The Coast is not Clear: The Case of the Gluten Containing Eel and the Undercooked Scallop

After a trip to the Vancouver aquarium as part of a team building activity (even though only three of us went), we went to look for a quick bite knowing the evening fare at the meeting would be less than appealing.  It was an abnormally warm May day, so we wanted a patio,a drink and some decent food.

Coast is part of the Glowbal group conglomerate which owns a number of popular Vancouver restaurants. Having previously dined at Black + Blue and the Fish Shack with reasonable success, it sounds like a good idea, especially with the advertised cocktail menu and half price appetizers.  After making the uphill trek to Alberni Street, we were able to secure a table on the front patio. The three of us were wearing casual team-building clothes (ie. yoga pants and shorts). We were hardly dressed for the occasion, especially in the midst of the attire of the waitstaff and  numerous suits coming in but we were quickly comfortable in our outdoor seats.

Both my colleagues have what I consider excellent palates and both do not consume gluten.  One of them has also never tried nigiri, so we took the opportunity to run an experiment with the small list on the menu. My thought was to hit her with the ebi thinking it would best to start her off with something cooked not to mention the fact that there was no guilt based on the fact we were just at the aquarium watching numerous other species splash around. The waitress, however, insisted that we opt for the unagi (since it was cooked) although I thought eel may not be the best way to initiate a novice sushi eater.  The shrimp arrived without issue but the eel arrived coated in what appeared to be a brown sauce. Even as a gluten glutton, I have become aware that any brown sauce is an alarm bell, especially on a piece of sushi.  It usually means soy sauce which means gluten. Keep in mind the menu clearly stated this item was gluten free but after deliberation by the waitstaff and kitchen slightly longer than the OJ Simpson verdict, we were told it in fact contained gluten.  Big mistake.  In the end, I ate the eel (which was decent but expensive) and I succeeded in introducing her to the world of nigiri albeit a tame piece of cooked shrimp.

Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively)
Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively). Note the brown sauce…

 

I will give Coast credit for it’s buck a shuck special.  I indulged in a half dozen oysters, portraying behaviour similar to that of a five year old opening a new set of lego.  I become mesmerized by combining oyster flesh with pungent horseradish and some type of mignonette.   In fact, I don’t think anything gives me as much enjoyment in the area of seafood relations since Mr. Tecklenberg showed me how to hypnotize a lobster when I was 8 or 9 at a table in his namesake Sudbury restaurant. I was so giddy I forgot the picture.

Each of us weren’t up for a whole lot of food (beside the after effect of seeing a whole lot of underwater life), but we each ordered a dish and did a family style sorta thing.  First were the thai mussels (minus the bread).  They were tasty but a rather dismal serving for $19. Maybe it would have come with 17 pieces of garlic bread which would have made it a bit more economical.

 

Thai Mussels (18.95 or each)
Thai Mussels (18.95 or about a buck each..I’d rather have the oysters)

 

 

Second was the grilled halibut.  It made a lot of sense given the fact it was the season and there was not a hint of brown sauce anywhere on the plate.  Instead, it was served with a decent potato salad.  The fish was cooked nicely but it’s difficult to justify the $38 price tag.

 

Grilled Halibut ($37.95)
Grilled Halibut ($37.95)

Finally, my choice was the apple chopped salad ($12.95) with the optional upgrade of two scallops for a whopping ten bucks.  It arrived with a lone scallop and I made a note to see if it was reflected properly on the bill.  I never had the chance.  The salad itself was fresh, crisp and nicely balanced but when I cut open the scallop I looked at my colleagues and in my best Gordon Ramsey accent yelled “The f@*%ing scallop is raw”.  In fact, it was a bit of a relief because paying 5 bucks for a scallop the size of a jawbreaker just wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps the  biggest annoyance of all was when the manager returned with the plate to confirm with me that, after careful deliberation with the chef, the scallop was in fact raw and they would gladly take it off the bill.  I guess all those years of watching Hell’s kitchen finally paid off since it saved me the embarrassment of being corrected in front of my esteemed colleagues.

 

Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop
Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop

 

The source of much deliberation....
The source of much deliberation….

