March 22, 2015

The Blue Fox, Downtown Victoria

Spoiler alert:  The Blue Fox does the best traditional breakfast in town.

A few weeks back, I became a Canadian, and to celebrate my first meal as a citizen, I went to the Blue Fox.  Because it's a city favourite, and because there'd be no lineup.  The line ups at the Fox are legendary in Victoria.  So any chance to eat there with little or no wait should be taken.

The Brunette and I headed over after the citizenship ceremony.  The ceremony was the end of a nine-year long process.  I got to shake hands with a Mountie and a Judge and sing the anthem NOT at a hockey game, I think that made it official.

Right at the end of the ceremony, the usher announces that we were all going to get a special gift to commemorate the day.  I half-expected the long arm of advertising to have reached this formal ceremony and end up with a $25 Timmies Card, or a fistful of Canadian Tire money. It wasn't.  A cultural access pass, which gets me free entry to a bunch of places across Canada... a half-priced rail ticket.  If anyone wants to sponsor a book....

So breaking fast at the Blue Fox I ordered up the HUGE 'Fox's Grill' and a mug of steaming hot coffee.  The Brunette went for the less huge Huevos Rancheros.  We chatted while we waited, sipping coffee that was as fresh as the water reserves in Canada... which holds one-fifth of the world's non-salinated H2O.

My plate arrived, piled as high as Mount William Logan.  We had bacon, as crisp as a plastic twenty dollar bill.  It was smoked with the scent of maple wood, reminiscent of a warm summers day in the New Brunswick forests.  The eggs were fresh with yolks that bring back memories of ten gold medals won by Team Canada at the Sochi Winter Olympics.  The toast was fresh and crisp, with oats and wheat that a Saskatchewan farmer would be proud of growing. The butter sat in its pores, melted and slightly salty.  Salty like the sea breeze on a fresh day on the tip of Vancouver Island.  The bread came with a homemade jam, tart but fruity.  Not too sweet, which Sir Frederick Banting would approve of, I am sure.

The potatoes were pan-fried, but still retained the hale earthiness that Matthew Cuthbert would have been proud to grow. The sausage links had porky goodness throughout.  Two links, reminding me of the two links across Canada forged by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways. To round things out, there was some hot, sauteed mushrooms.  Brown and black, like the thick tar sands of Northern Alberta.

Okay, that's one metaphor too far.

I also tried parts of the Huevos.  The salsa was one of the best tasting ones I have ever tried.

It's a great meal. Fresh local produce, cooked well with the minimum of messing around with it, the minimum of ceremony.  There's a reason the lines for this place at the weekend stretch longer than Wayne Gretzky's point scoring streak.

Blue Fox on Urbanspoon

March 15, 2015

Olo, Downtown Victoria

Once there was Ulla which served me the single best meal I had ever eaten in Victoria.  Then it shuttered for a period, to be reborn in a new format.  Dine Around was on, and Olo was on the list.  Perfect timing to find out what they had done to place.  I had heard Victoria's favourite cocktail master, Shawn Soole was running the bar, but apart from that, I had no real idea what to expect apart from the menu.

The Brunette and I had a table for two booked. We arrived at the place, and it was looking pretty full.  I suspect many people were trying to find out whether it was going to the same high standards as its predecessor. My first question to the server was to find out if the kitchen was still the same.  No doubt this had been asked several times before, and the answer was yes.  Same chef, same owner, much the same team.  The rebrand was to highlight more local food, going for a farm-to-table approach where possible.  And also to have a more casual, late-night menu, which could pair with the cocktails and drinks.

Knowing that, we pressed ahead with the $40 set menu, and drinks.  I went for the 'Understudy', a non-alcoholic blend of tea, syrup and super sharp lemon soda. Revved the palate up nicely.  The Brunette went for a glass of wine.  It was red. She will shortly read this and tell me that I really have to remember the wines better as it's a key part of a good meal.  I know it smelt quite nice.

