Pink Bicycle, take two

•October 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Nobody likes to eat their words, but a recent meal at Pink Bicycle had me swallowing some of mine with a side of truffle fries.

It’s not that I ever questioned their food.  If you read my prior Review, you’ll find I counted their Mutton Burger as the best I’d had in the city.  My issue was with service.  Twice we’d been, and twice neglected – once to the point that we left to eat elsewhere.  No matter how good a burger is, bad service is a big turn-off for most diners and I am no exception.

A great burger is hard to find, however, and Pink Bicycle has a reputation for making some of the best in Victoria.  They are one of the few places to offer such a wide selection of types and toppings as well.  Months had passed and I’m not one to hold a grudge, so I ventured back in last weekend to give them another try.

We were greeted & seated promptly this time, by a smiling & helpful server.  He brought us menus and a bottle of water promptly, and was back in no time to take our orders.  I decided on the Blue Cheese Lamb this time, while my dining companion tried the Moroccan Veggie burger.  The food still took a bit of time, but their kitchen is both small and up a set of stairs, so we were content to wait.  When our plates arrived, they were as bontiful and tempting as I recalled.

My lamb was extremely juicy and succulent, and the seasoning was spot on although I can’t claim to have tasted the rosemary & apricot inside.  This could be attributed to the extremely generous amount of Blue Cheese on the patty.  I love cheese, and it’s a rare day that I’ll complain about too much!  Blue cheese is strong by nature though, and in such a bountiful quantity – it simply overpowered the lamb.  More’s the pity. I wished I had stuck with the Metchosin Mutton, whose rich meat is perfectly balanced by a sharp Gruyere.

My companion’s Moroccan Veggie was simply scrumptious, and lived up to the challenge on the menu: discover what it’s like to really love a Veggie burger.  No small feat when it’s up against such a spectacular variety of meat burgers!  The patty was a thick mixture of beautifully spiced garbanzo beans studded with dates and herbs.  My partner had ordered hers with the Goat Cheese, and it was the ideal creamy counterpart to the rich patty.  One bite had me salivating for more.

I also want to mention their fries.  So often a mere afterthought, Pink Bicycle’s potatoes are nearly as much of a star as their burgers.  Crisp, light, and thick with that earthy potato flavor, these are some of the best to be had.  You can top yours with truffle oil for a mere dollar more, pick one of 12 side dips, or go all out with the Pink Bike Poutine.  It features rosemary gravy, Island Pastures cheese curds, crispy shallots and the option of Smoked Bacon.

My burger choice today may not have been the best, but 3 out of 4 were exceptional – and few restaurants can rival those fries.  Now that they treat diners like valued clientele, Pink Bicycle is back on my list of great eats.

The Pink Bicycle

Fisherman’s Wharf: a meal with a view

•October 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It was one of those days we just couldn’t decide where to go eat.  I pulled out my trusty “must try” list, but the 2 places which piqued our interest weren’t open this Thanksgiving Monday.  We decided to jump in the car and see where the day took us.  A beautiful crisp fall day dappled in sunshine, we found ourselves drawn to the ocean, as is so often the case.  We pulled into Fisherman’s Wharf to see what we could find.

It’s been a while since I’ve been down here, and things have changed.  Once your typical dingy set of docks, there are now several posh boulevards lined with charming & colorful floathomes and a slew of businesses nestled amongst them to feed the hungry crowds of visitors they draw here.  Several proprietors compete for the best Fish & Chips, in addition to which there is a BBQ joint, ice cream parlour, gourmet coffee houses, and a dessert shop.  We perused the menus with interest, and while I was tempted by the fish tacos and barbequed ribs on offer at some of the other places, we decided to stick with the long-time favourite: Barb’s Fish & Chips.

My companion ordered a cup of Chowder (advertised as the best on Vancouver Island) and the Cod & Chips, while I chose Barb’s Famous Burger (currently competing for Victoria’s Best Burger on JackFM) and a piece of carrot cake to follow.  There’s a big crowd here on sunny days like this, despite the nip in the air, but Barb’s keeps their line-ups moving quickly with a beeper system that works like a charm.  We entertained ourselves watching tourists feed the seals nearby, which had grown fat & happy on plentiful feedings.  In no time at all, our pager beeped and our hot meals were ready.

The chowder was in the New England style, and creamy delicious.  Packed with chunks of seafood, but not a hint of fishiness to be found, it lived up to its reputation.  We both thought the fries to be some of the best in the city as well, plump and tasting full of earthy goodness.  The fish was too densely breaded for either of our tastes, but the fish was fresh and flavourful inside.  My burger was satisfying and tasty, although it won’t get my vote for best beef.  The carrot cake was rich and moist, a satisfying sweet end to a good meal with a great view.  We’ll definitely be back again to try the competition.

