June 28, 2015

James Bay Tea House and Restaurant, James Bay

Afternoon Tea is apparently a big English Tradition.  Something I only ever had once in the UK before I moved here, at a small, 70's decorated tea room in Halifax.  I was there collecting money for charity as a student, and we decided to have an afternoon tea after the lunch rush and before the commuters set off home.  I don't recall much about it, except there were little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and a massive pot of strong tea.

I've had plenty of Cream Teas (which involve piling as much clotted cream and jam on to a fragile scone as possible).  I've had Scottish High Tea which involves a lot of meat before the tea and bread and is effectively a dinner-time meal.  But Afternoon tea with tea cups and petit-fours and pinky fingers crooked out is something that is a special event, not a household thing.

Now, in the space of six months, I've had two Afternoon Teas in Canada.  The expensive, but incredibly practiced one at the Empress, and the lower budget version at the James Bay Tea House.  These are two different ends of the experience.  The first is all formal, in gorgeous surroundings and everything has to be just-so.  And the price point reflects it.

The James Bay Tea House is in a wooden heritage house (or at least looks like it from the outside).  Inside, the tables have white cotton tablecloths, and a pile of condiments in the middle. The walls are adorned with a variety of china plates and pictures of the Queen, Winston Churchill, and Kate Middleton and her baby.   With a pair Union Flags to set things off to show this is meant to be BRITISH and PROUD.  If you look at older pictures of the insides, the walls used to be crammed with double the amount of Royal memorabilia, the pillars covered in horse brasses, and high shelves with commemorative tea sets.  All a bit much, and I'm glad they've toned it down.

Myself, with the lovely Brunette of my Acquaintance and a friend of ours, visited on a quieter afternoon for a natter and a catch up.  I've been told to be nice about the Tea Room.  The Brunette enjoyed herself and thought it was a very lovely place.  Our friend also enjoyed the Afternoon Tea we got served.

I'll relay what I thought as we go through.  We got two smaller afternoon teas along with a veggie burger for the Brunette.  It was served with hash browns.  They were cubed, parboiled and sauteed potatoes for those on Hash Brown Watch.  Rich, red skinned ones, perfect for that sort of treatment.

The tea room had run out of clotted cream.  So we had extra butter to go with our jam. Not quite the same thing, and a shame, as the scones and crumpet served on the lower deck of the triple layer of food were excellent.  The scones were moist and crumbly with a good helping of dried fruit inside. The crust was crunchy, but not crisp.   The second layer had some more scones, which I think were of a slightly different provenance.  They did the trick too.

On the top, we had three small petit fours: a butter tart, a square of Nanaimo bar and something lemony. The butter tart was fantastic.  Buttery, rich and sweet.  I don't like Nanaimo Bars.  The coconut base doesn't do it for me.  This didn't have much of a desiccated coconut flavour at all, so I enjoyed it.

The teapots had little-knitted cosies on them.  This didn't help me much when mine had a bad case of spout dribble.  I'm afraid the table cloth was left a lot wetter than when I sat down.  The brew was good and strong. Not Red Rose, as far as I could tell.  I'd drink it again, for sure.  We got a nice china tea cup and saucer to drink out of.  I could crook out my little finger if I wanted.  I managed to drink using the handle, rather than a paw wrapped around it.  The Brunette has been training me to be seen in polite society.

The service was okay... we had to call back for cutlery, and it was a little slower than I'd have expected for a quiet afternoon.  But there was service, and we got everything we wanted with a smile and pleasant attitude, so not really a big deal.

Overall, this is a pleasant enough spot.  It serves a decent set of food for a fair price.  You don't get the silver service of the Empress, and the view is a crossroads on Menzies Street, not the Inner Harbour.  But at 25% of the price, and a short, short work for the Empress, I'd send a visitor here if they want English style tea room without breaking the bank.


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June 21, 2015

Ground Control Cafe, Downtown Victoria

I am now a digital hobo.  I've started in business for myself, and part of that will mean working in various coffee shops and wi-fi friendly cafes, as convenient places to dock up between meetings.  Or to have meetings in.  Expect this blog to be covering convenient lunch spots for the mobile knowledge worker over the coming weeks.

The Ground Control Cafe resides on the first floor of Fort Tectoria, ViaTec's new space for IT entrepreneurs and go-getters.  ViaTec promotes Victoria as a place for technology, and use the space to incubate start-ups and early stage companies.  Their sponsorship with Shaw means they have access to some of the fastest internet in town, and they share it with anyone using the cafe space.  The space is a little dark, with the only external light coming through the front doors.  But it's comfortable, with plenty of space, multiple desks for working at, and a comfy sofa area as well for more relaxed working.