The drinks menu comes on five long narrow pages, clipped to a small board.  It's extensive, mixing cocktails, high-proof alcohols, wines and beers.  The beer menu, I can comment on.  It uses Driftwood for the taps which covers most bases for food. In bottle format there's a great range from lighter Pilsner from Four Winds to monster big beers like a Quadruple Trappist Ale. My top pick would be Tripel Karmeliet, a really good, long drinking beer.  I like this beer list far more than Little Jumbo's, and most of the other top end eateries in town.

For food, as I knew the meat would be fresh and local, I went for the beef tartar. Something I never had before, but was always curious to try.  A small cracked quails egg with a tablespoon of fresh ground beef.  I mixed the yolk in and tried it. There was a meadow-like sweetness, along with the odd texture of the meat. I was expecting a bigger savoury flavour from the raw protein, but instead it was a lot more subtle.  The sweetness was from the wheat grass, not the meat.  I didn't know what to expect, I enjoyed it, but wasn't quite sure if it was a combination I'd try again. The raw bread and pickled mushrooms did work well with the more subtle meat.

The Brunette chose the lentil salad.  This was deep in earthy, rich flavours.  I avoided eating the sunchokes, as they taste to me like a tulip bulb would.  I have never eaten a tulip bulb.  I just imagine it tastes like a sunchoke.  The warm salad was big on flavour and texture, and well executed.
Main course.  There was fried Cornish Game Hen on the menu, with greens and potato salad.  I had to try that.  The Brunette got immediate order envy when it arrived.   A big slab of wood had four bowls arranged on it.  One big one of filleted and breaded meat.  One medium sized one with creamed greens. One deep one filled with potatoes, topped with radishes. And one small ramekin with a splash of mustard.

Fried chicken should always taste this good.  The meat was cooked so it still retained all the juiciness, but kept its crunch with the breading.  The quality of the meat came through, with the poultry front and centre.  The potato salad was creamy, but firm.  The radishes added a little bite.  The creamed, braised greens contained lots of kale.  I like kale.  But not too much of the woody bitterness came through that can happen with kale.  The mustard worked well (made with seabuckthorn), sharpening the flavours up.

The lovely brunette had the steak, cooked medium rare. It was presented pre-sliced, surrounded by scoops of mashed potatoes and artfully arrange vegetables.  The meat had a crisp outer, purple-raw in the middle.  The eyes enjoyed what they were seeing, as well as what the taste buds were getting. The accompanying golden beets and carrots were sweet, but not cloying.  She finished her plate, and said it was almost as good as the piece of chicken she had tried.

I was full but managed to come around to eat the apple tart.  This was an open concept dish.  A crumble in the middle was surrounded by oaty, wafer-thin biscuits, and topped with a croquette shaped tube of hay ice cream.  The ice cream had been coated in little strands and had the sweetness of a summer meadow.

The Brunette went for the Cheese as a finale, with a good wedge of a waxy, rich hard cheese.  My notes don't have written down exactly what it was.  Failure on my part.

The food was fantastic and the service much relaxed but efficient. The space has lightened up, and really gone with the warm, yellow wood tones to echo a farmhouse or country kitchen.  The walls have abstract art, to give a modern note to the more rustic feel.  The experience here was every bit as good as Ulla. Less high-concept food, but plenty of good things on a plate.

OLO Restaurant on Urbanspoon

March 08, 2015

Tourist in your Hometown, Day 2, Part 3

After a day of visiting Victoria, and a night sleeping at the James Bay Inn, I got up in time to grab breakfast and head out on my way up island. I had one person to pick up on the way. I was being accompanied by the eleven-year-old spawn of The Brunette of my Acquaintance. She likes to be referred to as Mavymag when going incognito. So, I picked her up and headed up island to The Butchart Gardens. Voucher Fourteen was free entry to probably Victoria's most famous attraction. The Gardens remediated lands that were once a quarry and gravel pit for a concrete works at the end of the Saanich Inlet. Mrs. Butchart spent years turning the area into a series of planned gardens, showcasing all different styles.

