May 17, 2015

Messob Ethopian Cuisine, Cook Street Village

Two weekends ago, the Brunette and I decided to visit some parts of the Fairfield Artist's Tour.  This was a group of artists who'd opened their homes or studios (in most cases, this is the same location) to the public, to display their work, and maybe sell some original works, or prints of the same.

Thanks to my relatives in the UK, I had some money to buy some art for my 40th birthday, so this was a good way of seeing a lot of different styles in a day.  We wandered the Cook Street Village end of the tour at first and found a wide variety of styles. Realistic, abstract, impressionistic.  Charcoal sketches, photographs of temporary ink blots, smears of oil paints on wood and rain speckled images of Vancouver.

Walking is hard work, so we then (eventually) found the Cook Street Food Court.  I say eventually, as I was convinced it was on a certain road near the Beagle.  While the Brunette was convinced I was talking rubbish.  The Brunette was right. It was a block away, right behind the car park I was convinced was a totally different food court. I suspect she'll frame this review as her own piece of valued work.

Inside the court, there's a Sushi bar, a Mexican place, and Messob.  I've had some Ethiopian food in London before and eaten here a few years ago.  I know it's a bit different, and remember it being tasty different, so this was the choice.  The Brunette went for the Vegetarian platter while I ordered the meat dish... the chicken wat special not yet being ready.

Ethiopian foods two most distinctive features are the flat, thin ferment bread called injera.  This is a sour, sponge-like bread used to pick up chunks of the stews.  The other feature, at least from what I recalled in London, was a spicy, dry heat to all the food.  I also recall almost choking of sheep bone in the stew once, but that's a different story.

The food at Messob is not as spicy as the 'style' says but has a warmth of flavour to it. The cooks may have toned it down for the west coasters, or that might just be how they like to prepare the food. The various vegetable stews weren't particularly distinguishable but were a thick, blended consistency, and there was plenty of it. There was a good tender cooked greens on the plate as well. The beef stew was tender, small chunks of meat in a savoury sauce.  I enjoyed soaking up large pools of the stew in the bread, the juices soaking into the big holes in the dough.  

The meal was served by two friendly chefs, who were prepping up for the rest of the day when we arrived.  The court itself has a large outdoor patio, but we wanted out of the sun and sat at a pair of hard plastic tables, stuck in a small alcove between Messob and the sushi bar.  For the price, this is a great meal spot.

Messob Ethiopian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

After being fuelled up, we carried on our tour, walking further down Fairfield, visiting other artists.  I eventually decided that the 'Fox and his Kettle' (by Victor Bosson) was the picture I wanted.  I returned the next day to pick up a print of this goofy looking, Japanese kitsune, carrying his kettle.  I have no idea why he is running around with a kettle and a big lantern. I could read the picture book that the image goes with, but I love not knowing something I could go and look up, and just making it up in my head each time.

The Brunette also found something she loved back at the first place we visited... so it was a success all around, and a good day out... more laid back than the Moss Street paint in, and easier to see all the art, and get some time with the artists.

May 10, 2015

The Fireside Grill, Royal Oak

There comes a time when one has to rehash old reviews. Five years ago, I visited the Fireside Grill with colleagues from my old job for a pub-style lunch. It seems I expected to be taken there for fireside chats and conversations about my career. I left that job about five months later with no more visits to the Grill. It also seems that I didn't like the fish and chips I was served but also didn't have the balls to take it up with the server. I recall a conversation with the owner of Solomon's(*) and a friend about how I dealt with it. I resolved afterwards to speak up when I didn't like a meal, so the team can fix problems.  Though some meals are beyond fixing.

Five years on, and I am back at the Fireside Grill, with work colleagues, in a job I've been at for a while. I've been there a few times since for lunch in the main dining room and had good food. For full disclosure, I play softball with one of the sous chefs and have played fantasy football with the owner.