 

My Take

Vancouver’s Glowbal group seems to be like olives, cilantro or goat cheese; you either love them or hate them.  Some see the group as an innovative and eclectic collection of restaurants showcasing an incredible arrays of foods.  Others see it as an overpriced series of misguided trends in which the decor is more important than the food. The inability to properly display gluten-free foods combined with minute mussels and an undercooked and underwhelming five dollar scallop (that included  a second opinion on doneness) makes me lean toward the latter.  This was just a bad experience with no effort made to fix it.  Good thing there were crudites back at the meeting.  I swear a carrot stick never tasted so good.

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

Trying out for Masterchef Canada: My journey for the elusive apron

I decided to test my luck by trying out for the Masterchef open casting a little while back. I watch the US show and often wondered what it would be like to stand face to face with Joe Bastianich and watch his blood boil after I called him a mama’s boy and prepared for a cast iron pan to the side of  the head (or at least a good tongue lashing and that ridiculous stare). I also dreamed of witnessing Graham Elliot piercing a perfectly cooked poached egg yolk  from up close and watch him savour the flavour while staring intently toward the roof as he chewed.  Finally, I wanted to hear Gordon Ramsay up close, referring to everything as the most delicious, freshest  (insert food name here) and explain and maybe demonstrate the appropriate means of cooking such food.

On the other hand, let’s be real. The odds that any of these judges do more than make a guest appearance are astronomical.  Instead, I anticipate Canadian contestants will be dealt one of the half dozen celebrity chefs which grace the airways (that of course depends on whether Bell’s CTV and the  Shaw’s Food Network Canada can play nice in the kitchen).  Might we see the likes of Mark McEwen, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes or Anna Olson?  Or may we see a new crop of judges, possibly chosen with the same rigor and cookie-cutter approach as the contestants themselves.

One option was sending in an application with a video in advance; the other was just showing up, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.  I put my cinematographic hat on and planned to film myself caressing grape leaves in my back yard in my best seductive voice while explaining how to  stuff and serve them. Instead, I ran out of time and just decided to show up on day 2 and roll the die.   I decided on street food, choosing to make my Poppin’ shrimp tacos in hopes of showing my knowledge of food trends coupled with some pretty standard culinary skills (I’m planning to post the recipe to my Veg..Eat..Ales blog shorty). I spent a number of hours refining everything from the taco shells to the corn pop coated shrimp to the sauces which would slathered on top of the finished dish.

I live 2 hours away from the tryouts, so I arranged to stay at a buddy’s place, figuring I could awake at the crack of dawn and compile a winning dish with plenty of time.  The night before I hunted Kensington and Chinatown  for an Ontario grown cabbage and fresh shrimp.  With the mission accomplished, I grabbed a quick bite at Valdez (review later), got back and crashed, setting the alarm for 4 am, giving myself plenty of time to prep in time for the 7am start.

Different shrimp, different pans and a different stove makes for a different product.  I burnt my first four shrimp in seconds. I’m sure I impressed my buddy’s floor mates as I filled his apartment with smoke at 430 am.  I eventually figured it out and produced 4 pretty decent looking shrimp.   I made the tortillas, fried them and stored them in paper towels to keep moist, mixed the jalapeno lime slaw, packed it all into my cooler and walked over to the open casting a few blocks away. The dish had to be served at room temperature many hours later, so I hoped each component would maintain its integrity. I opted for three small tacos as opposed to a single large one in an effort to showcase the three different sauces I prepared as well as the fact that I made my own tortilla shells from scratch.

I arrived at about 635. Once in  line, I received my green wristband marked #43. Shortly after, the line grew longer and I was confident that I would have my turn prior to dusk.  I waited patiently and we were soon greeted by the staff to be happy when the cameras came by.  Some of us were even given signs like “I want to spoon with Gordon” to rouse the cheers.

My assigned wristband
My assigned wristband

Eventually, I was whisked into the hotel and followed a tedious process to get registered, sign my life away and get my mugshot taken.  I went from number 43 on a wristband to H6 on a blue sheet and was sent into a holding room with about 100 others to await my fate. The cast of characters ranged from 18 year old aspiring chefs to a guy who look in his 60’s wearing a blue blazer and red converse shoes.  At first, most of us  held their coolers like they were live organs, unwilling to share any trade secrets (although our food was already prepared)  As we warmed up to each other  (unlike the food which had to be served at room temperature), we started to divulge stories about ourselves and our dishes.  It was surreal. For example, there was:

  • a  stoic, retired RCMP officer who started saying next to nothing, told us countless stories about the police force before, in a authoritative voice, disclosing that  he had made  blueberry lavender butter tarts as his signature dish.
  • A self proclaimed bitchy mom who actually became a bitchy mom when everybody started calling her Krissy.
  • A guy in a lobster shirt who served…..pork tortillas.
  • A woman who, after realizing the wait was going to be a lot longer than she expected, left only to return 10 minutes later with a fully loaded hot dog from a cart outside the hotel which she proceeded to eat in street meat fashion in front of a hundred, cranky and hungry onlookers.

