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Icelandic Braveheart

Top left to right: dried fish, Brennivín, hákarl

On our recent trip to Iceland, one delicacy I wanted to try was Hákarl, or fermented Greenland Shark.  In Reykjavik, the capital, we found Café Loki, which serves traditional Icelandic dishes including hákarl.  We ordered it as part of a couple of taster plates, the Icelandic Plate II and Icelandic Braveheart.  Both dishes included some combination of rye and flatbreads, dried fish, mashed fish and smoked lamb (all very tasty).  The Braveheart was accompanied by a shot of caraway-flavoured Icelandic schnapps, called Brennivín.  The innocent-looking hákarl looked like three small cubes of slightly shiny cheese on toothpicks.  We took a whiff.  A strong ammonia smell burned our nostrils, and we should’ve ended it right there, but we hoped it tasted better than it smelled, like some strong cheese.

Well, sad to say, it didn’t.  It has got to be the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever eaten that was supposed to be food.  The first bite was not as horrible as we imagined, with a slightly rubbery texture, but by the time we got to the third, the smell and taste of ammonia was overpowering our palates.  Thank goodness for the Brennivín to wash it down.  On the up side, we didn’t get sick afterward, although we fully expected to.

Icelandic Plate II

Clockwise, from top right: smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, dried fish and in the middle, hákarl

Hákarl is prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and letting it ferment in a pit full of sand and then hanging it to dry, the entire process taking several months.  This is done so that the poisonous trimethylamine oxide and urea in the flesh are converted into ammonia… infinitely more palatable, right?

And so the question is, why would anybody want to eat something that smells and tastes like household cleaner?  We asked several Icelanders during our trip if they liked it, and none of them did.  But they dutifully ate it once a year, during the midwinter festival called Þorrablót which is a celebration of their heritage.

Those Icelanders sure are tough!

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We went for an early Valentine’s Day dinner to C Restaurant on February 12, 2011, wanting to use our Groupons for the 6-course tasting menu, which normally goes for $84 a person.

Walla Walla Onion Veloute

We arrived for our 5:30 seating and as the restaurant had just opened, were seated promptly in the lower level with a view, as requested when we made our reservation.  On perusing the menu we were a little mystified as we saw the Chef’s Grand Tasting Menu for $175 a person which I believe was 9 courses.  We finally asked the waiter and he said the 6-course was indeed available, which was the 9-course minus the foie gras, lobster and cheese plate.  I was quite relieved we were not getting the foie gras, more on that later.  We were not sure why the 6-course was not on the menu; it was not available for Valentine’s Day but he assured us it was for this weekend preceding… a little strange, since if you didn’t know it was there, you obviously couldn’t order it!  The website is not much better, as it lists the 6-course but only has 3 courses, with an additional two available as a supplement.  The suggested wine pairings ran $55 a person but we decided to order a glass of Napa Valley chardonnay each, instead.

Beet Salad with Goat Cheese

C restaurant is noted for its adherence to sustainability practices.  All its seafood meets the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise guidelines and they promote the usage of local ingredients.  So we had to ask our waiter about the foie gras on the menu, as we know that the geese from which it comes are commonly force-fed to promote the development of a massive, fatty liver.  He didn’t miss a beat and said that the geese are not force-fed and live “happy lives.”  It is produced in Quebec, so not exactly local, but at least it is from within the country.

Pressed Veal with Pickled "Crones"

Our first course was the Walla Walla onion Veloute.  The bowl contained a 2-hour poached egg, a piece of Dungeness crab and some greens, and the waiter brought the soup in a little pot with a spout, gently pouring it into the bowl while explaining the ingredients, a nice little touch.  The veloute lived up to its name (it means “velvety” in French) with a sweet onion flavour.

The second course was the beet salad, with Saltspring Island goat cheese.  As this is a tasting menu the portion was quite small but packed with flavour.  The goat cheese was milder than most, with a very creamy texture which complemented the lightly pickled beets.

Trout on Risotto

Next, the pressed veal with pickled crones.  It was another salad with greens, slivers of lemon peel and a light dressing.  Yes, it says “crones” on the menu but further research reveals the true name of “crosnes,” a.k.a. Chinese artichoke or knotroot.  It is the tuber that we eat and it has a pleasant nutty flavour with a satisfying crunch.  The veal was somewhat like corned beef but we couldn’t help but wonder if the calves had led “happy lives” as well.

The main course was a piece of trout on risotto, topped with calamari and lemon slivers.  Some people may not like their fish with skin, but I found it crispy and tasty.  All the flavours complemented each other well.

Scallops on Pork Belly

After the trout came the bay scallops on pork belly, with breaded deep-fried crabapples.  The scallops were lightly seared and cooked to perfection so that they melted on the tongue.  The pork belly, on the other hand, seemed just like a hunk of fat.  My hubby thought they went well together but I just left the pork and had the scallops with the crabapple.