Fabulous bennies from a humble kitchen: Sunnyside Cafe

•October 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

Every chef dreams of having a big, shiny kitchen outfitted with the best tools of the trade.  The reality of restaurant ownership doesn’t easily accommodate this dream, and those who follow it often fail.  Sometimes, the most wonderful food comes from the most unexpected places.  Sunnyside Cafe, located underneath Action Motorcycles in Esquimalt, is one of these places.

This place is small, and on this day – very busy.  There might be 20 seats inside between those tucked tightly together along the wall and bar stools by the window.  Another 10 are outside at small bistro tables.  All were taken on our arrival, but we soon snagged one outside on this crisp but sunny day.

The most notable lack of space, however, is in the kitchen.  I was shocked to see that there was no oven here.  No stove either, or even a cooktop.  In fact, the entire operation was taking place on 3 griddles placed side by side (you know, the T-fal type you probably have hanging around in your kitchen somewhere but rarely use), one burner (the plug-in kind popular with college dorms), a toaster oven, and microwave.  I couldn’t stop staring, fascinated, as the 2 chefs danced seamlessly and deftly around one another in that tiny strip of kitchen.  A pot sits atop the burner, constantly boiling, for poaching eggs.  One of the griddles is loaded with potatoes sauteing into hash browns, while another plays host to fried eggs as needed and the third had bacon and sausage crisping.  And out of this most humble of kitchens, many wonderful meals were being produced in quick fashion.

Sunnyside doesn’t offer an extensive menu or long hours.  They serve breakfast or brunch, 7 days a week, and sandwiches & paninis during the day.  We came for brunch, and found 2 types of breakfasts on offer: an inexpensive egg sandwich or wrap (with the option to jazz it up with all kinds of luxe toppings), and a good selection of Bennies.  I am a huge fan of Bennies, and had a hard time choosing between so many mouth-watering combinations, but decided to try their special that day: garlic sausage, mushrooms and carmelized onions.  My partner is not a big Bennie eater, but chose one with bacon, mushrooms and spinach. She also chose a side of hash browns, which we shared.

We figured on a bit of a wait with that crowd and kitchen, so we settled in with our Saltspring Island coffees to enjoy the morning.  But it wasn’t long before a server came by with our steaming hot plates, which were packed high with delicious food.   These bennies are really big!  Each round is inches high with toppings: mounds & mounds of mushrooms teetered on both of ours, and mine was stuffed full of chunks of seared sausage.  The eggs were absolutely perfectly poached:  firm whites which yielded creamy deep yellow yokes to my fork.  No small feat, and one area my breakfasts invariably fall short on.   And their hollandaise sauce (another area of regular disappointment) is simply divine.  It was light but creamy, and the best topping I have ever had on an egg.  My sentiments were echoed by my companion, who had never enjoyed any Bennie quite so much.  The potatoes were nicely seasoned and beautifully prepared, but wholly unnecessary next to those amazing egg concoctions.

An interesting crowd frequents this unusually placed diner.  We sat next to a large group of riders, shiny bikes parked alongside the curb behind them, who had clearly found the cafe upon visiting the shop upstairs.   A table or two were chatting familiarly with the staff made me think they were neighborhood regulars.  And several more like us, who had heard the food was great and had made the trip to check it out.  I suspect that last group is going to grow quickly, once people discover how great the food here is.  We will certainly be coming back.

Geisha Tapas Bar

•September 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I have been searching high and low for Victoria’s best sushi, and at Geisha Tapas Bar I found it.  It may just be the best sushi I’ve ever had, served in a serene and beautiful setting by warm and attentive staff.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this isn’t your average sushi joint.  Their distinctive window beckons prospective diners to take another look.  If you do, you will find a large and airy space, warmly appointed in rich jewel toned paints and natural woods.   A large bar, complete with fresh sushi station, adorns one side of the room.  Small tables are arranged in front of booth seating in a chocolate weave.  We’d barely peeked in when a smiling host welcomed us and seated us by the window, menus in hand.

The menu is part sushi house and part tapas bar, and offers selections for diners ranging from the beginner to a far more adventurous palate than most local sushi restaurants are willing to venture towards.  Aside from your usual rolls and sashimi, you will find horse tataki and chicken gizzard skewers here.  While these dishes may not be for everyone, Geisha also offers more selection than most in their raw menu: hamachi, amaebi, and hotate sashimi grace the list.  One thing I really appreciated is that the portions are smaller (and more affordable, at under $5) than the usual, so if you are dining alone or have different tastes from your companions, you can still order just what you’d like.

