle.  The science of cooking can make food even tastier.

I got my eggs soft-poached, so the yolks could break and I had a rich, yellow sauce on my steak.  It mingled into the thin sliced sauteed potatoes too. The eggs, I think, are cooked in cellophane, as they had an odd folded shape in the whites, which I am told is a sign that they've been done this way, rather than individually cracked into a bubbling pan.  I am pretty sure I couldn't tell the difference in the flavour between the two methods though.

The meal was completed with two thick slices of crusty sourdough and a puck-sized mushroom cap.  This had been grilled to the point it was weeping its juice, making it an excellent counter-point to the eggs.  There was as much coffee as I could drink (four cups, before I cried uncle), poured generously by Sherry, our busy server.  The only misstep in the meal, for me at least, was getting our bills and getting out of there. This took a bit longer than I expected, but they were doing a fine trade, and it's not like the surroundings were a hardship to stare at.

I heard good reports on the pancakes too, and the Mount Baker breakfast got served with a slice of ham so thick, it that must have been one fat porker it came from.  The breakfast crosswich featured a half case of eggs barely contained in a super-sized croissant.  No human could possibly get their mouth around the two sides, or keep all the contents lodged inside.

I would go back again for breakfast, or for evening drinks.

Vista 18 on Urbanspoon

April 19, 2015

The Village, Royal Oak

The Village has two locations, one in Estevan Village, the other up near Royal Oak.  I've eaten breakfast at both.  But this about going for a lunch with work colleagues in Royal Oak trying the lunch menu.

One of our out of town colleagues was in town, so we trooped off to our reserved table in the corner of the restaurant.  The place was doing a decent trade, but not so busy that we had to wait at all.  Some folks had hit the patio, as even early April in Victoria can be outdoor eating weather.
There's a whole lot of space in there, and the big round table we sat is is a perfect corner for a business lunch.  It's slightly out of the main bustle, so we could talk easily, and little bit private as well.  It also has this awesome dodecahedron lamp shade hanging above it.  If your a nerd like me, you'll think of a twenty-sided dice.

We got served water and drinks quickly and set about the menu.  There's an all-day breakfast side, couple with lunch options that are fancy sandwiches and salads.  Half of the group went for the benny's, choosing to mix and match between the classic Canadian and the West Coast (with salmon). They said most of the time, they couldn't do this at the breakfast rush.  The Benedict eaters reported a high level of satisfaction.

I went for the hot chicken sandwich special.  This was a slice of chicken fillet, with a spicy hot sauce, folded into a soft white bun.  There was cheese involved too, and some salad prepped on the side.  This combined very well, the soft white bread soaking up the hot sauce, with the cheese ameliorating the heat.  I'm drooling a little, and slightly disappointed to know it was a one off.

On the plus side, knowing the sandwiches are this good in general, I'd happily go back again for a small team lunch, and hit up the Red Barn Special.  This the Village's souped-up take on the BLT, adding in avocado. Or there is the meal share Royal Oak, combining Cowichan chicken, chutney and cheese.  Mealshare means that The Village then provides another meal to a person in need of good food.

The Village - Royal Oak on Urbanspoon

April 12, 2015

James Bay Inn, James Bay

Back during Tourist in your Hometown, I spent the night at the James Bay Inn.  I had an enjoyable enough evening with good friends in the JBI Pub, located underneath the hotel, drinking many fine beers.  It's always nice to take the stairs home.

The pub itself is a maze of tables and booths and spaces, with a dart board perilously close to the two main entrances. There is a big round bar stuck in the middle, that makes it not quite fit in with the seating around it.  This is the replacement for any charm in the surroundings.  There is no massive chalkboard of  rare Oregon beers, or the pinewood polished fixings, or deep plush couches, or 10 mile organic grass fed menus.  The JBI has none of these things.

It doesn't need them.

The point of the JBI is drinking a decent beer with folks you enjoy the company with.  There was music, I couldn't tell you what it was, but probably wasn't country music, as no-one in our group walked out screaming.  The beer menu had a good selection of local brews.  Or you can get a pale American lager in one of the mainstream flavours.

The menu is bar food.  There are burgers, wraps and sandwiches.  I got an open faced new york steak sandwich.  It was cooked nice and rare, just like I wanted it.  Piled up on a wedge of french bread, the juices flowed into the dough.  It was good.   One of my friends had the liver and onions.  The liver was a big, thin slab of protein, cooked, he said, just right, possibly the best he had in town for a while.