We started our walk through in the Japanese Gardens, which is complete with a maze of streams and paths, bamboo bridges and arches, raked zen gardens and quiet little corners for contemplation. If you're not disturbed by a horde of other visitors coming through to share the peace with you. We walked back through the English Rose Gardens which were lacking in Roses (it being February, not July). We then scuttled through a maze of twisting little paths, all the same, and into the Sunken Garden. Here there's a mix of alpine rockeries and formal lawns, leading down to the Ross Fountain. These are Victoria's answer to the Fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas. Mavymag was fascinated by the patterns the water was making, with the jets changing in power and direction. It's very restful to look down into the pool at the base of the quarry and just watch the water spraying up and around.

We didn't have time to visit every corner on this trip, and headed out against the incoming crowds, and over to the Butterfly Gardens. I had hoped for a coffee shop there, but instead we walked across the road to Sassy's. Coffee for me, a portion of Poutine and a glass of milk for the eleven-year-old. It got us fuelled and ready to face the butterflies. Voucher fifteen was a free entry to the Gardens, and we headed into the big greenhouse. It's warm and humid inside, and was another popular destination. We didn't do the location justice in the 45 minutes we were in there. We got landed on my large iridescent blue butterflies, saw giant moths who can't eat, watched a blue macaw who was gobbling down seeds and nuts with aplomb and searched out the flamingoes. Mavymag made friends with a green parakeet, and I think she wanted to spend the rest of the day chatting to the bird. It certainly seemed to be happy with all the attention, walking around the stone walls, and all over the visitors. I enjoyed looking at the huge pitcher plants and the insects emerging from the racks chrysalises. There was a lot of staff on hand to tell the children fun facts about animals too. Worth a longer trip if you have children who like wildlife up close.

Into Sidney, was got rockstar parking outside the Sidney Archives. Voucher sixteen was another free entrance. This basement museum wends and winds all around underneath shops on Main Street. It's a mix of items, some local history and a lot of Lego. There are lego kits and models from the eighties and nineties to more modern stuff. Shelves and shelves of models made and on display. Not to be played with. There are several dioramas, mixed in with mannikins modeling old-time clothing or old farm equipment for separating out the cream from milk. It's an odd mix, but I supposed the kids love the Lego, and the scavenger hunt to find certain models. While the adults can learn about the local history. This adult learned Sir Arthur Currie used to teach in Sidney before he made a name for himself during the first world war, especially the storming of Vimy Ridge.

We then went down to the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, for Voucher seventeen, and half priced entry to this watery world. I like aquariums and animals under the sea, watching them just hang out and float around. The Centre specializes in only animals from the local waters of the Salish Sea. Somehow, while I found it very restful and interesting, it seemed over too quickly, even wandering through slowly. There's an amazing mix of colours and types of stuff around here, not least the kittens of the sea, the giant octopi. The one here was sitting around having a rest during our visit though. But while giant octopi aren't man-sized, dangerous predators, they are smart and curious. And being able to flow into the smallest cracks has got to be a useful talent. For a cat burglar, especially. Maybe they should be called Octopus Burglars?

On that, we headed off south towards SeaCider, to see what they had to offer. But the time was conspiring against us, plus I couldn't drink samples as I was driving. Mavymag only drinks champagne. So we took and executive decision to head straight down to the Ashton Armories on Vanalman Road.

Using Voucher eighteen, I wasn't sure what to expect here, which was the main reason for trying to get there before it closed. Inside a gym hall, there was parked up several light vehicles, wrapped in the smell of oil, diesel and various lubricants. One old soldier gave us a personal tour of the museum collection. This was a whole heap of decommissioned guns and rifles, swords and clubs. I enjoyed being able to pick up a Lee-Enfield, the standard issue rifle during World War Two. It's heavy, and I can't imagine having to carry it with a full pack up through the surf and onto the Normandy beaches.

There're all sorts of curios in the collection, that required a little historical background to understand. The labels are purely informational rather than contextual, so you had to know why a Zulu shield was there and what it meant, for example. Still, I got to show off my knowledge of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. We then toured around the vehicles. The Armory keeps up newer, logistical vehicles while preserving old trucks used by the Canadian forces. There was a stripped down Ferret (a reconnaissance vehicle) which an enthusiast was taking about the transmission on. A UN jeep. A 3 tonne truck built for use in the UK during the war. And outside a HUGE hulking beast of a tank recovering truck. Designed to pull massive lumps of wreckage around, it was impressive in its size.

