Thursday, 23 April 2015

Gluten-Free High Tea?

Whatever would Queen Victoria have said?! 

Well, it's hard to imagine how she would have responded to the concept of gluten-free food, but I suspect that if HRH Vicky was partial to regular high tea (how could she not have been?), then the Secret Garden Tea Company's tray of gluten-free high-tea goodies would have busted her corsets.

But before I get into the Devon-cream filling of this review, a few words about my own gluten-freedom. Unlike an unusual number of T1 diabetics, I don't have celiac disease. When I went off grains, a few years ago, I didn't have gluten sensitivity symptoms either.* I was acting instead on a desire to lower my carb intake (for blood sugar management purposes) and responding to the compelling grains-aren't-really-good-for-humans argument that this guy and others were making.

So ... on to the review! I've visited The SGTC a few times recently, but this review draws mainly on the celebration of my young friend Gabrielle's 11th birthday.

Gabrielle and the goodies: GF on the left!

Food: π π π π π **

Readers familiar with garden-variety gluten-free fare will know that the bar hasn't been set especially high in this culinary niche. Chalky, crumbly, mealy, mushy ... these and other descriptors tend to come to me on those rare occasions when I try the products of companies with names like "Glutino" (I wrote about one exception here). Imagine my delight, then, when our server produced a generous three-tier tray of gluten-free savories and sweets that not only matched their wheaty counterparts in flavour, texture, and variety but were, in my view, better. Sure, the carb count was still high (as my glucose meter reminded me afterward), and the GF option was pricier than the "normal" one ($34 vs. $28 for a full high tea), but, as a special occasion indulgence, it was worth those costs.

 Tea: π π π π 

The Secret Garden's tea menu is, fittingly, extensive, covering everything from "canonical" black teas to fruity infusions. Teas are steeped in individual, cozy-covered ceramic pots and served in china cups from the establishment's charming and quirky collection of cups and saucers. The tea isn't loose — and I know from my days of researching the tea-estate elements of Adam's Peak that this would be a big faux pas in certain circles — but it's fresh and hot and flavourful nevertheless. I've tried three of their offerings, all of them canonical: "Secret Garden Assam," "Queen Helen," and "Toffee Pu-Erh" (no idea how to pronounce that last one, but it was tasty!). Gabrielle had a mango infusion, which smelled divine.

Ambience: π π π +

A little too bright? A little too SoCal? Too much like the breakfast room of a B&B that's just starting out and hasn't quite got its aesthetic act together? Not quite in keeping with the cozy drawing-room mood that the place seems to be otherwise striving for? I suspect my judgments reveal a certain brand of class snobbery of which HRH Vicky would heartily approve! On the positive side, the space is clean and tidy, the music tends to the Baroque, and the displays of wares in the shop area are attractive. I should also say that when the place is packed, the ambience is much more pleasing (it was close to empty when Gabrielle and I were there).

Service: π π π π

The Secret Garden offers both takeaway/counter service and table service. The latter, provided by easygoing twenty-somethings on my visits, was friendly, informative, and efficient. So what kept them out of the five-pie category? Well, I'm a fan of formal politeness in certain contexts, and English high tea seems to be one of those contexts. Maybe this is just class snobbery talking again, and maybe Gabrielle wouldn't have had all the fun she had with a more formal serving staff ... but I was busy fantasizing about dinner later that evening with the Duke and Duchess of Westborough and their corgis.

Freddie-friendliness: π π π +

No serious problems, no hassles. I'm mixing occasions here, but on a different visit, when the place was packed and my friend Brenda and I took the last empty table, Freddie ended up in the narrow corridor where the washrooms were located (and was sort of in the way of the people coming and going). Not a big deal, but it occurred to me, as people left and tables opened up, that an invitation to move to a more Freddie-friendly spot would have been nice. (Yes, I could have requested the move myself, but it wasn't all that important at the time.)

"Tails-down to sweets. Where's the tripe?"

Shot-worthy? Rah-ther!

Thanks for reading!

*My dietary landscape has become a little more rocky recently, with a heightened gut sensitivity to compounds known by the weird, military-sounding acronym FODMAPs — compounds found in wheat, as well as a whole truckload of other foods — but that topic strays just a little too far from lace doilies and tea cozies!