We sat a while and had a good time catching up, talking about all the things good friends do that are of little interest to anyone outside.  I believe we plotted about three major crimes, two spirited high jinks, and the eulogy at my funeral. I think. I remember laughing and smiling, so maybe the eulogy is a faulty memory after the second pint of Phillips Kaleidoscope IPA.

That's a good night out if it's very slightly hazy and my jaw muscles hurt from smiling.

JBI Pub on Urbanspoon

The hotel room I got was a comfortable, clean and well appointed.  Except finding a makeshift desk space to type a journal entry was not easy. A chair couldn't fit between the bed and the chest of drawers. The bathroom was as big as the room itself.  I moved the bed into the bathroom to check my measurements, and it fitted between the sink, bath and toilet.  So I slept there.  I figured it would be an interesting change to sleep in a bathroom, but actually on a real mattress. Instead of using the bath mat as a cover (Mum, this only happened once, at University).

I woke up refreshed, reassembled the bedroom, and headed down to the breakfast room.

I went for the big fat breakfast, which had two of everything.  If you have the chance to stay at the James Bay Inn, and get a $10 voucher for breakfast, I recommend passing on this part of the stay. Over-cooked eggs, charred toast and coffee that was partly ground.  Good, old fashioned Vancouver Island dirt. Bleh.

The dinner was great, breakfast was not.  The room was fine. For the rate I paid, I'll not find a better deal within a walk of downtown in Victoria.

April 05, 2015

Improv and Room Escapes

No food this week, no drink, just a couple of things I've done in town recently that I've enjoyed, and figure other people might too.

Improv Classes

Hosted at Paper Street Theatre's studios on Fort Street, here you can learn how to improvise.  Dave Morris runs classes for beginners upwards, giving basic skills in the art of improv acting.  I went on the level one course for four weeks and had a great time.  I'm not an actor and do not play one of TV. I went just to see what it was like and with the offer of it being 'like Yoga, but funnier', I just said 'yes, and....'.

The class reminded me of Theatre Studies I did when I was thirteen. You go into a big open space and leave behind the days work.  You do some stuff that uses you imagination and your body and sense of let's pretend.  Then you walk out back to the real world, a little refreshed.

There are aspects of play, such as passing around an imaginary ball while chanting an inane rhythm.  There are aspects of learning, where you try to build on the simple ideas Dave has taught to get better at removing your natural reaction to say 'no'.  And there are aspects of acting and using your body to portray a character.

It's a lot of fun, and a lot of mental work.  Learning to listen, react and do -all at the same time- is hard.  But somehow rewarding when you and your partners form something that's bigger than the small parts each of you added.  I got some confidence out of it, and also a lesson in learning that maybe I am not as good at listening as I thought. I really enjoyed being aware of the now.  Not in a passive way of meditation. But an active way, of hearing and doing, and trying not to over think, and learning the art of saying 'Yes, and....'.

Epic Escape

Escape rooms started from a computer game trope.  A text adventure where there was just one room, and you had to collect and find items in order to get out.  So in a reversal virtual reality mirroring the real world, someone came up with the idea of locking people in a real room and challenging them to escape. In under sixty minutes.

I've been fascinated by this idea since I read about ones in London, going as far as planning a trip to Vancouver this year to try one out.  So when I heard about an escape room opening in Victoria, I booked my session for 48 hours later, and then convinced people to come and join me.

Five of us got together to the venue on the top floor of an old brick building in Bastion Square and were welcomed by the owners and inventors.  They briefed us on our task (get out of the room, the key is in that electronic safe, and no... you can't just punch in numbers and hope), told us not to rip up the sofa cushions or stick our fingers in the plug sockets, locked the door and let us get on with it.

I can't really say what we had to do, to avoid spoiling it for other people. But the room was smaller and emptier than I expected, but there was a lot of things to solve in there.  Some were obvious what the puzzle was, even if the solution was not. Others it was not clear what the puzzle was at all or at least not yet.

Everything made logical sense when we did solve it. There was much frowning when we got stuck and when progress was slow. But this had the flip side of the elation and cheers when we did find the next step, solve a puzzle and get rewarded with new parts to play with.  You can get a clue from the people running the game, who keep watch on you via a camera.  We needed it after being stumped for several minutes.

The five of us were kept entertained throughout, and we got close to getting out in the last seconds, but the pressure of time made us hurry too much to really step back for a second and think about it.  The puzzles ranged all over the map and were not of any one type, so don't expect to have to know a lot about everything.  The room was small so for five of us we did trip over each other a little bit, and it did get hot in there.  But otherwise, everyone had a great time.

My only disappointment is that they only have one scenario set up right now, as I really would like to go again sooner rather than later.