A Hawaiian Getaway

>> Thursday, March 27, 2014

No matter who I’ve talked to recently it seems like Hawaii is all the rage. A likely factor is probably the crazy weather we’ve been receiving lately in Calgary. Just looking outside nobody would believe its spring. Yet there are so many different warm places around the world, so one wonders why Hawaii? I can see its charm, after our trip to Hawaii last year I understand firsthand why so many people are flocking to the Hawaiian Islands.
We decided to visit two Hawaiian Islands on our trip, Maui and the Big Island. Two islands that are so close in range but vastly different in topography and atmosphere. Maui is a true holiday destination with all the amenities one requires when on vacation, great restaurants, amazing shopping, serene spas and wonderful beaches. Many visit during the winter months to soak up the sand and ocean breeze.
For those who love snorkeling and diving, Molokini is one of the most beautiful places to snorkel and dive. There are amazing coral structures and species of fish that live only in those waters. Plus, if you haven’t seen your first turtle in Hawaii yet, this would be the place to do it. Not to worry if you haven’t spotted a turtle, all along the coastline of the islands are the turtle’s playground, so you can’t miss them. If you kayak out, being the curious creatures that they are, they’ll often come by to visit and say hi.
One of the highlights for us in Maui was the Feast at Lele Luau. A luau is a must when visiting Hawaii, but Feast at Lele ups the ante by providing an amazing view along the shoreline where the stage is set and the performers execute their demonstrations of Polynesian dance. The food is also just as wonderful with 5 filling courses served family style alongside free flowing cocktails and wine, you truly experience Hawaiian hospitality.

A tourist favorite is the Road to Hana. This is a full day trip and I suggest going as early as possible to avoid traffic on the road and the rush at Mama’s Fish House, which is a must stopover. We didn’t start the day till later and ended up heading to Mama’s first (good and bad). The food there was too delicious and our group lingered a little too long making the rest of our road to hana trip a bit rushed. The best part is the drive itself and not the goal of getting to Hana so you’ll lose out on the amazing sights if you rush, plus it’s hard to scene the coastline once the sun goes down. So start early and stop at each recommended location and revel in the beautiful surroundings.
If you’re a big seafood or sushi person, I highly recommend checking out all the various restaurants. One of my favorites was Sushi Paradise in Kihei, the fish was fresh and succulent. I decided to order mostly sashimi because the fish was so delicious, it didn’t require any rice allowing me to taste the flavour of the fish itself. The owner also suggested that we eat it with just a bit of wasabi mixed with lemon juice as to retain the original flavours of the fish. My favorite Hawaiian seafood dish is the poke. Similar to ceviche, it is made with fresh seafood mixed with various ingredients like soy sauce and sesame oil to create a flavourful dish. You can find it almost at every restaurant or grocery store in town. No matter where you go in Hawaii, you really can’t go wrong with seafood!
Lucky for me, we stayed just down the road from the Shops at Wailea. For those who enjoy their shopping, this is the place to be, with many designer brands such as LV, Tiffanys, Gucci and more. There’s also a Honolulu Coffee Company which serves delicious local Hawaiian coffee, not to be missed.
The Big Island on the other hand is more rugged and less developed. We stayed in Kona, the largest city on the island and drove out to visit the various sites. Starting with an authentic Kona Coffee tour, we got to sample various blends of locally grown coffee and learn all about the germination and development of the coffee tree. The coffee also made for perfect souvenirs for those at home.
A must visit was the Hawaiian Volcano Park located south of Hilo. It took us roughly an hour to get there but it’s worth the drive. The main attraction is the Halemaumau Crater and hiking path. The hike takes you along the rim and slowly leads you on to the face of the crater. It was truly a unique experience. I felt like I was walking on the moon especially with the steam rising from the vents all around us.
Another highlight of our trip was the 1 hour helicopter tour around the Kilauea Volcano. Departing from Waikoloa the helicopter flew over the active volcano where we got some amazing shots of the lava flow. Then we flew over the coastline to observe where the lava meets the ocean. It was amazing to see the amount of steam and heat rise from the meeting point. After meandering through the valleys of the Kohala Mountains we ended our tour with the amazing waterfalls deep within the rainforest where the ancient Hawaiian settlements are still visible. I highly recommend it for those who have a bit of time in Kona.
Now that I’m thinking back on our trip, I can definitely see why everybody is finding a way to get themselves to Hawaii. I might just have to book another quick trip!