The building was created in 1930's as a tea room and dance hall for Victoria. Opening in May 1939, it was soon sold as a home and gallery space to the Maltwoods, who used the large space for their sculpture collection in the 'Thatch'. War rationing had made it hard to run any sort of fancy place. From their, the building was gifted to the University of Victoria in the 70's.  The gallery pieces moved in with the main collection in the late 70's.  Most of the collection is now part of the McPherson Library, or the downtown Legacy Art Gallery. The building got transferred back to Saanich's hands and then sold to a private owner in 1999.  They opened the Fireside Grill in 2000.

Now, the mock Tudor 'cottage' style building has plenty of space for small and large groups. Our booking of eighteen had caused them to set up a big long table for all of us, right in the middle of the cavernous main dining room. There would have been room for six more tables that sized, with room to spare for a few families. And a few more outside on the wind shielded, heated patio. The patio has nice vista across a path of rolling fields and onto towards Victoria, backdropped with the Olympic mountains across the strait.  It would have been a great view in the 30's before the highways and Royal Oak got built up.  Here's an old time photo from the Saanich Archives from the nearby Rithet's sheep farm for a tiny idea.

The main room has high, timbered ceilings, a brick farmhouse, and a strange rustic looking interior balcony filled with wine. The balcony has a little crane on it, so but no other visible way up there. I assume the sommelier has to get a step ladder up there, then uses the crane to lift up boxes of wine. Must be kind of awkward to get down the 1974 vintage claret during a busy service.  And if you get seated up there, the service will be slow... but you can at least access the finest wines quickly.

The room is managed by a troop of smart servers. All seemed to be wearing a white shirt, black trouser/skirt combination. All seemed to know exactly where they were going, and what was happening at eash table. There was no "Who ordered the fish tacos? Fish tacos? Whose are these fish tacos?". You know the drill, someone has ordered the fish tacos. Three-quarters of the table know it's Gord, but Gord's too busy extolling the virtues of his brand new cell phone to Cindy to listen out for his order. Not a problem in this case. Gord and Cindy and the rest of us ill get the plate delivered hot from the kitchen to the right seat. Done and done.  Water is kept topped up. Bread is served fresh, wrapped up in a white napkin.  All those little details just done smoothly with no pretensions.

The Fireside does a great $13 lunch menu which, from my experience, is good value. For thirteen bucks I had the Crispy Butter Chicken, for example. This was tender chicken, served with a rich, gently spiced sauce and served with a crisp half-moon of poppadum. I'm not a butter chicken fan at all, but this combined the flavours well to make a dish that wasn't just 'light curry', but had an assertive flavour that worked with the meat, and with vegetables in the sauce. Also on the special menu is candied salmon pizza, made with creme Fraiche and sun-dried tomatoes. A thin crust based with a crunch, combined with the sweeter flavours of the fish and sauce blend well with the tomatoes to create a summery pizza that isn't a heavy cheese ball of goo. Eat it outside. With a crisp lager beer if you can.

The head chef, Morgan Milward, has won a trophy at the local 'Colour Your Palate' competition six times out of the eight runnings. This shows a consistency of making good food that works on both looks, aromas and taste. And it has shown every time I have eaten here since that first less-than-good fish and chips basket. I've not yet been tempted to go for dinner or the Sunday Buffet Brunch. Reports I've heard is the latter is a big favourite on Mother's Day.  My timing is impeccable to tell you about it afterwards. At $28, it has to be to keep going. The tip I was told was to go for the Dine Around meal next year, as it's a really good showcase of the kitchen.

So you have a place with a varied history, doing good food with imagination, and a great standard of service.  And I've not been paid to say that.

Fireside Grill on Urbanspoon

(*) Solomon's is no more and hasn't been for a long while. But like George Orwell has 'The Moon Under Water', I have Solomon's. It remains, despite its drawbacks, is the closest to my imagination of the ideal bar.

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