** This rating is based on high tea only. The Secret Garden also serves up other fare (soups, sandwiches, salads, quiches). I tried the "Secret Garden salad" recently, and it was a solid 3-pie affair.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Viva, Baru Latino!

Welcome back! This installment of Dining With Freddie takes us to a full-on restaurant for full-on dinner — well, assuming an assortment of tapas counts as dinner (I say it does). The establishment is Restaurante Baru Latino, an oasis of Latin American gusto located in a very un-Latin quarter of Vancouver's west side. We had a reservation for 7:30, which allowed Freddie to dine at his usual time of 6:30 and have a 20-minute sniff/stroll (to the Car2Go car that we'd booked) before donning his red dinner jacket and settling into the corner nook that was waiting for him.

Orange-yellow mood lighting complements Freddie's colouring nicely!

Freddie-friendliness: π π π π π

Baru Latino did just the sorts of things I mentioned in my last post. They had a slight advantage over Faubourg, in that I had made a reservation online and included a brief comment about Freddie. Still, their response to the service-dog situation was exceptional. We were welcomed at the door by co-owner René, who said with a smile that they'd received my note. He led us to a corner table with a perfect Freddie-sized nook, asked if we'd like a dish of water (we declined), then our server came over to greet us and briefly compliment Freddie before enquiring about drinks. At the end of our meal, she asked if we'd mind explaining how Freddie does his job — which, after the excellent service we'd had, we were happy to do.

Ambience: π π π π

Quirky, a little wacky ... but I dug it. The décor includes everything from a wall-mounted kayak to a disco-ball type light fixture, but there is continuity in the warm colours and reflective surfaces. Paul wasn't huge on the music (instrumental pop/soul, heavy on the bass); I hardly noticed it, but when I did, I thought it suited the mood of the place. I would have shut off the TV behind the bar (well, frankly, I'd shut off all TVs in all restaurants, barring the bona fide sports bars), but the Canucks were in their first playoff match, so, uh ... I guess that was non-negotiable? Finally, we agreed that one thing the owners could do to accentuate their lovely space would be to install some kind of window treatment that would let light in but block out the ugly Chevron station across the street. (We weren't near the windows and weren't bothered by the view, but still ...)

The kayak-lamp, fashioned by an artist on Granville Island — not sea-worthy, but beautiful!
These tables were filling up by the time our tapas started arriving.

Service: π π π π π

Five pies — not a surprise, after the welcome we received ... though friendliness alone doesn't cut it in the table-waiting biz. Our server was cheerful and professional in her manner, efficient, and attentive throughout the evening. René chatted with us as we were leaving and outed himself as a dog lover. :)

Happy Diners
(and no, it wasn't just the wine!)

Drink: π π π

Speaking of wine, I should say here that our tendency is to splurge on bottles of wine that we drink at home and to order the cheapest thing on offer (or close) when dining out. So we had a half litre of Chilean pinot noir (Santa Carolina), which was perfectly drinkable (to my untrained palate) but not really memorable. Perhaps the $80 Argentinian blend would have done the trick?

The decaf Americanos we finished off with were strong and, like the wine, très buvables.

Food: π π π π

We stuck to the tapas menu and were not disappointed. The chefs of Baru Latino take obvious care with flavour and presentation and have put together a varied and exciting selection of sharing plates.

Here's what we had ...

Beef Tiradito
seared beef carpaccio with chimichurri, greens, and yam hay

This was a very tasty creation, and Freddie was impressed to sniff that we were consuming raw meat (though bummed that he wasn't offered any). The excellent paper-thin beef seemed a wee bit overwhelmed underneath all the greens and "hay" — a matter of shifting the bale of vegetation, the better to savour the meat.

The things that look like pancakes are plantain cakes, which were offered by our attentive server in lieu of flatbread, after we declined the bread that accompanies one of the other dishes (more on grains and gluten in the next post!). This culinary novelty was very good — a touch too hard/dry to my taste, but Paul really dug them. He even made a point of saying they were better than the plantain chips I attempted a couple of days ago (and he's usually extravagantly and blindly biased in favour of my cooking)!

Chili Prawns
tossed in our house-made hot sauce

OK, so there aren't actually any prawns on this plate, but that's because we scarfed them before I got around to taking a photo. They were yummy, and the sauce was not — as I feared it might be — too sweet. 