When your group is finally called you enter what  feels  likes a steam room and set up your station. By luck of the draw, I was front and centre in row 1.  Forty-seven other contestants set up in the same way.  The rules were simple.  Once the clock started, you had three minutes to plate.  So, I mixed the slaw, threw down the shells…two minutes… filled them , topped with shrimp and…..one minute remaining began the final garnish.  Before I knew it, the familiar shout of “hands up” filled the room and I was unable to top my tacos with chopped cilantro.  Regardless, I was pleased with the dish and got prepared for the judges. After judging we were allowed to snap pictures although all I had was my low resolution blackberry camera.

Poppin' Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce
Poppin’ Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce

The aforementioned blue sheet had my number on one side and the scoring system on the other. Essentially, contestants are judged on taste, appearance, creativity, food knowledge and quality of ingredients.  In addition, there was room for judges to add comments about personal stories and aspirations of each of the contestants.   The main food judges were the executive producers of Masterchef USA.  Other judges included a number involved in the Canadian production. Since I was at the first table, the judges got to me soon.  She confirmed my use of homemade tortillas, cut my shrimp to check if it was cooked and asked me if I used three different sauces.  I boasted yes, yes and yes.  The second judge asked me about the shrimp and I told her about my corn pop coating. She said it sounded that something David Chang would do.  That comment alone was like scoring a birdie during a shitty round of golf…anything else didn’t matter.

So, after an extensive judging period in which not a single judge tasted anything I made, deliberations began.  It was like waiting for a court decision.  My row speculated that the longer it took, the more likely we were to go through. In the meantime, we wandered around the room and admired each other’s dishes.  There was chocolate ravioli, ceviches, tartares, a whole pork roast with three sauces, gluten free cupcakes, ribs and all sorts of other things. After about 30 minutes, they returned and instructed us to either return to the holding room for further interviews if we made it or take the walk of shame out the front door and back to the mundane life of cooking without fanfare and pressure if we didn’t.

In the end, I was dismissed.  I think the most frustrating part was not having any idea why.  Was it my boring story about cooking in a way that will appeal to my kids? Was it the fact I opted for street food as opposed to something more refined? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the taste because..well….they didn’t taste it.

I’m looking forward to the show which should air in January, hoping I recognize a few of the finalists.  Although I won’t  be one of them, I can tell those around me that I would have made it if my hair was blue , if they actually tasted my food or if I made something more refined (as they smile at you while  thinking in their heads.. “You must have been really bad because I can’t believe that schmuck went further than you did). In the end,  it was a fun experience and I can honesty say there are no sour grapes, although I may use them should I choose to try out next year.  Roasted venison with a sour grape reduction on a bed of quinoa and woodland mushrooms…I like the sound of that.

Chicago: Day 1:Black coffee, Blackbird and Friends of Gordon Ramsay

I arrived at Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport at 7 am.  I ran into a customer on the plane. Upon takeoff, she  kindly offered me her copy of Oprah’s magazine to read  on the plane, so I figured what the hell…I was  going to Chicago and I did learn how to remove a mole with surgery.  When we landed,  we agreed to head into the core together. To my surprise, there wasn’t  a cab to be found. Eventually, one arrived and it was the first of many pristine cabs (yes, I actually enjoyed the cabs in Chicago despite their stop and go and hornophilic nature) I would take during the week.  The drive was slow and I eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel on the magnificent mile.  My room was ready, I dumped my bag and heading for a day of culinary adventure.

Stop 1– Grahamwich

Anybody who knows me is aware I’m a sucker for celebrity chefs.  Graham Elliot’s sandwich shop, Grahamwich, allowed me to experience the fares of the heavy man without the need for a heavy wallet.  Sitting downtown, it offers an arrays of sandwiches with sides including popcorn, chips, pickles and even soft serve ice cream.   It’s a simple joint,  with minimal seating and the trademark GE symbol painted here and there. It also has one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard on a website and no apparent way to turn it off.  The staff resembled Graham himself, with slicked hair and wide-rimmed specs, although few would be able to mimic the speech of expectations related to cutting through the bread of a perfectly toasted sandwich.