The Cafe itself is a small booth at the front entrance.  Jill, the owner and operator, runs the shop with a big smile and friendly demeanour.  She makes a good Americano, which got my gears working last Friday, while I struggled with working out how to do my books for the last couple of months.  There was a great soundtrack playing of 60's Americana, or you can easily stick in your own headphones if that's not your thing to work to.

For lunch, I ordered up a second cup of coffee, straight from the filter this time, and a large grilled chicken sandwich.  The panini was prepped earlier and taken fresh from the fridge into the press.  Once ready, it was brought out to me by Jill, two halves cut to show off the sliced chicken deli meat and the rich red peppers.  This was a good meal, with the pesto flavours working well with the chicken and the crisp, warm bun.  $6 well spent.

So, good spot to work from, good food, good service.

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June 14, 2015

Jamie's Italian, Covent Garden, London

I was in Central London on a hot day, walking around and just generally enjoying visiting the capital. I decided I needed a bite to eat, and being in Covent Garden area, there's a whole surfeit of options. I came across Jamie Oliver's Italian Kitchen and stopped by to scan the menu. Jamie's got his detractors, but I like his passion for food and his simple dishes with good ingredients. I like how he gets getting stuck in with both hands when cooking, with no messing around wit odd gadgets. His faux Cockney matiness along with his explanations to an unseen and unheard interviewer just off to the side of the camera were artifice. But they at least made him stand out from some of the more boring TV chefs in the 90's.

The menu reflected this attempt to be the every man. Words like 'great', 'tenner' and, I'm sure 'nosh' abounded in the columns of options. Simple line drawings broke up the text listing fresh ingredients and easy, breezy preparations. I went in. It seemed like a good idea. A bowl of pasta and a salad would give me some nutrients before I went to the pub for the third day straight.

Before I walked in, I had no idea this was a large chain that had taken off Britain. I assumed it was a lower budget version of his other offerings, with maybe one or two branches. I didn't know otherwise until I left and mentioned it to friends. But this is a big chain restaurant. There's a small patio area accessible via a set of sliding doors. Though in use, but not full, I wasn't offered a seat outside, and instead sent to sit against the wall of Jamie's books. Hundreds of copies of his recipe books adorned the shelves. I thought about taking one down to read but was worried I might splatter the pages with sauce, and have to buy a copy to lug back to Canada. My bag was heavy enough already.

There were a lot of white tiles on the rest of the walls, the parts visible behind the chalkboards advertising different specials - fish special, cocktail special and bruschetta special. One waiter served me tap water ('still or sparkling, sir?', 'Thames, please'), then disappeared for the rest of the service after taking my order. A different waiter brought the pasta, and a third brought the bruschetta. A fourth brought the bill and a fifth took my money. A sixth and seventh were hanging at the front desk. No-one came by to check if the food was okay. All the guys had groomed beards and tired back ponytails. They had posh accents and pressed trousers and shiny shoes. Like there was a special clone factory for them somewhere in Leicester Square.

The pasta I ordered was the Rigatoni Pomodoro. It promised a sweet tomato sauce with garlic, basil, hard cheese, mascarpone and herby breadcrumbs. I think Jamie must have run out of breadcrumbs. There was none in the sauce. The pasta was mostly a solid al dente... the first bite was underdone, but the rest just fine. The sauce was disappointing. I've done better with a can of tomatoes, an onion and a lump of butter. The basil was scattered on top, not flavouring the food. The creaminess of the cheese lost in the sauce. The sauce that hinted of rich ripe tomatoes, the way a casino hints of winning millions. You hope for it. You see how it might happen. But you don't get it. It just was not worth it the price (6.25 Pounds or $12 Canadian for a small portion), rather than being an abject failure. I expected more from Jamie.

The bruschetta was a different story. A spring vegetable creation, it piled curls of courgette (zucchini in Canada, but I'm in London, so it's courgette) on a minty, bashed pea and creamy cheese base. The idea of freshness and growing vitality came through in the dish, and met the promise of the chalkboard special description. There was a zest and a bite to the flavours. The texture of the peas offset the cloyingness of the cheese. The courgettes added some heft to the dish and gave up their flavours to a bright olive oil dressing. The bread base was a little thin, and a little small, but that's a quibble. If the pasta had been as good as this, I'd have no complaints.