Restaurant Review: Raw Bar

>> Thursday, March 20, 2014

It’s always sad when restaurants close because it’s shocking and unexpected. This was especially the case for me regarding Raw Bar because my husband and I got married at Hotel Arts a couple years ago and our reception was catered by Chef Duncan Ly of Raw Bar. Luckily they weren’t closing their doors forever but renovating the space and reopening with a new concept of ‘Viet Modern Cuisine’ and I couldn’t wait to check it out.
Atmosphere: A vast contrast to the old Raw Bar, the new room features bright interiors with blue and white accents. The colors really open up the room and give it a modernistic feel.
Price Range:  Mid $10s - $20s

Food and Wine: We decided to try a couple items off of their rolls, small and big sections of the menu (they also have a selection of raw items). Starting with the smaller plates we ordered the Beef Short Rib Steamed Buns. It came deconstructed so you could build it yourself. The beef was nicely marinated and tender with lots of sautéed onions and peppers. The buns were soft and warm, a perfect vessel for beef short ribs. It also came with a side of chili aioli for those who like a bit of a kick.
Our Crispy Sweet and Sour Prawns were served in a classic dim sum steamer with each being individually skewered. The tangy sauce was a nice compliment to the fried shrimp. It reminded me of tempura shrimp but without the extra batter, therefore making it slightly less crunchy. We also ordered the Whole Grilled Squid topped with a pineapple soy glaze and served with a lemon black pepper sauce. The squid was a good sized portion and nicely charred, providing that smokiness without it being chewy or tough.

From the Rolls section of the menu we tried the Pork Imperial Spring Rolls, which was served platter style. It came with pork spring rolls, glass noodles, herbs and nouc mam (the traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce made from fermented fish). Most Vietnamese dishes customarily require the diners to use their hands so I liked the idea of keeping it authentic and having the patrons construct their own wraps from all the various ingredients on the platter. Since this is one of the dishes I’ve eaten many times while growing up, I was extremely picky and did find the spring rolls to be a bit dry. The pork needed something extra to help it retain the moistness after frying. Wrapping it with the herbs, noodles and dipping it in the nouc mam helped, but the texture was a bit off for me, but again I was very very picky.
Our last dish that evening was the Pad Thai. Raw Bar’s version is not your conventional pad thai.  The dish was broth based comprised of beef and prawns, some vegetables, topped with lots of green onions and served in a coconut cream broth. It reminded me more of a thai yellow curry than a pad thai. The broth itself was fragrant and light and would be nice over rice. The dish itself did come with some noodles interspersed throughout but they weren’t meant to be the focus of Raw Bar’s take on this thai dish.

The wine list isn’t extensive, but does contain some of my favorites. We ordered a bottle of 19 Crimes, which has been a winner of various wine shows. It has a shiraz base, but isn’t as bold as your typical shiraz and is quite a bit sweeter. Due to it being a blend, it makes for a nice sipping wine, perfect for those venturing in to red wines.
My Pick: Beef Short Rib Steamed Buns
Overall: I didn’t know quite what to expect when I first heard Viet Modern, so for those in the same boat, the dishes are essentially an elevated version of what you’d find in a typical Asian restaurant and it’s not just limited to Vietnamese cuisine. The chef tries not to stray too far away from tradition but yet puts a unique spin on each of the dishes making them his own. Be prepared to sample items from multiple SE Asian countries in a beautifully new renovated space.
Raw Bar
119 12 Ave SW
Calgary, AB
(403) 206-9565
Website: www.hotelarts.ca/raw-bar.html

Raw Bar on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review: Vin Room West

