Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lanna Thai – Vancouver, BC

If you've ever spent a week, a month, or if you're lucky a few months in Thailand, then you'll know that the fresh and incredibly spiced food served in beach shantys, hawker stalls and makeshift propane-tank-on-the-back-of-a-scooter 'restaurants' is almost irreplaceable. Somehow, a guy with a tarp over his scooter, one wok and burner, a lazy-eye and an engine-grease stained wifebeater is able to purvey such delicious offerings that you're tempted, if not compelled, to ask to be married, adopted or both by this man just to have this food every day for the rest of your life.

And I do mean rest of your life. Laying on a brightly covered stuffed pillow in Koh Lanta while drinking a large Chang and petting a distinctly mangy cat, I patted my distended belly and mused that the contents of which could sufficiently make me eternally happy. If push came to shove, and I found myself in some sort of distopian realm where one can only choose three dishes for the rest of their life, I think there is a good chance mine would be Beef Larb, Morning Glory Stems and proper spicy Papaya Salad.

There are of course a number of other dishes in contention with these three, but let's just say for simplicity's sake, these three are very much up there on my list.

If eternal happiness is indeed linked to Beef Larb et al, then I have been in a most cruel a purgatory for nearly a decade. Since the Chili Club on Beach Avenue closed down in the early 2000s, I could not find the kind of Thai food that truly tasted like the deliciousness of Thailand. There are plenty of tasty places in Vancouver that serve 'nice' Thai dishes, however, there is a strange sweetness to almost all of their dishes and a lack of the sharp freshness and spice that makes real Thai food unbeatable. Purgatory is a good analogy as it implies that you're definitely not in hell, but that there's still an awfully long way to heaven.

As of late, things have improved markedly. Maenam was the first place in Vancouver that offered me a glimpse of the flavours I had been missing. If you haven't tried it yet, it is wonderful place that offers incredibly authentic Thai flavours in unique and delicious new contexts. That being said, it's not cheap, and it's menu is small, deliberate and capricious - wonderful for trying new things, awful for trying to get the things you crave. In short, you are at the mercy of their chef - a kind, talented, delicious fermented sausage making chef - but nonetheless the dictator of choice.

Lanna Thai on the other hand offers a dependable selection of what I crave, whenever I crave it. The owner and chef is a wonderful woman from Chiang Mai who timidly and kindly cooks incredible food off of her electric stove in a 7 square foot kitchen. Seriously, this kitchen is a cupboard, and a badly equipped cupboard at that. When I become rich, I am going to buy her a gas stove and an additional 7 square feet. I may as get it out of the way now - the food ain't quick. It can be if it's not busy, but if it is, well, good things come to those who wait. Sometimes, it seriously is a bit of a wait. I've almost been angry a number of times, but once the food and prolific apologies arrive, it all dissipates.

Now before you go rushing in, you should know what to order. I love green curry, but for whatever reason, Lanna Thai's green curry is a bit different and is worth skipping. Their Massaman and Northern style curry, Gaeng Hang Lay, are excellent. The latter is very unique and resembles a stew more than your usual curry. The fish cakes are authentic and wonderful - if you've never had them before, they can be an acquired taste, but you ought to try them.

If you can handle real Thai spice, order everything hot. Believe me it's hot, but if you've been missing the strangely euphoric burn this is the ticket.

The papaya salad, as it should be, is one of the spiciest dishes, so be warned. Order it medium if you are unsure of your tolerance. The Beef Larb is absolutely perfect! Toasted rice, mint, basil, shallots and chili, limey goodness. This is worth having two or three orders of. What's more all the herbs and many of the vegetables such as the sweet cherry tomatoes, and zucchini are grown in the chef's garden. If you're looking for local sustainability, this is it. She showed me pictures of what looks like a small jungle on a definitely urban apartment patio.

Finally, and in truth a major instigator for this blog, is the Pad Pak Boone or Tong Choi or Morning Glory Stems. These are not on the menu, but will be made if the chef has them in stock or if you phone in advance. If you close you eyes when shoving a greedy forkful into your mouth, you might just for a moment forget that you're in cold, drizzly, miserable Vancouver and mistake yourself to be reclining on a quiet beach on a stuffed pillow, petting a rather mangy little cat.

