Escape from Seattle: Voracious in Vancouver

by on April 1, 2011

In addition to my escape to Portland and to points east last summer (and Vancouver Island), I made three trips to Vancouver/Richmond the second half of the year, and am finally here to report on them.

To help break this into manageable bites, I’m dividing my report into three pieces. This post will explore some “splurges and snacks” (with an emphasis on Vancouver), the next will be a Japanese interlude, and the final will have a “seriously Chinese” theme, focusing more on Richmond (but with some Vancouver places included as well).

Here are the places I’ll cover in this first report:

  • ORU
  • Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel
  • MARKET by Jean-Georges
  • Shangri-La Hotel
  • Boneta
  • Blue Water Café + Raw Bar
  • West
  • Go Fish
  • Café Medina
  • Dutch Girl Chocolates
  • Mediterranean Specialty Foods
  • Cheesecake Etc.
  • Thomas Haas Chocolates

I hadn’t been to Vancouver in a few years, as my discovery of the dynamic food scene in Portland had me traveling south instead of north. But a trip to Whistler provided an opportunity to rediscover this gem of a city, and I quickly realized what I’d been missing.

My first meal was at ORU, which would be the first of two I’d take at hotel restaurants. Chef David Wong pays homage to culinary traditions of the East in contemporary dishes that are often a sight to behold. I’d heard about ORU’s ramen and was eager to give that a try, but it had been dropped from the menu due to some challenges in achieving consistent quality. Instead, I enjoyed this feast:

ORU is located at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, which opened just in time for the 2010 Summer Olympics. The hotel’s guest rooms are luxurious, with state-of-the-art technology and views of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, Stanley Park, and Coal Harbour. As part of a splurge stay here, I highly recommend an experience at the Willow Stream Spa. During a return visit, my partner and I did a Ritual for Two spa treatment (aka “Playful”)—complete with applying aromatic algae masks on each other, soaking in a Japanese tub, and receiving side-by-side massages—which was fun and relaxing. Unfortunately, we were foolish in not allowing enough time to enjoy all of the spa’s facilities, including the outdoor relaxation deck with its private Jacuzzis and meditation pods. Don’t make the same mistake.

Desire further pampering? Then check out Chi, the Spa at the Shangri-La. The hotel is just a few short blocks away, close to the Robson Street shopping scene, and is the only Shangri-La in North America. Service is attentive and elegant. Bedrooms feel slightly smaller than at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, but the bathrooms gleam with granite and are simply monstrous. And I loved my corner suite with its expansive deck, great for relaxing. Touches of Eastern décor make this property a serene, meditative spot in the city, and the feeling finds its way into the spa, where we enjoyed the Perfect Partners package: a steam shower for two, then the Chi foot ritual, followed by another hour-long side-by-side massage.

You’ll want to take your spa treatment on an empty stomach, and if you’re hungry afterward, you may not want to stray far from the hotel. Luckily, you can stay in by dining at MARKET by Jean-Georges. Years ago, I enjoyed eating at Vong in New York, and was inspired to experiment with Jean-George Vongerichten’s cookbook, so I knew I’d be in for some treats. As at ORU, there’s a big influence of Asian ingredients. Unfortunately, it was the first shoot with my new camera, and the challengingly dark lighting made for poor picture quality. Here are a few photos from the meal:

If you choose to leave the comfort of your hotel, as I did pre-MARKET dinner, you might take a walk (building your appetite in the process) to the Gastown area for drinks and bites at Boneta. It’s a lively spot with intriguing art on the walls and mirrors on the ceiling. (Ahem…it’s a restaurant, not a hotel.) I enjoyed sampling from the menu, but after talking endlessly about poutine the previous days in Whistler, it was time to finally get a taste:

Next visit to Vancouver, still savoring my spectacular meals by Chef James Walt at Araxi in Whistler, I was anxious to give sister restaurant Blue Water Café + Raw Bar a try. As Asian food always attracts me, and having heard that sushi is generally much better in Vancouver than in Seattle (where it’s already quite good), I was especially interested in sitting at the raw bar. The experience was remarkable. Chef Yoshihiro Tabo has been serving sushi for many years, and as we were game for anything, omakase was the way to go. The presentations were crisp and clean, with the quality of the food eclipsing what I’ve had here. Snapshots from the meal:

