May 31, 2009

The Critic is Back!

Back from a much needed and barely affordable vacation that is.

Once again, the Critic was in Beautiful British Columbia (it must be so, it says so right on the license plate of every vehicle!) and had the opportunity to sample many restaurants great and not so great. Here are a few of the places tried on this visit.


The Keg - As on a previous visit, the well known Vancouver institution The Keg (Thurlow, near Robson, downtown Vancouver) was visited and since this was covered in a previous visit, there is not much new to report other than the fact that the place is still as great as ever. If the Critic may make a beer recommendation, it would be Alexander Keith, a full bodied and slightly sweet - and not too gassy - ale.

Keg Steakhouse and Bar on Urbanspoon

Milestones - Another tried and true BC favorite, Milestones is known for their good food, large portions and friendly atmosphere. On this visit, the Critic and the two MiniCritics as well as the Better Half had breakfast there (English Bay, downtown Vancouver) on two occasions. While the Critic's choice of prime beef hash with eggs on top was very satisfying, the better choice was made by the Critic's Better Half; she chose the Eggs Benedict, with the Milestones twist of adding several good sized succulent shrimp and guacamole.

Milestone's Grill and Bar on Urbanspoon

Milestone's Prim Rib Hash (above) and Eggs Benny (below)

Water Street Cafe - also reviewed previously, this Gastown favorite (Gastown historical district, Vancouver) is as great as ever and the oyster appetizer, again, wipe-your-plate-with-the-bread good! The service seemed a little less attentive than on previous visits, leading the Critic to suggest that perhaps the restaurant had been sold, but the Critics observation was drowned out by the other members of the dining party, who thought the people doing the serving were in fact there on the last occasion.

Water St. Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tsunami Sushi - Tsunami Sushi (Robson Street, downtown Vancouver) has been a Critic family favorite for about 20 years now. The big attraction is the fact that you can get a seat at the oval shaped bar, inside which the sushi chefs are hard at work and around which a small, water filled canal flows, at about eye level. As the sushi chefs prepare the different kinds of nigiri, rolls and other goodies, they place them on little colored plates on small wooden boats that go around in circles in front of you, so you can come in, sit down and begin eating immediately!

The service on this occasion left a lot to be desired, putting a severe strain on the Critics relationship with the restaurant. One piece of raw clam or conch tasted and smelled definitely past its prime and the waitress was informed, who stared blankly and not understanding what was being said. Another waitress and a possible host type person also came over, these two evidently with a better command of the English language but their reaction was of the 'oh well' variety. They were probably under the impression that this was another of those cases where the dumb western diner didn't like the taste of the sushi he/she had selected and was trying to not pay for it. They of course had no idea that the Critic and Co have been coming here for about 20 years now and this was a definite case of fish being 'off'. In any case there was not a gram (this is Canada and it's metric) of empathy to be had and this put a damper on the rest of the meal which was thankfully near its' end.

Tsunami Sushi on Urbanspoon

Powell River

The Alchemist - Everytime the Critic has the occasion to visit this small, former logging town on the optimistically named Sunshine Coast, there is a new 'good' restaurant. The reputation seems to last as long as it takes for the Critic to return to this charming hamlet. Last time it was the Laughing Oyster. This visit, it's The Alchemist (Marine Avenue, Westview, Powell River) where a real, live French chef works wonders in the kitchen.

Well the local gourmets are not exaggerating! The Critic is pleased to report that this is as good as anything in Vancouver or elsewhere, tucked away in an unassuming former house with a (somewhat limited and only on a clear day) view of the snow covered peaks of Vancouver Island across the water.

Service, atmosphere, food; it is amazing! There are some photos below (did someone request food porn?!) so as not to make this post more time consuming than it already is for you...

The Alchemist on Urbanspoon

two main courses and a cheese plate for dessert!)

The Critic highly recommends this restaurant if you are in the unlikely position of both being a reader of this blog and in the Sunshine Coast area.

More Critic mini-reviews from this visit later! It's late and my eyes aren't what they used to be.

May 1, 2009

La Pigua - Seafood in Campeche

As a result of Uxmal being closed due to the mass hysteria surrounding the latest flu epidemic, the Casual Restaurant Critic and the JF Crew visiting from Montreal, Canada found themselves in Campeche. Visiting museums and forts was, of course off limits since the INAH has closed historical sites countrywide, so after a stroll through the restored historical center and the impressive but very windy malecon (boardwalk) it was decided that a seafood dinner was in order. Where better to have seafood than at what is probably the best-known of the great seafood restaurants in Campeche, La Pigua.