Another notable item is their raw oysters.  Offered at only 99 cents each daily, these are the best priced bivalves in the city.  We placed an order for a dozen (the minimum), and were pleased to see they were a smaller Japanese variety when they arrived (versus the ubiquitous Fanny Bay generally served for Oyster Hours elsewhere).  They came atop a bed of ice, and garnished with a touch of soy, lemon, and chives – the perfect accompaniment to their sweet, cool freshness.

It is that same freshness which sets all of Geisha’s sushi head and tails above some of the other fine local establishments.  The tuna and salmon sashimi was absolutely the best fish I have ever eaten.  I was loathe to even dip it in my wasabi & soy mixture, it was that good.  Those who know me know that salmon is one of the rare foods I do not enjoy –  irrespective of the preparation, I find a certain briny flavor to it which just doesn’t agree with me.  Geisha serves a salmon sashimi which even I devoured, and the tuna was butter-tender in my mouth.

Another exceptional feature of their food is that all their rolls come with brown rice – not as an option or an extra, but standard fare.  Pricing on rolls is about par for Victoria, but not only did we find them particularly filling due to the brown rice, each order offered 8 generously proportioned pieces.   The tunacado roll was bursting with fish, the california roll tasted of real fresh crab, and our yam tempura roll was drizzled with a tasty sauce.  Everything arrives so beautifully arranged, it was hard to dismantle initially but the flavors make it clear that taste above all rules these plates.

Some more interesting selections caught my eye in the Specialty Rolls section, for future exploration.  The house favorite is a Spicy Tuna Berry, which pairs strawberries and black tobiko with the “spiciest tuna roll in town”.  The only thing I might love as much as sushi is cheese.  I’ve never imaged putting them together, but Snow White does just that: chopped scallops & avocado roll drizzled with melted mozzarella. I’m game to try!

We’d driven in this night, so we didn’t have a chance to try anything off their Cocktail Menu either, but word is they make some of the most exciting concoctions in the city.  The Lychee Bellini called my name, while the Kamikaze Carrot and Teriyaki Cure piqued my curiosity.  Next time, I’ll be cabbing so I can try them all!

I would be doing Geisha a sincere disservice if I didn’t take a moment to mention their exceptional service.  Food arrived in a steady and perfectly timed procession.  Someone was always there to refill water and tea, offer more ginger, or clear away unnecessary dishes.  From the warm greeting of the host at the door, to our smiling server (who exhibited unimaginable grace in her kimono), to the owner himself enquiring how our meal was as we paid, we couldn’t have felt more welcome or appreciated.  We promised we’d be back soon – it won’t be soon enough.

Free coffee Friday!

•September 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The only thing better than cheap eats are FREEBIES!

As a “thank you” to downtown employees for supporting local businesses, and sponsored by the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA): thirty downtown coffee shops will be serving free coffee this Friday, September 24th, from opening until 10:00am.  Bring your own mugs to enjoy a free 12 oz coffee (or a double espresso at Street Level Coffee) at the following establishments:

Bean Around The World 533 Fisgard Street
Breve Bistro (Hotel Rialto) 1450 Douglas Street
Broad Street Kitchen 1320 Broad Street
Café Mela 748 Humboldt Street
Caffé Artigiano 1140 Government Street
Cargo & James #415 Bay Centre Mall
Castello Coffee 1802 Douglas Street
Demitasse 1320 Blanshard Street
Dutch Bakery & Café 718 Fort Street
Fort Café 742 Fort Street
Grindstone Café 504 Herald Street
Habit Coffee 552 Pandora Avenue
Legacy Art Gallery 630 Yates Street
Liberty Café 708 Douglas Street
Mirage Coffee 817 Government Street
Mirage Coffee 733 Yates Street
Mirage Coffee 1122 Blanshard Street
Penelope’s 739 Pandora Avenue
Picnic 103-506 Fort Street
QV’s Café & Bakery 1701 Government Street
Sam’s Deli 805 Government Street
Serious Coffee 1280 Broad Street
Serious Coffee 1609 Blanshard Street
Soda Shoppe 801 Government Street
Sounds Like Coffee 915 Gordon Street
Street Level Espresso* 714 Fort Street
Union Pacific 537 Herald Street
Wild Coffee House & Bistro 632 Yates Street
Willie’s Bakery 537 Johnson Street
Venus Sophia Tea Room Coffee Bar 540 Fisgard Street

Ocean Garden: good, cheap Chinese Food

•August 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I ate at Ocean Garden a lot as a student.  It used to be a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown that one of my fellow starving students introduced me to.  The decor was well – ugly – and the menu wasn’t anything special, but the food was tasty, bountiful, fast and most importantly CHEAP.

