Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Girl Who Ate Halifax

Sorry for being so tardy with blogging about Halifax (Cole Harbour, really). My excuse is a combination of being very busy doing stuff and very busy being lazy. This past week at work wore me out for some reason, so I needed some time to recharge. In any case, put your feet up because this is looooonng.

Right off the top, I have to say that I must guard this blog from my new personal trainer with my life. If she knew what I've ingested and how lazy I've been for the past five days, I think she'd discharge me from her care. So, if you see her, remember that you know nothing.

Zen Chinese Cuisine - Dim Sum
Immediately after getting off the plane on Saturday, Mom, Dad, Darcy, Koto, and I went straight to Zen Chinese Cuisine in Clayton Park for dim sum. We've been going there for something like 10-15 years and it used to be the best dim sum in town, but we think the chef has changed and it's not nearly as good as it was. But, mediocre dim sum is better than no dim sum at all.

As usual, we had fried taro (mashed taro and pork deep-fried like a croquette), Chinese broccoli with garlic, a spring roll (for my sister and Darcy), black bean spareribs, curry squid, pan-fried radish cake, rice rolls with shrimp, tripe, shumai (pork dumplings), bbq pork buns, sticky rice (wrapped in banana leaf), bean curd wrap (pork filling wrapped with tofu skin), and shrimp dumplings. In addition, we thought we'd strike out and try something new: chicken feet. They were okay, but fatty and a lot of work (many bones). The steamed things like the shumai, shrimp dumplings, and bbq pork buns were very good. Some other things were tasty, but I think they were sitting around for a while so they were lukewarm (e.g. the radish cake, rice rolls). And other things weren't very good at all like the squid (watery sauce), tripe (no flavour), and the sticky rice (bland). They forgot one of our dumpling orders, so the owner gave us some free egg tarts, which are basically a heart attack waiting to happen (lard crust and egg yolk custard), but I loved them and ate two (blush). So, overall not the greatest. If we have time next Saturday before we go, we're going to try a Northern Chinese place or The Great Wall.

The Deck - Ice Cream
Immediately after that we went, luggage and all, to visit the house that my parents are having built on a piece of ocean front land about an hour or so outside of Halifax. It's in a tiny fishing community with people who have lived there so long that the streets are named after them. It's completely quiet and peaceful out there and there's nothing but a combination coffee shop/post office/ice cream stand/movie store. So, of course, we got ice cream. Coffee flavour - yum. The house is coming along and hopefully we'll be able to spend long, lazy days out there starting this fall.

Clearwater - Lobsters
On the way back home with luggage still in the trunk, we stopped by at Clearwater to buy lobsters for dinner. Clearwater has been around for as long as I can remember and they're definitely the most famous seafood retailer in Halifax. They're pretty glitzy now and they have a location at the airport where they can pack lobsters for you to take on your flight to your land-locked destination. They have a huge multi-chambered tank with lobsters sorted by size. It didn't come out very well in the picture, but some of the lobsters were the size of a robust chicken. We usually get the smaller ones. They're tastier, I think. At the checkout, my dad got a little miffed with the customer service, so we didn't buy anything and went down the street to the Fisherman's Market instead.

Fisherman's Market - Better Lobsters
Fisherman's Market is a much more down-to-earth place and it was packed with people. And the lobster was $3 less per pound. AND we got served by an adorable, very fishermany, young guy. It was win-win. When we got home, we boiled the lobsters and had them with melted butter and lemon. This is really the only way to have lobster. Well, except for lobster rolls; they're good too. On the side, we had asparagus with parmesan and fried eggs on top. I think this is a French recipe. My uncle visited us a while back and made this for us (he was living in Paris). You just steam the asparagus, fry some eggs so the yolks are still runny, put them on top, sprinkle with parmesan, and then cut the eggs into pieces so that the yolk and cheese run everywhere and cover the asparagus. So good. And fat free! Kidding, of course.

Soba with Mom
The next day, I was absolutely exhausted, so I opted out of golf. Koto, Darcy, and Dad left at about 9AM to drive to the valley. I, on the other hand, stayed in bed until 12:30 (14 hours of sleep) and stumbled into the kitchen where my Mom had yummy hot soba noodle soup made for the two of us. This is one of my favourite things in the world. It's a fish stock base (very healthy) with buckwheat noodles, green onions, thinly-sliced pork, and a boiled egg. Sprinkled on top is something called 'shichimi', which Wikipedia says is a combination of chili pepper, mandarin orange peel, sesame seed, poppy seed, hemp seed, nori (seaweed), and sansho (Sichuan pepper). My mom brought the noodles back from Japan last week and they were really nice and substantial. Yum. I could eat this every day. I also had some pretty rice crackers (also just brought back from Japan). Some were sweet; some salty.

