Day 17 – my first taste of Congee at Congee Noodle House!

Coming from a small town on Vancouver Island, there are many things that I haven’t had the opportunity to try yet. I’ve been curious about Congee, and when we happened to be in the neighbourhood of the Congee Noodle House at dinner time it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try something new.

I knew Congee was some kind of rice-based soup that could have almost anything in it – but beyond that I was lost. The menu was massive and we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to look through it (we had movie tickets!)

House Special Hot & Sour Soup

We started off by ordering some “House Special” (aka anything goes) hot and sour soup, and Jared ordered a Mixed Seafood Congee, while I went with a Chicken and Mushroom Congee. We had no idea how giant everything would be! Good thing we enjoyed it since we ended up eating leftovers the whole next day.

While we waited for the food, I spent a little time reading an article on the wall which was touting the health benefits of eating Congee. What is it? Why is it good for you?

Chicken & Chinese Mushroom Congee

Congee is a name that is currently applied to many different types of a thick, rice-based porridge that has a long history as an Asian breakfast food. It also has a long history of use as a dietary therapy. At its base, it is water, rice and salt. After that? If the menu at Congee Noodle House is typical then absolutely anything goes once you’ve got the base cooked to the consistency you want it. It seems to be the Asian equivalent of chicken noodle soup. Don’t feel well? You get yourself a nice warm bowl of Congee and you’ll be fixed right up.

Giant mushroom chunks!

I have to say, I was really impressed by the way it stayed nice and thick and piping hot all the way to the bottom of the bowl. For anyone attempting to eat the giant chunks of mushrooms, be warned they hold the heat really well! The flavour was rich but not overwhelming, and the seafood Congee had all kinds of different things in it but didn’t taste “fishy”. Octopus, shrimp, scallops, “fish” (which really could be anything) and whatever else the chef felt like putting in it that day.

random varieties of “good” stuff

 

As is his habit, Jared got adventurous with the various spicy looking condiments, and stirred in a fairly generous amount of the darkest colour chili paste. When we asked our server what it was she said “good” with a grin, so we decided we’d let our taste buds take it from there. Always trust your server! It wasn’t super spicy, but it did round out the flavours of the seafood congee nicely and gave the dish a bit of extra zip.

The verdict? Loved it. We’ll definitely have to try a few different places so I can get a sense of how Congee varies from restaurant to restaurant, but I don’t consider that much of a hardship. And hey, if it happens to lead to a long and healthy life at the same time – who are we to argue?

Next time we visit the Congee Noodle House we’ll have to go in a larger group so we can make a bigger dent in their mammoth menu! Just remember to bring cold hard cash. It’s all affordable eats, but they don’t take plastic.
Congee Noodle House 粥麵館 on Urbanspoon

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Posted in 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, Food

Day 16 – Cheesecake and Coffee tasting at Trees Organic Coffee and Roasting House

Wall of Trees CoffeeThe sense of calm that washed over me when I walked through the door was the first thing about Trees Organic Coffee and Roasting House in Yaletown that I fell in love with. The funky seating options, clean lines with occasional bursts of rich colour, the high ceilings and the artistically placed quotes and pieces of art really appealed to my artist’s eye. The smells emanating from the kitchen and coffee urns set my tastebuds on high alert and things only got better from there!

Trees coffee HouseIt was my first meet up with the Vancouver Blogger Meetup Group and I was quickly welcomed by Jonathan, one of the organizers. The half of the coffee house that was open to public seating was packed with people quietly munching and sipping amidst bursts of conversation (always a good sign). The area set aside for our group of 20 bloggers who had been invited to come and taste various types of coffee and cheesecake was bright with natural light, and felt cozy and friendly.

After some brief introductions and a welcome from the friendly folks who run Trees Cafe, we were ready to dive into the tastings. The coffee offerings included an Ethiopian, and a Peruvian blend. To get a sense of what they were all about, I was drinking them straight up with no milk or sweetener.

Coffee cups at Trees CafeEthiopian & Peruvian

The Ethiopian I found to be the mellower of the two blends, in all areas. It was a bit lighter in colour, had a lower acidity (when you swish it around in your mouth does it make the sides/back of your tongue tingle? More tingly usually = higher acidity), a milder smell, a less complex taste, and it wasn’t too bitter.

The Peruvian had a brighter acidity which hinted at citrus, the smell was richer and more complex (an earthy, nuttiness), and my tastebuds sparked to the hazelnut/citrus notes that danced on my tongue. While both were good enough that I would happily drink them on their own, I preferred the Peruvian over the Ethiopian.

First off, I have to say the cheesecakes here are nothing short of sensational. They are made with a locally produced Victoria-style cream cheese which is softer, lighter and creamier than most of the types of cream cheese you might find in the supermarket. This helps the desserts maintain the desired texture even after they’ve been baked and cooled. A nice side effect is that while they’re not as heavy as cheesecakes you may have tasted in the past, they’re every bit as amazing to eat (if not more!). Although there was an entire display case filled with tempting varietals, we were focusing on 3 options: the classic New York, the Blueberry, and the Maple Walnut. I zeroed in on the last two.

Cheesecake at Trees CafeBlueberry & Maple Walnut Cheesecake

The Blueberry featured fresh, juicy berries that were not too gooey around the edges. There was a nice light background flavour, like lemon sunshine on your tongue, which really brought out the tart sweetness of the berries and helped cut the creamy richness. This one was refreshing while at the same time being sinfully indulgent.