Dessert was a lemon mousse with slices of saffron-poached pear.  It was served with a runcible spoon, prompting me to recite lines from Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”  The lightness of the dish was a welcome finish to the meal.

Lemon Mousse, served with a Runcible Spoon

The service throughout the meal was fine, with each dish explained to us in detail.  We have always found the waiters here are knowledgeable and able to answer any questions we may have.  The only complaint we had was that my husband ordered absinthe as an aperitif and as such, it should have come before dinner, as it clashed with the onion veloute.  All of the dishes were presented elegantly and brought with appropriate gaps in between.  Our seating on the main floor of the restaurant was ideal, as the upper floor seems a little cramped.  On summer days, the patio is a wonderful way to take in the atmosphere of the seawall.

Pros: Meets Ocean Wise guidelines, good service, knowledgeable wait staff, great patio in summer, good deal with Groupon

Cons: Menu not clear, upstairs seating cramped and lacks view, can be pricey

C Restaurant is located at 2-1600 Howe Street, Vancouver, BC

Point Zero Lounge & Restaurant bills itself as Japanese Fusion.  It is located on 1149 Granville Street just north of Davie, near the entertainment district.  DH and I went to check it out during their “soft opening” week on January 29, 2011.  They have been open for one month now.  As befits the “Fusion” brand, the décor is modern so do not go expecting a traditional Japanese Restaurant.  On Friday and Saturday nights there is a DJ so it was a little on the loud side, although still conducive to conversation.  We noticed a glitter ball on the ceiling but were not sure if there would be dancing later.  There are two huge projection TV screens on one wall so if you want to watch the game, make sure you are not situated directly under them.  No sushi bar, but a large regular bar.  The restaurant has ample seating, either booths or tables.

But of course, it’s about the food.  We were impressed by the variety in the menu.  A few typos, including a couple of mentions of “hot Koran sauce.”  Hmm, Japanese fusion with Islam?  When we inquired of the waitress, she said it was a hot sauce and brought us a sample, but never once did she say that it was really a Korean sauce.

L: Miss Piggy Roll. R: Bob Marley Roll. I know the Miss Piggy is named for the bacon in it, but it really looks like a pig, doesn't it? Maybe I'm just playing Angry Birds a little too much.

There is an extensive Martini list and a decent selection of beer and wines.  We liked that you could order as glass of wine in either the 6 oz. ($6.95) or 9 oz. ($9.95) size.  In most restaurants, you don’t even know what size you are getting, so this is a plus.  Even for a restaurant that is not traditionally Japanese, there should be sake available and it was, although not on the menu.  Some mixed drinks used sake as one of its ingredients so may be worth a try.

We ordered two appetizers, the chicken karaage ($8.95) and “sushi shooters.”  I guess I was expecting sushi in a glass like an oyster shooter, but it is merely a pair of seared tuna nigiri topped with chopped scallions and a little bit of ponzu sauce.  Still, quite tasty and at $3.95 for a pair, a decent price.  The karaage was a disappointment since the outside was quite chewy and dry.  It was accompanied by a “green salad” which was a small bowl of iceberg lettuce topped by a mayo-type dressing.  The lettuce pieces were too big and the dressing was just slopped on top so it wasn’t very appetizing.

The sushi fared a little better.   We ordered the Miss Piggy Roll (crispy bacon, scallop and asparagus top fish roe and unagi sauce, $5.95), the Fancy Roll (tempura prawns, mango, avocado and

cream cheese wrapped in a soy sheet, $7.95) and the Bob Marley (mango, avocado, tuna and wasabi mayo, $7.50).

Fancy Roll

The bacon in the Miss Piggy added a nice salty crispy touch but overpowered the scallop and even the asparagus.  It would probably be better paired with a stronger flavoured fish.  I forgot the fish roe was even there until I looked at the description and then at my photos, so they could use more of this ingredient.  The Fancy Roll was tasty, except my DH pointed out that there should not be a temperature differential in the ingredients in a sushi roll.  Indeed, the cream cheese was cold, but after letting it sit for awhile it warmed up and was much improved.  The Bob Marley was just right; all the flavours complemented each other perfectly and was the best choice of the evening.  We did find the sushi rice just a tad on the soft side in all the rolls.

One order of assorted tempura for $7.95 rounded out our dinner.  It was supposed to come with “3 large tiger prawns and a variety of veggies” but we had an extra prawn so that was a bonus.  Top marks for the tempura, not at all greasy and brought to our table fresh out of the fryer.  There are some intriguing items on the menu we didn’t try, including the electric banana roll (BBQ eel, avocado wrapped with tempura banana top (sic) eel sauce).  There are other Japanese items such as udon and ramen, yakisoba, various donburi (rice bowls), and grilled items.