Chicken Karage and things
After those guys got back from golf, we had chicken karage which is basically Japanese fried chicken. The chicken is coated in a thin layer of cornstarch, deep-fried, and then topped with a sauce made of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and green onions. The cornstarch layer is so thin that the chicken is really crispy without being greasy. On the side we had typical Japanese things like silken tofu with ginger and green onions, sunomono (seaweed and cucumber vinegary salad -- I'm hopeless at making this), spinach in fish stock, and broccoli.

Gourmadises Avenue - Birthday Cake
For dessert, Mom got us a birthday cake from Gourmandises Avenue which is a French patisserie in Cow Bay. Koto and Darcy's birthdays just passed and mine is coming up, so it was a joint unbirthday cake. The patissiers at this bakery are from France and have worked in 5-star hotels and Michelin-rated restaurants. I'm not sure how or why they ended up in Cow Bay, Nova Scotia, but we're lucky they did. They sell their desserts at the Halifax Farmers Market and I hear that they sell out every week. Their cakes are very complex with lots of layers, flavours, and decorations. Our birthday cake was mango coconut. It was too sweet for some of our tastes, but it was good. And it had lots of yummy white chocolate pieces on top.

Okonomiyaki for Lunch
The next day, Mom and Dad slaved away to make us okonomiyaki for lunch. Okonomiyaki is basically a kind of pancake where the batter is mixed with cabbage, pork, and shrimp (or anything else you want to throw in). Once cooked, the whole thing is topped with a savoury sauce and mayonnaise and sprinkled with bonito (fish) flakes and aonori (seaweed). It was awesome. It isn't too difficult to make at home, but if you want to try it somewhere first, Okonomi House in Toronto has good ones (but not as good as my mom and dad's).

Puppy for Dinner
Just kidding. Later on that night, Darcy and I went to visit his brother and they have a 9-week old chocolate lab puppy. She was very adorable and full of energy. And it turns out that she likes beer. Darcy fed her a little bit and she couldn't get enough. Then she had puppy beer breath.

Best Rhubarb Cake Ever from Darcy's Mom
Earlier in the evening, we visited Darcy's parents and his mom made this rhubarb cake that was a soft biscuit crust (half white flour; half whole wheat) topped with rhubarb, cinnamon, white and brown sugar. It was to die for. I loved it so much. At their house, I ate a piece the size of a generous serving of lasagna with vanilla ice cream. We brought some more home for my parents and I had a couple of more small pieces. If I had this cake at a bakery, I'd buy it every day. I think it's my favourite dessert in the world. I guess it's a good thing that I won't have further access to it.

Cora's Breakfast and Lunch
On both Tuesday and Wednesday I had brunchy dates with old friends at Cora's Breakfast and Lunch. Cora's is a chain that started in Montreal, I think. I remember a location there back in the early 90's when I was going to university. It has since expanded across Canada from Newfoundland to Alberta.

You know, if I ever wanted to open a restaurant, I would have a brunch place. People LOVE brunch. The menu is simple, the food costs are low, and you close at 3. And honestly, the quality doesn't have to be that good to please people. Don't get me wrong. Cora's is a great place for brunch with lots of fun, decadent things on the menu. I love going there. But, my advice is to stay away from anything fresh (fruit, salad, etc.) because the produce is a little suspect. It may be crisp if you get there on the right day, but at times it is wilted.

Regardless, I had some yummy things here. When I met Annette, we both ordered the Decadent (or was it Delectable?) Salad, which was mesclun, apple slices, cheese, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, and hard-boiled egg with sliced crepes (ham and cheese; spinach and swiss) on the side. It came with bottled water and we both had the fruit cocktail of the day, butI totally forget what was in it. It was a delicious brunch and even semi-healthy.

