Sunday, 17 August 2014

"Come Forage" at Glorious Organics Farm: A True Locavore Feast

Every Saturday morning, we head to Trout Lake farmer's market and make a beeline for Glorious Organics to buy the very best salad that money can buy.  Last year, we attended their first-ever "Come Forage" dinner at their farm.  We immediately fell in love with the concept, the farm, the kind farm staff and, of course, the food prepared by Chef Chris Whittaker of Forage restaurant here in Vancouver (see last year's blog post here).

I was ecstatic when I heard that they were holding this wonderful event again this year and, of course, I was going to be there.  I was sceptical that they could recreate the magic of last year's event but somehow, they managed to make this year's farm dinner even more amazing.

This year's event was held on the August long weekend here in BC, and it ended up being a scorcher.  The only complaint I heard all evening was that it was "too hot" and that people wished there were umbrellas over the table to shade us as we ate.  But that is probably just because us Vancouverites are wimps when it comes to these hot temperatures (anything above 25 degrees celcius) that we don't usually get in our neck of the woods!

Other than this very minor point which was outside of anyone's control, the evening went off without a hitch.  The Glorious Organics crew really kicked it up a notch this year when it came to the venue.  The had the table nicely set in white and green linens, with table settings all prepped when we arrived (last year we had to bring our own dishes and cutlery).  They had a nice tent set up in one corner of the field where they had live music done by a very talented trio, two of whom live on the farm.  Their music selection was very original and very catchy (I was humming away the whole way home!).  And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-contructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

And then the real focal point of the evening- a brand new outdoor kitchen made of mostly recycled materials where Chef Wittaker prepared our delicious meal.  The event was a fundraiser for the newly-constructed kitchen that they hope to use for other events throughout the year.

We knew we were in good hands as soon as we arrived.  We were warmly greeted by the familiar faces  who deliver the Glorious Organic's tasty produce to the Trout Lake Market.   We were then offered wine from Backyard Wineries located just down the road from the farm, or a choice of local beers, all served in cute little mason jars.  Still thirsty?  No problem!  We could come back and get unlimited refills throughout the afternoon and evening.  We also got a glimpse of the menu propped up in front of where Chef Whittaker was already busy preparing our meal.  Let the salivating begin!

After listening to some wonderful, eclectic tunes in the shade, we were rounded up and divided into groups for the farm tour.  We were escorted around the farm by one of the knowledgeable staff who showed us greenhouses, roosters, garlic, and many other crops that they grow on their sprawling property.  We even got to pick a few things for dinner, including kale and oh-so fragrant basil.  If it hadn't been so hot, I could have stayed in the basil greenhouse all day!

After the tour, it was back to the farm for the star attraction of the evening- our farm feast!  And a feast it was!  Chef Whittaker really outdid himself, serving dish after dish of deliciousness.  Everything was served family-style along the long table, with way more than enough for everyone to have seconds, thirds and fourths of all the dishes.

The first series of dishes were a variety of salads made from the bounty of the farm.  They were all great, but my favourite (in fact, my favourite dish of the whole night) was the beet and goat cheese salad.   I could have eaten the whole plate!

Next it was onto the main course.  Chef Whittaker who is known for his love of the nose-to-tail philosophy, prepared a whole pig and gave us literally the WHOLE pig.  On the platter, there was your run-of-the-mill pork tenderloin and then a mix of more adventurous offerings including cracklings, blood pudding and head cheese.  Many were brave and moved way outside of their comfort zone, including Hubby who found out that he likes headcheese!  To counter-balance all of that meat was a nice variety of vegetables prepared with honey, and a creamy potato and green bean salad.

For the non-meat eaters like myself, Chef Whittaker was kind enough to provide a beautiful and substantial vegetarian offering of lentils, farm-fresh hazelnuts and a vegetable medley.  Kudos to the chef for not settling with an "afterthought" vegetarian dish and making us feel special too:)

Although everyone was quite stuffed by this point, there were few who were able to turn down the dessert course- an oh-so-summery fruit crisp, made with a veritable orchard full of different fruits buried under an oat topping.  And, as if that wasn't yummy enough, the gang also came around with beer-flavored ice cream for the grand finale!

I absolutely loved our first "Come Forage" last year but somehow, the Glorious Organics crew and Chef Whittaker made it ten times better this year.  They really kicked it up a notch in terms of crossing the T's and dotting the I's, while still maintaining a very relaxed and fun atmosphere.