But as it is, Jamie's Italian Kitchen is just another eatery. It's farming out a brand of food that's priced over its value, playing off on the celebrity name. Plus, I am not sure I can forgive being forced to listen to terrible 80's music while I dined.


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June 08, 2015

Saffron, Innerleithen, Scotland

Innerleithen is a quiet town, about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, in Scotland.  It is in the Tweed Valley, and the centre of a downhill bikers paradise.  It is also home to my Mum.  So I'm here on vacation, and recently met up with a few friends from Canada as well.  Every time I've been over in the last few years, we've had take out (take away in British parlance) curry from Saffron. But I've never eaten inside the restaurant. Until this trip.

Saffron is a very small restaurant, with maybe sixteen covers, lodged in the middle of Innerleithen High Street.  It does a brisk trade in food going out for delivery or pick up. On this Friday night, every table was full, and there were people due in straight after our seating as well.  It's busy.  It should be as it has a good reputation in the area.  The space itself is not your traditional British curry house. No red flock wall paper, no ornate backed, ruby-red cushioned seats. No Indian music played loudly in the back ground.  It's modern feel, with grey stone bricks along one wall, pine seats and broad wooden tables.  Those are covered with paper table cloths, as curry stains like hell.

We sat down to examine the options, deciding to get dishes to share around and try a little of everything. The menus are on waxed cloth scrolls, rolled up into napkin holders.  It's a comprehensive menu, but not excessive.  There's a dozen or so standard curry styles available with a variety of meats or vegetarian style. There is another dozen house specials, split between Chef's specials, Tandoori specials and the Chef's Mojadar.  I don't know what Mojadar means, and the internet is failing to tell me.  But this is where that most ubiquitous of curry resides, Butter Chicken.  Listed here as Murgh Makani, the 'butter chicken' is just a subtitle.

I don't like butter chicken. I like chicken, I like butter and I like curry.  Butter Chicken seems to take all three elements and combine them into a soul-less, bland mash of vaguely spicy lumps of soft, mushy protein lumps in a unctuous, bland sauce.  It is Indian food made for foreigners to be safer and creamier.  And often cooked in mass produced vats at places doing it for the 'Indian special'.   For me, it's to Indian food what Salisbury Steak is to prime rib.  However, I know many people love it, and rate places solely on their ability to make a tasty Butter Chicken dish. Like my love of Biryani, it's their go to dish.

And we had a dish of it served here, and my opinion has changed.  This was still butter chicken... creamy and with a very mild heat. But there was a tasty spiciness to it, that was interesting and complex.  The chicken was tender, not soft. It soaked up the sauce onto its surface, but left the insides white and tasting of poultry.  They say they can make it extra spicy here too, and if it weren't for the fact almost every other dish I have had here was as good, I'd be tempted to order hot on my next visit to Mum.

Instead, I'd probably go for a lamb dish on my next vacation in Scotland.  My sharing choice was the Lamb Karahi.  I like lamb, but it's very expensive in Canada, and not always cooked to well.  Here the chunks of meats had a savoury taste, with just enough fat to give that butter like mouth feel. It tasted like lamb.   In the Karahi it embezzled the fenugreek and ginger flavours, with a pleasant medium heat.  The sort that makes my mouth tingle, but not my forehead sweat. There was plenty of vegetables in the sauce too, to give variety and other flavours and textures.

Mum ordered the Lamb Dupazia for us all, and again the meat was cooked to perfection, a feature of all the curries here.  The onions added a little sweet-sour taste to the dish, balanced with a mild, warming heat from the spice.  There was also a portion of the Saag Chicken, a dish cooked with plenty of greens.  This was excellent, with the spinach adding interest into the curry sauce.

The Tandoori chicken was a large portion, which came out sizzling on a iron platter, crispy and an intense ruby red from the rub applied to it. The leg part was tender and juicy, and well received by the person who ordered it.  My sampling of the breast was not as good.  Great flavour, but the meat was dry on this section, and a needed a little lubrication from a sauce. Or the pint of Cobra Lager I was drinking.

On the sides, we had a citrus-y and sharp lemon rice, beloved of my mother, and voted up by the rest of the table.  The flavour cut through any grease left over from the curry.  Not there was much at all. Often meat curry comes swimming in ghee.  Not a sign of the orangey-red oil slick from some places.  The pilau rice was also excellent, subtly flavouring the delicate basmati grain. We also shared garlic and plain naans.  These were big, pillowy and fluffy flat breads.  Perfect for mopping up all the left over gravy from the dishes.  The boiled rice was boiled rice.  I can't wax on about it really very well. It was white?