>> Thursday, March 13, 2014

It’s funny how people tend to explore areas that are close to home or is familiar to them. At times I can be guilty of that myself. Now that I live close to Kensington, I’m more inclined to visit restaurants in and around that area or not too far away from the downtown core. But lucky for me, I have a great group of foodie friends that love trying new things and visiting different places so when we get together we’re always looking for something fresh and unique. A couple of friends and I have been planning to check out Vin Room West for a very long time. However since none of us really live out that way, we had to make sure we made plans well in advance. Rain (read snow) or shine, we were going and nothing was going to stop us.
Atmosphere: Large open dining area with a more relaxed sensation than the 4st street location. Vin Room West features woodsy interiors, a great bar area and large round tables perfect for group get-togethers.
Price Range: Mid $10s - $20s

Food & Wine: It was quite chilly that night, but we made it out and couldn’t wait to indulge. Since we were all huge fans of Vin Room on 4th, we knew that we were going to be ordering a fair bit off the menu making it easier to decide what we wanted, since it really was a bit of everything. Starting with the Paella Arancinis made with saffron risotto and bits of chorizo, prawn and crab all served over top a green pea puree. They were perfect one biters, crispy on the outside and flavourful on the inside.
The Merguez Meatballs were super tender and succulent. Made with a mixture of lamb and dates, served with a tangy red pepper puree and topped with mint yogurt. The incorporation of the dates really helped the meatballs to retain their moisture and also provided hints of sweetness. The mint yogurt aided to counteracting any gaminess there may be from the lamb, which I’m usually sensitive to but didn’t find in this dish. I personally quite enjoyed them and would definitely order them again.

The Pistachio Crusted Scallops were next, with a sweet and salty raisin pineapple chutney. The scallops were perfectly cooked, translucent in the middle with the pistachios adding in that extra crunch and the chutney providing a balance of flavour. I’ve always enjoyed this dish and order it every time I’m at Vin Room, I hope it continues to be a mainstay on their menu.
My friends are huge fans of fish and we decided on the Pan Roasted Steelhead Trout, which were seared to perfection. It came with a lightly dressed frisee salad providing a hint of bitterness enhancing the sweetness of the golden beets. I found the roasted mushrooms added a bit of earthiness especially due to the brown butter sauce and the almonds provided the crunch, a well-rounded plate.

As for the hearty dishes we ordered the Duck & White Bean Cassoulet, Braised Pork Short Ribs and the Oregano and Lemon Lamb T Bone Chops.  The cassoulet was made with confit duck, bacon, tomato and navy beans. A comforting dish and great for the chilly winter weather we had that night. The pork short ribs were sticky and sweet. I really enjoyed the smoky chipotle sauce and the crispy yam fries. The only issue was the fries became soggy shortly after due to the chipotle sauce, but they were delicious shoe string fries and very crunchy when they arrived at the table. The lamb bone chops were succulent cooked to a medium well temperature, enhancing their tenderness. Accompanied by a red wine spinach feta salad and crispy lemon garlic potatoes, it was a very composed plate. Again the lamb was very nicely seasoned and not gamey, which I prefer.
We also had an order of the Eggplant chips, which are thinly sliced eggplant coated with bread crumbs, fried and served with herbed yogurt and pomegranate molasses. I did find the chips a bit overly breaded and the taste of the eggplants themselves was slightly lost. However I really enjoyed the pomegranate molasses and would probably top many a salads with it. The molasses provided that perfect salty sweet combo. I found that I didn’t even need the yogurt dip, but it could also be possible that by this time, my mind was already on dessert.

Vin Room offers a feature Crème Brulee, which happened to be pumpkin pie that evening. So we had to get an order of that and the Warm Spiced Pumpkin Bread Pudding. The crème brulee was creamy and lightly sweetened with the perfect crunchy sugar coated topping. My friends love their crème brulee and were genuinely satisfied. I on the other hand preferred the bread pudding. Soft and gooey with a decadent rum caramel cream and Sicilian pistachio gelato, it was my ideal dessert. People who know me know that I am a sucker for desserts that contrast hot and cold.  
It’s hard to go to Vin Room and not be tempted by the wine selection they have in house, especially when pairing with all the delicious bites on the menu. We sampled some lovely wines that evening and since they offer 2oz, 6oz, half or full bottles, the combinations are endless. I definitely encourage people to play with the wine list. If you’re ever unsure, order a 2oz to sample. They can also create wine flights for you, ranging from light to bold, you get a good feel for what you enjoy.