I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeves for next year's event!  I will be the first in line for tickets:)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

London and Paris Foodie Adventure 2014: The Grand Finale- Arpege

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 4.75/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- Arpege raises the humble vegetable to new heights with its plant-centric menu.  Even in his non-vegetarian dishes, the vegetables are still centre stage.  Chef Alain Passard is so serious about using only the finest ingredients that he sources all of his produce from his very own farms just outside of Paris.  Passard is a serious locavore who is has the confidence to let his "home-grown" vegetables speak for themselves.

I cannot begin to express the excitement that I felt the night of July 3, 2014 as Hubby and I made our way to Arpege.  There were so many reasons to be on Cloud 9.  Our first 3 Michelin Star restaurant experience, led by a vegetable-obsessed chef with his own farm, in a beautiful Paris neighbourhood.  I was in my glee!

Arpege is located on la Rue Verenne, a little side street off of Rue St. Germain.  It was a picturesque 45 minute walk from our apartment in Marais across the Seine.  You had best keep your eyes peeled on approach, since the entrance is quite inconspicuous amongst the rows of historic stone buildings that line the street.

The space inside is separated into an upstairs and downstairs which offer quite different dining experiences.  The downstairs, where we were seated, is reminiscent of a cave, with an arched ceiling and stone walls.  It is quite intimate, with about 6 tables for 2-4 people.  The upstairs is much more open, and offers a more traditional setting.  Both are nice, and it really comes down to personal preference as to which a guest may prefer, but it may be worth calling ahead and making a request if you feel strongly either way.

Service is absolutely exceptional.  Quite honestly, it was perfect in every way.  The 6 tables downstairs were tended to by 4 servers, each with a different role.  One server was constantly scanning the room to see where water glasses needed refilling, wine needed to be poured, or bread needed to be delivered and there was not a moment that evening that these tasks occurred even a millsecond too late.  We had a very kind, charismatic server who presented us with the menu, explained all of our options and ensured that our dishes were delivered in a timely fashion by other servers.  Everything ran like clockwork.  While the service was formal, it was not at all stuffy and by the end of the evening, there were jokes being tossed around between the servers and the guests, as well as between guests at different tables.  One of the highlights of the evening was when Chef Alain Passard himself came down to speak with each individual table, ensure that we were enjoying everything, and even share a few jokes.  Apparently, Passard makes an appearance every night of service, making every guest feel special.  I must admit, I got goosebumps!

There are several different options in terms of menus, including a la carte, a vegetarian tasting menu and a seasonal tasting menu.  I chose the vegetarian tasting while Hubby did the seasonal tasting.  Because Passard’s main focus is honouring the humble vegetable, both tasting menus are pretty similar, except for 3 courses on the seasonal menu that contain fish/meat, as well as an additional cheese course.  Either menu will provide you with more than enough food, even if you have a huge appetite.  We heard several diners say, in additional to ourselves: “Really, another course???”.  There ended up being 21 courses in total!!!

I really find it difficult to choose standout dishes at this meal as everything was truly outstanding.  I have never tasted such fresh vegetables and herbs, some of which were left in their natural beauty and some which were transformed beyond belief.  After this meal, I fear that no vegetarian tasting, or any other meal for that matter, will live up to this one.  And presentation?  Everything was so pretty, it was a shame to eat it.

Here is a pictural representation of our meal, with the exception of a few dishes that I mistakenly devoured before snapping a pic:)  Note that most dishes were on both the vegetarian and seasonal tasting menus, with just a few different meat and fish dishes swapped in on the seasonal menu.    I am sure you will agree that many of these dishes look too pretty to eat!

Overall verdict?

Arpege is, to date, the best meal of my life, and believe me, it will be tough (practically impossible) to beat.   The philosophy, the service and, most importantly, the food, were nothing short of PERFECT.  Yes, this place will cost you a pretty penny, but Arpege is a restaurant that every foodie must experience.

You simply cannot imagine just how magical it is without experiencing it for yourself.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

London and Paris Foodie Adventure: Day 8- Chateaubriand

129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris, France
+33 1 43 57 45 95

Tastiness Factor: 8/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Just like several of the other restaurants that we enjoyed on this European foodie adventure (SeptimeHedone), Chateaubriand surprises its guests with a new menu EVERY SINGLE DAY which is a hallmark of a true locavore restaurant.  Most of the fresh and seasonal ingredients were very simply prepared, albeit often in very unique and unexpected ingredients (samphire, elderberry) and ingredient combinations (capers with sorbet and cherries!).  Our farewell plate was about as simple as it gets- a dish of unaltered freshly picked strawberries.