The Maple Walnut had a subtleness which I often find lacking in things of that particular flavour. Not too sickly sweet, the nuttiness was prevalent with a hint of real maple. There were occasional pockets of nut chunks which were large and plentiful enough to add variety from bite to bite, but not so large that they became awkward in your mouth. The ground nuts on top added another layer to it all, and the graham wafer-style crust was crumbly and not at all greasy.

But, we were just getting started. It was when the cheesecake got introduced to the two different coffees in my mouth that things got really interesting! I found the Ethiopian to be the perfect companion for the Maple Walnut. Its more mellow flavour was just enough to cut the creamy richness of the cheesecake, but not so strong that it overpowered the subtle flavours. For the Blueberry, the bolder Peruvian really brought out the lemon in the cheesecake, and the New York style backdrop of the Blueberry really brought out some of the more complex flavours in the coffee.

Tall Tree Wall

Whichever way you choose to go, you will enjoy every last bite! Curled up in a comfy chair with a beam of sunshine flitting through the windows, it’s easy to look up at the trees on the wall and really believe you’re in a magical fairy glade in the forest. And who doesn’t need a little extra magic in their lives?

Will I be going back? You bet! And I’m definitely going to bring friends. The Key Lime Cheesecake, the sinfully delicious looking Chocolate Cherry, and the Mocha varieties are all calling out to be tried, and that’s definitely a job tailor-made for a handful of folks working together. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll have any difficulty finding volunteers!
Trees Organic Coffee (Yaletown) on Urbanspoon

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Posted in 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, Food, Restaurant Reviews

An Animated, Interactive Beer Tasting at Steamworks Brewing Co.

For day 15 of our 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, we stopped by Steamworks in Gastown for dinner and some drinks. Though I’m familiar with most of their beers already, I thought it might be fun to try a taster pack. I put my tasting notes into the animation below.

Click on any of the beers to see a few notes and my rating on how well the beer paired with the butter chicken I had for dinner.

 

Steamworks Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

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Posted in 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, 365 Days of Dining Campaign, Drinks

Day 14 – The Barbecue Blues (a song, some lyrics and a contest!)

It’s day 14 of our 21 Days of Downtown series and we’re doing something a little different today. This isn’t a review of a restaurant that we’re writing. We woke up to sunshine and a gorgeous day and were feeling a little blue about the fact that we’re not allowed to have a barbecue at our place. Teensy-tiny little balcony, and against the fire code apparently equals no BBQ allowed.

So – I found this short loop in Garage Band, conveniently enough called The Barbecue Blues.

LISTEN: BarbequeBlues

That got me in the proper musical mood – and then I wrote some lyrics.

THE BARBECUE BLUES (by CJ Stranaghan)

We live in a small apartment.
We ain’t got no balcony.
We don’t really care,
‘cept when it comes to cookin’ meat. 

I got the barbecue blues.
Yeah, the barbecue blues.

Chicken, ribs or steak,
It don’t matter what you cook.
If it ain’t been barbecued,
then it don’t cut it in my book. 

I got the barbecue blues.
Yeah, the barbecue blues.

Bake it, boil it or fry it,
I won’t even try it.
But charcoal on the grill,
and baby I will eat my fill.

I got the barbecue blues.
Yeah, the barbecue blues. 

What will I not do? I can butcher the vocals on a song like the next person, but I have so many friends and family who are actual, real-live musicians and I feel like our readers deserve the best. (and there’s lots of talent out there we don’t know about yet!)

THE CHALLENGE: Using either Garage Band loops or your own original music, record your version of the Barbecue Blues. You can email me an audio file: crystalstranaghan at me dot com, or put a link to your song on your own online location (website, blog, youtube) in the comments for this post or through the contact form on this site. Musicians, please include a link to your website and/or a sentence or two about yourself – we want to give you proper recognition for your efforts ; )

WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?
We’ll have the public vote, and the best version of the song wins its creator a Barbecue meal on us. (at a restaurant of course, since we have no BBQ! If you don’t live in the area, we’ll send you a gift card for somewhere in your own neighbourhood…) Deadline for entries? March 31, 2012.

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Posted in 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, Contests & Free Stuff

Wonton Soup at Vi La Palace in Abbotsford – A (Mildly) Interactive Experience

Day 13

The other day I was out in Abbotsford and, rather than heading to a fast-food place, I decided to check out a local eatery. When I stopped for gas I noticed a Vietnamese restaurant in the strip mall next to the gas station and decided it would be my lunch destination.

Vi-La Palace is the name of the place. I’m not sure if they even have their own website, but you can find out plenty about them through Yelp, Dinehere, UrbanSpoon and through their Facebook Page. Apparently the owners are a married couple – he’s from Vietnam and she’s from Laos, which is where Vi-La in the name comes from.

There is a reasonable amount of variety on the menu and the prices are low to medium for lunch. I went with the regular wonton soup for $6.95, and I was quite happy with it. 8-10 wontons, some slices of barbecue pork and lots of vegetables. A little on the salty side, but overall very tasty.

I made a (semi) interactive picture of my soup using Tumult Hype. Feel free to explore!

Click on the active portions of the picture to see close-ups and some details.

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Posted in 21 Days of Downtown Vancouver, Restaurant Reviews