Ensalada Baru
mixed greens, with cherry tomatoes, red onion, and avocado 
in a cilantro-lime balsamic dressing 

We ordered the optional chorizo with this. Very tasty overall, though if we'd known the salad in the beef tiradito would be as copious as it was, we would have a selected something different.

oven-baked sliced plantain topped with mozzarella cheese, hogo, and guacamole

More plantain! This was an unusual and fun nacho-like creation. Hogo, as I've gathered from my twenty-second Google search, is an anglicization of the French "haut-goût" (high flavour), but I'm still not sure which part of the dish it refers to. Anyway, yes, fun and flavourful. A tad too nacho-y in the way the whole thing kind of glommed together, though I can't say I minded all that much.


¡Claro que sí! No ouches about it!

Thanks for reading! ¡Buen provecho!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Faubourg Friday

Ah, the start of a new blog! We'll get into the full-meal deal soon enough, but, for starters, here's a little review of a Parisian style café I'd been wanting to try: Faubourg in Kerrisdale Village. Paul, Freddie, and I joined Katherine and Jim for coffee and some pastries on a busy Good Friday morning. I didn't actually eat any pastries. (May as well reveal right off that my diet is, for a variety of reasons, and in spite of lingering pie-love — see the rating system sidebar — pretty low-carb/paleo-ish). But while I wasn't tempted to eat the pretty stuff, I did want to photograph it. I did my best with my StupidPhone but for future posts will clearly have to go back to a dedicated camera.

Anyway, here are the ratings ...

Food: π π π π

According to my companions, Faubourg's pastries are five-pie tasty. Paul, Katherine, and Jim all had pistachio-marzipan croissants. Jim enjoyed a second course of croque-monsieur (aka ham and cheese sandwich), and reported that it was less than stellar — two or three pies — while Katherine pointed out that a classic croque-monsieur should have a béchamel-type sauce. So I'm averaging the overall food rating to four. If I had ordered a pastry, it would have been a classic chocolate croissant — though, strangely, last time I had one of those, as a treat, after going off wheat and other high-carby stuff, I didn't actually enjoy it very much. I was even in Paris. Go figure. But I still love chocolate. Some relationships are forever. (Speaking of which, Paul and I celebrated our 15th anniversary on April Fool's Day.)

Coffee: π π +

It was fine — nothing special, not much zing or, as the wine folk say, complexity — though certainly better than the surprising cup of dishwater I had at Artigiano a while back. With regard to presentation, I guess I've grown accustomed to fancyish coffee places doing artsy stuff in the foam of my cappuccino ... and these guys didn't. A little piece of chocolate on a saucer would've been welcome, too.

Ambience: π π π

Again, not bad, but not super-duper, either. Granted, we were there at a busy time, and our table was right in front of the door ... but there were other things that detracted from the appeal of the space. The lighting was kind of glary, as was the jazz they had playing (I love classic jazz, by the bye). The goodies were temptingly displayed, but the traffic between the central tables and the lineup for ordering made it hard to relax. I think I was in the mood for table service ... though of course that would have meant a different type of establishment, with higher prices, bien sûr.

Service: π π +

Service at Faubourg was friendly enough and efficient enough for a counter-serve establishment. The main glitch had to do with communication. Paul did our ordering (two trips) and reported that the person serving him had real trouble understanding him. Now, Paul is a former radio announcer with pretty clear enunciation (to put it mildly), but he had to repeat "Two decaf cappuccinos" several times before he was understood. This isn't something that would, on its own, put me off returning — who knows what that particular employee's story is? — but it does keep Faubourg's service out of the high-pie range for now.

Freddie-friendliness: π π π π

In a certain sense, I should maybe be giving Faubourg five pies in this category, for the staff completely ignored Freddie — which is much better than gushing over him or trying to pet him (or, obviously, rejecting him in some way). But I think I'll reserve my highest ratings for those places who discreetly make sure that Freddie is comfortably accommodated and who let me know — without making a fuss — that he is welcome. Although I usually refuse dishes of water when they're offered to Freddie in restaurants, they're a nice touch.

Shot-worthy? (See sidebar) 

Yes ... especially on a calmer day, with a better table.

Thanks for visiting!