We first discovered Chateaubriand on Anthony Bourdain's televsion series "No Reservations" and we decided right away that this place had the potential to be one of our favourites.  Its daily-changing menu,  infamous no-nonsense chef Inaki Aizpitarte, "off the beaten path" location and 27th spot on San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants's list had us intrigued from the get-go.

Chateaubriand was a 30 minute walk from where we were staying in Marais.   It was a great to stroll through the hip Republique district which was alive and jumping even on our walk home at 10pm.  The street around Chateaubriand itself is certainly nothing special, but you will know you are almost there when you spy groups of people spilling out onto the sidewalk waiting to get in.  Because Chateaubriand is in such high demand and reservations are only taken for the 1st seating at 7:30, Aizpitarte built a bar next door called Le Dauphin where guests can grab a drink (or, more likely, multiple drinks) while they wait or their table.  When we were leaving just after 9:30 on a Thursday night, Le Dauphin was jam-packed with eager customers so I guess the second seating must go until the wee hours of the morning!

Le Dauphin
The front of the restaurant is completely open to the street, allowing for a refreshing breeze to pass through the room.  If it is a warm summer Paris evening, I would suggest nabbing a table in the front of the restaurant.  We thought it might be more intimate at the back but found it a little stuffy.

The atmosphere is very casual, which goes along with Aizpitarte's revolt against fussy classic French dining..  I quite liked the multi-color tile floors, wood tables and even the tilted lights on the chandeliers.  If I did not know better, I would have thought I was back home in Vancouver at a hip new spot in East Van rather than in Paris!

We arrived just before 7:30 for the reserved early seating (reservations can be made 2 weeks ahead of time).  The service started out well, with a server coming to sit himself at the table next to us, explain the menu and ask about allergies/restrictions.  He kindly agreed to honour my pescatarian request, which on that evening, required only 1 dish to be switched out.  We then had another server recommend us a bottle of wine to go along with the tasting menu.  So far, so good.  But as the evening progressed, the service went downhill.  I actually felt bad for the servers who looked like they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  We would have a dish practically thrown in front of us, described in a few hurried words that we could not understand and then the server would run off to the next stable.  I have never been one to like overly formal service, and did not mind having to pour my own wine or own water, but I would have really appreciated a bit more personality from the waitstaff of a restaurant that has garnered such wide acclaim.

Chateaubriand offers a "degustation" (tasting) menu, which includes several amuse bouche (5 on our visit), 3 mains, and either a cheese course or 2 desserts.  All of this is reasonably priced at 65 euros (125 euros with wine pairings).  There was quite an interesting assortment of cuisines throughout the meal, with a surprising number of Asian-inspired dishes especially in the amuse bouches.  This is about as far away from classical french as it gets!

 Here is a rundown of our meal, with descriptions of our favourites marked with asterisk.

Wine- We opted not to do the wine pairings so one of the servers (not sure if he was sommelier?) assisted us in choosing a wine that would pair nicely with that evening's seafood-heavy menu.  The very nice (and also quite economical) bottle of wine was left on our table on ice for us to pour for ourselves to during the meal.  We were not shown the bottle before it was poured which we found a little odd, but that seems to be the way it works here so we went with it.

Bread- Hubby, the bread lover and connoisseur, felt the bread deserves special mention.  He loved the soft, chewy texture.

Amuse Bouche: 

Cheese buns:

Broth with Thai flavours:

Indian-spiced "straws":

***Crab and carrot salad- This Thai-inspired amuse, with its very forward Thai flavours (a good dose of sesame oil and fish sauce) was really quite special considering how simple it outwardly appeared.

***Chilled pea and tarragon soup- I am not usually a chilled soup fan but I could not help but love this light cream soup that was  bursting with summer flavour.


Squid, almonds and samphire:

Turbot, sesame and elderberry:

***Secreto, salsa verde and onions- Hubby had the dish as is with the secreto (a Spanish ham) , while they kindly substituted cod for me.  Accompanying the pork/cod was a refreshing salsa verde, and then the whole dish was served topped with a generous heap of crunchy fried fennel fronds.  It was unbelievably good and was by far the standout dish of the meal.  Hubby maintains that it was one of the best of the trip for him.


Cherries and capers:

"Tocino de cielo":

Fresh strawberries:

Overall verdict?

Although we appreciated Chef Aizpitarte's departure from classic french cuisine and his use of very unique flavour combinations, we really didn't feel that this place lived up to the hype.  While I totally understand their desire to create a casual, non-pretentious dining experience, I do expect a minimum level of service and they fell short.  While one of mains was admittedly beyond delicious, there were few other dishes that really blew us away.

I really wanted to love you Chateaubriand, but to be honest, you let us down.