I opted for the waldorf chicken sandwich which included grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola and celery for $8.  I threw in a large order of local pickles on the side and a homemade vanilla kola for $3 each.  For good measure, I grabbed a maple bacon Long John which I venture to guess was a product of local bakery Glazed and Infused for $4.

I grabbed my “To Go” pack, hopped on the subway, and jaunted up to Wrigley field to check out the field.  Grabbing a bench outside the park, I dug in.

Wrigley Field
Wrigley Field

The most underrated component of a sandwich is the texture.  This one was a home run!  Each bite was like a great pitching performance and a couple of base hits; the chicken salad that was firm and not soggy and it had perfect walnut and celery crunch and juicy pops of grape.  Delicious! I opened  the cup holding two flavours of pickles (traditonal kosher dill and spicy). Equally delicious.  The drink was subtly sweet and very vanilla flavoured, a polarity that might turn off a soda-pop purists.   All in all, a great lunch by a great park.  I even thought I saw a few tourists scanning the neighbourhood looking for the source of my lunchtime bliss.

Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles
Chicken Waldorf Sandwich and Pickles

Grahamwich on Urbanspoon

Satisfied, I snapped a few pics and hopped back on the subway and heading up the red line to stop #2.  Along the way, I succumbed to the donut and tore off a quarter.  Anybody that thinks the combination of maple, bacon and donuts works…you’re right! It was sweet and salty and doughy.  Let’s call it an achievement of the donut triple crown….or maybe the Cy Yum award.

Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)
Maple Bacon Donut (presumably from Glazed and Infused)

Stop #2- Metropolis Coffee

There’s a lot of hype about this coffee (it is served at GE’s restaurants after all), so I was hoping the subway ride up would be worth the visit.  I walked past the patio (complete with the classic picture of my favorite bird with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and a caption reading “No Puffin”…come to think of it, how would  a puffin get a cigarette in its mouth to begin with or light it for that matter) and into the rather large interior.  The patrons were like a chess board; all sorts of sizes and shapes.  On the other hand, the staff were similar; young and tattooed and ready to brew.  I grabbed a Chemex (pronounced Chem-ex, not chem-A as some of us Canadians like to say in err) made with a nice Guatemalan bean.  The execution was flawless and allowed 10 minutes or so for friendly banter.  They take their coffee seriously and the final product reflected it. The payment machines  were down, so I got a pat on the back and a “just pay when you leave”. Great coffee, great service, great sign. By the way, I remembered to pay…can’t risk the karma coffee.

Metropolis Coffee
Metropolis Coffee Front Counter

Metropolis Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

Stop #3– BIG and Little’s

Knowing I was in for a late dinner, I figured a mid-afterrnoon snack was in  order.  I decided to take a walk downtown and ended up at my first diner, drive-in and drive of the trip.  BIG and Little’s is the brainchild of Hell’s Kitchen contestant Tony D’Alessandro, who was remembered having  issues with segmenting grapefruit and who’s early and subtle exit was overshadowed by a volcanic blowup by some guy wanting  to punch Ramsey in the face.  Since then, he has found success in this cash only taco/burger/fish shack. It’s like a beach canteen in the middle of the city  minus the seagulls, crying kids and barefoot patrons. The staff were friendly and the service was quick.  I ordered a Big and Little fish taco and al pastor (pork belly).  Both tacos were good although I found too much sauce on the first and not enough rendering on the latter. Otherwise, the fish was cooked perfectly (although it was swimming in a sea of lettuce) and the belly was well seasoned and worked well combined with a few sweet pineapple chunks. The fois gras and fries and fish and chips looked divine, but I was going out for dinner later so I toned down a bit, not knowing of the microscopy-requiring meal to come.

Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little's tacos- $4 and $3.50
Tacos al pastor and BIG and Little’s tacos- $4 and $3.50


Verdict- 3.5 Guyz

BIG & little's on Urbanspoon

Stop #4– Blackbird

I’m going to do a full review in a separate blog, but one of the dangers of Michelin star restaurants is portion size.  In this case, Blackbird could be renamed “Blackbird Food”.  Bitesize frog leg portions, matchbox sized sturgeon and half a chicken wing were highlights of the dishes served.  Although the flavours were nice, the crowded room, average service and the aforementioned small bites left this star shining dimly.  The desserts were good though!

What frog donated these? $16
What frog donated these? $16