Lanna Thai on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Master of Mixologistic Administration

A little transcript from a rather heated little blog comment off Wandering Dumpling. I'd like to preface this with an apology to Boneta et al if it appears that I'm picking on you. I'm not, I'm just refuting the argument that cocktails are expensive because of the cost of inputs. They are expensive because we're willing to pay expensive prices for things that give us pleasure. You are pricing according to demand and willingness to pay, which is what any sensible business owner would do. What is annoying, however, are the copycat joints – which seems to be every new restaurant – that are charging $12+ for very, very ordinary cocktails that have very, very verbose names and ingredients.

Just to uninvitedly throw my two cents at the cocktail debate:

Coming from someone who bartended for too many years, there is a grand difference between a good bartender & a great bartender. I think great bartender is sufficient, but if you have a penchant for superfluous differentiation, then fine, let’s call them ‘mixologists’. I believe great bartenders or mixologists are artists. And just as any who paint for a living can call themselves artists, it doesn’t mean they are great artists. Mixologists or ‘great’ bartenders, as with great artists, are rare.

Now perhaps we are particularly blessed in Vancouver or there is something in our crystalline mountian water that correlates to liquor slinging virtuosity, or we have far too many bartenders who believe they are great artists. I suppose it is possible that we are living in a Renaissance of imbibition , which centuries from now will be talked about as the Golden Age of Muddling. Or what I think is more likely, we need to get over ourselves a bit. If you’re a bartender and make a delicious cocktail, well done, you’ve done your job. Stop admiring it, and make another one – this is also your job.

Although Paul’s point about higher costs of inputs demands higher drink prices is fair, the argument isn’t awfully sound for most drinks out there. We’re all rather innumerate, which allows even the most basic of drinks to be overpriced. We also equate stuff we’ve never heard of as being good/expensive. The $12 or $13 cocktail that Dumpling is talking about is usually protected by a clever process of making the most basic of ingredients sound rather special.

For instance, Boneta’s R.B.Y.C. Cocktail uses Flor de Cana Rum, Cointreau, lime juice and house-made falernum syrup. $12.

What is it? Nicaraguan Rum that is $1.30 more expensive per bottle than Bacardi – albeit much nicer (marginal cost/ounce = $0.96). Cointreau (mc/ounce = $1.34). Half a lime (mc =$0.13). Fancy sounding simple syrup that has extra flavour from spices like cloves and vanilla(mc = $0.01-$0.15).
Estimated cost per drink assuming 2oz of booze 3/4 rum to 1/4Cointreau proportions – very rough proportions as I’m no mixologist – $2.24-$2.39

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly nice drink. But you would have a lot more trouble charging $12 for a double Bacardi and lime juice, which has a very similar cost structure.

I don’t mean to pick on Boneta – I could easily do the same breakdown of drinks at places like Diamond, Refinery and George. I would also say that these places do make tasty cocktails. I’d just like to debunk the myth that premium cocktails in our city are priced on a cost plus basis. What’s far worse than paying a lot for a drink at a place like Boneta, is paying a lot for a drink at a place trying to be like Boneta, which is what I believe the Dumpling is referring to. The fact that almost every restaurant in the city now has a classic cocktail which is $12+ is a precedent that is absurd. Unless we are at the dawn of the Golden Age of Muddling, we should demand to be ripped off selectively rather than ubiquitously.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Basil Pasta Bar

Basil Pasta Bar is not necessarily food to missing your plane for, but definitely worth a mention.

Here's the skinny: Basil is a quick pasta joint that allows you to either create your own pasta or order one of their selections. It's $8, there are no limits to toppings, and the pasta is cooked up as you order it, so it's fresh. There's not much not to like.

The portions are huge. The ingredients are good. It's very quick. And it's cheap.

Here's my signature recipe: penne, chicken (I tried chorizo initially, and it's the only ingredient that I felt was under par), mushrooms, peas, red onion, chili (it's not on the menu, but ask for some chili spice or something as they do have it), garlic, creamy pesto, Parmesan, and parsley.

I tried the Penne Arribiata - not bad, not spicy or garlicy enough, and I don't know how I feel about the goats cheese or the red peppers.

Caveat: This is not an Italian restaurant. It's just a place for a quick bite. Smuggle a little Chianti in a Sigg waterbottle, though, and you've got yourself a date.

As it's location is a short block away from Granville, these guys should consider extending their hours of operation. I can say with some certainty and personal experience that a hot plate of garlicy pasta would appeal to those stumbling out of the Granville strip with vodka induced munchies.

Basil Pasta Bar on Urbanspoon