I was so impressed with my Top Table experiences that one night we visited another of their restaurants: West. With Chef David Gunawan at the helm, this is another Asian-influenced eatery, but this night we were there with dessert on our minds. West offers a daily chocolate tasting (this night it included chocolate rum raisin torte with almond butternut ice cream, marzipan custard on chocolate brownie, and dark chocolate ice cream with almond chocolate dacquoise toasted meringue—all of which I sampled and enjoyed), but with an appreciation for more savory desserts, I chose the blue cheese galette with honey sour cream and caramelized apples, roasted pear ice cream, and pomegranate. And, much to the bartender’s delight, a glass of Pedro Ximenez to accompany it. Both dessert and drink were delicious. And combined with spectacular service, I’m inspired to return for dinner someday. My dessert:

Those are some splurges, well worth taking.

Now, on to some snacks.

This may count as a meal for some, but when you’re power eating like me, it’s a place for a between-meal bite: Go Fish, just off Granville Island. Go Fish is perpetually busy and the grilled scallop sandwich sells out early when it’s on the menu, but you can always get a basket of sustainable fish and chips, with cole slaw to counter the oil. Good stuff, and a great location. To avoid parking problems, walk from downtown and take a False Creek Ferry to get to Granville Island.

We enjoy going to Vancouver with friends, and while I generally prepare a robust eating itinerary, I’m always interested in friends’ favorites—or at least routines. One friend raved about a leisurely breakfast at Café Medina, while another suggested a grab-and-go of waffles and coffee—which is what we did one morning. Café Medina gets crowded, so it’s nice to know that you can order your Belgian-style waffles at the front counter and not have to deal with a wait.

Whenever I’m in Vancouver, I have to make a stop at Dutch Girl Chocolates. The truffles are okay, but I’m there for the licorice, which is available from jars or in prepackaged, cone-shaped plastic bags. You can buy sweet or salty licorice; I usually go for a variety pack that tilts more salty than sweet. This is high quality licorice, so I try to apportion it out to a couple of pieces per day—though I tend to break that rule quickly and go through my stash too fast.

When I told a local friend that I was going to Dutch Girl, she alerted me to another food find at the other end of the commercial strip on Commercial Drive. Mediterranean Specialty Foods offers all things Greek (and beyond), including a nice variety of baklava. I ordered one of each, and agreed with my tipster that the best baklava is the one with pistachios.

In another get-together, the Japanese coalition in our group was eager to try Cheesecake Etc., as Japanese people tend to love cheesecake. Whenever I go to Japan, I’m amused by the shouts of “rare cheesecake.” First time I heard that, I thought had I stumbled special, perhaps one-of-a-kind. I was wrong. But I was right in giving it a try, as that cheesecake was delicious. But back to Cheesecake Etc. When I mentioned I ate there, a couple of Canadian friends laughed, telling me they hung out there during high school dates, trying to feel like real adults. The place is dark (good for groping, I’m sure) and the live music is a nice touch. But there’s not much of a menu—basically just cheesecake and toast—and nothing especially in-season. We went with lemon, and it was just ma-ma (Japanese for so-so), at least for me.

So what’s the go-to place in Vancouver to quickly satisfy my sweet tooth? Thomas Haas Chocolates. I discovered it by accident years ago when running from the rain, retreating into what looked like a cozy coffeeshop in a downtown hotel. That location is gone, but spurred by Saveur magazine’s inclusion of the chocolate sparkle cookie in its annual Top 100 issue, I went to the North Vancouver shop a few years ago and actually met the chocolate man himself. Haas had me sample a few truffles, which I enjoyed, after which I dosed up more with a chocolate sparkle cookie and a hot chocolate. (Then again, the pistachio sour cherry tart, pictured, is also special.) Thomas Haas Chocolate counts as a snack but is also a splurge, so you can put it in the spendy column, especially compared to something like a bowl of ramen noodles. Which we’ll discuss a lot next time….

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