We had to leave as they were shutting up shop for the end of the open day, but there was a fair amount to see, and talk about, even if it needed someone to tell you what you were looking at. Mavymag enjoyed getting to clamber into the driver's seat of a few of the vehicles too.

And that was it, time to head home for a nice cup of tea, and meet up with the Brunette herself. I had seen a lot of Victoria in the last thirty-six hours. I now just wanted to put my feet up and digest it all, and work out what was really worth it, and what was just so much foam.




March 01, 2015

Tourist in your Hometown - Day 1, Part 2

After hitting up the Bateman Centre, Miniature World, the Parliament Buildings and various sundry shops, I was ahead of my schedule for my Victoria vacation and sight seeing whirlwind.

I headed over to Market Square to use my ninth voucher from the play book, a free tour of Market Square, which promised 'Gamblers, Gold and Ghosts'.  Two hosts, Chris and Kit from a local walking tour company were giving a forty-five minute taster of their product.  Using Market Square as a base, Chris guided me and about fifteen others through the corners of the square, giving bits of the seedy history of the city and a few ghost stories mixed in.

I hadn't known that between Johnson and Pandora there once was the Johnson Street Ravine, which divided the European section of Victoria from Chinatown.  Nor did I know that there was a pub called the Drake on the corner of Johnson and Wharf in the 50's that was as disreputable as they come... a far cry from today's Drake Eatery. Chris related the importance of the Chinese immigrants into Victoria, as merchants, workers and traders during the Fraser Valley Gold rush.  And the subsequent heavy use of Chinese labour in building the trans-Canada railway. The various ghost stories were interesting but only in a the context of the history that surrounded them.  I don't believe in ghosts, but I quite like a good detective story or unsolved murder.  It was a good tour, with the one thing I didn't like was the slightly episodic nature of the stories rather than a central narrative.  For people who like to hear about the local level of history and see what the streets of Victoria were once like, worth going.

Walking out of Market Square, I headed over to Harbour Air.  50% of postcards and souvenirs led to more postcards for the veritable pile I've created to send home.  I didn't take them up on the 20% flight discount, but that's a great deal if you knew you were flying that weekend. Voucher ten torn out.

A quick walk to Roger's Chocolate in Government street and some Victoria Creams purchased in a two for one deal.  This shop is awesome for chocolate lovers, of course with rows and rows of locally made goods, displayed in racks like a old-time store, with old-time wooden shelves and an old-time hexagonally tiled floor.  Chocolates were given to the Brunette later.  Voucher eleven completed.

Voucher twelve is the rather boring free gym bag and four weeks membership of Good Life Fitness for $10.  I figure if I can hit two classes or sessions there I'll have got my value out of it. (The Brunette just commented on the bag that she's not quite sure where I got it from.  There's only four logos on it, so it might be a bit too subtle for her. I'll let Good Life know they need to make it a bit more obvious when creating promotional hand outs.)

Voucher thirteen was the one I'd really been waiting for, though.  Half-priced afternoon tea at the Empress. The Brunette and family had to cancel due to illness, to their dismay and mine. I had a reservation to the hottest deal in town and no-one to share it with!

However, I managed to convince Andrea to come for tea at the last minute.  Everyone I know whose visited Victoria talks about Afternoon Tea here as an option, served in the traditional style with plates of tiny sandwiches and little sweet desserts.  But at fifty bucks (plus) a time, I'd never been, preferring a $5 cuppa at Murchies or a $2 brew in a paper cup from Speciality Teas.

Okay, standing on the side of the street sipping an Earl Grey while watching the traffic pass by and the homeless guy panhandle for change is NOT the same experience as having a smartly dressed lady usher you to an over padded chair with a view of the harbour.  Tea here is not just about what you get, it is HOW you get it.