One of our group isn't a spiced food fan, so ordered the chips and chicken omelette.  He liked it well enough, but did mention there was a slight spiced flavour to it, which he expected as it's made in the same kitchen as all this wonderfully flavourful food.  No complaints there.

We left with full bellies and warm hearts. One miss step on our part... we didn't get out in time to get ice cream dessert from Caldwell's.  It's a newsagents that makes it's own ice cream in about twenty different flavours.  It closes at 7.30, so my tip is to finish your meal in time to get your sweet tooth fed before then, and amble happily home.  We did pick up ice creams on the way out of the town the next morning.  A gingerbread ice cream cone is the road fuel of champions.

So long, Innerleithen!

May 31, 2015

Part and Parcel, Quadra Street Village, Victoria

A good week.  I am off on vacation right now (so you can expect reviews of places outside Victoria), and when I comeback, I'll be in full swing on my own start up, Enigmatic Events.  This may mean less dining out, or at possibly more taking advantage of early bird, happy hour deals.  But before all that, I promised the lovely Brunette of my Acquaintance a meal out before she drove me to catch a flight to Scotland.  Asking for recommendations, Rayna@QuenchWines mentioned both Hanks BBQ and Part and Parcel.

I love Hanks.  But I love new as well.

So we trooped off to get their at opening time. We were fourth in line, just behind local radio celebrity Pol Plastino.  At 11.30am, and there's a line up, sounds good.  Inside, it's a very simple layout, with a couple of booths, some high tables and bench seating along one wall.  You can see into the kitchen beyond the wooden serving counter, above which are listed the dozen or so options.  They'll hand you list with more details on, but they basically had me at 'fried chicken sandwich'.  

We took our menus back to a booth, slid in and read the details.  The fried Kamut Chicken came with bread and butter, bacon and pickles.  There was a raw albacore tuna sandwich.  Two great looking salads, one boasting rhubarb and chamomile.  The 'etc' section led off with falafel and hummus, but the beef tongue tartine with a cabbage and peanut slaw almost defeated my lust for chicken.  There's a lot of North African influences across the menu.  Whether that was the mood of the kitchen on the day, or a more general twist on the food, I don't know.  

We did quiz the lady taking orders on the providence of the meat, as the Brunette will only eat chicken raised carefully and not fed with hormones and pieces of gruel. No hens that have been sent to work for fifteen hours down the nearest coal mine.  Her poultry must have rested on silk lined cages, been cosseted and told what clever chooks they are.  The report from the kitchen was all clear, with a couple of central BC farms named as the source of both pig and poultry. So we both got the chicken sandwich with a side of 'ras el hanout' french fries to share.

We got a large rectangular bun stuffed with a crisp fillet, with a slice of bacon on top and a big pile of pickled cabbage.  The bun is sliced in two, just the right size to pick up and take a big fat bite.  I asked the Brunette to take a moment for the reverence this first taste deserved.  The chicken was juicy, full of flavour and with a firm crunch  on the outside.  The bun was soft yet firm, and the pickles crispy, tangy and offset the oiliness of the meat.  Kamut is a type of grain, a fact I just looked up.  This must have been used in the crispy breading on the chicken.  I asked for a second moment of reverence.  We ate for a while in silence.

The fries were well cooked, crispy enough on outsides, with the soft, fluffy potato pile inside you want. The spices on them were fine, but not to my taste. Too much cumin and cardamom. Flavours I like in general, but not on my fries, it seems. The 'ras el hanout' is a mix of spices used in Moroccan cooking (also looked that up just now), as a general flavour-all for the meat.  Don't get me wrong, I like how it was cooked, the mixing up of flavours and traditions.  It just wasn't for my taste buds. Because not every thing can be.

So, a very pleasant meal, in the corner of a very busy spot.  The cafe-style ordering at counter, and also setting up your own placements works well here.  It is fast-ish food, not long dining.  Get in, eat, enjoy and then leave.  The toilets were impeccably clean.  A sign that the kitchen will be too. They were also kitted out with some art and crafts, and I think I recall some fresh flowers.  I can also report, in the four days since I left Canada, the Brunette has been back once already, and plans another trip before eight days of my absence.  This is high praise.

So, thanks for the recommendation Rayna, I suspect I'll be back again... and again... and again.

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