When I met Paula there today, it was sort of early (and we were planning on playing golf later) so I dove right in and had Eggs Benedict with potatoes and fruit. The thing about Eggs Benedict is that it really can't be bad. Runny poached eggs, salty ham, English muffin, and buttery Hollandaise. Yum. The potatoes were sort of undercooked and burnt at the same time, but not so much that I didn't eat every single piece. Koto had the 'Gargatuan Feast' (two eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, pancake, creton a.k.a. pork spread, toast, and fruit). Darcy had the 'Construction Plate' (3 eggs, 4 sausages, potatoes, and toast), and Paula had something I can't remember the name of but it was brioche French toast with an egg, bacon, and fruit on top. Brunch is happy time.

Fid Cuisine Inventive
Last night, we all went for dinner at a 'nouvelle cuisine' place in Halifax called Fid. My mom met the chef a while ago because he is always at the Saturday Halifax Farmers Market. I've been having a little ethical struggle lately about criticizing restaurants. I mean, who am I to go to a place and judge every little thing? I suppose that going out to dinner, especially to an expensive place, is kind of an investment in money and time, so I appreciate finding out beforehand what people really thought of the place. But, it makes me feel a little guilty about dumping on someone's honest efforts to create and serve food. I also feel bad when I go for a meal with someone and we have a nice time and then they read later in this blog that I actually hated the food. Or, if it is someone's favourite place and I poo all over it. That being said, here is what I thought about Fid.

The chef, Dennis Johnston, wasn't in the kitchen last night. The waiter told us that he was out for dinner somewhere else. Apparently, he is usually there every day and we were just really unlucky. But, a mark of a good chef is if you can train your staff well enough so that your absence is unnoticeable. Um, I'll get back to that later.

Before our first course, they gave us an amuse bouche (free tiny appetizer). It was basically a fresh salsa made out of itty bitty diced cucumber and peppers, topped with an almond and some sort of leaf, and served in an Asian noodle soup spoon. It tasted like watery cucumber.

For my appetizer, I ordered the fish soup special, which I think is made from a classic French recipe. It's a rusty coloured puree with condiments on the side like grated cheese, croutons, and rouille (tomato garlic mayonnaise). There was a terrible bone in it and it was lukewarm, but it was tasty.

Between courses, they gave us some sorbet to clear the palate, I suppose. It was flavoured with orange and thai basil and it was pretty bad. I don't think they added any sugar to it at all, so it tasted like watery, frozen basil.

For my main I thought I would order a local fish since this is the Maritimes. I had the monkfish with fiddleheads, chanterelle mushrooms, and quinoa. The quinoa (at least I think it was quinoa) was very light, fluffy, and delicious. The fiddleheads were nice too and didn't taste like dirt as they usually do. The mushrooms were grilled, but tasted burnt and the fish was tepid.

For dessert, we shared an apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream and a parmesan crisp on top. I think the glaze was supposed to be caramelized, but it was overcooked so it tasted acrid. My mom thought the presentation made it look like Hiroshima (i.e. nuclear bomb mushroom cloud).

After dessert they have us some free homemade caramels with tiny almond cookies. Um, are caramels supposed to be grainy with sugar?

Anyway, my parents have been to this restaurant at least 5 times and apparently it's their friends' favourite place, but I can't see why. Maybe when the chef is in the kitchen, it's completely different. We were one of three tables occupied, so it's not like they were busy. It was an open kitchen and I think that the number of cooks was roughly the same as the number of patrons. If you want to go out for a semi-fancy dinner in Halifax, I think you're better off going to Jane's on the Common.

Fong's Chinese Restaurant - Chinese Food in Cole Harbour
After golf today, Mom and Dad had an appointment so we were on own for dinner and we failed miserably. Possibilities were either to drive out to Musquodoboit Harbour and have fish and chips, have a barbecue in the backyard, or go to Fong's for some dirty (i.e. good but nasty) Chinese food. I was outvoted (I wanted to BBQ), so Fong's it was. Now, it's not that I'm too good for it (far from it), but I've been feeling very guilty about my nutrition and Fong's is one of the only Chinese places that has almost no vegetables on the menu.

We got the dirtiest thing on the menu, which was Combo #5 -- chicken balls (yup, I know), chicken fried rice (not even a green onion in it), and egg rolls that basically have dog food in them. The good news is that Koto and I shared a combo, so at least we didn't eat a lot of it.

Well, now we're all caught up. And I'm 5 lbs heavier. Before I come home to Toronto, there is still fish and chips to be had as well as Japanese food at Doraku Japanese Cuisine. Since last month, Doraku is being operated by some old friends of the family, so we want to check it out. I bet it's good. I'll tell you all about it.

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