After being seated Yousef, our server, came over with a couple of bowls of Strawberries and Cream, and a tea menu. We went for the recommended Empress Tea, a mix of various leaves, and probably served here since the hotel was built.  Tea came out in two massive pots, and poured into some fine china tea cups by the extremely polite and effective Yousef.  Splash of milk and a big long sip.  Ahhh, that fine, fine feeling of good black tea.  It rushes up the tongue and into the brain and tells me that world is spinning in the right direction and I don't need to get off it, not today.

I tried to teach Andrea how to sip it with the pinkie properly extended, but that was didn't go so well, and we just supped and sipped as we cared.  Neither of us poured it into the saucer(*), so I think we passed the social etiquette test required.

Along with the tea came a stack of plates in a serving tower.  On the bottom rung we had a set of little sandwiches, including cucumber on white bread with the crusts cut off. Level two contained a large scone, cream and jam.  And on the top, some petit fours, little elegant little confectioneries.

The rolled salmon sandwich tasty, with fresh meat.  A thin slice of salmon rolled into a spiral with brown bread and butter, then thin slices served.  Like a very savoury Swiss roll.  The tiny egg-salad croissants were nice to, with lots of creamy, fresh flavour.  The cucumber sandwiches were indeed refreshing, as they should be.  The rye-bread and coronation chicken was not so enjoyable... not enough filling, rye bread was a little dry.  Plus it's rye bread, and I react badly to rye beer or rye liquor, so I associate it with moods swings, nausea and general mardiness.  I believe Andrea enjoyed all the sandwiches she tried, avoiding the ham and chicken.

The scone was fresh and soft and full of dried fruit. I experiemented having it both Cornish and Devon style.  Fruit first THEN cream (Cornish), or cream first THEN fruit (Devonshire style). My experiment came to the conclusion is that it doesn't matter, as long as you are feeding your face with good jam, fresh cream and crumbly, dense scones.  Which I was.  I know my tea partner enjoyed the scones as she was oddly silent for five minutes while she ate it, with a far away look her eye, like she was contemplating something.

Finally, the petit fours.  I avoid the coconut macaroon, as I dislike dessicated coconut.  I loved the tiny chocolate tea cup filled with a thick chocolate ganache and raspberry syrup. The lemon cup thing was super tart, and sharp.  The thin shortbread was shortbread, delicate and easy to digest with just a hint of biscuit and butter flavour.  If there was anything else up on that top level that I ate, it wasn't very memorable.

Overall, we had  a nice, relaxing long hour of tea and chat and good food.  The surroundings are elegant, with a mix of sofas, chairs and slightly more formal dining table chairs.  The staff are super effective, friendly but keeping out of the way to allow you to enjoy the experience.  For the $25.00 we paid (plus a generous tip) it was worth it.  I am not sure I can convince myself that the peak tourist season cost of $63 is worth it.  The line ups to get will of course tell you that many people think it's the thing to do in Victoria, and there's nowhere else quite like the Empress in the city.  And nowhere else that does afternoon tea to this scale.

Afternoon Tea - The Fairmont Empress Hotel on Urbanspoon

I said my thanks and goodbyes to Andrea and headed back to the James Bay Inn for a sit down, write up the report and a night in the pub with some other friends.  And we'll leave that section for another post.

(*) Historical note: Iranians traditionally drank tea this way, and it was a common way to cool hot tea down in the past.  'We've' just all decided it's not the done thing any more.

February 27, 2015

Tourist in your Hometown - Day 1, Part 1

It was a grey and drizzly day as I left home to drive the shortest distance I have ever have for a holiday.  The James Bay Inn, just outside the downtown core had a cheap deal for the nights of 'Be a tourist in your own Hometown', so I decided to take a mini-break and take a look around Victoria with a slightly different perspective.

The side plan was also try to use as many vouchers from my Attractions Victoria 'playbook' as possible in two days.  Because it always has to be a challenge and a project.

Walking down from the JBI (voucher 1 used), I noticed on the corner of Superior and Government how many different styles of architecture I could see.  The 'free classical' of the legislature building, the art deco bulk of the rear side of the BC museum, the wooden west coast detached buildings next door to a very modern, angular wood and concrete house. Many parts of Victoria seem to have a melange of styles and ages, and there's very little identi-kit housing in the central area.  If you want that, head to Bear Mountain....