Arriving at around 6:30-7:00 pm, the restaurant looked deserted; no lights and no cars out front. Mrs. JF jumped out of the car to see if they were open and oh surprise, they were! Everyone got out and went inside.

The Casual Restaurant Critic commented to the waiter going in, that perhaps they turn on a light or something to indicate that they were open since the place looked closed from the outside. The waiter replied that no, they were indeed open. Thinking maybe he didn't quite get it, the Critic again suggested a light; no, the waiter said, they were open.

O. K.

Things were very slow that day, remarked the waiter; only 3 tables so far, as the Critic and each member of the JF crew were given a squirt of hand sanitizer by the hostess as a welcoming treat. Gone are the days of the welcoming cocktail; in this age of swine flu hysteria, the hand sanitizer squirt is the new welcoming gesture!

Inside, La Pigua has completely changed. The Critic seems to recall that it was a palapa - kind of affair, but now it is completely modern, air conditioned and minimalist. Subdued lighting and dark colors make it very elegant indeed. Gone are the photos of celebrities who have dined here, which the Critic thinks was a nice touch and spoke volumes about the restaurants' appeal. Oh well. Such is progress.

The food, as usual, was superb. Coconut shrimp, seafoood antipasto, seafood soup, caviar Campechano, garlic shrimp and the Critics' favorite: Calamares Sir Francis Drake, fresh calamari (squid) cooked simply with olive oil, toasted almonds and chile de arbol.

What was really not so good, and bordered on terrible, was the service and the time it took for everything to get to the table. The Critic should add that there were a total of 3 tables occupied at this point. Drinks took a while (and it was beer, cheladas, refrescos, nothing complicated) and then the appetizers came; first the caviar Campechano, then about 5-8 minutes later, the seafood soup and the seafood antipasto.

What followed was an interminable wait for the main course, during which the waiters had to be called over to get a refill on drinks. Each time the waiter appeared with anything for the group (4 people) he asked who it was for. Somehow there was no method for the wait staff to remember who ordered what. When the dinner plates finally arrived, the waiter again asked who ordered what in the way they do, saying the name of the dish with a question mark at the end so you can raise your hand and say 'oh that's for me'. Ladies are not served first and glasses and plates take a while to be cleared away.

The icing on the cake was the end of the meal, when the two males in the party ordered espresso and everyone ordered some dessert (3 coconut cake, one flan). There are few dessert options and when the Critic asked which was the best, the waiter (not the same one that took the food order but he was in the area and got called over) shrugged and said they are all good. So the Critic asked which is YOUR favorite, hoping to elicit some enthusiastic response and to give him the opportunity to show off his salesmanship, he replied simply 'the coconut cake'.

Probably a good 8 minutes later, this same waiter, looking a lot like a cross between the bumbling Manuel in Fawlty Towers and Mr. Bean, walked by the table balancing two espressos in one hand, TO THE NEXT TABLE. I remind readers that there were only 2 other tables in the entire restaurant. The gringos at that table looked up at Manuel and shook their head as he stood there expectantly; then he turned around in bewilderment, caught the Critics' eye who was watching in disbelief, and came to the groups table. Of course, if he couldn't remember which of the 3 tables had ordered espresso, it was even less likely, now that he finally had the right table, to remember WHO at that table had ordered the espresso. So he asked "espresso???"

The coconut cake took at least 10 minutes or more to arrive. It was of course, excellent, but in the meantime the conversation around the table revolved around the possible reasons it was taking so long. Maybe they went to San Crisanto (in Yucatan) to harvest the coconuts. They were baking it. You get the idea.

All in all, it was a very good meal but the service was embarassingly bad. There are worse restaurants, the Critic knows. But for a restaurant of this calibre and fame, to have such shoddy service is imperdonable; especially considering that La Pigua in Merida has far superior service. It is like the waiters here, while friendly enough and dressed handsomely in white shirts and black vests, were all stoned or taking Valium, much like the one at Villas Arqueologicas Uxmal some time ago.

Next time, the Critic will try something new; there must be a hundred seafood options in Campeche.