My Picks: Merguez Meatballs, Pistachio Crusted Scallops, Warm Spiced Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Overall: All of the food was amazing and my only complaint is that there wasn’t more of it! Although now I know that when I’m craving it again I now have two locations to choose from, since the west location has more space they can accommodate more tables. So if you’re reading this and longing for a taste, it’s easy, make plans to venture out west because we’re sure glad that we did!
Vin Room West
8561 8a Ave SW
Calgary, AB
(587) 353-8812
Website: www.vinroom.com
Vin Room West on Urbanspoon


Venture in to Cooking with a Beef Satay Recipe

>> Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Since I cook often and have a food blog, people assume that it’s always been my hobby, something that isn’t learnt but more innate. To be honest, I was quite a picky eater when I was young. Playing with my friends was way more interesting than dinner time. I was more enamored with the outdoors then helping my parents with cooking, which at the time I saw more of as a chore then a hobby. So it’s really quite interesting how over the years, cooking and baking has really evolved to become something that’s such a large part of who I am. I did have my parents that triggered a part of it, but even so, something in me just transformed one day and I wanted to learn anything and everything about food. Ever since then, a little bit at a time, I started to learn about the different techniques and diverse cuisines of the world. So to those that feel they will never be able to cook, I say with everything, it just takes the will and a bit of time. If you’re interested in learning, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished.

 I suggest starting with simple recipes that are slightly more forgiving, such as this Beef Satay recipe below. I’ve listed amounts required for each ingredient but it’s really just a rule of thumb. When I prepared the marinade, it was a bit of this and a dash of that. For recipe purposes, I estimated how much of each ingredient I used so it was easier to follow then providing ratios of ingredients. Marinades are some of the easiest things to prepare because you can always adjust the flavor of the dish with a bit of seasoning when it’s served. That said, just make sure to err on the less seasoned side because if the marinade is too salty, it’s often difficult to save the dish.

 So for those venturing in to the cooking world, welcome! I can’t wait to see your creations and please share with me all your lovely dishes!

Beef Satay Ingredients:

1 lb beef, cut into 1 inch by 1/2 inch chunks (preferably a tender cut that doesn’t require a long cooking time)
2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb sized piece of ginger, grated or minced
2 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp light soy sauce
Bamboo skewers

Beef Satay Preparation:
In a mixing bowl, combine lemongrass, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, curry powder, sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce.
Alternatively, you can add the ingredients in a food processor, this will create a paste and you can then use it as a rub for the beef. I prefer to have little bits of the lemongrass and garlic, which is more rustic.
Add in the beef and make sure to cover each piece with the marinade.
Cover and place in the fridge. Let the beef marinate for at least 30 mins to an hour.
Preheat the oven at 375ºC or BBQ grill.
Meanwhile, soak bamboo skewers in water.
Skewer the pieces of beef. Remember to leave a bit of space between each.
Place on a cooking sheet and put in the oven for 15-20 minutes (pour the rest of the marinade on the skewers) or cook on the grill for 15 minutes and occasionally baste with the marinade.
While the skewers are cooking, prepare the peanut dipping sauce.

Peanut Dipping Sauce Ingredients:

3 tbsp smooth or crunchy natural peanut butter (I prefer smooth, but either one works)
2 tbsp low sodium light soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
5 tbsp water
1 tbsp garlic chili sauce

Peanut Dipping Sauce Preparation:
In a small sauce pan, add in peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, water and chili sauce.
Place the sauce pan over low heat, slowly stirring the mixture.
Try to break apart the gooey peanut butter and do not let the sauce burn on the bottom. If need to, turn the heat down to the lowest setting.
Continue stirring until all the ingredients is fully combined.  Add a bit of salt to taste, or you may find that it’s not required. For those who are not looking for the spiciness, omit the chilies for a mild peanut sauce.
Full recipe serves 3-4

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