A few things have changed.  They moved to the far larger and more prominent space on the corner.  I wouldn’t call it elegant, but the walls now have framed art and there’s a fish tank at the entry.  They’re usually very busy these days, but that’s because they still offer the same good food at really great prices.

A meal here isn’t going to be the best Chinese food you ever ate.  It also won’t be the most authentic.  I should mention that they do offer more traditional dishes on their menu, and there is certainly a demographic of their clientele who eat here for it, but what keeps this place packed amongst so many similar choices in Chinatown are their combos tailored to suit the Western taste in Chinese food.  Prominently affixed to their window are signs advertising their lunch special combos, all for only $6.50 – $7.50.

I stopped by my old haunt in the middle of a busy Saturday to have a quick meal.  I was starving, so I sprung for Combo B:  Chicken Chow Mein, Chicken Chop Suey, Sweet & Sour Pork and my choice of Almond Chicken or Prawns.  A pot of Jasmine tea arrived nearly immediately, and the food came mere minutes afterward.  Lest you think the food is sitting pre-precooked under a heat lamp, I can assure you that every item on mine arrived piping hot.  The chow mein was delicious, the vegetables cooked to a perfect al-dente, and the pork is lean and well sauced.  The almond chicken and deep-fried prawns are both too heavily-battered for my taste, but I will say that the batter is crisp and light-tasting.  My only other criticism is a bit too much sauce on the chop suey.

Portions here are huge, and even with my hearty appetite, I didn’t finish my meal.  I paid my $7.50, and left satisfied.

Buck-a-shuck: Happy Hour at Oyster Bar

•August 31, 2010 • 1 Comment

Friday is date night, and what spells romance better than oysters on the half-shell?  Normally oysters wouldn’t make my cheap list.  While they represent humble peasant food in some countries, in Canada a trip to your local oyster bar is usually more of a foray into haute cuisine.  Local favorite Ferris offers beautiful bivalves at fairly reasonable prices, but an Oyster dinner for two will certainly not come at a bargain. Once Irish
Times stopped offered oysters for a dollar during their Happy Hour, our oyster habit all but dried up.  Having heard that a new place in town was offering a daily special on raw oysters, my partner & I headed off last date night to The Oyster Bar to indulge in this guilty pleasures.

Co-owned by the prestigious Pescatores and located right beside them on Humboldt Street, one of the first things we noticed is that this place gets a lot of tourist attention.  Aside from their easily found location across from the Empress & only steps off the Inner Harbor, their prominent storefront boasts numerous logos designed to entice passersby: Eat Fish/Clams/Oysters, Live/Love/Last Longer.  Sitting centre stage is the sign we were looking for:  Buck-a-shuck daily 4-5:30pm.

The restaurant is modern and airy, with seating both outside on their patio and in booths & bar tables inside.  All surround the centre bar which proudly displays their daily array of oyster varieties.  Most are local, and common selections include the sweet Kusshis and Kumamotos, wild Malepaques & Chesapeakes, and the ubiquitous Fanny Bay.  We learned quickly that only Fanny Bays are available for the Buck deal.  They aren’t my favourite (I tend toward the small & sweet Japanese types) but we ordered a dozen as well as a couple of drinks.

Our server brought out our tray of toppings, including: a cucumber mignonette, a traditional mignonette, malt vinegar and seafood sauce.  She also furnished us with a tray upon which to rest our platter of oysters.  When they arrived, they rested gleaming inside their half-shells atop a bed of crushed ice, served alongside lemon wedges & a small mountain of freshly grated horseradish.  Indeed, one staff member was permanently affixed in the oyster station, shucking and grating the entire time we ate.

Given that I normally find Fanny Bays a big large and salty for my taste, I have to admit – these were exceptional oysters.  Cool, fresh and with a smooth finish, they went nicely with every one of the sauces.  We scarfed down our first bath in record time, and couldn’t resist ordering a few more.

Our bill for 16 oysters, 1 beer & a Margarita (lime, salted & on the rocks) came to $33 – easily more than most hearty meals for two in my list of Cheapeats will run you.  Drinks here are costly (local pints run you $7 each), and straying away from the Fanny Bays will cost you anywhere from $2.25 – $2.75 per precious oyster.  Even at a buck a shuck, let’s call this a somewhat affordable luxury.