Final verdict?  Not fantastic, but has some potential.  The pricing is a little on the high side but after all, this is downtown.  During the “soft opening” week all menu items are 20% off which makes it more palatable, and there are some online deals to be found with various “deal of the day”-type sites.

Easter Island Moai

The mysterious statues, known as Moai, of Easter Island

We spent some time in Easter Island in May of 2009.  The enigmatic statues, or Moai, were incredible, but that’s a story for another blog!.

Easter Island is a part of Chile, so much of its food is in the Chilean style.  Here’s a meal known as Bistec a lo pobre, or “Poor Man’s Steak.”  How’s that for a misnomer!  It consists of a piece of steak topped with two fried eggs and served with french fries and fried onions.  Not only is it not for the poor, but it’s not for those who need to watch their waistline, either.

It’s pretty much as you’d expect; tasty for at least the first few bites before the sheer unhealthiness of it gets to you.

Bistec a lo Pobre

Bistec a lo Pobre, or "Poor Man's Steak" is not so aptly named

Poire Williams

A bottle of Poire Williams, from the canton of Valais in Switzerland

This is a fruit brandy made from a Williams pear (also known as Barlett in North America) and is classified as an eau de vie.  It is served as a digestif, or a post-dinner drink that purportedly aids digestion.  One of the traditional ways of selling it is in a glass bottle containing an entire pear.  The bottle is placed on the fruit bud and it grows within the glass.  If the fruit touches the glass at any time it will spoil so this is a careful process.  After the fruit is ripe, it is picked and the pear brandy is added to the bottle.

We have a bottle from Switzerland that my husband has had for some years.  As the level of alcohol goes down, he adds fresh Poire Williams to keep the fruit from spoiling.  The liquor definitely tastes like a pear and at 40% alcohol it is strong but not harsh.  I didn’t care for it much at first but it is growing on me.

14 years ago, I spent some time in Suriname, a little-known South American country.  It is flanked by Guyana and French Guiana and its official language is Dutch, making it a country like no other on the predominantly Latin continent.  The food there was a wonderful blend of Indian, Indonesian and Creole dishes.

A staple is cassava, a woody shrub of which the tuberous roots are used as a form of starch.  Tapioca comes from this root.  The cassava is used in Suriname as you might a potato, boiled in soups, sliced and fried as chips, in cakes.

One of the most unusual uses of cassava is to make an alcoholic drink called Casiri.  Apparently the cassava is chewed and then spat into a container, where the enzymes in the saliva start a fermentation process.  Now, cassava is poisonous unless properly prepared as it can liberate cyanide, so I don’t know if the root is cooked before being chewed.  I never got to see the process, but I did see the finished product, a thick, dark yellow, shall i say, vomit-like concoction.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but you get the idea.  This was served at a celebration of some sort that I attended in town, and when I was offered some, of course I had to try it.

A fancy drink it's not!

I figured, the scientific side of me kicking in, that the enzyme amylase in the saliva would break down the starches and the fermentation would pretty well kill any lingering germs, so it was safe.  I steeled myself and had a quaff.  The Casiri was thick, sour, and heavy in alcohol.  I couldn’t finish it.   I’m not really selling this, am I?

When I got “home,” my host family dad said incredulously, “do you know how they make that?” and when I said yes, he couldn’t believe I’d tried it anyway.  He never had, and had no intention of ever doing so.  Well, how often in life was I going to have the opportunity to taste a drink made with saliva?

This is not a primer on how to use chopsticks, but on how not to make a faux pas while dining Japanese.  The Japanese are very polite and careful not to offend, so you might want to do the same.  For details on using chopsticks, look here.

At most Japanese restaurants in North America, the chopsticks are disposable and come in little paper sleeves.  Break them apart so you can use them.  Now, a comment on rubbing your chopsticks against each other.  I cringe whenever I see some restaurant patron vigorously stroking them against each other as if they were sharpening knives.  This can be done if the chopsticks are not smooth and have some slivers, but you should be discreet.  And if the chopsticks are higher quality, for instance made of bamboo, the sticks are only joined at the top and the working parts are already smooth.  So only rub if necessary!

More chopstick etiquette:

  • don’t pass food to another diner, chopstick to chopstick.
  • don’t stick your chopsticks into a dish of food, just lay them across the top of one of your dishes pointed left (if you’re right-handed) when you’re not using them

That warm cloth you are given at the beginning?  Use it for your hands and fingers, not your face.

You can pick up sushi with your fingers.  In fact, this is how they were designed to be eaten.  Your hands are clean now, right?

In most western Japanese restaurants, you can get some sort of combination meal.  It usually consists of miso soup (miso shiru), and various other dishes.  When the Japanese eat, you get all the dishes at once, including the miso shiru.  The soup is not considered an appetizer, but an integral part of the meal.  So if you want to impress the waitress, tell her you’d like everything at once.