I walked into Tourism Victoria to use Voucher 2, a half-priced transit pass.  Not that I used it today, but it's a scratch off, so we can save them up for the future.  A quick trip downstairs, and I pick up some postcards from Oceanside Gifts, and a Canadian Flag patch. Getting 15% of with Voucher 3.  I've been sending cards home to the family in the UK on semi-regular basis recently, so stocking up seemed like a good plan.

Next up, Starbucks in the Steamship terminal.  A space that once had the stalwart of hometown tourism... the Waxworks. Now home to the Robert Bateman Gallery... who I always refer to as 'Lord Bateman' after the British folk song. Voucher 4 got me half-price entry.  I was prepared to be cynical and snarky.  I left being much less cynical and appreciative of the massive output of his.  While I still think his natural art is wonderfully detailed yet lacking in life, giving a mawkish and distance feel, I found his other works much more engaging.  He did a series of more impressionistic pieces in the 60's, and one of a short path in Toronto called the 'Belt Line' really grabbed my attention.  Enough to see if I can find a print.

They also have a display of parts of a forty year collection of letters between Robert and his wife Birgit.  These are lovely objects, collages of art and ideas and objects from places they've stayed, visited and memories they've made together and apart.  They set themselves the challenge to create a letter to each other every three months, and kept it going this long.  It reminded me of the Griffin and Sabine books and images from Nick Bantock.

Still, onwards to the Legislature to use Voucher 5 - a free tour and Voucher 6 - 10% of in the gift shop.  Voucher 5 is not worth the paper it's printed on, as all tours are free here, all the time.  Thanks, Attractions Victoria for the padding.  That said, the tour itself was a good use of forty five minutes.  It combined information about the building with history of the province.  The building is officially called the BC Parliament Buildings, as that was the act that paid for it in the 1890's.  The architect, Francis Mawston Rattenbury, looks like Matt Damon with a big moustache.  He was twenty five when he designed it, on the strength of a forged resume. There are some rather nice stained glass windows, especially the one of the twelve areas of study.  That, and the four traditional jobs of BC, have sparked off a couple of ideas.  We also got a background on how the legislative assembly works, both the ceremony and the business.

Next, I walked over to Miniature World, just as I learned the news about Leonard Nimoy's passing.  So it seemed appropriate to have a minute of silence in the space section.  Which is a delightfully camp corridor with strange models of space stations and asteroids, with a voice over talking about warp tunnels and holidays in space.  Voucher 7 got me free entrance.  The best part of this museum is the large display showing the Trans-Canadian railway from coast to coast, with the  sound track telling you all about how it got built.  The rest of the displays are an assortment of items, which if you like miniatures of stuff is interesting but otherwise not so much.

Most curious is the new section, with a series of models telling the tales of Camelot, King Arthur and the Round Table.  With a very annoyingly loud soundtrack.  I have no idea why this is here. The models aren't that exciting, the buttons to animate things are laughable and the 'history' lesson is based on multiple, bastardized version of the Arthurian legends.  Still, I am sure kids love it, so that might explain exactly why it's there...

Voucher 8 was lunch at Dog-Gone-It which  serves the finest in gourmet hot dogs. I think that is the claim. My voucher got me a free bag of chips.  I ordered the Labrador Dog.  Hot dog, maple bacon, grated cheese and crispy onions with hot sauce.  Something smelled weird about my food.  Or the place.  The staff were busy and friendly in that rushed sort of way. The eating area felt like a airport lounge, designed to serve people's needs but not their wants.  My hot dog was loaded with the extras, with a soft white bun and a huge strip of bacon, piled with cheese.

I unhinged my jaw, and took a bite.  It was sustenance, but still with this odd, cake-like smell.  I realized suddenly... it was the bacon.  It smelled sweet from the maple syrup.  Sickly sweet.  Poor bacon, it died in vain.  Otherwise, the hot dog was fresh and juicy... but Mr Tube Steak will do you better from a street car.  But for $5, I didn't go too wrong.

And that was my morning... I have more from the afternoon to report, but will leave it for another day.

Dog-Gone-It on Urbanspoon